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What Is Codependency? Recognising codependent relationships

Codependency can prevent people from living fulfilled and independent lives. Codependent relationships display an unhealthy dynamic that is caused by a person’s sense of worthlessness and low self-esteem. However, with counselling and therapy, many people can overcome their codependent behaviours and pursue healthy and rewarding relationships.

Defining Codependency

Codependency refers to a reliance on another person, most typically a romantic partner. This reliance may be mental, emotional or physical. It is not a formal or clinical diagnosis, but psychologists and psychiatrists do use it to explain an attachment that can often overlap with other personality disorders.

Codependency most commonly begins through our childhood experiences. Emotional neglect, such as growing up in an environment where emotions are ignored or punished, can result in a child feeling shame and low self-esteem. This often leads to a dysfunctional relationship dynamic between children and their parents, and later in life, this can prevent a person from developing stable relationships.

Codependent people will often depend on other people to validate their self worth and will deny their own desires or emotions to get their approval. They frequently build their identity around helping others and being needed or relied upon.

Common Behaviours of Codependent People

People who are codependent will often exhibit a range of behaviours relating to low self-esteem and a desire to help others. Some common signs of codependency include:

  • A sense of worthlessness. Codependent people do not value themselves and often suffer from feelings of shame. They often do not believe themselves worthy of happiness but will try to get other people to value them.
  • Poor personal boundaries. Because they feel responsible for the wellbeing of other people, codependent people find it hard to say no or to put their own needs first.
  • A ‘saviour’ complex. Codependent people believe it is their duty to protect other people from harm and will often try to fix situations of behalf of a loved one. This can become problematic when the other person in the relationship never has to be held accountable or learn from mistakes.
  • Guilt and self-denial. Codependent people deny their own needs for emotional support, self care, and rest. When they do want these things, they may feel guilty and anxious. They can also find it difficult to accept help when it is offered.

A codependent person will not necessarily exhibit all of these signs. They may show only some of these traits.

Different Forms of Codependency

Many people think of codependency as occurring predominantly within romantic relationships. However, codependency refers to any imbalanced relationship pattern, where one person assumes responsibility for meeting another person’s needs to the exclusion of acknowledging their own needs or feelings.

Codependent or interdependent relationships can occur between a parent and child, between friends, and even between employers and employees.

Signs That Your Relationship May Be Codependent

All relationships will have a degree of supporting and valuing the opinion of the other person. But if this dynamic is not two-way, it may be a sign that the relationship is codependent.

Codependent people may feel like they are simply offering love and care to their loved one, but when this extends to an unhealthy dependence it can lead to problems.

If you are experiencing any of the following, you may be in a codependent relationship:

  • You feel the need to check in with the other person and ask permission to complete tasks
  • You apologise even when you haven’t done anything wrong
  • You idolise the other person
  • You spend most of your time thinking about doing things for the other person and never for yourself
  • You don’t bring up problems to avoid conflict
  • You forgive or make excuses when the other person does the wrong thing
  • You do things for the other person even if they make you feel uncomfortable
  • You only feel good about yourself when the other person praises you.

Why Codependency is Unhealthy Within a Relationship

Codependency is unhealthy for both the codependent person and the ‘receiver’ of their affections.

Codependent people are prevented from living their best, most fulfilled lives because they are always concerned about other people’s opinions of them and about ensuring the other person is happy. They will also sometimes enable negative behaviour in the other person because they cannot recognise faults in anyone but themselves.

Receivers of this are also unable to properly flourish and develop. They are not given the opportunity for independence, because the codependent person does so much for them. They may end up unintentionally taking advantage of the codependent person
if they do not recognise that this level of devotion is unhealthy.

These relationships can also be very difficult to end, because a codependent person believes the other person relies on them, and the receiver may have become too accustomed to that level of support.

How to Deal with Codependency

If you are a codependent person, there are some things you can do to identify the issue and work to overcome it.

  • Seek out counselling. An experienced counsellor can work through the underlying issues causing your low self-esteem and rebuild your sense of self.
  • Consider couples therapy. You can heal your relationship through couples counselling and therapy.
  • Make time for yourself. Prioritise self care and things that are just for you. Make time for hobbies and anything that doesn’t involve or interest the other person.
  • Reconnect with family and friends. Often when you become enmeshed in a relationship, you end up isolated from other people in your life. Rebuild those relationships to remind yourself of your own worth.

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