woman in codependency recovery

You are exhausted. No matter how much you sacrifice, your partner seems to need more. You cook, you clean, you found his last three jobs for him. You are ready to drop everything because he might require your attention at any given moment. You feel like you are the only person pulling the weight in the relationship and you can’t help but feel trapped. “I can’t leave, he needs me” has become your relationship mantra. You sense that there is something unhealthy and even destructive about your relationship. Could this be what is called codependency? Let’s explore the symptoms and the ways to codependency recovery.

What is codependency?

Codependency is a psychological concept that characterizes a relationship where an individual has great difficulties in having a healthy, mutually satisfying connection. It is also known as relationship addiction because people with codependency often form or maintain one-sided, emotionally destructive, and abusive relationships. Such relationships do not have to be romantic. Codependency can exist in relationships between you and a family member, a friend, a coworker, or sometimes even acquaintances.

Often, both partners in a codependent relationship cannot leave each other even though they are both in great pain. Because neither partner is living for themselves, they exist solely for caretaking or pleasing the other person. Both of their identities are muddled together. Although sometimes their individual needs seem to be met by the other person, it always involves some degree of sacrifice on the edge of abuse. Such a couple’s personal lives are so neurotically intertwined that their relationship eventually becomes a disabling force for both of them.

The longer you stay in a codependent relationship, the more you lose your own identity. Directly or indirectly, you expect your partner to tell you how to think, feel, and behave. They define who you are or should be. It becomes more important to be compliant or avoidant rather than to be authentic. Your partner is the source of your sense of security and self-worth. No wonder people in codependent relationships feel compelled to stay!

What causes codependency?

woman leaning on a man

As the prefix ‘co’ suggests, codependency cannot exist without more than one person. It is most commonly a result of unhealthy relationship dynamics, which arise from two partners’ neurotic fears and needs. They are often so deeply hidden in our unconscious that they are not easy to identify unless we are open to rigorous self-examination and acknowledging painful truths.

The relationship dynamic that most commonly leads to codependency is when one partner needs a parental figure to depend on. The other partner needs a dependent on feeling their value. You probably already know couples like this in your social circle. The tricky thing is that codependency is much easier to identify in others than in your own relationship.

No one is born to be codependent. Human beings learn their most significant lessons about relating through their very first relationship in the world with their caretaker (most often their mother). Common causes of codependency include being a child of a drug or alcohol abuser or coming from a dysfunctional home. It is not surprising that those who grew up with codependent parents are much more likely to form that type of relationship themselves.

Although an extreme example, the psychological thriller Bates Motel brilliantly portrays a typical parent-child codependent relationship and how it spirals out of control as the relationship intensifies without effective intervention.

The tricky thing is that codependency is much easier to identify in others than in your own relationship. Click To Tweet

Two types of mothers are most likely to develop codependent needs in their children:

  1. Boundaryless, dependent mothers.
  2. Controlling, dismissive mothers.

Children of the first type of mothers are typically well trained through a reward and punishment to emotionally take care of their mothers. They learned throughout their childhood the subtle differences between what makes their mother happy and what makes her sad or angry. Children who grew up with boundaryless, dependent mothers are extremely sensitive to others’ feelings and needs. As they grow up, such ‘skills’ stick with them, and they are constantly monitoring the needs of others around them. When others’ needs are not met, they feel guilty and responsible for it.

Children of the second type of mothers typically grew up with very little belief in their capabilities. They learned during childhood that they have no right to decide who they are and what they do. Controlling, dismissive mothers often belittle their children in not-so-obvious ways, which can be seen as caring. “Oh darling, you can’t possibly pick the right outfit for yourself for the dinner party. Here, wear this shirt that I’ve bought for you. You’ll look perfect in it.” Or “Just do what mother told you to do, and you’ll get that job.” When such children become adults, they continue to seek relationships in which they can be told what to do because that makes them feel safe and loved.

Both types of mothers develop their children to have very low self-esteem, albeit in different ways. A boundaryless mother makes her children believe that they have no value unless they take good care of others. In contrast, a controlling mother makes her children feel incapable of taking care of themselves and have very little value to offer the world. Sometimes, a mother can even have traits from both types!

Am I codependent?

man and woman feet

If you are worried that you might be in a codependent relationship or prone to forming such relationships, check in with yourself as often as possible on this fundamental question – do you know who you are?

Does your definition of self mostly involve externally determining factors, such as “I am a good girlfriend” or “I am a helpful friend” rather than intrinsic characteristics like being intelligent, artistic, or playful? Then perhaps it is time for you to do some work on connecting with the self. When you don’t have a solid sense of self, you are really at risk of depending on others for your value – the ultimate breeding ground of codependency!

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The list below can help you assess whether you are codependent. Read through it and consider how accurately each statement describes you. The more things you identify with, the more prone you are to the effects of codependency.

  1. You feel unable to say no, especially to a loved one.
  2. You discount your feelings and needs.
  3. Your well-being comes after others’ demands.
  4. You struggle with letting go of a dependent.
  5. You have very low self-esteem.
  6. You swing back and forth between feeling valuable and feeling worthless.
  7. You are afraid to express your anger.
  8. You have difficulty accepting gifts or compliments.
  9. You have a severe fear of abandonment.
  10. You have a problem in setting boundaries with others.
  11. You feel unable to make decisions for yourself.
  12. You let others’ needs dictate your time and schedule.
  13. You are often exhausted by your relationships with others.
  14. You are easily guilt-tripped into doing things against your will.
  15. You crave external approval and recognition.
  16. You feel like a “bad person” when you make a mistake.
  17. You think that people in your life cannot live without your constant efforts in taking care of them.
  18. You feel humiliated when your partner makes a mistake.
  19. You value others’ opinions more than your own.
  20. You have trouble asking for help.

What are the effects of codependency?

Codependency can make you very unhappy, to say the very least. An academic study revealed that codependent people experience a strong sense of emptiness in their lives.

If you suffer from codependency, you are likely to live a chameleon-like life whereby you try to fit in with every situation rather than allow yourself to be who you are and let the environment adapt to you. You may attempt to compensate for the emptiness you feel inside due to a lack of identity by seeking out potentially self-destructive lifestyles, such as excessive smoking, drinking, drug-taking, and promiscuity. In relationships, you are likely to fall into a passive role in which you feel a duty to stay no matter what.

12 steps for codependency recovery

woman contemplating codependency recovery

With some perseverance, recovery from codependency can be a very empowering process for you as an individual. Not only that it helps you form healthier relationships, but it also makes you a stronger person. The key to recovery is asserting your uniqueness, so you no longer feel that your existence depends on another person.

Here are the twelve steps for codependency recovery.

1. Connect with yourself

To recover from codependency, connecting with yourself is your top priority. It is the first step and also a continuous process. Knowing who you are and loving yourself is fundamental to becoming independent from your partner.

Spend some time alone each day and focus on connecting with yourself. Do something you love doing, especially creative activities as they are a great way to reach the most innocent, playful, and authentic part of yourself.

If you find it challenging to pinpoint what you love doing because you have been so used to doing things together with your partner, guided meditation or mindfulness exercises are a good start. They help you zoom in on yourself, connect with your body, and find inner peace.

I always find my way back to meditation when my emotions seem to be out of balance or when I feel overwhelmed by my relationship with others. Meditation calms me down by allowing self-love to flow within me, letting me know that I am safe in the world no matter what I choose to do.

You may have other ways that are more effective in helping you connect with yourself. If so, I would encourage you to dedicate some time every day to do those things. And don’t give up even if it feels strange at the beginning. Self-care will bring you huge benefits over time. Remember, you are important.

To recover from codependency, connecting with yourself is your top priority. It is the first step and also a continuous process. Click To Tweet

2. Acknowledge your feelings

Life happens so fast, especially when you are busy looking after other people. When you are in a codependent relationship, it is very easy to forget or discount your feelings. If you wish to recover from codependency, it pays to be mindful of how you feel.

Next time before you commit yourself to yet another ”helpful” activity for your partner, pause a moment and ask yourself: Am I happy to do this for him? Or am I doing it begrudgingly because I don’t feel that I have a choice?

Remember, just because you are physically capable of doing something for your partner doesn’t mean you should do it. Your feelings and emotional well-being count too. Part of connecting with yourself is about defining your feelings more quickly and accurately. Make a conscious effort to assess your emotional well-being regularly, as well as how each commitment would make you feel. You are entitled to make decisions based on how you are feeling rather than what others need.

3. Identify the root of codependency

womans arms around a man

Although you cannot change the past, understanding how your codependent tendency started can help you stay alert to any warning signs in your relationship.

Search through the early stages of your memory. Were you your parents’ good little caretaker? Were you often blamed for the way your parents felt? How often were you allowed to have fun independently from your parents? Did your parents respect your boundaries? Finding answers to these questions can help you identify the root cause of your codependency.

What often makes it hard for people to see the codependent nature of their relationship with the original family is that such relationships are often described as ”close”. And people like to equal a close relationship to a healthy one. So you may have to dig deeper and be willing to face some things that are hard to face.

I do want to make it clear that I am not advocating blaming the parent. There is a difference between understanding and blaming. We are all doing our best, but as imperfect beings, we inevitably hurt each other even when we don’t mean to. However, while you can understand and forgive someone’s imperfection, you don’t have to live with it.

4. Start small

Codependency can creep in everywhere in your relationship with others. Starting with the small things can help you persevere through your recovery, as it gives you a consistent sense of victory.

Next time you see your partner’s dirty socks lying on the floor, instead of picking them up for him, make a request that he picks them up. Or when your partner is sitting around looking bored, instead of feeling the urge to drop everything and make sure he is entertained, try leaving him to it.

When taking these small steps, it helps to affirm that your actions encourage healthier behaviors between you and your partner, ultimately making your relationship stronger.

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You may start getting complaints from your partner that you are not as attentive as usual. Explain to him that you are working on making your relationship healthier. It may not be easy at the start, but he will join in if he also wants to get more out of your relationship. If instead, he makes your codependency recovery more complicated, then it may be time to consider leaving.

Next time you see your partner's dirty socks lying on the floor, instead of picking them up for him, make a request that he picks them up. Click To Tweet

5. Turn passive demands into explicit requests

One of the greatest difficulties for people with codependency tendencies is that they cannot ask for what they need. Given that they are human beings with needs, they often ask for what they need passively. When others do not get their hints, they explode with anger and often go over the top with expressing their needs in a demanding way.

If this applies to you, it would be valuable to examine why you feel unable to make explicit requests to get your needs met. Do you feel guilty for taking others’ time? Or is there a sense of unworthiness that accompanies the idea of taking time from others? Does asking something make you feel too vulnerable to bear? It’s important to recognize that your needs don’t just go away. They will just manifest in indirect ways, which often leads to confusion and upset. Passively expressed demands are the hardest to fulfill.

There is a difference between continuously complaining about how tired you are, hoping that your partner would take the hint and load the dishwasher, and gently asking whether he could load the dishwasher because you are feeling too tired to do it. Such explicit requests work much better for both you and your partner, as it acknowledges the supportive nature of a partnership and makes your partner feel valuable to you. It is also an excellent way for you to exercise self-care.

6. Learn to say no without feeling guilty

pensive woman on armchair in codependency recovery

You may have heard of the power of “No” but still struggle to exercise it. Rejection tends to feel particularly painful for people with codependent tendencies. And it applies both ways, i.e., they feel very hurt when others reject them, and they feel incredibly guilty when rejecting others. So, to help with your codependency recovery, it is essential to take a look at your beliefs around the act of saying no.

Dig deep within yourself and search for the origin of your guilty feelings around rejection. Do you feel an obligation to do whatever it takes to meet others’ needs? Do you think that you have no right to reject others? Are you afraid of the potential retaliation from those rejected by you?

If any of the above feelings are close to yours, then it is highly likely that you have been through quite a lot of childhood trauma around rejection, either receiving or giving.

It would add significant value to your life if you made some effort to resolve such trauma. You can attend workshops that help you get comfortable with saying no. Or just start saying no to others’ requests that are inconvenient or undesirable for you. You can start with low-risk scenarios, such as saying no to the charity worker in the street, politely rejecting a cup of coffee, or making up an excuse to get out of a party invitation from an acquaintance.

Learning to say no may take some perseverance, but it will pay off over time. And if you are struggling on your own, a coach or therapist can be of great value to help you process the sometimes overwhelming emotions that get triggered around rejection.

7. Find internal sources of self-value

People struggling with codependency typically have very low self-esteem. They are used to depending on others for confirmation of their value. However, there are many reasons why others may not provide such assurance, which often has nothing to do with whether you are valuable to them or not. Therefore, learning to establish your self-worth without reliance on others can be highly beneficial to your codependency recovery.

Dedicate some time to thinking about what you are good at. You may be a fast learner, a great organizer, a creative dresser, or an attentive listener. The list is endless. Every one of us has something in our nature that is of great value. It often coincides with things that catch our deepest interest. However, because so many children are discouraged from following their interests but instead taught to do what is ‘useful,’ they grow up doing things that are of no value to them beyond a salary.

If this applies to you, then I would encourage you to connect with the most playful part of yourself, your inner child, and allow yourself to do things purely for joy. Gradually, it will help you develop a deep appreciation that your true value comes from within.

People struggling with codependency typically have very low self-esteem. They are used to depending on others for confirmation of their value. Click To Tweet

8. Let go of the need for control

People with codependency issues typically believe that if they could get things ‘right,’ everyone will be happy. So they try very hard to keep things under control according to some kind of rules or moral codes that are at best arbitrary or even contradictory. What is overlooked are crucial factors outside our control, such as other people’s temperament, the weather, the traffic, or what your boss had for breakfast this morning. Anything that alters the parameters slightly could make a difference to the outcome of a matter.

Think about it. It is a very grandiose belief that everybody else’s happiness depends on you and that if you could just ‘get it right,’ everything will be okay, and everybody will be happy. As if you hold the key to everyone’s problems. Is that really true?

Living this way means that you often feel anxious, stressed, guilty, and depressed about things that have very little to do with your efforts. It also makes you incredibly vulnerable to being guilt-tripped into commitments that only benefit others. It can easily put you in a passive position, doing things out of ‘duty’ rather than choice. A sure sign of codependency!

So, instead of holding yourself responsible for everything that happens around you, learn to see the world as a series of uncertainties. Life is a venture. It is full of situations that we have never come across before. It is okay not to know all the answers. Acknowledging the uncertain nature of life can bring a huge sense of relief.

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9. Believe others’ ability to look after themselves

man holding womans hand

It may not always be easy to see, but embedded in your codependent needs is the belief that your partner isn’t capable of looking after himself. While it may feel like you are doing things for him out of kindness, and I believe that you have all the good intentions, your efforts to help him actually become a disabling force. He can never become a whole person without enough space to grow.

In reality, not only is it not your responsibility to look after your partner, but it is also in the best interest of your relationship to help each other develop and feel empowered about your respective capabilities. The same applies to your other relationships too. Whenever you feel the compulsion to sacrifice yourself for others’ needs, pause and remind yourself that they are individuals capable of at least “learning” to look after themselves. The best you can do for them is to allow them the opportunity to learn. It doesn’t mean that you refuse every request, but their demands must be within your boundaries to be accepted. In this way, both of you are respected as adults with your independent capabilities and engagements.

10. Treat your partner as an equal

The best kind of relationship is one where the two partners are equal. It doesn’t mean that they are identical, but they treat each other with the same respect, care, and regard as they expect for themselves. Equal partners have mutual admiration for each other’s intrinsic qualities, which often does not exist in a codependent relationship.

Such mutual respect can only exist if each partner has a healthy level of self-esteem. Because when you hold very low self-regard, you will not respect anyone who chooses to be with you. So again, plenty of self-care is necessary.

If you find yourself unable to see your partner as an equal to you, you may need to ask yourself why you want to stay in the relationship. You are clearly compensating for some kind of inadequacy you see or feel within yourself. Perhaps it is tough to admit, or you are not aware of it at all. If you are struggling with answers, then it may be time to speak to someone who can help you figure it out.

Alternatively, the conclusion that your partner is not an equal may help you decide to leave. Sometimes that is the best solution, and the key is to find a way to do it as amicably as possible.

If you find yourself unable to see your partner as an equal to you, you may need to ask yourself why you want to stay in the relationship. Click To Tweet

11. Leave behind the codependent

This step may be particularly challenging for some, but once learned, it will prove to be one of the most liberating steps. Depending on how far you are into a codependent relationship, it can be tough for the partners to leave each other as they are “the same person.”

When your mantra “I can’t leave, he needs me” rings again, remind yourself that you are not staying because he needs you. You are staying with him because you need him to need you. In other words, you are fulfilling your own needs to feel valued rather than meeting his needs. However, if you find a way to let go of your dependency on him for your self-value, then leaving your partner becomes possible.

Sometimes, it is necessary to leave behind your codependent who is not ready to grow with you. It can be difficult due to your guilt and anger, but you absolutely cannot grow if the other person in codependency with you does not share your desire for recovery. You can either continue the relationship and watch the mutual suffocation intensify or say to the other person, “I love you, but I have to leave you anyway.”

The truth is, without you, your partner will either find another person to depend on or learn to rely on themselves eventually. Human beings have a fantastic ability to seek out precisely what they need or desire.

12. Differentiate between codependence and interdependence

woman and man laying on the ground

Finally, on your path of codependency recovery, it may be tempting to go the other way to complete independence. For many women, discovering “I don’t need a man!” can initially be one of the most empowering things in their development journey. That is fine as a phase of your establishment of autonomy and power. However, proper recovery cannot happen unless you also learn to depend on others healthily because independence does not equal isolation.

According to psychologists, healthy dependence in romantic couples promotes commitment and pro-relationship behaviors. You can learn to depend on a partner without feeling guilty or undeserving. In fact, a partnership cannot exist without interdependence.

One key thing that differentiates interdependence from codependence is the absence of self-abuse. An interdependent couple is together for the mutual benefits produced by their relationship. They choose to collaborate because it results in both partners getting more out of their respective lives than they each can alone. There isn’t a sense of self-sacrifice for the other’s sake. Partners in such relationships feel able to leave each other if they one day see it as more beneficial for their individual lives. They can live without each other. But they choose not to. Isn’t it wonderful to know that someone wants to be with you out of choice rather than a lack of it? Trust your intuition to help you assess whether you are in a codependent or an interdependent relationship.

One key thing that differentiates interdependence from codependence is the absence of self-abuse. Click To Tweet

Codependency recovery is all about establishing a true sense of independence. Only a person who is sure of their freedom can form healthily dependent relationships. As you learn to depend on yourself for your value, you will stop getting attracted to people with codependent needs who are likely to drain your energy and resources. Instead, you will be much more drawn to those who not only enhance your sense of self-value but also take you to new levels of growth and expansion.

Remember that codependency recovery is a journey. A rather long one sometimes. It is gradual, like peeling an onion. It will take one layer after another before you reach the core. And the process will involve some tears. However, it will be one of the most empowering things you will have ever done.

Ellen is the founder of Ellen Tang Coaching, a practice dedicated to empowering deep thinkers around the world in relationships, work, and play through one-on-one life coaching. She believes that peace and actualization are the natural results of unconditional self-acceptance. Drawing from ten years of training in coaching and a lifetime of experience in personal development, Ellen’s mission is to form strong partnerships with those on the path towards self-discovery, growth, and fulfillment so that they can find their authentic power and voice. Ellen is an ICF-certified Life and Mindset Coach based in London, UK.

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