What Is Codependency?
Codependency is when a person relies excessively on another to meet their emotional or psychological needs. This dependency often creates an imbalanced relationship where one person is the primary caregiver, and the other is reliant on the care of this person. In any codependent relationship, it takes two to tango.
The person in the caregiver role may feel their worth comes from being needed by another. The codependent person may feel they can't live without the other and may pressure the caregiver to satisfy their needs. Both roles of codependency are afflicted by low self-esteem and low self-worth. This dynamic creates a cycle of need and needing to feel needed.
Codependency often occurs in romantic relationships or within family structures. For example, a mother who isn't willing to let her adult son move out of her home because she relies on him to take care of her. Or a person who relies on their partner as their only source of happiness and validation.
Codependency isn't considered an illness or disorder; however, it can reflect an unhealthy attachment style. Our attachment style develops in childhood, and it reflects the level of attachment security you felt with your parents or caregivers growing up.
Why Is Codependency Problematic?
Codependency is an unhealthy dynamic where a relationship between two or more people is imbalanced and often driven by some level of emotional manipulation.
Healthy relationships have a balance of giving and taking, and each person's identity exists separate from the other. In codependent relationships, one or both people’s identity and self-worth are tied to the other person's regard for them.
Having high self-esteem can help prevent you from falling into a codependent relationship. Although, a highly empathic person, regardless of self-esteem, can be "tricked" into becoming a caretaker to a codependent person.
Codependent relationships can eventually become toxic. If you're playing the caregiver role, you may often feel guilty, manipulated, bullied, and controlled. These feelings can lead to resentment of the person you're caring for, yet your need to help them won't allow you to detach. Feelings of love and pity can often be confused in this relationship dynamic.
What can be most frustrating about codependent relationships is that the caregiver expends so much energy helping the one in need without any sign of them wanting to take control of their situation. You may find yourself comforting and soothing this person time and time again, yet they don't make an effort to do the work on themselves.
The Signs of Codependency
Below are some characteristics and personality traits of a codependent person.
- People-pleasing: You may be afraid to say no to people because you don't want to disappoint them. The thought of disappointing someone may cause a lot of distress.
- Low self-esteem: Feeling like you're not worthy of healthy love, feeling as if you're not good enough, and comparing yourself to others are some signs of low self-esteem.
- Difficulty with setting boundaries: Like people-pleasing, you often let others take advantage of your kindness and have difficulty establishing boundaries for yourself.
- Savior complex: You feel the need to help others even if it means ignoring your own needs.
- Controlling behaviors and bossiness: Codependents often feel the need to control the people closest to them. This could include emotional manipulation or telling someone what they should and shouldn't do.
- Depending on others for validation: Codependents need to feel liked and validated by others to feel good about themselves. The fear of not being liked can cause anxiety.
- Fear of abandonment: Fearing that people won't stick around if they get to know the real you or feeling like you won't be able to go on without that person.
- Poor communication: An inability to be earnest about your feelings, wants, and needs. Often wording things in a way that won't hurt the feelings of others but also doesn't clearly communicate your own feelings.
- Projecting your frustrations onto others: Picking at others as a reflection of your insecurities.
- Avoiding conflict: You feel you need to keep your feelings and opinions to yourself to keep the peace.
Recovering From and Treating Codependency
Codependency is a learned behavior. You may have seen it or experienced it within your family growing up, or you may have found yourself in a relationship that unexpectedly turned codependent. The good news is that the same way codependence is a learned behavior, it can be unlearned.
Through education, therapy, and even group counseling, you can learn to recognize the signs of codependency and work on yourself so that you begin to attract the right people into your life.
A big part of recovering from codependency is learning how to set boundaries. It's essential to get to know yourself, your needs, and what kind of behaviors you're willing to tolerate without spreading yourself too thin.
Therapy focuses on creating a strong sense of self-worth, increasing self-esteem, and getting in touch with the root cause of your attachment issues.
Codependent couples can also work together with a therapist to learn healthier behaviors and ways of expressing love and emotion toward one another. Some steps you may be encouraged to take to unlearn codependency as a couple can include:
- Spending time on hobbies and activities separate from each other
- Learning self-soothing techniques
- Creating a wider network of support, so the codependent isn't solely relying on one person
- Setting boundaries and becoming comfortable enforcing them
How We Can Help
If you feel like you may be in a codependent relationship, National Mental Health can help. We offer in-person and telehealth psychiatry with certified counselors.
Through psychotherapy, we can help you recognize codependent patterns, understand their source and work with you to build a foundation for attracting healthy relationships into your life. Codependency isn't typically treated with medication. Though if depression or anxiety are contributing factors to your codependency, medication may help you deal with these problematic emotions keeping you stuck in the cycle of codependence. We can provide online psychiatric help and prescribe medicine online if needed.