What is Codependency?
There are several definitions of codependency, many of which you have probably heard before. If we compile all the descriptions to get down to the simple meaning, codependency is the habit of needing to care for others or seeking to be cared for to feel a sense of worth or belonging.
A good majority of the time, in a codependent relationship there exists a person who gives more than all of their efforts (codependent) and another person who hardly gives any energy in comparison.
The term “codependency” was first used as a term in support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous to describe any person in a close relationship with an alcoholic or addict. The name eventually evolved to cover a wider category of people who are relationship addicts, or to put it bluntly, individuals who need to use other people to feel better about life. “Codependency” encompasses those who can’t seem to believe they are lovable unless they are in some kind of (often dysfunctional) romantic situation.
Codependency: An Unbalanced Relationship
It is often said that codependent relationships are “one-sided” because the codependent works hard to maintain the relationship, whereas the receiver takes much without giving back. In many of these relationships, the partner on the other side of this irregular balance usually has an addiction, mental health issue, or an abusive character.
This isn’t to say that addicts and alcoholics can’t be codependent, too– some people can indeed be both. There can also be relationships where each partner has codependent tendencies. It’s arguable that most people today have some form of codependent traits as a result of perpetual family dysfunction.
Thankfully now there even exists support groups for codependent-prone individuals. Al-Anon and Codependents Anonymous (CoDA for short) exist for anyone in unhealthy relationships. In these types of meetings, people gather in hopes of developing healthier, more loving relationships in their personal lives. The focus is geared not to “fix” one another but to listen and relate to others in similar situations. The goal is to relinquish any attempts to control others, to set healthy goals, and practice personal boundaries for better relationships.
The Roots of Codependency
Most people who deal with codependency come from dysfunctional homes or chaotic upbringings. Moreso it can result from a cycle of family dysfunction where emotions, issues, and abuse are not confronted on a regular basis– or sometimes not at all. A child growing up in a dysfunctional family fails to learn the dynamics of relational interaction and healthy coping skills. When we never learn what a stable, functional relationship looks like, it’s hard to master the skill of figuring out how to build one later in life.
One of the main components of codependent people is they feel that their lives are out of control. Instead of turning to drugs or other personal vices like workaholism, for example, they become “inside out” for other people in search of several modes of fulfillment.
Searching for Outer Fulfillment
One of these modes of fulfillment is finding purpose by continually serving and trying to help others. Whether this is a spouse, significant other, parent, friend, family member, or colleague, a codependent person thrives off of meeting other people’s needs. Sometimes, though, this can cause them to neglect themselves in their own needs. Instead of finding ways to fulfill themselves as well-rounded individuals, they aspire to bring satisfaction to others through the lens of people-pleasing. This way, they feel a short-lived sense of self-actualization.
Conversely, some codependents find this same derailed personal fulfillment by trying to get other people to meet their needs. This type of codependency looks like someone unable to be happy unless they receive attention, pity, or constant control. Here is where the term well-known term “needy” comes in. When you hear your friend complaining under his breath that his partner is overly demanding or nagging, chances are this stereotype stems from the pattern of codependency. Often this type of codependent person can’t seem to do anything fun without the presence of his or her significant other.
Trauma and Codependent Communication
Codependency can be confusing because each person who identifies with the traits can function on different levels. Slightly codependent people might avoid speaking their true opinions out loud because they value being well-liked by everyone more than they appreciate their own sincere thoughts and feelings. On the other hand, someone who is “extremely” codependent can go through life never knowing what it is he or she truly wants because every facet of their life revolves around caring for another, usually unhealthy, person.
Many psychologists who work with codependent people in relationships find there is often a link between codependency and physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. A traumatic event may have happened to them early on, causing a codependent person to feel silenced, paralyzed, or worthless. Therefore if the issue is left undealt with, he or she can continue to operate in relationships from a place of fear, resentment, depression, and pain, instead of genuine love.
What are the Signs of Codependency?
The following is a general list of signs in a codependent person. Not all of these will exist in everyone who experiences codependency, but many are universal. Depending on the individual, several of these signs can come and go with varying levels of intensity throughout their lives and relationships.
Common Codependency Patterns
(from Codependents Anonymous)
- Passive aggressive anger
- Ignoring or dumbing down my true feelings
- Neglecting my sense of empathy when feeling upset
- Taking care of myself, refusing help
- Projecting blame onto others for the negative traits I dislike about myself
- Denying the reality of the situation to pretend everything is okay
- Blaming others or making excuses for not working to get what I want in life
Low Self Esteem
- Self-critical, overthinking, never feeling good enough
- Valuing other people’s opinions above my own
- Fear of failure; cannot admit when I’m wrong
- Others’ thoughts, feelings, and actions are more important than my own
- No set personal boundaries
- Looking at other people for approval
- Constantly questioning my actions, words, appearance
- Harshly judgemental of myself and others
- Lack of peace and overall contented well-being
- Poor or dishonest communication
- Avoiding change
- Staying with unhealthy partners (too loyal)
- Remaining in dangerous living situations to “prove” I love someone
- Silencing my interests and opinions for the sake of others
- Extreme fear of rejection or being unloved
- Taking on the feelings or moods of others immediately (unhealthy empathy)
- Needing the approval of others before taking action
- Agreeing to sex or intimate acts when I really don’t feel like it
- Failing to stand up for myself when someone puts me down
- Inability to say NO
- Confusing love with pity, and falling in love with “broken” people I feel sorry for
- Over-committing and feeling overwhelmed with obligations for others
- Manipulating the feelings of others to get what I want
- “Needing to be needed” in a relationship
- Blaming and shaming loved ones to exploit them
- Believing that other people can’t take care of themselves so I must take care of everyone
- Giving advice without being asked; always saying “You should…” to others
- Feeling resentful when people don’t behave or think as I want them to
- Using charm or flirtation to get approval or attention from others
- Allowing distractions from people or things to get in the way of true intimacy
- Believing that to be emotional is to be “weak”
- Avoiding conflict at all costs
- Suppressing my needs to avoid vulnerability
- Distancing myself from others
- Maintaining a “wall” up so others can’t know the real me
- Putting off chores or avoiding responsibilities
- Shutting down when people around me become angry or upset
- Withholding gratitude or appreciation
- Trying to get close to someone then pulling away when a bond begins to form
Playing the Victim and Victimizing Others
Through every pattern of codependent behavior, we can see there’s a theme of either
- playing the victim, or
- trying to gain control over others by victimizing them.
In a healthy relationship with the self and another person, each individual takes responsibility for his or her shortcomings. From there, they apologize or try to work out a better solution. With codependent relationships, however, there is constant blame being tossed between a victim and a person feeling victimized.
Some good indicator that you are not, or are no longer, trapped in codependent tendencies are:
You own up to your imperfections and mistakes.
No longer do you obsess over trying to be validated by people all the time.
You no longer wish to control your loved ones or dictate how others should live their lives according to your standards.
The primary person you seek to find peace and fulfillment with is yourself on a daily basis.
Instead of feeling stuck in a victim mindset, you take on challenges or struggles with a disciplined understanding that you can figure stuff out.
If someone in a relationship repeatedly depends on you while treating you poorly, you can tell them, “I don’t want this behavior in my life.” If you need to, even if it seems complicated, you can leave the situation for good.
Facing yourself and being honest about your needs comes before forgiving hurtful people over and over.
What if I’m Codependent?
It’s common that codependents go through life and human interactions while totally unaware of their behavior. A lot of us who are codependent believe people must not like us. Or we wonder if we get into relationships with too many people who end up just not being good enough for us. “Why doesn’t anybody love me?” is a question that might come up a lot if you’re codependent.
If and when a codependent does realize their abnormal habits in relationships, it can be confusing, scary, or even make some of us feel “crazy.”
The truth is that although certain traits of codependency can cause a little crazy side to come out at times, we aren’t crazy. Just like an addict or alcoholic might feel too far gone ever to be loved or change their life around, the thoughts of doubt are not true. With honest intentions for self-improvement and a good group of supportive accountability, codependent relationships can eventually become just a memory. We can replace old toxic ways of living and relating to others, with new respectful beliefs and actions to help our future growth.
How Do Codependents Recover?
If you want to find healing in a new way for your relationship with yourself and your relationships, there are several steps you can take.
The first step you can take to recover from a relationship addiction or codependent people-pleasing is most important to become aware. Being aware of your feelings, behavior, and your self is the greatest tool for positive change in any life situation.
Next, if you find yourself unhappy with yourself and your relationships you must decide if you want to stay stuck or find a solution. You can seek help for codependency. You can get help by seeing a therapist who specializes in the subject, joining a support group, or educating yourself on the issue in hopes to change your habits.
Give yourself focus and time.
During this process, it’s best to get back in touch with yourself. Some ways to do this are to:
Start setting personal boundaries with people where there are none.
Focus on communicating what you mean instead of trying to say what you think others want to hear.
Practice saying “No” to things you don’t have the energy do.
Commit to hobbies and activities that bring you confidence and joy.
Make friends outside of your family and romantic circle.
Find an accountability partner if you can; someone to keep you in check and be honest with you if old ways of thinking resurface.
Release the need to always know or control what your partner or family member is doing.
Ask for what you want and need without fear. Be okay with admitting you don’t know all the answers.
Let go of shame and guilt.
You can’t stay ashamed of yourself for struggling with codependency. Everyone has struggles and areas to work on, so take ownership of your past mistakes and assure yourself it’s time to move on to a better life.
Realize you aren’t perfect.
Nobody is perfect, nor is any relationship perfect in this life. The goal is to make “progress, not perfection” — a common motto in recovery programs. There is always room to grow and continue making progress. Read books, listen to influential speakers, and keep learning from others who have overcome codependency and toxic relationships. Take one step at a time.
If you still want more help finding freedom from codependency or addiction, reach out to us today. Call the Addiction Helpline if you would like to speak to a professional about solutions and recovery options for you or someone you care about.