If you persistently put other people’s feelings ahead of yours, you may be codependent. This could be a response to early traumatic experiences.

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Put simply, codependency is when you provide for other peoples’ needs but not your own. It doesn’t develop in a vacuum, and it’s not your fault. This is also true if you’ve experienced any trauma as a child.

While you can’t change past traumatic experiences, you may be able to develop new emotional and behavioral responses to them.

As others living with codependency have found, understanding your codependent tendencies can help.

To understand how trauma and codependency are related, it’s important to first understand what each of these concepts means.

What is trauma?

Trauma is an intense emotional response to shocking or hurtful events, especially those that may threaten considerable physical harm or death to a person or a loved one.

What qualifies as a traumatic event? Experts say it depends.

What’s traumatic to you may not be traumatic to someone else. What matters is that you perceived or experienced the event as being intensely and gravely threatening to your safety. If it felt intense and significant enough — such as feeling like you or someone you love may be hurt or even die — it can be traumatic.

A traumatic event may leave you with an extreme sense of powerlessness. It can affect you in many ways, and trauma may cause you to lose faith in your beliefs and in people, including yourself.

Research suggests that trauma sometimes leads to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

If you’re living with PTSD, you may find yourself reexperiencing the trauma and avoiding situations or people that bring back feelings associated with it. These feelings may also be easily triggered.

Additionally, you may experience hyperarousal, which is characterized by becoming physically and emotionally “worked up” by extreme fear triggered by memories and other stimuli that remind you of the traumatic event.

Even if you don’t have clinical PTSD, trauma can cause the following difficulties:

  • intrusive thoughts
  • nightmares
  • startle reactions
  • numbness

The World Health Organization identified 29 types of trauma, including the following:

  • war
  • physical violence
  • intimate partner or sexual violence
  • accidents
  • unexpected or violent death of a loved one
  • traumas experienced by others that you observed or were informed of, especially in the line of duty for first responders and military personnel

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), more than two-thirds of children reported having had at least one traumatic experience by age 16. Sources of childhood trauma include:

  • community or school violence
  • commercial sexual exploitation
  • neglect

Here are a few possible effects of childhood traumatic stress, according to SAMHSA:

  • learning issues
  • increased use of health and mental health services
  • increased involvement with child welfare and juvenile justice systems
  • long-term health issues
  • behavioral and substance use disorders

What is codependency?

The term codependency became popular in the 1940s to describe the behavioral and relationship problems of people living with others who had substance use disorder (SUD).

Psychologists now think that codependency may flourish in troubled families that don’t acknowledge, deny, or criticize and invalidate issues family members are experiencing, including pain, shame, fear, and anger.

Here are a few more facts about codependency from Mental Health America:

  • Codependency is sometimes called a “relationship addiction.”
  • A codependent relationship makes it difficult to set and enforce boundaries.
  • In a codependent relationship, you may overfocus on the other person, which sometimes means trying to control or fix them.
  • You may easily be manipulated by the person you are trying to save.
  • With codependency, you may feel you need someone else to exert control over you to gain a sense of direction in everyday problem-solving or tasks.

Childhood trauma results from early abuse or neglect and can lead to a complex form of PTSD or attachment disorder. Primary symptoms include dissociation and intrusive memories. Codependency may be a symptom of or a defense against PTSD.

Michelle Halle, LISC, explains: “Typically when we think of addiction, words like alcohol, drugs, sex, or gambling come to mind. A less commonly known form of addiction is an addiction to people — also known as codependency.”

“Codependency is an outgrowth of unmet childhood needs,” says Halle. “Kids rely on their parents to nurture their physical and emotional development. When parents do not do this, the child doesn’t blame their parent. They might blame themselves, instead.”

When your needs are unmet in childhood you are likely to think there is something wrong with you, Halle says.

“[You] may seek relief from these thoughts and feelings by doing things for others so that [you] will receive praise, recognition, or affection. This is [your] relief,” Halle explains.

Codependency “becomes the way you function in life,” Halle says. You look for ways to help others, and they reward you with praise in return. In this way, you come to depend on others for your sense of self-worth.

With codependency, you may also feel an intense need for others to do things for you so you do not have to feel unsafe or unable to do them effectively.

Psychologist Frederick Wiss elaborates that, while childhood trauma may result in resiliency, it also might have “the effect of undermining a child’s ability to develop a stable sense of self.”

If you’ve grown up in a traumatic environment, you’ve likely received messages that invalidate your painful experiences, such as, “You asked for this.”

One 2006 study in 102 nursing students and another study from 2019 in 538 nurses found that those who had experienced abuse as a child tended to score higher in measures of codependency.

The studies found that the types of childhood abuse that were related to having codependent behaviors as adults included:

  • emotional neglect
  • emotional abuse
  • verbal abuse
  • physical abuse
  • sexual abuse

As a child you’re inescapably dependent, often on the very people who may have been responsible for your trauma, says Wiss. This inevitably creates a sense of insecurity that can continue into adulthood.

When you believe or cater to another person’s reality above your own, you are showing signs of codependency. You may also be experiencing complex trauma.

You may attract and be attracted to people who confirm your sense of being a victim or who themselves seem like victims, and you may accept consequences for their actions.

Examples of codependent relationships

Examples of codependent relationships that may develop as a result of trauma include:

  • a husband calling in sick for a wife who is too hungover to work
  • a mother covering up her child’s disruptive or hurtful behavior
  • a worker taking the rap for an admired boss’s inappropriate behavior

4 Common responses to trauma

Peter Walker, MA, MFT, sums up four common responses to trauma that hurt relationships.

You may find yourself hardwired to react in these ways when a current situation causes intrusive memories of traumatic events or feelings.

  • Fight. You have an aggressive response to fear.
  • Flight. When threatened, you may find yourself overworking or using substances to “get away.”
  • Freeze. You dissociate from anxiety through daydreaming, TV watching, social media scrolling, or other distractions.
  • Fawning. It may seem natural for you to accept abuse and to flatter or otherwise try to manipulate the person who is abusing you in an effort to stop it. You may feel unable to assert yourself or get out of the upsetting relationship.

Walker says that many children who experience childhood trauma develop fawning behaviors in response.

Halle calls fawning a survival skill.

Codependence, trauma, and substance use

Substance use and behavioral addictions may be forms of fight, flight, and freeze responses. They can also be a part of fawning behavior by allowing you to cover up or change negative feelings.

A fifth response to trauma you may have experienced is trauma bonding.

Trauma bonding is an unhealthy or dangerous attachment style.

As humans, we need to form attachments to others to survive, but you may have learned to attach to people whose behavior hurts you. When you become addicted to being with this person, you might feel like you can’t leave them, even if they hurt you. You might feel like it’s your responsibility to “fix” them.

Here are some feelings and behaviors you might have if you’re codependent in an abusive relationship:

  • You may feel sorry for your abuser.
  • You believe that they will change.
  • Codependency prevents you from believing your negative feelings toward the person.
  • Codependency makes it hard for you to find help elsewhere.
  • Childhood and other trauma may have given you an inaccurate sense of reality.

However, there is hope. You can find your way out of the trap of codependency. And you owe it to yourself to get the help that allows you to break free of the trauma.

Learn more about trauma bonding from the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

There are steps you can take to free yourself from codependency.

  • Identify your codependency. This can give you a way to make sense of and move on from past trauma.
  • Find a therapist. Someone who’s familiar with codependency, attachment disorder, PTSD, and substance use disorders can validate your feelings and help you find ways to give up unhealthy behaviors.
  • Seek a support group. Talking to others who’ve experienced codependency and trauma may also provide comfort and insights. Al-Anon can help if substance use disorder is a factor in your codependency. The organization’s website offers a quiz to help you decide whether their services might help you.
  • Learn more. Michelle Halle says it can be helpful for those with codependency to read about it. Many people find reassurance in the writings of Melody Beattie, a counselor who formerly experienced addiction and codependent behavior.
  • Take small steps. Halle also recommends taking small steps toward change. If it’s hard for you to say no to others, practice saying no to someone when it’s of little significance. For example, try saying, “No, not yet,” if a server at a restaurant comes to your table and asks if you’re ready to order.

If you have codependent behaviors, you may also have dysfunctional relationships. If codependency helped you survive trauma as a child, you developed it as a coping mechanism.

However, that may have turned into harmful codependent behavior in adulthood. You may not consistently take care of yourself, and you may sabotage yourself through various harmful behaviors, including:

  • substance use
  • fight, flight, freezing, or fawning behaviors
  • trauma bonding

The good news is, it’s possible to heal from trauma and change codependent behavior. Recognizing your codependent behaviors and the negative effects they’re having on you and others is an important first step in overcoming them.

As you’re learning to heal, you can find people to trust who will love you just as you are. And you can learn to do things by yourself, for yourself.