Sarah Jones thinks that the popular use of the term “codependent” causes more problems than it solves.
The other day, I was in my favorite local bakery thinking of article topics to write about. I passed by a woman who was talking about someone she knew, saying, “Yeah, she’s codependent.”
I said to myself, “Oh my god. We can NOT keep on using that word like that!”
I immediately thought of the phrase, “The Myth of Codependency,” and vehemently set about creating a coherent position to back that claim.
The product of those efforts is below:
When you hear the word “codependency,” what comes up for you? For many people, it’s an unpleasant mix of confusion, shame, and judgment.
Through popular misuse and hype, the word “codependent” has become more demeaning than anything else. There is a much better way for us to conceptualize and talk about everyday relationship dynamics.
Here’s what you will find below: the literal definition of codependency compared to the hyped-up popular definition, followed by an alternative way of thinking about ourselves and our relationships that I hope you’ll find deeply respectful, relevant, and refreshing.
What is codependency?
Literal Definition: Webster defines codependency as, “a psychological condition or a relationship in which a person is controlled or manipulated by another who is affected with a pathological condition (as an addiction to alcohol or heroin); broadly : dependence on the needs of or control by another.”
Official Origin: The term “codependency” was coined a few decades ago in the context of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) to acknowledge and support partners of alcoholics and chemical-dependents who were intertwined in the destructive lives of those they loved.
Given its definition and origin, I would define literal codependency as a mutually parasitic relationship.
From a scientific standpoint, there are all kinds of relationships that organisms on earth have with each other. A parasitic relationship is where one organism is feeding off another in a way that destroys the other. Codependency is a sort of mutual parasitism because both parties are emotionally feeding off each other in a way that is destructive to both.
This kind of mutual emotional parasitism is naturally fed by the flames of shame and judgment. Unfortunately, both shame and judgment are inherently reinforced inside the newish pop-culture definition of the word, thereby fueling the fire it is supposedly trying to put out.
The myriad of popular definitions on the internet today generally center around the idea that codependents have little-to-no core sense of self and are therefore compulsively looking to outside sources for comfort.
Let’s take a moment here. Doesn’t the popular definition of codependency kind of describe us all to one degree or another?
After all, we are human beings with human bodies, minds, and emotions. No matter what, each of us looks outside for comfort sometimes. No one is an island, not even a mountaintop monk. Even he needs sustenance from the outside.
Is the popular definition of codependency implying that we’re all codependent?
Or at least mildly codependent? If so, then it is by no means a clinical diagnosis, but a derogatory way to view human beings.
The truth is that we are all growing and evolving together in our own ways, at our own pace. That is quite alright. What is not alright is when we disrespect ourselves or others, namely through shameful labels.
Through mass media, the word “codependency” has largely become one of those unhelpful shameful labels.
This is no one’s fault in particular; it is just what happens when a heavy, ill-defined word becomes sensationalized across various blogs.
When a term like that is circulated widely enough, well-meaning people pick up on it and assume it’s legitimate because it is popular, and then they integrate it into their philosophy (even if it is threatening, nebulous, and disheartening).
A cursory search of the term on Google will show you long lists of “symptoms” that codependents supposedly have, like low self-esteem, a weak will, a strong desire to help others, and a compelling need to control. Neutral and positive qualities are mixed with demeaning negatives ones to create a looming sense of judgement and confusion.
There are even articles like, “12 Warning Signs You’re Codependent.” Warning signs? That feels a little like bullying to me. Certainly, it is very far from the vibe of a professional diagnosis.
The term has become so misconstrued that many clinical psychologists don’t even use it anymore.
It too easily conjures up the hurtful, non-clinical definitions flying around the internet today. Imagine, “Well, Jane, it looks like you are codependent.”
In many ways, that’s like saying, “Well, Jane, it looks like you have weak boundaries. You are bossy AND an enabler at once. (How do you swing that, by the way?) Also, you’re probably in denial. (You’re pitiful, really.)”
No legitimate professional would ever view or speak to anyone that way – either directly or with that undertone. That kind of derogatory description further intensifies low self-esteem by labeling people harshly and using scare tactics like “warning signs.”
To me, it seems the way we’re using the term as a culture today is perpetuating the entire unhealthy dynamic it was designed to remedy in the first place.
That said, I should make clear that I am not at all referring to genuinely helpful professional psychologists who sometimes use the word in their practices and writings.
Take Dr. David Schnarch for example, whose work I love. He sometimes uses the word “codependency,” and he is also a professional psychologist whose overall tone is loving and respectful.
Whenever someone is coming from a place of deep thoughtfulness and legitimate expertise, that is very welcome. I’m not at all talking about that.
What I am referring to is the over-hyped misuse of the word. It’s gotten too nebulous and is now emotionally dangerous. I am suggesting that we refine the word and bring it back to where it belongs: inside psychologists’ and psychiatrists’ offices, not in everyday pseudo-prescriptive conversation or sensationalized blogs.
When we do that, we liberate ourselves from confusing shame and judgement, so we can start using more constructive and respectful frameworks for everyday relationship dynamics.
I’d like to share a framework for relationship dynamics that I find respectful and relevant.
Earlier, I referred to the different kinds of relationships in nature between various organisms. One of these relationships is mutual symbiosis, where both organisms benefit from the relationship.
An example of mutual symbiosis is the relationship between shrimp and goby fish. The shrimp digs a burrow into the sand, which provides both organisms shelter. Because the shrimp is nearly blind, the goby fish helpfully touches him whenever a predator is nearby.
Another example is within our own bodies: As humans, we have a mutually symbiotic relationship with microorganisms, namely the bacteria in our digestive tracts. They help us process food, which in turn provides them sustenance.
Humans can have symbiotic relationships with each other too.
In thriving, loving relationships, both partners are stronger together than they are apart. They are there for each other during difficult times, and they increase each others’ joy in happy times. Also, perhaps one is better at numbers, and one is better at cooking. Both benefit from the relationship’s shared strengths.
These relationships are not limited to romantic ones. Think of business partners who enjoy working together, and even deep friendships. There are all kinds of relationships where each provides something special and important to the other in a way that benefits both parties.
Too many couples have said, “Oh no, I love your touch too much. Am I codependent?” When both people in the relationship benefit from the connection, that is a needless worry.
The truth is we all rely on each other in various healthy ways. It’s beautiful and collaborative. This kind of relating is not codependency. It’s mutual symbiosis.
In order to have a mutually symbiotic relationship, there’s only one important thing to ask yourself, and it is wise to ask yourself this early and often:
“Is the way I’m showing up in this relationship making me more of who I want to be?”
As long as each of you is asking yourself that, and the answer is yes – as long as you both feel that you together and as individuals are growing stronger and more of who you truly want to be in the relationship – GO for it.
If you’re both a full yes, then in my opinion, there’s no way in hell you’re codependent.
As for what to do with the word “codependent,” here’s what I suggest: As a rule, it’s always best not to label yourself or others in a shameful or judgmental way, especially not with clinical terms like codependency that should be strictly reserved for professional diagnoses.
The only sustainable way to grow and evolve is on a foundation of respect: respect for self and for others.
Anything other than respect is irresponsible and wholly unnecessary. In my opinion, your sole responsibility is to make sure that YOU are showing up in the best way possible in every relationship you have. As long as you’re doing that, you are golden.
Now go create and enjoy those mutually symbiotic relationships!
Together, let’s relinquish a word that’s caused so much pain and confusion due to misuse. Let’s leave professional diagnoses where they belong and return to the only important thing: being exactly who we want to be, loving ourselves and those close to us wholeheartedly, and enjoying ourselves thoroughly in the process.
Sarah Jones helps smart introverted men attract women naturally. Learn more and get her free gifts at IntrovertedAlpha.com.
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