What is Codependency?

By  Sharon Martin

Codependency is a group of traits that develop in childhood as a way to cope with trauma. Many of us grew up in families with addiction, mental illness, or other problems. Others of us had seemingly normal childhoods, but codependent traits and patterns were passed downunknowingly by our parents.

Codependent traits are most apparent in our relationship struggles, but they ultimately represent our difficulties in loving, accepting, trusting, and being our true selves. We’re plagued by shame, guilt, and feelings of inadequacy which lead us to constantly try to please others, prove ourselves, and seek validation.

As codependents we’re focused outward – on trying to please, help, fix, and control other people and situations. We base our happiness and feelings on what other people are doing, rather than on our own internal feelings and values. Over time, we aren’t living our own lives. We become some wrapped up – obsessed at times – in other people’s problems that we lose track of who we are, what we want, and how to be happy within ourselves.

There are many characteristics or symptoms of codependency. I’ve listed some of them below (although I’m sure there are still more). Deciding whether you’re codependent or not isn’t about how many of these traits you have, but more about whether they are causing you distress and interfering with your health, peace of mind, and relationships.

Characteristics of codependency:

  • You focus on other people’s problems and needs in the form of caretaking, controlling, advice giving, and worrying about others.
  • You can be controlling and perfectionistic. You want things to be done a certain way and may resort to telling others what to do and how to do it. You can be critical of others because they often don’t live up to your expectations. Your high standards also make it hard to ask for or accept help.
  • You struggle when things don’t go as planned. You crave predictability, structure, and certainty — things you probably didn’t have in your childhood family.
  • You’re self-critical. You also set unrealistic expectations for yourself and are harsh and critical of your imperfections and mistakes. Your self-criticism is a result of your low self-esteem and the harsh criticism you’ve gotten from others.
  • You feel responsible for everything and everyone, even other people’s happiness.
  • You’re afraid to upset or disappoint others (people-pleasing). So, you’re always dependable and responsible. People count on you, but this can lead to over-extending yourself and exhaustion.
  • You have trouble with boundaries, speaking up for yourself, and saying “no”. At times, you let people mistreat or take advantage of your kindness because you don’t want to hurt their feelings, let them down, or create a conflict.
  • You ignore your own feelings and needs, often “stuffing” them or numbing them.
  • Since your focus in on others and you don’t feel worthy, you generally ignore or put your needs last.
  • In addition to denying your feelings and needs, you may have a hard time seeing how unmanageable or unhappy your life has become. These are forms of denial.
  • You base your happiness on what other people are feeling or doing. For example, if your spouse is in a good mood, you can relax and enjoy the day. But if s/he’s angry or depressed, your day is ruined. You have a hard time separating yourself from other people’s feelings, needs, and experiences.
  • You define yourself in relation to others (I’m Johnny’s dad) and lack a strong sense of self (knowing who you are, what you believe, want, and like).
  • You’re very hurt. For some, the pain is close to the surface and for others, it’s buried underneath anger and denial. The pain of being abused, lied to, cheated on, ignored, cursed at, rejected, or invalidated has never fully healed.
  • You feel guilty and ashamed. Guilt and shame are the roots of low self-worth and low self-esteem. For a long time, you’ve felt there was something wrong with you. Perhaps someone told you this directly or you may have come to this conclusion based on how you’ve been treated. For example, Jasmine’s mother repeatedly invalidated her feelings and called her a “greedy little slut”; she grew up feeling unlovable and like there’s something wrong with her.
  • You act like a martyr, taking care of everyone else, giving without receiving, and then feeling angry, resentful and taken advantage of. Sometimes helping and taking care of others makes you feel good (needed and worthwhile) and other times it makes you feel angry and resentful. You may complain, yell, or passive-aggressively let people know you’re upset about “having to do everything”, but chances are you continue your pattern of martyrdom.
  • You’re reactive. Anger and resentments build up over time causing you to seemingly overreact at times.
  • You tend to overwork and overschedule yourself as ways to prove your worth or distract yourself.
  • Intimacy, open communication, and trust are difficult because you didn’t have role models for healthy relationships and you’ve probably been hurt and betrayed in your relationships.
  • You’re afraid of anger, criticism, rejection, and failure. So, you “play it safe” and keep a low profile.
  • You may experience anxiety and/or depression. And even if you don’t have a clinical level of anxiety, you may feel tense, anxious, or on-edge frequently.

Did you recognize yourself in this list of codependency symptom? Codependency can be hard to accept because it’s got such a negative connotation. Many codependents feel ashamed, blamed, and like they’ve done something wrong to cause all these problems. So, I want you to take two important things away from this article about codependency:

  1. Codependency is not your fault. You didn’t cause it. You became codependent as a way to cope with an out of control situation. No one taught you a healthy way to cope, so your codependent traits developed. Now, however, codependency causes you problems and gets in the way of having a happy, healthy relationship with yourself and others. So, although you didn’t cause it, you are the only one who can change your codependent thinking and behaviors. You can beg and plead and pray that your loved one goes to treatment or changes in some way, but that isn’t the solution to your codependency. The solution is to learn to accept yourself and others just as they are, to stop trying to control what happens, and take care of yourself. It’s hard, hard work. Loving someone who has a serious problem like addiction is heart-wrenching and so is accepting that you can’t save them.
  1. There is a path out of codependency. Codependency can feel like being trapped in a maze – you’re lost and alone, walking in circles with no direction, and you can’t see any way out. You don’t have to see the entire path out right now; you just need to believe there is one. You need to take one step today towards knowing, caring for, and being your authentic self. And tomorrow you’ll take another step. That’s how you find your way back to yourself – literally one step at a time.

I hope that this article helps you to better understand codependency and reduce the shame you may be feeling. I know it can be hard to see yourself in this list of codependent traits. Awareness and acceptance, however, are always the first steps of change.

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    • Hi, thanks for commenting. I appreciate it. I am glad you found it helpful. All the best Erin

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