What is codependency?
Codependency is often falsely associated with a relationship in which two people depend on each other a lot. While this can be an element of a codependent relationship, it’s not inherently unhealthy to depend on a loved one — it’s even expected within the context of most relationships!
Codependency is the enmeshment of people in a relationship, in which one or both parties base their individual well-being around the other person’s well-being.
Semantically, codependency first emerged as a term to describe the dysfunctional dynamic that can exist between family/friends and their loved ones who suffer from addiction. In such dynamics, family members and friends may find themselves obsessively trying to fix and protect their loved ones who experience addiction issues.
Although sometimes overlooked, codependent behavior can be just as harmful as addiction itself. In fact, codependency may be seen as its own addiction — an addiction to helping someone else at the detriment of oneself.
Codependency can take many forms, including:
- Prioritizing another person’s needs over one’s own
- Having difficulty setting/maintaining one’s boundaries because they are challenging for the other person
- A general preoccupation with how individual decisions will affect one’s relationship or the other person.
Here are some suggestions for how to challenge codependent behavior:
1. Practice Mindfulness
A big part of mindfulness is noticing when codependent behavior tends to come up and with whom. Are there certain people or situations that trigger your impulse to throw out your needs in order to tend to someone else’s? Here’s an example: identifying that when a partner regularly texts you in crisis while you’re busy at work, you feel compelled to drop everything in order to soothe them.
2. Remember Your Limitations
You are the most important person in your life, and you’re not responsible for someone else’s happiness. Although we’re taught early to value qualities like generosity and selflessness, this doesn’t mean it’s healthy to prioritize other peoples’ happiness and well-being over our own.
3. Reality Check Yourself
Codependency doesn’t work. When we try to micromanage another person’s needs, we minimize their ability to take accountability for themselves, to identify and ask for what they need, and to self-soothe. It’s unsustainable and can drastically affect your mental health.
4. Explore Your Impulses
What are the roots of your codependent behavior? For most, a preoccupation with other peoples’ needs starts early. Perhaps you grew up with a parent or sibling that required a lot of attention and care. This may have taught you that your role is to be a helper. If it’s available to you, work with a therapist on deconstructing the belief that your value is to give to others, rather than to give to yourself.
5. Refocus on Yourself
Instead of jumping to support someone else, consider what you need in this moment. Do you have the space to be a caregiver right now? If so, how much space do you have? What are your boundaries and how will you know when you’ve reached them? Perhaps most importantly, if you weren’t focusing on a loved one, what would you be doing or needing? (Often it is easier to focus on someone else’s well-being than it is to focus on our own!)
6. Practice Self-Compassion
Breaking patterns of codependency can be hard, so be kind to yourself. Prioritizing yourself may be met with resistance by the people who are used to you being there at the drop of a dime. Keep in mind that it may take time to undo these learned behaviors, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible or worth doing.
About the Author
Lauren Feldman is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) at Well Clinic in San Francisco.
“I am here to create space for your needs. When our feelings, experiences, and identities are affirmed by others, we’re better able to learn about and affirm ourselves. Despite this innately human need for support, many of us have been taught that if we have needs it means we’re weak or ‘too much’.”