By Andrea Wachter, LMFT and Marsea Marcus, LMFT
Do you often focus on the needs of others but ignore your own?
Do you find yourself preoccupied by how your loved ones are doing?
Do you have difficulty expressing your feelings and needs in your relationships?
Do you feel compelled to jump in and try to fix others when they’re struggling?
Do you regularly sacrifice your own self-care for the sake of others?
Do you offer support to others without even checking in with your own needs?
All of the above questions are indicators of codependency. Codependency is when somebody consistently focuses on the feelings and needs of others, at the expense of their own. This behavioral pattern hurts not only the codependent, but it also hinders the other person’s growth.
Codependency is sometimes referred to as a relationship addiction. But unlike addictions to substances like alcohol, drugs or cigarettes, where recovery involves complete abstinence, when someone struggles with codependency, the path to wellness is not as clear-cut. You can’t simply stop “the symptoms” of loving, supporting and helping the people you care about. And even if you could, that does not necessarily constitute health either.
It’s healthy and appropriate to help others at times, to feel concerned about our loved ones, or to offer support to the people we care about. It’s only when these things are taken to extremes that they can be harmful rather than helpful.
A codependent person has an extreme need to take care of others and to focus on other people, while ignoring their own needs, problems and desires. In a codependent relationship, one person loses their own identity and orbits around another person. Often, that other person is an addict of some kind, but not always.
The poblem for the recipient of codependent behavior is that they become used to having their problems attended to by someone else. They can stay stuck in a lifestyle that may be ruining their lives or even killing them and, partly as a result of the codependents in their lives, they don’t have the motivation to do anything about their problems; they can leave that to others.
It is important to note that, on the positive side, most codependents are very caring people with very big hearts. Codependency can even look and seem saintly. After all, many codependent people would do almost anything for their friends, children or spouses, including putting their own life on hold. They are loyal! But they tend to be overly loyal, not knowing when (or how) to stop. They over-care, feel overly responsible for others, and are overly focused on the needs of others.
In healthy relationships, each person factors their own needs into their decision-making process, it’s not all about the other person. (Especially when that other person is an addict and not making good decisions for themselves.) In healthy relationships there is a balance between giving and receiving, talking and listening.
Often, a person caught in the grips of codependency feels that their own needs are unimportant. Even though they may look like the “healthier” person of the two, they have their own issues that cause them to think other people are more important than they are, that their own feelings don’t matter, and that they are responsible for saving people. Their desperate need for approval trumps all other needs. When somebody consistently diminishes their own feelings and needs and looks to others for approval and identity, this results in an unhealthy dynamic (for both people). Codependency really isn’t good for anyone, despite the accolades that a codependent person might receive for being so “good” or “helpful.”
Healing from codependency involves subtle and deep self-inquiry. For example, it might feel healthy and appropriate to give your adult child some money in one instance, but at another time, your gut is telling you it’s not a good idea, that they have not been making wise choices with money lately, and that giving them money may only help to perpetuate their bad choices. Healing requires thinking these things through instead of simply reacting to impulses to help.
There are certainly times when doing something for someone else feels like the right thing to do and there are times when that very same offer could be codependent. To know which is which, a person has to be able to tap into their internal wisdom. If someone is unable to do this, it’s important they seek help (i.e. therapy or a trusted friend) to look at the underlying issues that caused them to separate from their internal wisdom in the first place.
For example, if our early caregivers were unhealthy or had a lot of unmet needs themselves, we may have ended up taking on the role of caregiver, rather than the adult being the caregiver, as nature intended it. When this happens, we often lose our connection to our own developmental needs and develop an overactive attunement to our caregiver, and then others. This can cause an internal disconnection from our innate wisdom. Also, some children are naturally wired to be highly empathetic. They tend to over-care about approval, leading them to focus on making other people happy, and under-care about their own feelings and needs. These kids need their caretakers to be in charge and not let them caretake their caretakers.
You may remember a book that was popular back in the 70’s called I’m OK – You’re OK. Think of the codependent version as: I’m OK – If You’re OK. But, in all seriousness, when someone struggles with codependency, it can be very painful business. The constant efforts to fix someone are stressful and, combined with a lack of self-care, can lead to many emotional and physical problems, as well as impede the other person’s growth.
Signs of Codependency
It can be difficult to distinguish healthy caring behaviors from codependent behaviors. In some situations, like when raising a child or helping an elderly person, putting someone else’s needs above one’s own might be necessary and appropriate. Children and some elderly people actually are dependent in a way that another adult should not be.
Here are some signs to look out for:
Consitently putting others’ needs first, at the expense of your own.
Neglecting to check in with your own feelings and needs.
Doing things out of obligation rather than true desire.
Not being able to separate out your own needs from what you think are the needs of others.
Regularly compromising, minimizing or ignoring your own needs.
Frequent ruminating or obsessing about other people’s feelings, life situations and needs.
Having difficulty saying no, setting limits, or making requests on your own behalf.
Feeling like you don’t have a choice if someone asks you to do something for them.
Neglecting your own self-care because you’re too busy taking care of others.
Feeling guilty if you say no to someone.
Having difficulty tolerating someone else’s response if your desires or preferences differ from theirs.
Having a hard time tolerating glitches or rough spots in your relationships and always needing things to be okay in order for you to feel okay.
Holding in or denying your true feelings, thoughts and needs because you’re too afraid to voice them.
Feeling resentful because you do too much for others and don’t realize you have choices.
Jumping at other peoples’ needs without even factoring in your own.
Thinking it’s your job to help someone when they are struggling.
A Codependent Friendship:
Let’s meet Callie and her friend Lisa. Lisa asks Callie if she can drive her to the airport. Immediately in Callie’s body, she gets a clear sense of “no.” She has been working overtime, while sick with a cold. Her laundry is piled up. The day of Lisa’s flight will be the first day Callie will have time to rest and catch up on her life. This just isn’t going to work for her. But barely tuning into her inner voice about this, Callie immediately thinks about how much Lisa has been struggling lately. She lost her car in a bad accident (yes, she was drunk, but still, she’s really inconvenienced now without a car). And Lisa has been trying really hard to get sober, but everything has seemed to go against her. This ride is one thing Callie can do to make life a little easier for her friend. Callie thinks, “If I don’t do this, Lisa might end up drinking. I can still find time to rest and do my laundry. How can I not help my friend out? I’m lucky to have a car and the time to help her. I feel like I have to give her this ride.”
We all have an inner voice that tells us when something is a no, a yes or a maybe. Someone who struggles with codependency is often not in touch with that knowing, or they are but they ignore it.
So, Callie gets a negative feeling inside that tells her the airport ride does not work for her. The codependent response she chose was to say “yes” anyway. One result will probably be that Callie feels even more exhausted, stressed and, on top of that, resentful.
The healthy response might be for Callie to kindly tell Lisa that she is unable to give her a ride and trust that honoring her gut will be best for both of them, even if it’s difficult. Callie might even realize that she wouldn’t want someone doing a favor for her when it really didn’t work for them, and that Lisa deserves authenticity from her friend.
Again, this does not mean that healthy friends never sacrifice, flex, or go out of their way for each other. It means they regularly tune-in to their inner guidance, their internal GPS, if you will. And that’s where they get their answers. They feel that they have a choice about whether to say “yes” or “no” to the requests of others. They can weigh out the pros and cons honestly and make decisions that respect both the other person and themselves. They can sacrifice their own needs at times, but they can also say “no”, negotiate other options and voice their own feelings, thoughts and needs.
Tips for Healing Codependency:
Take time to think about what you are feeling and needing and how you can best take care of yourself each day.
Remind yourself that you have choices. Practice saying “No”, even if it’s really hard.
Remember that you are not responsible for another adult’s feelings or life.
Practice pausing before you say “yes” to any request someone makes of you. Tell the requestor you have to think about what they’re asking and get back to them.
Ask yourself what you might do in the situation if you did not feel obligated or afraid.
Tune into your own needs before you jump in to offer support.
Begin expressing your preferences on smaller things, like restaurant or movie choices. This will help you prepare for the bigger things like relationship needs and limit setting.
Take time each day to inquire within. Make it a regular practice to drop down from your mind (where codependent decisions and beliefs are born), into your heart (where you will discover your truth). Spiritual activities like meditation, prayer or quiet contemplation, journaling or connecting with nature can help you do this.
Start asking yourself what you truly love to do. Aside from the family and friends you care about, what other interests do you have? What did you used to be passionate about but gave up?Practice allowing others to experience their hardships and figure out their own solutions, rather than jumping in to save them.
Learn to tolerate someone else having feelings (other than happy)!
If you think a friend is codependent with you, encourage them to take care of themselves, hear them when they express doubt about doing something, respect their answer when they say, “No”, insist they make some choices (like which movie or restaurant to go to) and make space for them to talk about themselves.
Tell yourself (until you believe it) that your feelings, needs and preferences matter too.
Make it a habit to treat yourself as kindly and importantly as you treat everyone else!
If this list seems challenging to impossible for you, consider getting professional help from a therapist who specializes in codependency. Also, check out some books, blogs or podcasts on the topic.