Challenging common myths about codependency
Codependency is a confusing term. And regardless of whether you like the term or not, it’s become a popular way to talk about a group of traits and inter-personal relationship dynamics that are usually the result of childhood trauma (such as growing up in a dysfunctional family) or generational trauma.
So, let’s quickly review some codependent traits.
- Difficulty setting boundaries and being assertive.
- Consistently prioritizing other people’s needs above your own.
- Enabling, rescuing, trying to fix other people’s problems.
- Needing to be needed.
- Fear of abandonment, rejection, criticism.
- Low self-esteem, feeling inadequate or unworthy.
- Unsure of who you are, what you like, believe, need, and feel.
- Not practicing self-care or paying attention to what you need.
- Suppressing or minimizing your feelings.
- Accepting blame for things you didn’t do or couldn’t control.
- Feeling responsible for other people’s feelings and choices.
- Feeling anxious, worried, and needing to feel in control.
Even when you read through a list of codependent traits like this one, you may still be confused about what codependency is and whether you’re codependent. So, let’s dispel five common myths about codependency.
5 Myths about Codependency
Myth #1 Anyone who helps others is being codependent.
People with codependent traits do spend a lot of time taking care of others, but that alone doesn’t make a person codependent. For example, buying groceries for your elderly neighbor during a pandemic or babysitting your brother’s kids while he goes on a job interview doesn’t mean you’re codependent.
Codependent caretaking tends to enable dysfunctional behavior, be excessive, and is sometimes unwanted.
People with codependent traits can put so much time and energy into taking care of others that they neglect their own needs. Their strong desire to help also serves as a way to feel needed and important; it’s central to their identity. Codependents don’t feel very good about themselves and caretaking is a way to feel valued and useful, which is why they feel compelled to do it even when it causes problems for them or others.
Codependents have a hard time saying “no” (or feel guilty when they do). So, they become exhausted and resentful from constantly giving and doing. They also tend to do things for others out of obligation or out of fear of being judged, rejected, or criticized.
Codependent caretaking can also involve enabling and trying to control and change people. When we help others avoid the negative consequences of their actions, we enable them to continue behaving in hurtful or dysfunctional ways. This isn’t really helping them. Instead, we’re trying to manage our own discomfort, anxiety, and feelings of helplessness.
In contrast, non-codependent caretaking has boundaries and is balanced with self-care. It isn’t done compulsively to validate your worth or quiet your anxiety. It’s respectful and not forced on people who don’t want to change or don’t want the particular solution you’re set on.
Myth #2 Codependency only happens in families with an alcoholic family member.
Codependency doesn’t only develop in families dealing with addiction. The concept of codependency originated from trying to understand the dynamics of women married to alcoholics, but as our understanding has grown over the years, we’ve realized that codependency can develop in a wide array of family situations – between spouses, parents and children, siblings, and even among friends.
People with codependent traits often grew up in families with addiction, untreated mental illness, abuse, or neglect. But there are still others with codependent traits who describe growing up without obvious signs of dysfunction. However, their families often have exceptionally high standards, not be attentive to your emotional needs, emphasize self-sacrifice over self-care, or be enmeshed (not encouraging children to develop a strong, independent self with differing beliefs, feelings, ideas, etc.), which may contribute to codependency. Codependency can also be passed down generationally.
Myth #3 You’re either codependent or you’re not.
Codependency isn’t all or nothing. You can have codependent traits to varying degrees. You may have only a few codependent traits, or you may have many. And you may feel the impact of them to varying degrees. For some people, codependent traits cause significant problems in their lives and for other people, they don’t (although it’s important to be sure this isn’t because of denial). Codependency isn’t a mental health diagnosis so there isn’t a definitive diagnostic criterion. Think of codependency as existing on a continuum.
Myth #4 Codependents are weak, needy, and create dysfunctional relationships.
You didn’t develop codependent traits because you’re weak. Quite the contrary; people with codependent traits are strong! They are survivors. Codependency is a natural and understandable reaction to trauma, overwhelming experiences, or inattentive or inconsistent parenting. Codependent traits develop as a way to cope. And although they may not be helpful now, they were the best way to cope when they developed.
Codependency isn’t your fault. Sometimes people with codependent traits think “I should be able to make my spouse (or child or parent) stop drinking. If I was stronger (or smarter or prettier), s/he’d stop.” This is flawed thinking that leaves you blaming yourself and trying to control the uncontrollable.
When you acknowledge your codependent traits, you are taking ownership of your thoughts and behaviors. Accepting your codependent traits doesn’t mean you are responsible for being mistreated or for anyone else’s poor choices or behaviors. And while many people with codependent traits are the victims of abuse and trauma, accepting your part in a dysfunctional relationship does not in any way justify or mean that you’re responsible for being abused or mistreated.
Myth #5 You’ll always be codependent.
If you choose to make changes, you won’t always have codependent traits. You can learn to think and behave differently. It can be a lengthy process, but people can change even long-standing patterns. I believe that acknowledging your codependent traits is the place to begin. As I said, I know that some people don’t like the term codependency and feel it’s blaming, but I think it can be empowering if you choose to make it so. When you recognize that some of your thoughts and behaviors are making you unhappy, unfulfilled, or unhealthy, you can begin to change them. You can start prioritizing your needs, discovering who you and what you like, and you can untangle yourself from unhealthy relationships.
© Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
Photo of couple courtesy of Canva.com.
Free yourself from codependent patterns
Navigating the Codependency Maze provides concrete exercises to help you manage anxiety, detach with love, break through denial, practice healthy communication, and end codependent thinking. It was written by Sharon Martin, a psychotherapist with over 20 years of experience helping people overcome codependency, people-pleasing and perfectionism and find their way back to themselves. For more info and to view sample pages, click HERE.