Have you ever wondered if your kindness, interest, and care for others are just that… or if your “helping” the ones you love might just tip the scale into codependency?
- Are you endlessly trying to save people from making mistakes or “wrong” decisions in their lives?
- Are you overly invested in other people’s choices and outcomes?
- Do you frequently do things for others that they don’t ask you to do?
- Or maybe when something is happening to someone else…it also deeply feels like it’s happening to you?
If you said yes to one or more of these questions, I invite you to keep reading (especially if you’re feeling exhausted, frustrated or resentful).
There’s a very fine line between actual healthy, caring human behavior and codependency, and if it’s the latter, it can limit your potential for intimacy and authentic connection and at the end of the day leave you feeling like there’s nothing left for YOU.
I’ve gotten so many questions around this and so that’s why this week, I want to help you get super clear on what codependency looks like, how to differentiate between caring and codependent behavior, and how to start to change your behavior.
Let’s start with a basic understanding of codependency. Codependency can be described as a learned behavior of forgoing your own needs and desires for someone else’s. Sometimes, it can mean that a person’s sense of worth comes from over-caring for others in a dysfunctional way.
So what does that look like in practice?
- Feeling responsible for the choices, outcomes and the feeling states of other people.
- Feeling like you need to be “needed” by others.
- Drawing a sense of self-worth and identity from the help you give others.
- Needing to be a part of the solution to someone else’s problem.
- Doing more than you’re asked to do.
- Not being aware or dialed into your OWN needs.
- Being very aware and invested in the needs, the wants and the desires of others, especially those you love.
- Doing things for others that they can and should be doing for themselves.
- Overdoing and over-giving (and you’re EXHAUSTED.)
- Covering for others (anyone staying up until 2 AM to finish their kids’ science project that they “forgot” was due tomorrow?)
- Harboring feelings of resentment, bitterness or martyrdom.
Now before you start beating yourself up and thinking that you’re pathological or codependent beyond repair, let’s dive a bit deeper into the reasons and possible causes for this behavior. I find that probably 80-85% of the women in my tribe are or have a tendency towards codependency. Why?
Because of the way we were raised.
In most societies and cultures, there’s a “norm” or a standard ideal for human behavior, and gender expectations (as we well know) are a huge part of that. I’m not one to make sweeping generalizations, but for the most part, women have been socialized for thousands of years to be the caregivers and nurturers. Giving can feel like it’s our natural role.
And of course, there’s nothing wrong with healthy, loving, appropriate giving. It’s over-giving and over-functioning that crosses the line into dysfunction and more often than not, points to codependency.
Our family of origin, the way we were raised, and the culture we grew up in all shaped our relationship to the world and to our identity. I call this collection of experiences, beliefs, impressions, and narratives your “Downloaded Blueprint”.
I invite you to spend some time thinking through what you experienced in your own family of origin and culture. What were the messages you got about what it meant to be a “good person”? A “caring” person? What did it mean for you to be a “good girl”, a “good wife” or a “good mother”?
In every family system, there are roles that children learn to enact in order to feel part of their tribe and to feel like they belong. In chaotic, addictive or abusive systems, this goes a step further in that a child performs his or her role in order to feel safe and loved.
In this type of system, it’s a common occurrence that the child had to provide VALUE by doing something that met the needs of other people in order to be recognized or feel loved, instead of the correct dynamic, which would be the adults meeting the child’s needs.
Can you see how this could go on to impact who we grow up to be and how we interact in all of our adult relationships?
If we’re acting co-dependently (and trust me, I’m a recovering codependent, so I do get it, no judgment coming from me), we like to think of ourselves as being kind and caring.
We tell ourselves that we’re doing everything we do because we’re so loving and generous and self-sacrificing…but the truth is:
If you’re giving and doing from a place of need, to feel valued, recognized or even loved, that’s potentially dysfunctional, codependent behavior.
Deep down, we might be taking actions in order to feel like we’re irreplaceable and essential to someone’s day to day life. The value we bring to others is in always doing for them or always having their answers.
But doing this at the expense of self tends to eventually create resentment towards the person (or people) that you’re doing it for.
Codependent behavior can show up big in romantic relationships. Are you worried that your romantic partner will be upset with you? Do you feel anxious that they might leave you if you don’t fulfill their needs or if you don’t do what it is that they want you to do?
At the heart of codependency is the desire to control outcomes for other people to make ourselves feel a false sense of security.
Another problem with people who have a tendency towards codependency is weak boundaries. This looks like not really understanding where you end and the other person begins. It’s not knowing what’s on “your side of the street”, that is, what is appropriate for you to be handling and what is not, and for so many of us, this is a learned behavior.
That means we’ve seen it somewhere before, likely in childhood. If in your parents’ relationship or the people who raised you, you saw someone over-functioning for the other person, and that was how you came to understand what love was,then you grow up replicating that behavior.
I’ve worked with so many amazing, smart, accomplished women who are what I call, high-functioning codependents, and upon deep reflection and self-exploration, most of them come to the realization that their actions now reflect the beliefs imparted to them growing up about what it meant to be maternal, what it meant to be a loving spouse, mother or friend, etc. So they end up thinking “ok, well this is just what we do.”
But ultimately, healthy relationships have a mutuality. The goal is INTER-dependency. That is, each person has the right to negotiate for their own needs, desires, wants, and preferences.
For so many years in my young life, I didn’t understand that essential truth. I learned that I should do it all. That my goal was to add value to everyone else’s life. I felt very responsible for not just doing the right thing always (hello over-achieving and perfectionist complex), but also for helping anyone who needed help whether that be my sisters, my mother, my family, extended family, my cousins and their children…you get the idea.
It took a cancer diagnosis in my early thirties to shake me up and inspire a deep look at how I’d been living. What I realized was that I was over-giving and over-functioning in nearly every area of my life. I wasn’t taking proper care of myself physically or emotionally. I’m fine now, and that was 20 years ago, but it really did give me a huge wake-up call to finally understand that my behaviors were codependent.
And codependency isn’t love.
Real love is taking care of yourself and taking care of the people you love in an appropriate and mutual way. It’s not being the martyr and taking on everyone else’s issues and emotions as your own. It’s not trying to solve everyone else’s problems.
It’s saying yes when you mean yes and no when you mean no.
It’s being aware of your own needs and being willing to negotiate for them.
If at this point you’re thinking, “Where do I even start???” here’s the good news: just reading this and raising your awareness with the codependency checklist (download it here), is exactly where to begin.
Here’s the GREAT news: if you learned it, you can UN-learn it. You have so much power to change these tendencies.
Now let’s talk about your awareness of your own needs. Think about how much of the time you put yourself last or even abandon yourself in order to maintain the approval or love of someone else?
Do you ever think, “I can’t believe they would do that or say that after everything I’ve done for them…”?
Unhealthy helping can block real intimacy.
Listen, this isn’t a fatal flaw. You can take steps to change ingrained behavior and recover from codependency.
So much of it has to do with your relationship to yourself. It has to do with taking small steps to DO things that actually build real self-esteem and self-love instead of trying to look to others and what you do for them to fill you up.
You can move into building solid, loving relationships with mutuality and interdependency. The first step on that journey is becoming self-aware.
So grab the checklist right here, because that’s exactly what it’s going to give you!
I want to know what you discover! So please drop me a comment here or come join the conversation over on my page where I also have a video where I look into this subject a bit more. I also respond to everything that comes in personally; I’ve got you, mama.
I’m so grateful that you’re here and that you’re listening, watching and sharing. Because when any of us elevate our mental health, everyone gets elevated. The healthier this world is, the better for all. And trust me, we need lots of mental health help right now. <3
Thank you, I hope you have an amazing week and as always, take care of you.
Terri Cole is a licensed psychotherapist, transformation coach, and an expert at turning fear into freedom. Sign up for Terri’s weekly Newsletter, check out her blog and follow her on Twitter.