I want to talk about a big concept that many people have heard of, but can be one of the hardest things to recognize in ourselves and others: codependency.
The APA defines codependency as:
- The state of being mutually reliant; for example, a relationship between two individuals who are emotionally dependent on one another.
- A dysfunctional relationship pattern in which an individual is psychologically dependent on (or controlled by) a person who has a pathological addiction (e.g., alcohol, gambling). —codependent adj.
Codependency is, essentially, a type of mental, emotional, physical, and/or spiritual reliance on a partner, friend, or family member, or even a boss or coworker (codependency can happen in many relationships). Codependency can take many forms, and seems to encompass a large range of experiences in human relationships. In general, codependency refers to an imbalance in human relationships that can lead to mental health struggles.
I want to stress though that codependency is not a disease. Rather, it is a term used to describe what develops when someone may have trouble setting boundaries, or when someone has a more negative view of themselves and what they deserve.
Often, one person will ignore their own needs to fulfill the needs of the other person in a codependent relationship. That person may be so focused on making the other person happy, or may be doing most of the work to keep that relationship going, that they forget to check in on themselves or take care of their mental health. As a result, codependency in relationships can be very draining.
Here are some general characteristics of someone who may be codependent:
1. They feel they need to please others and forget about their own needs.
2. They don’t have a fully developed sense of self—they don’t feel comfortable with who they are if they are not fulfilling the needs of others.
3. They don’t have a sense of their own boundaries.
4. Their low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence may cause them to attach themselves to others in their life.
5. Generally, some people are codependent in the sense that they need to be needed, and others are codependent in the sense that they feel good when they get that attention and need it as well—these types of relationships are characterized by the terms “giver and taker”. In many relationships, one person is usually the giver and the other person is the taker, which results in an imbalance of power. In these instances, the relationship can empty and endless, like someone who is endlessly refilling the glass of another person to satisfy their own thirst. The “taker” in these kinds of relationships are also acting out of some type of emotional suffering or pain—there is some reason that they need to take advantage of the other person. I read this analogy once to also grasp what exactly this looks like:
One of the best ways to understand the giver/taker dynamic is an analogy that I read many years ago: imagine there are two trees that are right next to each other. These two trees grew in such a way that their sides touched. The part where they touch does not get sunlight and looks more underdeveloped than the parts that they don’t touch. Seeing the tree from an outside perspective makes them look like one big beautiful tree (like two people in any sort of relationship), but, if these trees were removed from each other, you would see their underdeveloped parts—in a way, you will see the “inner pain” that caused them to attach. When these two trees are together, this inner part, the undeveloped sense of them, is pushed aside, and they can maintain the feeling of being whole. But, at the same time, each tree resents the other side that is more developed and not attached.
Of course, there is much more to codependency in a relationship than what this metaphor portrays, but it alludes to how codependency in relationships has its “roots” in the inner emotions of the people within those relationships.
It is also important to understand that, in many relationships, these roles can change. Sometimes, one person is the giver in a one aspect of a relationship but a taker in a different part of the relationship.
It can be hard to recognize codependency because, as humans, we are in many ways codependent—we need each other. Most of us have embrace certain characteristics of codependent behavior as we go about our lives, because we need each other and a community to both survive and thrive. Therapists tend to agree that this is more “codependent behavior” rather than codependency.
This can become a problem when this “codependency” starts to become so destructive that we can’t even take care of ourselves anymore. It can feel like an addiction—something that overtakes everything else.
If you want to learn how to recognize codependent behavior or how to recognize if you’re codependent and work on that, here’s a few tips:
1. Talk to somebody. If you see a therapist, maybe try talking to them to unpack why you feel codependent. If you don’t see a therapist, maybe try talk to someone you trust about how you feel.
2. If you’re a still struggling to tell if you’re codependent, look at your actions and thoughts. Look for the WHAT and the WHY. Do you feel responsible for the actions of others? Do you tend to love people you think you can fix, pity, or rescue? Are you afraid of being abandoned? Do you feel you do more work in the relationship that is troubling you? Do you find that you feel a sense of self-worth when you receive approval from others? Do you struggle to make decisions and constantly doubt yourself? Do you feel responsible for the happiness of this person that you’re in a relationship with? Are your moods controlled by those around you, and what they think, feel, or do?
These are just some questions you can ask yourself, as well as the people in your life you trust. There are also many resources both in books and online, including:
- https://coda.org (Codependency Anonymous is one of the biggest organizations that have group therapy programs to help with codependency).
3. The number one thing when dealing with codependency is honesty. Once you recognize your relationship involves a degree of codependency, try to accept this instead of running away from it, so that you can take the next steps and find healing.
4. Work on building up yourself image and your self-esteem. Try figure out who you are as a person and why you are unique. For more on this, see my books Think, Learn, Succeed and the Perfect You, and check out my podcast on identity.
5. Practice ways to improve negative self-talk and negative thinking patterns that are holding you back and affecting your relationships. For more on this, listen to my recent podcast, and check out my latest book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess and app Neurocycle.
6. If you can, have some time away from the person you are codependent on to give yourself space to work on all of this.
7. Work on your boundaries. Try to find the things that you need to make you happy, and try to establish these boundaries with that person so that your relationship can improve, and you can get more freedom from codependency. For more on boundaries, listen to my recent podcast.
For more on codependency, listen to my podcast (episode #340). If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).
Read more on the GOD TV blog here