Are You Codependent?
By Danielle Carney, LMHC
So many people struggle in relationships. Whether that’s because they’ve had difficult romantic relationships, a history of relational trauma in their families, or even unhealthy friendships, it can be difficult to show up in a healthy, positive way in relationships when you’ve had primarily negative relational experiences. As I often talk about, our experiences (fortunately or unfortunately) shape us.
A pattern that comes up often in my work as a relationship therapist is codependency. Maybe you’ve heard of this concept, maybe not. Either way, we’re getting into it!
What is codependency?
Codependency is a learned pattern of behavior that limits a person’s ability to have healthy, fulfilling relationships. Being codependent in relationships means that your happiness and sense of self-worth disproportionately relies on sources outside of you, whether that be in a romantic relationship, friendship, or with family.
This relational dynamic was first named and studied within partners and families where one partner had an addiction to alcohol or other substances. It has grown in popularity and is now used to describe an enabling or dysfunctional relationship. Codependency is not a clinical diagnosis or a personality disorder. It can, however, cause significant distress and is definitely something that can be addressed in therapy.
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines codependency as, “the state of being mutually reliant” and “a dysfunctional relationship pattern in which an individual is psychologically dependent on (or controlled by) a person who has a pathological condition (e.g., alcohol, gambling).”
The way I describe codependency as a therapist specializing in relationship issues is that it is a general lopsidedness in relationships where one person assumes the role of “giver,” and the other falls into the role of “taker.” It shows up in a lack of boundaries, low self-esteem, and reliance on external sources of validation to feel okay.
People who struggle with codependency have lost touch with their internal worth, and instead base their worth on how others treat them and think about them. They take care of others’ desires and needs, and tend to neglect their own. They make decisions based on how they believe others will think or feel about them, rather than on what they think or feel. Because codependency is based on controlling others’ emotions and thoughts, it often leads to more conflict and pain and makes emotional intimacy more difficult.
Codependency is tricky because a lot of the time, people just don’t know any different. It’s one of those things that we can’t know until we do, which brings us to how this way of relating usually begins.
What causes codependency?
Like I touched on already, codependency usually is learned through relational experiences someone has had in their life. People can learn to be codependent by observing their caregivers in their families of origin and adopting these behaviors as their own. In families where there are issues like addiction or eating disorders, this is more common. People then take these rules they’ve internalized about relationships in their families and begin applying them to other relationships, too.
It is important to note that anyone can fall into unhealthy dynamics in relationships. Even if someone didn’t necessarily grow up around codependent dynamics, they can also show up in romantic relationships and friendships.
Research has suggested that codependency has biological, social, and psychological contributors:
- Biological: The prefrontal cortex in the brain of a person who struggles with codependency may fail to suppress empathic responses. This can create an excess of empathy, making it easier to become codependent.
- Psychological: People who are codependent may be psychologically predisposed to care for others. They might also be affected psychologically by adverse life experiences, such as growing up in a home with significant conflict or if they are a victim of neglect or emotional abuse.
- Social: Codependency may result from societal expectations of women as caretakers. Having a family member or close friend with an addiction or mental illness or experiencing childhood trauma can lead people to feel anxious or insecure about relationships.
The good news is that you can also unlearn codependent patterns with time, willingness, and consistency.
How do I know if I'm codependent?
When relationships feel out of balance, they could be headed towards codependent patterns. Specifically, when one person makes themselves responsible for another person’s needs and desires and begins neglecting their own, we’ve entered codependency territory.
Codependent relationships often feel like there’s an imbalance of power between the people involved. Disproportionate power is given to the “taker,” while the “giver” feels like they need to keep on giving, even when they don’t necessarily want to. They feel obligated to keep giving no matter what, and they fear what would happen if they stopped.
Common signs of codependency include:
- Poor boundaries and difficulty saying “no”
- Seeking out and feeling a need for approval from others
- Worrying excessively about what others think of you
- Low self-esteem
- Taking on more work than you can realistically handle
- Over-apologizing or taking blame in order to keep the peace
- Avoiding conflict
- Minimizing or ignoring your own desires and needs
- Being overly concerned about other people
- A need for control or making decisions for others or trying to “manage” loved ones
- Mood changes based on the emotions of those around you
- Difficulty prioritizing yourself
- Experiencing guilt when you do something for yourself or when you can’t do something for someone else
- Doing things you don’t really want to do to make others happy
- Fear of rejection or abandonment
That just feels normal. Why is it unhealthy?
I can understand why it feels normal if this pattern is all you’ve known throughout your life. Sometimes it’s difficult to recognize the things we’ve grown up around and have always done aren’t actually healthy.
While relying on your partner or other relationships in some ways is absolutely healthy and necessary, when there are unclear or missing boundaries in those relationships, it might be a reason to take a look at those dynamics.
A lack of boundaries and overextending yourself in relationships is a setup for resentment, loneliness, and conflict. On the other side of the dynamic, when someone has everything done for them and doesn’t experience natural consequences, they often have no reason to look at their behaviors and to change. Even if it feels like it might help, you’re not really doing someone any favors by saving them from the product of their own choices. Not to mention, if this becomes a pattern it can also contribute to mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
Relationships ideally should feel reciprocal, balanced, and mutually beneficial. When codependency is a part of the picture, using these words as descriptors feels far out of reach. People in codependent relationships can initially feel like it’s nice to feel important and needed, or on the other side, being taken care of and fawned over. However, if there is imbalance on either side, there might be some work to do!
Self-awareness is the first and most important step to overcoming codependency. This might be possible on your own, but I’d highly recommend working with a relationship therapist to help you draw boundaries in your relationships and build self-worth.