“Don’t screw up!”

This is one of the rules that every codependent follows. Regardless of the situation, the codependent believes he or she must hit the nail on the head every single time. The codependent is a perfectionist at heart and there is no room for failure. Do any of the following thoughts sound familiar?

  • Why can’t I ever catch a break?
  • This is what always happens to me!
  • No matter how hard I try, you’re never happy with me.
  • Things never get better, so I gave up trying.
  • Every time he/she _____, I get angry/anxious/fearful/sad.
  • Everything would be fine if I could just ______.
  • Everything would be fine if you could just ______.

Each of these hyperbolic thoughts shares a belief that at some level the codependent is the one responsible for success or failure, and that if he or she can do things just right, happiness can be secured. The codependent attempts to do this either by controlling circumstances or by controlling (fixing) the addict in his or her life. Some beliefs codependents have include, “I need you to be/act a certain way for me to be happy” or “I need to be/act a certain way for you to be happy with me (because if you’re not happy with me, I won’t be happy). The latter contains the belief that less-than-perfect performance by the codependent will result in rejection by others, feeling “less than” compared to others, and thinking that one is a worthless failure. All this can be summed up in one word. Shame.

Shame is just one consequence of codependency. Nobody can be perfect, not even sometimes. Trying to control circumstances and other people in order to become or remain happy is an unbearable burden that will inevitably result in feeling shame.

A first step in treating codependency is recognize that nobody is perfect. Not you. Not your spouse. Not your children. Not people at work. How many years have you tried to get (or keep) what you want (or have)? Have you tried to get others to “stop screwing up” so they will keep you happy? Once a codependent recognizes that no one is perfect, the next step is to accept that truth. Easier said than done!

Letting go of mistaken beliefs (e.g. “I have to be perfect to by happy/accepted by others”, “If someone is unhappy with me, I can’t be happy with myself”, or “The only way I can be happy is if I get what I need from others”) is a process that takes time. These beliefs were formed over years and cannot simply be switched out for new beliefs. When life gets hard and stress goes up, it is tempting to give up and resort to perfectionism in an effort to take control of things.

Working with a trained therapist is very helpful in treating codependency. The therapist can offer an unbiased, objective perspective, remind the codependent that imperfection is intrinsic to us all, and give encouragement that it’s ok to be less than perfect.