Codependence (aka codependency) is a word that is commonly used, yet most people have trouble defining exactly what it is. Codependence is a dysfunctional pattern of prioritizing other people's needs at your own expense. People with codependent tendencies have low self-worth, low self-esteem, lack boundaries, and relate to other people through control, denial, compliance, and avoidance. Like most things, codependence exists on a spectrum, which is why you might notice mild, moderate, or severe manifestations of these symptoms.
Where It Comes From
While some refer to codependence as an addiction or disorder, codependence isn’t actually a formal diagnosis, it’s a symptom of trauma or PTSD. Specifically, it comes from experiencing or observing abandonment, engulfment, abuse, or neglect as a child or adolescent. As adults, unhealthy or traumatic relationships can also lead to codependent tendencies, even if you didn’t have them before. Many people experience symptoms of codependence, but they can’t identify where it came from in their childhood. In this case, genetics might be a factor. Mental, emotional, and biological tendencies can be passed down from one generation to another and will sometimes skip a generation but show up in the next one.
Abuse and Engulfment
Abuse can take place physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. A milder, yet also traumatizing form of abuse is called engulfment. This includes oversharing by a parent about inappropriate things, such as relationships or financial issues, or being overly controlling and smothering. Abuse and engulfment are boundary violations that disempower self-worth, meaning that they convey to a child that they are only worthy if they allow themselves to be used, put-upon, or needed by others. Oftentimes children will either take on these abusive characteristics or become caretakers. In both cases, there’s an ongoing compulsion to grasp for control and it’s challenging to set healthy boundaries.
Abandonment and Neglect
Abandonment can manifest as emotional or mental unavailability, as well as physical absence. When a parent or caregiver is preoccupied with workaholism, substance use, their romantic relationships, a mental health issue, or physical challenge, they aren’t emotionally available for the child’s needs. Divorce, lack of emotional warmth and empathy, inconsistency, and instability are also interpreted as abandonment by a child. When a child feels abandoned, this creates an emotional void and damages their self-worth. They often think that the abandonment is their fault because they’re lacking something. Codependent behaviors, such as control and denial become a survival mechanism to combat the pain and intensity of the emotional void.
Common Symptoms of Codependence
Putting other people’s needs ahead of your own, at your own expense. This is also known as approval-seeking and self-abandonment.
Being out of touch with your own feelings and needs, or not allowing yourself to have needs.
Lack of boundaries, or inconsistent boundaries.
Feeling guilty and shameful without having done anything wrong.
Chronically worrying about your relationship or being preoccupied with other people.
Feelings of unworthiness.
Obligation, or allowing yourself to be put upon by others. This is usually followed by resentment, or in extreme cases, rage.
Unclear, indirect communication along with an expectation that people should be able to read your mind or automatically anticipate your needs.
Attempting to control other people (this includes manipulation, the silent treatment, being withholding, bossy, demanding, or abusive).
Allowing yourself to be controlled by someone.
Putting others or yourself on a pedestal.
Getting involved in abusive or unhealthy relationships and staying in them for too long.
Enabling someone's addiction or abusive behaviors by engaging in denial and making excuses for them.
Saying yes when you mean no.
Fear that you’ll be judged, rejected, or abandoned if you set boundaries.
Indecision and lack of trust in yourself.
Wanting to fix or save people and not allowing other people to fail or make mistakes. This means you're trying to take responsibility for other people instead of taking responsibility for yourself. Another version of this is chronically wanting and waiting to be saved by someone else.
Attraction to narcissists.
Being compliant even when it means disregarding your own values or integrity.
How to Address Codependent Tendencies
Codependence doesn’t go away on its own and if left untreated it can get worse over time. The best way to address trauma and codependent tendencies is to commit to therapy for at least one year. This will help you to resolve trauma and heal your brain, while you also learn to set healthy boundaries and empower your self-worth. What’s essential is to be consistent, and to work with a practitioner who has strong, healthy boundaries, and is a stable, compassionate presence in your life. This will allow you to discern the difference between healthy interdependence and codependent dynamics.
Additionally, you might want to explore the world of CODA or ALANON to learn more about the anatomy of codependence within the context of a supportive community.
Other ways to address codependence include learning to listen to your needs and then taking the steps to meet your needs instead of neglecting them. Practicing radical self-care every day, setting boundaries on a regular basis and learning to communicate clearly and non-violently will also help to improve your self-worth and your relationships. You might also want to experiment with not acting out from a place of guilt, obligation, resentment, or control, and instead to redirect that energy toward your own self-care.