Not that long ago, the vast majority of people did not understand the meaning of codependency. When Melody Beattie released Codependent No More in 1986, the word suddenly entered the mainstream vernacular. Nonetheless, the precise meaning of the term still eludes some people. And this problem is only growing worse with time, because Generation Y—a demographic commonly referred to as millennials—has almost entirely altered our understanding of what it means to be codependent.
While natural pitfalls occur when stereotyping any large group of people, experts and laypersons alike often do so with millennials. In her book Generation Me, psychologist Jean Twenge ascribes two primary characteristics to the younger generation: entitlement and narcissism. And while self-absorption appears to be the theme here, both of these characteristics play into what appears to be an evolved form of codependency. In fact, combining Twenge’s research with Beattie’s would easily lead one to the conclusion that just about all millennials suffer codependency to some degree.
Some might blame the new era of codependency on rising divorce rates. There are two problems with this. First, it insults the many single parents who work hard to raise well-adjusted, emotionally healthy individuals who never struggle to feel loved and appreciated. Second, divorce rates are actually really hard to measure. But it ultimately doesn’t matter, since countless factors combine to mold the children of each new generation. In the end, no single factor turned millennials into a generation of codependents. Likewise, no single solution will entirely resolve the issue.
To clarify, we do not mean to say that literally all millennials are codependent, rather that Generation Y has greatly broadened our understanding of the term by exhibiting numerous characteristics that were not so widespread among the codependents of yesteryear. But while we make this caveat for the sake of ensuring we do not insult our audience, we also wish to make it clear that those who suffer from codependency should not feel stigmatized. Many wonderful individuals identify as codependent. They simply must come to terms with a few facts about their behaviors if they wish to live happily.
Codependency takes many forms. Today’s younger generation does appear to exhibit a slightly new form. But if we wish to determine whether or not we are codependent, there are a few basic traits to look out for.
Traditional Forms of Codependency
We usually identify codependency as the symptomatic behavior of people engaged in personal relationships with addicts or alcoholics. When experts first coined the term in the 1970s, they did not envision any other meaning. But as they studied it more extensively, they noticed similar traits popping up elsewhere. Melody Beattie explains in Codependent No More:
“As professionals began to understand codependency better, more groups of people appeared to have it: adult children of alcoholics; people in relationships with emotionally or mentally disturbed persons; people in relationships with chronically ill people; parents of children with behavior problems; people in relationships with irresponsible people; professionals—nurses, social workers, and others in ‘helping’ occupations. Even recovering alcoholics and addicts noticed they were codependent and perhaps had been long before becoming chemically dependent. Codependents started cropping up everywhere.”
Not all codependents, however, find themselves surrounded by troubled individuals. More common denominators include an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, fear of confrontation, and unrealistic expectations of self and others. The codependent may fear honest expressions of concern, may lack trust in others, and may feel the need to strive for perfection. But not all codependents exhibit each and every one of these traits. For instance, some may feel guilt over doing anything for themselves, while others may actually strike people as somewhat selfish. One codependent may bend over backward to do whatever others demand of them. Meanwhile, another person may exhibit codependency in their attempts to control everybody else.
According to Beattie, this makes it difficult to easily identify a codependent. Much like snowflakes, no two look completely alike. Due to differences in each person’s life circumstances and personal viewpoint, every codependent presents a unique profile. Nonetheless, she attempts to provide a single-sentence definition:
“A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.”
Even this definition lends itself to confusion. How can we accuse those who break their backs to help others of seeking to control people’s behaviors? And how do those who exhibit codependent traits around non-dependent individuals fit into the first half of Beattie’s definition? Simply put, all codependents, regardless of circumstances, tend toward reaction rather than action. Whether reacting to the woes of those around them or simply to internal stress, codependents base much of their behavior on reaction. As such, one might identify themselves as codependent based not so much on how they behave but rather how they feel when they behave. In Codependent No More, a codependent named Jessica describes her feelings in detail:
“My life had ground to a halt; I wanted it to end. I had no hope that things would get better; didn’t even know what was wrong. I had no purpose, except to care for other people, and I wasn’t doing a good job of that. I was stuck in the past and terrified of the future. God seemed to have abandoned me. I felt guilty all the time and wondered if I was going crazy. Something dreadful, something that I couldn’t explain, had happened to me. It had snuck up on me and ruined my life.”
While psychologists such as Twenge describe millennials as entitled and narcissistic, many of them would identify with the above sentiments. In fact, these very feelings sometimes lead to the behaviors that seem so selfish to begin with. This leads us to the case of millennials, a uniquely modern twist on a story as old as mankind.
The Unique Case of Millennials
Enmeshment, becoming so attached to another that we lose our own identity, continues to define codependency in many cases. But rather than causing millennials to become what Melody Beattie calls “super-achievers,” it now appears to do the opposite. In The New Codependency, Beattie explains this by differentiating the parents of subsequent generations.
“The first generation of recovering codependents had parents who endured the Great Depression, fought in World War I or II, or suffered horribly from the Holocaust… These first-generation codependents had martyrdom and deprivation embedded in their DNA. Their parents had been through a lot. But many second-generation codependents, born in the seventies or eighties, have parents who wanted to make sure their children had everything they (the parents) didn’t get. Many second-generation codependents are taking it a step further, attempting to protect their children from every problem and emotion. This creates codependents with the opposite of deprivation—a sense of over-entitlement, over-protection, and inflated self-esteem that often crosses the line into narcissism.”
Super-achievers still exist in many forms. We see them arguing on social media, trying to control the viewpoints of others. They’re the people struggling to gain likes and shares, in the hopes that online approval will better their sense of self. And while all codependents struggle with criticism, many believe millennials to be more sensitive than most. Beattie describes this as an extension of the over-protective parenting mentioned above.
“They expect life to be easier than it is; they want everything done for them no matter how they behave. Then they become depressed and confused when they don’t get what they believe they deserve. Although first, second, and third generation codependents have many traits in common, and not all new codependents have been coddled (many are still horribly abused), the new codependents are a different breed from the classic ones.”
Not only do millennials present us with a different breed of defensiveness, but they also redefine enmeshment. While many still become enmeshed with parents or romantic partners, many also become enmeshed with social media profiles. And with millennials more likely to take selfies or use their phones at the dinner table, they give the appearance of being enmeshed with themselves.
In reality, however, this apparent narcissism speaks to a basic human need for connection. As the world becomes more connected through technology, we also seem to become less engaged with brick and mortar institutions. For many millennials, communication takes priority over all, yet very little of it occurs through face-to-face interaction. So no matter how much we appear to increase our rates of communication, our sense of connection continues to reach an all-time low.
Our dependence on media leaves millennials feeling disconnected. We spend hours cultivating a synthetic identity, presenting a carefully tailored image to strangers online. Meanwhile, many of us struggle to find people with whom we can relate on a deeper level. We might have hundreds of friends on social media while feeling like nobody knows the real us. But they know our labels, and this causes trouble. In Codependent No More, Beattie quotes an essay from Thomas Wright:
“I suspect codependents have historically attacked social injustice and fought for the rights of the underdog. Codependents want to help. I suspect they have helped. But they probably died thinking they didn’t do enough and were feeling guilty.”
It takes little effort to see how this applies to the modern concept of the “social justice warrior.” While now overused in conversations pertaining to civil rights, this derogative term originally served a specific purpose. It referred to those who went far out of their way to champion political correctness, often pertaining to issues that did not affect them. Many accuse millennials of taking this type of behavior to extremes. Not all cases of this stem from codependency. But codependents will almost certainly feel a greater pull toward this type of online debate.
While many traits define the new codependency, one stands above the rest: the ease with which many millennials mask their symptoms. Beattie describes this in The New Codependency:
“They understand that certain behaviors aren’t appropriate or therapeutically correct so they hide what they’re doing. It’s easy to disguise obsessing now. People don’t have to sit at home staring at the phone, waiting for him or her to call like codependents used to do. Instead of detaching, the new codependents can leave the house, bringing their cell phones and obsessions with them. It’s also easier to mask the anxiety, grief, and depression that accompany codependency by taking medications that weren’t around when codependency recovery began.”
Not only do many millennials engage in these behaviors, but we openly embrace them. We criticize the proliferation of questionable medications while taking them nonetheless. We make jokes about the stress of waiting for a text message, or watching a person type a message on Facebook for several minutes before ultimately sending no response. The humor arises from our awareness of an unhealthy obsession behind these frustrations. Yet just about all millennials can relate to them. And just as the rise of medications and social media help to mask our new brand of codependency, many millennials engage in addictive behaviors that go similarly unrecognized.
Effects on Modern Substance Abuse
The issue of substance abuse in the modern age really lends itself to a separate discussion, but still warrants mention here. With websites peddling drugs like spice and online forums teaching us how to cheat on drug tests or experiment with household inhalants, most people can easily get high from the comfort of their bedroom or home office. Even mainstream media inadvertently draws addicts’ attention to new opportunities. Ask around at any rehab center, and you’ll eventually find an addict who tried spice or bath salts after seeing it on the news.
Millennials also seem to experience more triggers. We don’t mean this in the derogatory sense that you see so often on Twitter. But those who suffer legitimate emotional triggers due to PTSD or other issues might find themselves incapable of spending much time on the internet without running into something that gets under their skin. And those who use to numb their sense of low self-worth may struggle with feelings of failure in a world in which many job markets are oversaturated.
When the latter type turns to substance abuse, isolation often follows. This cycle can be hard to break in the era of Netflix and chill, in which binge-watching is not only accepted but practically encouraged. We know many millennials who describe their period of active addiction as decidedly inactive, a never-ending quest to find a new TV show to replace the one they just finished. For those who also struggle with codependency, this makes sense. Isolated from a sense of meaningful connection, they replace real people with fictional characters. It works—for a time. Eventually, however, we must seek recovery for our codependent behaviors.
The New Generation of Recovery
If we define the new generation of codependency as one of entitlement, then the new generation of recovery must focus on responsibility. Of course, with codependents behaving primarily as reactors, this focus is not actually all that new. In fact, Beattie addresses it early on in Codependent No More, in which she offers the following statement on resolving codependency:
“If you want to get rid of it, you have to do something to make it go away. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is. Your codependency becomes your problem; solving your problems is your responsibility.”
The first step toward overcoming codependency is to focus less on synthetic relationships and work harder to cultivate real ones. In The Lost Art of Listening, Dr. Michael Nichols suggests that millennials will never overcome their dependence on media and entertainment until they seek substance in their interpersonal relationships.
“When the quality of our relationships isn’t sufficient to maintain our equilibrium and enthusiasm—or when we’re not up to making them so—we seek escape from morbid self-consciousness. We seek stimulation, excitement, responsiveness, gratification—the same kinds of feelings that can be had from a heart-to-heart talk with someone we care about. But without the ballast of someone to talk to, some of us will continue to drown out the silence, as though without some kind of electronic entertainment to distract us, we may hear the low rumblings of despair.”
Put in these terms, one might almost think that our relationships act as mere distractions from our own self-doubt. But they actually do much more than that. We improve our self-worth by connecting with others. That said, we must exercise caution. Codependents often seek approval from those who would take without giving anything back. When building our support network, we must strive to form connections with people who truly care. We gauge this by whether or not a person listens actively when we speak to them, whether they truly appear to care about our thoughts and feelings rather than simply what we can offer them. Without this raw sense of true connection, we remain isolated. Nichols explains:
“By momentarily stepping out of his or her own frame of reference and into ours, the person who really listens acknowledges and affirms us. That validation is essential for sustaining the confirmation known as self-respect. Without being listened to, we are shut up in the solitude of our own hearts.”
Outside of unplugging and seeking connection, we may sometimes require support. Fortunately, millennials find this support more readily available than ever before. Melody Beattie notes in The New Codependency that the internet era allows us to attend meetings for support groups such as Al-Anon, Alateen, CoDA and ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) without even leaving the house. Alateen already caters to the younger generation, but the others appear to be seeing more and more young people every week.
Not only that, but we can find support groups for just about every other problem under the sun. When struggling to manage a relationship with overeaters, sex addicts, debtors or the terminally ill, we can find multiple support groups full of people who understand our struggles. They even have Emotions Anonymous for those who suffer from emotional or mental illness on top of codependency. Whenever a loved one faces a difficult issue that affects the family, both sufferer and codependent can find support.
Millennials and their loved ones live in a new era of recovery, from both addiction and codependency. If you or someone you know needs help, contact us today. Whether your loved one needs treatment or you’re simply in need of resources, we will do what we can to assist you.