Shrink Rap: Codependency & Dependency

The terms “codependent” and “dependent” have relatively new meanings in the vocabulary of personality and mental health issues. While the “dependent personality disorder” is an actual diagnosis for mental illness from the diagnostic and statistical manuals we use today, in the jargon of dependency and codependency, you have to go to the internet and self-help books, which have proliferated since the 1980’s, to really get an idea of what these terms mean. Look for books on “ACOA” (Adult Children of Alcoholics) and on Codependency. I have a good bibliography if anyone is interested; just email me.

The term “codependency” originated with people working with people dependent on alcohol and/or drugs. We discovered the people who were living with these dependent personality types developed specific types of behaviors and problems; professionals labeled them “codependent.” We also discovered through the years that families developed these predictable behaviors and roles within all different types of dysfunctional units. The system itself produces the roles: children growing up with alcoholics; drug-addicted people; people with serious control or anger issues; those with bipolar or other serious mental illness issues; and even people dealing with PTSD, chronic pain, or traumatic brain injury; people who are avoidant and addictive such as never being available due to constant exercise, golf, hunting. You name it. The key element is anything that requires so much family attention that it prevents regular and close parenting of children and also normal adult relationships.

Children in these families experience neglect in that they are left to handle many problems and situations by themselves, when adults/parents should be helping them. They usually are forced to endure emotional and often physical abuse, as dependent personalities tend to blame others for their problems. Moreover, children do not have the ability to discern the fact an adult may be at fault. For children, the adults, and particularly parents in their lives, are the ones who explain the truth and the world to them. In a child’s world, if there is a problem, it must be the child. Children growing up under these conditions develop anxiety because they are put in situations they are not capable of handling.

Adults living with dependent personalities try to do whatever they can to make things better. While they are usually blamed for the problems, they diligently work on their issues to solve them. They also become hypervigilent, trying to predict what might set the other off. They often tell the children to be quiet, not to make mom or dad angry, to make sure everything in the house is okay or perfect. The dependent personality takes too little responsibility; the codependent takes too much and tries to make everything better.

These are some of the dynamics involved in creating “codependent” behavior: taking too much responsibility; worrying more about what’s wrong with me as opposed to what’s wrong with them; trying to solve everything; explaining and defending profusely; and trying to help or care for everyone. 

The next articles will go more in depth about the dynamics.

Dr. Susannah Smith

Dr. Susannah Smith is a licensed practicing clinical psychologist and organizational development consultant, with offices in Telluride and Ridgway. If you would like to contact her, she can be reached at;; or 970-728-5234.  

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