To be acceptable to yourself and others, you hide who you are and become who you aren’t.

Most people think of codependency as being in a relationship with a addicted partner. And though that was true in my own years of active drinking, when I got sober, I discovered that codependency is much more. Codependency is about the relationship you have with yourself. It’s a set of characteristics and patterns of behavior we develop to help us cope, typically from a childhood that revolved around (but not limited to) addiction, emotional instability and trauma, and physical or mental illness.

The concept of codependency can be traced back to the German psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Horney, born in 1885, who coined the phrase “tyranny of the shoulds,” a symptom that inflicts many codependents, especially women. She saw it as the self-critical persona that develops from the anxiety formed by neurosis and a yearning to become our true selves. Self-criticism and low self-worth are two of the many characteristics of codependency. Certainly two that I possessed and still often struggle with.

Darlene Lancer, a clinical psychologist and expert on codependency, sees it similarly and refers to it as the disease of a lost self. She says, “Childhood shame and trauma conceal their real, core self, which they can’t access. Instead, codependents develop a persona in the world that reacts to others, to their own self-criticism, and to their imagined ideal of who they should be. To be acceptable to others and to [yourself], you hide who you are and become who you aren’t.”

Before getting sober, I searched for someone who would make me whole. I fell in and out of love many times, and eventually married a man I thought would fill the void I was feeling. He was a friend of my cousin’s and liked drinking as much as I did, and we bonded over our shared history and emotional neediness. I saw him as the nurturer I missed out on in my early years. I sat on his lap like a child curls up on a parent’s lap. I even called him daddy. We put the focus on each other instead of ourselves and were soon joined in a deeply rooted, vastly harmful dance of codependency.

Learn more about how Carol used her new understanding of the definition and symptoms of codependency to begin reshaping her life in the original article Codependency: What is It, Really? at The Fix.