Today I want to talk about codependency because it is a mental health issue that is criminally underrepresented, and when it is talked about, I think we get a very oversimplified, incomplete view of what it really is.
It’s only very recently that I’ve finally acknowledged that I struggle with codependency issues even though I’ve been dealing with these problems since childhood. It took me so long to see these issues for a few reasons.
First, codependency is a highly stigmatized mental health issue. There’s a lot of shame that permeates discussions of codependency. Before I really understood it, I felt like codependent behavior made a person weak, a pushover, desperate for love, and a lot of other terribly cruel things that I am learning to let go of now.
Second, codependency is typically only discussed in terms of a romantic relationship, and this creates a painfully incomplete view of what codependency really is.
What Is Codependency?
There are a lot of definitions of codependency, but I want to share two of my favorites. One comes from a peer-reviewed paper by researchers Theresa Knudson and Heather Terrell, in which they describe people who struggle with codependency as “busy taking care of others, forget to take care of themselves, resulting in a disturbance of identity development.”
The other definition I’d like to share comes from a less academic resource, but one that is no less insightful and helpful. Candace van Dell, a spiritual coach who frequently makes YouTube videos about codependency, defines it as “when our sense of self comes from someone or something outside of ourselves.”
What do both of these definitions have in common? Well, neither of them say anything about romantic relationships, which means codependency can exist in any relational setting. But they also both focus on codependency as an issue of identity.
Codependency is so much more than being clingy or people-pleasing. It’s about the root that those behaviors come from. Codependent people aren’t clingy because they are weak or naive, they’re clingy because they learned early on that their worth is conditional, that they need to earn love and there’s always a chance it can disappear.
For me, seeing codependency this way made two big changes: 1) I realized codependency is not a joke or a weakness, it is the result of a serious invalidation of the self that has lasting and debilitating consequences; and 2) I realized I had the agency to change my codependent mindset.
What Does Codependency Look Like?
Before we jump into tools for healing, let’s take a little more time to explore what codependency is really like in the real world. Sure, we have some awesome definitions, but they don’t necessarily paint a picture.
Based on research, there are many traits and behaviors that are common in those who deal with codependency issues, including:
- Low self-esteem and self-worth
- Trouble setting and enforcing boundaries
- Trouble saying “no”
- Emotional reactivity
- Control issues
- Fear of abandonment
- Intimacy issues
- Extreme difficulty with honest communication
- Fixation on mistakes
- Feel the need to always be liked by everyone
- May feel the need to always be in a romantic relationship
Here’s an example of what codependency looks like for me. It’s 8pm. My husband and I have just finished eating dinner while we watch YouTube videos together. He gets the baby ready for bed and I find myself trapped in my chair. I want to get up and read or work on my blog or bake bread or clean, but I’m afraid. Of what, I can’t really pinpoint. I just have the feeling that I have to stay here until my husband comes back from putting the baby down. What if I get up and he comes back and he’s upset I’m not there waiting for him?
If you don’t know me or my husband, you might be thinking “Damn Megan, he sounds kind of controlling. Why would he be upset with you for wanting to do your own thing?”
That’s the thing though: he wouldn’t. Part of me knows this, because my husband is not controlling in the slightest. He’s deeply introverted and loves when we both just do our own thing relatively near each other. But most nights, I cannot shake the fear that he’ll be upset if I get up, so I sit in my chair and scroll through my phone, trapped in a cage of my own making.
I have placed my worth in his hands rather than in my own, and that means any time I upset him, I feel like I risk losing not only his love, but also my self-worth.
Despite how obviously awful it feels to have no agency over my own worth and to feel like any love directed my way is deeply conditional upon my being “good,” I have created this dynamic in our relationship because that is what I am most comfortable with. This is how I perceived my relationship with my parents, and now I don’t know how to hold my identity within myself. Instead, I draw it from others in some very dysfunctional codependent patterns.
What Causes Codependency?
At first, psychologists believed that codependency was a condition specific to the partners or children of people with addictions. They believed that in order to compensate for the dysfunction caused by addiction, other family members would have to compromise their own needs to keep the family afloat. The needs of the addicted family member superseded the needs of the other family members.
However, as they continued to research codependency, they found that it was definitely not limited to families affected by addiction. Narcissistic parents typically cannot provide the proper support and validation that children need, and even demand that the child meet those needs for the narcissistic parent, which can lead to codependency.
Other common causes of codependent behavior include chronic health issues, abuse, and parental codependency. Some research suggests that if a parent struggles with codependency issues, their children are more likely to struggle with codependency as well.
Still, even though codependency is typically caused by some kind of familial dysfunction, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes if children are highly sensitive, they may pick up on the dysfunctions even in relatively well-adjusted, healthy families, and codependency can still develop.
How Can I Heal From Codependency?
Ah, the million-dollar question. If you’re reading this and thinking it sounds a little too familiar, then you’re probably wondering…what now? What do you do with this information? Are you trapped in these painful patterns forever?
Honestly, I have just started dealing with my codependency issues, and I am far from being in a place where I can give any kind of advice or reassurance that it gets better.
But I believe it will.
So I’m doing research on healing, and I’m happy to share my favorite discoveries with you here. If you have other codependency resources, please share in the comments below so our little community can add them to their codependency toolbox.
- Learn about codependency and how it formed in your life and how it is limiting you. Beware: this might be pretty intense and it might make you feel more hopeless than anything (which is why I recommend doing this in therapy). But it’s a necessary first step. If you try to skip it, you’ll basically be like a surgeon trying to operate while blindfolded. Just remember that codependency is not a shameful thing. A lot of people are affected by it and have no idea. By learning about it, you are taking the first step toward developing healthier patterns that make you much happier.
Some of my favorite resources include Candace van Dell and The Holistic Psychologist, and if you’re looking for quizzes to help you spot potential codependent tendencies, I highly recommend the Friel Co-Dependency Assessment Inventory.
- Journal about your feelings and needs on a regular basis. When we are codependent on others, we put our feelings and needs aside and defer to others, often to the point where we don’t even know what we feel or need. Taking just a few minutes every day (preferably, though in all honesty, I only journal a few times a week) to write about how you felt that day can help you get more in touch with yourself and bring your sense of self back to your center, rather than scattering it among others.
- Make small decisions every day. When we place our sense of self in others, it can be really hard to feel confident in our decision-making skills. To build trust in ourselves, we can practice making small decisions every day that show us we are capable of being in charge of our own life.
And when I say small, I mean it. Yesterday, my decision was to get frappés from McDonald’s on the way back from a walk in the park without asking my husband for permission. I simply announced that’s what we were doing and then I did it. And it was still stressful, but it went completely fine and actually made me feel really great afterward.