As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I’ve been keenly aware of the fact that the term codependency has been around for almost four decades. Although it originally applied to spouses of alcoholics, first called co-alcoholics, it then became abundantly clear that family and friends also constituted a network of codependents whose lives centered around the alcoholic, or addict. Researchers have since revealed that the characteristics of codependents were much more prevalent in the general population than had been imagined. In fact, they found that if you were raised in a dysfunctional family or had an ill parent, you’re likely codependent.
Dysfunctional families often include family members that are narcissistic, borderline, emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive, passive, helpless, dependent, manipulative, enmeshed, dramatic, and prone to martyrdom. In this unsafe and chaotic environment, children never have the opportunity to develop a solid sense of themselves. Instead, they develop a list of characteristics or symptoms that include many common traits. Before I present this list of symptoms to you, though, I want to credit Darlene Lancer, MFT, for putting together the bulk of what’s in the list below. In doing my research on codependency, I found her list to be so clear and comprehensive that it seemed foolish for me to try and reinvent the wheel. Never the less, throughout the list, I’ve added additional insights on the traits that characterize codependents to make your understanding of this phenomenon even clearer.
Incidentally, before reading through the list below, please bear in mind that most American families are dysfunctional, and therefore most people have some codependency traits!! As a matter of fact, I would offer that most people have unwittingly entered into a codependent relationship at some point in their lives. Therefore, if you recognize aspects of yourself in the list below, you can rest assured that you’re in the majority!! In addition, if you worry that believe that you’re a codependent person or that you’re in a codependent relationship, there are ways to get treatment and reverse this trend. I will happily list treatment options for you at the end of this blog.
Alas, the following is a list of symptoms of codependents. You needn’t have all of them to qualify as codependent.
- Low self-esteem. Feeling that you’re not good enough or comparing yourself to others are signs of low self-esteem. The tricky thing about self-esteem is that some people think highly of themselves, but it’s only a disguise — they actually feel unlovable, fraudulent, or inadequate. Underneath, usually hidden from consciousness, are feelings of shame. Guilt and perfectionism often go along with low self-esteem. If everything is perfect, you don’t feel bad about yourself.
- People-pleasing. It’s fine to want to please someone you care about, but codependents usually don’t think they have a choice. Saying “No” causes them anxiety. Some codependents have a hard time saying “No” to anyone. They go out of their way and sacrifice their own needs to accommodate other people. They usually engage in people-pleasing to seek acceptance and approval and to preserve their attachment to someone else; Their people-pleasing stems from their wish to keep their fears of imminent rejection and abandonment at bay. Codependents who engage in people-pleasing often gravitate towards narcissists because they are all too willing to set aside his or her own needs to feed and fuel the narcissists ego. This gives the codependent a sense of purpose and a sense that they are needed, and codependents can’t stand the thought of being alone with no one needing them.
- Poor boundaries. Boundaries are sort of an imaginary line between you and others. It divides up what’s yours and somebody else’s, and that applies not only to your body, money, and belongings, but also to your feelings, thoughts and needs. That’s especially where codependents get into trouble. They have blurry or weak boundaries. Their poor boundaries often stem from their underdeveloped sense of self and their lack of individuation and differentiation from their family of origin. In turn, codependents often responsible for other people’s feelings and problems or blame their own on someone else. Some codependents have rigid boundaries. They are closed off and withdrawn, making it hard for other people to get close to them. Sometimes, people flip back and forth between having weak boundaries and having rigid ones. When their boundaries are weak, codependents are willing to be victimized, abused, coerced, manipulated, etc. When their boundaries are rigid, they may be too afraid of being victimized, enmeshed, or lost in yet another codependent relationship, and so they choose to withdraw become isolated from others.
- Reactivity. A consequence of poor boundaries is that you react to everyone’s thoughts and feelings. If someone says something you disagree with, you either believe it or become defensive. You absorb their words, because there’s no boundary. With a boundary, you’d realize it was just their opinion and not a reflection of you and not feel threatened by disagreements.
- Care-taking. Another effect of poor boundaries is that if someone else has a problem, you want to help them to the point that you give up yourself. It’s natural to feel empathy and sympathy for someone, but codependents start putting other people ahead of themselves. In fact, they need to help and might feel rejected if another person doesn’t want help. Moreover, they keep trying to help and fix the other person, even when that person clearly isn’t taking their advice.
- Control. Control helps codependents feel safe and secure. Everyone needs some control over events in their life. You wouldn’t want to live in constant uncertainty and chaos, but for codependents, control limits their ability to take risks and share their feelings. Sometimes they have an addiction that either helps them loosen up, like alcoholism, or helps them hold their feelings down, like workaholism, so that they don’t feel out of control. Codependents also need to control those close to them, because they need other people to behave in a certain way to feel okay. In fact, people-pleasing and care-taking can be used to control and manipulate people. Alternatively, codependents are bossy and tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. This is a violation of someone else’s boundary.
- Dysfunctional communication. Codependents have trouble when it comes to communicating their thoughts, feelings and needs. Of course, if you don’t know what you think, feel or need, this becomes a problem. Other times, you know, but you won’t own up to your truth. You’re afraid to be truthful, because you don’t want to upset someone else. Instead of saying, “I don’t like that,” you might pretend that it’s okay or tell someone what to do. Communication becomes dishonest and confusing when you try to manipulate the other person out of fear of rejection or abandonment.
- Obsessions. Codependents have a tendency to spend their time thinking about other people or relationships. This is caused by their dependency and anxieties and fears. They can also become obsessed when they think they’ve made or might make a “mistake.” The assume that if they make a mistake, they will be cut-off, abandoned, or rejected. Codependents often engage in mind reading, and presume to know that others are thinking poorly of them. They are prone to projecting their own sense of worthlessness and fear of rejection onto others, and this in turn often becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy where the other person eventually does leave them!! Sometimes codependents lapse into fantasy about how they’d like things to be or about someone they love as a way to avoid the pain of the present. This is one way to stay in denial, discussed below, but it keeps them from living their lives.
- Dependency. Codependents need other people to like them to feel okay about themselves. As I’ve already mentioned before, they’re afraid of being rejected or abandoned, even if they can function on their own. Others need always to be in a relationship, because they feel depressed or lonely when they’re by themselves for too long. This trait makes it hard for them to end a relationship, even when the relationship is painful or abusive. They end up feeling trapped.
- Denial. One of the problems people face in getting help for codependency is that they’re in denial about it, meaning that they don’t face their problem. Usually they think the problem is someone else or the situation. They either keep complaining or trying to fix the other person, or go from one relationship or job to another and never own up the fact that they have a problem. Codependents also deny their feelings and needs. Often, they don’t know what they’re feeling and are instead focused on what others are feeling. The same thing goes for their needs. They pay attention to other people’s needs and not their own. They might be in denial of their need for space and autonomy, for example. Although some codependents seem needy, others act like they’re self-sufficient when it comes to needing help. They won’t reach out and have trouble receiving. They are in denial of their vulnerability and need for love and intimacy.
- Problems with intimacy. By this I’m not referring to sex, although sexual dysfunction often is a reflection of an intimacy problem. I’m talking about being open and close with someone in an intimate relationship. Because of the shame and weak boundaries, you might fear that you’ll be judged, rejected, or left. On the other hand, you may fear being smothered in a relationship and losing your autonomy. You might deny your need for closeness and feel that your partner wants too much of your time; your partner complains that you’re unavailable, but he or she is denying his or her need for separateness.
- Painful emotions. Codependency creates stress and leads to painful emotions. Shame and low self-esteem create anxiety and fear about being judged, rejected or abandoned; making mistakes; being a failure; feeling trapped by being close or being alone. The other symptoms lead to feelings of anger and resentment, depression, hopelessness, and despair. When the feelings are too much, you can feel numb.
In my experience as a Marriage and Family Therapist, I’ve learned that when two people enter into a codependent relationship, they often enter into what is known as the Drama Triangle. Imagine, if you will, the triangle below, and notice how at each of the three end points of the triangle are three separate roles that each codependent person in the relationship potentially plays at one time or another. When each person in the relationship plays at least two out of these three roles often enough throughout the course of their relationship, it’s a tell tale sign that they’re in a codependent dynamic. These three habitual psychological roles include the following: The Rescuer, the Victim, and the Persecutor.
The Rescuer, for example, plays the role of the care-taker, and he sees his partner as a victim in need of help. He sets aside his own needs and becomes singularly focused on caring for his partner, who he believes is weak, helpless, wounded, and fragile. The rescuer is not consciously aware, though, that by playing this part, he may be avoiding looking at his own anxiety, underlying feelings, absence of meaning in his life, hunger for a sense of identity and purpose, etc. In addition, he may be denying the sense of self-esteem and status he feels as he plays the role of rescuer nor the joy that comes with having someone depend on them. As he is rescuing his partner, his partner in turn is being treated as though she is a victim, incapable of caring for herself. She is his damsel in distress, dependent on his heroic love, nurturing, and resources. At first, his partner may welcome his wish to rescue her. However, in time, she may come to feel smothered, and she may resent the tacit message that she is a victim who is unable to care for herself and therefore is in need of rescuing. In turn, she may grow weary of his overbearing interventions and attempts to rescue her. Soon she may grow more and more resentful of him, and she may finally lash out at him and reject his help all together. In this moment, she has switched from playing the role of victim to playing the role of persecutor. She feels angry, and she rejects his care-taking overtures and verbally accosts him instead.
In the aftermath of this confrontation, her caretaker may feel that his efforts to rescue her have gone unappreciated, and he may in turn feel very hurt. Suddenly he finds himself playing the role of victim. With his head bowed down and bent, he appears visibly wounded. When the dust settles after this contentious fight, his persecuting lover may feel compelled to assume the role of rescuer again and make efforts to care for his hurt feelings. If she doesn’t make this nurturing effort, he may take on the role of persecutor, and he will vent his anger and disgust at her for taking his rescuing overtures for granted. In turn, she may feel victimized and wounded. Seeing her in emotional distress, he may move away from playing the role of persecutor and assume the role of her rescuer again.
Incidentally, Co-dependent relationships, of course, take on more patterns than just those presented above in the Drama Triangle. However, this dynamic is one that is very common among codependent couples and/or families.
Unfortunately, in my work as a Marriage and Family Therapist, I’ve seen first hand how unresolved patters of codependency can lead to more serious problems like alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorders, and other self-destructive and self-defeating behaviors. People in codependent relationships are often more likely to attract further abuse from aggressive individuals, more likely to stay in stressful jobs or relationships, less likely to seek medical attention when needed, and are less likely to get promotions and tend to earl less money than those without codependency patterns. In addition, for the codependent person who lacks a solid sense of self and feels like victim at times in his relationships coupled with feelings of intense anxiety and a profound fear of rejection and/or abandonment, his or controlling ways can eventually turn violent.
The great news is that there are treatments and recovery paths for individuals, couples, and families that struggle with codependency. Psychotherapy, Family Therapy, Group Therapy, Bibliotherapy, Psycho-Education, Psychodrama, Gestalt work, Hypnosis, EMDR, Assertiveness training, and support groups like Co-Dependents Anonymous ( CoDA) and AL-Anon are all powerful ways and places to go to overcome your codependency and feel happy, healthy, and whole again.
If you feel as though you’re a codependent person, stuck in a codependent relationship, or enmeshed and/or triangulated in a codependent family system, please e-mail me or call me if you’d like help breaking free from this old pattern. As a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, I know of tools and techniques that can help you to feel more independent as well as learn how to participate in interdependent, reciprocal, and happy relationships instead.
Thank you for taking the time to read my article. I hope that you found it educational and informative.
John Boesky, LMFT