When we spend more time emotionally care-taking or focusing on another able-bodied adult than ourselves, trying to control their behavior, the consequences of their choices, or how they perceive us, we have become codependent. When we take responsibility, blame, or make excuses for their harmful or hurtful behavior, we have become codependent. When we rely on others for our sense of identity, approval, or validation, we have become codependent. If we are focused on someone’s life, goals, and problems instead of our own, we have become codependent. If their needs come first, and ours don’t matter, we have become codependent.
Codependency is a harmful style of coping within stressful or unhealthy, traumatic, or abusive environments. It is a self-protective response to addiction, mental illness, immaturity, irresponsibility, under-achievement, and other relationship stressors. Codependent relationships result from trauma bonds, living with abuse or mistreatment, and from taking responsibility, accepting blame, or making excuses for another person’s harmful or hurtful behavior.
Codependency is a form of self-abandonment. Instead of focusing on our lives and goals, we codependents focus on others and look for validation and approval from them. Others’ needs come first, and ours come last, if at all. Living like this can cause us to become depressed, and anxious. And because of our self-abandonment, we also doubt ourselves, have low self-esteem, low energy, feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, powerlessness, defeat, and low self-worth. When we have low self-worth, it’s natural to feel like we’re not good enough to ask for what we want or need. Instead, we get our needs met by trying to control people and consequences, and we might discover that we feel worthy or good enough when we accept responsibilities that aren’t ours. And in order for us to feel emotionally or physically safe, it feels natural and necessary for us to control as much of our environment as possible.
Codependents enjoy offering suggestions and advice even though we haven’t been asked. If we’re codependent, we feel responsible for people and issues that aren’t our responsibility. If we don’t attempt to help, fix, or control, we often feel guilty or ashamed. It feels wrong or selfish when we don’t jump in, take charge, or assist others who seem to be struggling. It feels wrong not to help even when they haven’t asked for our help. We feel that somehow it’s our job to take action, take over, and fix. We often feel the need to make excuses for others’ mistreatment of us or their poor behavior in general. We explain and justify to ourselves why it’s OK for them to do so. We often take the blame or minimize and deny the pain they cause. We codependents are famously known for our discomfort with saying “no.”
If you describe yourself as an “action taker” and a “do-er,” you may be codependent.
We try to painfully force ourselves into a mold that we will never fit; we repeatedly try to become someone’s idea of who we should be. Not knowing details about yourself that you know about someone else, like favorite your foods, music, authors, etc., is the result of an other-directed, other-focused, codependnet lifestyle.
Living as a codependent means that we’re not going to get our needs met, yet asking for anything on our own behalf feels wrong, imposing, excessive, or selfish. We’re afraid of dissatisfying others. If we disappoint anyone, it often leads to feeling guilt and shame, yet we continually look for someone to please. We make excuses for their poor behavior or mistreatment of us, to minimize the pain we feel. Holding on to this mindset and behavior pattern is attractive to individuals with toxic traits, so it’s very much in our best interest to let go of a codependent lifestyle.
Codependency affects our ability to have healthy, mutually satisfying relationships. Codependents are called “people-pleasers” because we willingly play by the rules of others and lose our identity in the process. As a result, we rely on others for our sense of identity, and continually seek their approval or validation. People-pleasers need to be needed.
We learn codependent behavior from watching or imitating codependents in our family and environment. If we don’t break that cycle and learn healthy coping skills, future generations may learn codependent behavior from us.
The Path to Codependency: Unveiling the Stages
Codependency exists on a continuum from mild to severe. There are three stages in the development of codependency: the loss of self, the need to appease an able-bodied adult, and the need to control the consequences of their behavior. Let’s talk about each of those.
The Loss of Self: This early stage of codependency looks like we’re paying an increasing amount of attention to another able-bodied adult. We may monitor their moods, become hypervigilant around them, and feel a strong desire to please them. We deny or rationalize their problem behaviors (drunkenness, gaslighting, lies, coersion, physical and emotional abuse, etc.) and make-up explanations to maintain our sense of safety. Our focus is keeping them calm and minimizing verbal or physical attacks or other problematic behaviors. We become as invisible as possible, and feel like we don’t matter in terms of the bigger picture.
Need to appease: We feel an increased effort to continue denying or minimizing the more painful aspects of our relationship. We may feel anxious, guilty, and ashamed, but we purposefully hide these feelings from ourselves and others, along with all the relationship problems. We may withdraw from other relationships and activities that we enjoy. Our self-esteem decreases, and we continue to compromise ourselves to maintain a semblance of stability or predictability. We take their “emotional temperature” and learn to adjust our behavior and expectations according to what we sense is happening with them. We may feel angry, disappointed, unloved, or unimportant when we’re in this phase of codependency. We may begin using maladaptive coping styles, including eating, bingeing, self-harming, stealing, engaging in risky sexual activity, or abusing substances.
Need to control consequences: In late-stage codependency, the emotional and behavioral symptoms start affecting us. We may experience health issues like stomachaches, nightmares, headaches, muscle pain, tension, and TMJ. Self-esteem and self-care become almost nonexistent, replaced by feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, anger, resentment, and overall unhappiness. We may begin to feel more symptoms of C-PTSD.
Here’s the thing: when we’re in healthy relationships, we don’t feel obligated to help others avoid the naturally occurring consequences of their actions. Instead, both parties understand that outcomes should be experienced by the person who’s responsible for causing them.
From Childhood to Adulthood: The Evolution of Codependency
If we became codependent as children, we may have been caretakers for able-bodied adults or our siblings, and were likely required to mature quickly and take responsibilities that were not age-appropriate. When it felt unsafe for us to be around our caretaker, we learned to tiptoe around their instability. We learned to “put up and shut up.” We monitored their moods and responded accordingly, we noticed behavioral patterns, and we became very good at predicting their behavior. We learned how to take the initiative in making their life easier or better so that we could feel a sense of stability and safety. We became accustomed to doing things for them and others that they could do for themselves. Controlling our environment became equivalent to feeling safe.
If we develop codependent coping skills as children, more than likely we will take them with us into adulthood if we don’t learn new, better, and healthy ways. Letting go of and no longer controlling the outcomes and consequences of someone’s actions are some of the first steps in healing codependency.
As codependent adults, we spend time thinking about how to please and caretake others while our own social, professional, and personal responsibilities get neglected. We continue focusing on others despite the problems it creates. Because we desire love, connection, and affection, we will continue compromising ourselves, emotionally caretaking and chasing after love and affection while settling for crumbs and feeling unloved, unseen, and not good enough. We justify, argue, defend, and overexplain ourselves because we want to be seen, affirmed, validated, and understood. We don’t have boundaries, or rarely enforce them, allowing others to trample them.
Because we feel confused, distrustful, hesitant, disoriented, and emotionally exhausted, we find ourselves searching for answers and explanations as to why we feel this way. We may attract, and be attracted to, others who fit with our codependent personalities. Codependency lends itself nicely to all kinds of unhealthy relationships. It wouldn’t be unusual to find ourselves in relationships involving alcoholism, substance abuse, verbal or physical abuse, and mental illness, including narcissism. Those who have experienced childhood trauma or abuse may eventually find themselves in abusive, toxic, or less-than-satisfying adult relationships. It makes sense: this person’s behavior and way of relating to us feel familiar, and we already know our role and what’s expected of us within the relationship.
Are You Codependent?
- Have you taken actions that prevent an able-bodied adult from feeling or experiencing the consequences of their choices?
- Have you tried to control the outcome of a particular situation or event?
- Have you taken responsibility for an able-bodied adult’s actions or poor choices?
When you take responsibility (or accept blame or make excuses) for an able-bodied adult’s harmful or hurtful behavior, it enables them to keep doing it. (a) You’ve taken all the responsibility away from them and placed it on yourself, and (b) there are no negative consequences from which they can learn.
- Do you do things for other able-bodied adults that they could do for themselves?
Although it often feels right to take care of others, we’re often left feeling taken advantage of or resentful. So, if you feel resentful about something you did or are doing for an able-bodied adult, it might be that you’re using codependent behavior.
- Have I/do I try to manage or control an able-bodied adult or their choices?
- Have I taken on responsibilities that aren’t mine?
- Have I ever been called “controlling” or a “control freak?”
- Do I take care of an able-bodied adult by cleaning up their messes, both figuratively and otherwise?
Codependency includes behaviors like the ones listed below. How many of these do you notice in yourself?
- Being preoccupied or concerned with the needs of an able-bodied adult
- Placing a low priority on your own needs
- Being attracted to needy or emotionally unavailable people
- Believing that you have to be in a romantic relationship before you your life feels meaningful
- Trying to control an able-bodied adult’s behavior
- Feeling incapable of ending a harmful or toxic relationship
- Trying to please everyone even though you know you’ll feel resentful
- Not taking time for yourself or ignoring your self-care
- Fearing for another’s safety but being willing to risk your safety
- Shielding an able-bodied adult from the consequences of their actions
- Taking responsibility for how an able-bodied adult person feels
- Taking responsibility for what an able-bodied adult person does
- Trying to fix an able-bodied adult’s problem when they haven’t asked you to
- Helping because it makes you feel better
- Feeling like your life is full of unwanted drama
Healing Codependency: A Lifelong Journey
Healing requires acknowledging your pain without letting it define you. Our wounds have left scars that will always be with us, but as we start healing and moving forward, the scars become less obvious, and we hardly notice them anymore. So it is with healing codependency; as we learn healthy, new coping styles, we will reframe past events in a way that feels better. Reframing is a step in the healing process.
When we’re free of codependent thinking and coping, we understand that we’re separate and complete. We have a strong sense of self, and our boundaries are squarely in place. We feel comfortable setting new boundaries that keep us healthy, happy, and safe. We don’t feel any need to justify, explain, or make sense of another person’s behavior to ourselves or anyone. We understand that other able-bodied adult’s choices and actions are their responsibility, not ours.
We accept that people are entitled to have thoughts and feelings about us that are incorrect. It’s not our job to correct their thinking. They will see us the way they see us. If we argue, defend or get emotional, we will become drained while they are energized.
Once healthy boundaries are in place, you will experience a shift. You may notice that your sense of safety, security, and control no longer come from people-pleasing. Instead, they come from creating and enforcing your boundaries.
To start letting go of codependency, it helps to take a pretty deep and fearless dive into what’s going on with your thoughts and behavior. When I was ready, I began looking at how I chose to spend my time, noticing who benefited from it and who did not. I started noticing when I took care of other able-bodied adult’s needs and ignored or denied my own. I asked myself why I made the choices I did. Little by little, I learned to live in awareness with intention. (Not always, but more and more often!) I stopped fixing and rescuing. I learned how to detach positively, set boundaries, focus on self-care, and change my self-talk. My negative self-talk once enforced my belief that everyone’s needs were more important than my own. I started changing my self-talk, and I questioned, then changed, those limiting beliefs.
Setting boundaries, saying “no,” and letting others learn their life lessons “the hard way” became a few of my goals. It was a slow, deliberate, and sometimes painful process.
Some of the other steps I took to break free of codependent coping were: living in the moment, focusing on one day at a time, building a network of emotionally healthy people, letting go of ones who weren’t, and prioritizing self-care. As I became more aware of my codependent thinking and behavior, I was better able to let go of my desire to control outcomes, no matter how good my intentions were. I got comfortable watching friends and loved ones deal with the consequences of their poor choices. I had to sit still and stay uninvolved when they made poor decisions and faced difficult consequences, even when it hurt them or cost them money or relationships. I learned to let them feel the dignity of making their own choices and the freedom of dealing with and learning from the outcomes.
Self-care: We can only choose to focus on and be responsible for ourselves, our own thoughts, actions, and behavior. The good news is that we can change ourselves with patience, persistence, and practice. We can take responsibility for getting our needs met instead of waiting for someone to change or meet our needs for us. We are in control of ourselves, and no one is responsible for us but us.
Understand Abuse Cycles
Learn about letting go of what you can’t control, by using positive-detachment
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About the Author
Diane Metcalf is an experienced advocate, speaker, and author specializing in abuse and family dynamics.
She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Science in Information Technology. Her professional portfolio is diverse, encompassing fields such as Domestic and Partner Abuse Counseling, Geriatric Care Management, Developmental Disability Services, Vocational Rehabilitation, Information Technology Management, and Education.
Through her personal healing journey from physical and emotional abuse and neglect, and with ongoing self-improvement practices, she has developed effective tools that she happily shares with others seeking growth in their own recovery. Her focus is on healing relational trauma through awareness, intention, and introspection, combined with healthy coping strategies and tools.
She is the author of the highly praised “Lemon Moms” series, an emotionally supportive collection that dives into the effects of growing up with mothers having narcissistic traits. This compassionate trilogy provides valuable insights and guidance for coming to terms with past traumas to initiate the healing process.
Learn more about the Lemon Moms series: Lemon Moms
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This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.