While there are many features of codependency, here are some top ones. See if these apply to you.
1. You are preoccupied with others’ feelings. A friend to whom I was talking years ago about my worries of having upset someone asked if I felt responsible for others’ feelings. I immediately thought to myself, “Well, yeah. I mean, aren’t I?”
Looking back now, I understand what my friend was getting at. His idea was that we each are responsible for our own thoughts, feelings or actions. This means that if I say something to a friend, or if I remain quiet for that matter, my friend decides how he or she will perceive it. They decide how they will see my behavior and then how they will respond to it.
It’s true that we can’t say something hurtful and say that the other’s pain is not our fault. In fact, this was what stopped me from accepting the idea that we are not responsible for others. But the truth is, both ideas can coexist. Saying someone else is responsible for their ideas is not the same as saying that we are not responsible for being kind and considerate.
Our responsibility is to try our best to treat others with respect and speak the truth of our feelings; to apologize if we are clearly unkind. That is where it ends. Just as we have responsibilities for our actions, other people have the same for theirs. We cannot burden ourselves with the impossible task of controlling someone else’s inner world.
2. You are overly quick to apologize. The other day I was eagerly waiting for my FedEx package to arrive. I had tracked it all week and was excited finally to get it that morning. But I didn’t get it that morning.
I checked the tracking information again and for some reason it said the package was already delivered. I went outside and looked carefully around my garage and front door walkway, three times. No package. So I called FedEx and they proceeded to look for the driver, trying to locate the package.
About an hour later, my neighbor came to my front door with a box in his hands. It was my package. He said it had been delivered to his door and when he opened it, he realized it wasn’t his. “Thank you so much,” I said to him, smiling.
Not long after, the FedEx driver himself rang my doorbell. “Did you get your package?” he asked me.
“Yes, thank you,” I said.
“It was right outside your door, right?” he said to me patronizingly.
“Uh, no,” I said, smiling, “it was actually at my neighbor’s.”
He responded with “Oh.”
Then it kicked in. “I’m sorry about all this trouble,” I said. The words seemed to flow out automatically, like water from a faucet. Yet while I was speaking, another part of my brain was thinking, wait a minute, why am I apologizing? Isn’t this his fault?
He said it was fine, and we said goodbye. As a therapist, I am very familiar with codependency and have worked on it in my own life a great deal. Clearly, I am still working on it.
When we are codependent we apologize a lot. We don’t want people to be mad at us. We feel responsible even when we are not. We naturally apologize to make things OK and gain approval.
3. You really want people to like you. You might have a ton of quality friends who will stand by you no matter what. They might think very highly of you. But if there is one person at work who looks at you a certain way, or has made critical remarks, that’s the person we will think about most of the time. When we think someone doesn’t like us, it doesn’t matter how many people do. That one person stands out and threatens our self-esteem.
When someone doesn’t like us, we can’t stop thinking about them. Why don’t they like me? What can I do about it? We find ourselves worried about how we are seen. We think that if we please them, if we get them to like us, maybe we’ll feel better about ourselves.
There was a sign in the back office of a counseling center I worked at in Atlanta. It read, “I’m codependent if you want me to be.” I have to admit, I laughed every time I read it.
4. You are a born caretaker. Those of us who are codependent are quick to help someone else. While this may not be a bad thing in and of itself, it does pose a problem when it’s extreme. When we disregard our own well-being or feel like it’s our job to save others, we start wilting under the load.
I have memories of rushing over to see a friend when I was sick and should have rested. I remember conversations where someone tried to guilt me into doing something for them, and I would do it so they wouldn’t be mad. Of course, I was angry with myself for giving in, but I didn’t feel the strength to do otherwise. Then there were times I felt required to act because if I didn’t help them, who would?
We can get exhausted trying to do the work for someone else. We can get very sick when we constantly put ourselves to the side for another person.
There are various ways of looking at yourself and others that can help you slowly change codependency. But it all boils down to this: Codependents are overly concerned with others. The antidote, then, is to become more concerned with ourselves.
Am I saying you should become selfish? No. I’m saying you can give yourselves permission, even encouragement, to pay attention to your feelings and show yourself care. I’m saying you are meant to prioritize your well-being.
Start focusing on how you feel. Start becoming aware of what you need. For example, after saying to yourself, “This person needs me, I need to do this or that,” you follow it with these words, “Okay, am I able to help? How am I doing at this moment?” It means that if you are overwhelmed with stressors, you can notice that truth rather than shoving it aside. You can make your well-being just as important as someone else’s.
Let’s say there’s a person who habitually takes advantage of you. You can pay attention to that nauseous or antsy feeling you get when they ask something of you again, choose to respect that feeling, and value your right to say no.
Our inner release requires a new understanding and a new appreciation of our value. It takes daily practice — even small instances — when we say “no” if we feel like it, or choose to do what we want, or tell ourselves we are not responsible for someone else. It also takes being kind to ourselves for all the times we won’t feel able to do these things.
Just as we practiced being codependent and became pretty good at it, we can practice self-respect and start getting good at that. And believe me, it feels good. Every time we do something to honor ourselves, we feel better and stronger, only more motivated to continue.
When I think of a habit I feel stuck in, I picture necklace chains that are knotted together. You probably know what a pain it is to unravel that knot. Nonetheless, it can be done. We just have to take our time, look intently at what’s in front of us, and unlearn our pattern, one move at a time.