Symptoms of Codependency

engaged couple holding on hands - view from backsideThe term codependency has been around for almost four decades. Although it originally applied to spouses of alcoholics, first called co-alcoholics, research 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, it’s likely that you’re codependent. Don’t feel bad if that includes you. Most families in America are dysfunctional, so that covers just about everyone, you’re in the majority! They also found that codependent symptoms got worse if untreated, but the good news was that they were reversible. Here’s a list of symptoms. You needn’t have all of them to qualify as codependent.

*   Shame and Low self-esteem:

Not feeling that you’re good enough or comparing yourself to others is a sign of low self-esteem. The tricky thing about self-esteem is that some people think highly of themselves, but it’s only a camouflage for really feeling unlovable or inadequate. Underneath, usually hidden from consciousness, are feelings of shame. Some of the things that go along with low self-esteem are guilt feelings and perfectionism. If everything is perfect, you don’t feel bad about yourself. See my blogs on Shame and Perfectionism.

*   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.

*   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 between themselves and others. They feel responsible for other people’s feelings and problems or blame their own on someone else. Learn about boundaries.

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 They are closed off and withdrawn, making it hard for other people to get close to them.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 rigid ones.

*   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 you don’t feel threatened by disagreements.

*   Caretaking

Another effect of poor boundaries is that if someone else has a problem, you want to help them to the point that you might feel guilty if you don’t and give up yourself in the process. 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. For some codependents, their self-worth is dependent upon being needed.

*   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 in close relationships.

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 caretaking can be used to control and manipulate people. Alternatively, codependents can be bossy and tell others what they 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 we try to manipulate the other person because of our own fear.

*   Obsessions

Codependents have a tendency to spend their time thinking about other people or relationships. Often, they try to decipher what someone else is thinking or feeling and why. This is caused by dependency on others and anxieties and fears about being rejected, due to shame. For the same reason, they can become obsessed when they think they’ve made or might make a “mistake.” Read more on obsessions.

Sometimes you can lapse into fantasy about how you’d like things to be or about someone you love as a way to avoid the pain of the present. This is one way to stay in denial, discussed below, but it keeps you from living your life.

*   Dependency

Codependents need other people to like them to feel okay about themselves, and they’re afraid of being rejected or abandoned, despite the fact that they can function on their own. Other codependents need to always 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 times, 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. 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 is often a reflection of an intimacy problem. I’m talking about being open and close with someone in an intimate relationship. Because of 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. See my blog on The Dance of Intimacy.

*   Painful emotions

Codependency creates stress and leads to painful emotions. Shame and low self-esteem create anxiety and fear about:

Being judged

Being rejected or abandoned

Making mistakes

Being a failure

Being close and feeling trapped

Being alone

All of the symptoms lead to feelings of anger and resentment, depression, hopelessness, and despair. When the feelings are too much, you can feel numb.

There is help for recovery and change. The first step is getting guidance and support. These symptoms are deeply ingrained habits and difficult to identify and change on your own. Join a Twelve Step program, such as Codependents Anonymous or seek counseling. Do the exercises in my books, Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You and Codependency for Dummies and my ebooks, 10 Steps to Self-Esteem and How to Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits to build self-esteem and become more assertive.

©Darlene Lancer, MFT 2012

51 thoughts on “Symptoms of Codependency

  1. I am 60 years old, and I finally understand. All these years I thought it was my dad, but I now realize that he was the only one, besides my grandmother, who showed me love. Your book Conquering Shame and Codependancy really opened my eyes to the fact that I was the scapegoat in my family which was my mother’s doing. You would think that I would have recognized it sooner, but I was shocked to realize it. This has taken its toll on me through the years with my attachment to narcissistic people. I carried around so much shame, and my purpose in life was to get approval from others. Getting to the core of the problem has helped so much.

  2. There are so many things that are in the list that were happening when I was growing up. Thank you again for all of your insight :) It makes the healing process possible after all of these years. I can’t wait to read your other books. I just can’t believe how many of the things on the list were actually present in my childhood.

  3. I certainly respect your work, beliefs, and opinions, but I have learned in the past few years that if your spouse becomes an addict you will be labeled as “codependent” no matter what you do. I have had people who literally just met me say, “Oh, so you have codependency issues” when they find out who my husband was. It’s like the concept of codependency has become society’s way of excusing some of the addict’s behavior. Imagine a victim of domestic violence being diagnosed as co-abusive or a rape victim labeled as a co-rapist. I am not codependent for having been married to an addict. I was a casualty, not a participant or supporter.

    • Being married to an addict doesn’t make one codependent, nor does it excuse an addicts behavior. Codependency usually starts in childhood, and is defined by ones own behavior. Sometimes being married to an addict can bring out our worst traits, but not always. Ignore labels, and see if you find support and coping tips in Al-Anon. See my blog, Living with an Addict. It’s a real challenge. I’ve been there.

  4. Dear Darlene,

    I think your site might change my life. I have just ordered your book ‘Conquering Shame and Co-dependency.’ I am mid 40’s and for the last 12 years all my failed relationships have been with emotionally unavailable men, most either with a history of mental health problems or recovering/functioning alcoholics [like my father] The last one (after 18 months of being single recovering from a failed relationship) came on strong. As I had known him before (we were friends) I thought his familiarity was due to us knowing each other. Having also come out of a long term relationship, we were both hurting but wanted to build a future together (him more than me, he wanted to get married v soon etc). I fell for all of it, until after 3 months, I noticed his alcohol increasing, work commitments/ill health getting in the way of wanting to see me. Naturally I became v anxious. I told him of my anxiety, this was hard for me being a ‘people pleaser’ and sure enough being this vulnerable he still left me (never ended it, just stopped contacting me).

    After months of telling me ‘we would get through this together’ and ‘we are long term not short term’ I find myself utterly devastated. A year on and I still cannot get over the lies and how convincing these men are and how I fell for it. So I have been googling why I attract men who will ultimately abandon me. Your book will help plus I am about to embark on therapy.

    What your wonderful blog highlighted is about the ‘shame’ aspect of co-dependency. I am reeling from this. My ex also had OCD, so he only came to my house once telling me that it was ‘messy’ ordering cleaners and gardeners to keep it up together, demanding I keep ‘up to date with my ironing.’ I am a single parent with a young son and work full time, so my house is no different from any other with a family. But he seemed to be disgusted by me wanting to connect with him and controlling. He also stopped wanting to touch me, even a cuddle was too much ‘What again?’ if I asked for one. His last ex slept in separate bedrooms. I thought he would be different with me as he ‘loved me.’ Now all I am left with is no hope that I can trust another man again, I feel ashamed I am unable to be intimate with not only another man, but that I am somehow ‘dirty’. That’s how he made me feel, not worthy or human, but I cannot let go. I still love him.

    • I have been there, in love with a man who was emotionally unavailable and then the relationship ended in silence. Pure abandonment, no visit, phone call, text, nothing. Similarly it took me 2 and a half years to move on but I realize now that I am better off. I don’t deserve to be with a person who treats me that way. And at the end of the day I love myself too much to allow anyone to cause me that much pain. I wish all the best of healing to you and anyone else going through a painful break up. It really is true that time heals all wounds. You just have to bite the bullet and feel the pain for what it is and then in time you’ll release it.

      • Thanks I will forever bite the bullet. I have read the books and now embarking on therapy to learn to live without a relationship again. This may sound defeatist but unfortunately like you I do not love myself enough to allow someone to cause me that much pain, therefore I will avoid another relationship altogether. The catastrophic pain these people leave behind is immense. I can’t even post here the pain they have caused me, so with that therapy will help me learn to never yearn for it again. It may be defeatist to be emotionally unavailable myself -I have to keep myself safe. Besides, who on earth would want someone who hates herself?

        • Your need of self-love and self-protection is understandable after being in an abusive relationship. Do not give up hope. There is the real possibility of having a healthy relationship. First have one with yourself. Do trauma therapy and the self-healing exercises in “Conquering Shame” to get over your undeserved self-hatred; otherwise, it won’t feel a lot better living with someone who hates you – yourself. Go to a 12-Step group – Al-Anon or Coda.

    • Whether or not you are depends on a number of things. You can decide for yourself taking some quizzes in Chapter 4 of Codependency for Dummies. He may have given you the STD unwittingly and you must be outraged anyway. However, it would be worthwhile to go to couples counseling to uncover why he had the affair and to repair your marriage.

  5. I’ll try to summarize the best I can. Met a man online 6 yrs ago on a popular dating site on the first day I signed up. Hit it off right away. He was incredibly attentive and took such good care of me. I was his world. Fast forward 6 years….he was unable to be emotionally intimate or verbally communicate. He was somewhat of a chameleon in that he became what he needed to be for a situation. We did things throughout the years that I thought he enjoyed, finding out later that he just did them for me. Overreacted when I showed even the most simple signs of independence, such as going out with friends. As the relationship went on more information his past came out. Married twice, has lived with around 9 women (he is 50) and with the exception of his marriages the longest relationship he had was around 2 years (and also with the exception of ours). He is a functioning alcoholic, has anxiety issues, tobacco abuse, and plays the victim role. He has no relationship with his mother or sister. The reason that I am contributing to this blog is that I have concerns about my participation in this. I think I am of average intelligence, and I will accept the fact that if I followed my instinct I would have never gotten into the relationship. But I did. And I stayed in it for six years. I tried to work on and encourage him to see the person I saw under all of the disfunction. It has been almost a year since I ended the relationship and I still miss him and love him. Why am I having such a hard time moving on with my life when I am so clearly able to see how unhealthy it was? This experience has allowed me to make better decisions and am not in another relationship yet because I don’t want to repeat the past. Do I have co-dependency issues also? I struggle with self esteem to the degree that most people do, I know I am not perfect, but I have positive attributes. So why am I still so emotional about the whole thing?

  6. Hello Darlene,
    I have been married for 20 years and have just moved out two weeks ago. I confessed a “small” infidelity (kissed someone else) about 14 months ago and since then I’ve tried everything to prove I am sorry. My husband has a way of making me feel bad about any thoughts or beliefs that don’t mirror his. I feel he is controlling; my counselor thinks he is verbally abusive. I have given up every friend and hobby to try and prove he is important to me, but nothing seems to be enough. I felt so lost I moved out two weeks ago. Now he is begging me to come back and I’m not sure I can connect with him any longer. Your article describes many of his traits, but I am wondering if by not “fighting back” (I am a pretty passive person) if I am responsible for making him this way.

    Thank you

  7. Darlene,

    My codependency has isolated me from everyone. I’m failing at school and it seems like I won’t get the job I want. I’m overweight and addicted to food. Every aspect of my life feels like it’s in shambles and I don’t have a job. Where do I start? I feel numb like you said. I’m just living.

    • Codependency can really destroy us. Start by doing the exercises in my books and attend a Codependency Anonymous – – meeting in your area. If there are none, do an online phone meeting or go to Al-Anon if there’s any alcoholism in a loved one.

  8. Dear Darlene,

    Thank-you for taking the time to create such a helpful website and to actually answer questions that are posted. This is my situation. I have been married to my husband for 11 years and in relationship with him for 17 years. We have a lot of fun together and share a good many interests, however, we cannot solve problems or resolve conflicts. Through the years our fighting has caused both of us to deeply question whether we should stay together- it is that destructive and toxic. We are now separated and living in different states. My husband is seeing a psychologist and has self identified as being passive-agressive, and has told me that I am co-dependent. I told him that I would explore that possibility-hence here I am. I definitely want to assume responsibility for what is mine, however I am having some difficulty discerning what really is mine and what he is projecting onto me given his own way of being, and perceptions. Is it best for me to completely focus on my own personal work, and not think about things in the context of the relationship or can this only be sorted out if we see a therapist together? He is in a graduate program and has very limited time to devote to our relationship. I feel discouraged and don’t know where to begin.

  9. I realized that I, and my mom, are codependent today. I knew there was something wrong with me and its so relieving to find out what.

  10. I’ve only read a few of your blogs. You simply put have been blessed with a gift from God to be capable of getting this most valuable, needed information out to the world. Pretty easy to understand. I plan on implimenting into my life. I became aware that I am codependently addicted in 2003.
    I wish my kids weren’t in denial. Instead they continue to blame and point fingers.
    May God bless you richly for your work, and continue to strengthen you in recovery.
    One Day At A Time! :-)

    • Thank you very much Monica. If you like my blogs, you’ll surely benefit from my books. Not sure how old your children are, but unless they’re adults, denial isn’t an issue. They can learn by example and compassionate correction. When I took my kids to Alateen, they went in fighting with each other and came out in good moods with their self-esteem a bit higher. Read chapter 2 of Conquering Codependency and Shame about children and shame and how codependency starts.

  11. Long story short, abandonment, abuse, and neglect. Emotionally unavailable mother and father and bullied as a kid. I am fully aware of my issues regarding codependency, toxic shame, avoidance of intimacy LOL the list is long. I used to run anytime the stagnation started and I had to feel my feelings, but i dont anymore, I sit and feel them and am quite uncomfortable. My question is, I am in the most healthy relationship of my life, he is his own person and knows ALL my issues and sticks by me no matter what. He gives me al the space for growth which I have been over the last few years painfully LOL. He doesn’t put any stipulations on me and I can just be I guess who I think I am? I really don’t know somedays this is all new for me. Is it possible to heal co-dependency with a loving and understanding partner, or is it something I need to do on my own. The pain somedays is unbearable and I wonder sometimes if it will get any easier.

  12. “Darlene, all your articles are wonderful & so very helpful, but this one described me to a “T.” It’s almost frightening to see myself like this. I have your book and have skimmed through it (it looks very helpful), but I have to admit I have a hard time pulling myself away from the computer, finding so many interesting articles to read. Now that I have all this ‘head knowledge’, it is time for me to start implementing changes. I have been in steady counseling for 3 years, and have made great strides, but there is always another layer of hurt & pain to peel back. Sometimes that is hard to face. I will continue to read your book and your other articles as they are helping me to ‘see the light.’ Thank you for your caring service. Peace & healing is a wonderful thing, but it takes hard work to get there!”

  13. Hi Darlene! I have recently started attending the 12 step Co-dependency meetings. After my first meeting I realized i am definitely co-dependent. Then, I decided to show the step program to my girlfriend because I thought that she would also benefit from the Program. My question is; do you think its unhealthy for both of us to go together to the meetings?

    • It’s not unhealthy, but you have to decide how it feels to you as you get more immersed in the program and start sharing. You may find you or she are inhibited to say some things, which would defeat the purpose. Revealing some truths at the meeting may give you either a new perspective or the courage to share them with your girlfriend or she with you.

  14. Reading this, I realize that I am in the high spectrum of codependency. My dad was a verbally violent and manipulative man who dangled: “I will kill myself because you guys don’t love me enough” in our faces for years.
    It caused enormous insecurities. I know I have issues now and it causes a lot of friction and chaos with my husband of 15 years who has the patience and understanding of an angel (Thank goodness). Everything you described here is me; Unfortunately.

  15. I’ve been a recovering codependent for 28 years…”It a journey, not a destination.” Also, it’s progressive and, I was in advanced stages when I began my healing process. I’m still a work in progress and will always be but, when I reflect back on the beginning of my journey, I can see what a miracle I am. I feel I’m truly blessed… Prayer and my best thoughts to all those who are on the path of recovery. It can get painful but, it’s worth it since on the other side of the pain is healing and growth, an amazing adventure.

  16. Hi Dr. Lancer: Thank you for a great article. I have been enabling an ex-girlfriend for 18 month by paying all her bills, letting her live in one of my condos, and giving her a monthly living allowance. In the interim, she quit her job when she moved in, spends her days drinking enormous amounts of vodka, watches TV, and purports to parent her 2 teenage daughters. I don’t know why I ignored all this for a year and a half. I guess partly guilt about what happens to her when she hits the street and about what would happen to her girls. I finally realized that if she doesn’t care, why should I. The girls have a great responsible dad and living with him beats living with an alcoholic mom who drinks from dawn to bedtime.

    I am purchasing “Codependency for Dummies” for me; for enlightenment, to make a change, and to make sure this doesn’t happen to me again. Thanks for a great site.


  17. Thanks for the article Darlene. I wanted to ask what is the connection between toxic shame and emotional abandonment ? Because codependency is involved, so it’s confused what to treat and from where to begin. My mother disowned my parts in childhood, it’s like enmeshment and controlling situation in family. I became dependent and honestly I fear to face life on my own. So only now I’ve admitted I fear of love and intimacy, sex. I can’t express it in a healthy way, cause those needs were suppressed, but I want it very much so I suffer. Deep down inside I feel I don’t deserve what I love very much. So pain, rejection sense is horrible, also sexual envy comes in.

    • I know you’re confused, but really it’s all part of the same thing. Emotional abandonment leads to shame. You may have had specific sexual trauma, too. (It needn’t be physical). Emotional abandonment also leads to codependency. It’s too involved to explain here, but all laid out in my coming book Conquering Shame and Codependency. It’s full of self-help exercises you can do, and seeing a therapist and joining a group are also very helpful. Best wishes.

  18. I’m struggling to determine if this describes me or not?

    I feel some of this DOES describe me, especially the “Caretaker”
    part. Others do not. How does “Control” apply, when you just want the best for your spouse? Can’t those definitions be the same?

    I take care of my wife from pillar to post. She has proven unable to for many years. Yet she “plays” me to do any/all tasks for her. It is
    always something… always the next thing, or reason she cannot.

    I have tried every tactic I can think of to help her. I have a mountain of guilt that if/when I do leave, she will circle the drain. We have split
    up several times in the past, and she does not thrive.

    I realize I have some of the blame here, I just am trying to narrow
    it down. Thanks in advance for any reply. This site has proven very


    • By enabling her, you’re disabling her. She and only she can take responsibility for herself. I explain this tactic and the difference between kindness and caretaking in detail in Codependency for Dummies. We are responsible to our partners, but not for them. Letting go isn’t easy, but it can be done with love, which is the opposite of control and trying to fix or change someone. Many of my other blogs may be helpful to you.

  19. I was with an ex for nearly two years, one of each we were broken off officially. However, the last year I kept going back even though I had a feeling he has moved on. I was in denial all those time thinking what we shared which was great the first few months- until he relapsed into addiction, all of which I stayed throughout. In the end I still felt mistreated and emotionally abused. Like everything was my fault and I deserved it. I can see that he is all wrong for me and how he treats me. And yet I kept picking up and opening up the door each and every time he comes knocking in the middle of the night. I ask myself why? I hate it each time he leaves but I feel helpless and vulnerable. Stumbling on your website in the early hours of Saturday morning unable to sleep, all my questions were answered and understanding that I fall on the category of codependent gives me a sense of realization and a direction on what I need to do.- Thanks Darlene

    • Jude, Fortunately,you now have a name for the problem. Relationships can be like an addiction. I urge you to begin the journey of healing. Doing the exercises in my books, seeing a counselor or going to a 12-Step meeting are all part of that. Change will happen, but it take attention and effort. My coming book, Conquering Shame and Codependency, is right on point with your issue – how shame and low self-esteem affect relationships. Best wishes to you.

    • Thank you for responding. Yes, since finding your website and understanding what codependency is and how it applied to me, I now have a better sense of direction on where to go and how to do it. The road to recovery will be a process I alone should take and accept…and I’m ready.

  20. This is all on target. Thankfully one of the 12 Step programs Adult Children of Alcoholics, CoDependents Anonymous (CoDA) or Al-Anon can help address these symptoms and their effects on a life . It is not necessary to have had a substance abuser in the family to have success with these programs because they address the dysfunction symptoms not the substances.

  21. Co dependency is painful and like wasting your life waiting on others – when you turn around your whole life is an undone job , all childhood dreams gone up thinking and doing odd jobs for thankless strangers .

  22. Darlene this article is truly wonderful, so helpful and so very much the help I need thank you so much !!! your website is amazing <3

  23. thank you! i found your post very informative and pertinent to my current situation as well. thank you for the enliitment.

    • I’m glad it was helpful. I think you will find “Codependency for Dummies” both informative and enlightening, as well as providing tools and techniques you can employ to heal codependency.
      Darlene Lancer

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