Thursday, November 26, 2009


Contracts are made every day. They are most familiar in business transactions but we also make implicit contracts with friends, family and even strangers.

I once had an unspoken contract with a neighbour due to “untidy” feelings towards each other. We tacitly agreed never to be in the apartment hall at the same time. It was rather easy to achieve as the walls were thin enough and as a result, we lived in relative harmony. I had another contract with family that said never talk about how a certain relative died. I broke it on occasion, enduring the uncomfortable silence – the penalty for broken contracts – until it was ever so carefully reconstructed and “harmony” could once more return.

I recall a relationship I had a few years ago. Although my friend and I had times of mutual sharing, for the most part, I was the listener; she the talker – that was our contract. It seemed there was always something dramatic going on in her life with which she needed support . Our time together became mostly about her. Then one day she said to me: I know the balance is skewed between us. I don’t feel good about it but I really need and appreciate your support. How do you feel about our friendship?

It was a courageous move on her part. I hadn’t complained nor made any moves to change the dynamics but here she was, the seemingly main beneficiary of our friendship, asking if I wanted or needed something different. The contract was up for negotiation. I had to think about that.

I got off the phone and began questioning what I got from our friendship. I knew that I enjoyed listening to her stories – they were alive, colourful and dramatic. I felt a part of her life which is an important part of friendship. However, I also know a part of me liked the aspect of being needed. When I felt needed, I felt more whole. The friendship was definitely fulfilling that part of me. And, a little deeper within, was a part of me that was scared. If I spoke up, expressed my needs, would she listen? What if she listened and then rejected what I had to say? Beneath the surface of listening to my friend’s stories was the fear that if I expressed myself, she would hold my vulnerabilities against me and leave the friendship.

In codependent relationships we try to get our internal needs of love, validation and/or safety met by looking anywhere but within. We do things to or for others in hopes that they will fulfill what is missing inside. I was missing an internal sense of validity and safety. I was looking to my friend to fulfill both needs. The problem, however, is that those needs can never be fully satisfied in that way. The gnawing emptiness within will always return.

We could have gone on for some time like that: me pulling on her for safety; she pulling on me for support but sooner or later, that internal emptiness would demand more and one of us would start resenting the other for not fulfilling the contract. Fortunately for me, my friend intuited what was happening and spoke up.

We ultimately explored the issue and because of that not only did our friendship strengthen but ironically, in expression, I felt safer. In committing to be more honest about our needs, wants and fears we renegotiated a contract that fed, rather than pulled on our relationship.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Global Codependency

As a teacher and writer on the subject of codependence I often question its relationship to global issues. What, if anything, does codependence have to do with poverty, violence, corruption, hunger …? How important is the study of codependence in alleviating these conditions?

My answer, briefly stated, is very. Everyone in this world exhibits some aspect of codependent behaviour so it should go without saying that the structures we build (and the devastating conditions that sometimes result from these) will have at least a whiff of this human state. Moreover, it is a general truism that external states mirror our inner ones. Therefore, if we tend to let our internal codependent parts make choices for us, the implication is that we will be more comfortable with schools, work places or government that also make codependent choices.

Codependency, as Charles Whitfield (1991) states, is the act or “addiction to looking elsewhere … we believe that something outside of ourselves … can give us happiness and fulfillment.” This something can be a person, animal or even one’s career or belief system. If we were to put this definition on to any of the aforementioned institutions we could see that often it is not whether we feel good about ourselves but whether we get the good grade, earn a promotion or, on a governmental level, have the Olympics come to our city. As a resident of Vancouver I was told repeatedly how hosting the Olympics would make us a world class city. Were we not already up to standards before we put in the bid? And were we not told the same thing with Expo 86?

So how can the realization of codependency’s external manifestations alleviate poverty, violence and corruption?

Whitfield (1991) suggests that codependents do not see themselves as separate from others or do not see the other as separate from themselves: boundaries become blurred if not tramped upon. To illuminate this, let’s use a stereotype codependent partnership that involves a “victim” and an “abuser”. The victim does not see themselves as separate from the abuser: if only I had cleaned the house; made more money; not embarrassed them, they (the abuser) would not have hurt me. The abuser does not see the victim as separate from themselves: its only because they did this action that I am driven to drink; hit them; or have extramarital affairs.

It all comes down to how we relate to one another. If we see in the “other” an opportunity to fulfill our internal needs, we wont see the other as human – we will objectify them and disrespect their boundaries. On a global level, if the sweat shop owner looked at their employees as less of an opportunity to make money and more of a human relationship, would they not treat them accordingly? The owner, however, cannot look at the employee as human if he or she is determined that making lots of money through their employee’s labour is the road to happiness. The institution of capitalism, if left unchecked, can breed abuse and poverty.

Same as unbridled nationalism, an institution for many countries. If we put more value on our country than the people who inhabit it do we not lose some of our humanity? And in that loss, is that not how wars begin?

The road to happiness (or love, validation, safety) can only be found if we direct our first steps inward. If we recreate these conditions within ourselves we will more likely to create those same conditions in our external environment . We then build institutions of governments, commerce and education that respect boundaries and value the individual as well as the community. By coming into recovery of our codependent parts we not only take the first steps into healthier living but progress towards making this world a better place in which to live.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


What is the nature of our responsibility to others? One aspect of codependency is taking too much responsibility for the other; not respecting the boundary that separates us as individuals. On the other hand we are social animals, we live in community however vague its definition. Community implies some sort of social responsibility from looking after the welfare of those who cannot to learning how to communicate with some clarity. Living responsibly is about dancing the complex jig between independence and dependence; knowing when to ask for help and when to receive; taking care of others when it is needed (and welcome) and standing back when it is not. As Melody Beattie states, it’s the knowledge “…that when we blend territories, no invasion, shaming, humiliation, trespassing or overextended stays will occur.”

For me, one of the main signals that tells me I am in codependent waters is when I sense the reason behind my “responsible” actions (beliefs; thoughts) is to get something from the other. This could be love, validation, attention or safety and come in the form of implicit suggestions: I take care of you; you wont leave me, to more blatant demands: I took care of your needs; you owe me. So when I question the nature of my responsibility to others, I need also to question the why of that responsibility.

This question came up while talking with a friend the other day. I had just finished telling her of my delight and surprise that my step son had called me during an extended trip in the Far East. I hadn’t expected him to call. I figured he would have wanted to step away from the responsibilities of home, including the checking in with loved ones.

The conversation turned general as my friend said that it was selfish not to check in with family when away for an extended period of time. I said (making it personal) if I let family know that I will not check in, then my responsibility ends. She said, what if you go missing? I said, if they don’t depend on me for their physical or emotional well-being (i.e. my dependents), then its my responsibility to find myself again. But your family would look for you, she said.

But is that my responsibility?

When does family’s need for reassurance outweigh one’s own need to disappear for awhile, to let go of what it means to live in a community of loved ones? When does the emotional well-being of another (once again, not including dependents) take priority over your own?

The question travels the gamut of calling your dinner host to tell them you made it home safe and sound to questioning whether one has the right to end their life. When is it selfish to not check in and when is it asserting one’s right to live as they choose? On the other side, for the person waiting for the call, when is it codependence and when is it justifiable (and loving) concern?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Recovery vs Discovery

I recently taught a Creative Codependence class in Calgary and was briefly swept into a debate about the appropriateness of using the term “recovery”, as in, recovery from codependence. The debate centred around whether recovery was better suited to use with physical issues, i.e. recovery from a broken leg, rather than emotional ones.

I define recovery as beginning the moment we come out of denial from our addictions. That is, the instant we realize that our behaviour, whether it be drug addiction, workaholism or codependence (the “addiction to looking elsewhere…” Whitfield, 1991), is no longer serving us in a way that we want to be served. Of course, that means recovery has many stages. We can, for example, walk away from our realizations and sink back into our addictions but for me, that initial awareness is never lost – it is the beginning of recovery. It may take us years to do anything about it but once we open our eyes to how a behaviour is not serving us anymore, the innocence of denial is lost and we are in the first stages of recovery.

And from what are we recovering? We are recovering from having lost our sense of safety: the inherent safety that is our birthright and measure of who we are. Said another way, the stronger our sense of internal safety, the stronger sense of Self; and we can lose sight of that sense through factors such as abuse, poverty, and violence.

Addiction is the act of trying to gain back that safety, albeit in a dysfunctional way. We try to escape our situation by looking outside of our self not only for safety, love and validation, but a sense of who we are.

The other side of the debate held that “discovery” would be a better suited term. The proponents of this word suggested that recovery implies fixing, as if we were broken and needed to be mended. We are not broken, they suggested, we are whole, its more about discovering who we really are – discovering our strengths and value: our intrinsic wholeness.

In reflection, I see that “discovery” also works well in the framework of Creative Codependence. The main premise being that the tools we used to become codependent can be the tools, slightly reframed, that help us in recovery. For example, if as children, we looked to find safety (acceptance, love, validation, it all fits here) in keeping our parents happy, we may have developed a caretaker part of ourselves. If this part was successful we may have carried it forward to adulthood, over extending ourselves to others in the hopes of getting our needs met. However, if we reframe these skills we can use them to become, as an example, successful healthcare practitioners because of our ability to empathize and predict and satisfy the health needs of our patients.

The key is to find balance between what we learned as children and how we use those skills today: learning how to take care of self while drawing new boundaries that respect our self. Underneath it all is the discovery that safety (love, acceptance, validation) lies within, and not outside of who we are.

So, really, recovery from codependence is about re-discovering the tools of childhood: recovering what was lost with the discovery of new ways of being. A nice handshake of the two points of view, yes?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Is co-dependence always a bad thing?

I was asked this question the other day by email. The short answer is that codependence is just a label and, like all labels, it’s subjective, dependent on the eye of the beholder.

For me, even though I saw codependence as a “bad thing” for many years, I had a lot of codependent parts at work. I viewed the dependent, submissive aspects of this condition as bad but didn’t see that my overly independent, strong, and controlling characteristics were part of the same dynamic. As I suggest in this blog’s side bar, a part of me believed that by manifesting my strong parts I would get approval from others. These strong parts, however, were just a mask, I, too, was craving approval, validation and love. The thing is, that until I learned to first look inside for these qualities, I had no choice but to search for them outside myself. And, as many of you know, the search never ends. Until we fully accept ourselves, external approval will never be enough.

However, having said that, I portrayed the mask of strong, independence and control for many years, it must have worked for me at some level.

As I say to my students: so what if the behaviour is codependent. The question is, does the behaviour serve you? For many years it did, until it did not. Then I went into recovery.

Monday, November 9, 2009

What unsuspected fear there was in submitting my first blog. The whole process seemed to take forever: preparing an address list to announce the new venture; writing and re-writing the announcement; editing and reediting the article several times … multiple times … before I tentatively pushed the “publish” button. And what a rush of adrenalin to accompany this tentative thrust: my heart raced, my breathing, rapid and shallow; I couldn’t keep still, the ol’ flight or fight thing was playing its tune. With nowhere to flee I ended up scrubbing bathroom tiles to burn off excess energy.

Several hours later, much calmer, I sat and reflected on my feelings. What was really going on? Was it stage fright? After all, any one, anyone in the world now has the potential to see what I think and feel and more importantly to me, how I convey it. Or was it just typical codependent fretfulness in worrying about what other people think of me?

I decided to write a blog for two main reasons: one, it would be a great way to establish a writing regime which all writing experts seem to say you must do and which concept I have eternally struggled with and two, I would learn more about codependence and my relationship to it. If I had to prioritize one of them, it would be the latter. As I say in class, every time I teach a Creative Codependence workshop I learn something new about myself. This aspect of teaching excites me and I find the same process happens when I write. It serves me then, first and foremost, to write this blog. Of course, there is the potential side benefit that someone might read it, like what I have to say and register for a workshop or book a session. It wasnt the main reason but it was there.

So, it was with great surprise when the adrenalin hit. What did it matter if I put my words out there when the blog was first and foremost designed for my eyes only? And why was I checking for comments every twenty minutes when I really didn’t expect a readership let alone a large one? Truly, Jo-Ann, I thought, what has gotten into you?

What was happening there was that I temporarily bequeathed Self leadership to my codependent parts. These parts wanted to be liked and appreciated for what I had written and went looking for outside validation. They went into panic mode: scared that no one would read the blog but more scared that someone would and not like it.

Now, I could be hard on myself because of this fact but why bother? The moment was temporary, I got my bathroom tiles scrubbed and I learned a little bit more about myself. Moreover, when I calmed down, I realized I was proud of myself and pleased with my work – I could self validate be satisfied with that.

However, I do thank all those who did email me with congratulations …. my codependent parts were thrilled and my interdependent parts enjoyed the bonus (but not the necessity) of being seen and heard.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


Happy Belated Hallowe’en! A perfect celebration for my topic today: masks. Or, said another way, what role did you assume to scare, impress or amuse another on that frightful day? I must admit that while I didn’t dress in costume, I did play a few roles and wore some metaphoric masks. Let’s see there was the “polite” mask that I wore over my grumpy-leave-me-alone-today feelings; my “good daughter” mask that I wore when I visited my father, the one that covered my I-don’t-feel-like-visiting-you-or-anybody-today; and the “I am not anxious” mask I wore for the man who sat across from me on the train, laughing maniacally at torn bits of paper. In retrospect, I participated in quite the costume ball that day.

Masks can be useful, as noted from the latter example, but they are also a way of hiding inner feelings that may or may not be based on real survival needs. For example, what use was the “good daughter” mask I wore for my father? If you had asked me that day, I would have replied that I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by not visiting.

So let’s break this down. I put my tired, grumpy self behind the door and came out all smiles just so I wouldn’t hurt a man who has known me (and my moods) for … how many years? I denied the expression of my own feelings just so I could protect my father, a man of compassion, from valid adult sensibilities? What was I really doing? What was I really worried about?

When codependent parts of our self (check out my article The Community Within for an in-depth discussion on parts) come out to play, they tend to come with readymade masks. Codependent parts are usually formed in childhood and tend to seek self value, safety, acceptance and/or love in another rather than from within. The mask is the role these parts play to make sure they get that value, safety, love and acceptance.

When I wore my “good daughter” mask was I really worried about my father being hurt or was I more worried that if I hurt him, I would be rejected in some way? Would he, for example, still love me? An irrational thought to be sure, but not improbable to think, especially for our codependent parts.

Our codependent parts are young and may still be living the beliefs of childhood – the magical beliefs that say, if I am not a good girl, something bad will happen or, the opposite, if I get good grades, clean my room, make the team, my parents will love me. Even children with unconditional love and acceptance can feel this way.

As an adult, I am fortunate to know that if I say to my father I am too tired to visit, he will accept it at face value. But I also know there is a small part within me that harbours some doubt. What if he isn’t okay with it? This is my codependent part speaking – the part that wears the mask of “good daughter” and worries that if I state my truth, I will suffer long term effects like abandonment, rejection or other and I will not survive. The truth, however, is that even if he does reject me, I am no longer a child and I will survive.

I have to trust that my father (as an adult) can handle disappointment and will say something if he is upset. As two adults, I have to trust that he and I can talk these things out and maintain a healthy relationship regardless of our disappointments. If I don’t trust that equation, I will start denying my feelings or take on the responsibility of his feelings and the relationship will become a drain on both our energies. On the day I wore my good daughter mask, I allowed my codependent parts to make choices for me, there was a loss of energy as I pushed myself to visit and, moreover, I denied my father the chance to relate to me as an adult. Is that what I really wanted?