Codependency is a popular term, and you may wonder or worry if you are codependent or if you are in some form of a codependent relationship. Psychologists and therapists suggest that co-dependency is part of the human condition, and many of us engage in codependent behaviors from time to time. Others remain in these recurring, painful patterns and find it difficult to ever break free.
Author Melody Beattie popularized codependency in Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself (Simon & Schuster, 1986), which defines a codependent as one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.
Codependency can also involve dependency on specific people with many types of ‘isms’ such as compulsive behaviors, workaholics, or other addictions like gambling. The person you are in a relationship with may not have any known ‘isms’ though could still be emotionally abusive and extremely controlling.
What is codependency?
Codependency refers to a relationship addiction characterized by extreme dependence, such as emotional, social and physical, on another person. Codependency is usually involved when you want the other person in the relationship to do something to regulate your own emotions. The Positive Psychology Program defines codependency is a “psychological concept that refers to people who feel extreme amounts of dependence on certain loved ones in their lives, and who feel responsible for the feelings and actions of those loved ones.”
In this blog, we’re using the term “codependency” broadly, not limiting it to those who are in families or relationships with alcoholics, drug addicts (a/k/a chemically dependent) or in physically abusive relationships. Codependency was originally limited to a disorder affecting children and spouses of alcoholics and substance abusers, and over the years the term has been expanded to include those from dysfunctional families, according to Mental Health America (MHA).
A dysfunctional family is one in which emotions such as fear, anger or shame are ignored or denied. Conflict, misbehavior and often child neglect or abuse by parents occur regularly, leading other members to accommodate such actions.
Each person within a codependent relationship or family dynamic is getting something back in the codependent dynamic; there is reciprocity. Parents, however damaged, feel that they remain in control. Children, regardless of their awful family life, stay safe. The need to stay in control of ourselves and preserve the dynamic is a huge aspect of codependency.
Enmeshment as a function of codependency
Another aspect of codependency is “enmeshment” which are relationships with unclear and permeable boundaries. In both codependent and enmeshed relationships, there is confusion surrounding each partner’s individual identity. This entanglement keeps both parties from realizing full independence and from meeting their own needs in a healthy way.
According to Lisa A. Romano, certified life coach who specializes in codependency and narcissistic abuse: “When we enmesh with others, we have crossed a dangerous line. Not only have we abandoned ourselves, but we have also taught the other person to abandon themselves as well. When we take on the pain and emotions of others, we allow the other to lean on us in unhealthy ways.”
Here are 5 insights into codependency, and how to recover from it:
1) Recognize your own codependent behaviors and tendencies.
Control is a huge aspect of codependency, whether around an inability to control your own feelings, or trying to control or manipulate others in order to make yourself feel okay. Dysfunction and childhood trauma is often rooted in that need for control in codependent relationships. In your adult life, it may mean overreacting or lashing out when your partner lets you down. When you realize you can’t control the other person’s mood or action, you may even become depressed.
Breaking out of codependency starts with awareness. As noted earlier, there is reciprocity involved in codependent relationships. The trouble is in families, often the child doesn’t know there are other ways to behave and “be” within the family. For example, a child who suppresses their need for emotional comfort or even physical care may not speak out to their alcoholic parent for fear of getting the brunt of the parent’s abuse and anger. There is also the “walking on egg shells” aspect of not really knowing how the volatile person will react at the time.
The child will learn to suppress their emotions and avoid stating their needs, and over time, the pattern is ingrained and the child learns “my feelings aren’t important,” or any number of other unconscious beliefs which can stay stuck in us for years, or for a lifetime. The child isn’t used to a family where emotions are openly talked about so it becomes automatic behavior and habit not to express emotions freely. Adding to the trouble is that suppression reinforces itself: the child won’t know they are being suppressed and ignoring or discounting their own feelings often becomes a way of life for many.
How to spot your codependent patterns
Are you trying to stay safe? Do you always attract relationships of people who leave you? As therapist Terri Cole told Andrea Owen in Owen’s Kickass podcast entitled “High-functioning codependents: What it is and How to Heal It,” many of us trying to unconsciously heal our origin or childhood wounds: we find ourselves in the same relationship pattern as we grow older.
One great way to recognize your codependent behaviors when you are in a relationship with someone which presents issues for you, Cole says, is to ask yourself three questions:
- Who does this person remind me of?
- Where have I felt like this before?
- Why is this behavioral dynamic familiar to me?
Many of us unconsciously repeat the traumas of our childhood and seeking a do-over, Cole says. For example, if your boss reminds you of your unavailable father and you are afraid of him, recognizing the pattern and the feelings beneath is the first step to overcome that fear. “Muscle through the resistance,” Cole told Owen. Maybe you can be direct and show up with your boss in other ways without revealing he reminds you of your dad. Another way to view this is that the pattern has come up and made itself clear for you to overcome it and heal it.
2) Set firm boundaries with others.
Codependent people often have difficulty defining limits with others, such as around saying no or stopping the abuse, enmeshment, or resisting the codependent actions and reactions to that person.
The hardest parts of setting boundaries are learning to get in touch with your feelings when your boundaries are violated, breaking through those feelings and then voicing what your limits are with others and why. For more on how to set boundaries, see our June 2019 blog on “Setting Boundaries 101.”
Breaking away from co-dependent behaviors and setting healthy boundaries is difficult but rewarding. “When it matters the most to us, many of us say yes to someone when it should be no. You are saying no to you, and ‘I’ll keep suffering’,” says Hay House Radio coach and intuitive Nancy Levin. “Resentment builds and when we start to embrace healthy selfishness, you start to disengage and it may bring out feelings of guilt,” Levin says. That’s actually a good thing, and an indicator you are reprogramming yourself.
3) Embrace the feelings that follow.
After you set boundaries, you may feel a lot of discomfort and guilt; recognize that you are on your way to shed codependency. You may suffer from low self-esteem, and don’t express yourself much emotionally. Many codependents have low self-esteem, and aren’t in touch with their deepest feelings because it hasn’t felt safe to explore these feelings in the past.
Are you denying your own needs, thoughts and feeling with a specific person, or generally? Codependents look for anything outside of themselves to make them feel better, according to MHA. They find it hard to be themselves, and may have identity issues. Pay attention to how you talk to yourself and treat yourself, notes Darlene Lancer in the Codependency for Dummies Cheat Sheet.
“You may not necessarily know where the other person ends and you begin, and there is some belief around needing to adhere to their drama, their story but you actually have a choice around your own health. It’s not our duty to fulfill the needs of others,” Levin said in her show on Hay House Radio.
Much of “recovering” and breaking free of your most destructive codependent behaviors is around raising your self-esteem and confidence. Accept yourself and get in touch with your feelings. Lance says: “Don’t judge them. Feelings just are. They’re not logical or right or wrong.”
4) Let go of feeling powerless, and take action.
Fear is tied to feeling dependent and codependency. Generally speaking, we are all capable of becoming empowered. We are not truly empowered until we step out and actually use our personal power. Codependent people need help on getting empowered. Remember, no one can take away your internal power. No one can take your courage, joy and confidence away from you. Numerologist and astrologist Tania Gabrielle says to let go of feeling powerless, choose freedom and learn to trust your inner knowing by actively listening to your intuition. For more on self-care, see our Spirit Times blog, “Is Your Inner Child Holding you Back?” For more on intuition, see our blog, “Intuition: Your Still, Small Voice.”
Regaining a sense of authentic control and pleasure in life is essential. As MHA puts it: recovery from codependency is to process and let go of pain from the past and present, so that you can fully live your life joyfully.
“Therapy helps people see choices as well as gradually incorporate enjoyable, fulfilling activities back into their lives,” notes MHA of Northern Kentucky & Southwest Ohio in their download, “What is Codependency?” The organization recommends seeking therapy, inner reflection and meditation. In addition to private therapy, group therapy allows you to share experiences with others who identify with codependency, such as Codependents Anonymous International which offers 12-step meetings in many U.S. cities.
5) Embrace the change, and live in the moment.
Recovery in general is about letting go of the pain from the past and living in the present. Recovery from codependency is an ongoing job. Codependency is a continuum in that many of us don’t break free completely of our ingrained patterns of codependence. It is also a spectrum from minimal to severe and depending on the situation or relationship, symptoms can flare under stress.
To find out if you are codependent or have codependent tendencies, see the many resources available online, and listed below.
For a list of signs, see Codependents Anonymous International’s checklist. http://coda.org/index.cfm/meeting-materials1/patterns-and-characteristics-2011/
For a comprehensive list of resources, such as books and worksheets, see the lists toward the end of Positive Psychology Program’s article by Joaquin Selva here. https://positivepsychology.com/codependency-definition-signs-worksheets/, and see additional resources at the end of this article.
Additional resources used in this report:
Andrea Owen podcast with Terri Cole, http://yourkickasslife.com/podcast/193/
Codependency for Dummies Cheat Sheet from Codependency For Dummies, 2nd Edition, by Darlene Lancer, https://www.dummies.com/health/mental-health/codependency-for-dummies-cheat-sheet/
“Codependency: What Are The Signs & How To Overcome It,” by Joaquin Selva, https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/codependency-definition-signs-worksheets/
Mental Health America, https://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/co-dependency
Mental Health America of Northern Kentucky and Southwest Ohio, 2-page download, “What is Codependency?”
Linda Esposito, LCSW, “Research explains why the ties that bind are practically unbreakable,” Psychology Today, September 16, 2016, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/anxiety-zen/201609/6-signs-codependent-relationship
Lisa Romano, “Codependent Relationships and Enmeshment,” May 24, 2018, https://www.lisaaromano.com/blog/codependent-relationships-and-enmeshment