Understanding Codependency

What is codependency?

The term codependent originated during the 1930s when the Alcoholics Anonymous movement coined it to describe a set of responses and behaviours which develop while living with a partner or family member who is an alcoholic.

Current understanding of codependency describes a person with too much emotional or psychological reliance and dependence on a partner or family member, and these days it is generally accepted that there are multiple codependent behaviours, which can arise in those living with partners addicted to a variety of different substances, as well as chronic illness or mental health issues.

Codependency can be described as a set of compulsive behaviours which are learned over time, in order to cope with and adapt to an environment where there is some type of addiction, neglect or physical or emotional abuse, which causes a significant level of emotional pain and stress.

Codependency can also be understood using the term maladaptive, meaning somebody who has developed patterns of thinking and doing which either cause, or perpetuate emotional problems. These problems will often prevent an individual from adapting appropriately in a variety of situations. An example of this could be avoiding certain situations because they lead to feelings of inadequacy, anxiety or fear.

Characteristics of codependent individuals

  • Good feelings about yourself which stem from receiving approval from others.
  • Mental focus on solving the issues or problems which cause another person pain.
  • Excessive mental attention focused on a loved one or family member, either by seeking to protect them or by manipulating them to do things your way.
  • Self-esteem and confidence which is bolstered by solving a problem or relieving someone else’s pain.
  • Spending time on your loved ones hobbies or interests and putting yours to one side.
  • Not being aware of what you want, instead asking someone what it is they want.
  • Dreams of the future being closely linked to the dreams of others.
  • Giving or being generous as a way of feeling safe in a relationship.
  • Valuing the opinions of others more than your own.
  • A quality of life which is dependent on the quality of life of another.

Codependency in relationships

A codependent relationship is one in which both individuals are mutually dependent on the other, and both carry out and fulfil a particular role. Often the role acts to serve the needs and wants of one person at the expense of the other, but comes across as love, care or devotion. This usually means one person relies on the other to provide approval, love and to validate their self-worth. One person enjoys being needed, loved and valued, and the strength of the relationship is reliant upon the mutual belief that each person was meant to be together.

In actual fact the reality is that this relationship is characterised by the need to place one person in the position of fulfilling the self-needs of the other person. Of course, it may feel like unconditional love, deep care and devotion, it is in fact happening from a place of desperate helplessness.

Becoming less codependent

Get to know who you are and what you need and want

  • Spend time thinking about what makes you happy, and the things you enjoy.
  • Ask yourself whether you are speaking for yourself, or are your choices and ideas those of others not your own.

Challenge your beliefs and assumptions

  • Be willing to observe and challenge your patterns of thought.
  • Take time to reflect on how you really think, feel or wish to respond to others, as well as how you wish to respond to yourself.
  • Re-evaluating opinions, feelings or thoughts which were based on how others thought or felt allows us to find our own voice.

Become more assertive

  • This can be a powerful tool in becoming more dependent and boosting, growing and improving confidence, self-esteem and self-care.
  • Assertiveness is a skill you can practice, and means setting up healthy boundaries and knowing how to be clear about your needs and wants.
  • This allows you to become your own person, with your own voice and opinions.

Meet your own needs

  • Determine how you want to spend your time, and pay attention to this.
  • We all have a wide range of needs, and it is important to realise that yours are as important as anyone else’s.

Be kinder to yourself

  • Give yourself time to acknowledge your feelings.
  • Comfort yourself instead of punishing yourself.
  • Learn to live with your own internal guide and compass.
  • Know your path matters because it was your choice.

How therapy can help

Talking therapies can provide a safe and understanding space where you can understand your needs at more depth, think about how you respond to others and why you may at times value the needs of others above your own. It will also give you the chance to develop assertiveness and take more control over your life. Therapy enables you to become more adept at listening to yourself and to others, and can give you the tools you need to become a healthier communicator and listener.

In closing

As you can see, the term codependency is broad, and has complicated characteristics. However, the term codependency often gets used in the wrong context, and has developed some negative and almost shaming connotations. For the most part this inaccurate use of the term has been unhelpful and in many cases is damaging to an individual. It must be noted that there is a difference between our natural human need for contact and love, and those individuals who are sustained and nourished primarily through their contact with others and who put their own needs to one side so they can focus on someone else’s.

We as humans, strive for emotional, physical and mental companionship. We seek to love and be loved, to be valued, heard and understood. We desire to feel engaged and stimulated through contact with others and to care for their well-being is natural. This is what it means to be human.


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