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How to Conquer Codependency

What is codependency? And how can you recover?

Kevar Whilby/Unsplash
Source: Kevar Whilby/Unsplash

If you struggle with codependency, wonder if you’re codependent, or just have questions about codependency, this introductory post will give you an overview: What codependency is, where it comes from, and how to start recovering.

What is codependency?

Codependency is a focus on other people’s problems, feelings, needs, and wants while minimizing or ignoring your own. Codependents see other people as more important than themselves and prioritize taking care of them in order to feel needed, loved, or worthwhile. While we all need and rely on other people, codependents are overly dependent on others emotionally. They need others to tell them that their feelings and needs are valid, that their opinions are acceptable, and that they are good enough. They rely on others for their identity and sense of worth.

Following are some of the most common symptoms of codependency. You don’t need to have them all to consider yourself codependent. I find it’s helpful to think of codependency on a spectrum: Some of us experience more symptoms and distress due to codependent traits than others.

  • Fixing, helping, or rescuing others gives you a sense of purpose and makes you feel needed (or lovable).
  • You focus on other people and their problems and ignore your own feelings and needs.
  • You may enable, give unsolicited advice, nag, or be controlling.
  • You often feel worried or anxious, guilty, and ashamed.
  • You're self-critical and possibly perfectionistic.
  • You feel responsible for everyone and everything.
  • You don't have a strong sense of who you are, what you like, how you feel, or what matters to you.
  • You're a people-pleaser who will sacrifice what you want or need to avoid upsetting or disappointing others.
  • You have trouble setting boundaries and being assertive.
  • Intimacy, open communication, and trust are difficult.
  • You have difficulty asking for and accepting help.
  • You’re afraid of abandonment, criticism, and rejection, which can lead to people-pleasing, a lack of boundaries, and tolerating mistreatment.
  • You’re probably hard-working, overly responsible, and give to the point of exhaustion or resentment.
  • You suppress or numb your feelings and absorb other people’s feelings.
  • You have low self-esteem, feel unlovable, or not good enough.
  • You want to feel in control and have a hard time adjusting when things don’t go according to plan or the way you want.

What is a codependent relationship?

Codependent relationships are unbalanced. Typically, one person becomes overly responsible, which enables the other to under-function and avoid responsibility. Often the other person struggles with addiction, mental illness, or emotional immaturity. And they remain stuck, in part, because the codependent makes excuses for them, takes over their responsibilities, and makes sure they’re taken care of.

You can develop a codependent relationship with a spouse, child, parent, or friend. And it’s quite likely that if you have multiple codependent traits, that many of your relationships are affected.

Codependents focus on trying to please, help, fix, and control other people and situations. We can become so wrapped up in other people’s problems—obsessed at times— that we lose track of who we are, what we want, and how to be happy within ourselves.

What causes codependency?

Many people who grew up in dysfunctional families struggle with codependency in adulthood. Codependent traits usually develop as a result of childhood trauma, often in families in which a parent is addicted, mentally ill, abusive, or neglectful. These traits can be passed down from one generation to the next in dysfunctional families. Codependent traits serve a purpose in childhood —they help us cope with scary, confusing, and unpredictable family lives—but they cause us problems in adulthood.

How do you recover?

Healing from codependency means rebalancing ourselves: Instead of focusing so much on what others need, we must consider our own needs and make them a priority. This doesn’t mean that you should never consider other people’s needs or take care of them; it just means that your needs are as important as other people’s and that if you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll end up depleted, resentful, and unfulfilled.

Healing from codependency includes not only knowing what you need, but asking for it. We can’t continue to feel and act like victims or martyrs. We must learn to communicate assertively, stand up for ourselves, set boundaries to protect ourselves from being mistreated, and create relationships where we give and receive.

Healing from codependency also includes getting to know yourself. Often, codependents spend so much time thinking about and trying to take care of or appease others that they lose touch with themselves. So, we need to intentionally explore who we are—what we like, what’s important to us, what our goals are, and so forth.

And as we heal from codependency, we need to treat ourselves with kindness. Codependents tend to be hard on themselves, self-critical, and unforgiving. This is both unwarranted and unhelpful. Instead, we should offer ourselves kindness, acceptance, and support, treating ourselves as we would a dear friend. Self-compassion is another way to value and care for ourselves and it’s been shown to increase resiliency and motivation and decrease stress.

You can conquer codependency. Recovery is a process and it can be overwhelming when you think about all the changes you want to make. But the good news is that recovery isn’t all or nothing. You can benefit from making even just a few small changes. Take it slowly, and with consistent practice, support, and learning new skills you will gradually feel more confident and know you’re on the path to recovering from codependency.

More from Sharon Martin, DSW, LCSW
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