What is codependency? Historically, someone who struggled with codependency was caretaking a loved one with severe illness and/or Addiction. They focus all time, energy, and resources on that loved one and leave little to no energy for themselves. Today, this understanding of codependency can be expanded to anyone who struggles with a dependence or over-reliance on relationship, at the exclusion of self. Symptoms of codependency can include: Caretaking, people-pleasing, approval seeking, difficulty saying no, minimal to no boundaries, dependence in relationships, avoidance and isolation of relationships (relationship anorexia), resentment, passive-aggressive communication, anger management struggles, as well as behavioural challenges with substances or other problem behaviours. People start to become aware of their vulnerability with codependency when they realize that they do not know who they are or what they like; when they resent the time and energy that is going into others; and when they become burnt out, as this relational vulnerability leaves little room for energy replenishment.
What makes codependency so serious? Some people think that codependency is less of an issue than challenges like substance use or depression, thinking it is just their “lot in life” or their “personality” that will leave them this way forever. People with codependency, at its most severe, can reach the point where people do not feel there is any other option but death by suicide to escape the pain they are feeling. At a less extreme, people struggle with depression, low motivation, escapist behaviours, poor physical health outcomes, and a general lack of wellbeing as codependency prevents one from taking care of self.
Isn’t codependency just being a caring person? No. There is a different between true care and codependency. True care has boundaries and the self is still part of the equation. You are not only considering how you can show up for others, but also how you can show up for yourself. Codependency involves limited to no boundaries and limited to no focus on self. This is the crux of the problem. We cannot give to others if we are not energized and nourished ourselves. The common analogy is that you need to put on your oxygen mask first in plane emergencies before helping others because if you are unconscious, how are you going to assist the people around you? Another metaphor is that we cannot give a drink from an empty cup. All this to say is that true care involves care of self in order to care for others. Codependency leaves people with their oxygen masks off and their cups empty, yet still expecting to help others.
What does recovery from codependency look like? Recovery from codependency can feel daunting as it stems from genetics, attachment in young years, imprinting, and environmental programming that has created a pattern designed to ‘protect,’ though it ends up creating harm. Recovery is, however, very possible with awareness and action. Here are some foundational areas to explore in recovery from codependency:
- Awareness of your triggers. Learning about codependency and where your personal vulnerabilities lie is helpful in establishment of boundaries and identifying places for action now or down the road. For example, if you realize you are particularly vulnerable to showing up to help your adult child at the expense of your other commitments and relationships, targeting boundaries and changes that can be made in that relationship would be an important part of healing. To build awareness of triggers, people often require a combination of self-management strategies (reading, videos, self-study), peer support (support groups, individual mentors), and professional support (therapy with a trained provider who specializes in this area). As the brain has spent many years building up defenses to protect and reinforce codependent behaviour, anticipating that you will be able to see through and around these to identify triggers on your own does not make sense. What does make sense is having various supports who can see your life and behaviour through a different lens and can provide helpful, non-judgmental feedback for you to learn from and incorporate into your life. What are some examples of triggers for codependency? People who seem to have a lot of crises in their lives; people who are clingy and look for a lot of support and hand-holding; boredom (e.g., “Going and cleaning my neighbour’s garage seems better than sitting here doing nothing”); loneliness; shame/low self-worth (e.g., “If I go help that person than I can prove I’m worthy”); caretaking professions. Codependency is often rooted in genetic backgrounds where there has been Addiction or codependency in the family lineage combined with an environmental experiences that promote conditional love; insecure attachment; and reinforce messages of unworthiness. It may also start with having a parent or loved one who is ill when growing up and learning caretaking behaviours through that lived experience that carry forward into adulthood. It may also start with being responsible for other people (like siblings or neighbours or the household) from a young age. These behaviours usually start off helpful and take off to the extreme, where they become dysfunctional.
- Learning to connect with your feelings. Codependency subtly trains people to be attuned to other people’s needs and feelings and to turn the volume dial down on identification of one’s own needs and feelings. Therefore, an important step to healing is to learn how to listen to the feelings radio playing within (no matter how low the volume is turned down). Taking time daily to reflect on and journal about feelings that came up that day helps you start connecting experiences to the impact they are having on you. This is a source of information that the person with codependency has lost sight of. They go through the motions of life helping others and paying attention to how they are acting and reacting, while ignoring the impact that situations are having on them. The less needs and feelings the person with codependency can have, the better in their mind. This needs to get disrupted and changed. Most people who have been living with these symptoms are carrying an immense amount of anger and resentment for things that have happened in life and the treatment they’ve endured from other people. It takes time to identify, release, and process these feelings but it can be done. Feelings are essential because they help us identify what is working and what is not in our lives so we can adjust our boundaries and actions accordingly. For example, if I feel angry that I feel used by a friend who only seems to contact me when they need something, then I can use that anger to inform how I want to approach that situation. Perhaps I decide to talk to the friend and share my perspective, or perhaps I decide to exit the friendship or pull back a bit. Regardless of the action (as there is no “right” thing to do here), these steps are informed by our feelings.
- Practicing boundaries. As you start to connect with your feelings and identify needs out of that, boundaries can be implemented. People with codependency typically have significant challenges with boundaries. They are either too rigid, which creates isolation from the world, or too loose and inflexible, resulting in anger and resentment because you feel taken advantage of, used, and abused by others. “Give an inch and they’ll take a mile” as the expression goes. In the case of codependency, they will give for thousands of miles and be resentful when people just keep taking. The codependent appears to be doing these actions willfully and without the need for anything in return but, deep down, they want recognition, validation, love, and sometimes something in return (whether that is tangible or emotional). For example, I have worked with people who have sacrificed their whole lives to support struggling family members because they want acceptance, love, and a genuine “Thank you.” Though if that wasn’t there with the first act of care, it is unlikely to be there after the thousandth. Boundaries involve knowing when to go and when to stop and are a critical part of healthy relationships.
- Assertive communication. People who struggle with codependency often are passive or passive-aggressive in their communication and struggle to be assertive. Meaning, they will not speak up for what they need, they will not share when something is bothering them, and eventually they may lash out with a sarcastic comment or anger outburst that seems unreasonable and unexpected to those witnessing it, which fuels shame and even more people-pleasing and codependent behaviour from the person who lashed out because they feel bad. Learning how to identify feelings so that you know what is working and what is not for you allows you not only to practice boundaries, but sets the stage for learning how to put words to those feelings. Not every situation or feeling requires an assertive conversation, but there are times when we do need to speak up and navigate through a conflict or difficult situation. Assertive communication involves open and respectful non-verbal communication, along with sharing “I” statements, focusing on the present, dealing with one issue at a time, and being open to listening as well as sharing your perspective. People who struggle with codependency often want to shut down, avoid conflict and keep their tensions and feelings inside. Healing involves opening up so that the pressure cooker within does not eventually explode.
- Incorporation of self-care. Codependency involves a loss of connection from self. People with these symptoms may struggle with daily acts of care, like basic hygiene, household chores, and responsibilities like bills. They may also be extremely diligent about these things, to the point that it becomes obsessive and anxiety inducing to not have them done in a certain way. Both sides of the spectrum are natural parts of the codependent pattern of behaviour. People with codependency are focused on whatever is going to make those around them happy. If that means ignoring personal things to please, they will do it. If that means having the self look a certain way to get love and approval, they will do it. These actions take people away from their true selves and preferences. After caring for the world, the person with codependency does not have much energy left in the tank and, therefore, will not take much time to look after themselves. Sure, they might go for a pedicure once a month but even that feels like too much. Therefore, for healing, an incorporation of self-care is important. Self-care can involve any act that attends to a need the self may have, whether that is physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, financial, cultural, practical, or fun. You are encouraged to read my free e-book guide to self-care to support you in your exploration. Self-care is putting the oxygen mask on. It is filling that empty water cup. It is what allows us to be present and available for other people, not showing up burnt out and resentful. Healing from codependency allows people to be there to support others because they are there supporting themselves.
I wish you all the best in your journey of healing from codependency.
Paige Abbott is a Registered Psychologist in private practice in Calgary, Alberta. She has specialized in Addiction Psychology, including codependency recovery, for over a decade.