the need to be needed

By Clay Tucker-Ladd

The term codependency, as first used in the alcohol treatment field, meant any person who's life was seriously affected by an alcoholic. Now the meaning has evolved and expanded.

A codependent person today has two problems:

- A disastrous relationship with an addict or compulsive person; and

- A disabling personal problem of his / her own, namely, an obsession with controlling or curing the other person which leads to frustration.

People who are codependent care a lot; they devote their lives to saving others who are in trouble. Sounds wonderful! But that isn't the full story.

codependency is caring run amok

Melody Beattie (1987) describes codependents as angry, controlling, preachy, blaming, hard to talk to, subtly manipulative, amorphous non-persons, and generally miserable. Not exactly angels of mercy.

They have tried so hard to manage someone else's life - to "save" them - but they failed, and sooner or later their life crumbled into bitterness, despair, guilt, and hopelessness.

They became martyrs, tyrants, people-pleasers, clinging vines, distraught parents, 24-hour-a-day caretakers, etc.

They have lost control of their lives.

Naturally, these "rescuers" are attracted to people who certainly need lots of help, such as alcoholics, drug users, con artists, habitual criminals, sex addicts, mentally ill, physically ill, and, perhaps, most unsuspectingly, selfish, irresponsible, troubled children or ambitious workaholics who need someone to support them while they "do their thing."

The codependents of alcoholics have an organization to help them called Al-Anon and for others, there is Codependents Anonymous.

But codependents often do not recognize their responsibility for their own problems; they see only their gallant efforts to help an ungrateful, troubled person whom they now blame for all their misery.

They don't see the choices they have made.

Much has been written about co-dependency recently. The basic traits of codependents - caring and helping - are very commendable. However, the obsession with solving another person's problems becomes problematic (if their cures don't work).

codependent basic personality problems

1. Excessive other-centeredness, i.e. needing others to be happy;

2. A lack of clear-cut "boundaries" between them and the addict, leading to assuming responsibility for another's life;

3. Low self-esteem, self-criticism, excessive guilt, and shame;

4. Anger, nagging, and threats;

5. Denial of one's own problems and need for love;

6. Unwarranted optimism about changing others;

7. Depression and an inability to accept reality.

Some theorists say shame is the basic cause for addictions and for codependency.

When codependents drown, they see someone's life flash before them!

Recovery from codependency is simple: detach yourself from the other person, take responsibility for managing only your own life, and be good to yourself.

Detachment from another person does not involve rejecting the person, it is rejecting your feeling responsible for them. Detachment is caring without going crazy.

To become detached from another person requires a clear notion of who we are, what our purposes are, and what limits we place on our involvement in another person's life. Being able to detach involves having well defined boundaries.

The boundaries between people may be very vague and fluid, especially in very close relationships, e.g. a mother or father may "feel for" a son as he struggles with a physical handicap or a daughter as she goes though the loss of her first love.

A spouse may feel great pride as his / her partner gets promoted or graduates with honors. Our identification with our children or spouse may be so great that we live their lives with them, experiencing their joys and problems ourselves.

The boundary between their life and our life may be weak; in which case, their life invades our life; as a codependent, another person's life becomes our life ... and we try to fix it.

Very dependent people have vague boundaries; they feel the need for others to "take over" and make them feel sufficient and whole.

People who have been raised to be caregivers - or to feel unworthy of love unless they give a lot more than they get - tend to believe they should be strong and "take over" and take care of other people's problems (weak boundaries).

If we have been controlled by someone, it may be unclear to us what parts of us are ours to control and what parts someone else has a right or needs to control (weak boundaries).

Of course, our original bonds with our parents (involving weak or strong boundaries and major or minor control over us) have powerful effects on our relationships throughout life.


If a 25-year-old child or a spouse constantly gets into trouble, say some illegal activity, the weak-boundaried, codependent parent or spouse would continue to respond with dread and excuses for each offense (almost as if he/she had committed the crimes) and feel compelled every time to do everything possible to buy the best legal defense to avoid punishment.

On the other hand, the strong-boundaried, detached person would have regrets but hold the other person responsible for his / her illegal behavior, let him / her fend for him/herself, and let them take the consequences.

It isn't a matter of codependents loving the other person more than detached people; rather, it is differing degrees of enmeshment or confused identification with the other person. It is a matter of trying to control someone else's life.

If you are a codependent and overly involved in running someone else's life, you need to withdraw and detach yourself. This is done by "setting limits" or "setting a boundary" with this person. In this way you clarify what you will and will not do for another person; you establish your rights and set the limits of your commitment to the other person (even if you feel you should do everything for them).

Explain to the person you have been worrying that you have done all you can, that they must now care for themselves, that they probably need professional help as well as a support group, that you have, do, and will love them deeply, but you want to make the best of your own life.

Then, get started immediately focusing on improving your own life. Find useful, interesting, important things to do. Have some successes and some fun. (Be sure you don't go looking for another addict to take care of.)

a codependent or a good, caring person?

The degree of involvement and the amount of pain you feel.

Examples of codependency: If you only think and talk about someone else's problem, have a long history of unsuccessful efforts to rescue him/her or change his / her behavior, and always feel you "have to do something" to help a particular person, you are codependent and need to detach.

If you have been terribly upset for months with a person's problems (or with a series of people with similar problems) and are thinking, "I can't go on living like this!" but you do, you are codependent and need to detach.

If your lover has drained you of all your assets or your spouse has had repeated affairs or abandons you while "working at the office," and you are "going out of your mind" trying to hold on to him/her, you are codependent and need to detach.

If you react with horror to the suggestion that you get out of this mess which is destroying your life, saying, "Oh, my God, I couldn't do that - I care too much!" you are codependent and need to detach.


If our self-concept is low and has weak, unclear boundaries, we may be dependent, taken over, used, or manipulated by others, or feel so identified with a needy person that we are compelled to take over and manage the other person's life.

In the beginning, the codependent looks like a strong "savior" but in the end they feel crushed.

If our boundaries are thick walls, no one can get close to us and we aren't open to change. Ideally, our boundaries will be strong enough to resist unreasonable, destructive demands (no matter how flattering they seem at first) but flexible enough to let in freely given intimacy and love.

More self-esteem and assertiveness are needed if our boundaries are overly weak or overly strong. In therapy, codependents are repeatedly told the Three C's:

1. You didn't cause it;

2. You can't control it; and

3. You can cure it!

In short, you can stop supporting the addict's sickness and get a healthy life of your own!

Copyright 2002 Clay Tucker-Ladd

Psychological Self-Help by Clay Tucker-Ladd - download this free book



In moments of stress, try to think about beautiful things which are calm and peaceful.

I must keep calm and unmoved In the vicissitudes of life.

I must go back into the silence of communion with my higher Power to recover this calm when it is lost even for one moment.

I will accomplish more by this calmness than by all the activities of a long day.


I can solve nothing when I am agitated.

I should keep away from those things that are upsetting emotionally.

I should run on an even keel and not get tipped over by emotional upsets.

I should seek for things that are calm and good and true and stick to these things.

"I pray that I may not argue or contend but merely state calmly what I believe to be true. I pray that I may keep in that state of calmness that comes in faith in my Higher Power's purpose for the world."

If you cannot find the time to stop and smell the fragrance of a flower.

If you are in such a rush that you cannot pause and listen to the song of a bird.

If your life is so full that you cannot rest awhile and hear the ripple of a stream.

If life is such a burden that you cannot hear the beauty in a newborn baby's cry.

Then, dear friend, you have not found time to live.

For it is in such things as these you will find the true meaning of life in all its glory and splendor.

Children of alcoholics
Trauma + recovery
Learned helplessness
Debt: a new perspective
The biochemistry of hope
A healthy life
The laughter page
Find your own North Star

Inspiring material on recovering from addiction

Links to various 12 Step programs
Alcoholics Anonymous monthly journal
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44 questions about Alcoholics Anonymous
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Hope and Healing: A Place of Sobriety
How to find romance with healthy people
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The Meaning of Listening
Crosstalk + Boundaries
Disorientation, Agitation, Uncertainty + Distress
Styles of Distorted Thinking
Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics
The Promises of ACoA
About Alcoholism
Responsibility, Guilt, Shame + Perfectionism
Suffering + Self Abuse
The Release of Rage + Grief
Learning To Love
Roles In Dysfunctional Families
The Psychology of Deceit
Compulsive Behaviours, Including Sexual + Pornography Addiction
In Remembering Fire
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