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#2: How does Co-Dependency typically manifest itself in the lives of our clients?


The previous ‘‘thought snippet’’ suggest that the pervasiveness of co-dependency as an issue in dysfunctional relationships is not commonly recognised and named for the client. This is a huge loss because, with this clarification, clients can more readily comprehend what is happening and begin to understand how to free themselves. This ‘snippet’ seeks to address that.

Recognising the client with co-dependency issues

So how can we identify if our clients are struggling with co-dependency? In my experience, co-dependent clients often present with some of the following characteristics?

  • they feel huge guilt – particularly if they say ‘No’ to people – because they fear rejection- they avoid conflict at all costs – they present a false self to the world

  • they, themselves, can also use guilt to control others - either by sulking or not talking – they need to get their way due to their dependence on the other

  • they feel other people’s feelings but cannot feel their own – also they (usually unconsciously) regard other people’s feelings as being more important

  • they have poor boundaries and feel responsible for solving other people’s problems – they can get angry or frustrated if their advice is not followed

  • they please others to get external approval – but inside they feel angry when they don’t say ‘No’

  • they take everything personally – they covertly control people to protect themselves from hurt

  • they rationalise and deny their own and other people’s poor behaviour

  • they feel responsible for other people’s behaviour or shame for their mistakes (perfectionism)

  • they obsess about not making mistakes and not being good enough – they display the perfectionist tendency often associated with addiction

  • they isolate and detach from other people – because they fear rejection, they push people away to keep themselves safe from being hurt yet again.

Are any of these emotional behaviours familiar? My experience is that we don’t have to look too deep to find co-dependent behaviour with most clients.

Most people who come into therapy have lost connection with themselves (if they ever had it in the first place) because they have been conditioned, by fear of rejection by their family or society, to look for external validation from that source. This leaves their internal self lost, in emotional pain and confusion. They don’t know who their real self is any more nor do they believe it is a worthwhile self. So (hopefully!) they present for therapy.

My case study below highlights a typical, but hopeful, case.

A real life case to bring ‘co-dependency’ to life

Tom* is a 38 year old client. He came to me to have his life recorded on paper before he ended it all. He had withdrawn from life completely for almost twenty years i.e. the last time he had been cruelly bullied for the millionith time. His family were not emotionally available to support him. Having worked with him for some months, Tom has decided to live again. This change took place when he stopped calling himself ‘internally defective’. Instead, he started to see the external systems around him as being defective while he began to internally validate himself as a worthwhile person.

Tom and I are now working on the issue of him isolating himself. This week he went to McDonalds for the first time in his life. Though very difficult for him, he has really started to put himself out there and is surviving for the first time in many years. Indeed, he has now started to date his first ever girlfriend.

These major milestones in our work were enabled when Tom realised that, from an early age, he had learnt to look outside himself for external validation. With this insight, Tom could start to internally validate himself, isolate less and connect with the world for the first time in years!

Adjusting the focus

By broadening the understanding of co-dependency, it’s pervasiveness as an issue can be recognised and addressed. By being alert for it with each and every client, we therapists are enabled to provide clarity and understanding to clients as early as possible. In this way, they are empowered to make timely progress in their recovery with the resultant benefit that this promises!

So, what next?

Learning to work with co-dependency and ‘relationship addiction’

My experience of co-dependent relationships as possible sources of addiction, and the huge strides in recovery that are possible when it is named for those clients who are affected, has prompted me to put together a course which deals with this issue. It provides a real and meaningful resource for the helping professional who wants to give his / her clients the best chance of recovery from whatever is their issue or addiction. For further information, click courses

*not his real name

Note: This is one of a series of ‘thought snippets’ through which I am hoping to bring co-dependency centre stage with caring professionals. By being alert to its pervasiveness, they can ensure that their clients reap the benefit of early identification. To read other ‘snippets’ in this series, click: margaretparkes snippets

For more information about the subjects covered in this blog, contact Margaret Parkes - phone: 086 832 0422 email:

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