As humans, we are social by nature and wired for connectivity, so we build all kinds of interpersonal relationships with others. Whether romantic, platonic, or professional, relationships add value to our lives. However, as enriching as they can be, they also can be toxic, especially when there are codependent tendencies involved.

What is codependency, anyway? More than just a buzzword that carries negative connotations of neediness and addiction, codependency is a learned behavior that involves putting the needs of others above our own, and it can manifest in any kind of relationship.

The term “codependency” got a lot of attention in the context of the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) movement several decades ago now, to describe the unhealthy dependency of family members, typically spouses, on relatives struggling with alcoholism.

The idea being that the addict’s spouse would derive their sense of purpose and self-worth by satisfying their alcoholic partner’s needs before meeting their own. This is referred to as “enabling” and it helps maintain a repeated cycle of self-sabotage. 

Essentially, a codependent relationship is a one-sided relationship. 

What is the root of codependency?

Sound familiar? That’s because this type of behavior is very, very common and at its core is low self-esteem.

A codependent’s “esteem” comes from things or people outside themselves, instead of from within. They may believe their self-esteem is high when they get validation or praise, without realizing that it is entirely based on external factors.

Codependency restricts a person’s ability to be a whole and healthy individual due to persistent self-neglect, in the aim of receiving love, validation or approval from another person.

Patterns of codependency are learned through family dynamics where enmeshment occurred, which is a term to say that boundaries were blurred or non-existent.

The importance of establishing boundaries

What are boundaries? They are the personal limits we set with other people, in order to create a safe space for ourselves. Boundaries protect us by signaling to others what kind of behavior is acceptable towards us.

I grew up in a dysfunctional home and observed this pattern my entire childhood — so it’s no surprise that as I grew older, I became a poster girl for codependency. Up until a few years ago, I had no clue what personal boundaries were.

Now that I’ve grown aware of the signs and symptoms, I’ve been working hard to unlearn and overcome codependency.

Think you might be codependent? Here are some of the signs you should look out for:

  1. You struggle to understand and clearly communicate your feelings, thoughts and emotions.
  2. You say “yes” when you mean “no”, just in order to please other people.
  3. You struggle to establish healthy boundaries with the people in your life and often feel resentful because of it.
  4. You obsessively worry about others and their problems, and seek desperately to “fix” them while neglecting your own.
  5. You have a tendency of “enabling” another person’s toxic behavior and make excuses for them.
  6. You put in more work than necessary at your job, just to get approval. Your own approval is of little to no value.
  7.  You don’t trust yourself and struggle to make decisions.
  8. You feel the need to control other people’s behavior, so that you can feel “ok”.
  9. You have low self-esteem and base your self-worth on external things: money, accomplishments, looks, etc.
  10. You minimize your needs and desires to avoid conflict at all costs.

Feeling seen? Don’t worry you’re not alone and there’s absolutely nothing to feel ashamed of. There are ways to tackle, unlearn and heal codependency. 

How to overcome it

Here are some things you can do to reclaim yourself, but keep in mind that these tips are not substitutes for professional mental health support:

  1. Spend time alone, and get to know yourself. Figure out who you are on your own, what your values and needs are by taking time to do some inner reflection whether it is through journaling, meditation or breath work.
  2. Learn to set emotional, physical and mental boundaries with others, as well as with yourself. They are incredibly empowering and set the tone for better, more fulfilling relationships.
  3. Practice self-care. Do things just for you, because they bring you joy and make you feel good. 
  4. Reach out for support. Understand that being open to receiving help is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness.
  5. Learn to accept and love yourself. This is a hard one but the most important. Your relationship with yourself is the only one that truly matters. If you catch yourself trying to change in order to get external validation, it’s time to stop, recognize the pattern, forgive yourself and focus on being your true authentic self.

If you keep finding yourself in unfulfilling, one-sided relationships, there’s a chance you’re codependent. Luckily, it’s not a death sentence and there is hope – so get to work!

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