Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Codependency and self-esteem
What is the relationship between codependency and self-esteem?
This chapter explores the relationship between self-esteem and codependent behaviours. Theoretical frameworks are used to illustrate how both self-esteem and codependency develop within an individual. The chapter also describes research investigating the experience of codependency and how low levels of self-esteem can lead to codependency. Through an increased understanding of the issues related to self-esteem and codependency individuals may be able to recognise unhealthy behaviours and seek to control emotions that are detrimental to a sense of independent of esteem.
"Figure out who you are separate from your family, and the man or woman you're in a relationship with. Find who you are in this world and what you need to feel good alone. I think that's the most important thing in life. Find a sense of self because with that, you can do anything else" - Author Unknown
"Effective interdependence can only be built on true independence." - Author Unknown
Joan is a 28 year old female who has been involved in long-term relationships consecutively for the past six years. When she is not part of an intimate relationship she reports feelings of loneliness, low self-worth, feelings of failure and begins to feel unsure of where her life is going and who she really is. Having a partner makes Joan feel loved, she feels better about herself knowing that she accepted by someone. She worries less about her direction in life and alternatively focuses on her partner and her partner's goals. If a relationship happens to end Joan seeks to form a new close relationship and experiences the negative feelings mentioned above until she is successful in doing so.
Joan demonstrates traits of low self-esteem and codependency. She is emotionally dependent on her partners and uses her relationship to experience a more positive self perception.
Understanding codependency and self-esteem
Codependency and self-esteem are separate psychological constructs. In order to understand the relationship between the two it is necessary to have an understanding of each concept separately. Codependency and self-esteem are both quite complex topics which are not able to be defined simply. The following sections describe self-esteem and codependency.
Definitions of codependency have changed over time as research in this area has progressed (Morgan, 1991). Codependency was originally only related to alcohol abuse, however new definitions have been developed as it became understood that this behaviour was not specific to only substance addiction (Morgan, 1991). Codependency has been defined as "a specific condition that is characterized by preoccupation and extreme dependency (emotionally, socially and sometimes physically) on a person or object" (Wegscheider-cruise, 1985). This chapter is focused on codependency in relationships (i.e., the dependency on another person to fulfill emotional and social needs).
"Self-esteem is defined as a person's subjective evaluation of his or her worth as a person" (Orth, Erol, & Luciano, 2018). Self-esteem is a multifaceted construct relating to an individual's feeling of self adequacy which is influenced and shaped through experiences (Rosenberg, 1965).
A recent study titled, "The lived experience of codependency: An interpretative phenomenological analysis" (Bacon, McKay, Reynolds, & McIntyre, 2018) explores the experience of codependency from the perspective of those who self-identify as a codependent individual. This study aimed to gather an in-depth perspective on the experience of living with codependency through means of qualitative research. A brief summary of the method has been included to demonstrate an effective way of gathering and analysing data in this area and to provide a better understanding of how the findings were deduced.
An interpretative phenomenological analysis structure was used. This refers to the process of collecting in-depth data (in this case through the method of interview) which was then analysed and interpreted by the researcher to address the focus question of the study.
The eight participants were made of five women and three men all above 40 years of age who identified as a codependent person. Each individual was a member of various support groups relating to this issue. Data was gathered through an in-depth interview process that took place over six months. Each interview was conducted by the same researcher and was loosely structured around a set of 6 to 10 open ended questions used only to guide the interview. Participants were encouraged to explore and share their individual experiences of codependency as lived in their world.
The interviews were transcribed and then analysed by the researchers. Analysis involved working through each case separately and identifying themes within the data. These themes were then clustered and refined. The researchers sought commonality among the data gathered from the participants however they were careful to remain aware of the individuality of each case. Further discussions and analysis was completed by all the researchers and a narrative report was written.
The results indicated four main themes were present in all of the participants experience, these themes are as follows;
- Codependency is a real and tangible part of each of their lives; it is a concept that helps to define the emotional and social difficulties that have been ongoing throughout their lives.
- A lack of sense of self, self-identity was not easily defined by the participants; a strong self-concept is not present and they felt as though they often changed and modified themselves to match those they interacted with.
- Sense of abandonment and control in childhood; participants identified experiences during childhood that related to their codependent behaviours.
- Emotional and occupational imbalance; strong feelings of a lack of control were reported.
Implications and importance of this research
This studydemonstrates the impact of codependent behaviours on an individual's social interactions and experience of self. Studies conducted prior to this one most commonly used quantitative data to investigate codependency often through means of self-report scales which may lack validity and fail to give detailed insight to the psychological implications of codependent behaviours. The strength of this particular study is the presentation of insight into the challenges of codependency from the perspective of those experiencing it.
The relationship between self-esteem and codependency is explored throughout the findings. One of the main common themes of each of the cases was a lack of sense of self. Participants reported feeling low levels of self-esteem and the need to fill this void with the acceptance and attention of others. Some participants reported feeling as though they needed to change the way they represent themselves to others in order to blend in. As seen in Maslow's hierarchy of needs, humans seek belonging and love from relationships as well as having esteem needs which would typically be fulfilled by achievements and a sense of accomplishment. Participants in this study reported behaviours that suggest they are trying to fulfill their esteem needs through relationships and social experiences which would typically be what fulfill the need to belong and experience love. Although these individuals were seeking to increase self-esteem through close relationships, all eight of the subjects reported feelings that they were somewhat stuck in a passive role in their closest relationships. It was described that this lead to a feeling of being powerless and made it even more difficult for them to develop some form of self-definition. Interestingly, the majority of participants showed a tendency to choose partners with existing problematic psychological struggles, and felt unable to break free from such relationships even though they were aware of the dysfunctional nature. The following quote referring to one participant in this study provides a summary of the experience of codependency in relationships;
"conveyed a sense of being locked into the relationship and unable to dissociate himself from his partner" (Bacon, McKay, Reynolds, & McIntyre, 2018)
Theoretical frameworks applicable to understanding self-esteem and codependent behaviours
Maslow's hierarchy of needs
Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a theory of human motivation based on five levels through which motivation progresses, meaning that lower level needs must be fulfilled in order to move onto the fulfillment of higher needs (Pardee, 1990). The needs mentioned in this theory which can be related to self-esteem and codependency are love/belonging and the need of esteem. This theory suggests that an individual must fulfill their need to belong and experience love before they are able to successfully fulfill the next stage of needs which is esteem (Pardee, 1990). A codependent individual may try to fulfill their esteem needs with relationships which would typically fulfill the love/belonging need (Bacon, McKay, Reynolds, & McIntyre, 2018).
Under this framework, esteem relates to constructs including self-esteem, feelings of achievement, accomplishment, confidence, respect for others and respect from others (Pardee, 1990). Codependent individuals may have a tendency to engage in unhealthy relationships (Bacon, McKay, Reynolds, & McIntyre, 2018) which might not display mutual respect, hindering the development of confidence. In such situations, it is clear to see that codependency could potentially inhibit the successful fulfillment of love/belonging and esteem needs.
Attachment theory highlights the importance of the relationship between a mother and child (Mcleod, 2017). Early findings in this area state that attachment experiences during the early stages of life play a role in emotional, social and cognitive development (Bowlby, 1958). This theory indicates that disruptions to forming and maintaining healthy attachment between zero and five years of age may lead to serious developmental consequences throughout the later stages of life (Bowlby, 1958). Bowlby's research in attachment suggests that the first attachment that is formed in infancy acts a prototype for all future social experiences and relationships, thus an individual is at risk of being unsuccessful in forming and maintaining healthy attachments later in life if early attachment is disturbed (Bowlby, 1958). If this theory is applied to the concept of codependent behaviours, it is plausible that perhaps the development of codependency could stem from a disruption to early attachment.
Table 1. Attachment styles
autonomous, comfortable and secure without being overly dependent
strongly independent, avoidant and dismissive of partner and intimacy
preoccupied with relationship, focus greatly on partner, seek relationships for emotional security
fearful approach to close relationships, can be socially avoidant
Discussion of self-esteem is often present in research relating to attachment in adult relationships (Pistole, 1995). A securely attached adult demonstrates a higher ability to manage esteem, is more competent in self-regulation, and experiences a higher frequency of positive emotions (compared to those who do not demonstrate secure attachment) (Pistole, 1995). Securely attached adults report lower levels of self-conscious related anxiety and acknowledge a frequent occurrence of meeting internal standards (Pistole, 1995). From this we can deduce that securely attached adults show indications of a positive sense of self-esteem or alternatively the ability to appropriately manage changes in esteem. Pistole also highlights the notion that a strong self-concept is associated with secure attachment (Pistole, 1995).
Another attachment style mentioned by Pistole (1995) is preoccupied attachment which is defined as a defensive strategy to manage vulnerability through merging with a partner (Pistole, 1995). Characteristics of preoccupied attachment include, idealisation of the partner, distress in separation, behaviors identified as clinging, seeking of affirmation, and obsessive preoccupation (Pistole, 1995). This description is comparable with the earlier definition provided of codependency: "characterized by preoccupation and extreme dependency (emotionally, socially and sometimes physically) on a person or object" (Wegscheider-cruise, 1985). Thus, it can be conclude that codependency and preoccupied attachment are interrelated. Individuals demonstrating preoccupied attachment commonly possess lower levels of self-esteem (Pistole, 1995). The motive for a relationship in a preoccupied attached adults can be to enhance self-affect through gaining validation from one they see as being worthy and of value (Pistole, 1995). This attachment style is associated with extreme emotional dependence, often seeking emotional security through partners (Pistole, 1995). It is also noted such individuals appear to be dependent on others to maintain or develop a positive self opinion (Pistole, 1995).
This information provides us with an insight into the relationship of codependency and self-esteem, as shown above it clear that nature of an individualsself-esteem impacts on the type of relationships they develop. In summary, those with lower self-esteem may seek to obtain a positive self-concept from relationships with others through extreme dependencies and preoccupation. Those who have a higher higher level of self-esteem are more able to form securely attached relationships that are not used to fulfill personal esteem needs. These individuals are able to self-manage esteem internally compared to codependent individuals who often seek to manage this by use external influences (i.e., partners and close relationships).
Emotion in self-esteem and codependency
Emotions associated with low self-esteem
Emotion plays a rollin the development of self-esteem. Furthermore, experiencing a low sense of self-esteem has emotional implications. Having a negative opinion of self can lead to an emotionally distressing state. Low self-esteem is associated with a plethora of emotional states; this can include feeling inadequate, lonely, anxious, and insecure (Orth, Erol, & Luciano, 2018). The inability to effectively manage such emotions may result in depressive behaviours (Pistole, 1995).
Emotion as a motive for codependent behaviors
Codependency is associated with seeking emotional security which is manifested through extreme emotional dependency (Wegscheider-cruise, 1985). Failure to self-manage and fulfill emotional needs may motivate an individual to engage in codependent behaviours. This is also supported by Maslow's hierarchy of needs which suggested needs of belonging/love and esteem are stages through which human motivation progresses (Pardee, 1990).
Higher self-esteem and lower levels of codependent behavior
Social definition vs self-definition
Self-definition and social definition are terms relating to process by which an individual forms their self-concept. An individual thatis socially defined builds their sense of self based on the definitions given to them from external influences (Jenkins,1996). They conceptualize and form opinions about themselves based on the opinions of others and their social experiences. Someone who is self defined places less emphasis on external influences but rather builds a sense of through internal definitions (Jenkins,1996). An individual seeking affirmation or validation externally is associated with codependent behaviour and unhealthy attachment (Pistole, 1995). Further research is needed to explore the possibility that if learning to be self-defined rather than socially-defined could perhaps reduce levels of codependent behaviour and increase self-esteem.
Impact of self concept on interpersonal relationships
Research has highlighted the importance of being either self-defined or socially-defined in development of identity in women (Jenkins, 1996). The identity that a woman has developed is a predictor of the type of interpersonal relationships she may be involved in and the role she will take on in these relationships (Jenkins, 1996). A comparison of women who are socially-defined and women who are self-defined has been recorded by Jenkins (1996). The findings show that women who are self-defined a more autonomous in their interpersonal relationships, demonstrating behaviors that indicate they are less dependent on others than a woman is socially-defined. The aspirations of self-defined woman were found to be of self-determined nature; they are concerned with providing for themselves and less interested in traditional female roles in relationships. The women who were socially-defined displayed a higher dependency on others, decisions seemed to be influenced socially and aspirations were less self-determined and more willing comprised (Jenkins,1996). Thisfindings support a lack of strong sense of self being associated with codependent tendencies.
Test your understanding
Self-esteem and codependency can be interrelated. Self-esteem issues can lead to the development of codependency, however practicing codependent behaviours can result in a further weakening of self-concept and esteem. This chapter has highlighted the occurrence of an individual with a low and vulnerable sense of esteem demonstrating codependency in their interpersonal relationships. It has been suggested that this in attempt to manage their self-esteem as they are not able to manage it internally. These individuals are often seeking to fulfill emotional needs through the validation they receive from partners and social experiences.
Early attachment experiences during infancy may impact on future relationships, causing an unhealthy attachment style in adult relationships. Adults who exhibit preoccupied attachment style approach close relationships with an extreme dependency and place high focus on their partner rather than themselves as an individual. They may portray obsessive traits and experience anxiety during separation. Individuals falling in the preoccupied attachment category have low levels of self-esteem, unclear definition of self, and experience negative emotions more frequently when compared with other attachment styles. Codependent adults have reported the belief that this behaviour stems back to childhood.
Further research in the relationship between self-esteem and codependency is warranted. It has been found that having a stronger sense of self which is internally defined leads to less dependency on others compared to an individual who has a weaker sense of self which is socially defined. This provides direction for treatment/intervention to potentially lessen codependent behaviours through an increased self-esteem. This can be applied to assist in improving the everyday life of someone who is codependent and holds a negative opinion of self.
- Self-esteem and emotion (Book chapter, 2014)
- Self-esteem (Book chapter, 2013)
- Intimacy motivation (Book chapter, 2016)
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