Codependency Recovery: Rewire Your Brain

Perhaps you think that you can only become addicted to alcohol or a drug. Or maybe you think about addiction such as to food, porn, or sex. But, do you realize that people can become addicted to another person?

The term codependency has been around for many years. It was coined back in the seventies by substance abuse professionals who were treating alcoholics. While they were treating the alcoholics, they started to notice that the loved ones of the alcoholics were displaying the same unhealthy characteristics. They started noticing that loved ones were overly dependent or co-dependent upon the alcoholic.

An addiction ensues

Some of them became addicted to their partner. Or they became addicted to the chaos that was going on in the home. They would constantly worry about the alcoholic and his or her behaviors. Or they would continue to enable the alcoholic by people-pleasing and caretaking.

Now, a person can be codependent and not be in a relationship with an alcoholic or an addict. A co-dependent person can form and unhealthy attachment to anyone, including partner, friend, children, and so on. Yet, oftentimes on the other side of an alcoholic is someone who has some codependent characteristics.

Lack of self-love

At the very root of codependency is a person who does not feel worthy of love. Experts say that somewhere along the way in early childhood, this person did not get the attention needed from parents or perhaps was abused in some fashion. The child did not feel unconditional love and could have experienced traumatic events and had no idea how to cope with them. A child does not know how to cope with abuse or neglect. A child does not know how to cope with feeling afraid and not being able to feel safe at home. He or she wants to go to the parent for safety, yet does not feel like they can.

When someone who has codependency partners up with an alcoholic, oftentimes there will be a push and pull in the relationship. The co-dependent person will be needy of love and oftentimes become obsessive in the relationship. He or she will be so desperate for unconditional love from the partner that he may not be able to have appropriate boundaries. She may say yes when she means no. She may stay with the alcoholic because she’s afraid of being alone. She may endure verbal, emotional, or physical abuse because she’s afraid of being abandoned or that she will be a bad person if she leaves.

Hope for codependency treatment

All of these things can be addressed in therapy. Anyone who is struggling with codependent characteristics can gain a sense of hope in the fact that there is treatment available. There is hope for full recovery when you will spend time and effort in your own recovery Journey. It’s easy to get all caught up in your alcoholic partner’s issues, but what about your own? You deserve to have a wonderful life, but in order to do so, you must begin to take a look at your own life. You must stop pointing fingers and begin a journey of your own to address whatever issues you are struggling with.

People pleasing

When I was really struggling with codependency, I would wonder why in the world I would say, “Yes” when I wanted to say, “No”. When someone would ask me to do something, my brain would automatically shoot out, “Of course” without me thinking twice.  Then, I’d be like, “Oh no. I did it again”, yet at the same time, I’d kind of feel good, because I got the chance to help someone out with something. You know. I was the Master People Pleaser.

The Brain and Codependency

Those who research addiction assert that just as a drug addict’s brain gets a good dose of the good feeling neurotransmitter dopamine when they get a “hit”, so does the codependent’s brain when it gets a “hit” of “I get to do something to make someone else feel happy”.  Yes, this type of behavior makes an impact on the pleasure/pain area of the brain.

So, essentially, my sacrifice of time and energy in order to help someone else out gave me a dopamine boost, which is not a bad thing, but for those prone to

addiction, it’s not a great thing. My brain would scream out for MORE! Yes, there is certainly a neural pathway that gets set up in the brain for codependent behaviors.

Choosing healthy neural pathways

The good news is that if you’re struggling with codependent characteristics, you have the chance to create new neural pathways in the brain that will alter your behavior.  Codependency recovery is possible. You can make an INTENT to re-train your brain for new behavior and new outcomes.  How?

Recognize your triggers

For me, when someone asks me to help them out with something, that’s a huge trigger. If I don’t recognize this, I’ll automatically say, “Of course!”, but once I realized this, I made myself pause and then say, “Let me think about that.”  I wanted to learn a new pattern in my codependency recovery. I wanted to really think about whether I wanted to help or not, whether I had time to help or not. Did I really want to do it or was I going to do it based on the feelings I’d get from doing it? Was it out of obligation? (Then, that would set me up to feel resentful down the road.)

So, for this kind of behavior, I started rewiring my neural pathways. I shut down the dopamine rush that I would normally get by doing, doing, doing for others.  I paused. I contemplated. Then, if I really did not want to do the request, I would politely say, “No, thank you” and that’s it. No elaborate reason as to why. No lying. Just the plain truth!

It took some people back for a moment because they were so used to me saying “yes” to everything they asked. I had to learn how NOT to feel bad saying no. I had to learn how to set my internal and external boundaries through codependency recovery. To be quite honest, it took a lot of practice.

See, addiction is tricky. There is a part of an addict’s brain that tends to love dopamine rushes more than non-addicts. You can get this rush by doing things like drinking, drugging, gambling, watching porn, and so on. But you can also trigger this with positive things like exercise, sky-diving, hiking huge mountains, exotic traveling, etc.

How to rewire the neural pathways

Codependent recovery will include a plan.  A strategy. It will take you taking some time to learn about codependency and your triggers. For example, let’s say your partner tends to ask you to cook him dinner every night, even though you’ve worked just as hard as him each day and you’re just as tired as him. You want to say no, but say yes. So, you do it, and then you feel extra tired and you feel bad because you gave in again. You feel ashamed for having let him have control over you…again. You didn’t speak your truth.

Now, you can change this behavior. So, you prepare for a new response when your partner continually asks you to cook him dinner.  You realize that such a task could be a shared task. You would like some nights off from cooking. You would like some nights for him to cook or to cook together. So, you go ahead and create a boundary and you have a conversation with him about this.  You then stick to your boundary no matter how many times he asks, whether he gets upset, whines, and so on.

This creates a new neural pathway for this situation.

The result? You feel better. You value yourself more. You have more self-worth. You are taking care of yourself better. And this spills into other areas of your life.

Another example is if you are constantly making excuses for your partner’s lack of responsibility due to drinking. Do you make excuses as to why your partner isn’t at the kids’ yearly play? Say he’s not feeling well or he’s out of town? When in fact he’s at home drinking or hungover? Do you call him in sick for work? Do you justify his drinking because he has a stressful job or is going through a challenging time?

If so, you’re acting out on codependency characteristics. Your husband is responsible for his behavior and you don’t have to lie and try to cover things up so people will think all is well. The truth may be that all isn’t well. But you’ll have to practice being honest with yourself, him, and others. Your honesty and checking in with yourself will help you create a different neural pathway – a healthy one!

Codependency resources to help

If you find you need some help, there are resources that can help your codependency recovery. Check out Codependents Anonymous meetings and online resources. There may be meetings in your local area you can attend for support. There are also many books and websites that have valuable information you can learn from. Make the investment. You don’t have to struggle with codependency the rest of your life. As you invest in your codependency recovery, you’ll begin to heal old wounds and come to love yourself in a wonderful way.