Do you feel like you are always trying to please others and in doing so, you neglect your own needs? Do you find you that you often find yourself accepting the responsibility for a loved one’s emotions or behaviours?
Is it hard to set effective boundaries and limits with others? Do you often feel mostly negative and unhappy but still have difficulty stepping away from what’s become a dysfunctional relationship? Are you overly emotionally reactive to relationship problems and conflicts?
Codependency can be defined as an ongoing pattern of behaviour in which you find yourself becoming overly dependent on approval from those close to you — where you depend on a relationship or intimate partner to define your own sense of self-worth and even your identity. Where it seems we can only really see ourselves through the eyes of another.
A red flag that often signifies codependency is when your purpose in life seems to be focused on your relationship and partner’s needs — where you find yourself always making significant sacrifices to maintain the relationship and to meet your partner’s needs. It’s where our own individual fulfilment becomes highly dependent on your partner and relationship — where we find ourselves losing our own sense of independence or self-sufficiency.
People who experience and struggle with codependency often have childhoods that contain emotional abuse or neglect; childhoods where they do not have their emotional needs met by the people closest to them. Their parents are often abusive, neglectful or selfish —- centring on their own needs and not their child’s. This creates an ingrained pattern of behaviour in which the individual repeats their childhood pattern of trying to construct and maintain a relationship even when their partner is very difficult, checked out and emotionally unavailable.
Codependent people often display some of these signs:
- Find it hard to set boundaries and limits with others, often to their own detriment
- Are “people pleasers”, often to their own detriment
- Need a sense of control and predictivity in relationships
- Are caretakers and often put others in front of their own needs
- Find it very hard to express their own needs, feelings and thoughts
- Are dependent on others and have a great fear of rejection
- Have low self-esteem and fear of failure, being judged by others or making mistakes
- Problems being intimate, open and honest in relationships
- Are often in denial about their codependency
- Often struggle with symptoms of stress, anger, anxiety and depression
- Are very unsettled by arguments, disagreements and conflicts
- Give too much time effort and energy in a relationship
These are some of the signs of codependency. Codependent people look to social cues from other people to tell them:
What they should feel
What they should need
What they should behave like
While most would agree that sensitivity to others is a wonderful and positive trait, people who are codependent often take it to an extreme, largely because of an inability to create healthy boundaries. They lose themselves in trying to meet the needs of others and have very few of their own boundaries.
Healthy boundaries are super important. Boundaries draw a line of separation and responsibility between our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviours — and the thoughts, feelings and behaviours of others. Because these boundaries are blurred or missing, people who are codependent may experience high levels of stress, anger, resentment, anxiousness and even symptoms of depression.
While it may take time to break long-standing patterns of codependency, there are things you can do to overcome it.
1. Look to Your Past
The first step on your path to rescue is to take a look at your own past to reveal and understand experiences that may have contributed to your codependency. What is your family history? Is there emotional neglect and abuse? Were there events that led to you distancing yourself from your true inner emotions and ignoring your own needs?
This can be a difficult process and one that involves thinking about and re-experiencing childhood emotions. You may even find that you feel angry, sad, shameful or guilty as you think about this.
Note: This type of exploration can be very emotional and stressful and is often best done in a safe therapy relationship.
2. Recognize Denial
The second step to healing is to really be frank with yourself and recognize the problem. There probably a very good chance you have intellectualized and justified your codependence over time. While it can feel scary to admit to being codependent and/or involved in a dysfunctional relationship, honesty with yourself is really the first step toward healing.
3. Detach and Disentangle Yourself
In order to truly work on and improve ourselves, we have to first disconnect from the things we are troubled with. Personal growth will require giving up our preoccupation and over-involvement with trying to control, rescue, or change others and our defaulting to always trying to please someone else.
This means taking a deep breath, letting go and acknowledging we cannot fix problems that are not necessarily ours to fix. What problems do we “own” and what problems are “owned” by others in our lives? It’s about really trying to differentiate where you end and others begin.
4. Practice Self-care
Giving up your attempts to constantly please others is a good start to healing, but learning self-care is absolutely necessary as well. It’s super important that you really begin to explore and become aware of your own thoughts, feeling and needs. We also need to learn how to communicate them to others in our relationships. This may feel very hard and even foreign to us at first as if you are being especially self-centred. But that’s part of learning how to take care of our own needs.
Self-care means taking care of ourselves physically — eating healthy, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and going to our doctor and taking any prescribed medications. Self-care also means caring for ourselves emotionally, making social connections, finding happy positive activities to fill our time, and allowing ourselves emotional downtime and rest if we need it. It also means really getting in touch and examining our own thoughts, opinions, values, wants and needs — regardless of what other’s opinions are. Good strategies to do this can be writing and reflecting through the process of journaling, reading appropriate books on self-care, and of course, going to therapy.
To create healthy long-term relationships with others, you must first build a strong one with yourself.
5. Learn to Say No!
One of the best ways you can begin to set healthy boundaries is to learn to say no to situations that are damaging to your own well-being. This will feel uncomfortable at first, but the more you do it, the easier it will become. We have the right to say no to others and often we don’t need to give them a long explanation. We have the right to say no to things that are not the best for us. This is not about being selfish and uncaring towards others — but it’s about setting boundaries and putting our own needs first.
6. Be Kinder to Yourself!
Be kind to yourself! This is about self-compassion and treating yourself the same way you would treat the others you love!
Here is a good little exercise to try to do this:
Close your eyes and visualize your best friend.
Now imagine they come to you and says they are really hurting because something has really gone sideways in their life. They’ve lost a job or a relationship is faltering or they’ve “failed” in some way.
Would you say to them, “Well, it’s probably your fault because you didn’t do this or that” or “You should have tried harder” or say “It’s because you aren’t good enough or smart enough”
Of course, you wouldn’t say that to a friend. So why would you say that kind of stuff to yourself?
It’s more likely that you would embrace your friend and say, “That’s terrible. I’m sorry, how can I help”
You really should be kind to yourself in this way, too. Treat yourself as you would treat a friend who is suffering. Learn to challenge any negative, critical self-talk, and any negative beliefs about yourself and your self-worth.
7. Learn Independence
Finally, try separating from others for certain periods of time to create a healthy sense of independence. Reduce dependence through learning to be alone and actually learning to like it! People who are codependent often find it very hard to spend time alone without others around.
Find an individual hobby or interest just for you. Go read in a coffee shop on your own, go the movies alone, go to the gym alone. Find some ways to create independence and learn to spend time with yourself!
Codependency can be changed and healed! Does changing this part of yourself make you feel uncomfortable? Perhaps seeking the guidance of a therapist might be beneficial as you work your way through exploring how codependency affects your life. A good therapist will be able to help you explore your past, your uncomfortable feelings and experiences, and help you learn more healthy ways of relating to yourself and to others.
If you are worried that you or a loved one is codependent and are interested in exploring therapy, please contact me today. I would be more than happy to speak with you about how I may be able to help.
This blog is not intended as medical advice, treatment or diagnosis and should in no way replace consultation with a mental health or medical professional.