What is codependency?
Codependent relationships often form as the result of trauma bonding between individuals who live in a cycle of abuse or mistreatment. It’s a method of coping with a stressful or unhealthy, traumatic, or abusive environment. Codependency develops as a self-protective response to supporting or “enabling” someone’s addiction, mental illness, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement. It results from taking responsibility, blame, or making excuses for another person’s harmful or hurtful behavior.
Codependency is an emotional and behavioral illness that affects a person’s ability to have healthy, mutually satisfying relationships. Codependents are called “people-pleasers.” They willingly play by the “rules” of others and lose their identity in the process. As a result, they rely on others for their sense of identity, approval, or validation. This is called “seeking external validation.” People-pleasers need to be needed. To others, they appear to be busybodies, involved in other people’s business, or with things that shouldn’t concern them. They may also appear as unselfish; as someone who can be counted on, or who never says “no.”
When we’re children who don’t have mentally healthy role models and caregivers, we don’t learn or develop healthy coping skills to equip ourselves in adulthood. We may also learn codependent behavior from watching or imitating other codependents in our family. And future generations may learn codependent behaviors from us if the cycle isn’t broken.
Why is codependency something to be healed?
Codependency is a form of self-abandonment. Instead of focusing on our lives, goals, issues, and our “stuff,” we focus on others and look for validation and approval from them. Other’s needs come first, and ours come last. Living like this can cause codependent individuals to become depressed or anxious or experience panic disorders. And because we abandon ourselves, we may doubt ourselves, have low self-esteem, low energy, feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, powerlessness, defeat, and low self-worth. When we have low self-worth, it’s natural to feel that we’re not worthy or good enough to ask for what we want or need. Instead, we might learn to get our needs met by manipulating people or consequences. We may discover that we feel worthy or good enough when we accept responsibilities that aren’t ours. As we mature, in order for us to feel emotionally or physically safe, it can feel natural and necessary for us to control as much of our environment as possible.
When we spend more time emotionally taking care of or focusing on others than ourselves, trying to control their behavior, how they perceive us, or the consequences of their choices, we have become codependent. When we take responsibility, blame, or make excuses for their harmful or hurtful behavior, we have become codependent. When we rely on others for our sense of identity, approval, or validation, we have become codependent. If we are focused on someone’s life, goals, issues, and “stuff,” instead of our own, we have become codependent. If their needs come first, and ours come last, we have become codependent.
If you are an “action taker” and a “do-er,” you might be a codependent.
The stages of becoming codependent
Codependency exists on a continuum, from mild to severe. There are three stages in the development of codependency: the loss of self, the need to appease someone important to us, and the need to control the consequences of the other’s behavior. Let’s talk about each of those.
Loss of self: This early-stage of codependency looks like we’re paying an increasing amount of attention to someone else. We may monitor their moods, become hypervigilant, and feel a strong desire to please them. In this phase, we deny or rationalize their problem behaviors and fabricate explanations that maintain our sense of safety. We may endure gaslighting because our focus is on keeping them calm and minimizing verbal or physical attacks, or some other problematic behavior. We are as invisible as possible. We learn that we don’t matter.
Need to appease: This stage takes increased effort as we continue denying or minimizing the more painful aspects of a relationship. We likely feel anxious, guilty, and ashamed, but we purposefully hide these feelings from ourselves and others, along with our relationship problems. We may withdraw from other relationships and activities we enjoy. Our self-esteem decreases, and we continue to compromise ourselves to maintain a semblance of stability or predictability. Our focus is on taking someone’s “emotional temperature.” We learn to adjust our behavior and expectations according to what we sense is happening with them. We may feel angry, disappointed, unloved, or unimportant when we’re in this phase of codependency. We may begin using other maladaptive coping behaviors, including eating, bingeing, self-harming, stealing, engaging in risky sexual activity, or abusing substances.
Need to control consequences: In late-stage codependency, emotional and behavioral symptoms start affecting us. We may experience health issues like stomachaches, nightmares, headaches, muscle pain, tension, and TMJ. Self-esteem and self-care are almost nonexistent at this point, replaced by feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, anger, resentment, and overall unhappiness. We may begin to feel more symptoms of C-PTSD if we live with repetitive traumatic events.
When we’re in healthy relationships, we don’t feel obligated to help others avoid their naturally occurring consequences. Instead, both parties understand that outcomes should be experienced by the person who’s responsible for causing them.
When we develop codependent coping skills as children, we will more than likely take them with us into adulthood, if we haven’t learned healthy ways of coping. If we became codependent as children, we were probably caretakers for other adults or siblings. We were likely required to mature quickly and take responsibilities that were not age-appropriate. When it felt unsafe for us to be around our caretaker, we learned to tiptoe around the instability. We learned to “put-up and shut-up.” We monitored moods and responded accordingly, we noticed behavioral patterns, and we became very good at predicting behavior. We learned how to take the initiative in making someone else’s life easier or better so we could feel a sense of stability and safety. We became accustomed to doing things for them and others that they could do for themselves. Controlling our environment became equivalent to feeling safe.
Letting go of and no longer controlling the outcomes and consequences of someone else’s actions are some of the first steps in healing codependency.
As codependent adults, we spend time thinking about how to please and caretake others while our own social, professional, and personal responsibilities get neglected. We continue focusing on others despite the problems it creates. Because we still desire love, connection, and affection, we will continue compromising ourselves, emotionally caretaking and chasing after love and affection, while settling for crumbs and feeling unloved, unseen and not good enough. These behaviors eventually affect our ability to have healthy, mutually satisfying adult relationships. Because we feel confused, distrustful, hesitant, disoriented, and emotionally exhausted, we often find ourselves searching for answers and explanations as to why we feel this way.
We may also seek out individuals who fit with our codependent personality. Codependency lends itself nicely to all kinds of unhealthy relationships. It wouldn’t be unusual to find ourselves in relationships involving alcoholism, substance abuse, verbal or physical abuse, and mental illness, including narcissism. Those who have experienced childhood trauma or abuse may eventually find themselves in abusive, toxic, or less-than-satisfying adult relationships. It makes sense: this toxic person’s behavior and way of relating to us seem familiar, and we already know our role and what’s expected of us within the relationship.
As codependents, we try forcing ourselves painfully into a mold that we will never fit into. And we repeatedly try to become someone else’s idea of who we should be. Not knowing details about yourself that you know about other’s in your life, like favorite foods, music, authors, etc. are the result of an other-directed, other-focused upbringing.
Codependents enjoy offering suggestions and advice even though they haven’t been asked for them. If we’re codependent, we feel responsible for people and issues that aren’t our responsibility. If we don’t attempt to help, fix, or control, we often feel guilty or ashamed. It feels wrong or selfish when we don’t jump in, take charge, or assist others who seem to be struggling. It feels wrong not to help even when they haven’t asked for our help. We feel that somehow it’s our job to take action, take over, and fix. We often feel the need to make excuses for others’ mistreatment of us or their poor behavior in general. We explain and justify to ourselves why it’s OK for them to do so. We often take the blame or minimize and deny the pain they cause. We codependents are famously known for our discomfort with saying, “no.”
If we’re codependent, we most likely don’t have boundaries. We’ll overexplain and defend ourselves because we want to been seen, affirmed, validated and understood. We’ll continuously seek affirmation outside of ourselves to feel “good enough” or like we matter. Others often describe us as needy, “clingy,” or insecure.
How to know if you’re codependent
Are you codependent?
- Have you taken actions that prevent someone from feeling or experiencing the consequences of their choices?
- Have you tried to control the outcome of a particular situation or event?
- Have you taken responsibility for someone’s actions or poor choices?
When you take responsibility (or accept blame or make excuses) for someone’s harmful or hurtful behavior, it “enables” them to keep doing it. (a) You’ve taken all the responsibility away from them and placed it on yourself, and (b) there are no negative consequences from which they can learn.
- Do you do things for other’s that they could do for themselves?
Although it often feels right to take care of others, we’re often left feeling taken advantage of or resentful. So, if you feel resentful about something you did or are doing for someone, it might be that you’re using codependent behavior.
- Have I/do I try to manage or control someone or their choices?
- Have I taken on responsibilities that aren’t mine?
- Have I ever been called “controlling” or a “control freak?”
- Do I take care of others by cleaning up their messes, both figuratively and otherwise?
Codependency includes behaviors like the ones listed below. How many of these do you notice in yourself?
- Being preoccupied or concerned with the needs of others
- Placing a low priority on your own needs
- Being attracted to needy or emotionally unavailable people
- Believing that you have to be in a romantic relationship before you your life feels meaningful
- Trying to control another’s behavior
- Feeling incapable of ending a harmful or toxic relationship
- Trying to please everyone even though you know you’ll feel resentful
- Not taking time for yourself, or ignoring your self-care
- Fearing for another’s safety but being willing to risk your safety
- Shielding someone from the consequences of their actions
- Taking responsibility for how another person feels
- Taking responsibility for what another person does
- Trying to fix someone’s problem when they haven’t asked you to
- Helping because it makes you feel better
- Feeling like your life is full of unwanted drama
Healing requires acknowledging your pain without letting it define you. Our wounds have left scars that will always be with us. But when we start healing and moving forward, the scars fade over time, hurting less, becoming less obvious, and we can truly heal and move forward. Healthy coping mechanisms help us to make sense of confusing or threatening life experiences and to respond appropriately in wholesome ways. When we use healthy coping skills, we’re able to “reframe” unpleasant events in a way that is healthier for us and feels better too. Reframing is a step in the healing process.
When we’re free of codependent thinking and coping, we will understand and accept that we’re separate and complete beings. We have a strong sense of self, and our boundaries are squarely in place. We feel comfortable continuing to set new boundaries that keep us healthy, happy, and safe. We don’t feel any need to justify, explain, or make sense of another person’s behavior, to ourselves or anyone else. We understand that other’s choices and actions are their responsibility, not ours. People are entitled to have thoughts and feelings about you that are incorrect. It’s not your job to correct their thinking. They will see you the way they see you. If you argue with them, defend yourself or get emotional, you will become drained, while they are being recharged.
Once you have healthy boundaries in place, you will experience a shift in your emotions. You may start to notice that your sense of safety, security, and control, no longer need to come from people-pleasing and manipulating outcomes. Instead, they’ll come from your boundaries.
Living as a codependent means that we’re not going to get our needs met, yet asking for anything on our own behalf feels wrong, imposing, excessive, or selfish. We’re afraid of dissatisfying others. If we disappoint anyone, it often leads to feeling guilt and shame, yet we continually look for someone to please. We make excuses for their poor behavior or mistreatment of us, minimizing the pain they cause. Holding on to this mindset and behavior pattern will attract dysfunctional people to us.
It helps to take a pretty deep and fearless dive into what’s actually going on with our thoughts and behavior. When I was ready, I began looking at how I chose to spend my time, noticing who benefited from it and who did not. I started to see it when I took care of others’ needs and ignored or denied my own. I asked myself why I made the choices I did. Little by little, I learned to live in awareness, with intention. (Not always, but more and more often!) My negative self-talk once enforced my belief that everyone’s needs were more important than my own. I started changing the self-talk, and I questioned, then changed, those limiting beliefs.
Some of the other steps I took to break free of codependency in addition to self-awareness were: living in the moment, focusing on one day at a time, building a network of emotionally healthy people and letting go of ones who weren’t, and prioritizing self-care. As I learned to become aware of my codependent thinking and behaving, I was better able to let go of my desire to control outcomes, no matter how good my intentions were. I got comfortable watching friends and loved ones deal with the consequences of their poor choices. I had to sit still and stay uninvolved when they made poor decisions, even if it hurt them or cost them money or relationships. I learned to give them the freedom and dignity to make their own choices and to deal and learn from the outcomes on their own. I learned to stop fixing and rescuing. I learned how to detach with love, set boundaries, and focus on self-care.
Setting boundaries, saying “no,” and letting others learn their life lessons “the hard way” became a few of my goals. I started to see my role in creating trauma bonds, and I learned how to break those bonds. It was a slow, deliberate, and sometimes painful process.
Tools for healing:
Conscious awareness: Be aware and make conscious choices before acting. Self-awareness releases us from making impulsive and potentially damaging decisions.
Self-care: We can only choose to focus on and be responsible for ourselves, our own thoughts, actions, and behavior. The good news is that we can change ourselves with patience, persistence, and practice. We can take responsibility for getting our needs met, instead of waiting for someone to change or meet our needs for us. We are in control of ourselves and no one is responsible for us but us.
Learn about letting go of what you can’t control, by using loving-detachment
Learn about expectations
Learn about setting boundaries
About the author
Diane Metcalf is an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer on the topics of domestic violence, abuse, and family dysfunction. Currently, she writes about toxic relationships and recovery tools. Diane holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and has worked in numerous fields, including domestic violence and abuse. She holds a Master of Science degree in Information Technology.
As a result of growing up in a dysfunctional home, and with the help of professional therapists and continued personal growth, she has developed strong coping skills and healing strategies. She happily shares those insights with others who want to learn and recover.
Her books and articles are the results of her education, knowledge, and personal insight regarding her own abusive experiences and subsequent recovery work. She is no longer a practicing Social Worker, Counselor, Program Manager or Advocate, nor is she or has she ever been a licensed psychologist.
Currently, Diane runs her own website design company, Image and Aspect, and writes articles and tutorials for Tips and Snips, her inspirational blog for creative people. She continues to learn and write about Emotional Healing.
This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.