Codependency Workbook Exercise One: Family History

A young woman lies on the floor, studying with books and a notebook.Now that you understand how codependency develops in a family surrounding a dysfunctional person, what are you supposed to do next?

Many people have said to me in therapy, “Joyce, now that I understand where my fear of abandonment comes from, how do I stop being so scared of it that I mess up my relationships?”

You can learn to do this, but it certainly isn’t easy. As you go through this series of codependency workbook articles, you may feel uneasy when you try on new behaviors. It’s okay. Try to give yourself permission to be awkward. You don’t have to do everything perfectly. Ideally, you have a therapist available to you or, at minimum, a 12-step program and a supportive friend.

The first step in my series of workbook exercises is to write out or to record a statement about how your family is dysfunctional. I know that you do not wish to dwell in the past, nor do I wish to bring up so many painful memories for you. However, to begin your healing, it is important to face some of the things that you have successfully survived. Denial or constricting your feelings will not help you get to where you want to go.

Try to answer some of these questions in writing:

  1. How is your family dysfunctional? Is there addiction, mental illness, physical illness, poverty, sexual abuse, something else, or a combination of these things?
  2. Is it one or both parents? Stepparents?
  3. Were your parents able to assume most of the normal parental duties? If not, did they get done? If so, who did them? If not, how did that affect you?
  4. Did odd things happen that you began to see as normal? If so, what?
  5. Were you afraid to have friends over? Did your parent(s) ever embarrass, scare, or anger you?
  6. Did family members walk on eggshells to try to avoid an explosion? If so, did they happen anyway?

Okay, I think you get the idea. Some people choose to write their family history in the form of a letter to their parent or guardian. You don’t necessarily have to send it. You can revise it, and it will at least help you begin the process of identifying your feelings. People who are codependent usually learn to constrict their feelings in a vain attempt to keep everything calm. When people write out or record their histories, they often feel angry, sad, scared, and/or hurt.

If you share those painful feelings with your therapist, your sponsor, or a supportive friend, you will find that after letting them out, you will feel some relief. Yes, it is painful, but avoiding it is even more painful in the long run.

If there were a website where people could post their family histories, you would find out that there would be many similar stories. You would realize that you are not alone. Those of you who have found your way to a 12-step program like Al-Anon or Codependents Anonymous already know this. Isn’t it a relief?

Take out a sheet of paper or a notebook or a computer and start writing your family history. If you choose to do this in the form of a letter, then tell them that you are writing this letter to let them know what it was like for you to grow up in your home with them. Or, if you prefer, start with a title like “Growing up in my family.”

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Joyce McLeod Henley, MSW, LCSW, CEAP, SAP, Codependency Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Steve

    January 24th, 2012 at 9:38 PM

    Sometimes letting out all your feelings to a friend or even to a diary or a letter as you have mentioned it does a lot to rid oneself of pain.And to those that are in such a situation-Try this route t has worked for me in the past.Youre only building a volcano inside by keeping it in there.

  • brit

    January 25th, 2012 at 1:17 PM

    Can’t wait to get started!

  • donald

    January 26th, 2012 at 10:51 PM

    my mom was a co-dependent to her brother,because she lived with him after she separated from dad.she used to make things difficult for herself due to his addictions.finally my aunt persuaded her to see a counselor and she actually felt bad about not TAKING CARE of her brother anymore! this surprised us no doubt but they are now trying to treat her,her brother looks to have crossed te point of no return with his addictions though.

  • Fiona

    April 9th, 2013 at 4:15 AM

    Thank you for a fantastic site. As a counsellor is it always helpful to discover new resources. What about a co-dependant passive aggressive manipulator? Any tips?

  • Alexandria

    March 22nd, 2016 at 9:20 AM

    Is part of the therapy, to absolutely share this with family? because I have tried that in the past and my mum pretty much tells me I’m dreaming, making it all up, and my father will laugh and say oh yeah I remember when that happened, like its a huge joke. Not exactly helpful r supportive, so I’d rather not include them in me trying to better myself as they are quite content being them.

  • Lauri

    July 2nd, 2016 at 9:11 PM

    I’m very dependent on my therapist as a result of attachment disorders-presumably codependent. He’s been very caustious in managing this and pushing me at a tolerable pace. Recently I took several steps forward, one of which was to share a realization I had been dishonest with myself about shameful behaviors. As a result, I had been dishonest with him and others. As a result, he first told he I had done good work and next session was very angry with me. This confused me because he didn’t tell me he was angry until next session when I pressed it. Then he reduced our frequency from twice a week to once. I feel punished and am unstable, though he insists this is a chance to try to move forward and see that I’m stronger than I think. I’ve been in crisis for about two weeks and am beginning to feel it might be best to terminate. Does this sound codependent without more info?

  • Christine C

    November 20th, 2016 at 10:50 AM

    I’m forty eight years old and still struggling with what happened to me as a child! It’s about time I take the time to get better. I’m in yet another toxic relationship because I don’t know how to create healthy boundaries. It’s always my fault.

  • Cm

    December 6th, 2016 at 4:58 AM

    48 years young :)

  • Cm

    December 6th, 2016 at 5:00 AM

    This site is so helpful to me everyday, thank you for all of the articles.

  • ora

    May 3rd, 2021 at 8:32 PM

    I am interested in codependency behavior and learn strategies

  • Justin

    January 24th, 2022 at 2:13 PM

    no good

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