Everyone laughs when I tell them that I wrote Codependency for Dummies. But codependency is no laughing matter. It causes serious pain and affects the majority of Americans — and not just women or loved ones of addicts, as many people believe.

So what is it? My definition is someone who has lost the connection to his or her core self, so that his or her thinking and behavior revolves around someone or something external, including a person, a substance, or an activity, such as sex or gambling.

It’s as if codependents are turned inside out. Instead of self-esteem, they have other esteem, based upon what others think and feel. Instead of meeting their own needs, they meet the needs of others, and instead of responding to their own thoughts and feelings, they react to those of others. It’s a haywire system, because they have to control others to feel okay, but that just makes matters worse and leads to conflict and pain. It also makes emotional intimacy difficult.

Some people criticize the codependency movement and say that it’s created more loneliness. They argue that relationships are nurturing and that we’re naturally meant to be dependent. I couldn’t agree more. The point is that codependent relationships are not only painful, but can be unsupportive and destructive. Codependents have problems receiving the good stuff that relationships can potentially offer.

Codependency for Dummies goes into great detail about the difference between codependent and healthy, interdependent relationships, between healthy caregiving and codependent care-taking, and understanding the boundaries between responsibility for yourself and responsibility to others, something that eludes codependents.

Not all codependents are caretakers, but if you are one, you have a hard time listening to other people’s problems without trying to help. Sometimes you even feel responsible and guilty for their feelings. This creates high reactivity for couples who constantly are blaming each other for their own feelings and defending themselves when their partner shares his or her feelings.

What’s missing is a sense of separateness between them known as emotional boundaries. Boundaries simply mean that your thoughts and feelings belong to you. I’m not responsible for them; I didn’t make you feel them. For real intimacy to happen, you need to have a sense of separate identity and feel safe enough to express your feelings without being afraid of criticism or rejection.

This is where the codependent core issue of low self-esteem comes in. With a fragile self, codependents are afraid of rejection and abandonment, but on the flip side, they fear losing themselves when they get attached in a relationship. They tend to give up their needs to accommodate their partner, sometimes letting go of outside friends and activities they used to enjoy, and even when the relationship isn’t working, they are stuck like glue. So many codependents aren’t even in relationships, contrary to common belief, because they’re afraid of losing their independence, which you don’t really lose in a healthy interdependent relationship.

Many codependents have to dance a tightrope of pursuing partners, but never really catching them, or distancing themselves, but never really leaving. It’s a two-step that’s even done in marriages, but creates constant pain in the relationship. Fleeting moments of closeness are just enough to keep the dance going, unless the partners give up on intimacy entirely.

Communication is another area where dependents have a dilemma. They can’t say “No” without feeling guilty, and are resentful when they say “Yes” to things they would rather not do. This is because they avoid taking positions at all costs, due to their fear of rejection. Like clever politicians, they don’t want to say anything that might upset someone else.

The book goes into detail about how to improve your communication. You’ll learn how to be assertive, how to set boundaries, and how to handle verbal abuse. You can practice saying no on your own. Codependents are always explaining and justifying themselves. Remember, “No” is a complete sentence.

Codependents spend far too much of their precious lives worrying about things and people over which they have no control. Healing from codependency starts with getting to know yourself better, honoring yourself, and expressing yourself. Start doing things that make you happy, rather than deferring to others or waiting for someone else to make you happy. Building a relationship with yourself leaves you no time to worry about someone over whom you have no control, anyway. You might think this is selfish, but when you love yourself, you radiate love that’s healing to be around. It overflows onto everyone you interact with.