The word “codependency” — our tendency to deny our own wants in order to serve others — has entered the mainstream vocabulary. The concept evolved from the term “co-alcoholic,” which describes an alcoholic partner’s passive, enabling behaviors but neglects to recognize how they are being affected and fails to affirm their own needs and limits.
At the heart of codependency is ignoring or bypassing our own inner life in favor of responding automatically to others’ real or imagined needs.
Here are some signposts of possible codependent tendencies:
- Are you often afraid that your partner might get upset or leave you if you don’t comply with what they want, which leaves you feeling trapped?
- Is it difficult to set boundaries — noticing, honoring, and expressing views and needs that may differ from others? Do others’ needs quickly overtake yours?
- Do you find it difficult to pause and consider your own feelings and desires — including your “yes,” your “no,” and your “maybe” — before responding to others?
- Do you notice yourself feeling resentful and depleted because you often respond to what others want from you without considering what you need?
If any of the above are true, you may be inclined to minimize your own needs and put others ahead of yourself as a way to deal with your need for connection, belonging, or self-worth.
However, don’t be too quick to label yourself as codependent. Life is complicated. Reducing yourself to some pathological label may be a disservice to yourself.
The Fine Line Between Caring and Codependency
There’s a fine line between being loving and being codependent. If we slap the codependent label on our human impulse to serve others, then we might as well dismiss all the great spiritual teachers, such as Jesus and the Buddha, as hopeless codependents! The impulse to be kind and responsive may be coming from a humanistic and spiritual place inside us.
It takes discernment to distinguish codependence from basic human caring and compassion. We humans have a need not only to be loved, but also to love. It can feel nurturing and rewarding to care about others. And it’s difficult to argue with the view that our world could use a little more sensitivity, compassion, and tenderness.
People with narcissistic tendencies may find a self-comforting protection in the term “codependent” — interpreting their self-centered behavior as admirably non-codependent. It might activate shame to be perceived as weak, soft, or tender. They may be quick to shame others as being codependent, while seeing themselves as strong and independent. A disdain for empathy and compassion may make them counterdependent, which is the opposite extreme of codependent. Fearing attachment, intimacy, and vulnerability, they live behind a well-defended wall that ensures their isolation–oftentimes even if they seem lively or charismatic.
One aspect of love is seeing what others need — and, if we can, giving that to them — extending ourselves without overextending: caring about others in dynamic balance with caring about ourselves. We enjoy the satisfaction of being responsive to others’ needs, while simultaneously being attentive to our own.
Throwing around the codependent label too loosely may overlook that we are complex creatures driven by multiple motivations. If we neglect ourselves in favor of attending to others’ needs, we disserve ourselves. But clinging too tightly to our independence — being overly vigilant about steering clear of codependence — we may avoid the interdependence that allows for healthy intimacy and connection. Psychotherapy can be a useful way to explore theses issues and find a helpful balance between caring about ourselves and being there for others.