Codependency often has you funneling your energy into supporting the people in your life without making space for — or even considering — what you need for yourself.
The main sign of codependency is consistently elevating the needs of others above your own. Other signs include controlling behaviors, self-sacrifice, and fear of rejection. But these aren’t the only ones.
Understanding what codependency really is and recognizing the signs of codependency in your behavior is an important first step toward building healthy boundaries and honoring your own needs.
Codependency is a way of behaving in relationships where you persistently prioritize someone else over you, and you assess your mood based on how they behave.
Vicki Botnick, a marriage and family therapist in Tarzana, CA, explains that codependency often involves a sense of forgetting “where you end and your partner begins.”
The more you focus on providing the support you believe others need, the more heavily they may begin to lean on you. Over time, it becomes increasingly difficult to disentangle yourself.
Codependent traits can eventually:
- lead to a disconnect from your own needs and desires
- promote unhealthy relationship dynamics
- affect self-worth and overall well-being
Experts originally introduced the term “codependency” in the 1940s to help describe specific behavior patterns they noticed in partners and family members of people living with alcohol use disorder.
By this original definition, “codependent” might describe loved ones who “enabled” alcohol use, and the signs included:
- making excuses
- hiding the alcohol use
- protecting the person from any fallout or consequences of their actions
However, today experts agree that codependency has a more nuanced and complex meaning — and can show up in many situations, not just ones involving substance use.
“Codependency refers to any enmeshed relationship in which one person loses their sense of independence and believes they need to tend to someone else,” Botnick explains.
According to a 2018 research review, patterns of codependent behavior generally involve four main themes:
- a tendency to focus on others
- a need for control, which may fuel conflict
- difficulty recognizing and expressing emotions
These themes can show up across various types of relationships — and even in the way you relate to yourself.
Codependency isn’t considered a mental health condition, and experts have yet to outline specific diagnostic criteria for it. There is, however, some general agreement on what codependency usually involves.
Common signs of codependency include:
- a deep-seated need for approval from others
- self-worth that depends on what others think about you
- a habit of taking on more work than you can realistically handle, both to earn praise or lighten a loved one’s burden
- a tendency to apologize or take on blame in order to keep the peace
- a pattern of avoiding conflict
- a tendency to minimize or ignore your own desires
- excessive concern about a loved one’s habits or behaviors
- a habit of making decisions for others or trying to “manage” loved ones
- a mood that reflects how others feel, rather than your own emotions
- guilt or anxiety when doing something for yourself
- doing things you don’t really want to do, simply to make others happy
- idealizing partners or other loved ones, often to the point of maintaining relationships that leave you unfulfilled
- overwhelming fears of rejection or abandonment
With codependency, the need to support others goes beyond what’s generally considered healthy.
If you behave in codependent ways, you don’t just offer support temporarily, such as when a loved one faces a setback. Instead, you tend to focus on caretaking and caring for others to the point that you begin to define yourself in relation to their needs.
Some level of dependency is healthy in relationships. It may be tough to make it through life alone, and most people thrive with companionship and social support.
Interdependent relationships work better for both people involved. In other words, partners depend on each other. This means you don’t just focus on their needs or draw your value from self-sacrifice, but you’re available to support them when needed.
As Katherine Fabrizio, a therapist in Raleigh, NC explains, “A healthy, supportive relationship involves listening, striving to understand, and keeping in mind the concerns of another person. Codependency is when that caring behavior crosses the line into trying to direct or control them.”
Occasionally depending on others — and allowing them to depend on you — for help and support is perfectly valid. You can depend on someone for some things while still maintaining your own identity and sense of self.
Healthy dependence also means you:
- state your own needs and desires
- ask for support when you find yourself struggling
- feel safe and comfortable expressing your own needs
- let others know when they’re asking too much of you without worrying they’ll reject you
In short, you support others — but not at the expense of your own needs.
Codependency most often shows up in romantic relationships.
According to Ellen Biros, a psychotherapist in Suwanee, Georgia, codependency can make it difficult to:
- set and maintain healthy boundaries
- validate and protect yourself emotionally
- make decisions on your own
As a result, you might go on to “pick emotionally abusive partners or friends, have trouble recognizing when you need to protect yourself, and remain in dysfunctional relationships,” Biros says.
Codependency can leave you feeling as if you lack purpose when you aren’t providing support. But fully devoting yourself to others may prevent you from doing anything for yourself.
For example, maybe you:
- give up your entire weekend to help a friend move, despite really needing a day to yourself
- agree to help a co-worker with their project, even though it means leaving your own tasks incomplete
- insist on stepping in to help sort things out every time your sister has an argument with her partner
- have trouble making decisions — where to live, whether to pursue a new career, when to spend time with friends — because you worry your choices might conflict with your partner’s needs
If you tend toward codependency, this pattern will likely play out again and again. All those sacrifices you make might eventually add up. This may leave you drained, overwhelmed, and even resentful or angry.
Example of codependency in a romantic relationship
Your partner is vegan. You don’t eat meat, but you decide to also give up dairy for their sake, even though they didn’t ask. Their main interests — sci-fi dramas, backpacking, and craft beers — become your chief hobbies, and you adopt their friends as your own.
You usually spend time together at their apartment, since you know they like being at home. Often, you stop by to help tidy up, put away laundry, and do some cooking. They’re so busy with work that you know they’d let their chores slide if you didn’t help out. Plus, your support reminds them just how much they need you.
When they share concerns and frustrations about work, you’re always ready with possible solutions. When they explain they just wanted to vent and don’t need you to fix anything for them, you become annoyed and frustrated. After all, you’re their partner. Shouldn’t you know just how they should handle the situation?
Codependent behaviors are, for the most part, rooted in childhood relationships with your parents and other caregivers.
Experiences in your family of origin can play a major part in lifelong emotional and mental health.
“Most contributing factors to this condition begin with parents who, for one reason or another, have poor boundaries,” Botnick explains. And when your needs continually go unmet, you become unable to assert yourself or even know what you should ask for, she says.
Common causes of codependency
Botnick notes some key situations that might enable or lead to codependency:
- physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
- parents or caregivers that ignore a child’s needs in favor of their own
- a caregiver with a personality disorder, such as borderline, narcissistic, or dependent personality disorder, which may encourage you to suppress your self-identity to accommodate them
- controlling or overprotective caregivers who prevent a child from learning safe limits and setting healthy boundaries
- one or both parents leaving the family, making you afraid of future abandonment
- caregivers alternating between loving and present and distant and unavailable, contributing to an anxious attachment
- criticism and bullying from parents, siblings, or peers that leaves you with lingering insecurity in relationships
In any of the above circumstances, you might grow up believing your own needs don’t matter, or at least that they can wait. As a result, you learn to ignore what you think, feel, and want, both to keep others happy and keep them from leaving.
Perhaps a primary caregiver living with health or mental health concerns put you in a position where you needed to take care of them. The caretaking behaviors you learned may become so natural that you can’t help but carry them into future relationships.
Or maybe you learned that neglecting your own needs to please others earned you praise. You might grow up aiming to please everyone in your life so you can hold on to their affection and approval.
Codependency is a learned behavior. That means it’s possible to unlearn the codependent traits causing you distress and affecting your relationships and well-being.
Left unaddressed, codependency can lead to:
- feelings of anxiety or depression
- feelings of emptiness
- a general sense of powerlessness or helplessness
- diminished self-esteem
Lacking a clear sense of who you are can also keep you from engaging in fulfilling friendships and relationships, leaving you feeling lonely and isolated.
Therapy for codependency
The signs of codependency we’ve listed above might offer a starting place, but recognizing codependency in yourself isn’t always a straightforward process.
Benefits of professional support for codependency
A mental health professional can offer support with:
- recognizing key signs of codependency
- overcoming people-pleasing tendencies
- addressing related mental health symptoms, including feelings of guilt, anxiety, or depression
- reconnecting with your sense of self
- setting healthy boundaries
Therapists trained in family and couples counseling can also offer more insight on family-of-origin issues and help you begin to address childhood experiences that may have led to codependent coping techniques.
Couples counseling — you can go alone or with a partner — also offers a safe space to:
- learn and practice helpful communication techniques
- get more comfortable expressing needs and asking for support
- learn to distinguish healthy interdependence from codependence
Biros recommends therapy for codependency because it’s a complex dynamic that a person can’t always resolve properly on their own. The support of a trained professional can help you process any unresolved challenges.
However, if therapy doesn’t feel right for you or isn’t accessible to you right now, there are strategies you can use to help you take the first step.
Spend some time alone
Your relationship with yourself is just as important as the relationships you build with others, so it’s important to balance the time you spend with loved ones with regular time for yourself.
Alone time gives you the chance to:
- get in touch with your emotions
- reflect on daily experiences
- recharge your energy
- practice healthy self-care
Yet “alone time” can have a broader meaning, too.
If you find yourself drawn to distressing dynamics with people who rely on you to support them, a temporary break from romantic relationships provides a chance to explore and better understand these codependent traits.
Pursue your interests
Perhaps you haven’t made time for yourself in so long that you barely remember what you used to enjoy.
Here are some examples:
- You’ve always wanted to take up birdwatching, but none of your partners have ever been interested.
- So, you decide to join a birdwatching group on your own.
- You run with your partner because that’s their preferred exercise — but swimming and yoga are the only types of physical activity you enjoy.
- So, you choose to focus on your fitness at the gym and encourage them to find another running partner.
- Your parents pushed you to enter medical school and become a doctor, so you suppressed your goal of becoming a geologist and studying volcanoes.
- So, you switch career tracks to pursue your preferred career.
Codependency is putting somebody else’s needs before your own. While it’s very natural to want to support the people you love, it’s also important to draw a line between your needs and theirs.
A life lived for someone else won’t do much to fulfill you. You’ll also find it much easier to offer support when you prioritize your own wellness.
If you have a hard time recognizing your own needs, or have difficulty with asking for and accepting support from others, a therapist can offer compassionate guidance and support.
You can break a pattern of codependency. These resources can start you on your way:
- 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