You take care of others, you help, you go out of your way for them….but when do you cross the line from being a compassionate friend or partner or family member to being “codependent”? There may not be a simple test, or a clear marker, but if you consistently put someone else’s needs first, to the detriment of your own, you may be codependent with your friend or partner etc. This pattern may be an example of enabling—your behavior helps maintain someone else’s destructive or dependent behavior. A simple example of enabling might be your calling in sick for your husband, when he is too hungover to go to work.
Codependency may be a justification for allowing yourself to be mistreated based on your low self-esteem, your sense that you don’t deserve better. On one end of the continuum, codependency might mean remaining in a relationship that doesn’t support you or your personal growth, while on the extreme end, codependency might mean being unable to leave a relationship, even when you are being abused emotionally and/or physically.
Codependency really involves behaviors that go above and beyond normal care-taking behaviors, or the everyday kind of self-sacrificing that happens within relationships. Some examples that are common in people who struggle with codependency include:
- Denial patterns, such as having difficulty identifying your feelings, or minimizing how you really feel;
- Low self-esteem patterns, such as judging yourself harshly and believing you are never good enough, or feeling unable to ask others for help;
- Compliance patterns, such as compromising your own values and integrity to avoid rejection, or staying in harmful situations for too long; and
- Control patterns, which include believing that others are incapable of taking care of themselves, or needing to be needed in order to have a relationship with others.
For a more thorough exploration of these patterns, which include a wide range of behaviors not listed here, you might wish to read this webpage.
It is important to note that there are criticisms of the label “codependent.” For example, caring for an individual with an addiction is not necessarily synonymous with pathology. To name the caregiver as a codependent responsible for the endurance of their partner’s negative behaviors can pathologize caring behavior. You may only require assertiveness skills and the ability to place responsibility for negative behaviors on the other person. Also, when this idea is pathologized, the codependent person may swing from an extreme of excessive sacrifice to an extreme of excessive assertiveness or selfishness and an aversion to empathy, which is a positive human capacity. A healthy approach would be to develop a sense of balanced and healthy assertiveness, which still leaves room for caring and helping.
Tendencies and behaviors that can be identified as codependent frequently emerge from a childhood in a dysfunctional family; perhaps one or both parents were alcoholic or had some other profound problems, so these patterns have deep roots. For this reason, codependency may show up in a wide range of your relationships including work relationships and friendships. Some people find 12-step recovery groups such as Al-Anon/Alateen or Codependents Anonymous helpful, although some people do not. Therapy can be a useful tool to help you understand the complexities associated with these patterns, and to help you balance your own needs against those of others.