Codependency is a pattern of relating that’s characterized by a lack of personal boundaries and over-focusing on the needs, wants, and/or problems of others.
Codependency is Often Learned in Early Relationships
Codependency is often learned in relationships where we’re forced to orbit around another person in order to "keep the peace." For example, let’s say you grew up with a parent who couldn’t tolerate conflict. Anytime you disagreed, the relationship would fall apart—they would yell, give the silent treatment, or otherwise withdraw their affection or approval. What might you learn from this dynamic?
Perhaps you learned that in order to keep the peace (protect yourself and minimize stress) in relationships you have to:
1. Keep your opinions to yourself.
2. Be hyper-aware of other people’s social cues in order to anticipate what they want from you (you don’t want to say or do the wrong thing!)
3. Focus on the other person's wants and needs, instead of your needs, in order to avoid conflict, punishment, or abuse. (Read more about this dynamic in my article, People-Pleasing as a Trauma Response)
Codependency is Avoiding Ourselves
Those of us with codependent patterns learned that the way to keep relationships is to forget about ourselves, and focus on the other person. Often, at the root of this focus on the other, is low self-esteem and a fear of turning our attention inward. When we struggle with codependency, typically the last thing we want to do is to look at ourselves—we’re terrified of what we might find there. Actually, we think we know what we will find there: something horribly wrong, embarrassing, and unlovable.
Codependency is About Avoiding Uncomfortable Feelings
So, we’re avoiding ourselves, and part of avoiding ourselves is avoiding our uncomfortable, distressing, difficult feelings. Those of us that struggle with codependency have a very hard time feeling our sadness, grief, helplessness, disappointment, fear, rage, terror, etc. The logic goes something like, “If I focus all my attention on the issues in my relationship or issues with my partner/dad/sister, then at least I can feel some level of control.” If we turn our focus back on ourselves (where it belongs), and allow other people to do what they choose to do, we might be faced with a lot of sadness and disappointment when they don't live up to our expectations.
Codependency is About Control
When we act in codependent ways we are fighting against the fact that we don’t have control over other people’s lives, decisions, and actions. We are often in denial of this reality. We want to be able to change and control other people’s behavior, and we feel overly-responsible for and overly-invested in them. We continually rescue them from their responsibilities because we believe they are incapable of showing up and doing their part, and then, eventually, we start to feel resentful for all the extra work and caregiving we do.
Codependency and Conflict Avoidance
Codependency also manifests as conflict avoidance. When we struggle with codependency we’ll go to great lengths to avoid the stress and negative feelings associated with conflict. Engaging in conflict feels scary. We’re afraid that things will get out of control and be irreparable. If we grew up in a family where conflict was mishandled, where people got hurt and relationships were threatened, we learned conflict is dangerous (as opposed to just a normal fact of life).
Codependency and People-Pleasing
Conflict avoidance often goes hand in hand with people-pleasing. Those with codependent patterns rely heavily on external validation, and because of issues around self-worth, the idea of losing approval can create intense anxiety. They'd often rather put up with terrible relationship dynamics, and skirt around issues for years, instead of just having the necessary fight. Typically, this avoidance of conflict can be traced back to early relational trauma.
Codependency and One-Sided Relationships
In codependency we often find ourselves in relationships where we do 90% of the work while the other person does the leftover 10%. We’re used to keeping relationships together by ignoring our own wants and needs. The possibility of reciprocity, or true give-and-take, doesn’t even occur to us. We feel lucky to have someone who is willing to stick around and do the bare minimum, because deep down we believe we're difficult to be around and might never find another person willing to put up with us.
Healthy relationships are reciprocal—there’s an equal exchange of effort and energy. Both people are expressing their needs openly and honestly, and getting those needs met. Both people feel emotional, psychologically, and physically safe, and the relationship improves and supports the self-esteem of both parties (read more about healthy vs. unhealthy relationships in my article on boundaries).
But when we’re stuck in codependent patterns we end up with partners who are emotionally unavailable and who aren’t able to meet us halfway. We’re used to this dynamic, so we don’t see anything wrong with it! Instead of recognizing the relationship dynamic as problematic and addressing the problem, we over-empathize with our partner while ignoring our own needs, “After all, his mother did abandon him when he was young, so I know he struggles to open up.”
Codependency is Self-Abandonment
In codependency, essentially it’s our ongoing self-abandonment that holds our relationships together. And that’s a hard thing to admit. Because if our relationships depend upon us abandoning ourselves, the question quickly becomes, “...are these even relationships at all?” and close behind that is, “why, exactly, am I doing this?” Difficult realities have to be faced.
In the End, It All Boils Down to Boundary Issues
Codependency manifests as many different behaviors, but it can really be boiled down simply to boundary issues.
People who struggle with codependency have unhealthy boundaries. Most often this shows up in the form of rescuing and caregiving. When we rescue someone from their problems, responsibilities, or the consequences of their actions we are not respecting their boundaries. We’re also not respecting our own boundaries, which is why we eventually start to feel resentful.
One of the best antidotes for codependent behavior is getting very clear on what you are responsible for and what other people are responsible for, and then allowing other people to be responsible for their own lives.
Read more about healthy boundaries here:
Journal Prompts for Further Reflection:
- How do I abandon myself and my needs in my relationships?
- Do I rescue others from their own lives and responsibilities?
- What messages did I receive about conflict growing up?
- Was conflict ok? Not ok? How did I know?
- What is one thing I can start doing today to show up for myself more fully in my relationships?
Looking for an online therapist in Kansas?
Ready to heal your codependent patterns and improve your relationship with yourself and others?
My Lawrence, Kansas counseling practice specializes in providing therapy for highly sensitive adults, therapy for low self-esteem, therapy for codependency, therapy for anxiety, and grief and bereavement counseling.
Through counseling I help people overcome shame and the fear of being their true selves. Breaking the cycles of people-pleasing and self-abandonment is possible, and I'm here to help. I offer online therapy throughout the state of Kansas.
Reach out today to schedule your free 15 minute phone consultation, I'd love to hear from you!
Other Services Offered by Maggie
In addition to providing online therapy anywhere in Kansas, I’m also a professional astrologer, and offer Birth Chart Readings anywhere in the United States, as well as abroad.
Astrology is a powerful tool for gaining self-awareness, finding meaning in and understanding of our difficult experiences, and for receiving validation regarding our own unique life path. All of which supports our mental health in a positive way!
Interested in getting a Natal Chart Reading? Book a free phone consultation and let’s get started!