Anjoli Aisenbrey Counseling, PLLC

Anjoli Aisenbrey Counseling, PLLC

The Dance of Codependency and Boundary Setting

The definition of codependency and the context in which it is used have changed throughout the years. We used to associate codependency within a substance use disorder framework; however, codependency can be woven into all areas of our lives and in all our relationships even when no one is struggling with substance use. For these reasons, some call codependency relationship addiction since people who struggle with codependency can default into a behavior that attempts to control a relationship, rescue, or save the other, and have great difficulty stopping that behavior.

So what exactly is codependency? Codependency is a dysfunctional relationship dynamic in which there is an imbalance in giving and receiving. The imbalance can show up as one person excessively relying on the other to get their needs met, and one person feeling the need to over-function for the other. In contrast, the give and take is mutual in a healthy relationship and not excessive. In a codependent dynamic, one person might be called the rescuer or the enabler as they attempt to save the other person and often struggle with low self-worth, boundary setting, and prioritizing their own needs. The needs of the other will often trump their own needs. This dance can create learned helplessness in the other person as they continue to be unable or unwilling to meet their own needs.  The rescuer continues to overcompensate, and the “helpless” person continues to be helpless, and the dance goes on. The enabler, or rescuer, can show up looking in two very different ways.

If we were to look at codependency on a venn diagram, it may look something like this.

Image by Shannon Miller, LCSW

In the dynamic, one or both people can be codependent. In many dynamics, one person is typically the giver and one is the taker. The giver has two main ways of presenting as you can see in the venn diagram above.

Type one is a people pleaser, personalizes everything and over-focuses on the needs of others. Their need is to be needed and be the caretaker.

Type two is the know-it-all, giving unsolicited advice, and attempts to solve your problems; however, they can be pushy and aggressive. Their need is to fix or change you. Terri Cole refers to this type as the high-functioning codependent (HFC).

These are not distinctly separate and someone who identifies as codependent may resonate with both sides of the diagram or know someone who behaves this way toward them.

Why are boundaries important when understanding codependency?

We can’t talk about codependency without also talking about boundaries. In both types, there is anxiety, major boundary issues, and the need to feel in control. We tend to miss the HFC because they appear to have it all together and manage everyone else in their life. The thing is, they need to manage everyone else because they are trying to feel in control. This is the friend you call upset about losing your job and within hours you have an email with six jobs they have found that would be perfect for you and have lined up an interview for you with their boss.

Both types have an urgency to solve your problems, eliminate your uncomfortable emotions, and ultimately make you feel better. The truth is,  the caretaker/changer person wants to feel better. When you have a problem, it becomes their problem because they lack boundaries, particularly emotional boundaries, and begin to feel like your problems and emotional issues are theirs. You cannot be codependent and not have boundary issues, they go together. So, how to start unraveling this to become healthier in your relationships? Knowing yourself is key to knowing what your boundaries are and who you are as a person.

Types of boundaries:

Take a moment and reflect on these categories of boundaries and be honest about where you have them and where you don’t.

Physical: This is about proximity and space. How much space is required for you to feel comfortable when around others? This will depend on the nature of the relationship. How close do you feel comfortable in line at the store? How much space do you like when hanging out with a friend?

Emotional: This is about how you respond to other peoples’ emotions and how you manage your own. Do you have irrational guilt over other peoples’ problems or feelings? Do you feel an urgency to fix them? Do you own your feelings or blame others for your emotional state? Do you allow others to feel how they feel or do you minimize and invalidate their feelings? Can you understand and accept that other peoples’ problems are not yours to solve and your problems are not theirs to solve?

Sexual: This can connect with physical boundaries. Is there a boundary around safe sex practices? What are you comfortable, or not comfortable, doing while being intimate with another? Do you have a no-sex policy on the first date? Do you require commitment before sex? Do you respect other peoples’ sexual boundaries?

Mental: This covers intellectual boundaries including your thoughts, opinions, and beliefs. Can you maintain your ideas, beliefs, and opinions around others who may disagree or have differing opinions? Do their opinions cause you to change yours, becoming inauthentic? Can you allow others to have their own opinions and beliefs? Do you take it personally if someone doesn’t think the same way you think?

Material/Possessions: These boundaries are around your possessions such as your home, clothes, car, or money. You have the right to lend these things or not. You have the right to expect they will be taken care of in the way you request if you do choose to lend them. you have the right to let people in your own or to ask them to leave if they cannot honor your boundaries. This also applies if someone is over at your home and you ask if they use a coaster or take off their shoes, for example.

Reflecting on the above categories of boundaries and self-reflective questions, how do you think your boundaries are?

It should be noted that boundaries are different than requests. A request is asking someone to change in some way and requires some action on their end if they are to honor the request. A boundary requires nothing from the other person, it’s about you, not them. A boundary is your parameter of self-respect and the guidelines you set for how you would like to be treated, or not to be treated, not a way to control others. Boundaries are not to punish, they are to protect yourself. For example:

Request: When you drink, it makes me feel unsafe. I would feel more comfortable if you would abstain from drinking when we’re spending time together.

Boundary: If you continue to drink when we’re spending time together, I will get up and leave.

If you struggle to set boundaries and be authentic, I invite you to get curious about what the barriers are. What are you afraid of? Some clients will share they are trying to be nice but think about this; when you say yes when you mean no, you are being inauthentic and are emotionally untrustworthy. People cannot know you if you aren’t authentic and part of knowing you is understanding your boundaries. When you say yes and mean no, you’re contributing to an unhealthy dynamic thinking you’re making it easier but you’re creating more dysfunction as you’re not showing up authentically. Over time, resentment builds and you might feel frustrated at this person but I encourage you to reflect on your part in this matter. Resentment is a key indicator that you have boundary issues. This does not make you a bad person and is not a judgment of your character. Most people who struggle with boundary issues learned this from their family systems as boundaries weren’t taught or honored. The key is self-awareness because you cannot change what you’re not aware of. By understanding codependency and healthy boundaries, you can begin to show up differently in your relationships creating healthier, harmonious connections.

In conclusion, many people struggle with codependency and boundary issues but with self-awareness and support, these are very treatable and do not have to be lifelong struggles. Educating yourself and others about codependency can be a first step and if you feel you need additional support, therapy can be useful in helping you become aware of your patterns and blind spots,  providing new ways of relating to those you care about without losing yourself or damaging the relationship.

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