It’s normal and healthy to care about others in our life, and to take their needs into account. When someone else’s needs are always more important than our own though, or we enable their destructive behavior, co-dependence may be a problem.
Symptoms of co-dependence
Co-dependents tend to take responsibility for someone else’s behavior, emotions, thoughts, needs or choices, and they feel the need to fix them. This is not only impossible but also comes at a cost, leading to feelings of rejection, resentment, overwhelm and martyrdom.
Co-dependents also struggle to say “No” to behavior or treatment that is unacceptable. Instead, seeking approval and recognition through people-pleasing becomes the norm.
A sense of not being good enough leads to feelings of guilt, shame and depression. Co-dependents then overcompensate by either ignoring or denying their own feelings and needs. Instead, they base their sense of worthiness on helping others, which can come across as needy, controlling or smothering.
Low self-esteem also creates a fear of being judged or rejected for making a mistake. This generates great anxiety and makes getting close to others very difficult. It’s safer for those suffering from low self-esteem to keep others at a distance by projecting self-reliance, than being vulnerable.
At the same time, being alone is uncomfortable, so co-dependents often settle for an unhealthy relationship that makes them feel trapped.
The need for control
When everything is going according to plan, it feels like success, but the moment something goes wrong, the impulse is to jump in and try to fix things. This could be done in an overtly bossy or in a passive aggressive way, and when it doesn’t work, it brings up more feelings of failure, resentment and despair.
Co-dependence and addiction
Co-dependence often factors into addictions like drug and alcohol abuse from two different perspectives:
If a loved one is an addict or simply doesn’t take responsibility for their behavior, co-dependents may spend a lot of time and energy compensating and trying to make them (and everyone else) happy, which only enables more of the destructive behavior.
Some individuals turn to an addiction because of co-dependent feelings, in order to numb the discomfort which comes with this type of issue. Many addicts, through recovery realise that their core issue was really co-dependence, substance or process abuse can just be a symptom.
What causes co-dependence?
When someone has been raised in a family with severe illness or any kind of abuse, emotional neglect or addiction, the chances of developing co-dependence is high. As children, they learn that looking after someone else takes priority, often because it means avoiding conflict or feelings of fear or abandonment.
Eventually, sacrificing their own needs becomes part of their identity, and the behavior continues into adulthood. Once co-dependence has become a comfort zone, they will then often seek relationships with partners and friends that fit the same pattern.
How is co-dependence treated?
As always with addictions, the first step is to identify the cause, which is often rooted in childhood. Then it’s important to:
- Learn to pay attention to ones own feelings and needs, and to express and take care of those first
- Develop healthy, strong boundaries
- Understand the difference between supporting and fixing or rescuing others
- Learn constructive ways to help when old patterns are triggered
A 12-step program and/or group therapy can also be especially helpful here, as those with co-dependent tendencies have a natural empathy and desire to help others.
As co-dependence is acknowledged and worked on, it leads to improved relationships and less anxiety. A greater sense of self value that impacts other areas of life too, makes it possible to move forward with hope.