What is codependent thinking?
Codependency refers to an unhealthy relationship dynamic where one person is focused on taking care of, fixing, or controlling the other to the extent that he neglects his own needs. The relationship becomes enmeshed – there aren’t clear boundaries or a sense of being separate, unique, independent people.
Codependency is built on low self-worth – feelings of inadequacy, relentless self-criticism, and shame (the feeling that there’s something fundamentally wrong with you). As a result, codependents have an unhealthy need to be needed and liked; they need others to validate that they are worthy and lovable, so they do whatever it takes to make others happy, often sacrificing their own needs, interests, and goals in the process.
Codependency stems from trauma (something you experienced or generational trauma) and this trauma often includes:
- Being told you’re unlovable, inferior, unacceptable, etc.
- Being judged harshly
- Being blamed inappropriately for things you didn’t do or couldn’t control
- Being ignored
- Being abused or hurt by people who profess to love you
- Being told your feelings don’t matter
- Not receiving guidance, appropriate rules and boundaries
- Not having your boundaries respected
- Not feeling safe to be yourself
- Regularly feeling scared, anxious, or on-edge
- Experiencing your caregivers as inconsistent, unpredictable, untrustworthy
- Not having your emotional and/or physical needs met
This type of trauma can lead to distorted, negative thinking patterns that reflect a belief that you really are unlovable, inferior, unacceptable, and so forth.
What you say to yourself matters
We all talk to ourselves constantly (either out loud or silently in our heads). These thoughts are called self-talk. We’re not conscious of most of our self-talk, but occasionally, you probably hear yourself saying things like I’m such an idiot or I can’t believe I did that.
Often, we need to slow down in order to tune into our self-talk. As you go through your day, try to pay attention to what you’re saying to yourself. Is your self-talk negative, pessimistic, or self-critical? Or is it supportive and helpful? Or perhaps there’s some of both.
Negative thoughts aren’t always accurate
As we grow up, we develop beliefs about ourselves (such as, I’m smart or I’m unlovable) based on what others tell us and how we’re treated. Usually, these beliefs start forming when we’re young and don’t have the cognitive abilities or life experiences to question whether they are accurate. If, for example, your mother always told you that you were difficult, there’s a good chance that you’ve gone through life accepting this.
And if you think you’re difficult, it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You’ll unconsciously look for evidence to support the belief that you’re difficult — and because we all have a negativity bias, you will skew things to perpetuate this belief. You can learn more about this kind of distorted thinking here and how to change it here.
Where did your negative beliefs come from?
Even as an adult, your self-talk probably reflects the messages you got in childhood. Some people even recognize that some of their self-talk sounds exactly like critical comments their parents or siblings made. Without realizing it, we internalize these negative messages and reinforce them – making them stronger – when we repeat them to ourselves.
Reframing codependent thinking
We all tend to have a default setting when it comes to our self-talk, but negative self-talk can be changed.
As you become more aware of your codependent self-talk, you can try replacing it with a more positive statement from the list below. Remember, repetition is important in order to strengthen your belief in positive self-talk.
You may also find it helpful to question how accurate your codependent thinking is. Does it feel true or accurate? What is the evidence that it’s true? Does it reflect who you are (or want to be)? Is it really your voice or are you repeating what someone else said to you? Is it helpful? Does it support healthy self-esteem and self-care? Does it keep you stuck in unhealthy patterns or does it move you toward growth? Is it kind?
As you read the examples of codependent thinking below, notice which ones resonate with you. Your codependent thoughts may be a bit different, of course, but this list reflects many of the false beliefs codependents hold.
Examples of codependent thinking
- Everything’s my fault.
- I’m worthless.
- I shouldn’t have any needs. I shouldn’t spend money or time on myself.
- It’s not that important. I can wait. I don’t really need it. Whatever you want is fine. I want you to be happy.
- I don’t know how to deal with my feelings.
- Anger is scary.
- Mistakes prove I’m inadequate.
- I have to be perfect.
- I have to do everything myself. I can’t count on anyone.
- There’s one “right” way to do things.
- I don’t want to let anyone down.
- It’s my job to keep everyone happy.
- I need others to validate my worth.
- I have to prove my worth by taking care of others, sacrificing my needs and wants, never making mistakes, and working excessively.
- If I don’t take charge, this family will fall apart.
- It feels scary when I can’t control everything.
- I need to rescue people; I can’t let them suffer.
- If others would take my advice or let me help, things would be a lot better.
Examples of healthy thinking
- I will take responsibility for my thoughts, feelings, and actions. And I will allow others to take responsibility for themselves.
- I am worthy of love, happiness, success.
- Doing things for myself is healthy, not selfish.
- My needs matter.
- I can tolerate difficult feelings.
- Anger tells me that something is wrong. It’s okay to feel angry.
- Everyone makes mistakes.
- I accept myself – flaws and all.
- I don’t have to do everything myself. I can ask for help.
- My way isn’t the only way.
- It’s okay to say “no”.
- We are all responsible for our own feelings. I can’t make someone happy (or unhappy).
- My self-worth doesn’t depend on other people’s approval.
- I value myself. I don’t have to prove anything.
- I accept that I can’t control everything.
- I can cope with whatever happens.
- It’s not possible for me to fix everyone and everything.
- I will let others solve their own problems. When I do things for people, I’m not letting them grow and learn.
It takes a lot of practice to make positive self-talk automatic. But even if you don’t rid yourself completely of your negative self-talk, every little bit will help you cultivate a stronger sense of self-worth and change the codependent behaviors that stem from feelings of shame and inadequacy.
Everything’s my fault.
I will take responsibility for my thoughts, feelings, and actions. And I will allow others to take responsibility for themselves.
I am worthy of love, happiness, success.
|I shouldn’t have any needs. I shouldn’t spend money or time on myself.||Doing things for myself is healthy, not selfish.|
|It’s not that important. I can wait. I don’t really need it. Whatever you want is fine. I want you to be happy.||My needs matter.
|I don’t know how to deal with my feelings.||I can tolerate difficult feelings.|
Anger is scary.
|Anger tells me that something is wrong. It’s okay to feel angry.|
Mistakes prove I’m inadequate.
|Everyone makes mistakes.|
I have to be perfect.
|I accept myself – flaws and all.|
I have to do everything myself. I can’t count on anyone.
I don’t have to do everything myself. I can ask for help.
There’s one “right” way to do things.
My way isn’t the only way.
|I don’t want to let anyone down.||
It’s okay to say “no”.
|It’s my job to keep everyone happy.||
We are all responsible for our own feelings. I can’t make someone happy (or unhappy).
|I need others to validate my worth.||
My self-worth doesn’t depend on other people’s approval.
|I have to prove my worth by taking care of others, sacrificing my needs and wants, never making mistakes, and working excessively.||
I value myself. I don’t have to prove anything.
|If I don’t take charge, this family will fall apart.||
I accept that I can’t control everything.
|It feels scary when I can’t control everything.||
I can cope with whatever happens.
|I need to rescue people; I can’t let them suffer.||
It’s not possible for me to fix everyone and everything.
If others would take my advice or let me help, things would be a lot better.
I will let others solve their own problems. When I do things for people, I’m not letting them grow and learn.
©Sharon Martin, LCSW
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©2019 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Originally published on PsychCentral.
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