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Co-Dependency: Put the “I” in Independence

Erikson said, “Doubt is the brother of shame.” In the second stage, up until the age of 3, a child learns self-control, beginning with controlling its bodily elimination. Here’s where a child begins to exercise choice by saying no and expressing its wants and preferences. This builds confidence and a sense of independence. If these natural developments aren’t supported, a toddler will feel inadequate and doubtful. Imagine if your choices were continually ignored or denied by an authority figure who is your entire world. You’d start to doubt yourself and soon feel ashamed.

Because of dysfunctional parenting, codependents often lack intrinsic motivation and a sense of agency. Their connection to those inner resources hasn’t been developed. Although they may be competent – and many do not feel confident or competent in a variety of areas even if they actually are – they have difficulty motivating themselves, unless there is an external deadline, reward, support, or competition. The most effective and enduring motivation comes from within. But if you grew up in an authoritarian, chaotic, neglectful, or controlled environment, it’s doubtful that you received support and encouragement. Both those, along with the freedom to experiment and explore your innate urges and preferences, are needed to allow intrinsic motivation to develop naturally. Sometimes, parents are more permissive with toddlers and then squelch their independent strivings as adolescents.

Women and Autonomy

Women suffer more from lack of agency due to cultural, developmental, and societal influences. One reason is that girls don’t have to separate from their mothers to become women. According to Carol Gilligan, femininity is defined by attachment, and feminine gender identity is threatened by separation. On the other hand, since boys must separate from their mothers and identify with their fathers to become men, their gender identity is threatened by intimacy. (In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, 1993, pp. 7-8). Additionally, boys are encouraged to be more aggressive and autonomous, and girls are protected and stay more attached to their parents.

Often women complain that they do great when they’re alone, but as soon as they’re in a relationship or in the presence of their partner, they lose themselves. Some give up their hobbies, friends, career, and creative pursuits. They have trouble transitioning from an intimate weekend to the office, or they can’t articulate opinions about things in front of their partner or an authority figure.

Locus of Control

Beliefs also affect your actions and determine whether you have a passive or active stance toward your life. If you’ve learned from experience that your voice or actions don’t have an impact, you develop a sense of futility – a “what’s the use” attitude. You start to talk yourself out of taking action. This reflects a belief that your “locus of control” is external – that you’re controlled by outside forces or fate. You feel powerless to achieve your goals and influence your life.

On the other hand, with an internal locus of control, you believe that if you prepare and work hard, you can achieve results. You’re more self-determined and take responsibility for your actions, feelings, and meeting your needs. You don’t blame others or outside circumstances for failures and success. You mobilize resources to achieve your desires and don’t wait for signs, circumstances, or direction from others.


Self-efficacy, a belief in one’s competence, also is important for motivation. The knowledge that your efforts will be effective is learned through risk-taking and experience. As you master new skills or experience unfamiliar environments and experiences, you gain confidence, self-efficacy, courage, and motivation to change. People who doubt that they’re able to accomplish something generally won’t try.


Development of self-esteem is fundamental to autonomy. Discover your wants, needs, and passions. Practice self-expression, self-acceptance, and setting boundaries (being able to say no). Take risks, including interpersonal risks, to enhance your competence, autonomy, and effectiveness. This in turn raises self-esteem and provides motivation to take more risks.

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Co-Dependency: Put the “I” in Independence

Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT

Darlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and expert on relationships and codependency. She’s the author of Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You and Codependency for Dummies and six ebooks, including: 10 Steps to Self-Esteem, How To Speak Your Mind - Become Assertive and Set Limits, Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People, and Freedom from Guilt and Blame - Finding Self-Forgiveness, available on her website and Amazon. Ms. Lancer has counseled individuals and couples for 28 years and coaches internationally. She’s a sought-after speaker in media and at professional conferences. Her articles appear in professional journals and Internet mental health websites, including on her own, where you can get a free copy of “14 Tips for Letting Go.” Find her on, Soundcloud, Twitter @darlenelancer, and at

APA Reference
Lancer, D. (2018). Co-Dependency: Put the “I” in Independence. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 8, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.