What is codependency?
Codependency is a broad term and it can manifest in a variety of ways. Below are some of the most common symptoms of codependency. You don’t need to have them all to consider yourself codependent. I find it’s helpful to think of codependency on a spectrum – some of us experience more symptoms and distress due to our codependent traits than others.
Symptoms of codependency include:
- You feel responsible for other people’s feelings and choices; try to rescue, fix, make them feel better, or solve their problems.
- You feel frustrated and resentful when others don’t want your help or advice.
- You derive a sense of purpose from taking care of others.
- Your relationships can have an obsessive quality.
- You have difficulty accepting help.
- Your fear of abandonment and rejection result in people-pleasing and tolerating mistreatment.
- You’re hard-working, overly responsible, and may give to the point of exhaustion or resentment.
- You have perfectionist tendencies.
- You have trouble saying “no”, setting boundaries, being assertive, and asking for what you need/want.
- You routinely prioritize other people’s needs and wants above your own; don’t practice self-care routinely and feel guilty when you do.
- You’re afraid of conflict.
- You have difficulty trusting and being emotionally vulnerable.
- You suppress or numb your feelings and absorb other people’s feelings.
- You have low self-esteem, feel unlovable, or not good enough.
- You want to feel in control and have a hard time adjusting when things don’t go according to plan or the way you want.
Where does codependency come from?
Many people who grew up in dysfunctional families struggle with codependency in adulthood. Codependent traits usually develop as a result of childhood trauma, often in families where a parent is addicted, mentally ill, abusive or neglectful. These traits can also be passed down from one generation to the next in dysfunctional families.
To learn more about how codependent traits develop, you can read these articles:
Codependent traits serve a purpose in childhood – they help us cope with scary, confusing, and unpredictable family lives – but they cause us problems in adulthood. Codependency gets in the way of having happy, healthy relationships.
What are codependent relationships?
Before we explore how to avoid or change codependent patterns, let’s take a look at some examples of codependent relationships.
Example: Codependent Relationship #1
Diane has been married to Ron, an alcoholic, for 35 years. At home, Diane constantly nags Ron about everything from his drinking to his eating habits to his choice of friends. But when anyone else criticizes or questions Ron, she’s quick to defend him and goes out of her way to appear happy and portray an image that they’re a perfect family. Diane and Ron have two adult sons – one they’re estranged from and one who lives nearby with his family. Diane blames Ron for pushing away their son with his anger and criticisms. Meanwhile, Diane has a contentious relationship with her other son and daughter-in-law. She fails to respect their requests for personal space and privacy. Against their wishes, she shows up at their house unannounced, gives their children extravagant gifts, and gives unwanted parenting advice. Diane can’t understand what she’s doing wrong and why they don’t want her to be involved. Diane volunteers at her church but otherwise has few close friends or interests.
Example: Codependent Relationship #2
Miguel, age 43, lives with his wife, step-son, adult daughter from his first marriage and her toddler. Miguel is steady, hardworking, and has a big heart. His wife struggles with alcoholism and has been in and out of treatment throughout their marriage. Miguel has tried relentlessly to help her stay sober, but it never lasts more than a couple of months. When she’s on a drinking binge, Miguel takes over all of her responsibilities -- takes care of her son, cleans up after her, and is vigilant that she doesn’t drive drunk. Even when his wife is sober, Miguel takes the lead in emotionally supporting his step-son who is frequently in trouble in school. Miguel is the one who arranges counseling and tutoring and stays up late helping him with homework. Miguel is also financially supporting his daughter and granddaughter. He wishes his daughter would get a job but doesn’t want to pressure her.
Example: Codependent Relationship #3
George, 25, is recently single and trying to move on after discovering his girlfriend Jocelyn cheated on him. During his two years with Jocelyn, George distanced himself from most of his friends (because they didn’t like Jocelyn) and gave up many of his hobbies in favor of spending time with her. Now, he feels extremely lonely and anxious without Jocelyn. He second-guesses his decision to end the relationship, feels guilty, and worries that Jocelyn’s angry with him. George wanted to remain friends, but Jocelyn has blocked him on social media. Then, last week, Jocelyn asked for a ride to work while her car was in the shop. George’s roommate questioned why he’d drive 20 miles out of his way, but George said he knew Jocelyn didn’t have money for an Uber and he’d “never make her take the bus”.
Diane, Miguel, and George each have different codependent traits, but they’re all unfulfilled due to their codependent relationships.
Codependency isn’t inevitable. Left unchecked, it will continue to result in unhealthy relationships, but with consistent effort, you can change your codependent traits.
How to avoid codependent relationships
Codependency is a long-standing pattern, which means it’s going to take time and practice to learn new ways of thinking about yourself and new ways of relating to others. You may find the following ideas helpful in beginning to change your codependent relationships.
1) Instead of denying your own needs, prioritize self-care. Self-care is the foundation of our emotional and physical health. This includes adequate sleep, exercise, solitude, reflection, spiritual practices, socializing, pursuing hobbies and interests. As codependents, we often sacrifice our own needs in order to take care of others. When we do this, we’re likely to get sick, irritable, resentful, impatient, disconnected from ourselves, and possibly depressed and anxious. We need to create balance in our lives by meeting our own needs first and giving to others when we’re able to do so without sacrificing our own wellbeing. We also need to take responsibility for communicating our feelings, wants, and needs – even when we’re not used to or we’re afraid. We can’t assume that others know what we want/need if we don’t tell them.
2) Instead of compulsively trying to fix or take care of others, let others make their own choices. Codependents tend to have big hearts; we care a lot and don’t like to see people suffer, but we also tend to be controlling. We need to remember that we can’t control others; we can’t make them change or get help, even when we have their best interest at heart. And often, trying to force our solutions on people, only makes things worse. Instead, we need to focus on taking care of ourselves and allowing others to make their own choices and deal with the consequences.
3) Instead of seeking approval from others, value yourself. Codependents tend to look to others for validation and approval. When we do this, we give our power away; we allow others to determine our worth instead of deciding for ourselves. We can build our self-esteem and learn to love and value ourselves by noticing our strengths, forgiving ourselves for our mistakes, and most importantly, remembering that love doesn’t have to be earned; we are all inherently worthy and important.
4) Instead of judging and criticizing yourself, practice self-compassion. We set unrealistic expectations for ourselves, expect ourselves to be perfect, and then berate ourselves for falling short. It’s a cruel cycle (one you probably experienced in childhood) that doesn’t inspire us to grow and improve. Instead, self-criticism demotivates people and decreases self-esteem. We deserve to treat ourselves with the same loving kindness that we show others when they’re struggling. When you notice yourself being self-critical, think about what you might say to a friend in the same situation and remember that mistakes are part of being human -- we don’t have to be perfect.
5) Instead of people-pleasing, develop a stronger sense of self. As codependents, we tend to let relationships define us -- we lose our own identities and give up what’s important to us. We can avoid this by reconnecting with our interests, goals, values, and friends. We can make time to do what’s meaningful to us, rather than deriving our worth from being someone’s spouse, parent, or best friend – or doing what will make other people happy.
6) Instead of being a martyr, ask for help. Most codependents hate asking for help. We don’t want to appear weak and would much prefer the superior role of helper. But it’s not realistic to do everything yourself and not need anything from others. Asking for help is normal and necessary and it can reduce exhaustion and resentment which can plague us when we feel like we have to do it all ourselves.
7) Instead of letting people take advantage of your kindness, set boundaries and be assertive. Boundaries create safety in relationships; they communicate your expectations and how you want to be treated. Contrary to popular belief, boundaries aren’t selfish or unkind. It’s healthy to communicate your needs and let people know what’s okay and what’s not okay. Try using these 10 steps to practice setting boundaries.
Changing your codependent patterns can feel like a big undertaking. Just choose one thing to focus on to begin. Making small changes will add up! If you’d like additional support, I created an e-book called Navigating the Codependency Maze: A Path to Freedom and Healthy Relationships that provides more detailed information and practical exercises for reducing codependency in your relationships.
©2019 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
photo courtesy of Canva.com
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