Approx 11 minute read
“Hello my name is George and I’m codependent.”
CoDA – Codependents Anonymous – is based on the widespread “12 Step” principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. There can be benefits but there are also significant dangers. Knowing them will help you chart a course that best helps you. The lessons also apply to other therapies and groups.
- What happens at a CoDA meeting and how to find one
- But does it help?
- Six potential benefits from attending a CoDA Codependents Anonymous Group
- Four potential dangers and how to avoid them
What Happens at a CoDA Meeting
There are different formats to meetings but the most common is called ‘open share’.
People are friendly and relaxed while everyone is gathering and setting up the room. But to avoid dissolving into chit chat, the meetings themselves are structured in a set format.
There is a definite start moment when a meeting begins, usually with the famous Serenity Prayer or a variant. So be on time or you might feel awkward coming in late, especially if it is a small group.
After a bit of explanation about how the meeting works, there is a round of introductions. People only use their first names as part of the principle of anonymity. As a newcomer, you might be invited to introduce yourself first but you don’t have to. Otherwise, the introductions will probably go round the circle. Instead of the famous “My name’s John and I’m an alcoholic” phrase you have seen in films, they might say “My name’s John and I’m [a] codependent.”
There is some reading out of the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions as a reminder. Some groups share the reading so a piece of paper might be passed round with the 12 Steps on. You might be invited to read a step off the list and the pass the paper on. Just follow everyone else’s lead.
If it is the most common ‘open sharing‘ format, everyone then is invited to say or ‘share’ what they are experiencing at the moment. You don’t have to share if you don’t want to. If you are a newcomer, though, members will probably make sure you have an opportunity to speak – and possibly extra time – if you do want to. When someone is sharing, everyone else stays silent and listens until the speaker signals they have finished or their time is up. Don’t offer any suggestions, ask questions, or refer to what anyone else has said when it is your turn. It is not a discussion. It is a chance to be heard.
After everyone who wants to share has spoken, things begin to wind up with thanks, donations towards the room hire, a final reading of the Serenity Prayer, and a few other things.
The atmosphere then relaxes back into feeling more social like at the beginning. But remember meetings are anonymous. Sharing is for its own sake, not to invite advice or discussion. It can be nice to be sociable, but resist bringing up something someone shared or to asking questions that might breach their anonymity like “What do you do?”
You may bump into other members around town. It is fine to say hello, but again, hold back from talking about the meeting or anything that came up unless you are sure it is OK.
How to Find a Meeting
You can find a meeting locator on CoDA’s website.
Groups are self organising, though, and most are not registered so you should also search online for CoDA or Codependents Anonymous in your area.
There are online groups. But people tend to write most when they are struggling so beware of getting dragged down by others. (See “You become like the people you spend time with” below.) Also, the beneficial effects of being heard, slowing down and so on are generally much weaker online.
But Does It Help?
Some people have had great success from the various 12 Step programs that have grown out of Alcoholics Anonymous. So it might be wonderful for you.
But they are often presented as the only solution along with an assumption that if it doesn’t work for you, that is your fault.
By understanding both the potential benefits and harms, you can maintain your autonomy and find the right path for you.
1 Making a start
Deciding you want to change is a huge step. CoDA provides a great opportunity to honour this. Even if you do nothing else, simply turning up means you are sending yourself a message “I’m not happy with this aspect of my life. I’ve made a decision and I’m doing something about it.” It signals a start.
2 Normalising – “Me too!”
Difficulties can make you feel alone. And, well, weird. Then you end up with two problems – your original one plus “Why am I such a freak / loser / lunatic?”
Hearing other people’s struggles helps you feel more normal. It can be therapeutic to know you are not alone. It gets your troubles out of your head and into objective reality.
Like the fish that has no awareness of water, if you have done something all your life it can be easier to see it in others than to see it in yourself. Recognising clear, specific unhelpful behaviours, thoughts and feelings gives you something tangible you can work on.
4 Listening to learn
We learn through stories and other attendees’ stories will mirror your own so listening can help you indirectly absorb
- insights from their reflections
- warnings from when they have fallen down
- encouragement from their successes
5 Soothing your story
Sharing your experience can be valuable but friends can find it hard to listen because they are too close and keen to offer advice. CoDA’s structured format allows you to simply be heard by a non-judgemental, accepting group of people. This can help you
- Externalise your thoughts and so you can become more objective and reflective
- Slow your thoughts down through speech instead letting them whiz ever faster round your head
- Reassure your emotional brain that you are acceptable as a person
- Remember to be compassionate towards yourself. (People tend to be much kinder to themselves out loud than they are in their heads!)
6 Keeping on it
Why do people book personal trainers when they could just exercise by themselves? Partly for the advice. But mainly to get focussed training time in the diary and make sure they put their good intentions into practice.
CoDA groups can help in the same way. Attending can remind you that it is important to you and be a time in your week to check in with yourself and review how it is going.
But alongside possible benefits, what about the potential harm?
Twelve Step groups are incredibly popular and some people get great benefit but there is no evidence they are effective on average. The best research into CoDA’s 12 Step inspiration, Alcoholics Anonymous, puts its success rate at around 5-10%. An authoritative review of many studies between 1966 and 2005 and found ““No experimental studies unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of AA.”
Low average efficacy is not a reason to stay away, though. What matters is what is right for you, where you are right now. You might be one of people who get huge benefit.
But there are significant problems you need to be aware of to avoid unwittingly stumbling into difficulties.
1 You become like people you spend time with
People with overweight friends are much more likely to become overweight themselves. If you spend a lot of time with depressed people, you are more likely to feel depressed yourself.
The same goes here. The people in the room are there because they are experiencing similar difficulties to you. Sharing struggles can be helpful, but there is a risk of the blind leading the blind and unconsciously reinforcing each others’ unhelpful patterns and attitudes.
Instead As well as hearing others’ struggles, learn from people who are already good at boundaries and self management. The people who don’t go to CoDA. Observe what they do. Ask them for advice. Listen when they tell you.
2 It gives you a label
“Hi. I’m George and I am codependent.”
The boost of identifying a problem has a hidden downside. You slap a label on yourself as being someone with a problem or even worse someone who is a problem. It anchors your identity to the same problem you are trying to leave behind. Imagine smokers trying to stop smoking by constantly repeating “I am a smoker”!
Identity can change. Over time, even someone who identifies strongly as a smoker can come to genuinely see themselves as a non smoker.
The same goes for you. You may currently have a collection of behaviours and thinking that means you fit into the box of “codependent” but that is not who you are.
You can become more than a ‘recovering codependent’. You can become a self responsible, free, empowered person. You should be careful not to slip back into old habits and patterns. But you don’t have to be held back by what you were. Having worked through your bad habits, you can become more aware and more skilful in relationships than most.
Instead Your behaviours, thoughts and history are not you. You are bigger than that, more changeable than that. As you progress, you should be moving from a general label to becoming clearer and more specific. For example:
- “I’m often too self critical”
- “I tell myself I’m not as important as everyone else”
- “I find it difficult to maintain boundaries”
- “I tolerate too much before I say ‘no’”
A label “I am codependent” leaves you stuck. Breaking it into specific thoughts and behaviours gives you something you can work with. For example “I need to learn to calm my inner critic and get better at maintaining boundaries.”
As you fill your skills gaps, you can begin live into your new identity.
“Hi. I’m George and instead of continuing on autopilot like most people, I have taken some time to consciously develop healthy relationship habits.”
3 Taking it on faith
Twelve step programs are rooted in Christianity. You surrender to a power great than yourself. You seek to atone for your sins. Sharing works as a kind of group confession. There is nothing wrong with that if it helps you.
But like religious commandments, the steps are considered immutable and universal. The original steps and traditions were not created based on any evidence and are not reviewed in the light of new findings. Members often say “It works if you work it.” By implication, if it is not helping you, then that is your fault for not working it.
Instead Be your own judge. If you have always tended to put others first, people please, and not rock the boat, much of your progress is going to be about you taking charge, making decisions, and not blaming yourself if something is not right for you.
Experiment to see if attending a group helps you. If it doesn’t, that does not mean there is anything wrong with you any more than if a therapist or life coach were not right to you. It is your life. You get to decide what helps you and what doesn’t.
Six of the twelve steps focus on things you have done wrong. Making amends where appropriate is a good thing. But as codependent patterns thrive on shame, low self esteem and excessive self criticism, doubling down on feeling bad about yourself is likely to make things worse.
Instead Don’t waste energy beating yourself up. Become your own ‘change coach’ and learn to nurture a supportive attitude towards yourself.
Six of the 12 Steps
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character
7. Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
You are captain of your ship
Your journey is one of taking more responsibility and becoming more empowered.
Going to CoDA could give you a kick start. And regular attendance could remind you not to slip back into old habits. But the codependent label and belief you have to keep on attending meetings could hold you back in the longer term.
Start with the end in mind. Your aim is to be free. Seek help on the way, but make sure it is bringing you closer to what you want.
If you attend a CoDA meeting or see a therapist, remember help is not a ‘one size fits all’ thing. It is more a question of finding the right jigsaw pieces to fit your particular gaps. If something isn’t right for you, don’t be afraid to speak up. Use it as an opportunity to practice taking control and making your own decisions about what works for you.