Understanding Codependency

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I was recently having a Zoom chat with a good friend, when our conversation turned to her sister’s ongoing marriage troubles. Rolling her eyes, she muttered, “She’s so codependent!” I’d certainly heard the term casually tossed around pejoratively many times before. But were her sister’s relationship problems really caused by codependency?

What makes someone codependent, anyway? And if someone discovers that many of their problems are caused by codependency, what can they do about it?

What is Codependency?

Unfortunately, through decades of popular use (and misuse), the terms “codependent” and “codependency” have come to be used demeaningly — to many, the term has become an unhelpful, shame-based label. 

Unlike ordinary “clinginess,” true codependency is more extreme. According to the American Psychological Association (APA)’s Dictionary, codependency is defined as, “the state of being mutually reliant, for example, a relationship between two individuals who are emotionally dependent on one another” or “a dysfunctional relationship pattern in which an individual is psychologically dependent on (or controlled by) a person who has a pathological addiction (e.g., alcohol, gambling).” 

Originally, the term codependent described people who were living with or in a relationship with an addicted person, but according to Mental Health America (MHA), “the term has broadened to describe any codependent person from any dysfunctional family.”

Modern understandings of codependency now see it as a psychological condition in which a person feels an excessive dependence for certain loved ones in their lives. This dependence often progresses to extremes, where they feel responsible for their loved one’s actions or feelings and may ultimately impact their self-perception and self-esteem.

Although it has been argued that it should be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders from the American Psychiatric Association (a standard, clinical guide to the diagnosis of mental disorders), codependency is neither an officially recognized personality disorder nor an official mental health condition. However, research shows that it does appear to be a distinct psychological construct, and many therapists find it helpful to use the idea of codependency to improve their patient’s understanding of themselves, their relationships, and their lives. 

Codependency often affects a spouse, parent, sibling, friend, or co-worker of a person struggling with alcohol or drug dependence, but similar patterns have been observed in people in relationships with those suffering from chronic or more severe mentally health conditions, or from dysfunctional families. 

A dysfunctional family is one in which members suffer from fear, anger, pain, or shame that is ignored or denied, which often leads to codependent behaviors. Because dysfunctional families don’t acknowledge that problems exist, family members learn to repress emotions, disregard their own needs, and focus their attention and energy on the “problematic” family member. They become codependent, placing other people’s well-being and safety before their own, losing touch with their own needs, desires, and sense of self.

What Are the Symptoms of Codependency?

The following is a list of the most common symptoms of codependency — not all are needed to identify as codependent.

Low self-esteem and/or low self-worth

Feeling like you’re never good enough or often comparing yourself to others are signs of low self-esteem; lacking a feeling of innate worth as a human being is a sign of low self-worth. Guilt, shame, and perfectionism often go hand-in-hand with lack of beliefs about one’s value and worth.

Family dysfunction

This can be your current family or the family you were raised in.

People-pleasing

Most people want to be helpful to others, but those who are codependent usually don’t think they have a choice. The very idea of saying no causes anxiety. They very often sacrifice their own needs to accommodate others.

Poor boundaries

Being emotionally healthy involves knowing the difference between what’s yours and somebody else’s. This applies to your body, money, belongings, feelings, thoughts, and needs. Codependent people tend to have either weak boundaries (where they feel responsible for other people’s feelings and problems or blame others for their own) or boundaries that are too rigid (they wall themselves off from others and withdraw). Sometimes they flip back and forth between these extremes.

Reactive

Without healthy boundaries, a person will constantly react to everyone else’s thoughts and feelings, changing their beliefs to fit or become defensive. A codependent person often feels threatened by disagreements.

Caretaking

Having poor boundaries also causes a codependent person to have a compulsive need to put other people ahead of themselves, to help and try to “fix” them. They may even feel rejected if that help is refused and continue to try, even when that person clearly doesn’t want them to.

Controlling

Everyone needs some control over their life to feel secure. However, a codependent person feels a need to control those close to them in order to feel okay. They may use people-pleasing and caretaking to control others or boss people around to manipulate them. 

Dysfunctional communication

People who are codependent have difficulty communicating their thoughts, feelings, and needs — often because they don’t know what those needs are. When they do communicate, they avoid being direct and truthful to avoid upsetting someone. 

Obsession

Codependent people spend an unhealthy amount of time anxiously thinking about other people and relationships, often fantasizing about how they’d like things to be and agonizing over how to make life conform to their fantasies. This keeps them from focusing on living their own lives.

Dependency

Codependent people always need to be in a relationship and cannot feel okay about themselves if they are not liked by others. They are terrified of rejection or abandonment, even if they can function on their own, and will become depressed or lonely otherwise. When a relationship becomes painful or abusive, they often feel trapped and unable to end it.

Issues with intimacy

Although sex can be a part of intimacy, the problem referred to here is about being open and close with someone. Shame and weak boundaries cause a codependent person to fear being judged, rejected, or abandoned — or the opposite, being smothered. 

Persistent, painful emotions

Constant feelings of shame and feeling trapped, the fear of being judged, rejected, abandoned, or of making mistakes creates stress, pain, low self-esteem, and anxiety. As it progresses, it can lead to feelings of anger and resentment, depression, hopelessness, and despair. 

Having a fear of abandonment

Even small incidents, such as a loved one forgetting to call, trigger intense emotions.

Fixating on mistakes

When a codependent person messes up, they feel anxiety, stress, and fear abandonment. 

A tendency to confuse love and pity

Codependents gravitate toward “loving” people they can pity and rescue.

Low level of narcissism

Wanting to feel needed is not that different from wanting to feel important, i.e., narcissism. While many studies have found low rates of narcissism among codependent people, some have actually found higher rates of narcissism among those with codependent traits.

Denial

Denial is a codependent person’s biggest barrier to seeking help. Since their focus is on someone else or a particular situation, they continue to believe they can fix the issues themselves. Being fixated on others, they have trouble receiving anything, including help, and often won’t reach out for it. They are in denial of their own vulnerability and need for authentic love and intimacy.

What are the signs of a codependent relationship?

Because the nature of codependency is to see one’s self only in relation to others, it may also be helpful to identify the signs of a codependent relationship. A few questions you can ask yourself are:

  • Does your sense of purpose involve making extreme sacrifices to satisfy your partner’s needs?
  • Is it difficult to say no when your partner makes demands on your time and energy?
  • Do you cover up your partner’s problems with drugs, alcohol, or the law?
  • Do you constantly worry about others’ opinions of you?
  • Do you feel trapped in your relationship?
  • Do you keep quiet to avoid arguments?

What Are the Consequences of Codependency?

According to the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, true codependency is often more serious than most people realize. Some of the consequences include: 

  • Crippling anxiety and emotional distress 
  • Drug addiction, alcoholism, and eating disorders
  • Refusal to seek needed medical care
  • A tendency to remain in stressful or unhealthy situations
  • Social anxiety
  • Overwhelming and intense feelings of shame
  • Depression
  • Physical health effects such as high blood pressure, headaches, respiratory issues, and heart problems 

Also, due to its progressive nature, codependency can also result in more severe effects, such as: 

  • Isolation
  • Physical illness
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts

What if I Think I May Be Codependent?

If you see signs of codependency in yourself, it’s important to talk with a professional therapist to get a knowledgeable assessment and obtain the help you need for real recovery and change. From there, talking to a therapist experienced in treating codependency will give you the guidance and support you need to overcome it. These symptoms are deeply ingrained habits and can be difficult to identify and change on your own. 

In addition to counseling, you can also join a 12-step program, such as Codependents Anonymous, and educate yourself with well-respected books on the topic by authors such as Melody Beattie, Anne Wilson Schaef, and Darlene Lancer. 

Treatments Used to Overcome Codependency

By working with an experienced therapist and educating yourself, you can learn how to overcome ingrained codependent patterns. Below is a list of some areas that a therapist can help you to concentrate on. 

  • Learning the difference between showing support and codependency, letting go of trying to direct or control another’s behavior or mood.
  • Examining your own dysfunctional patterns in your current and past relationships and identifying what you can do avoid repeating them.
  • Learning what healthy love looks like (both partners trust themselves and each other, feel secure in their own self-worth, can compromise, feel safe communicating their emotions and needs, and can voice differing opinions).
  • Defining personal boundaries for yourself and practicing them. Having support for this is important, as you may only be used to making others comfortable. 
  • Knowing and accepting that you can only control yourself. Your responsibility ends at managing your own behaviors and reactions; you aren’t responsible for your partner’s (or anyone else’s) behavior.
  • Defining what healthy support for another is and learning to offer it without sacrificing your own needs. 
  • Learn to value yourself. Working on low self-esteem and low self-worth takes time, practice, and support. Some things you may be encouraged to do are to spend time with people who treat you well and let go of negative self-talk. 
  • Identify your own needs. Though it seems self-evident, you may find this hard to do. Codependency often has deep roots in childhood, and you may find you are out of touch with your own needs and desires. Having the healthy support of a therapist and a 12-step group is important to recover this important part of yourself. 

Beginning your recovery journey

According to research, seeking treatment for codependency can help increase self-confidence, improve coping skills, foster better decision making, improve communication skills, reduce trauma (anxiety, stress, and depression), increase self-esteem, and decrease the codependent behaviors that cause problems. The goal is not to become a perfect human being, but to reclaim your authentic self and become a fully-functioning individual with the ability to be at ease on your own as well as in an intimate relationship. 

If you’re considering starting therapy to overcome codependency, consider these words from Darlene Lancer, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of several books on codependency: “If you’re just beginning your journey, be sure that you don’t see recovery as a goal to perfect your ideal self on the path to perfect health. Recovery is a journey of self-discovery rather than a destination.”

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