What does it mean to be codependent?

Codependent. We hear this word pretty often. What does it mean, really?

According to this article on WebMD, here are some signs you may be showing signs of codependence in an interpersonal relationship:

  • Inability to find satisfaction in your life outside of a specific person
  • Recognition of many unhealthy--or even toxic--behaviors in your partner (or close friend) but you stay in the relationship in spite of this
  • Giving support to your partner at the cost of your own mental and physical well-being

The article also explains that when people who have codependent tendencies were children, they were often taught to subvert their own needs in order to satisfy a demanding (or impaired/disabled) parent. This process is sometimes called parentification. 

Very often, people talk to me about 'losing a sense of who I am' in their relationship. This is a red flag that you are in an unhealthy relationship and that co-dependency is a factor. 

However, it is also important to understand that anyone can behave in a codependent fashion. Self-awareness is key, as is a willingness to do something about it once we notice ourselves falling into this type of pattern.

The prevailing emotion in this situation is anxiety. In fact, people who come see me in this type of situation often complain that they have too much stress in their lives and want to do something about that. In this case, stress is a symptom of more significant issues--a compulsive need to respond to the needs/wants of others while often neglecting one's own needs.

Guilt can also be a major concern for people in this situation. This person may feel compelled to serve the needs of others, and feel very guilty if he/she puts their own needs first. Click here for more on addressing guilty feelings. 

What to do about Codependency? 

Some of the most helpful things someone who is seeing this pattern in their interpersonal relationships can do are

  • Seeking professional help. Engaging in mental health therapy can help you gain insight about your patterns of behavior (why you act the way you do)
  • Realizing that you are in good company. This is an issue that many people struggle with. For this reason, a therapy or skill-building group that addresses codependence can also be quite helpful.
  • Reminding yourself that your intentions are good, you just need to figure out a more adaptive way of meeting your needs and those of your friend or intimate partner
  • Really listening to other people. By this I mean, pay attention to what they are saying. Doing this will help you step outside of your habitual, compulsive patterns and zero in on what the other person really wants. More specifics on learning to truly pay attention to others here.
  • Journaling about your efforts. As I’ll mention in other pages on this website, journaling helps us to look at things in a different way, especially if we go back and read what we wrote.
  • Learning to set healthy boundaries--for yourself and others. THIS IS CRUCIAL. More on this below. For additional information on healthy living via self-care, click here

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Balance is the Antidote for Codependence

If you know that being codependent is something you don’t want, then it’s helpful to know what you DO want. I would suggest the following concept: Balance.

Nothing is more important in healthy relationships than balance. We maintain a balance in our lives by setting limits for ourselves and for those who rely on us. What does this mean?

Balance in our interpersonal relationships means to know ourselves well enough to know how much time we need for ourselves, to recharge our batteries, in order to be healthy and happy. On the other hand, we must balance this with helping others, especially our loved ones. How important is this?

To quote John Wooden, the great UCLA basketball coach who is widely known as having been one of the best coaches in the history of sports and also one of the happiest individuals imaginable, “Love is the greatest word in the English language. Balance is the second-greatest word”.

Healthy Boundaries and a Sense of Balance

Keeping healthy balance in our lives is challenging! But it is a challenge we must embrace, due to its importance to our health and well-being. The following considerations can help:

  • Setting boundaries with others. This means putting a limit on how much and how often you’ll help others, and being clear about the types of situations where you are going to say 'no' to others. Put simply, boundaries are the lines where we set the limits about what is okay and what is not.
  • Setting limits with yourself. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. If you are damaging your own well-being in the service of others, you are probably not helping others as well as you would be if you were balanced and healthy.
  • Saying ‘no’ to others is a vital part of healthy balance and mental well-being. If you have others in your life who are depending on you (children, close friend, intimate partners, etc), it is vital that you recognize how much you can help them. Be honest with yourself: If you have a hard time saying ‘no’ to others, at what point does it simply wear you out and cause resentment?
  • Talk to a trusted friend or mental health counselor. I have many years of experience in helping people become more balanced in their lives.

Codependent Traits in Helping Professionals

Finally, it is my experience that many helping professionals struggle with codependent tendencies. The notion of helping others is such a strong part of a professional helpers identity that it’s very easy to lose sight of our own health and well-being. If you are a helping professional who finds yourself in this situation, please read this page.

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