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How did the term “codependency” first come about?

How do experiences in our childhood shape codependency as adults?

What to do if and when we are in a codependent sh*t storm?

In this podcast episode, Marissa speaks with Curt Wildhalm, LMFT, about the root of the term codependency, how our childhood caregivers contribute to us becoming codependent (thanks mom and dad!), and how Curt helps his clients take a breath and build awareness to their codependent reactions in order to create change in their lives.

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Meet Curt Widhalm, LMFT in Los Angeles, Professor at Pepperdine and CSU Northridge, Co-host of The Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide Podcast (and a huge inspiration for Marissa starting her own podcast!).

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More deets for this week’s episode:

Curt provides listeners with the history of the term “codependency” and how it came about in the 1920s thanks to mental health professionals observing the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of partners and family members of alcoholics. Thankfully, the term has broadened to include individuals beyond those with addiction and alcoholism in their families.
Curt opens up about codependency in his own life and sheds a light on codependency in men, codependent with groups of people (rather than just in a one-to-one relationship), and how it is something he continues to bring awareness to since codependency isn’t something we get over but live with on a day-to-day basis
Marissa and Curt walk through an example from Marissa’s live when she was “prescribed perfection” and how that has impacted her for over 20 years! What’s she supposed to do when her codependent perfection strikes? Listen to the episode to hear the answer!
Curt begins by sharing with Marissa about how he sees codependency as “needing to be perfect.” Curt shares about how, originally, the term was used to describe partners and family members of addicts and alcoholics, however, how it has expanded beyond that where anyone who is “self-sacrificing” or has “prescribed perfectionism” can be considered codependent.

Curt shares how codependency is truly a “mumbo jumbo” term where we do not have a neat, clearly defined term for it. Marissa and Curt start to venture back into the 1920s when codependency first began. When Alcoholics Anonymous was first founded, the counselors and mental health providers noticed that the family and loved ones of the alcoholics continued to have mental health problems despite the alcoholics sobriety.

Curt and Marissa explore how codependency can come up in males. Curt suggests that codependency may be more prevalent in males but we typically picture females when we think “codependent.” Curt normalizes why we refrain from calling males “codependent” since it is emasculating. Curt emphasizes how also, thanks to the history of codependency, we do not assign it to the thoughts, actions, and feelings of men. Thankfully, Curt shares about his own experiences with codependency and ways that has shown up in his own life.

“A sense of accomplishment by doing more and more for everybody else.” Mic drop! Curt acknowledges how he wasn’t codependent in a relationship with one person–he was codependent with whole groups of people!

We then shift to talk about how, if we are striving for perfection and self-sacrificing, there is an inevitable need to cope with the stress that typically manifests as negative coping skills: nicotine, food, sex, porn, alcohol, and so on. Curt shares about how shame comes in which will lead to emotional deprivation and burnout.

Emotional deprivation comes up when Curt shares about the bridge between self-sacrifice and burnout. When we self-sacrifice and engage in emotional deprivation, then we will experience burnout! Emotional deprivation leads to us shutting off and then leads to those same negative coping skills discussed earlier: food, porn, alcohol, and other thrill-seeking behaviors. Marissa circles back to ask Curt about whether his striving for recognition and acknowledgement is more fulfilling now and he shares honestly about being in acceptance and nicer to himself.

Why is codependency so hard to define??? Curt discusses how there are two paths towards codependency: needing to be a “perfect” child versus needing to “be your own parent” where individuals have little guidance but lots of discipline. Curt shares about how, if the term exists, individuals can be “healthfully neglected,” meaning they grew up with independence way too early.

Curt shares at length and gives examples of parentified children who turn out codependent and pseudo-independent children who grow up trying to appease, mind read, and predict the anger of their parents thanks to negative experiences when they are yelled at, criticized, or disciplined after having no direction. Curt and Marissa then look at an experience from Marissa’s childhood when she was witnessed arguments about cleanliness that turned into her being a very cleanly adolescent, young woman, and adult! She is still trying to appease her parents away at school, with roommates, and in her marriage.

What is the answer? What should we do, with our awareness, repeating our patterns–what is the answer? “Slow down and breathe, ask whose feelings are you holding?” Curt shares about how we often try to get out of our feelings but we NEED TO FEEL THEM! We need to be better at feeling anxiety and anger–we don’t avoid, get out of, but HAVE THEM. In those feelings, asking ourselves: Is this my anger? Is this my anxiety? Where does it come from? This reminds me when…X…said or did Y…that’s a them problem and not a me problem. Be better at being anxious, angry, and imperfect.

Perfectionism and self-sacrifice are really, really hard habits to break. Curt shares about how we can implement coping skills in order to bring awareness if and when moments of codependency come up and our “knee-jerk” reaction of prescribed perfection comes up. Over time, if we keep practicing these coping skills, we will begin to improve our codependency and find more self-acknowledgement and self-fulfillment rather than rely on others to make us feel good about ourselves.

Be sure to check out Curt’s website for a personalized daily checklist to go through for people working through their codependency. 7 Questions of things to look at each and every day!

Helpful links:

Sign up for my free course Codependummy 101 at

Healing The Shame That Binds You by John Bradshaw

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