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Codependency is complex and multifaceted. It often develops over time and can be caused by a combination of psychological, biological, environmental, and interpersonal factors.
A person’s upbringing, past experiences, and their relationships with others are some of the most significant factors influencing the development of codependency. These factors can have a profound impact on an individual’s emotional and psychological well-being, shaping their patterns of behavior and interactions with others.
What is Codependency?
Professor of Psychology Sandra C. Anderson describes codependency as “a pattern of painful dependence on compulsive behaviors and on approval from others in an attempt to find safety, self-worth, and identity.”
The concept and definition of codependency are contested due to its complex nature. However, a systematic analysis identified the following core elements that define codependency:
- External Focusing: One’s focus is on other people, their needs and feelings, and external activities (such as work, drugs, or alcohol) rather than their own feelings and needs. By focusing outwardly, they avoid dealing with uncomfortable emotions and inner conflicts.
- Self-sacrifice: They look after the needs of others at the cost of their own. Their self-worth is based on the approval and validation of others, often leading them to neglect their own needs.
- Control: Self-control (e.g., controlling their emotions) and controlling other people allows them to feel safer. They tend to believe others are incapable of taking care of themselves and that they must, therefore, take responsibility for them.
- Emotional Constraint: They suppress their own needs and feelings to avoid upsetting others. They have people-pleasing tendencies and find it difficult to say “no.”
Children who grow up in families with one or more members who have addiction issues, mental health problems, or other dysfunctional behaviors may develop codependent traits as a way to cope with the instability and chaos in their family.
As a result, these children tend not to develop an independent and stable sense of self, but rather, they become enmeshed with their parental figure(s).
Growing up in a dysfunctional family can lead individuals to develop codependent traits as they adapt to the challenging dynamics within their family.
The types of early environments that can contribute to the development of codependency include:
Addiction and Mental Illness
Growing up in a family where one or more members struggle with addiction or mental illness can create a chaotic and unpredictable environment, contributing to the development of codependency.
Children living under these circumstances often take on roles like caregivers or peacekeepers as they try to maintain stability and protect their loved ones. Unfortunately, this can lead them to neglect their own needs while focusing on the needs of others, further fostering codependent behaviors.
These children tend to struggle to develop a stable sense of who they are and what they want as their identity becomes dependent on helping others.
Overprotective parents may shelter their children from challenges and difficulties, which can hinder the development of self-reliance and self-confidence.
Children raised in such environments may struggle with independence, decision-making, and assertiveness, as they’ve been shielded from developing these skills.
Even as they grow into adolescence and early adulthood, these children continue to look to their parents to know how they should feel, think, and behave. They struggle to make their own decisions and develop an independent sense of self, instead relying on others to provide this for them.
Neglectful environments can leave children feeling emotionally abandoned and unimportant.
This can make a child feel like they are not good enough or worthy of love and attention. Individuals who experience neglect may constantly feel like they have to prove themselves and be “perfect” to gain approval.
They seek out validation and affirmation from others, leading to an excessive reliance on external sources for self-worth and approval.
Physical, emotional, or psychological abuse in childhood can instill a deep sense of inadequacy and fear in victims.
Children tend to blame themselves for their childhood abuse and often feel deserving of such punishment. They internalize that something must be fundamentally wrong with them, and they only deserve to be loved if they fully submit to their caregivers.
Abuse impedes the child’s emotional and cognitive development, leading to low self-esteem and dependence on others for validation and purpose.
Additionally, codependent behaviors can develop in victims of abuse as a means of avoiding confrontation and conflict, even when such behaviors are harmful to themselves.
Poor Emotional Boundaries
Children who grow up in families with weak or absent emotional boundaries may struggle to distinguish their own feelings, thoughts, and needs from those of others.
This can lead to enmeshment in relationships, where they lose a sense of self and become overly focused on the emotions and needs of others.
They might grow up believing that they are only deserving of love and attention when they are taking care of other people.
Conditional Positive Regard
If children experience conditional love and acceptance from their caregivers, where approval is granted only when they meet certain expectations, a child may learn that love and positive attention must be earned.
If the child does not feel intrinsically worthy, they tend to look to others for approval. They learn that they will only be loved if meet another’s expectations.
These individuals may develop codependent tendencies as they continually seek validation and approval from others, often at the expense of their own needs and desires.
Personal Accounts of Codependency
Bacon et al. (2018) analyzed the lived experience of codependency from the perspective of self-identified codependents. Their qualitative study offers in-depth information about the participants’ subjective experiences.
Participants attributed their behaviors and problems to the experiences they had growing up. One participant commented:
“I do believe that it is down to childhood experiences and the individual child’s perception of those experiences…considering that all my siblings are messed up as well.”
Participants shared negative perceptions of being raised in excessively controlling, critical, and perfectionistic families. Most recalled a “paradoxical interpersonal family dynamic” with excessive inflexibility, parental rigidity, and control coupled with a lack of care and support.
Most participants also noted that at least one of their parental figures was emotionally or physically absent. One participant described:
“… my father who was, quite passive, actually often quite absent, he worked, sometimes he worked in the evenings, sometimes he worked at weekends … he wasn’t the men’s man … my mother bossed him about, my mother ran the house …”
Another participant said:
“Maybe there was a sort of half factor, maybe one half of my family was not supporting me and maybe (the other half) my mother was judging me …”
These early experiences created “a sense of void” that they tried to fill through external means, such as excessive drinking, drugs, and sex in order to escape the feelings of inner emptiness.
Am I Codependent?
Recognizing codependency in yourself can be challenging because it often involves deeply ingrained behaviors and patterns that have developed over many years.
However, there are common signs and characteristics associated with codependency.
For example, if you tend to put others’ needs and wants before your own, often at the expense of your own well-being, this could be indicative of codependence.
If you struggle with a poor self-image and constantly are seeking validation and approval from others to feel worthy, this can also be an indication that you have codependent tendencies.
Other signs of codependency may include:
- You have trouble saying “no” and may feel guilty or anxious when asserting your own needs or limits.
- You have an intense fear of being rejected, abandoned, or alone, which can lead to dependency on others.
- You rely heavily on others for your emotional well-being and may have difficulty making decisions or taking action on your own.
- You feel responsible for solving others’ problems and may enable or rescue them from the consequences of their actions.
- You strive for perfection in an attempt to gain approval or control situations.
- You go to great lengths to avoid conflict or confrontations, even when it’s necessary for your well-being.
However, it’s important to remember that codependency exists on a spectrum. Not everyone with codependent tendencies will experience all of these characteristics, and not everyone who experiences these tendencies is necessarily codependent.
A mental health professional can help you better understand your behavior, develop healthier coping mechanisms, and build more balanced and fulfilling relationships.
How to Overcome Codependency
Overcoming codependency is a process that involves self-awareness, personal growth, and developing healthier relationship patterns.
Fortunately, codependency is a set of learned behaviors and beliefs that can be unlearned and overcome with time.
The first step is recognizing that you have codependent tendencies. Self-reflection and introspection are key to learning how it can manifest in your life.
Here are some other steps you can take to help overcome codependency:
- Educate yourself on codependency to understand the underlying causes and effects.
- Pay attention to your behaviors and thought patterns in relationships.
- Revisit the past to understand how your family dynamics may have contributed to your codependent traits.
- Practice setting and maintaining healthy boundaries in your relationships. This involves learning to say “no” when necessary and communicating your needs and limits.
- Prioritize self-care and self-compassion. Make time for activities and practices that nurture your physical, emotional, and mental well-being.
- Challenge any negative self-talk and cultivate self-acceptance and self-love.
- Focus on building your own independence and self-sufficiency. Pursue your own interests, goals, and hobbies outside of your relationships.
- Consider seeking professional help from a therapist or counselor who specializes in codependency and relationship issues.
- Overcoming codependency is a process that takes time and effort. There may be setbacks along the way, but it’s essential to be patient and forgiving with yourself.
As you overcome your codependent tendencies, you will develop a stronger sense of self and a realization that your worth is not conditional on others’ approval or your role in their lives.
Your relationships will become more balanced and mutually fulfilling, and you will better able to give and receive love and support in a healthy way.
Healing from codependency is not a linear journey, and setbacks can occur. But the ultimate reward is a more fulfilling and authentic life, where you can enjoy healthier, more meaningful relationships while understanding that your worth is inherent and not conditional on external factors.
- Bacon, I., McKay, E., Reynolds, F. & McIntyre, A. (2018). The Lives Experience of Codependency: an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 18, 754-771.
- Codependency Anonymous (2019). What is Codependency? https://coda.org/newcomers/what-is-codependence/
- Happ, Z., Bodó-Varga, Z., Bandi, S.A. et al. (2023). How codependency affects dyadic coping, relationship perception and life satisfaction. Current Psychology, 42, 15688–15695.