If you’re in a recovery program or are working on personal healing, you’ve probably heard the word “codependency.” But what are we actually talking about when we say “codependency?”
How do you know if you’re using codependent behavior when you relate to others? Well…do you attempt to control the outcomes of situations? Have you taken actions to prevent someone from feeling the consequences of their choices? Do you offer unsolicited advice or jump in and fix someone’s problems? If the answer’s yes, you’re likely using codependent behavior. It feels like we’re being really helpful, but it’s not helpful, it’s the opposite. Without experiencing consequences, people won’t learn from their mistakes.
Are you codependent?
Codependent behavior often leaves us feeling resentful. If you’re feeling resentful about something you did or are doing for someone, it might be because you’re using codependent behavior (also known as “enabling.”)
Adult codependents were brought up to emotionally care-take others. As kids, we were caretakers for our siblings and sometimes even for our parents. Often, we were required to “grow up” quickly and take responsibilities that were not age-appropriate. If it felt unsafe, we learned to tiptoe around and not upset anyone. We learned how to become invisible and stay “under the radar.” We monitored other people’s behavior and moods, and we became proactive in meeting other people’s needs so WE could feel a sense of stability and safety.
Now, as adults, we’re “people-pleasers” who spend our time finding resolutions for other people’s problems. And because we’re proactive, we spend time focusing on and observing others to see what we can do for them.
We become attracted to the idea of “potential.” And guess what? We become attracted to others because of their potential. We will find emotional, physical, and even financial resources to give to those who have untapped potential! And we’re willing to give our all. These lucky souls become our personal DIY projects; we gladly do anything to help them overcome their problems and obstacles. We go into debt, lose sleep, put ourselves in danger, give up our own goals, give up friends or family, whatever it takes. We feel needed, and we NEED to be needed! And we need to be liked.
Managing and “fixing” other people is just one aspect of codependency.
It feels good to care-take, but as I’ve mentioned, we’re often left feeling taken advantage of or resentful. Why is that? It’s because no one has asked us to fix their problems or their life or to shield them from the consequences of their actions. Deep down, we know this. In our hearts, we know that what we’re doing is unhealthy and that our focus needs to be on our own lives, but we aren’t comfortable doing that. Or we just don’t know how.
Other kinds of codependent behavior
In his book, Co-Dependency, An Emerging Issue, Robert Subby defines codependency as “an emotional, psychological and behavioral condition that develops as a result of an individual’s prolonged exposure to… a set of oppressive rules…which prevent the open expression of feeling, and direct discussion of personal (and) interpersonal problems.” That sure is an accurate mouthful!
I learned that I was exercising codependent behavior at a time in my life when I was actively “fixing” aspects of peoples’ lives when they hadn’t asked me to. I was also putting everyone else first, taking care of everyone’s needs even when they hadn’t asked me or expected it. I didn’t put myself on my own “to-do” list. I felt exhausted, used, angry, and resentful. Continuing to live this way didn’t make sense.
I needed to break this cycle, yet I didn’t know how. Eventually, I learned to “let go” of my controlling behaviors and to allow people the opportunity to feel the consequences of their own actions. This was extremely uncomfortable for me at first, and I often felt guilty for not “doing my job” of jumping in and “helping.”
Then someone told me that I needed to consider that when I get between someone and their rightful consequences, I may be interfering with their karma or the life lessons intended for them. Wow! I thought about that. With a lot of self-reflection, self-control, and practice, I became much more comfortable backing off. It became second nature to allow others the dignity to address their own problems and the opportunity to feel the natural consequences of their choices. It got a LOT easier as time passed. Now I consciously live this way.
Codependency includes these behaviors
- Being preoccupied or concerned with the needs of others
- Placing a low priority on our own needs
- Being attracted to needy and emotionally unavailable people
- Believing that we have to be in a romantic relationship before we consider our lives worthwhile
- Trying to control another’s behavior
- Feeling incapable of ending a negative or toxic relationship
- Trying to please everyone even though we know we’ll feel resentful
- Not taking time for ourselves, ignoring our self-care
- Fearing for another’s safety but being willing to risk our own safety
- Shielding someone from the consequences of their actions
- Taking responsibility for how another person feels
- Trying to fix another person’s problem when they haven’t asked you to
- Wanting to help or fix others because it makes US feel better
- Feeling like our lives are full of unwanted drama
What are your codependent behaviors?
- Have I/do I try to manage or control someone else’s life?
- Have I taken on responsibilities that aren’t mine?
- Have I been called a control freak?
- Do I “take care of” others by “cleaning up” their problems?
- Do I keep others from dealing with the consequences of their actions?
- Do I do things for others that they can and should do for themselves?
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- Remember: We don’t need to attend every argument to which we are invited.
- Use your voice. Say what you mean and mean what you say.
- Give others the dignity to make their own choices and mistakes and allow them the opportunity to learn from them.
- Listen & empathize with someone’s problem or pain without trying to fix it.
- Trust that they’ll be OK without your help.
- Set some healthy boundaries
- Use positive detachment
- Do things that you enjoy and that make you feel cared for. Taking care of ourselves and enjoying life is not selfish.
- Help others but wait to be asked. Waiting for the Ask is uncomfortable, but we can do hard things.
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About the Author
As a result of growing up in a dysfunctional home, and with the help of professional therapists and continued personal growth, Diane Metcalf developed strong coping and healing strategies. She happily shares those with those who want to learn and grow in their own recovery journies.
Diane is an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer on narcissism, family dysfunction, and abuse. She draws from her personal childhood experiences, as well as her work in human service fields like domestic violence and partner abuse. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Science in Information Technology.
Her transformational books about healing and moving forward include the highly praised “Lemon Moms” series. This emotionally supportive collection explains narcissistic traits and teaches how to reconcile past hurts to begin self-nurturing, healing, and moving forward.
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