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 They are closed off and withdrawn, making it hard for other people to get close to them.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

27 thoughts on “Symptoms of Codependency

  1. “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!”

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

    Chas

  6. 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.

  7. 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
    helpful…

    Mike

    • 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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 .

  11. 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

  12. 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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


× 6 = 12

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>