If being everyone’s go-to person means your needs often take a back seat, you may want to learn more about codependency.
It’s a Friday. You’re grappling with the feeling that you didn’t do enough at work this week, even though you’re burned out. Then, at home, you spend most of your weekend attending to the needs of your partner, kids, or family.
Come to think of it, you can’t remember the last time you thought about your own wants or desires. More than anything, you’re exhausted, and wishing for some time and space to call your very own.
Is this a natural response to a busy life or could it be a result of codependent traits? Codependency can be hard to spot, but once you do, it may lead to actionable steps toward putting yourself first again.
Like narcissism, codependency is one of those popular psychology buzzwords that’s made its way into our common vernacular.
In the simplest terms, codependency refers to a persistent pattern of behavior that includes suppressing your own needs in order to meet the needs of others.
The term “codependency” was once reserved for partners of those living with a substance use disorder, but the definition has since expanded to include all kinds of relationships.
Codependency is most common in families with:
- mental health conditions
- medical disability
- generational trauma
It’s not a formal diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. (DSM-5). Instead, it’s more of a group of traits and a relational style.
“It is when compassion turns to a compulsion to care for others,” says Mary Joye, a licensed mental health counselor in Winter Haven, Florida. “It feels as if you are living someone else’s life for them. You give up your own desires and needs to keep others happy.”
Joye, who is about to release a book on codependency, explains that “there’s a lot of neuroscience to this because you get oxytocin and dopamine from helping others.”
Codependency exists on a spectrum, says Joye, from living your life around what others need and want, to trying to control the emotions and behaviors of those around you.
You can have people-pleasing tendencies and still not be codependent.
“All codependent people are people pleasers, but not all people pleasers are codependent,” says Kate Engler, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Skokie, Illinois. The two relational styles have many similar traits, such as the desire to help, feelings of resentment about always having to show up, and difficulties with setting boundaries.
But codependency is more extreme, says Engler. If you’re codependent, the person on the other end of the connection is dependent on you for getting their needs met, too.
“Neither of you can function without the other,” she says.
Codependency may have a developmental tie-in.
For example, if you grew up in a home with a stressful or traumatic dynamic, perhaps you didn’t have the freedom or authority to not be codependent — it helped you survive.
As a result, you may have developed an anxious attachment style, putting the needs of others persistently above your own in order to stay safe and avoid being abandoned, punished, or neglected.
“Children will do anything to keep their environment predictable so they feel secure, even if that means other aspects of emotional and identity development become casualties,” says De Marco.
In a word: mixed.
“When you are grappling with codependency, there can be moments of feeling wonderful — when there is a sense that you are helping or saving someone you care about,” says Engler. “However, those are few and far between. There is usually a significant amount of fear because it feels like you, alone, are solely responsible for another person’s well-being.”
You may also feel:
- out of control
- taken advantage of
Since codependency is not a mental health condition or diagnosis but is instead a behavioral style, there are a few personality traits that are often associated with it. These include:
- difficulty differentiating between your opinions and other people’s
- trouble identifying and expressing your needs
- taking on the desires of those around you as your own
- having difficulty saying “no” to other people’s requests
- fear of not being accepted, loved, or supported
- feelings of inadequacy
- low self-esteem
- assuming more responsibilities than you can handle
- doing things for others out of fear or being accepted
- enduring connections that may harm you to avoid being lonely
- getting caught up in other people’s matters
- adding pressure to yourself to support others
- not setting boundaries to how much you share with others
- seeking approval or validation
- “rescuing” people from their challenges, even when not asked to
Signs of codependency can show up in multiple areas of your life, like at home or in the office.
These are a few examples:
- being on-call for everyone 24-7
- completing homework for your child
- giving your sibling money that you need for rent
- dropping everything for your hostile, aging parent
- saying yes to every assignment from your boss
- doing favors for your co-worker, even though you’re slammed
- regularly picking up the slack on group projects
- cutting off friends who don’t “get” your girlfriend
- changing your schedule around your partner’s needs
- habitually skimping on sleep to wait up for your boyfriend
- making excuses for your spouse’s angry outburst while drinking
- having the constant need to be seen like a hero or savior by your partner
Codependency is a relational style that may sometimes overlap with the behavioral patterns or symptoms of a few mental health conditions. These include:
- dependent personality disorder
- borderline personality disorder
- histrionic personality disorder
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- complex trauma
The available definitions of codependency don’t always account for survival-based social behavior.
You may have developed codependent traits when you experienced a traumatic event. Depending on culture and customs, these could also be associated with a traditionally socialized, feminine role focused on caretaking, says Lauren De Marco, a licensed clinical social worker, and psychotherapist in Bel Air, Maryland.
“Codependency may also be seen among marginalized groups as a result of systemically unmet needs that naturally reinforce pervasive patterns of mental illness, substance abuse, neglect, abuse, and financial hardship,” says De Marco.
“We need to be mindful of our cultural lens, so as to not inadvertently create a gaslighting effect on marginalized and non-dominant groups.”
Since codependency is not a formal diagnosis, a mental health professional can help you identify the underlying cause of codependency, such as trauma, for example.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) may help you identify beliefs and patterns that lead to your behavior. It can also give you tools and resources for symptoms from any related conditions, like depression and anxiety.
There are also some self-care strategies that could help you fill up your own cup, as well. For example, journaling, somatic therapy exercises, and focusing on your interests and goals may help you cope with codependent tendencies.
With professional support, you can learn to manage codependent traits and signs.
The more you learn about codependency, the better equipped you’ll be to handle it.
You may find it useful to watch “The Difference Between Healthy and Unhealthy Love,” a TedTalk by Katie Hood.
There are also a handful of useful books you can read:
To seek the support of a mental health professional, these resources may help:
- Co-Dependents Anonymous
- American Psychiatric Association’s find a psychiatrist tool
- American Psychological Association’s find a psychologist tool
- Asian Mental Health Collective’s therapist directory
- Association of Black Psychologists’ find a psychologist tool
- National Alliance on Mental Illness helplines and support tools
- National Institute of Mental Health’s helpline directory
- National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network
- Inclusive Therapists