The impact of co-dependency on your health

I have been speaking to my patients about co-dependency and their health for the last 3-4 years and I always have patients ask where they can read more about it. I would often direct them to books on co-dependency but they often come up short of helping people understand this topic outside the world of addiction. Below is my first effort to begin putting this concept into a written form with the intention that you can relate to the immense value you will attain by working to break your co-dependent behavior.

Let us first start with the definition of what it means to be “co-dependent” (per Google): “excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner, typically a partner who requires support due to an illness or addiction.” Now this is definitely part of the concept, but I am going to argue that co-dependency encompasses a much broader definition that not only includes the reliance upon a partner, but the reliance upon all relationships as they relate to all things in a person’s life. My definition of codependency goes like this: as long as everything outside of me is OK, then I will be OK. Thus, peace within your life is dictated by what is happening outside of you. The vision and practice that I push for my patients to achieve is the opposite of codependency, which states: “as long as I am OK, everything will be OK outside of me.”  The defining part of this statement is that “I am OK.” What does that mean to be OK? Does it mean that you have everything you want? No. Does it mean that you agree with everything that is going on in the world? No. Does it mean that you agree with everything that is happening in people’s lives that you care about? No. The “I am OK” statement gives you the room in your life to detach (with love) from all that you do not have control over. “I am OK” is at the heart of breaking the co-dependent stranglehold that impacts the lives of so many individuals.

The general idea of this concept is something that people can often relate to. In my experience, it’s a struggle for individuals to apply the principles to break codependency.  So where can you start working to apply this concept? The good thing is that you don’t have to look far, given the  readily available adversity and stress that life can bring.  There is a seemingly endless amount of opportunity in your life to work on the way you choose to interpret what’s happening in front of you. Every day you are presented with situations that push on your ego. The ego is the part of your mind that creates preference, such as “I like this” or “I do not like that.” I will discuss more about ego in a moment. What I am trying to point out to you here is the fact that every situation you come across gives you an opportunity to practice your relationship with your choices. Why do choose what you do? How does that work for you? What is the benefit of your choice? Is this choice moving you in the direction of your self-care? Is this choice moving you away from your self-care? When you ask yourself these types of questions, you are performing a personal inquiry. This inquiry opens up an opportunity to change your relationship with your choices. I would argue that most of the time you don’t know why you choose to make the decisions you do.  A general consensus among psychologists is that 80% of decisions made by individuals are unconscious. This means that 80% of the time, you are not associating the choices you make with the likely outcome.  I can tell you with absolute certainty that this contributes significantly to the suffering that you endure.

Do you know anyone that breaks up with one person only to go and find the same relationship with someone else? Or the person that does not like their job, so they quit and end up finding a similar job? This is all based on the law of attraction, which tells us “what you put out is what you get back.” If you are not getting what you want in your life, then you need to examine what you are putting out (based on your choices and actions).

I will take a moment here to go over ego. Ego is the part of your mind that puts you first and creates all your wants. And it is in this part of your mind that you suffer. When you do not get what you want, you suffer. When others do things that you do not like, you suffer. In the end you suffer because what is happening in front of you does not align with what you think things should be. For instance, you see that your boss gave you a funny look. Your ego goes, “I don’t like it when my boss gives me funny looks,” “Why is my boss giving me funny looks?”, “I would just rather have my boss not give me funny looks,” “When people give me funny looks it is because I did something wrong,” or “When people give me funny looks it is because they do not like me.” I’m sure we can all relate to this cascade of emotional reaction that takes place in our minds after certain types of situations arise. Now, while you may just write this off as “this is the way things are,” I want to encourage you to understand that the way you interpret situations is a contributing factor to co-dependent behavior.  Your perception of the way your boss looks at you either moves you to a place of fear (such as “I did something wrong,”/”people do not like me,”/”why did my boss do this?”) or it moves you to a place of love (such as “my boss must be having a hard day,”/”my boss must be suffering or hurting”) .

So, how could an event that creates an uncomfortable feeling move you to a place of love? The first principle to understand is that every decision that someone else makes is solely and exclusively about them and it is has nothing to do with you. When your boss gives you a funny look, it really is not about them being displeased with you but rather them displeased with themselves.  Your ego does not want to believe this though. Your ego wants to believe that every decision that someone else makes is solely and exclusively about you. This is an undercurrent that ripples through a co-dependent environment. Concerning yourself with other people’s decisions and trying to understand why they choose to do what they do primes you for falling into a fear-based environment of co-dependency. When you are concerned with other’s decisions, you will lose sight of your own needs. You will begin sacrificing your self-care for the benefit of others. But if you are a good friend, a good spouse, a good partner, and a good neighbor, that is what you do, right? In principle, I believe this is what you do. But when I see people apply this to their lives, it wrecks them. It makes them sick. It fills up their buckets with hormones that aid in inflammation and decreased immune function. In the end what I witness in my office is that people suffer at the expense of their concerns for others. I think this is a powerful concept due to the fact that you are told from a very early age that you need to be aware of other people and their needs. Again, something that I believe in principle is true. So where do things go wrong in life as you begin moving from a place of self-care into an environment of co-dependency? I believe that the answer lies in how you manage and deal with adversity as it shows up in front of you. Something I always tell my patients is that every interaction that you have in life is a learning opportunity to understand the lessons that life has to offer and there are really only two ways that you can look at these events: either through the eyes of love or through the eyes of fear. If you look at adversity through the eyes of fear, you will begin strengthening the ego while building a foundation for co-dependency. If you decide to look at adversity through the eyes of love, you will strengthen a foundation for self-care; which in turn will move you closer to those around you, while carrying a greater impact for positive change.

Time is an important concept to understand as you begin to process how codependency relates to you. Time is relevant because of the conditioning that occurs as you mature and develop through life experiences.  The concept of conditioning is most understood by discussing Pavlov’s dogs. Pavlov was a scientist who was studying human behavior through our relationships to objects around us that provoke reaction. Pavlov’s classical study was done by showing a dog a stimulating substance (food) to create a physical association (which was the increased secretion of digestive enzymes), and this was then repeated multiple times. Once the dog had an association with the physical substance, Pavlov introduced another stimulus (which was a bell) in an effort to associate the two together. Now that dog has a physical association with both the food and the bell. Once the bell and food were associated together by the dog, Pavlov removed the food from the equation and only used the bell to elicit the physical stimulus (increased digestive enzymes) from the dog. This process is known as conditioning and it is this process that is at the heart of codependent behavior.  When you are suffering from events that take place in your present life, it is not the event (person, place or thing) that is causing the suffering. It is your association with that event as it relates to your history and management of similar circumstances that is causing you to suffer.

These life events that I talk about occur at the beginning of conception (in truth it happens during pre-conception but I will discuss that another time). How your mother and father dealt with adversity while you were in the womb impacted the way you deal with adversity outside the womb. How your parents, siblings and family members dealt with adversity when you were a child impacted the way you deal with adversity. And from the beginning of childhood, children are shamed for acting the way they do when adversity shows up. Such as, “do not cry,” “stop acting that way,” and “why are you so upset?”. We reprimand and impose repeated consequences for their actions. This has a major impact on the way you will manage the inevitable adverse events that show up in front of you. It is the ego of the adult who makes these exclamations to the child. The adult cannot handle the screaming child. The adult cannot handle the child being upset.  The fear is instilled from the ego of the adult into the child in an effort to stop the adult from suffering, not the child from suffering! Thus the child learns that “as long as the adult is not upset, then I will be OK.”  And so goes the vicious cycle that repeats itself and continues to drive codependency deeper.

I have a very good visual aid that I use for patients to help them understand codependency but I am unfortunately unable to put it into this blog post given my limited computer skills. Thus I will describe it to you verbally. Here we go! Imagine a circle with a slightly larger circle around it. The smaller circle represents safety,; safety is housed within this inside circle. The slightly bigger outer circle represents panic, and panic is housed on the outside of the outer circle. Between the inner and outer circle there is a layer and this is represents vulnerability. In essence there are three layers: safe,vulnerable and panic. Got it? Good! Everyone wants to feel safe. No one wants to feel panic. For the child, the world is pretty black and white. Either things are OK (safety) or they are not OK (panic). We do a very good job of encouraging this black and white thinking through our parenting skills of preventing children from learning about vulnerability. Vulnerability is the grey zone between safety and panic. It is the place where we grow, where we flourish in our ability to understand how our choices impact us. When adversity shows up in a child’s life, we will often do everything in our power to make them feel safe. I believe that the primary motivator is not really about the child at all, it is more about the parent’s own insecurity and there need to prevent the feeling of being in a state of panic.

The better approach to adversity is allowing those involved to sit in a place of vulnerability and work through the acceptance of all possible outcomes. This is hard for individuals, because their ego does not want to entertain the idea of not getting what it wants. But once you satisfy the ego through acceptance, you will gain a deeper spiritual connection with yourself and others.

WOW! I hope that makes sense. Sometimes these concepts can be hard to put into written words. I think I will end there for right now.  Please let me know your thoughts on this and more to come.



Naturopathic physician who is educating people about their health in order to empower them to practice self care.