It may begin the first time you notice the particular, almost physical joy you feel when you help your partner with something challenging. It feels good, so you repeat the behavior. Then, before you know it, you may find you're helping your partner before helping yourself. You offer your advice and assistance even when your mind is telling you to say, "No."
I'm so tired, but my partner needs me, you think. If I don't help them, they may not love me. They may not think I'm a good enough partner if I take too much time for myself. They may suffer more, and that would be my fault.
Codependency is a pattern of thinking and behaviors in which you focus on a loved one's feelings, wants, needs and problems, while ignoring or minimizing your own. According to Los Angeles marriage and family therapist Janell Cox, M.A., of Highland Park Holistic Psychotherapy, codependency is a "natural response of over-functioning in relation to an under-functioning or dependent person." However, this pattern creates a detrimental impact for everyone involved.
"In a partnership, you will experience many waves of depending on one another due to injury, illness, lack of employment or disability," she said. "This may ebb and flow, each taking turns to aid the other. Codependency refers to when these patterns become insidious and chronic, when this form of over-functioning gets embedded into your identity. This is not love, though. It's fear."
A survival mechanism
Coined in the late 1970s and popularized by works like Melody Beattie's "Codependent No More," the term "codependency" initially referred to people whose partners suffer from chemical addiction. But today, the term includes anyone who was raised in a dysfunctional family—defined as a family structure in which members feel shame, anger, guilt or pain that goes ignored or denied. In many cases, codependent behaviors are learned in childhood as a survival response, said Katarina Campagnola, M.A., LMFT, a mental health counselor in Gainesville, Florida.
"When there's a lack of support from parents and focus isn't on the child, the child has to figure out life on their own," Campagnola said. "That often results in failed attempts in important areas like school, which affects self-esteem and identity. Having to depend on oneself, in combination with failure, can result in toxic shame and feelings of worthlessness."
To combat these feelings born in youth, you may find purpose in adulthood by caring for someone else. You may feel akin to a superhero with the strength to fix all problems in sight, but in reality, you may be motivated by a deep fear that if you don't fix the problems of your loved ones, you won't be loved or worthy of love, Cox explained.
Codependency is a pattern of thinking and behaviors in which you focus on a loved one's feelings, wants, needs and problems, while ignoring or minimizing your own.
"Fear breeds all kinds of defenses, like hostility, submission, anxiety, depression, guilt, shame or the need to blame," Cox said. "It's all just fear around the greatest need we possess: to be loved and to connect."
Before this pattern threatens the health and equity of your most treasured relationships, learn to spot some common thoughts, feelings and behaviors associated with codependency and adopt healthier practices for the future.
Common codependency pitfalls
- Low self-worth: You may blame yourself for any problems in your relationships or be afraid to make a mistake and create a reaction from your loved ones. In extreme cases, you may feel your life isn't worth living, so you help others live instead.
- Feeling the need to please: "I have found there is a particular personality type that is prone to codependency—the pleaser or perfectionist," Cox said. "These types never learned to grow or nurture their inner compass. They say, 'I will make your truth my truth so that you will love me.'"
- Caretaking: You may try to fix others' feelings by offering unwanted advice, anticipating others' needs or overextending yourself, like saying "yes" when you mean "no."
- Repressing: "The codependent partner lacks a sense of true identity or is afraid of expressing their true self," Campagnola said. "They neglect who they are and their needs, and do not attend to their own personal journey of self-discovery."
- Obsessing: This may look like worrying about others, when your mind is stuck in an endless loop of examining their behaviors and thoughts instead of your own.
- Controlling: Codependent people use guilt, coercion or manipulation to attempt to fix their loved one's problems.
Healthy behaviors to adopt
- Let go. Learn what you can and cannot change, and recognize that obsessing over an issue won't achieve anything. In detaching from our loved ones' choices, we give them the opportunity to grow, and we give ourselves the time and space to work on ourselves.
- Remove the rescue narrative. Instead of rescuing your loved ones from their problems like a superhero, acknowledge the problem and ask, "What do you need from me?" Then do only what you can.
- Practice self-love. Seek your own joy, remember your core values and find things to do that align with them. What are your goals for the future? Whatever you find on this journey within, treat yourself with compassion, as you would a loved one. When feelings arise, accept them, thank them and let them pass.
- Learn your boundaries and communicate. Practice communicating clearly and honestly with others, listening with compassion but making equal space in the conversation for your needs. "Learn how to be situated in the self, which requires introspection and being in tune with your personal needs and desires," Campagnola says. "Don't be afraid to express them."
Change is possible
Remember, it's never too late to recognize these patterns and commit to change. This is work best started with the help of a licensed therapist, Cox said, but you are ultimately in charge of your worth and your relationships.
"It's nearly impossible to do this work alone. Get a therapist and ally to walk with you," Cox said. "Fight for your voice, your mission and purpose. You deserve this."