Colorado Supreme Court
Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel
Promoting Professionalism. Protecting the Public.
Do You Know Someone
Who Is Codependent?
“Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.” ~bell hooks
Codependency is often a misunderstood concept. At the root of it is a basic need for interdependence that gets muddled by a fear of loss or a need to control. We live in a culture and, as attorneys, work in a profession that can actually encourage codependency. Therefore, you will most likely come across codependent behavior in your personal or professional life. Your Colorado Lawyer Assistance Program (COLAP) has suggestions for how to handle codependency in ways that will improve your relationships and your overall wellbeing.
By SARAH MYERS, JD, LMFT, LAC
Clinical Director, Colorado Lawyer Assistance Program
The definition of codependency is simple enough: having emotional or psychological reliance on others. Recognizing codependency, however, can be far more difficult because it is all around us. When we live or work in environments where certain behaviors are deemed acceptable, or if those behaviors are encouraged through societal or cultural norms, we usually fail to recognize them as being abnormal or unhealthy. Codependent behaviors qualify because many relationships, families, work environments, and even American culture as a whole, engage in and support codependent behaviors. The underlying reason many of us are codependent is that we physically, emotionally, and mentally need relationships in order to survive.
The importance of relationships fueled the development of language around 100,000 years ago, and healthy inter-dependence is what keeps our existence as humans going. When something is that important to us on a deep, primal level, we can subconsciously fear losing it. The fear of loss can fuel the desire to control or influence other people’s opinions about us, how someone else is thinking or feeling, what is happening in someone else’s life, or even other people’s decisions. Another way to define codependency could therefore be “trying to control the outcome.” It’s no surprise that for some, the importance of relationships triggers a fear of loss. That fear, unfortunately, can drive the belief that we have to control those relationships.
When we are in situations that trigger anxiety or low self-esteem, we are particularly vulnerable to feel the need to control the people or circumstances around us. Think about a scenario where you or someone around you (client, colleague, spouse/romantic partner, friend, child, etc.) was nervous or upset about something. Did the individual think that if someone else changed their behavior, the individual would be happier? Did the individual try to manipulate circumstances or events around them so they would feel better? Did the individual blame someone else for how they were feeling? These are all symptoms of “trying to control the outcome.”
When we feel anxious or even fearful, we usually experience painful, incessant mental chatter that we want to sooth. That chatter is actually our inner critic, who criticizes both ourselves and other people, and who worries about everything (What will people think? I think they are doing it wrong. Why do I have to do everything? Will it be good enough? What will the outcome of the case be? What will the client think?). That chatter can keep us up at night and distract us from feeling peaceful and calm. Codependency arises from this feeling of inner discomfort. After all, it’s easier to find a scapegoat to blame our uncomfortable feelings (upset, depressed, anxious, or angry) on rather than face our own “inner demons.”
That scapegoat takes the form of the people around us or the environment/circumstances around us. Rather than confronting what is going on “within” us, such as the mental chatter, we look outside ourselves and blame something or someone else for our discomfort. We make ourselves believe, for example, that the temper tantrum our child is throwing, the car that just pulled in front of us, the dishes our spouse/romantic partner did not clean, or the unprofessional behavior of opposing counsel, is the cause of our discomfort. If we weren’t already upset in some way, however, we would have different reactions to those external incidents. We would have compassion for the other parties’ discomfort, for example, rather than be irritated by it.
When we blame the people or world around us for how we are feeling, we assume that if the people or world around us would change, we would feel better. The problem is that we can’t control the external world; we can only control our own thoughts and feelings. Codependency, as a form of attempting to control the world around us, shares several traits with narcissism and perfectionism, including: believing it’s “all about appearances”; having a low tolerance for uncomfortable emotions; and feeling a compulsion either to do everything ourselves or to criticize those we delegate tasks to because they didn’t do it the “right” way.
Research suggests that what triggers perfectionism, stress, anxiety, and the subsequent codependent behavior is uncertainty. In general, we all deal with uncertainty in life on a regular basis, but those of us who practice law face uncertainty on a daily basis: will the client pay us? Will the client grieve us? How will the judge rule or the jury decide? The list of unknowns goes on and on, and regardless of how well we know the law or how experienced we are, things might not “go our way.” That uncertainty, combined with the uncertainty of many factors in our personal life, makes us very susceptible to engaging in codependent behaviors. For example, chances are you can identify with at least one of the following codependent behaviors:
· Become upset when someone refuses your help?
· Give advice or your opinion without being asked for it?
· Feel resentful because (or wonder why) the people you take care of aren’t returning the favor?
· Say or think “Why do I have to do everything?”
· Spend time taking care of other people's problems even when you are exhausted?
· Take care of other adults who can’t seem to take care of themselves while neglecting your own needs?
· Do more than is expected of you in order to gain approval or kudos?
· Because “their” mood dictates your mood, you try to control “their” mood by cracking jokes, patronizing them, complimenting them, or any other strategy to change their mood or keep them in the same mood?
· Allow your mood to depend on how other people are responding to you or on what other people are doing around you?
· Offer your time, intellect, or emotional support because you are afraid of the alternative outcome? (You’ll be abandoned, be fired, be rejected, “fail,” etc.)
Because we live in a society, and practice in a profession that encourages codependency, chances are you answered yes to at least one of those behaviors. When we behave in codependent ways, we either try to change other people’s decisions, behaviors, or even language (“don’t say that”) or we change our own decisions, behaviors, or language in order to manipulate what other people think of us. When we try to change others, we might give advice without being asked for it, and then become upset when people don’t do what we want them to do. When we change ourselves in order to gain the approval of others, we might regularly do more than is expected of us, help others even when we are exhausted, and jeopardize our own well-being in order to help others who don’t take care of themselves.
When we engage in codependent behavior, we become resentful of those around us because either they aren’t doing what we want them to do, or we sacrifice our own well-being in order to win their approval, subconsciously believing that if they approve of us, they won’t ever leave us. Either way, the relationships suffer and interactions are based on unhealthy dynamics: passive aggression, aggression, manipulation, suspicion, judgement, or controlling. The goal is to form healthy, inter-dependent relationships with others.
If we’ve had a lifetime of either being codependent, or being around others who are, changing our approach to relationships might take some time. One of the easiest ways to start developing inter-dependent rather than codependent tendencies in relationships is to live by the following mottos:
· “What you think about me is none of my business.” When we stop caring what other people think about us, and we stop allowing other people’s moods or behaviors to affect the way we feel about ourselves, we won’t feel the compulsion to try to control other people, nor will we try to bend over backwards for people in order to win their approval.
· “Their mood doesn’t have to affect mine.” Technically speaking, no one else can “make” us feel a certain way. Our brains and our bodies create the chemicals that “make” us feel sensations and emotions. How we experience life and how we feel is a choice we make, and our mood is therefore not dependent (or codependent) on anyone else’s mood. The next time you try to change how someone else is feeling or what they are saying because of “how it makes you feel,” remember that you have no control over other people. You only have control over how you feel.
· “If someone wants my help or advice, they will ask me.” When we are used to codependent behavior, we believe that we have to do things for the people around us because they aren’t capable of doing things themselves. Often, this plays out by pointing out problems that we see and then offering solutions to the problems we have just identified for the other person. This is an occupational hazard for attorneys since we solve problems for people on a daily basis. There is, however, a difference between being paid to solve a problem for someone, and offering unsolicited advice to friends, loved ones, or even strangers because we want to control the environment or people around us. When we stop trying to “fix” everyone around us, or do things for others because we believe we do them “better,” we can create relationships built on equality and a healthy exchange of give and take.
· “Just because I did something nice for someone doesn’t mean they have to do something nice for me.” Codependency looks a lot like “tit-for-tat” mentality. If you decide to help someone, or to do something kind for another person, do not expect anything in return. Or, if you do expect something in return, be sure to let the other person know that your gift comes with “strings” so they can decide whether or not they want to accept it in the first place. This way, you won’t feel resentful down the road for your efforts when they aren’t returned.
· “I am not a victim.” Oftentimes, those of us who engage in codependent behaviors end up sacrificing much of our well-being in order to take care of everyone around us. Unfortunately, this can leave us feeling like a victim because no one is taking care of us the way we take care of them. If an adult cannot take care of themselves, or figure out how to be successful in life, they don’t have the capacity to “return the favor” after we direct or help them. Therefore, it should be no surprise when the people who have become reliant on us can’t help us when we might need it.
· “Let them fall down if they need to.” When a baby is learning to walk, he or she will fall down on occasion. If, however, we pick up the baby every time they are about to fall because it’s too painful to watch, our children would never learn to walk. Likewise, when adults sabotage their lives or go through hard times, there is only a certain level of assistance we should be providing them. If someone is perpetually creating drama in their life, for example, we are only enabling that behavior if we provide the metaphorical crutch for them to lean on over and over again. Be there for your friends and family as a compassionate and positive influence, but do not take over their lives for them; they need to learn to “walk” on their own.
· “I am choosing to be codependent.” The truth is, there are times when other people’s choices or behaviors affect us, and it is simply easier for us to intervene. For example, your roommate or spouse/romantic partner is in charge of the bills, but he or she didn’t pay the mortgage or rent this month. If you don’t pay it, you will have to pay the late fee. While this is still a form of enabling and codependency, we make things psychologically easier if we are willing to acknowledge it to ourselves.
Whether it is at work, with our friends, or at home with our family, we will at some point engage in these type of rescue missions for others because it affects our own well-being. It is like choosing “the lesser of two evils,” so don’t be hard on yourself if you find yourself doing this once in a while. If, however, you do this often, then you are probably trying to metaphorically “rule the world,” and you need to examine the compulsion to control the people or circumstances around you.
Simply stated, codependency is the need to control the external world in the hopes that it will change how we feel internally. That can mean that we try to change the people or the circumstances in order to feel better about ourselves. The practice of law itself is often about trying to change external circumstances so our clients, or society, feels better about the situation, which is why the law is systematically codependent in nature. After all, how many clients think that attorneys have “magic wands” that can make everything better for them? For some clients, even when you have won the case, they might still not be happy with the outcome. That is because the problem was never about the case, but rather that the client has an addiction to feeling angry, betrayed, or being a victim, and nothing you can do will change that. It is especially important for attorneys to remember that we don’t have magic wands, and we can’t change how another person feels or what they think about us. When you spot codependent behavior in yourself or in others, repeat the seven mottos above and work towards inter-dependence. Not only will you find more mental and emotional peace for yourself, you will also improve your relationships!
Sarah Myers, JD, LMFT, LAC, is the Clinical Director for the Colorado Lawyer Assistance Program. Your Colorado Lawyer Assistance Program provides free and confidential services for judges, lawyers, and law students. If you need resources for ANY issue that is compromising your ability to be a productive member of the legal community (including your personal relationships), or if there is someone you are concerned about, contact COLAP at (303) 986-3345. For more information about COLAP, please visit www.coloradolap.org.