There are endless studies that prove that humans are social animals, and we indeed need our communities and sense of belonging to lead a fulfilling, meaningful, and healthy life.
Stable relationships can be very empowering, but sometimes there is a little corollary attached to what we might consider a stable relationship.
They say too much of a good thing is a bad thing, and hence drawing your sense of happiness, belonging, and power from depending on another person beyond a certain point can be harmful too… and enter co-dependency.
Now, this is a very vague and loose understanding of what it means to be co-dependent, hence, here’s a closer, longer look.
What is Co-Dependency?
According to Dr Sameer Malhotra, Director, Department of Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences, Max Super Speciality Hospital, Saket, New Delhi, co-dependency refers to a relationship between two individuals who are emotionally dependent on one another.
“It might involve assuming the role of a caretaker, and in the process, developing a sense of self-sacrifice and satisfaction. On the surface, such behaviours appear to be a reflection of care, concern, and compassion but they may turn out to be compulsive, controlling, and detrimental,” adds the doctor.
Ms Kamna Chhibber, Clinical Psychologist, Fortis Healthcare, New Delhi, comments on this to emphasise that reliance on another person in itself is not a concern, but when it becomes excessive, that’s when it's crucial to take a pause.
If you are having trouble making decisions independently or managing situations and relations in life with confidence, it is imperative to take a step back and tread with caution.
Dependence is Inevitable, But When Does it Become a Concern?
Dr Malhotra agrees that as all of us possess entire spectrums of emotional and social needs, it is impossible to not be dependent on each other.
Some degree of interdependence is part of human relationships. So, when does one need to assess their relationship?
The signs of co-dependency can be several – from low self-esteem, anxiety, and depressive symptoms or tendencies, to resentment, anguish, frustration, and excessive stress.
Here’s how one can identify when behavioural patterns become pathological:
Blurred boundaries of the relationship between two people
Being compulsively controlling
Loss of the sense of self, combined with self-neglect
Feeling burnt out and emotionally and physically drained
Extreme fear of rejection and abandonment
Undue guilt and accepting blame without any fault to avoid conflict
Excessive anxiety and guilt about looking after one’s own needs or giving some time to oneself
Sometimes, as a result of all of these blurred boundaries between the self and the other, as well as the constant push and pull of control, the sense of endless caregiving might generate bitterness too in the provider.
On the other hand, Dr Malhotra says that there can also be conflict when the receiver of the care tries to make one’s own decisions, making the provider insecure about their caregiving role.
Ms Chhibber condenses these emotional and psychological symptoms and points out that a co-dependent person might not only constantly seek approval, but also experience guilt when they operate independently.
This, in turn, will make the person on whom they are codependent, experience a feeling of being stifled or suffocated, getting stuck, not being able to disengage or disconnect, wanting to constantly be in charge, or feeling overburdened with responsibility.
As is true of an endless number of mental health problems in adulthood, co-dependency too is linked to childhood relationships with one’s parents, concludes Dr Malhotra.
How to Address Co-dependency?
Timely identification is first and foremost, says Dr Malhotra. He further lists down some ways to address it:
Assessing and addressing unresolved childhood conflicts and relationship patterns
Psychotherapy aimed at understanding the self
Creating and maintaining healthy connectedness rather than enmeshment in relationships
Understanding the importance of healthy boundaries between self and others
Acceptance is also key, underlines Ms Chhibber.
“To address this concern, it's important to take stock and understand where the need to be co-dependent is emerging from. Recognise that you are co-dependent and accept it. Work to determine ways in which you can become self-reliant. Make an assessment of the aspects for which you rely on the person, and in a hierarchical manner, work to change it.”Ms Kamna Chhibber
She further adds that it is important to consciously work towards building confidence and comfort when trying to overcome co-dependence. The role of supportive friends and loved ones is crucial too.
Dr Chhibber recommends taking encouragement from those around you, while reinforcing your own efforts, and never letting go of compassion towards the self. The progress might be slow and steady, but is sure to come by with consistent effort.
(Rosheena Zehra is an independent journalist.)