Deep Dive Into Codependency - Handel Behavioral Health
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Deep Dive Into Codependency

February 9, 2024

“A codependent person is someone who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.”

Most of us have heard the term codependency and carry a working definition of what it means. We might think of codependence as being dependent, overly needy, or addicted to a partner in our life.

We might also hear the word codependence in reference to partners and loved ones of people with addictions. In these scenarios, the codependent partner acts as an “enabler,” contributing to their loved one’s use of substances. Like a chemical drug, the unbalanced dynamics of the relationship and the drama help distract codependents from their own problems, and so they resist change. 

And while these definitions are close to the truth, the meaning of codependency, what it is, where it comes from, and what we can do about it remains vague. 

In honor of National Codependency Awareness Month last month, we’re on a mission to understand the often misunderstood psychological term. We’ve spoken to several of our mental health professionals who have experience in helping people process and heal from codependency.

What is codependency?

Codependency is a learned emotional and behavioral condition that affects a person’s ability to have a healthy and mutually satisfying relationship. People with codependency often form or maintain relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive, and/or abusive.  

Melody Beattie, a formative voice in self-help literature and the recovery movement, says in her book, Codependent No More,

“A codependent person is someone who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.”

Melody goes on to say, “The other person might be a child, an adult, a spouse, a sibling, a parent, a grandparent, a client, or a best friend. They might be an alcoholic, an addict, a person struggling with a mental or physical health condition, or an ordinary person who occasionally feels sad.”

“The heart of the definition and recovery lies not in the other person– no matter how much we believe it does. It lies in ourselves, in the ways we have let other people’s behaviors affect us and in the ways we try to affect them: the obsessing, the controlling, the obsessive ‘helping, caretaking, low self-worth bordering on self-hatred, self repression, abundance of anger and guilt, peculiar dependency on peculiar people, attraction to and tolerance for the bizarre, other centeredness that results in abandonment of self, communication problems, intimacy problems, and an ongoing whirlwind trip through the five-stage grief process.”

What does a codependent relationship look like?

According to Alexandra Malin, LMHC and Clinical Supervisor with HBH, people who are in codependent relationships are mentally and emotionally reliant on their partner.

“There is a significant imbalance in the power dynamic meaning one of the partners usually has more control or influence in decision making than the other,” says Alexandra. “While it’s possible for a couple to take turns holding the power it usually lands with one person continuously influencing the other.”

The partner who carries the emotional weight of the relationship is much more prone to losing themselves, while the other avoids taking the responsibility for the emotional work of the relationship. 

In a healthy and mutually satisfying relationship, both partners are able to communicate, compromise and negotiate needs, and express their feelings with honesty and openness.

What are the traits of codependency and where do they come from?

Before listing the various ways in which codependent people behave, act, think, and feel, it’s important to understand that having these traits does not mean that you’re bad, flawed, or inferior. 

Codependency does not develop by chance; it’s a coping mechanism that develops as a result of growing up in an environment or existing in a relationship where your needs were not met in an attuned and consistent way. 

Codependency is a strategy to control how and when you can get your needs met, by responding and attending to the needs of others, much less taking care of your own needs. 

When you’ve grown up in an environment where your caretakers were unable to provide for their needs, in addition to your needs, you learned codependent traits to manage chaos and get your needs met. 

Over time, you internalized the message that in order to get your needs met, you had to attune to the needs of others first. These learned behaviors can surface in adult relationships and lead to feelings of low self-worth, difficulty setting boundaries, and inability to identify and express your own needs and feelings.

Traits of codependency can involve:

Care-taking: Codependents may think and feel responsible for other people’s feelings, thoughts, actions, choices, wants, needs, and well-being.

Controlling: Codependents may have lived with people and through events that were out of control, causing the codependent person to feel insecure and disappointed. They might try to gain control of people and events through helplessness, guilt, coercion, threats, advice-giving, manipulation, or domination.

Denial: Codependents might ignore or deny problems or pretend they don’t exist. They might stay busy, get depressed, or develop an addiction to ignore problems in their personal lives. 

Obsession: Codependents may feel extremely anxious about people and problems to the point of abandoning their own routine and wondering why they can’t get anything done.

Repression: Codependents may repress their thoughts and feelings and avoid communicating their thoughts and feelings because of fear and guilt. 

Feelings of low self-worth and poor self image: Codependents may have difficulty believing they are good enough and deserving of love, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt.  

Dependency: Codependents may look for external happiness and latch onto whoever or whatever they think can provide satisfaction: this often stems from their fear of abandonment or rejection.  

Poor communication: Codependents frequently don’t say what they mean, don’t mean what they say, and don’t know what they mean. They might ask for what they want and need indirectly and find it difficult to get to the point. They might have a difficult time expressing their emotions honestly, openly, and appropriately. 

Weak boundaries: Codependents frequently say they won’t tolerate certain behaviors from others and gradually increase their tolerance until they say/do things they said they never would. They frequently let others hurt them and wonder why they hurt so badly. 

Lack of trust: Codependents frequently don’t trust themselves and don’t trust their feelings or decisions. Similarly, codependents frequently don’t trust others. 

Anger: Codependents may often feel scared, hurt, or angry. They may fear their own anger, think other people make them angry, are afraid to make other people angry, repress their feelings of anger, or feel controlled by other people’s anger. 

While there is no official screenings or diagnosis for codependency, many of the traits of codependency overlap with other mental health conditions, such as: 

What does treatment and therapy for codependency involve?

There are several effective forms of psychotherapy used to help people understand and heal from codependency. 

  1. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy can help people struggling with codependency understand how their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors impact their mental health. CBT teaches us how to identify codependent patterns and offers problem-solving skills to replace negative patterns of thought and behavior in a more effective way. Contemplative practices taught in CBT are learning how to spend time alone, being comfortable with asking for what you need and expressing how you feel, learning how to set boundaries, and understanding that you can’t change people. 
  2. Family therapy can help disrupt dysfunctional patterns of communication and behavior between family members. It teaches participants how to better relate to and understand their family member’s emotions, behaviors, and challenges. Family therapy may help participants identify codependency issues, learn emotional regulation skills, improve communication skills, enhance problem-solving skills, and build stronger relationships.
  3. Group therapy can provide codependents with a safe and supportive environment to express their feelings, and learn communication and problem-solving skills. Group therapy can help participants speak up and build confidence in their relationships. It also gives participants an opportunity to hear different perspectives, and share their experiences with others who can relate.

Self-care strategies to reduce codependency:

While psychotherapy is considered the best treatment for codependency, there are other tips to improve self-awareness and build healthier relationships in our lives:

Work to improve your self-esteem: When you learn to value yourself your confidence increases and you become more self-reliant. You stop looking for external sources of happiness and strength. You might practice positive affirmations, identify your strengths, schedule time for things that matter to you, and work to build self respect. 

Set healthy boundaries: When you learn how to set boundaries you express how you want to be treated. You might consider situations and relationships that make you uncomfortable, figure out where the line is being crossed, determine how you can feel better, and communicate your needs with those who are crossing the boundaries. 

Spend time on your own: When you spend time with yourself you improve your independence and realize how special your relationship with yourself is. You might find activities that you enjoy doing alone, re-invest in friendships you’ve been neglecting, find ways to connect with others, and take time for yourself. 

Focus on personal growth: To reduce codependency you’ll need to focus on personal growth. Setting time aside for personal growth might look like evaluating your life and thinking about your goals for the future. 

Practice self-care: When you’re focused on other people’s needs, it can be easy to forget your own. Self care is essential for learning how to cope with stress, building resilience, and making yourself a priority. You might start with improving your sleep schedule, eating a balanced diet, building an exercise routine, and practicing positive self-talk.

Work with a codependency counselor today:

Our team of mental health professionals at HBH Therapy, who have experience in treating codependency, will help you develop the skills necessary to heal from codependency and grow into your highest potential. 

We serve the entire Massachusetts community with our offices in Amherst, West Springfield, Franklin, Natick, and Wilbraham. Many of our therapists are available for online counseling.

Contact us today at (413) 343-4357 and begin your healing journey!

About The Author

Nettie Hoagland Headshot

Nettie Hoagland is a writer with experience in local news reporting, nonprofit communications, and community development. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in Media Studies, Journalism, and Digital Arts from Saint Michael’s College in Vermont. Nettie believes in the healing power of the arts to create connection and community. She is passionate about using writing as an instrument for personal and social growth in the field of mental health. She is currently based in Brooklyn, NY.

Alexandra  Malin Headshot

Alexandra has been a practitioner in the field for 16 years.  She has a Masters of Art in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Lesley University and is licensed as a Mental Health Counselor in the state of Massachusetts. She has had the pleasure of training masters and doctoral level clinicians and interns and truly loves teaching others about mental health. More About Author →