There can be multiple definitions for codependency. One of them suggests that it’s when people define their own identities and values depending on how much the others need and appreciate them. So, most of the time, in order for a codependent person to feel good and more importantly, feel like they matter; they need to know that somebody needs them. Therefore, when they’re in a relationship, they tend to make their relationship the center of their world.
Even if they’re in an emotionally unhealthy, unhappy and abusive relationship; they find it very hard to end their relationship and in fact, they don’t even realize how unhealthy, unhappy and abusive their relationship is for a very long time.
Codependency has some similarities with addictive personality disorder, but it’s believed to be a situation that arises mostly in bilateral relationships rather than being a disorder on its own. Codependency is often caused when an individual grows up with a dysfunctional family and unlike children who grow up in emotionally healthy environments, they tend to feel worthless, incompetent, problematic and guilty.
The first codependency symptoms were found in some people who were addicted to alcohol; people who were associated with alcoholics or the children of alcoholic people and these people were assumed to be devoted to them to the point where they’d stop at nothing to help them emotionally and financially.
But in time it was realized that codependency was much more comprehensive than that and it was seen that these ‘saviors’ did not only draw the attention of addicts but also narcissists and other abusers.
Codependent people may look extremely empathetic, selfless, virtuous, loyal and innocent but the way they also tend to be ready to ‘sacrifice themselves’ for others cause them to look like perfect preys to abusers and selfish people. It can be argued that codependent people fuel other people’s addictions, bad habits and behaviors in an attempt to ease their own conscience while also ‘helping’ the troubled individual.
You can find the basic characteristics of codependent people below. Especially if you suspect that there’s an addict, a narcissist or another emotional manipulator in your life, try to evaluate whether these characteristics sound familiar or not. Being able to identify the problem is the first step of healing.
(On the other hand, it doesn’t mean you’re absolutely codependent if you have a manipulator or addict in your life, so do not try to brand yourself as something you may not be.)
Basic Characteristics of Codependent People
***Low self-confidence and self-esteem: Codependent people tend to have extremely low self-confidence and self-esteem. Their low self-confidence causes them to feel incompetent and they’re in constant need of getting others’ approval so that they can determine their own value. It can also lead them to compare themselves to other people. Because of their need to be approved and loved, they’re quite sensitive to criticism.
Ironically, people with low self-confidence sometimes can feel like they have very high self-confidence. Since their confidence depends on the appreciation and success from the outside world, if they are in a fortunate period they can feel quite good about themselves. Therefore, some people with low confidence may lead success-oriented lives and end up being more successful in life than it was expected of them.
Low self-esteem, on the other hand, causes one to not know their own boundaries especially when it comes to forming healthy emotional relationships. In this case, they do not only allow others to invade their boundaries but also feel quite offended and resentful when they face others’ boundaries. However, some codependent people can have very firm boundaries and it can make them feel like they have high self-esteem. But that’s actually caused by their fear of rejection and disapproval.
***Toxic shame and guilt: Shame and guilt are the feelings codependent people experience most. No matter how good, attentive and respectful a codependent person is; deep down they may feel immensely deficient and unworthy because of their toxic shame and guilt.
What’s toxic here isn’t the fact they feel ashamed or guilty. Feeling shame and guilt when we do something wrong is quite natural and healthy, for they ensure we accept our mistake and hopefully don’t repeat it. That kind of feelings are all about our behaviors, not our personalities. But the shame and guilt experienced by a codependent individual are usually personality-based and therefore, fixed and toxic. Because of that, they can end up feeling incompetent, unworthy and useless even after the slightest mistake or refuse acknowledging their own mistakes to avoid feeling that way. They can feel immensely guilty even because of the things that happened very long time ago or take everything others say personally by absorbing each word in an irrational manner.
***Feeling the need to keep others satisfied: Codependent people mostly base their own identities and self-values on other people’s thoughts and feelings about them, so having others’ approval is extremely important to them. Therefore, they feel the need to make people around them happy in order to feel better about themselves.
Naturally, a lot of people want to make their loved ones happy but for a codependent person, making others happy is almost like a duty they must perform. They’re ready to put others’ needs and desires before their own.
So they’re often known as very benevolent and selfless individuals. Helping others is of course a very virtuous thing to do but the problem with the codependents is that they feel like they “have to help.”
For that reason, when someone doesn’t ask for their help or don’t appreciate their efforts enough, they can resent and the worthlessness they feel may lead to deep-seated anger and hostility.
***Fear of rejection and abandonment: Their fear of being rejected and abandoned can be one of the reasons why they feel the need to keep others satisfied. This is also one of the main reasons why they can’t end their abusive relationships. People who fear loneliness greatly may feel trapped in certain relationships while also being unable to find the strength to end the toxic relationship.
Some codependents can be relatively independent in their professional or personal lives but when it comes to romantic relationships, they can find themselves acting quite dependent, desperate, weak and clingy. They can also develop obsessive thoughts and feelings concerning the person they’re in a romantic relationship with.
***Being unable to define, comprehend or accept one’s own feelings: Although they’re often extremely sensitive when it comes to others’ feelings, needs and thoughts; codependent people may find it hard to come up with an answer when their own feelings are questioned. In fact, these questions can cause stress and anxiety, and they may feel the need to repress their feelings to avoid that. So even if they look strong and independent from the outside, they leave themselves weak and defenseless by denying their own desires, emotions, weaknesses and needs for intimacy and love.
***Taking responsibility for others: Codependent people can feel responsible for others’ mistakes, problems and even emotions. For instance; if someone they know is upset or angry, they tend to feel like they’re the reason of it. Because they’re mostly emphatic and don’t quite know their own boundaries, they can easily absorb others’ negative emotions and blame themselves for the negativity. So instead of trying to avoid taking responsibility for negative situations that have nothing to do with them; codependent individuals may take it upon themselves to ‘solve’ or ‘fix’ these problems. Therefore, when in a relationship with an abuser; they feel the need to fix or heal this person instead of getting away from them.
Their desire to take responsibility for others is often caused by their tendency to neglect their own emotions and needs. They prefer dedicating themselves to things other than their own inner worlds.
They can act like a narcissist and blame others for their emotions at times. Especially if they’ve been exposed to the behavior of a narcissist or another emotional manipulator for a long period of time, they can eventually end up thinking, feeling and behaving like them.
***Controlling and manipulative behaviors: Codependents have a tendency to control the external factors or people around them in an attempt to feel safe. This desire to control often shows itself in the form of an attempt to “fix” someone or something. Because of this tendency, they can easily play the role of a caretaker or savior. In this way, they feel safer and much more confident by making themselves useful. Hence, codependent people can behave in a controlling or manipulative way. They feel like they can be happy and peaceful once they manage controlling a certain situation, behavior or person.
It can also be their unrealistic, perfectionist attitude. This perfectionism targets both for their own and other people’s lives. Because of their perfectionist nature, they can fear failure and mistakes and experience immense shame with each mistake. Besides, the combination of their need to fix things and their perfectionism can be overwhelming to other people, which would make them feel incompetent and unwanted.
***Finding it hard to set boundaries and say “no”: Codependent people may find it extremely hard to set their own boundaries because of their excessive need for others’ approval and love, their desire to keep others happy. And their inability to have a healthy opinion on their own identity and self-value, they can feel the need to say “yes” even when they wanted to say “no” just so they wouldn’t lose others’ approval and love. Besides, they can view ending a relationship or setting boundaries as giving up and try to avoid feeling weak and incompetent by continuing their relationship at all costs.
***Repressed anger: Codependents who cannot stand up for themselves in fear of upsetting others tend to be filled with a fury they don’t know how to express in a healthy way. Although they’re usually known as peaceful and polite people, they can be quite sensitive and passive aggressive when stressed because of their repressed anger.
They can find it hard to control these feelings and be prone to stress-induced disorders. And by directing their repressed anger to themselves, they can drive themselves further into depression.
***Denial and living in a fantasy world: Codependent people tend to deny the problematic situation they’re in or live in a fantasy world to escape their problems. (Whether we’re talking about a relationship or a substance addiction; denial plays an important role in the life of an addict.)
Denying one’s issues or hiding in an imaginary world are defense mechanisms against pain. When in denial, the codependent may believe that there’s nothing to worry about or even if they acknowledge the problem, they do not see how it’s related to them neglecting their own needs and desires or the fact they’ve been mistreated. They avoid facing their traumas and pretend like all is well while hiding in their fantasy world. Codependents find it hard to enjoy the moment and lead the happy and peaceful life they desire.
***Avoiding honesty: In order to avoid hurting others or making sure they don’t have any negative opinions on them; codependents may lie or twist the truth frequently. Codependent people who live with addicts or abusers can hide these negative truths from others, make up excuses to justify the behavior of the abuser or defend them passionately under any and every circumstance.
Besides, they find it almost impossible to open up to others because of the fact they don’t know themselves well enough and that they harbor deep-seated shame and fear of loneliness. All these qualities cause the codependents to form dishonest, insincere and surface-level relationships especially when it comes to romance and friendship.
If you examine carefully, you’ll see that all these qualities are somehow related because basically, codependency is our way of trying to acquire the love, respect and attention we deny ourselves from others. This situation can leave us vulnerable to abuse and manipulation while also preventing us from living life to the fullest. But if we realize it, acknowledge it and start trying to fix it; we can defend ourselves from narcissists and manipulative people and begin the kind of life we deserve.
Therefore, if you believe yourself to be codependent, try not to judge yourself. Instead of judging, recognize and accept the situation, face your wounds and try to save some of the unconditional love, attention and understanding you offer others for yourself.
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DBE. “İnsanlar Neden Eş Bağımlı İlişkileri Sürdürürler?”. https://www.dbe.com.tr/Yetiskinveaile/tr/news/insanlar-neden-es-bagimli-iliskileri-surdururler/.
Psychcentral. “Symptoms of Codependency”. Access 8 October, 2018. https://psychcentral.com/lib/symptoms-of-codependency/.