I regularly get questions from people who are upset that friends or relatives have branded them as “codependent.” They want to know if I think they’re codependent. As I’ve said in earlier posts, there isn’t exactly agreement about what codependence is and some people define it so broadly almost anyone can be classified as codependent. But there are some hallmarks of codependency that are agreed upon by most therapists. Basically, you might be codependent if you:
- Have an excessive and unhealthy tendency to rescue and take responsibility for other people.
- Derive a sense of purpose and boost your self-esteem through extreme self-sacrifice to satisfy the needs of others.
- Choose to enter and stay in lengthy high-cost caretaking and rescuing relationships, despite the costs to you or others.
- Regularly try to engineer the change of troubled, addicted, or under-functioning people whose problems are far bigger than your abilities to fix them.
- Seem to attract low-functioning people looking for someone to take care of them so they can avoid adult responsibility or consequences, or attract people in perpetual crisis unwilling to change their lives.
- Have a pattern of engaging in well-intentioned but ultimately unproductive unhealthy helping behaviors, such as enabling.
Thinking about your childhood may also provide some clues because codependence usually has roots in childhood. For example, as children, many codependent people had to suppress their own wishes and needs to win the approval of a difficult, unstable, or addicted parent. Having to take care of an addicted or emotionally troubled parent or their adult responsibilities at a young age (“parentification”) is also associated with adult codependence. Children with manipulative parents who convinced them to accept abuse or excessive control as love may be at risk for codependent relationships with difficult takers. This makes sense when you think about it. After all, the parent-child relationship is our first love relationship and it sets the stage for our later close relationships.
Many codependent people grow up with a codependent role model who selflessly sacrificed on behalf of under-functioning others. To them, codependent relationships are normal and routine. Unconsciously, they learn “unhealthy helping behavioral scripts” that they enact automatically.
If you’ve read my book, or some of my earlier posts on the topic, you know that I recommend caution before adopting the codependent label. Too often the codependent label is slapped onto anyone (especially women) in an abusive or exploitative relationship (along with other labels like “dependent personality,” “self-defeating personality,” or “borderline personality”). But codependence isn’t the only reason we can end up in such relationships, nor is it the only reason we sometimes stay. And although people in codependent relationships have some power to set boundaries and leave such relationships, the truth is that codependent relationships often involve challenging situations with difficult people that complicate boundary setting.
If you suspect you are in a codependent relationship or that you're codependent, there is hope in the form of therapy, self-help, and support groups. A therapist can help you trace the roots of your codependence and help you set boundaries and choose healthier relationships. Support groups, like Al-Anon or Co-dependence Anonymous (CoDA) can provide support and inspiration for change. Self-help books, like my book Unhealthy Helping: A Psychological Guide to Overcoming Codependence, Enabling, and Other Dysfunctional Helping, can help you better understand codependence and provide a roadmap for change.