It’s natural to want to sacrifice your own needs for someone you love. But when it becomes chronic, it’s not uncommon to start feeling depressed.
Codependency and depression appear to go hand-in-hand. Considering the mental, physical, and financial resources you may be expending, it makes perfect sense.
You may even start to wonder where you end and another person begins, all while juggling feelings of sadness, disappointment, and confusion about how things got this way.
If this sounds like you, try to remember that you’re not alone and that support is available. There are ways you can manage codependency and depression at the same time.
In the simplest terms, codependency is a pattern of putting other people’s needs in front of your own. It’s the quintessential caregiver behavior.
It’s an interpersonal style, sure, but it’s actually a layer deeper than that. Codependency is a coping skill often learned in childhood as a way to stay emotionally or physically safe.
Viewing codependency in this light can help relieve some of the stigma.
“Codependent behavior is often an understandable response or coping skill that develops in response to situations, or behaviors of other people, that are of concern and difficult to carry in one’s own life,” says Joanne Ketch, a psychotherapist in Katy, Texas.
“While not a productive coping skill, it’s more kind and useful to understand that the person with codependent behaviors is trying to manage their feelings, lived experience, and life — and often their solutions make sense,” she says.
How codependency forms
Research shows that many situations in childhood can trigger codependency in adulthood. Some examples include experiencing or witnessing:
- a controlling environment
- emotional abuse
- domestic violence
- a narcissistic family system
- personality disorders
- a relative with special needs
- substance use disorder
Codependency looks different for everyone. The common thread is that your needs often take a backseat, which may leave you feeling drained, bitter, or resentful.
Some examples include:
- agreeing to work overtime, even though you have a serious doctor’s appointment
- covering for your teen and doing their report, even though you have deadlines
- feeling unable to work or sleep until you and your partner work out your argument
- lifting up your aging relatives, even though you have a documented back injury
- spending your savings to pay your partner’s bills, while they buy substances
While codependency isn’t a symptom of depression, it can certainly fuel it.
“Often the situation that creates a codependent pattern has details that are depressing,” explains Ketch. “Over time, these details can drain people, families, and systems (work or groups) of personal resources such as time, attention, positive regard, and money.”
Understandably, this level of exhaustion can contribute to symptoms that commonly co-occur with depression, like lethargy, changes in mood, and lack of interest in things that you used to love.
Basically, you’re running on empty. “This can create what is known as situational depression, and it can exacerbate clinical depression,” Ketch adds.
The symptoms of codependency include:
- difficulty expressing needs
- fear of abandonment
- lack of boundaries
- low self-esteem
- taking the blame for others
Healthy relationships are a balance of give and take. In a codependent relationship, it leans more to one side: give, give, and give some more.
“One of the hallmarks of those with codependent behavior is that they make deals with the world, that the world doesn’t know it’s a part of,” says Nick Bognar, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Pasadena, California.
These deals can be diverse, he says, but they basically follow the same blueprint each time: I’m going to take care of everyone around me in the hopes that, one day, they’ll take care of me when I need it.
“Obviously, this mindset, while sweet, creates a perfect situation for the codependent to be disappointed over and over again,” Bognar adds. “That constant level of disappointment would depress anybody.”
The consequences of codependency exist on a spectrum, from mild to severe.
In more mild cases, you may feel less satisfied with life. On the more extreme end, it can negatively impact your career, finances, or health.
Codependency may lead to:
- declining physical health
- difficulty with emotional intimacy
- disappointment in other people
- unfulfilled needs
- rocky relationships
- substance use to cope
Codependency and depression can be managed together, from a combined biological and psychosocial standpoint.
Therapy can help unravel codependent beliefs and behaviors, says Bognar.
“As with anything that begins in childhood, codependency often has such a strong foothold by adulthood that it’s reflexive and not considered,” he says.
“A therapist can reflect back the codependency, including the unhelpful beliefs and destructive behaviors that might go unnoticed by someone who has been codependent for a really long time,” Bognar adds.
You may find it useful to find a therapist with our search tools.
Codependency Anonymous (CoDA) first started as a space for the spouses of those living with substance use disorder, since the two often coincide.
These days, the meetings are open to anyone who wants to improve their relationships, learn about healthy boundary-setting, and share their experiences with others in similar situations.
“Try to identify patterns of codependency in your life,” says Brian Wind, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Brentwood, Tennessee. For example, you might always be with people who need a lot of help and someone to guide them.
“Consider learning what healthy relationships look like,” he adds.
It’s important to try to practice self-care, says Wind.
“Try to make time for things that you enjoy,” he adds. “Spending time with people you like spending time with and maintaining your own physical health can also help. Try to get in touch with your own needs and not what other people tell you to do.”
Some self-care ideas to become more independent include:
- booking a restorative yoga class
- getting a massage
- journaling for self-discovery
- reading a book on your wishlist
- taking a warm bubble bath
A doctor or psychiatrist can help you determine whether your situation could benefit from medication. Antidepressants are commonly prescribed to help regulate the feel-good neurotransmitters in your brain, like serotonin and dopamine.
Codependency and depression can reinforce one another. If you aren’t diagnosed with clinical depression, your symptoms may indicate situational depression.
Since codependency often stems from issues in childhood, consider working with a mental health professional, if at all possible. They can help you process past experiences and transform how you show up in the present.
The book “Codependent No More” by Melody Beattie may also be a useful resource for you. There’s also a workbook by the same author that you can use for journaling, exercises, and self-tests.
Above all, don’t lose hope. “You are not alone, and there is help available,” says Wind. “All of us can heal and emerge from our dysfunctional patterns and form a new identity.”