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Important Information about

Codependency, Denial, & Recovery

Codependency is a learned behavior that can be passed down from one generation to another. It is an emotional and behavioral condition that affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship. It is also known as “relationship addiction” because people with codependency often form or maintain relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive and/or abusive.

The disorder was first identified about ten years ago as the result of years of studying interpersonal relationships in families of alcoholics. Codependent behavior is learned by watching and imitating other family members who display this type of behavior.

Who Does Codependency Affect? Codependency often affects a spouse, a parent, sibling, friend, or co-worker of a person afflicted with alcohol or drug misuse. Originally, codependent was a term used to describe partners in chemical dependency, persons living with, or in a relationship with an addicted person. Similar patterns have been seen in people in relationships with chronically or mentally ill individuals. Today, however, the term has broadened to describe any codependent person from any dysfunctional family.

What is a Dysfunctional Family and how does it lead to Codependency? A dysfunctional family is one in which members suffer from fear, anger, pain, or shame that is ignored or denied. Underlying problems may include any of the following:

  • An addiction by a family member to drugs, alcohol, relationships, work, food, sex, or gambling.
  • The existence of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
  • The presence of a family member suffering from a chronic mental or physical illness.

Dysfunctional families do not acknowledge that problems exist. They don’t talk about them or confront them. As a result, family members learn to repress emotions and disregard their own needs. They become “survivors.” They develop behaviors that help them deny, ignore, or avoid difficult emotions. They detach themselves. They don’t talk. They don’t touch. They don’t confront. They don’t feel. They don’t trust. The identity and emotional development of the members of a dysfunctional family are often inhibited. Attention and energy focus is on the family member who is ill or addicted. The codependent person typically sacrifices his or her needs to take care of a person who is sick. When codependents place other people’s health, welfare and safety before their own, they can lose contact with their own needs, desires, and sense of self.

How Do Codependent People Behave? Codependents have low self-esteem and look for anything outside of themselves to make them feel better. They find it hard to “be themselves.” Some try to feel better through alcohol, drugs or nicotine - and become addicted. Others may develop compulsive behaviors like workaholism, gambling, or indiscriminate sexual activity. They have good intentions. They try to take care of a person who is experiencing difficulty, but the caretaking becomes compulsive and defeating. Codependents often take on a martyr’s role and become “benefactors” to an individual in need. A wife may cover for her alcoholic husband; a mother may make excuses for a truant child; or a father may “pull some strings” to keep his child from suffering the consequences of delinquent behavior. The problem is that these repeated rescue attempts allow the needy individual to continue on a destructive course and to become even more dependent on the unhealthy caretaking of the “benefactor.” As this reliance increases, the codependent develops a sense of reward and satisfaction from “being needed.” When the caretaking becomes compulsive, the codependent feels as if he/she has no choices and is helpless in the relationship, but is unable to break away from the cycle of behavior that causes it. Codependents view themselves as victims and are attracted to that same weakness in the love and friendship relationships.

Characteristics of Codependent People

  • An exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others
  • A tendency to confuse love and pity, with the tendency to “love” people they can pity and rescue
  • A tendency to do more than their share, all of the time
  • A tendency to become hurt when people don’t recognize their efforts
  • An unhealthy dependence on relationships. The co-dependent will do anything to hold on to a relationship; to avoid the feeling of abandonment
  • An extreme need for approval and recognition
  • A sense of guilt when asserting themselves
  • A compelling need to control others
  • Lack of trust in self and/or others
  • Fear of being abandoned or alone
  • Difficulty identifying feelings
  • Rigidity/difficulty adjusting to change
  • Problems with intimacy/boundaries
  • Chronic anger
  • Lying/dishonesty
  • Poor communications
  • Difficulty making decisions

When Codependency Hits Home The first step in changing unhealthy behavior is to understand it. It is important for codependents and their family members to educate themselves about the course and cycle of addiction and how it extends into their relationships. A lot of change and growth is necessary for the codependent and his or her family to recover. Any caretaking behavior that allows or enables abuse to continue in the family needs to be recognized and stopped. The codependent must identify and embrace his or her feelings and needs. This may include learning to say “no,” to be loving yet tough, and learning to be self-reliant. People find freedom, love, and serenity in their recovery.

Family Roles in Addiction & Codependency Though often unrealized, help for codependency in alcohol and drug addiction treatment should be a family affair. As people read through the addiction family roles information presented here, they may often identify a person in their life who plays each role. Roles, though present in situations without addiction, often become more apparent when an addict is present. 

Families are Systems in a balance like a mobile and family members will unknowingly take on specific roles so the family with an addict can remain in balance.

The roles are: The Addict, The Hero, The Mascot, The Lost Child, The Scapegoat, The Caretaker (Enabler). Each role is given a brief description for understanding one basis of family addiction recovery. A summary follows with information on how and why the roles lead to codependency.

The Addict The person with the addiction is the center, and though the key to alcohol and drug addiction recovery, not necessarily the most important in family recovery. The "world" revolves around this person, causing the addict to become the center of attention. As the roles are defined, the others unconsciously take on the rest of the roles to complete the balance after the problem has been introduced.

The Hero The Hero is the one who needs to make the family, and role players, look good. They ignore the problem and present things in a positive manner as if the roles within the family did not exist. The Hero is the perfectionist. If they overcome this role they can play an important part in the addiction recovery process. The underlying feelings are fear, guilt, and shame. Hero's purpose: to raise the esteem of the family.

The Mascot The Mascot's role is that of the jester. They will often make inappropriate jokes about those involved. Though they do bring humor to the family roles, it is often harmful humor, and they sometimes hinder addiction recovery. The underlying feelings are embarrassment, shame, and anger. Mascot's purpose: to provide levity to the family; to relieve stress and tension by distracting everyone.

The Lost Child The Lost Child is the silent, "out of the way" family member, and will never mention alcohol or recovery. They are quiet and reserved, careful to not make problems. The Lost Child gives up self needs and makes efforts to avoid any conversation regarding the underlying roles. The underlying feelings are guilt, loneliness, neglect, and anger. Lost child's purpose: does not place added demands on the family system; he/she is low maintenance.

The Scapegoat The Scapegoat often acts out in front of others. They will rebel, make noise, and divert attention from the person who is addicted and their need for help in addiction recovery. The Scapegoat covers or draws attention away from the real problem. The underlying feelings are shame, guilt, and empty. Scrapegoat's purpose: puts the focus away from alcohol/addiction thereby allowing the alcoholic/addict to continue drinking/using.

The Caretaker (Enabler) The Caretaker (Enabler) makes all the other roles possible. They try to keep everyone happy and the family in balance and avoid the issue. They make excuses for all behaviors and actions, and never mention addiction recovery or getting help. The Caretaker (Enabler) presents a situation without problems to the public. The underlying feelings are inadequacy, fear, and helplessness. Caretaker's purpose: to maintain appropriate appearances to the outside world.

More about Family System Roles and Rules

Healthy Family System:

  • Self worth is high.
  • Communication is direct, clear, specific and honest and feelings are expressed.
  • Rules are human, flexible and appropriate to change.
  • It is natural to link and be open to society.
  • Each person has goals and plans to get there, and should be supported by the family.

Rules in a Dependent or Addicted Family

  • Addict's use of alcohol/drugs is the most important thing in a family life.
  • Drug use in not the cause of family problems, it is denial which is the root.
  • Blaming others, don't make mention of it, covering up, alibis, loyalty of family enablers.
  • Nobody may discuss problem outside the family.
  • Nobody says what they feel or think.

Addiction and the Family Roles: How they lead to Codependency The parts played by family members lead to codependency. Members make decisions concerning what the other person needs. Codependency leads to aversion and lack of self orientation in a situation where an addiction is present. Ultimately people "become" the part they are playing.

Family Recovery The goal in alcohol and drug addiction recovery is to bring each member as a whole into a situation where the problems can be dealt with. Individual talents and abilities should be integrated into the situation, allowing emotional honesty about the situation, without guilt or punishment.

The overall goal in overcoming codependency is to make each person whole.

People become familiar with and dependent on the role they play in families. In overcoming the family roles, you will begin to overcome issues, and what could be classified as the addiction to the role. While the conquering of the substance is important to the person with the addiction, a point to remember is the substance(s) is not the key to family recovery; removing the underlying roles are. In beginning recovery, each family member must become proactive against the addiction to the role, and learn to become their true self. The goal is for each to person to become independent, and then approach the substance addiction recovery as a group of individuals, rather than as people playing a part. Whole, independent people can freely contribute to the recovery of the person overcoming the addiction, while a person playing a part can only perform the role.

Starting Points:

  • Begin with yourself.
  • Find, and write a list of your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Build on what you have.
  • Let go of trying to be perfect and realize all people have some weaknesses.
  • A true person utilizes strengths, while building up their weaknesses.

Addiction recovery for the codependent role is tough. You must be personally honest and decide what you like or dislike. This may be as simple as defining how you wish things were, without playing the part, and adding support or friends in areas, or as encompassing as rethinking the path of your life. Refraining from forcing yourself to engage in activities, because of the codependency, is important to successful recovery from the addiction. There are many resources for codependent roles and overcoming these roles. Please, be honest in deciding if you have an addiction to a specific role in a relationship and find resources to help you in your recovery. As you begin to understand, breaking the family role should become easier. Remember to be understanding of others also.