How to Start Recovering from Codependency

You can’t assume responsibility for what other grown adults do.

Posted Dec 01, 2020

Meritt Thomas/Unsplash
Source: Meritt Thomas/Unsplash

Recovering from codependency can seem daunting. Here is an overview of the four core components of codependency recovery to help you identify ways to change your codependent thoughts and behaviors.

Recovering from codependency involves: 1) Establishing boundaries, 2) Taking responsibility for your health and happiness, 3) Getting to know yourself, and 4) Learning to love yourself.

Establishing Boundaries

Some of us tend to focus on other people and their problems. We’re so concerned with meeting their needs and keeping them happy, that we neglect ourselves, commit to things we don't want to do, and let others mistreat us. We’re afraid to assert ourselves and feel guilty when we do things for ourselves. As a result, we become tired, resentful, and unfulfilled.

However, we can take better care of ourselves by establishing boundaries. A boundary is a dividing line that creates a healthy separation (physical or emotional) between us and others so we can have our own thoughts and feelings and make our own decisions.

Boundaries are also limits that communicate what we will and will not do and how others can treat us. Boundaries can include leaving an uncomfortable or unsafe situation, not engaging in an argument, or saying no.

Reflective Questions:

  • How has a lack of boundaries caused problems for you?
  • What kinds of boundaries will help you rebalance your relationships and prioritize your needs?

Taking Responsibility for Your Health and Happiness

At the beginning of recovery, most people with codependent traits have a hard time seeing themselves and their relationships objectively; they experience some denial. I use the term denial because it’s a concept most people understand; I don’t intend it as criticism. Instead, I see denial as a self-protective measure that we use to deal with our overwhelming pain. Denial tries to shield us from our anger, despair, and shame, but it becomes a barrier to changing our patterns.

Sometimes, we struggle to own our part in our dysfunctional relationships or problems. Instead, we tend to blame others. It’s easier to say I’m broke because my husband spends all our money at the bar or I can’t sleep because my mother refuses to take her insulin. When we blame others for our problems, we act like victims, making our happiness contingent on other people changing.

Gaining awareness means accepting responsibility for ourselves, but not assuming responsibility for what other grown adults do. You aren’t responsible for the bad decisions your alcoholic husband makes or for your mother’s health. You’re responsible for your own well-being. You have choices — you can take charge of your finances even if your husband keeps drinking and you can learn ways to overcome your insomnia even if your mother doesn’t manage her diabetes.

Reflective Questions:

  • Can you open yourself to the possibility that you have some “blind spots”? What do you think they are?
  • If you’re having trouble seeing yourself and your situation objectively, who can help you see things from a different perspective?
  • Do you blame others for your unhappiness? Do you ever think I’ll be happy when so-and-so does _______?
  • What’s one thing you can do to enjoy the present moment?
  • How can you empower yourself or start solving your problems?

Getting to Know Yourself

Enmeshment in families prevents us from developing a deep understanding of ourselves. Often fear was used to make us conform to family norms and we weren’t allowed or encouraged to explore our own interests and beliefs during childhood. We learned to suppress our feelings, opinions, needs, and interests to please others and avoid conflicts. In adulthood, we tend to focus on other people such that we don’t know who we are, what we like, or what we want. We become defined by our roles (husband, mother, teacher, etc.) instead of as the complex individuals that we are. We must get to know ourselves.

Getting to know ourselves isn’t self-centered or selfish. Knowing and respecting ourselves reflects healthy self-esteem.

Reflective Questions:

  • What do you like to do for fun?
  • How do you want to be treated?
  • What are your goals?
  • What do you value?

Learning to Love Yourself

Feeling worthless, insecure, and unlovable are at the core of codependency. Our focus on pacifying, pleasing, and taking care of others, coupled with fears of rejection and inadequacy often keep us stuck in unsatisfying relationships where we accept disrespect, abuse, or loneliness. To recover, we must courageously be and love our authentic selves.

We can do this through self-compassion, accepting our imperfections and mistakes, and regular self-care. Self-love is saying something kind to yourself instead of being self-critical or exaggerating your flaws. Self-love is prioritizing your physical needs such as getting enough sleep, eating nutritious foods, exercising, and taking medications as prescribed. Self-love is also setting boundaries, validating your feelings, asking for what you need, and making time for fun and social connections. If you’re not used to taking care of yourself, it may feel uncomfortable for a while, but with each small act of self-compassion or self-care, you are taking concrete steps to love yourself more.

Reflective Questions:

  • What’s one thing you can do for your emotional health this week?
  • What’s one thing you can do for your physical health this week?
  • What do you usually say to yourself when you mess up? What could you say instead that would be understanding and supportive?

Recovering from codependency is a challenging process. Go slowly -- try to implement these codependency recovery concepts a little bit at a time and don’t expect yourself to do it perfectly!

© Sharon Martin. A version of this article also appears at PsychCentral.com.