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How Co-dependence Wrecks Your Life


Care to guess what percentage of my current clients are co-dependent? A whopping 76%. I made this count after reading an article (written for clinicians) on the subject: “The Neuroscience of Codependency for Client Understanding and Treatment.” 

Due to learning maladaptive patterns in childhood, you are co-dependent if you: are overly selfless and trusting, repeatedly put others’ needs first at your expense, over-empathize and over-identify, often are taken advantage of and victimized, and surround yourself with your opposite type—narcissist or sociopath. The article’s author, Mary Joye, maintains that, “Abandonment, abuse, neglect, parental addiction, death of a parent or any childhood trauma can result in a lifetime of grasping for love like a frantic infant or to become submissive to a narcissistic or demanding partner.” Sound familiar? 

Joye explains the neurobiology of co-dependence, that is, how it affects people emotionally, cognitively and physically from infancy on: “If a child does not experience nurturing, the brain can develop maladaptive attachment styles . . . They may have experienced trauma bonding through intermittent reinforcement with an early caregiver. Then, as an adult, a person gets hooked by feeling the chemical sensations of love, but when kindness is intermittently or abruptly withdrawn, intense anxiety occurs.” 

“Cycles of giving and withholding affection or approval is a tool of manipulation that traps a codependent and keeps them biochemically addicted. When treated well, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin create a sense of wellbeing. When they are treated poorly, cortisol and adrenaline flood the codependent with feelings of intense anxiety. This makes it feel impossible to leave a perpetrator. Without recognition of this chemical exchange . . . clients may continue to seek safety from the same people who hurt them or are like them as the brain seeks the familiar.”

Joye explains that co-dependent people expect others to think, feel and react as they do—empathically, compassionately. They struggle to recognize that other people don’t always share these traits, and narcissists and psychopaths are drawn to co-dependents precisely because they do possess them. The only way to avoid dysfunctional interactions and relationships with them is to be alert to their lack of empathy, kindness, and compassion by sitting with the discomfort of accepting this is exactly who they are.

Joye’s article overflows with information, wisdom and guidance. If you lean toward co-dependent, I urge you to read (and reread) it in its entirely. It will change your life.