Charlotte Kasl, Ph.D., is a psychologist and author of Women, Sex and Addiction: A Search for Love and Power, and the creator of 16 Steps for Discovery and Empowerment, a 12-step alternative for those seeking recovery from addiction and compulsion. In Kasl’s model, addiction and codependency often go hand in hand. A woman, for example, may be “sexually codependent within her relationship and become addicted to alcohol as a way to numb her pain and maintain her denial system.”
Taking a look at codependence, Kasl reminds us that the word originated in reference to the enabling partners of addicts, where the addict was thought of primarily as a man, while the codependent was understood to be a woman. Kasl takes exception to the outdated definition, and for good reason. Both men and women can exhibit addiction as well as codependence, often both together, and people exhibiting codependence, in Kasl’s words, experience a “unique set of problems that may go hand in hand with those of the addict, just as the addict’s unique set of problems go hand in hand with those of the codependent.”
Codependent Women Get Sober
Kasl coaches sobriety for codependent women, which she says is difficult to define because “codependency is often about what a woman is not doing in order to be an acceptable female.” For example, a codependent woman often lacks internal validation (seeking validation from yourself rather than from others) and may not have a strong sense of self. She may feel the need to control the behaviors of others; without a strong sense of who she is, she mistakes others as herself. Kasl offers the classic codependent’s example: “If my husband is important, then I am important. If my children fail, then I fail. I am responsible for everyone.”
Tips for Overcoming Codependency
For these women, Kasl and others suggest mindful and intentional recovery from their codependence—in other words, getting sober from unhealthy behaviors. Below are her tips:
- Be willing to feel whatever is inside you. This first step may be the hardest. Both addicts and codependents ceaselessly reach for something outside them to help them feel less—less anxiety, less vulnerability, less fear. But learning to walk through fear and to embrace other uncomfortable emotions until they pass is vital to sane living for anyone. Every person will experience difficult emotions; it just comes with the territory of being human.
- Learn to listen to your inner voice. When engaging in codependence, we become so other-focused that we forget we are our own authority. Our gut will tell us what we need to know if we just take the time to listen. Learn to rely on your own reasoning and your own intuition.
- Stop seeking advice all the time. Codependent women who ignore their inner voice often feel confused and ambivalent. They seek out the opinions of others in order to know whether their own feelings are legitimate. Codependent sobriety requires a willingness to trust yourself and to decide what you think, rather than leaning on what others think.
- Stop offering advice, or even thinking about offering it. Codependents are classic “fixers,” but the urge to solve others’ problems is a handy diversion for examining one’s own. Learn to let other people—children, spouses, friends—experience their own lives, while focusing on yours.
- Stop telling stories that make you the victim. When you feel the urge to tell another round of “What She/He Did to Me,” resist the urge. Changing your life requires looking at it differently, and this requires being willing to make yourself an equal partner in your experiences.
- Stop offering explanations for everything you do, and stop apologizing so much. Embrace your autonomy without being bound by the shackles of imagined responsibility to others in every situation. Or more simply, just do you. Kasl explains that guilt can be “a withdrawal symptom of codependency,” so when it arises, just sit with it, and learn to let it go.
- Stop making excuses for others and rationalizing their behavior. Step six leads inevitably to step seven; others don’t need your excuses or rationalizations and they don’t need you to manage their experiences. It’s OK to let go. Give yourself permission to simply be a witness, not a judge or defense attorney on behalf of unknowing clients.
- Take your “emotional temperature” after spending time with the different people in your life. How do you feel after spending time with certain friends or family members? Do you feel disempowered, exhausted or resentful? Give yourself permission to back off. It’s OK to say no to unhealthy relationships.
- Stop asking, “Will they like me?” Instead ask, “Will I like them?” You don’t need other’s validation in order to be whole, special or important. You are already worthy. Learn to walk in the world with that knowledge, and make yourself your own best friend.
- Pay attention to behavior instead of words. This is a big one. Codependents often find themselves trapped in a painful relationship cycle, hurt and overwhelmed when things go badly, but suddenly placated and tranquilized when sweet words are spoken and promises made. But are those promises being kept? Keep your eye on actions, rather than words, and learn to trust your gut when it’s time to disengage the cycle.
- “Accept that being human is messy.” Codependent women tend to want things to remain neat and under control. Kasl tells the story of a woman who explained to her therapy group that she was waiting to finalize her divorce until she had worked through all her rage. She wanted her divorce to be simple and clean. The group laughed and offered the woman some valuable news: life comes with big emotions. We can’t prepare for their arrival in order to experience them less, and that’s OK.
- Become powerful rather than being righteous and superior to others. If you notice that other people, especially other women, bring out jealousy or condemnation in you, take a step back. Does another woman’s sense of confidence make you uncomfortable with something you may lack? The need to put others down is an old defense mechanism against low self-esteem and fear of failure. Practice embracing who you are, flaws and all, and you will find you’re more open to the successes and failures of others.
- Protect yourself. Codependent women are at risk of getting into or remaining in toxic and abusive relationships. If you catch yourself making excuses for a partner’s bad behavior, take a step back and ask yourself what you It’s OK to take care of you, and to put your own well-being first.