What is Codependency?

Codependency is a term used to describe behavior in relationships where one repeatedly prioritizes the needs of others over theirs.2 In a codependent relationship dynamic, there is usually a giver and a taker. The giver constantly feels like they need to be there for the other person. Meanwhile, the taker may not think the other person has to do those things for them.

The term codependent refers to the giver, who often acts so selflessly that they ignore their needs. Individuals in codependent relationships often lose themselves. They may allow their needs to take a back seat as they seek to meet the needs of others. Doing this overtime can make these individuals frustrated and resentful of those they care for due to a lack of reciprocity.

Codependency does not only occur in romantic relationships but can also manifest in one’s interactions with close friends and family members.

Codependency can create a painful cycle of blame and shame.

Codependency can create a painful cycle of blame and shame. 

What Behaviors Enable Codependency?

Codependency is not something absolute. It may be challenging to tell when an individual has the trait. Still, some characteristics may suggest codependent behavior.1

  • Feeling compelled to help other people.
  • The urge to control the behavior of others
  • Not letting people be who they are or allowing events to flow naturally
  • Finding it challenging to ask for help
  • Hiding what you feel to keep the peace
  • Blaming yourself or putting yourself down
  • Taking the wants of others as your own
  • Challenges identifying and stating your needs
  • Taking on more responsibility than you can handle
  • Being entangled in connections that harm your growth
  • Seeking approval or the validation of others
  • Feeling inadequate
  • Fear of not being accepted loved, or supported.

Who is at Risk of Being Codependent?

Generally, women are more likely to be codependent than men. The gender dynamic aside, anyone who has experienced the following may become codependent:

  • Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Neglected needs from caregivers or parents
  • Parents or caregivers with a narcissistic, borderline, or dependent personality disorder force one to accommodate such tendencies.
  • Overprotective or overbearing parents that do not give room for independence
  • Bullying that causes insecurity in relationships

Studies also indicate that codependency is common in individuals taking care of those struggling with substance abuse5. A 2016 study found that wives of men addicted to substance abuse scored higher on codependency than their counterparts.3

The behavior also manifests in those taking care of sick parents. Caregiving professions such as nursing can also influence these behavioral patterns. This is because practitioners have to prioritize the needs of parents over their own. Codependency resulting from environmental factors could come along with issues such as low self-esteem.

People with poor communication skills or those with trouble making decisions or establishing boundaries may also show codependent behavior. Being less assertive could make one vulnerable to manipulative individuals.

Signs of Codependency

Codependency is not a preserve of romantic relationships. Codependency can also occur in a family, social and work life. Below are various pointers to codependency in multiple categories;

Romantic Relationships

  • Cutting off your social circle who disagree with your choice of partner
  • Pegging your schedule around your partner's needs
  • Making excuses for your partner's poor behavior
  • Having a constant need to be seen as a hero by your partner

Work Relationships

  • Agreeing to every assignment request from your boss, even when it is beyond working hours
  • Doing your co-worker favors even when you are under pressure with work
  • Always taking the blame on group projects even when you are not directly responsible

Family Relationships

  • Being on call every time
  • Giving your family money even when you need it for necessities
  • Dropping everything to take care of your parents
Sometimes codependents don't believe they are enough.

Sometimes codependents don't believe they are enough. 

How to Not be Codependent

It is possible for those affected to overcome codependency by themselves. Learning what codependency entails and the harm it can cause an individual can inspire change. Below are some of the actions that could help in this fight.

Having an Idea of What a Healthy Relationship Looks Like

Knowing what a healthy relationship should feel like is crucial in this journey. This is because it gives the individuals an ideal to aspire to. Knowing the signs of a healthy relationship enables codependent individuals to change their behaviors and take up these healthy ones. 
For instance, one might consider being honest and open about their feelings. Instead of trying to be accommodating and going out of their way even when it is against what they truly feel. 
A healthy relationship also involves maintaining independence and not defining oneself by what you do for others or their reactions. Healthy relationships also have a semblance of reciprocity and do not have one individual sacrificing for the needs of others.

Being Assertive 

Codependency includes a failure to impose boundaries in their interactions with others. Relationships can only be healthy when there is a clear distinction between boundaries and what is acceptable and what isn’t. 
Declining requests you are uncomfortable fulfilling is one way to enforce these boundaries. While it might feel awkward initially, being direct in your communication leaves little room for misinterpretation. Meaning that people will be less inclined to take advantage of your pleasing, peacekeeping, or diplomatic nature.
Mutual respect should come with practical and diplomatic communication. Being passive often leads to codependency. Individuals’ intentions are subordinate to favor group interests in critical matters such as time allocation. 
The challenge could make one less productive, among other problems such as:

  • Resentment
  • Seething anger
  • Feelings
  • Vengeance
  • Stress
  • Doubting own judgment

Being assertive has numerous benefits, including4:

  • Improving self-esteem and confidence
  • Respect from peers
  • Improving communication with peers
  • Getting a sense of empowerment
  • Improved workplace satisfaction
  • Enjoying genuine relationships


A common saying is that one cannot pour from an empty cup. Individuals should fulfill their needs and attend to what is important to them before taking up the issues of others. Helping others is often viewed as kind and acceptable.

However, it can be detrimental at the expense of one’s needs. Sometimes personal needs may not be that clear to someone in a codependent relationship. This is because they may derive their identity from serving the needs of others.

A codependent individual in such a situation can begin the self-care journey by simply doing what makes them happy. They may consider trying to figure out the kind of life they want to live and work towards that.

Some ways to do this include:

  • Taking up hobbies that you've been interested in
  • Pursuing a passion that you've wanted to do but were reluctant due to the perceptions of others.
  • Opting for the career change you've always wanted to actualize.

Being Less Self-Judgmental

Judging oneself takes away from the ability to be self-compassionate. It is, therefore, advisable that individuals forgive themselves when things do not go according to plan or when they have made a mistake, or are struggling with a particular issue. Acknowledging and approving painful experiences and not beating oneself is key to maintaining healthy self-esteem.
The following tips can help an individual to have a more positive self-image:

  • Observing one's thoughts can help make one self-aware
  • Building a meaningful network can help one to improve esteem by utilizing their skills and getting an impactful position in society
  • Being more empathetic may be necessary to understand one's decisions in particular situations
  • identifying triggers of negative thoughts is a significant first step in managing them
  • Reframing thoughts is essential when improving self-image. One should replace regret with curiosity and analytical reasoning. Emotional dysregulation can lead to self-hate.
  • Understanding one's character is vital; it can enable one to accept others for who they are. Ultimately, identifying strengths and limitations eliminates toxic judgment.
  • Forgiving oneself is lovely. It can give one the right state of mind to learn from past events.
Recovery from codependency is possible.

Recovery from codependency is possible. 

Worrying Less About What Other People Think

Ultimately, we are not entirely responsible for what others think of us. Individuals in codependent relationships should therefore think less of other people’s perceptions. They should instead trust people to find ways to help themselves out of problems. Worrying less about people’s perceptions makes it easier, to tell the truth, even when it might go against their wishes.
One can worry less about judgment in society since:

Judgment is unavoidable:

  • One cannot control the actions of others. Worrying is not helpful and can lead to problems such as anxiety. Interacting with others can help; it can replace feeling such as resentment with care and compassion.

Limited control: 

  • One can feel liberated by ignoring judgment instead of being vulnerable to the words of others. Understanding one's little control over the actions of others can help to avoid being offended by random talk by others. Managing one's limitations, such as fear of certain things, is an excellent way to avoid being insecure about them. Worrying can make one easy prey for bullies.

Everyone makes judgments:

  • A significant part of humans is judging others. Treating it as a typical trait can make it easier to understand; and less hurtful to concerned individuals. It may be best to hand judgment as mere communication and not confrontation. One should also identify and dismiss unhelpful comments and leverage positive feedback for self-improvement.

Connecting with Yourself Before Others

Codependent people sometimes go to extreme lengths to service the needs of others. They may do this even when said people have not asked for their help. This codependent person may resort to this behavior due to paranoia that not rendering such assistance leaves the person helpless. 
However, this is a significant burden, and focusing on the worst-case scenario only cements codependent traits. Therefore, codependent people must acknowledge that those around them can survive without such help and instead focus this energy on connecting with themselves.

Not Being Attached to the Outcome

The need to control the outcomes of relationships can be an obsessive trait. This trait may deny one the chance to enjoy fulfilling interactions with those around them. Codependent people seeking to do no wrong and preserve relationships should desist from such efforts. They should instead work on being themselves when interacting with others. 
At one point or another, we are all bound to disappoint someone whose opinion matters in our lives. Mostly, these are things that one can improve on. Thus it is prudent to enjoy the relationships as they are by being true to self. Rather than being too cautious and worrying that the relationship will end if we behave a certain way.

Spending Time Alone

You are most likely to portray codependent behavior when in the company of others. If possible, it is wise to take a step back and spend some time alone.
Spending some time by yourself will give your time to:

  • Be more reflective on daily experiences
  • Recharge your social batteries
  • Get in touch with your feelings

Spending time alone could generate the following benefits:

  • It can make you more productive
  • It may spark creativity in matters such as developing innovative ways of completing assignments.
  • One can also be happier and have better stress tolerance capacity by staying alone. Getting enough time to reflect can enable an individual to understand a situation better.
  • Being alone can also help one to plan their life better. Being productive can lead to more happiness.

Spending some time could also mean permanently breaking off from social dynamics, such as romantic relationships that make you feel overwhelmed.

Support for Codependency

Sometimes, personal efforts may prove inadequate to help one pull away from codependent behavioral patterns. Professional intervention may come in handy in assisting the codependent individual in stopping the trait. Establishing healthy patterns of interaction is paramount. Below are some ways to achieve this desirable outcome.

Group Interventions 

Group therapy is an intervention that involves one therapist working with several people simultaneously. Joining a support group of peers who face the same problem can influence behavioral change. This is because these individuals hold each other accountable with the help of a trained professional. 
Group therapy can help one learn to express their feelings more openly, become self-aware and build self-esteem. The safe space accorded to individuals is an excellent opportunity to learn from peers and professionals such as therapists. One can also develop social skills, such as effective communication, besides learning how to manage unwanted thoughts better. Skills such as being assertive can also improve in support groups.

Family Therapy

Suppose codependency is a result of a dysfunctional family. In that case, this therapy can help identify the happenings that trigger the behavior. As well as equip the family with tools to improve their interactions.

Family therapy can be beneficial when members are keen to delve into and tackle issues they do not usually discuss. It might also inspire the dependent individual to change their behavior, thus eliminating the need for others to become codependent.
Getting the best out of family therapy includes techniques such as:

  • Behavioral techniques:

The approach focuses mainly on skills and psychological education. Therapists can help families better understand certain members and resolve issues such as poor communication.

  • Psychodynamic techniques

The technique focuses on problem-solving. The therapist can help members to develop healthy ways of communicating and handling problems in a family. The emotional insights collected using the method can lead to a better understanding of one another and more support in conflicts.

  • Structural techniques:

This method can be most effective in families with significant boundaries and power dynamics. The approach aims to establish routines that improve cooperation and mutual respect.

Cognitive Therapy

This therapy seeks to tackle the thought patterns that lead to codependency. For instance, thoughts that trigger fear of abandonment may make one go to extreme lengths to maintain relationships. This even includes relationships that are detrimental to their well-being. Cognitive therapy can help one process these thoughts without resulting in behaviors that negatively affect their well-being.
By getting in touch with one’s thoughts and emotions through the help of cognitive therapy, a codependent person will be able to recognize irrational patterns and deal with them. 

Help with Codependency 

Codependency is placing someone else’s needs before yours. It may be natural to support people close to you, such as family members and spouses. It is paramount to set clear boundaries.

Focusing on others’ needs may not give one the fulfillment they need in life. Supporting others may be more accessible when one prioritizes self-care. Many people have trouble recognizing their needs. Some individuals may also fail to ask for help when needed or refuse to accept their offers.

Healthy Life Recovery offers a refuge for those dealing with addictions by providing personalized care. Our team of qualified staff is compassionate and offers a variety of therapies to help you recover from codependency. We help people struggling with codependency with evidence-based treatments like cognitive behavioral therapydialectical behavior therapy, and family therapy.

About the Author: 

Michelle English LCSW is the Executive Clinical Manager at Healthy Life Recovery 

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