Years ago, I learned a word that made me shed tears of joy and sadness: codependency.
This 12-letter word summed up my relationship woes. I could finally grasp the rugged edges of my pain and examine it like a scientist. Oh, how it all made sense!
Constantly walking on eggshells. Beating myself up. People-pleasing.
Nothing was wrong with me. I had learned these behaviors early on to make do with conditional love.
After the elation of identifying the problem, a wave of grief enveloped me. This new awareness pointed to the mountain of recovery to climb.
I heaved a long sigh.
What causes codependency?
Codependency refers to an imbalanced relationship pattern, where one person feels responsible for meeting another person’s needs and sacrifices their own needs or feelings.
This pattern can result from:
- Damaging relationships with parents
- Toxic, emotionally unavailable or neglectful relationships
- Living with someone who has an addiction
- Caretaking someone who has a chronic physical or mental illness
Codependency often happens when a child adopts unhealthy beliefs and behaviors to survive in a dysfunctional home.
To get the acceptance and love they need, the child sacrifices their integrity and feels responsible for others’ happiness. The child learns to hide their talents, ask for little and harshly judge themselves.
These unprocessed experiences accumulate through adulthood. What’s more, we live in a shame-based society that fosters anxiety and self-doubt.
That’s when codependents often numb their feelings through food, sex, shopping, drugs, alcohol, etc. And the same learned patterns appear in toxic relationships with colleagues, partners or other loved ones.
A particular dynamic occurs: Person A (the “taker”) needs Person B (the “giver”). And Person B feels worthless, unless they fulfill Person A’s needs.
But it’s not always well defined. In my case, my husband Loïc and I unconsciously switched roles at different times.
Ultimately, people with consistent traits of codependency disconnect from who they are and mold themselves for others’ approval. It becomes a grueling chase to prove we’re good enough.
Recovering from codependency asks us to heal from deep shame.
“This dance of codependency is a dance of dysfunctional relationships—of relationships that do not work to meet our needs. The fact that dysfunction exists in [our personal and professional relationships] is a symptom of the dysfunction that exists in our relationship with ourselves as human beings.” —Robert Burney
Signs of codependency
Codependency traits can sometimes arise in daily life.
Like when we feel responsible for another person out of guilt, obligation or fear. (An example: I felt bad when I couldn’t financially help a friend in need.)
For some people, these traits appear most of the time in many relationships. And for others, these patterns emerge some of the time with certain people.
According to Codependents Anonymous, there are 5 main patterns. Read the list below to recognize the negative patterns you’d like to change.
Signs of codependency often include:
You may feel afraid of expressing your true feelings to the other person. Are they going to explode? Will they blame and criticize you?
Since you don’t know how the person will react, you get the feeling of constantly walking on eggshells.
If you do express your feelings, you may minimize them or feel guilty. Sometimes, we’ve denied our emotions for so long that we don’t know how we feel or what we want.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this phenomenon slowly seeped into my life and became my default mode. Loïc struggled to manage his anger everyday, so it made sense to put my needs aside. I thought, That’s what love is, isn’t it?
Now I realize that my good intentions masked fear of abandonment, resentment and grief.
2) Low self-esteem
You may find yourself harshly judging your thoughts and actions and never feel good enough.
Making decisions becomes difficult—you tend to look to others for approval, instead of valuing your own perspective. You might feel disconnected from your intuition because you’ve learned to find a sense of safety outside of yourself.
It can be scary to even think about setting boundaries, let alone communicating and honoring them.
On one hand, you might feel embarrassed to receive recognition. And on the other hand, you might aggressively seek recognition to compensate feelings of worthlessness.
Having low self-esteem can actually drive us to feel superior to others. We might struggle to admit our mistakes and flaws.
We live in a society that encourages perfection, despite the resulting pain and illness. As a recovering perfectionist, I’ve crawled back to life, thanks to the healing power of self-acceptance.
You might spend most of your time and energy doing things for the other person (that they could do themselves). It’s common to neglect your hobbies, activities and friends.
It can seem normal for you to put aside your thoughts, emotions, interests and values to avoid rejection. You tend to become hypervigilant of others’ emotions and feel anxious.
Asking for help can be difficult. Especially if you’re worried about how the other person will react.
In my experience, I did this as much as possible until I couldn’t take it anymore. An argument would burst and last an entire day.
My partner and I somehow navigated the murky waters. Then, the cycle would start again…
Codependents tend to stay in harmful situations too long. Leaving the relationship may or may not be possible for different reasons.
The desire to win approval often holds us hostage.
Codependents often feel the need to rescue others because they believe people can’t take care of themselves.
And when people refuse their help or advice, codependents may become resentful and manipulative. The need to feel needed forms the base of a codependent relationship.
You may become demanding and impose rules about how the other person should behave. It can be hard to admit, but you might try to convince others of your compassion, shame others or pretend to agree to get what you want.
The habit of controlling others didn’t come out of nowhere. We learned these behaviors in our early years to offset uncertainty.
As you can imagine, it becomes easy to put up a wall.
People with codependent traits may avoid the other person to maintain distance. Our body can only handle so much stress and calls a truce.
Addictions to people, places and things temporarily soothe anxiety. Suppressing our feelings and emotions keeps us from confronting them, and possibly causing more problems.
When you do have to talk to the other person, you might pay extra attention to how you communicate to avoid conflict.
So, how do you recover from codependency?
I wrote an article about how I transformed my formerly codependent marriage here. Basically, we acknowledge our emotions, heal our inner child, set boundaries, cultivate self-compassion and discover who we want to be.
EFT Tapping does wonders to release emotional blocks that drive codependency. You can book a complimentary Discovery Call with me to see if we’re a good fit.
Undergoing a metamorphosis
Codependency often gets passed down generations.
We learned in childhood that it wasn’t okay to acknowledge our feelings or talk about them. For some people, it seems normal.
But that creates a harmful relationship with ourselves most of all.
I’ve lost my sense of self in a few codependent relationships. The pain of feeling not good enough ran deep. Many times, I doubted there was a solution.
Recovering from codependency implies a metamorphosis. The entire way you see yourself and others gets flipped upside down. I got torn apart from the inside out.
Accepting myself has given me the freedom to become whole.
Now, I have the pleasure of looking back in awe of the empty chrysalis.
P.S. Would you like some free support? Get quick stress relief in a free EFT Tapping session in exchange for a short interview. Learn more.
Annie Moussu is a certified EFT Tapping Master Practitioner helping women build confidence, set boundaries & enjoy healthy relationships. Get her free EFT meditation & guide for people-pleasing.
Further reading to recover from codependency: