The word “codependent” gets tossed around a lot, and I don’t think everyone understand what it really means.
My wonderful husband associates it with the word “dependent.” But that’s not what it means. It’s not about being dependent on someone to help you get through the day.
Codependency is about only being okay when other people in your life are also okay. It’s about taking on their feelings and beliefs as your own, even though you might disagree with them.
Codependency is associated with alcoholism and addiction because a codependent person will often find themselves in a relationship with an addicted individual. The codependent person thinks he/she can fix or rescue the addict, or perhaps they enable the addict’s behavior.
I am codependent.
I feel shame when I write that. But I want to be open about it because I want others to know what it’s like.
When I met my husband, I was already drinking alcoholically, and that’s partly because I was already in a very codependent relationship with my mother. (My relationship with my husband also became codependent, but let’s focus on my mom for now.)
Mom was everything to me. My primary purpose in life was to make sure she was happy. And there was plenty to do to fulfill that objective. I helped control my brothers and sisters, I cooked, I cleaned, I was completely invested in family life to the point I did not develop any social life of my own.
It didn’t matter that she had her own thoughts/feelings/ideas. As long as I did my thing, I could keep her happy. That was my sincere belief.
Do you think you might be codependent? These are the signs to look for:
Low Self Esteem
Do you feel unlovable and inadequate? Do you struggle with feelings of guilt and shame? Do you always feel like you’re not good enough or just not enough?
Welcome to the wonderful world of low self esteem! We play nice here because deep down we all just want to be loved and accepted. The problem is we’re constantly trying to fix ourselves into something we believe is worthy of love – instead of accepting that we are worthy of love exactly as we are.
I always felt like I had to earn my parents’ love. Like I had to be good enough to deserve it. Whether this was something they accidentally developed or something I constructed in my subconscious is something I might never know.
The tendency persists throughout my relationships. I feel I must earn my husband’s love and affection. I believe I must earn the love of my friends. It doesn’t compute with me that love is something that can be freely given.
Saying “No” gives me extreme anxiety – so I usually just say “Yes.” Even when my plate’s full of work and I’m stressed out, I’ll still say yes because I want to please the person who’s asking me for a favor. I really don’t feel like I have a choice.
I will go out of my way to sacrifice my needs and desires to help you achieve yours.
By the time most of us get to college, we’ve learned how to have healthy boundaries. We know the difference between what’s mine and yours not just as it applies to your body and physical things, but also to feelings.
But if you’re codependent, you get into trouble here. The lines get blurry. A codependent person feels responsible for other people’s feelings and problems.
Of course, as with anything in life, this isn’t true of all people who are codependent. Some codependents have rigid boundaries. Some flip back and forth. A codependent person can be closed off and aloof one moment and all up in your business the next.
This is a consequence of having poor boundaries. You react to everyone’s feelings. Say you get into a disagreement with someone close to you. Do you change what you believe and agree with them? Do you become defensive and emotional?
Because there’s no boundary between your emotions and their emotions, you absorb their words. A boundary would help you realize that their feelings and beliefs are not a reflection of you – so you wouldn’t feel threatened by them, and you wouldn’t become defensive or emotional.
This is another effect of poor boundaries. When someone has a problem, you jump in to fix it – to the point that you stop taking care of yourself.
Now, it’s natural and good to feel empathy and sympathy for other people. But we codependents take it to the extreme. Our need, our drive to help others is so strong, we lose sight of ourselves, and we feel rejected when the person we’re trying to help doesn’t want our help. And we keep trying to fix that person even when he/she isn’t taking our advice.
Control helps me feel safe and secure. Everyone needs a certain amount of control in their lives. No one wants to live in a constant state of flux.
But for me, I need other people to behave in certain ways – to follow certain routines – in order to feel like I’m still in control. Needing this control limits my ability to take risks – risks like sharing my feelings with my husband.
People-pleasing and care-taking are actually methods of control and manipulation over other people. That’s how I control other people anyway. I don’t just come right out and tell you what you should do. I manipulate you behind the scenes. I care-take you into doing what I want you to do.
People who are codependent have trouble communicating their thoughts, feelings, and needs because they often don’t know what they think, feel, and need. Sometimes, I know what I’m thinking/feeling, but I don’t want to say it out loud. I don’t want to own my truth because I’m afraid I’ll upset someone.
So instead of telling someone you’re upset, you pretend that everything’s okay and nothing’s wrong, burying your pain inside.
This leads to dishonest and confusing communication because you’re trying to manipulate the other person out of fear.
Did I say something wrong? Should I have worded that differently? What will they think of me? I wish things were different!
Ruminations and obsessions are common with us codependents. We tend to think a lot about other people and our relationships because so much of our identity is wrapped up in the identity of other people. Naturally, we have a lot of anxiety and fear about what other people think of us and how they see us.
I become obsessed when I feel like I’ve made a mistake, even when no one knows I’ve made that mistake or when the mistake is so minute it hardly bothers the other person. Mistakes shatter me, and I cannot rest until I have rectified them to MY satisfaction.
There is a “dependent” part of codependency. We need other people to like us in order to feel okay about ourselves. We’re afraid of rejection and abandonment, even if we know we can function on our own.
This makes it hard to end relationships – even relationships that are painful or abusive. We often wind up feeling trapped.
Obviously, the problem is all the other people in your life! If they would just shape up and do things the right way, everything would be fine.
Denial is a refusal or unwillingness to accept reality. Denial would be my refusal to accept my codependency – I’d just keep plugging away at life, insisting that everything is fine. But it’s not fine. Not with this insatiable need to control everything and everyone in my life just to make sure I feel okay.
But there’s another part of denial that codependents must face – the denial of our own needs and feelings. We pay so much attention to the needs and feelings of others, we completely forget about our own.
Think about what you might be in denial about…
Do you deny your need for space and autonomy? Do you deny your need for love and intimacy? Do you deny your need for help? And when help is offered, do you have trouble receiving it (a sign that you might be denying your vulnerability and need)?
Codependency is painful. We are racked with shame and guilt (low self esteem). We are filled with anxiety and fear. We’re afraid of being judged and rejected, we’re afraid of making mistakes, we’re afraid of being failures, and we’re afraid of either being trapped by becoming too close to someone or being abandoned and alone.
The other symptoms lead to even more painful feelings. Feelings like anger, resentment, depression, and despair. When the feelings become overwhelming, you become numb. Emotion overload – there’s only so much you can take.
This is our world – we push our own pain to the back burner so we can attend to the pain of others. I do this because I believe I’m serving the greater good (a concept drilled into me in my childhood). But we must remember that we cannot pour from an empty cup. We must fill ourselves first, caring for and nurturing ourselves, before we can ever start to care for others.
And that care we bring to others must be true, honest care – not control.
If you have identified with one or more of these symptoms, take heart. Now you know what you’re up against. Self awareness is crucial when it comes to codependency. We must walk a line between not caring at all and caring far too much.
This line is painful for me – because all I want to do is fix everyone one – solve the world’s problems – be everything that everyone needs me to be. I see service as my purpose in life, and it’s hard for me to draw healthy boundaries.
I’m working on it, though, and I’m getting better. It is possible to live a healthy life!