Most people have a very narrow framework for codependency, believing it is limited to a person who doesn’t like to be alone, has low self-esteem, or can’t go without a romantic partner. Although all of those traits could be found in a codependent person, the codependent experience is so much more.
WHAT IS CODEPENDENCY?
I define it as an unhealthy reliance on something/someone outside the self for a sense of wellbeing and validation. Although a codependent person typically does have low self-esteem they don’t always lack confidence – which can be confusing and cause someone to not identify their own codependent patterns. They tend to orient their lives around another person or people for a sense of purpose which disconnects them from their own feelings and desires because they are always prioritizing the happiness/success of those at the center of their world. This may sound extreme but most of us have some codependency lurking in the shadows of some area of our lives. Our society is prime and vibrant soil for codependency to take root. Codependency can show up in workaholism, caretaking, addiction to substances, people, compulsive behaviors, and general self-abandonment.
Codependents Anonymous provides a very informative list of patterns and characteristics in codependency vs. healthy behaviors – which I love because without the healthy juxtaposition it can be easy to think these are just normal patterns. CoDA groups behaviors into 5 categories: denial, control, compliance, avoidance, and low self-esteem, please feel free to hit the hyperlink and take a deeper dive into the patterns but here I am going to outline the patterns that jump out most in my practice.
PEOPLE-PLEASING, SHIT BOUNDARIES, & DISTORTED SENSE OF RESPONSIBILITY FOR OTHERS
This is huge and probably the creme de la creme! Boundaries are confusing for most people, codependent or not, but they are especially a struggle for the people-pleaser. Typically people-pleasing was a learned behavior in childhood where we picked up the survival skill of trying to keep the peace in our household or getting a hit of self-worth when we make those around us happy by being the little helper. We also may have heard things like “oh they are such a great person and so selfless, always putting everyone else first,” so we internalize it and naturally fall into caregiving roles as adults thinking that good people never take for themselves.
After a lifetime of putting others first, we lose connection with our own feelings, thoughts, and desires. Not only do we not fully understand how we feel or what we want, but we most certainly can’t communicate it. Disappointing others feels painful, we grapple with guilt if we say no or set a boundary, and so we avoid pain by pleasing others at all cost. Codependency sets in and our purpose in life is to please or care for others.
PERFECTIONISM & CONTROL
Perfectionism naturally plays out from people-pleasing because we want everything, including ourselves, to be perfect to ensure our safety & security in how we are perceived by others. We try to control not only our environment and how things are done but also people’s opinions of us. We mask this in “trying to do the right thing” or just “helping others” but without having the inner sense of peace and calm regardless of how things are perceived, we are really trying to manipulate approval and desired reactions.
This manipulation (control pattern) can also lead to shape-shifting & furthering the boundaries struggle as we seek approval from others. Note: the controlling perfectionist not only has porous boundaries themselves but they tend to be boundary violators, viewing another person’s boundaries as resistance.
FEAR OF ABANDONMENT
I used to think this was a big concept thrown around loosely because doesn’t everyone want connection and companionship and isn’t everyone afraid to lose it when they have it? The answer is no. It is healthy and normal to have a solid sense of self, as a whole and complete being. If your sense of value and security is in question without having someone to attach to either as a caregiver, rescuer, or romantic partner, THEN we are in the treacherous codependent territory. In codependency, we will willingly stay in harmful situations and relationships too long because the alternative is to be without meaning and purpose.
We will shapeshift, lie, accept sex when we want love, minimize or deny how we truly feel, and we will be totally dishonest with the best intentions denying the impacts of those dishonest behaviors. We live a life full of resentments and inflated responsibilities because being honest could mean rejection and abandonment.
Codependency isn’t limited to the girl who can’t go without a boyfriend or the dysfunctional couple that can’t resist each other’s dysfunction. If you are the server who can’t say no when asked to pick up a shift, if you are the IT guy who works himself to the bone for job security, if you are the caregiver in your family consumed by domesticity, if you are the artist or musician who keeps “helping out a friend” with your work, or the event planner who gives away services, or the seamstress who alters for free. Where do you see yourself in this article?