The Relationship Drug
Updated: Feb 13
Can we talk about codependency?
“Whenever you feel compelled to put others first at the expense of yourself, you are denying your own reality, your own identity.” David Stafford
We all have people in our lives that we love or have a great deal of affection for. But there’s a distinction between who we are and who other people are.
Codependency sets us at the centre of those people’s lives either as the forever-fixer of all problems, soother of all emotions and cause of all problems. Codependency blurs the lines that distinguish how different one person is from others so much so that one loses their own sense of identity in the other.
What is codependency?
A specific relationship addiction characterized by preoccupation and extreme dependence—emotional, social and sometimes physical—on another person.
The NEED to be needed; in which lose ourselves in being needed, only comfortable in relationships where we feel our partners cannot live without us.
Codependency is a way of behaving or interacting that you learnt or absorbed at some point in your childhood or formative years. If a child notices that the only way to be respected, loved and given attention is through serving others, they may end up with struggles with codependency. If a child grows up in an environment that is unstable, emotionally neglectful, where they are not nurtured and cared for, struggles with codependency may arise.
This is because the child learns to rally around other people’s needs. It often occurs in friendships, intimate relationships and families.
Codependency and people pleasing
People-pleasing is the emotional need to please others often at the expense of one’s own needs or desires. Past experiences including those in one’s childhood have proven that the only way to feel worthy and love is by serving everyone else. Some researchers have found that “codependents are people-pleasers, but not all people-pleasers are codependent”.
Codependency and manipulation
Even though those people who struggle with codependency are often preyed upon by manipulators, codependency is its own form or manipulation. People who struggle with codependency use people-pleasing tactics to control the emotions of the people around them or the outcomes of specific struggles and events. Their way of attaining love and care is by putting other people’s needs in first place. When their care isn’t reciprocated, they are likely to act out through passive aggression or even violently.
Codependency and empathy
Codependency can easily be confused with empathy because both concepts involve feeling other people’s emotions. However, there is a stark difference between codependency and empathy.
The key difference is that people who are more empathic tend to take other people’s emotions IN while people who struggle with codependency tend to take other people’s emotions ON. People struggling with codependency tend to feel responsible for other people’s feelings.
While empathic people will understand the circumstances and emotions that other people are going through, people struggling with codependency also NEED the person struggling to be okay or happy so that they can be okay or happy. Empaths understand that they can be there for someone without trying to fix their struggles and emotions.
A person struggling with codependency NEEDS to fix another person’s struggles even when the solutions they provide aren’t helpful because their own feelings are tied into the struggle.
It’s important to note when you are taking on other people’s emotions and struggles as your own especially when this starts to affect your life. Identify these moments and call them out or naming them to distinguish between what you are taking IN and what you are taking ON.
Signs that you might be struggling with codependency
The NEED to be needed.
You feel responsible for solving other people’s problems. You’re also likely to go into relationships in which the other person is extremely dependent, needy or in crisis because this serves your codependency. Because being needed is a NEED, you feel hurt when you’re not praised for the sacrifices you make.
You find it hard to say no and give more to others. You feel it’s your responsibility to keep the relationship functional, peaceful or even alive.
You don’t think anyone is in your life because of you as a person but only for what you can do for them. You’re also unable to trust yourself either because you have a pattern of ending up in dysfunctional relationships. Lack of trust in oneself may also come from the fact you don’t really know who you are.
While struggling with codependency, perfectionism is seemingly rooted in the fear of abandonment; the fear that if the people around you notice a slip-up or a mistake, they won’t need you any more and if they don’t need you, your worth does not exist.
Inability to be alone.
People who struggle with codependency are willing to do things they aren’t always comfortable with, as long as the other person demands it of them.
Effects of codependency
Invalidation of individual feelings and needs
Because everyone else’s needs and emotions take precedence, it’s more than likely for a person who struggles with codependency to either put their own needs second or to invalidate them altogether in favour of pleasing and caring for everyone else.
Emotional fatigue or exhaustion
Emotional exhaustion is a state of feeling emotionally worn-out and drained as a result of accumulated stress from your personal or work lives, or a combination of both.
Because a person struggling with codependency is immensely impacted and weighed down by other people’s emotions and struggles, the mental load they carry is often very heavy. They feel like they are carrying the weight of the world at all times. That world can simply consist of close friends and family. They are also weighed down because their thoughts are plagued by how to fix other people’s problems.
People who struggle with codependency tend to be very indecisive because they don’t know what they want or desire. The overwhelm of other people’s emotions, wants and opinions takes up room for what an individual’s own opinions and thoughts even are.
Inability to create boundaries
People who struggle with codependency have a hard time saying “no” when they desire to do so. The need to please other people and ensure that they are taken care of is a priority over all else. Those that do try to create boundaries are likely to drop the boundaries that they have set. People who struggle with codependency base their self-worth in their ability to take care of and serve other people even when it’s to their own detriment and so creating boundaries can be the hardest thing for them to accomplish.
Fulfillment in the hands of others
Because people who struggle with codependency take ON other people’s struggles and emotions, it’s much harder for them to attain fulfillment and contentment in their lives. They just can’t be happy even when something brilliant has happened in their lives while something negative has happened in another person’s life.
It’s hard to live life this way because you never gain any sense of joy from your own achievements, gifts or pleasant moments. Codependency means happiness can only be found in other people’s happiness.
Relationships ought to be about balance, a two-way street in which all involved parties are cared for, attended to and supported. However, people in codependent relationships tend to end up unfulfilled in their relationships because they concentrate on fulfilling everyone else but themselves.
We all desire to be seen, heard and understood. People who struggle with codependency desire this too. Even without intending to, the people that are dependent and benefit from codependency will continue to put their needs first. People who struggle with codependency eventually start to have feelings of resentment towards the people they are always serving. This is because by being codependent they hope to have their affections reciprocated which in most cases doesn’t happen.
“This imbalance causes resentments within the over-responsible and dependency with the irresponsible person and this dynamic becomes the destructive life-pattern not conducive to happy families.” David W. Earle
Struggles with codependency cause someone to think that the only value they have as a human being is placed in another person. One starts to assume that if you cannot serve others righteously and keep them happy then you aren’t worthy of love, attention or affection. Trust issues also arise from having low self-esteem because you don’t feel worthy of trust.
People who struggle with codependency fixate on the things they do or say. They are always worried that they have said or done something to offend, hurt or abuse someone else. Even though it is important to remain courteous and kind, this fixation is taken to extremes because it stagnates the life of the person struggling with codependency. Along with this fixation is the fear of being rejected, others’ disappointment, judgement or even confrontation.
How to overcome codependency
Get in tune with yourself
If you think that you may be struggling with codependency, it’s important to sit with your feelings and find yourself among all the emotions you’ve carried from other people. Seek to find out:
How do I feel? It’s important to always check into your feelings and understand what your emotions are telling you about your state of mind.
What do I want?
How does this put me first or serve me?
Getting in tune with yourself will also mean learning more about yourself; what you enjoy, what you like, who do you want to be. You can ask yourself questions that might seem inconsequential: what music do I enjoy, what’s my favourite colour, what kind of movies do I like and take note of how your mind considers what other people’s answers would be instead of your own. If you don’t have answers for these questions, try discovering yourself afresh.
This might involve standing up for yourself. It may also involve realizing that you can be there for someone, support them by giving a listening ear without trying to fix them, their moods or struggles.
Set boundaries. People in your life might not be used to it and it will hurt to be stern and frank with them about what you want. You have served them long enough. You may be tagged selfish. But this is more about considering yourself too.
Take it a day at a time
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Breaking down the walls of codependency won’t happen overnight. It requires taking down one brick at a time.
“Even when I detach, I care. You can be separate from a thing
and still care about it.” David Levithan