What is Codependency?

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Because there is so much information published on codependency, it can be hard to make sense of it all.

Part of the confusion is that no two people struggling with codependency are exactly alike. Some will identify with every symptom the list, while others relate to only a few.

That being said, people struggling with codependency give too much in relationships, and always at their own expense. Because they have trouble asking for what they need, they often feel invisible. Not getting their needs met becomes so frustrating that eventually, they hit an “emotional bottom.”

In truth, people with codependency rarely get help without hitting some sort of bottom. Losing a relationship often triggers the willingness to do something different. In order to recover, these people need to learn how to make relationships work for them, and not against them. 

What is Codependency?

When you struggle with codependency, you give too much to the other person, but get little in return. You give everything you have: your time, your energy, your attention, even financial support. As this behavior becomes a habit, you begin to lose your sense of self. The approval of others becomes more important than self-care. This creates an imbalance in relationships because focusing on others overshadows your own needs.

Isn’t Codependency just with Alcoholics? 

Codependent patterns can develop with a partner, family members, friends, kids, and even people at work. In the early 1980’s, the idea of codependent patterns was  associated primarily with alcoholic families. The codependent person was described as “the enabler” who became obsessed with talking care of the alcoholic.

Years later, professionals realized that codependency developed in other families too. When there was a history of mental illness, abuse or trauma, codependency developed as a way to survive and cope with a painful childhood.

How it Starts

Codependent patterns starts when a caregiver becomes emotionally or physically unavailable to their child. The child naturally tries to get the caregiver’s attention and love. When they can’t, they resort to people-pleasing or perfectionism to find acceptance. These patterns often continue into adulthood.

In moderation, some of these traits can be assets. For instance, giving to others is an admirable trait. It’s only when these traits are taken too far – when one person is doing most of the giving – that the relationship becomes codependent.

Issues of Self-esteem

Codependent people look to others for approval because they don’t know how to give it to themselves. They feel incomplete without someone else to focus on. Their relationships feel like “reactionships” as the codependent person feels stressed out from anticipating what others need.

They are sensitive, often feeling other people’s feelings instead of their own. Taking things personally becomes a habit developed in reaction to caregivers that weren’t emotionally safe. Being unable to find value from within, codependent people are constantly searching for ways to feel good enough. Perfectionistic tendencies make creating healthy self-esteem difficult.

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How to Spot Codependent Patterns

If you are codependent in relationships, you might:

  • Be the one everyone calls for help or support

  • Be an overachiever that has trouble relaxing or sitting still

  • Struggle with setting boundaries and saying no

  • Have unusually high expectations of yourself and others

  • Attract people with lots of problems like addicts and alcoholics

  • Try to control people, places or things in order to feel safe

  • Feel valued only by being a “human doing” rather than a human being

  • Have difficulty asking for what you need

  • Being overly concerned with what others think about you

  • Hides true feelings in order to keep the peace

  • Feels taken advantage of a lot

  • Struggles with low self-esteem or feeling superior

These are a few common characteristics of people experiencing codependency. In addition, there are a few key traits most people with codependency identify with:

People Pleasing

A people pleaser gives with the expectation of getting what they want in return. People-pleasers have an unhealthy need for approval. They feel more comfortable giving than receiving because giving feels less vulnerable. People-pleasers have a hard time knowing what they need in relationships. When others offer to help, people-pleasers feel extremely uncomfortable because at their core they feel undeserving.

Does this sound familiar? If so, you find your value in helping others, but avoid asking for what you need. Being afraid of upsetting others makes you deny your own needs. It’s also common for the codependent to not know what they need.

Remember to find ways to take care of yourself too. You don’t have to stop giving altogether, but your needs count. You will be stronger for knowing what you need and having those needs met. For more on people-pleasing, read How to Stop People Pleasing and Get What You Want.

Difficulty in Setting Boundaries

A boundary helps you set limits for yourself, such as knowing when to leave an abusive situation. When we set boundaries, we get to decide what to participate in and when to walk away. Boundaries are not about getting someone else to change their behavior. That’s why boundaries are so powerful: they’re about the choices we make. For more about boundaries read Everything You Need to Know About Boundaries.

People experiencing codependency struggle to set boundaries. They may stay too long in a situation that does not feel safe. They may put up with behavior from a partner or family member that others find unacceptable.

Does this sound familiar? If so, remember that relationships should not put you at risk emotionally or physically. When a person is codependent, boundaries are challenging because they assume others won’t like it.

By communicating your needs clearly, your relationships will become more authentic: there will be a natural give and take. Setting boundaries helps you take care of yourself, no matter what’s happening. They keep you safe physically and emotionally. Try saying no with people you feel safe with, even in small ways, in order to gain confidence.

Getting into One-sided Relationships

Codependent relationships are by nature imbalanced. The codependent person gives too much while the other person often needs rescuing. Codependent people feel needed – even like a hero – at first. But it doesn’t last, because in order to maintain the relationship, codependent people put the other person’s needs first. But personal needs can’t be ignored forever. When people dismiss their own needs, they will start to resent the other person and the relationship. This creates a painful, internal battle.

Does this sound familiar? If so, remember that looking for validation outside of yourself is a temporary fix. Being the hero will only make you feel good in the moment. Unfortunately, it also creates an unhealthy cycle of rescuing others. A common assumption is that your needs should be met because you are constantly meeting other people’s needs. This is never directly spoken which contributes to the confusion.

Feeling Overly Responsible  

A major struggle for codependent people is feeling overly responsible for people, places, and things. They feel like it’s their job to handle everything. They are always the one who is sought out during a crisis. They are the one who takes responsibility for everything. Unfortunately, this encourages others to not do their fair share.

When something doesn’t work out, the codependent people blame themselves. They obsess over what they could have done differently. When codependent people make mistakes they automatically feel shame because they struggle with perfectionism. Learning to do things in moderation is a life long task.

Does this sound familiar? If so, remember that you can only accept responsibility for your part. Also, obsessing over past mistakes will not change the outcome. Focus on what you can do differently next time and move on.

Difficulty Separating your Emotions

Another trait of codependent people is that they cannot separate their feelings from those of other people. This shows up in two ways: unstable self-esteem and hypervigilance in reacting to others’ emotions.

Because the boundaries are blurred in the relationship, how the codependent person sees themselves gets mixed up in how others see them. Codependent people assume that they should feel what others feel. If a loved one is upset, so are they. The codependent person doubts their own feelings which hurts their ability to trust themselves. Because their self-esteem is based on what others think, they rarely feel confident within themselves.

Codependent people also become hypervigilant about other people’s emotions. They assume others are upset with them even when that’s not true. This pattern comes from childhood when they had to take the emotional temperature of everyone around them in order to stay safe.

Does this sound familiar? If so, remember that what other people think is not always about you. If you can’t let go of something, check out your assumptions.

The Recovery Process

Recovery from codependency is the process of confronting dysfunctional patterns and learning the tools to create balanced relationships. This starts with building a solid foundation of self-esteem and boundaries. Instead of depending on others to feel worthy, you can begin to value yourself.

Here are some areas to focus on when starting the recovery process:

  • Identify relationship patterns. What patterns frustrate you?

  • Start setting boundaries and learn how to say no when needed.

  • Focus on self-care by putting your needs first and avoid over committing.

  • Communicate directly by using "I" statements instead of avoiding conflict.

  • Let yourself feel your feelings. Ignoring how you feel contributes to long term stress and illness.

  • Examine old beliefs that get in the way of self-care.

Final Thoughts

People who struggle with codependency are used to putting their needs last. They feel most powerful when they are giving. Because they are so preoccupied with taking care of others, they tend to struggle with anxiety.

In order to recover from codependency, you need to find a balance between caring for others and caring for yourself. This is not a quick process and often requires work with a licensed professional. Group support such as Al-Anon, a 12 step program for friends and families of alcoholics, provides the tools to unlearn codependent patterns and foster healthy self-esteem. Building relationships where everyone’s needs can be heard and valued is an investment that can be life changing.

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