Working on one’s sense of self is considered by many to be an important practice these days. The issues of self-love, self-acceptance, and the rather grandiose-sounding term of “self-authenticity” are often bandied about, at least in the fields of psychotherapy, counseling and wellness.

An April 15, 2019 article in Psychology Today by Tchiki Davis, Ph.D., a consultant, writer, and expert on “well-being technology,” states that being authentic means “that you act in ways that show your true self and how you feel.” She goes on to say that, rather than showing only one side of your personality to people on any given day or in a particular situation, you express your whole self in a genuine way. The article indicates that for people to practice self-authenticity, they must practice mindfulness, self-awareness, and self-acceptance.  The link to this article is below.

As a psychotherapist, I think a lot about how people are doing mentally, emotionally, spiritually and, of course, physically.  Over the period of time that I have been a therapist, about 25 years, I have come to see that many people struggle with the same issues, including low self-esteem, a clouded and uninformed sense of self, and unmanageable symptoms of depression, anxiety, fear, and shame.  Many people appear not to have done much “inner work” as the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung would phrase it, and have not gathered much in the way of self-knowledge.  Generally, in my estimation, people gather information on others, not on themselves.

This leads me to our second topic, that of codependency. The work of Pia Mellody, the addiction and family psychotherapist and writer of Facing Codependence, describes this syndrome in great detail, and reports that “codependent behaviors are so common in our society that they seem normal.”  She also says, although they are the norm, they are far from healthy.  In fact, self-authenticity and codependency can be seen as polar opposites.  People with codependency tend to have a lack of self-understanding and a lack of self-esteem, and they can act in a way as to hide their personality and their motivations, rather than openly revealing and expressing who and what they are.

Codependency itself is a largely misunderstood concept. Originally it referred to the personality and behaviors of the spouse or significant other of an alcoholic. This model goes back to the 1950s, when a typical case involved an adult male diagnosed with alcoholism, and his wife was diagnosed or labeled as “codependent.” This word was coined from the use of a triangular model in which the alcoholic is at one point of the triangle, the alcohol is the second point, and the codependent is at the third point of the triangle. This triangular model explains that the alcoholic is addicted to the alcohol and the codependent is in a relationship with the alcoholic.  The term “codependent” means essentially “also dependent,” indicating that the alcoholic is dependent and the spouse or significant other is also dependent.

Codependence has for the most part been and is still greatly misunderstood. When I was first working as a therapist in a chemical dependency rehab center, I began to notice that the term codependence was used in a vague and inconsistent manner. I listened closely to my clients and their family members, I researched the condition, and I worked on discovering what the confusion was all about. The definition had changed over time, making a relatively simple concept much more complicated. The meaning of the term had been expanded and deepened to include a much broader range of people and behavior. One definition I found is this: “codependence is the disease of lost selfhood.” I went on to discover that a committee of addiction and family specialists had done a deep dive into this complicated personality syndrome, and they came up with a clear, comprehensive definition, which I learned by heart so I wouldn’t have to look it up again. That version goes like this: “codependence is a pattern of painful dependency on compulsive behaviors and on approval from others in order to attain self-worth, security and identity.” That is a mouthful, but it very carefully explains what this condition is about.

Codependent people often hide behind a mask of helpfulness, constantly focusing on other people’s problems, and they compulsively act in a way to help others, all while being completely unfocused on self and unaware of their own issues and problems.  As you may come to understand, codependence is very common and because it is very common in American society, those behaviors have become normalized. Therefore, codependent people are generally not aware of their own issues and are certainly not aware of their true or authentic self.

When people now work on their issues of self-esteem and work to bring forth their authentic self, they are working on their codependency issues. Working on self-authenticity is like virtue: it is its own reward.

The following books may be helpful for people who want to work on their codependency issues and want to bring forth and express their authentic self:

  • The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
  • Facing Codependence by Pia Mellody
  • The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz
  • The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle

Click here to read the Tchiki Davis article.

By, Terry McMaster, LMSW, EAP Counselor