What is codependency?
If we’re in a recovery program or are working on personal healing, we’ve probably heard the word “codependency.” But what are we actually talking about when say “codependency”?
Codependency is a maladaptive behavior that often begins in childhood if our daily environment feels unsafe or uneasy. To feel emotionally or physically safe, it becomes necessary (and eventually natural) for us to monitor our environment and attempt to control people and/or outcomes.
If we have low self-worth, it’s natural to feel we’re not worthy or good enough to ask for what we want or need. So we learn to manipulate people and direct the potential consequences. It feels like there’s no other choice but to do that. We feel like we have no choice but to take on responsibilities that aren’t ours and we start to manage aspects of other’s lives. We begin to believe that we’re doing this because we’re stronger or more capable or better at it than they are.
In the beginning
When we grow up in a home environment that lacks nurturing, anytime we take care of or focus on ourselves, we consistently receive feedback that we’re self-centered or selfish. Sooner or later, self-care becomes uncomfortable for us. “Selfish” doesn’t align with our self-image of being a self-sacrificing “helper”. So we begin to judge ourselves for taking time to do things we want, need or enjoy. Eventually, we leave these things out of our lives. We actively ignore our own self-care. Everyone else’s wants and needs become more important than ours. Others become more important than ourselves
Ultimately, we become adults who enjoy “helping” others by telling others what to do. We do this even though they haven’t asked us for our opinion or for our help. We actually believe that we know better what’s right for that person and their life! We love it when we feel needed and we’re attracted to people who need us a LOT. Our self-image and self-esteem are now connected with monitoring others and proactively “helping“ them with their issues and problems.
Helping and fixing feels good, and as full-fledged codependents, we get a lot of satisfaction from living this way. Codependency also stirs up a lot of drama. And drama is exciting, isn’t it?
Are you codependent?
How do you know if you’re using codependent behavior when you relate to others? Well…..have you taken actions to prevent someone from feeling the consequences of their choices? It feels like we’re being really helpful when we do that, doesn’t it? But it’s not helpful. It’s actually quite the opposite. Ask yourself: am I trying to control the outcome of this situation? If the answer’s yes, it’s likely that you’re using codependent behavior.
Codependent behavior often leaves us feeling resentful. So, if you feel 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 have been brought up to emotionally care-take others. As kids, we were caretakers for our siblings, and sometimes even for our own parents. Often, we were required to “grow-up” quickly and take responsibilities that were not age-appropriate. If it felt unsafe, we learned how to tippytoe around and how not to upset anyone. We learned how to become invisible and stay “under the radar.” We learned how to monitor other people’s behavior and moods. We learned how to be proactive and meet other people’s needs so that WE could feel a sense of stability and/or safety.
Now, as adults, we’re “people-pleasers” who spend our time finding resolutions for other people’s problems. And we’re proactive! We observe other’s to see what we can do for them.
We become attracted to someone’s potential. And guess what? We have emotional, physical and even financial resources to give them, to help them reach that potential! And we’re willing to give our all. And give it we will! They become our personal “do-it-yourself” project.
We become preoccupied with helping them overcome their problems and obstacles. We feel needed and it feels good because we NEED to be needed!
Managing and “fixing” other people is just one aspect of codependency. Although it often feels good to care-take, 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. I think deep down 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.
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 in-between someone and their rightful consequences, I may be interfering with their karma and with 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 to do as time passed. Now I consciously live this way.
Other codependent behaviors
Robert Subby defines codependency, in his book Co-Dependency, An Emerging Issue, as “an emotional, psychological and behavioral condition that develops as a result of an individual’s prolonged exposure to, and practice of, a set of oppressive rules -rules which prevent the open expression of feeling as well as the direct discussion of personal as well as interpersonal problems.”
Codependency includes behaviors like :
- Being preoccupied or concerned with the needs of others
- Placing a low priority on our own needs
- Being attracted to needy and/or 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
Living as a codependent means that we’re probably not going to get our needs met. Asking feels like imposing.
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?
- Keep going. Add more to the list!
If we’re codependent, we can learn appropriate ways to change this.
- 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 loving 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
Diane Metcalf earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology in 1982 and a Master of Science in Information Technology in 2013.
She has held Social Worker, Counselor and Managerial Positions in the fields of Domestic Violence and Abuse, Geriatric Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities, and Reproductive Health. She is an experienced Advocate and Speaker on the topics of Domestic Violence and Abuse and has been a guest on Lockport Community Television (LCTV), sharing her knowledge and experience regarding Domestic Abuse with the local community. In addition, she experienced Maternal Narcissistic Abuse and has been involved in other toxic relationships. She purposefully learned (and continues to learn) appropriate coping skills and strategies to live happily. She shares those insights here.
Her books and articles are the results of her education, knowledge, and personal insight regarding her own abusive experiences and subsequent recovery work. She is no longer a practicing Social Worker, Counselor, Program Manager or Advocate, nor is she or has she ever been a licensed psychologist.
Currently, Diane runs her own website design company, Image and Aspect, and writes articles and tutorials for Tips and Snips, her inspirational blog for creative people. She continues to learn and write about Emotional Healing.
This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.