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When Helping Harms

Our roles in the dysfunction of addiction

Codependency, also known as its own type of emotional addiction, is a tricky feature that lies within the blind spot of the seemingly well-adjusted. In perhaps its simplest form, codependency can be identified in individuals that base their happiness and value on others. It is the name for a lost identity or personality, resulting in maladaptive, compulsive behaviors that encourage its development in others. Deceptively, what can come across as a great love and protectiveness to the untrained eye, can really be the very thing that is keeping addicts tied to their disease in its most active form.  It has long been thought of as a key function that enables addiction, and through years of experience, we have found that to be increasingly true. However, the dangers of codependency exist long before the addict has taken their first pill or their first sip of alcohol. So, I hereby ask the question you may have been avoiding: are you enabling an addict?

Before diving headlong into the grit of codependency, I must first state that codependency is a highly complex human phenomenon, with multiple forms of its manifestation. However, a basic understanding is needed in order to identify potential red flags in ourselves and others. Codependency can be defined as excessive emotional or psychological reliance within one or more relationships. Furthermore, codependency and enabling, although function in their own relationship, are separate issues- codependency is not the only aspect that can lead to enabling, however, in this article we will discuss codependency as a double-edged knife, with regards to its link to enabling active addiction that is already established as well as its potential to lead to a vulnerability of addiction in others.

Without a doubt, codependency can be the largest hindrance to a person’s recovery. It is harmful to both the addict and the one trying to help. In an article by Raychelle Cassada Lohmann in Psychology Today (2013), it is recognized that codependency is a learned behavior that can be passed from one generation to another. Potential causes include the over compensation of one parent for the other’s absence or abuse, or, perhaps, a parent who has relied on their child for emotional support. Both a lack of nurturing and an over-nurturing parenting style can encourage codependency, and it is also highly likely that codependency as an adult may have its origins in childhood. Lohmann also writes that experts agree that codependency is currently an increasing problem, a possible side effect of adapting parenting styles. However, addiction is not the only byproduct of this kind of relationship device. Codependency may very well contribute to separation anxiety and social anxiety aswell, both of which can also be prerequisites to addiction. Concerning our current context, Lohmann writes that “anxiety disorders are one of the most prevalent mental health disorders facing youth today…” (Lohmann, 2013).

In the early years, codependency has a negative effect on healthy child development, and will continue its catastrophic cycle due to its contagious capability between generations. Catherine Cilliers, Counselling Psychologist at South Coast Recovery Centre, explains that as infants, we develop an attachment with our primary caregivers. Although a secure attachment is the natural goal, sometimes insecure attachments form; often the result of a detached parent, poor mental health within the family, poor environmental safety etc. This can lead to an ambivalent or anxious insecure attachment, one of three kinds of insecure attachments, in which co-dependency plays a leading role. Often, people in these kinds of co-dependent relationships will both push and pull people in and out of their lives with equal intensity. It is when the other person in the relationship adheres to this pushing and pulling, giving them all the time in the world, and pandering to their fluctuating emotions within relationships, that co-dependent relationships form. Children growing up in a codependent relationship with a parent will likely feel insecure, underachieving and often fearful. Unspoken mantras that may foster codependency in the home may also include “suck it up”, “Work hard, be good, find perfection” and “Do as I say not as I do” (Lohmann, 2013). These ideologies can lead to poor coping skills and problem-solving abilities in children who may grow up with the predisposition to addiction, and, even more likely, the stamp of codependency.

But what does codependency look like? It can express itself in a variety of ways, from nurturing to control, and hence lies its complexity. Lohmann (2013) describes it as a need to control people, while other warning signs include a low self-esteem, people pleasing, extreme worry, never feeling “good enough”, a lack of trust, and high levels of anxiety and stress. Other symptoms associated with codependent people in relationships highlighted by Susan Erasmus on health24.com (2013) include a lot of thought around a particular person, constantly checking in on them, not noticing a destructive habit, constant anxiety associated with their actions, bargaining, threatening, constantly feeling emotionally drained, trying to make things better despite your efforts being futile, and very often, constantly paying up despite not knowing where the money is going.

The difficult thing about codependency is that it hides. Some of the characteristics of a codependent person can even be argued as quite permissible in society, such as “workaholism” and perfectionism. Others, such as fear and possessiveness, are not so useful, never mind unsustainable for the codependent person. The results of codependency often lead to the adult-child of a co-dependent parent becoming the obviously unhealthy one in the family, resulting in anxiety disorders, depression or addiction. Of course, this relationship can occur the other way around too, whereby the child tries to take care of the parent. Likewise, between brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, and so the list goes on. There is no thought more uncomfortable for the families who have been devastated by an addicted family member than the idea that they might have contributed to this problem. Although addiction relies on a wide variety of factors such as social, physical, environmental, medical and mental in order to flourish, codependency is one of the factors that is not solely attached to the addicted individual, and one that the family members do have control over.

Cilliers strongly suggests that what many people do not understand is that co-dependency always involves more than one person. She states “If you have a co-dependent addict in the family, then you are also co-dependent”. She goes on to say that co-dependent relationships can exist, not only between two people, but between whole families. The roles within this relationship is often as such: one gives, and the other takes. One demands, and the other tolerates. One asks, the other can never say no. Either way, both parties are co-dependent, although one might look more problematic than the other.

At times, loving a person, despite their flaws, means relinquishing control over their every move. Would that person still be able to function in a ‘normal’ life without your ‘help’? If you even consider the answer to this as no, then you are possibly enabling them with addiction, not recovery. Codependent people are encouraged to find their own recovery through processing their childhood, setting boundaries, practicing detachment, and to stop the repression of emotions that demand to be felt. Let go of the need to control. In acknowledging some on the criticism towards this concept, it must be emphasized that love and codependency are not the same, but at times, the one can be misunderstood as the other. Love is always absolutely necessary. There are ways to help without harming, and therein lies the difference between enabling and empowering.

End note: Shawn Megan Burn (2016) urges people not to use the label “codependent” lightly as it carries with it some very serious consequences as well as some equally serious generalizations and misunderstandings. If you would like to learn more around this topic, we would like to recommend Melody Beattie’s work, in particular her book Codependency No More. If you feel that you are in a codependent relationship, we encourage you to reach out for help in order to learn new tools that will help you love without enabling, and essential get your own life back.



Beattie, M. (2013) Codependent No More. Hazelden Publishing.

Burn, S.M. (2016/04/27) “Six Hallmarks of Codependence” Psychology Today


Erasmus, S. (2013/10/18) “Are you Enabling an Addict?” Health24.com http://www.health24.com/Medical/Addiction/Alcohol/Are-you-enabling-an-addict-20120721

Lohmann, R.C. (2013/10/29) “Codependency in Children” Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/experts/raychelle-cassada-lohmann-ms-lpcs