Signs You’re a Codependent Person – and How to Break Free
A couple’s therapist once told me and my then-partner a metaphor for relationships I’ll never forget.
In a “healthy” relationship, she told us, making two circles with her hands and holding them out in front of her, each person is in their own hoop. As you go through life together, your hoops touch – supporting each other, witnessing each other’s tough moments and triumphs, and perhaps reaching out a hand when times get hard – but ultimately, each person still has their own separate, distinct hoop.
If you, like me, have struggled with codependent tendencies, this metaphor might have made you realize you have totally gone through life jumping into other people’s hoops. If you can relate, you’re not alone. But before we fully dive in, let’s start here:
There is nothing wrong with needing other people. For most of us, it’s actually vital to our survival. Needing emotional and even literal support from others doesn’t make you inherently codependent, and there’s nothing wrong with finding important connection and meaning in relationships.
For those with certain disabilities and chronic illnesses, depending on other people is often literally tied to their survival, but that doesn’t mean those relationships are automatically codependent. Culture is also an important consideration, and what seems “codependent” in one culture can feel more typical is another. Codependency, like most things, can exist on a spectrum, and you may find familiar patterns in the description below – but don’t panic!
Learning about codependency, and figuring out where we fit on the spectrum, can help us distinguish between the perfectly natural ways people need other people, and when that “need” leaves us jumping into other people’s hoops, abandoning our own needs, and finding worth and identity in one-sided relationships.
So What Is Codependency Then?
To understand codependency, it’s helpful to understand two related concepts: What it means to be codependent, and then what it means to be in a codependent relationship.
People who are codependent don’t need the other people in a clingy way – they actually need to be needed. Codependent people are givers, pouring themselves into relationships to make them feel whole. Often, people who are codependent struggle with low self-esteem and an unstable self-image, so use relationships to fill in that gap. According to Mental Health America, people who struggle with codependency often take on a “martyr” role, and have an exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others.
In one study about people’s lived experience with codependence, two major characteristics emerged. One, people who are codependent often feel like chameleons, meaning they shift who they are in the presence of others. This could look like being agreeable to a fault, adjusting your needs to meet the expectations of others, or seeing who you are only through the eyes of others.
Two, people who are codependent reported living life to emotional extremes, making the emotional roller coaster that comes with dysfunctional relationships appealing, or even addicting. In these relationships, there is not a mutual exchange of give and take. Instead, the person who’s codependent may seek out people they feel like they have to “save,” often leading them to relationships which: a) give them a purpose and an identity, and b) fulfills their (maybe subconscious) desire to live in a space of emotional extremes.
A relationship itself is codependent, then, when a codependent person pairs with someone who takes advantage of how they operate. This person, known as the “enabler,” enjoys that their partner bends to their needs, doesn’t want their partner to be their own person, and starts relying on their partner as much as their partner relies on them.
While sure, in most relationships, sometimes a partner will struggle, and so one person may become the main “giver” for specific periods of time or for specific reasons. But in codependent relationships, the baseline of the relationship is off-balance. The way partners need each other is more intense and more tied to their individual self-worth. In codependent relationships, it can often be hard to tell where one person ends and the other begins.
It’s also important to remember codependent relationships don’t have to be romantic, and this dynamic can exist between family members and friends as well.
“It’s OK to need other people, but you deserve to stand on your own.”
What Are the Signs of Codependency?
Codependents Anonymous, the 12-step program for folks who struggle with codependency, offers a helpful checklist of the patterns and characteristics of people who struggle with codependency. You can find the full list here, but below are some highlights. These traits are divided into five codependency patterns:
People who fit the “denial” pattern of codependence often:
- “Have difficulty identifying what they are feeling”
- “Think they can take care of themselves without any help from others”
- “Do not recognize the unavailability of those people to whom they are attracted”
People who fit the “low self-esteem” pattern of codependence often:
- “Have difficulty making decisions”
- “Value others’ approval of their thinking, feelings, and behavior over their own”
- “Have trouble setting healthy priorities and boundaries.”
People who fit the “compliance” pattern of codependence often:
- “Are extremely loyal, remaining in harmful situations too long”
- “Compromise their own values and integrity to avoid rejection or anger”
- “Are hypervigilant regarding the feelings of others and take on those feelings.”
People who fit the “control” pattern of codependence often:
- Believe people are incapable of taking care of themselves
- Attempt to convince others what to think, do, or feel
- Have to feel needed in order to have a relationship with others.
People who fit the “avoidance” pattern of codependence often:
- “Act in ways that invite others to reject, shame, or express anger toward them”
- “Allow addictions to people, places, and things to distract them from achieving intimacy in relationships.”
- “Pull people toward them, but when others get close, push them away.”
If you feel like you meet any of these criteria, check out the full checklist and see how it resonates.
How Do I Break Free From Codependency?
If you’re a codependent person or feel like codependency traits are getting in the way of your relationships, first of all, I’m so proud of you. It’s cliché to say, but even being aware of the patterns you’re falling into is huge, and as they say, you can’t change what you don’t understand. As I do work healing my own relationship patterns, this quote from a writer who goes by @yung_peublo on Instagram really resonated with me.
Next time you feel agitated
Because you are falling back into past patterns,
Remember that simply being aware
That you are repeating the past
Is a sign of progress
So what do we do? I wish I had an easy answer for you. Below are some places to start.
- Understand that to work on your codependency is to work on your relationship with yourself.
Read that again. Take a breath. I know that’s probably not what you want to hear. I know it’s easy to think that it’s just about finding the “right” relationship with the “right” person – and that will make all your problems go away. I’m sorry to tell you this, but that is just not the case.
This doesn’t mean you should cut everyone out of your life, or that you need to leave your current relationship immediately. (Remember the disclaimer we started with – people need people!). But, it does mean you can’t neglect the individual work, and if you’ve been struggling with codependency, you might have to start with the basics.
Who are you? What do you like? What do you value? Draw a self-portrait and surround it with words that describe you – not just the ways you benefit others. Journal to get to know your own thoughts and feelings, paying attention to your moods and how heavily they’re influenced by the people around you. Imagine a world where you don’t exist to serve others, but instead, get to be yourself. Get to know yourself a little better – you’re a great person to know.
- If you’re comfortable, self-disclose to the people in your life you’re working on your codependency.
Teach trusted friends, family members, or a supportive partner what you’re learning about codependency, what it feels like for you, and what they can expect from you as you go on this journey. If you’re used to being the helper – the person who goes out of your way to support others at the expense of yourself – changing codependent patterns may feel like disappointing people. If you’re not used to expressing your own needs and feelings, changing codependent patterns can feel like starting conflict.
So start small and practice on safe people. Say no to a request. Disagree with a friend. Pause before you find yourself “jumping to the rescue” or taking on the feelings of others. Instead of seeking out a new relationship right now (although no shame if you do), try to develop healthier patterns with the people who are already in your life, the people who are rooting for you, and the people who won’t take advantage of your codependency. Some people might not like the “new you,” or the “you” that you’re trying to be, and that’s OK. Part of this journey might be realizing who loves you for you, and who only loved what you gave them.
- Seek professional help.
Just because you need to work on yourself doesn’t mean you have to do it alone! Join a support group. (Codependents Anonymous offers free meetings for people both face-to-face and online.) If you have access, talk it out with an individual therapist. Read books about the subject and connect with people who get it, including the following Mighty contributors who have written about codependency:
- 3 Ways I’m Working Toward Breaking My Codependency Behaviors
- How I Broke the Cycle of Codependency
- Why Codependency Is So Much More Than Being ‘Clingy’
- 7 Steps to Help Untangle Yourself From Enmeshment
- Recovering From the Codependency of My Past Abusive Relationships
It’s OK to need other people, but you deserve to stand on your own. It might feel uncomfortable to start fighting for yourself at first – to figure out who you are without pouring yourself into others – but you are worth fighting for.
Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash