Codependency… it’s something we hear quite a bit. You may have heard about someone being dependent on someone or something else, but what is codependency?

What is codependency?

The definition of codependency according to Mental Health America is: behavioural and emotional condition that affects one’s ability to maintain healthy and satisfying relationships. It is often a a learned behaviour that can be passed down from generation to generation. This is that person you know who is addicted to being in a relationship. They cannot stand to be alone, and will doanything to stay in a relationship even if it means giving up their own personal liberties. Sometimes people call this a “relationship addiction”. Codependency can also be an addiction to alcohol, drugs, work, etc. So how is codependency “passed down” from generation to generation? Well, it’s a learned behaviour – it is learned by watching and imitating our family members who display this type of behaviour. As children, we learn by example.

Research shows that when being exposed to drug-using and/or codependent environment at a young age is what makes us makes us most likely to fall into a codependent style ourselves. Often people develop the perception that boys can handle situations like this better because boys don’t get “as emotional” as girls. Well, the fact is, you are at equal danger whether you are a boy or a girl (Delgado & Gómez, 2004). If you were exposed to situations like this at an early age, you were still a child who needed nurturing, love, and a stable home environment.

Codependent Roles

(Holistic Addiction Wellness Centre, 2011) 

There are 6 well known roles that people who are codependent tend to take. These 6 examples below describe the roles different family members take that tend to maintain codependency, in whatever form it may take. Remember that when codependency is present in a family, life is often unpredictable, chaotic, etc. If you, or someone you know was involved in a codependent-style family, see if you can identify who in your life, or in family situations you’ve seen have played each role.

  1. The addict: The person in the family who holds the addiction (whether it’s to drugs, alcohol, relationships, sex, etc), is the person who tends to be the center of attention; the “world” (in this is their daily personal and family life) tends to revolve around this person. Once this role is taken, other family members will begin pick up other codependent family roles in attempts to balance the chaos. When a member of the family has an addiction problem, because they are often the center of attention, they also become the center of focus for treatment as well.
  2. The Hero: This is the person who feels they have to save everyone else, they need to make the family and everyone in it “look good”. They often ignore the problem and try to brush it under the rug. They tend to stay in denial of the problems that actually exist, and will spin even the worst disasters in the most positive way possible. Underneath their mask of “positivity,” you will often find fear, guilt, and shame.
  3. The Mascot: This person role is often to be the one who jokes around. They will crack jokes, often at inappropriate times. They are attempting to lighten the situation by trying to make people laugh, and bringing humour into the situation. However, the jokes are often harmful, and can sometimes hinder the recovery process.
  4. The Lost Child: this is someone who is often silent, and seems to always be in the background. They are quiet, reserved, and may frequently be described as just being shy. However, they are often quiet and shy to keep the attention off of them during the chaos of unhealthy relationships and/or other addictions in the family. They will remain quiet, and give up their own needs, and will avoid any conversations regarding what types of roles the other families play. They typically feel guilty, lonely, neglected, and angry.
  5. The Scapegoat: This is the person who acts out in front of others. They rebel and get in trouble. They may not realize why they are doing this, but the purpose of this role is to try to divert attention away from the person who is addicted. They draw attention away from the real problem, and onto them instead.
  6. The Caretaker (enabler): This person is essentially the key to maintaining all of these roles. If this person stopped fulfilling their roles, the others would either switch roles in attempts to fill this one in, or cease to exist. This person attempts to keep everyone happy, and attempts to keep the family as much in balance as they can. They make excuses for each person’s behaviour, and never ever discuss getting help or addiction recovery. This is the person who maintains the “everything’s fine” façade to the public (i.e. other friends, family, coworkers, etc). Often they do this because they feel inadequate, fearful, and helpless.

Difficulties for Codependents

(MHA, 2011)

Does this sound like you? Do you think you may be codependent? If you Identify with several of the following traits, there’s a chance you may be codependent.

  1. Do you always keep quiet to avoid arguments?
  2. Are you always worried about other’s opinions of you?
  3. Have you ever lived with someone with a drug or alcohol problem?
  4. Have you ever lived with someone who hits or belittles you?
  5. Are the opinions of others more important than your own?
  6. Do you have difficulty adjusting to changes at work or home?
  7. Do you feel rejected when your significant other spends time with their friends?
  8. Do you doubt your ability to be who you want to be?
  9. Are you uncomfortable expressing your true feelings to others?
  10. Have you ever felt inadequate?
  11. Do you feel like a “bad person” whenever you make a mistake?
  12. Do you have difficulty taking compliments or gifts?
  13. Do you feel humiliated when your spouse or or child makes a mistake?
  14. Do you think that if it were not for your constant efforts, other’s lives would go downhill?
  15. Do you frequently wish someone could help you get things done?
  16. Do you have difficulty talking with people in authority (i.e. police, your boss)?
  17. Are you confused about who you are, or where you’re going in life?
  18. Do you have trouble saying no when asked for help?
  19. Do you have trouble asking for help?
  20. Do you have so many things going on at once that you can’t do justice to any of them?


If you think that yourself, or someone you know may have codependency, don’t worry! There is treatment!

As mentioned before, codependency typically develops by being exposed to a family life early on that involves drug-use, addiction, and codependency. Many of the roles we end up playing are an extension of how we learned to view the world and ourselves while growing up. Because of this, therapy often begins focusing on exploring early childhood life to determine how you developed the view you did, and how it has maintained a role throughout your life. You may also receive education in some sessions on how drug misuse works and is maintained, especially if you do not, or did not play the role of the addict in your family. Treatment can involve assertive training to stand up for your basic needs and rights, and teaching you healthy boundaries so healthy relationships can be created and maintained. Treating codependency is not something that happens overnight. Once learning how the role was developed, some people may progress through treatment quite quickly, while others take longer. There is no set treatment period for how long it takes.

If you are interested in seeking treatment, contacting a local psychotherapist or counsellor could be quite beneficial. During the first session, you could ask them how treatment goes, and what they do. Remember not all practitioners provide therapy in the exact same manner. Since therapy can take a while with codependency, it’s important to be sure you find a therapist who matches well with your personality style. If you don’t feel you are developing a connection with your therapist, that’s okay! Us therapists understand that our personalities, or methods of treatment will help everyone. So be sure you set yourself up for success!

Nicole Paulie is a Counselling Psychologist, and co-author of “How to be Happy and Healthy – The seven natural elements of mental health.” She provides therapy in the Dublin city area. Contact us to learn more or to book an appointment.

Addiction and Codependency
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