What is codependency?
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?”
Codependency is a set of maladaptive behaviors learned in childhood from living in an unsafe-feeling environment. To feel emotionally or physically safe, it becomes necessary (and eventually feels natural) to monitor our environment and control people and outcomes.
In the beginning
When we grow up in an environment that lacks nurturing, anytime we take care of (or focus on) ourselves, we receive feedback that we’re self-centered or selfish. We may begin judging ourselves harshly for taking time for ourselves, doing things we enjoy, or not focusing on others. Sooner or later, self-care may become uncomfortable for us. Thinking of ourselves as “selfish” doesn’t align with being a self-sacrificing “helper.” Eventually, we view everyone’s wants and needs as more important. than our own. It’s natural to feel we’re not worthy or good enough if we already have low self-worth, and it’s also nearly impossible to ask for what we want or need. So it begins to feel like there’s no choice but to manipulate people and control consequences to get our needs met. We feel like we have to take responsibilities that aren’t ours and start managing other’s lives. We begin to believe we’re doing all of this because we’re stronger, more capable, or better at it than they are. Ultimately, we become adults who enjoy “helping” others by telling them what to do and doing things for them that they are capable of doing for themselves. We do it even though they haven’t asked us for our opinion or our help. We love feeling needed, and we’re attracted to people who need us a LOT. Our self-image and self-esteem become connected with monitoring others and proactively “helping” with their issues and problems whenever possible, even without being asked. Helping and fixing feels good, and now, 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.
Are you codependent?
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.
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 to meet 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.
If we’re codependent, we can learn appropriate ways to change this.
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 behaviors like :
- 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
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?
- 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.
Lemon Moms: Resources to guide you in healing from childhood trauma, abuse or neglect. Available on Amazon and wherever books are sold. (Kindle, Audiobook and paperback format.)
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 and has authored three books in the “Lemon Moms” series. Visit her author’s website here.
This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a
substitute for professional therapy.