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Addiction, co-dependency and family systems

“Once a pattern in a family system has been broken that family will never be the same again the healing of a recovering person will spread through that system and hope will return”

My experience is that co-dependency is closely linked to addiction. I believe Addiction is a relationship issue. When for whatever reason a person’s attachment to their initial care givers is effected in a negative way the individual may look for an external source of comfort to attach too e.g. a substance, a person, or another object.

Unfortunately, the individuals need will not be satisfied as the essential issue lies within them. This is of course not always the cause of addiction but it certainly plays a part in the addictive cycle.

The topic of co-dependency crops up again and again in the addictions field, however there seems to be considerable confusion about what this word really means.

When addiction occurs in a family, everyone is affected. People adopt different roles in order to cope with the dysfunction within the family. Children brought up in families where there is addiction live with fear, loneliness, uncertainty and they feel instability on a daily basis.

By adopting maladaptive coping strategies, they find ways to try and control their environment.

Of course, such behaviours are ineffective

and the compulsive use of these behaviours become

addictive and lead ultimately to what is defined as “co-dependency”.

Co-dependency Behaviours

  • Low self-esteem

Feeling that you’re not good enough or comparing yourself to others are signs of low self-esteem. The tricky thing about self-esteem is that some people think highly of themselves, but it’s only a disguise — they actually feel unlovable or inadequate. Underneath, usually hidden from consciousness, are feelings of shame. Guilt and perfectionism often go along with low self-esteem. If everything is perfect, you don’t feel bad about yourself.

  • People-pleasing

It’s fine to want to please someone you care about, but codependents usually don’t think they have a choice. Saying “No” causes them anxiety. Some codependents have a hard time saying “No” to anyone. They go out of their way and sacrifice their own needs to accommodate other people.

  • Poor boundaries

Boundaries are sort of an imaginary line between you and others. It divides up what’s yours and somebody else’s, and that applies not only to your body, money, and belongings, but also to your feelings, thoughts and needs. That’s especially where codependents get into trouble. They have blurry or weak boundaries. They feel responsible for other people’s feelings and problems or blame their own on someone else. Some codependents have rigid boundaries. They are closed off and withdrawn, making it hard for other people to get close to them. Sometimes, people flip back and forth between having weak boundaries and having rigid ones.

  • Reactivity

A consequence of poor boundaries is that you react to everyone’s thoughts and feelings. If someone says something you disagree with, you either believe it or become defensive. You absorb their words, because there’s no boundary. With a boundary, you would realize it was just their opinion and not a reflection of you and not feel threatened by disagreements.

  • Caretaking

Another effect of poor boundaries, you want to help others to the point that you give up yourself. It’s natural to feel empathy and sympathy for someone, but codependents start putting other people ahead of themselves. In fact, they need to help and might feel rejected if another person doesn’t want help. Moreover, they keep trying to help and fix the other person, even when that person clearly isn’t taking their advice.

  • Control

Control helps codependents feel safe and secure. Everyone needs some control over events in their life. You wouldn’t want to live in constant uncertainty and chaos, but for codependents, control limits their ability to take risks and share their feelings. Sometimes they have an addiction that either helps them loosen up, like alcoholism, or helps them hold their feelings down, like workaholics, so that they don’t feel out of control. Codependents also need to control those close to them, because they need other people to behave in a certain way to feel okay. In fact, people-pleasing and care-taking can be used to control and manipulate people. Alternatively, codependents can appear bossy.

  • Dysfunctional communication

Codependents have trouble when it comes to communicating their thoughts, feelings and needs. Of course, if you don’t know what you think, feel or need, this becomes a problem. Other times, you know, but you won’t own up to your truth. You’re afraid to be truthful, because you don’t want to upset someone else. Instead of saying, “I don’t like that,” you might pretend that it’s okay or tell someone what to do. Communication becomes dishonest and confusing when you try to manipulate the other person out of fear.

  • Obsessions

Codependents have a tendency to spend their time thinking about other people or relationships. This is caused by their dependency, anxieties and fears. Becoming obsessed when they think they have made or might have made a mistake. Can lapse into fantasy about how you would like things to be or about someone you love, as a way to avoid the pain of the present. This is one way to stay in denial. discussed below.

  • Dependency

Codependents need other people to like them to feel okay about themselves. They’re afraid of being rejected or abandoned, even if they can function on their own. Perhaps a need to always be in a relationship, because may feel depressed or lonely when alone for too long. This trait makes it hard to end a relationship, even when the relationship is painful or abusive. May end up feeling trapped.

  • Denial

One of the problems people face in getting help for codependency is that they’re in denial about it. Usually they think the problem is someone else or just the situation. They either keep complaining or trying to fix the other person, or go from one relationship or job to another and never own up the fact that they have a problem. Codependents also deny their feelings and needs. Often, they don’t know what they’re feeling and are instead focused on what others are feeling. The same thing goes for their needs. They pay attention to other people’s needs and not their own. They might be in denial of their need for space and autonomy. Although some codependents seem needy, others act like they’re self-sufficient when it comes to needing help. They won’t reach out and have trouble receiving help. They are in denial of their vulnerability and need for love and intimacy.

  • Problems with intimacy

By this I’m not referring to sex, although sexual dysfunction often is a reflection of an intimacy problem. I’m talking about being open and close with someone in an intimate relationship. Because of the shame and weak boundaries, you might fear that you’ll be judged, rejected, or left. On the other hand, you may fear being smothered in a relationship and losing your autonomy. You might deny your need for closeness and feel that your partner wants too much of your time; your partner complains that you’re unavailable, but he or she is denying his or her need for separateness.

Painful emotions

Codependency creates stress and leads to painful emotions. Shame and low self-esteem create anxiety and fear about being judged, rejected or abandoned; making mistakes; being a failure; feeling trapped by being close or being alone. Other symptoms lead to feelings of anger and resentment, depression, hopelessness, and despair. When the feelings are too much, you can feel numb.

These issues can become so painful that ultimately it may lead to people turning to substances in order to relieve their suffering.

When dealing with the recovery from addiction it is vital that the individual is given help with these issues as they can lead to relapse.

The idea of involving family in the recovery process is now seen as very useful in most treatment centres they incorporate family groups into their programs as well as extended family programmes.

In my experience working through family of origin issues, is an extremely important part of the healing process.

By building a relationship with a therapist, a therapeutic alliance is formed. The therapist takes on the role of the “good enough parent”.

In time, trust is formed and the trauma of childhood can be worked through. Often it will take time for an individual to “thaw” out after the substances have been put down, gradually issues will surface.

An important area to look at are triggers

Often triggers can spark off memories/ feelings from the past and the individual will experience symptoms of trauma, if a person has unresolved trauma it can lead to relapse and or repeated patterns behaviour.

It is very important that a recovering person learns about boundaries and self-care.

Attending 12 step meetings is an ideal forum to learn new behaviours and the therapeutic value of learning from those who have gone before you, are without parallel.

However, there is something to be said about the concept that in order to release trauma it has to surface. I have witnessed a great healing take place when trauma has been triggered, the individual has been able to work through this with their therapist without relapse and emerge on the other side with relief from the original trauma. Thus becoming more whole and independent rather than co- dependant. In turn this will raise self-esteem and generally make for a happier life for the person in question.

By this I mean that avoidance of all triggers may “keep you safe”, and indeed it does and is sometimes necessary. Paradoxically facing relationships and difficulties that may trigger feelings and by working through these feelings, learning, healing and transformation can take place. It is a balancing act of keeping boundaries yet not always disengaging entirely, as avoidance in itself can cause all sorts of difficulties; and what is more avoidant than using drugs!

The feeling of low self-worth resulting from years of substance misuse and compounded by an unstable family system is a common characteristic with addicts in recovery. Gradually as the recovering addict develops the feelings change and self-esteem is raised. Many recovering addicts become productive, responsible members of society.


Sharon Daniel is an Addictions Counsellor and works from her Private Practice which is based in Cambridge. Sharon trained at Bath University as a counsellor specialising in Addictions. She is FDAP accredited with over a decade of professional experience in helping people overcome many issues - such as destructive behavioural patterns including addictive disorders, I also specialize in family therapy and trauma ,anxiety ,low self-worth and relationship problems.

Sharon can be contacted through her website Cambridge Clarity Counselling


If you wish to learn more about Unhelpful Patterns of Behaviour and Healing Family Dynamics then you can attend Sharon's Event on November 19th held in Cambridge



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