Codependency is a group of traits that develop in childhood as a way to cope with trauma. Many of us grew up in families with addiction, mental illness, or other problems. Others of us had seemingly normal childhoods, but codependent traits and patterns were passed down unknowingly by our parents.
Codependent traits are most apparent in our relationship struggles, but they ultimately represent our difficulties in loving, accepting, trusting, and being our true selves. We’re plagued by shame, guilt, and feelings of inadequacy which lead us to constantly try to please others, prove ourselves, and seek validation.
As codependents we’re focused outward – on trying to please, help, fix, and control other people and situations. We base our happiness and feelings on what other people are doing, rather than on our own internal feelings and values. Over time, we aren’t living our own lives. We become some wrapped up – obsessed at times – in other people’s problems that we lose track of who we are, what we want, and how to be happy within ourselves.
There are many characteristics or symptoms of codependency. I’ve listed some of them below (although I’m sure there are still more). Deciding whether you’re codependent or not isn’t about how many of these traits you have, but more about whether they are causing you distress and interfering with your health, peace of mind, and relationships.
Characteristics of codependency:
- You focus on other people’s problems and needs in the form of caretaking, controlling, advice giving, and worrying about others.
- You can be controlling and perfectionistic. You want things to be done a certain way and may resort to telling others what to do and how to do it. You can be critical of others because they often don’t live up to your expectations. Your high standards also make it hard to ask for or accept help.
- You struggle when things don’t go as planned. You crave predictability, structure, and certainty — things you probably didn’t have in your childhood family.
- You’re self-critical. You also set unrealistic expectations for yourself and are harsh and critical of your imperfections and mistakes. Your self-criticism is a result of your low self-esteem and the harsh criticism you’ve gotten from others.
- You feel responsible for everything and everyone, even other people’s happiness.
- You’re afraid to upset or disappoint others (people-pleasing). So, you’re always dependable and responsible. People count on you, but this can lead to over-extending yourself and exhaustion.
- You have trouble with boundaries, speaking up for yourself, and saying “no”. At times, you let people mistreat or take advantage of your kindness because you don’t want to hurt their feelings, let them down, or create a conflict.
- You ignore your own feelings and needs, often “stuffing” them or numbing them.
- Since your focus in on others and you don’t feel worthy, you generally ignore or put your needs last.
- In addition to denying your feelings and needs, you may have a hard time seeing how unmanageable or unhappy your life has become. These are forms of denial.
- You base your happiness on what other people are feeling or doing. For example, if your spouse is in a good mood, you can relax and enjoy the day. But if s/he’s angry or depressed, your day is ruined. You have a hard time separating yourself from other people’s feelings, needs, and experiences.
- You define yourself in relation to others (I’m Johnny’s dad) and lack a strong sense of self (knowing who you are, what you believe, want, and like).
- You’re very hurt. For some, the pain is close to the surface and for others, it’s buried underneath anger and denial. The pain of being abused, lied to, cheated on, ignored, cursed at, rejected, or invalidated has never fully healed.
- You feel guilty and ashamed. Guilt and shame are the roots of low self-worth and low self-esteem. For a long time, you’ve felt there was something wrong with you. Perhaps someone told you this directly or you may have come to this conclusion based on how you’ve been treated. For example, Jasmine’s mother repeatedly invalidated her feelings and called her a “greedy little slut”; she grew up feeling unlovable and like there’s something wrong with her.
- You act like a martyr, taking care of everyone else, giving without receiving, and then feeling angry, resentful and taken advantage of. Sometimes helping and taking care of others makes you feel good (needed and worthwhile) and other times it makes you feel angry and resentful. You may complain, yell, or passive-aggressively let people know you’re upset about “having to do everything”, but chances are you continue your pattern of martyrdom.
- You’re reactive. Anger and resentments build up over time causing you to seemingly overreact at times.
- You tend to overwork and overschedule yourself as ways to prove your worth or distract yourself.
- Intimacy, open communication, and trust are difficult because you didn’t have role models for healthy relationships and you’ve probably been hurt and betrayed in your relationships.
- You’re afraid of anger, criticism, rejection, and failure. So, you “play it safe” and keep a low profile.
- You may experience anxiety and/or depression. And even if you don’t have a clinical level of anxiety, you may feel tense, anxious, or on-edge frequently.
Did you recognize yourself in this list of codependency symptom? Codependency can be hard to accept because it’s got such a negative connotation. Many codependents feel ashamed, blamed, and like they’ve done something wrong to cause all these problems. So, I want you to take two important things away from this article about codependency:
- Codependency is not your fault. You didn’t cause it. You became codependent as a way to cope with an out of control situation. No one taught you a healthy way to cope, so your codependent traits developed. Now, however, codependency causes you problems and gets in the way of having a happy, healthy relationship with yourself and others. So, although you didn’t cause it, you are the only one who can change your codependent thinking and behaviors. You can beg and plead and pray that your loved one goes to treatment or changes in some way, but that isn’t the solution to your codependency. The solution is to learn to accept yourself and others just as they are, to stop trying to control what happens, and take care of yourself. It’s hard, hard work. Loving someone who has a serious problem like addiction is heart-wrenching and so is accepting that you can’t save them.
- There is a path out of codependency. Codependency can feel like being trapped in a maze – you’re lost and alone, walking in circles with no direction, and you can’t see any way out. You don’t have to see the entire path out right now; you just need to believe there is one. You need to take one step today towards knowing, caring for, and being your authentic self. And tomorrow you’ll take another step. That’s how you find your way back to yourself – literally one step at a time.
I hope that this article helps you to better understand codependency and reduce the shame you may be feeling. I know it can be hard to see yourself in this list of codependent traits. Awareness and acceptance, however, are always the first steps of change. I wish you well on your journey to know and love yourself.
©Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
Photos courtesy of Freedigitalphotos.net and Unsplash.com
Thankyou Sharon – this was an ah-ha moment for me reading this. I am extremely self aware and have always put others before myself. A recent diagnosis has forced me to step back from saying yes to all and has left me feeling at times “less than”. They say acknowledging a problem is the first step to recovery – consider this my first step.
Thank you Sharon. You write so beautifully, and with such kindness as well as clarity. I needed to see this. My brother committed suicide two years ago. He was super successful in California; however, he apparently developed an IV meth addiction unbeknownst to anyone but his husband of 30 years. When he went to rehab for the last time (4 years before he died) he called my mom and I personally to tell us about his addiction, that he was going to rehab, was HIV+ and had Hep C. I couldn’t breathe. He recommended that I read a book about codependency by Pai Melody who is somehow connected to The Meadows rehab facility where to went (Do NOT recommend that place BTW). That would be the last time he would speak to him because of his new “boundaries”. I have hated that word ever since. I couldn’t even get through the first chapter of that book, but your article made me feel so much better…or as good as I can given the circumstances. You’re an Angel. Thank you.
Thanks for your kind words and I’m glad that the article helped you see boundaries in a more positive light.
I’m so very sorry for the loss of your brother.
Thank you Sharon! Thanks for underscoring shame, which can be internalized through cultural and religious values. I recall, as a first generation Asian American, being made to feel ashamed for not being Ivy League material. Also as a Catholic school student we were often told by the nuns to give until it hurts. Your articles are helping me to individuate and to think critically about cultural values that no longer suit me as I evolve.
Do you recommend a particular book regarding co-dependency and how to overcome
Codependent No More is my favorite – https://amzn.to/31v5x6e
There are more suggestions here: https://sharonmartincounseling.com/mental-wellness-resources/
Thanks for this Sharon. I was told I was in codependent relationship with my son over 2 years ago. Many sessions of therapy has opened my eyes to this dreadful condition, but I continue to struggle with this. I’m trying my best to deal with the situation but it’s so difficult when one’s son lives in the same household. My wife is not codependent and she does fine, but I am a mess. Your article has again opened my eyes and that I should try harder to deal with my problem. My therapist is unavailable due to the Covid-19 pandemic and I feel lost but I can try and cope the best way I have learned over the past 2 years. Thanks for these articles on codependency.
Thank you Sharon. Your articles are so clear. I am a survivor or childhood abuse and I am in a loving, nurturing relationship that seemed healthy. Reading your article has made me realize that I have many co-dependent tendencies and that I have the permission and right to focus on myself so that I can break that pattern so I don’t teach them to my daughter.
I absolutely loved this!
This is very comprehensive. Thank you for sharing
Thank you for the detailed and helpful articles on Boundaries and Codependency. Both of my parents were alcoholics, as well as a younger sister. I resonate with so much of the traits and characteristics of codependency and have very “weak boundaries “. When I push back, I often feel so shamed and guilty for feeling like I am a bad person who is selfish. I struggle so much, and continue to read countless articles on improving self esteem, self value, and setting and maintaining boundaries in my life. I am single, and my girlfriend does not seem to understand the difficulty I have now, and expects me to have “grown out of it”. When I have set a boundary on name calling to me, she violates it, and I do not follow them with the consequences. All of this makes me feel so Lost, Empty, and without core beliefs or values. I know what I need and must do, I am just a Coward to do it. I would only add the support groups of 12 Steps. Specifically Al-Anon
and Codependents Anonymous (CODA). Thank you again and Blessings,
This article just summarized everything and spoke deeply to my heart. Thank you Sharon for making a difference in the world by helping others. You make quite the impact in the world.