Am I Codependent?
The concept of codependency is bewildering to many. After all, it’s a multifaceted, highly complex problem many of us experience, but are not aware of. Codependency falls on a spectrum and is programmed into us from birth. The behavior becomes more dysfunctionally ingrained depending on the type of caregiver(s) or close family members and friends we had in childhood. In this article we will discuss where codependency comes from, what codependency looks like in your relationships with yourself and others, and how to lessen its negative effects in your life.
What is Codependency?
At its core, codependency is an act of self abandonment. Another term often used to describe codependency is “people pleasing.” We use the concept to explain imbalanced relationships in which one person enables another's self-destructive behavior– these could include addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement.
When identifying codependency in your own life, you can ask some of the following questions:
Where in my life do I self abandon in order to fix, please, help or stabilize another person?
Do I have a hard time acting on my own behalf and communicating my needs?
Do I feel responsible for other people’s feelings and behaviors?
Am I afraid of upsetting others or being disliked?
Am I scared that by being my true self people will not want to be in a relationship with me anymore?
Many of these questions point to an ongoing effort to make others happy at the expense of ourselves. Codependency is a pattern of looking outside for approval, support and direction, rather than within. This can look like not knowing who we are or what we want in life and/or difficulty making decisions because of an internal conflict between what we want and what others want from us. What would it mean to live your life for yourself by following your own callings and refusing to be beholden to someone else’s expectations or needs?
Note: To be clear, this does not apply to caregiver-child relationships. We do need to help regulate feelings and meet a child’s needs by putting their needs above ours at times. However, an adult relationship should have different expectations and our partners and friends should be held to a standard that promotes equality and self-responsibility.
Why You’re Codependent
A child needs to survive and in order to do so their caregiver must be able to provide them with emotional attunement. The caregiver needs to know when the child has a need and be able to fulfill it. This requires the caregiver to be present, stable, and connected to the thoughts and feelings of themselves and others. Children intrinsically attune to caregivers who are happy and responsive. Over time, they learn behaviors that manifest positive reactions from their caregivers. In dysfunctional families, these attempts for connection will often fail to create stable, consistent attunement with a caregiver. Because a child is not psychologically mature enough to combat these types of responses, they personalize it and blame themselves trying to make sense out of this dynamic. Thoughts like…I’m not good enough, I’m not lovable, I’m too much, and so on, start to surface and stick around in their psyche. The child is constantly searching for ways to increase the parents' loving connection to them and when they fail the child thinks it must be something about them.
Therein lies the foundation of codependency. The child must learn how to keep their caregiver stable enough to meet their needs. This may look like doing what the parent wants and/or shutting down their own needs because their parent gets overwhelmed and unavailable when a need is expressed. No caregiver is perfect– it is normal to have some days where they won’t be as emotionally attuned as others. Still, the chronic pattern of a caregiver who encourages codependency can have lasting impacts on an individual’s mental health and capacity for healthy relationships.
What type of caregiver-child relationships does this show up in? Here’s some examples…
A caregiver with a substance use problem
A caregiver with untreated mental illness and/or an unresolved trauma history
A caregiver who is unable to think about their own and their child's behaviors in the context of mental states - a concept known as mentalization
A caregiver who is in a relationship with someone who is abusive
A caregiver who becomes easily emotionally dysregulated and/or blames the child for their mood and/or poor behavior
A caregiver with poor boundaries, has difficulty saying no to others and/or is overly protective/nurturing/giving in their relationship with the child and/or others
In these types of relationships the child is faced with the impossible task of fixing, pleasing, and stabilizing their caregiver or learning codependent behavior by watching the parent self abandon their own needs for someone else (including the child themselves).
Note: A primary caregiver is the most common relationship codependency begins in, but it can also be with any family member or close friend the child has consistent contact with. Please keep in mind that one secure attachment relationship in a child’s life is invaluable for their development and enough to protect them from deeper more profound injury should they not have any secure attachment relationships growing up.
The good news is our inner child is usually open to healing and being nurtured. Learning a new language of inner connection and self agency takes work, but it’s never too late to provide ourselves with what we needed back then and now.
There are many ways to help increase a sense of safety internally and externally so that we can reconnect with authentic selves. This often takes a lot of courage because we are breaking old patterns in relationships, family rules, and systems. We may need extra support while doing this work in the form of a support group, therapy, or a journaling practice. In whatever process we choose, we may feel worse before we feel better but don’t forget there's light at the end of the tunnel and that light is YOU!
For more on how to heal from codependency please read our "Affirmations for Healing Codependency" blog.
Author: Lindsay Rosser, LMFT #87065 - Lindsay is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the owner of WellBeings Therapy. She is a Certified EMDR and Integrative Body Psychotherapist who primarily works with adults who experienced complex trauma as child. For more on Lindsay you can read her bio.
Editor: Mckenna Coffey, Pre-Licensed Therapist - Mckenna is a pre-licensed provider who joined WellBeings during her graduate studies at the University of Southern California. She is an integrative therapist with a trauma-focused, identity affirming, and sex positive practice. For more on Mckenna you can read her bio.
Jack Lee Rosenberg, Ph.D., Beverly Kitaen-Morse, Ph.D (1996). The Intimate Couple: Reaching New Levels of Sexual Excitement through Body Awakening and Relationship Renewal.