How to Identify and Overcome Codependent Behaviours

Let’s talk about codependency. You might have heard of a friend or family member being called codependent or speculating about a codependent relationship. Often, when we think of codependency, we think about people who are constantly with their significant others and have little time for anyone or anything else. Perhaps we even see that relationship as being one sided with the person in question doing more for their partner than their partner does for them. While this can be true, codependency goes much deeper.

A person becomes codependent usually as a result of a childhood where they were emotionally or physically unsafe. In these situations, the person (then child) learns to fear the unsafe environment and copes by controlling what they can to avoid danger. For example, someone with a parent who was emotionally or verbally abusive might learn to be hyper-aware of the parent’s moods in order to stay on their “good side”, because that is the safest place for them to be. Likewise, a child with an alcoholic parent might learn to avoid the parent when they are using so as to avoid biproducts of the alcoholism including physical and verbal abuse and shame. Sometimes, this cycle plays out outside of the home, like if the child is a target of severe bullying. In each case, the child becomes a master of the other person’s behaviours in order to control the outcome of the situation and maintain their own safety. When this child grows up, they often bring this behaviour into their romantic, professional and friendship relationships. They have been conditioned to think that their safety is at risk and that they must protect themselves from others, even and especially those who they love.

Are you, or do you know someone who is codependent? First, the codependent person has low self-esteem, feels inadequate, ashamed of who they are and often compares themselves to others, concluding that they just don’t add up. Next, a common trait that this person will have is people pleasing. Saying “no” to any request, big or small, will be very difficult and anxiety-inducing for the person. The driving factor in this is the fear of the other person’s reaction, which readies the next point. The codependent person has learned, in the past, that the other person’s anger, discomfort, or sadness puts them in an unsafe position, and therefore they’ll do anything they can to avoid it. This leads to control and manipulative behaviours, because it is much easier to ensure that the other person does not become angry or upset than to deal with it when they do. An example of this is a codependent person avoiding telling their boss about a mistake made in order to avoid their angry reaction. Lastly, the codependent person is, well, dependent. Because of a mix of low self-esteem and a history of feeling unsafe, this person will seek constant approval from those that they are in relationship with. Sometimes this means spending a lot of time together, being in constant communication, or always needing verbal approval (compliments, reassurance, etc.) in order to avoid their biggest fear, rejection.

It’s important to note that all of the behaviours that the codependent displays were once used as coping mechanisms. For a period of time, people pleasing, high reactivity, control and dependency were a way to maintain safety. The good news is these behaviours can be unlearned in adulthood when they are no longer needed. A great first step in this is realizing that the emotional reactions of others are not our responsibility. A good mantra to repeat when in a heated situation is, “they feel ____, but I don’t have to. I am safe.” Next, learning to set healthy boundaries is extremely important. Saying no to things that they truly do not want to do is good practice for the codependent. In time, they will learn that most decent people are genuinely unbothered when told that the proposed engagement doesn’t fit their schedule, or that they simply would rather not. Lastly, therapy is a great tool to tackle and overcome these behaviours.

We all have behaviours and deep-rooted beliefs learned in childhood that we uphold in adulthood. Often times these beliefs and behaviours cause us trouble, which can help us notice them. Once we have noticed and identified them as unhelpful to our adult-selves, we can work on unlearning and replacing the beliefs and behaviours with better, healthier ones.

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