Codependency: A symptom of white culture and why you should rethink it

The codependency label has become ubiquitous in popular psychology. It is even listed as a specialty on Psychology Today. Codependency has become a harmful label that stigmatizes our humanity. It perpetuates the white cultural myth of rugged individualism and stereotypes mostly female identified loved ones as pathological.

If you have received this label, you may feel wrong if you care about your loved ones.

Many people are surprised when they learn that codependency is:

  • Not listed in the a Diagnostic Statistical Manual V (DSM) as a diagnosis
  • Not scientific, evidence based or recognized as a mental health condition
  • Is a made up construct from the self help 12 step movement in the 1970s.
  • There is no standard definition, but it often is described as “enabling, controlling, trying to fix others”

In this scenario, I am not using a real name. From Jane’s personal experience, when she labeled herself as codependent, it created a rift between her and her sister. Her sister lost two of her children and Jane lost her niece and nephew. Jane’s sister has been abstinent from substance use for the past four years. Jane is still repairing her relationship with her sister. Holding the codependency label held Jane back from being a compassionate sister and staying connected to her family.

Some of the teachings from popular psychology are misguided
In 12 step programs you are told that you have no power over others. It may be true that you cannot control people, but you do have influence over people you love. People struggling with substance use need support, encouragement and compassion.

Some common advice goes against standard social work principles of social justice, building resiliency and a strength based approach. For example telling people to let their loved ones “hit rock bottom” or to “cut them off” are punitive, harmful and isolate your loved one. It also denies the need of human connectedness and relationships.

It is not codependency to offer support, help loved ones access resources, strengthen support systems or build community supports.

Looking deeper and what works
We need to let go of the codependency label and the”up by your bootstraps” white cultural myth that people can get ahead by being a rugged individual. Systems of oppression do not provide all people with equitable resources and recovery is a community process and not resolved by individualism. People are not “addicts” and we need to stop using that language. Instead we should have a trauma informed approach. This means that we have empathy for the experience of others, collective trauma and hold space for people to be heard.

  • Instead of calling people “addicts” we should change our language for “relationship to substances” because there is hope and possibility for a future where substances do not dominate your life or your loved one’s life.
  • Instead of rigidity, we need flexible thinking and flexible boundaries.
  • Embrace compassion, kindness and love
  • Dismantle rugged individualism and accept we all are interconnected and benefit from healthy loving relationships
  • People are not just “manipulative.” It is human nature to have coping strategies to get our needs met.
  • We can always learn new coping strategies and find other ways to cope.
  • Destigmatize substance use by supporting housing first, medicare for all, decriminalize substance use and advocate to end the drug war.
  • Therapy, treatment, medical care and compassion build bridges for better health.
  • Jail, prison and criminalizing substance use escalates the problem and trauma.
  • Incarceration is harmful to humanity.

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