Humans are social beings who inherently have been relying on teamwork to survive and evolve. According to well-studied neuroscience research, humans are genetically and biologically hard-wired to connect with other humans. Many humans, when together, have accomplished incredible and miraculous endeavors that they would not have been able to accomplish by themselves. With that said, it is safe to say that humans, as a species, thrive with healthy social support.
Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, everything has turned upside down. Humans have experienced many different types of trauma throughout the pandemic, and have all had to adapt to changing life circumstances. For example, folks went from commuting to the office every day and sending their kids on the school bus to having to make room in their homes for their work, and for their kids’ school to be “attended virtually.” Many businesses closed permanently due to: a) so many employees contracting Covid-19 and missing work and/or b) the economy largely shutting down. People lost their jobs and/or racked up huge medical bills due to Covid-related complications, and everything just got a little…scarier.
Essentially, overnight, the world became quite rickety and uncertain. Folks were quarantined together for months. During that time, having social support was more vital than ever before. Turning to friends and family in chaotic times allows an individual to cathartically vent their fears and emotions, and also allows them to feel like they are not alone in whatever they are feeling or experiencing. But when does that social support turn from healthy to unhealthy?
What is codependency?
According to PsychCentral, the word ‘codependency’ is defined as ‘any enmeshed relationship in which one person loses their sense of independence and believes they need to tend to someone else’. An individual who becomes codependent with someone else tends to prioritize that other person over themselves, no matter what the situation is. A common way of describing codependency is “not knowing where you end and your partner/friend/parent/etc. begins”.
According to a 2018 research review that was published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, common signs of codependency in a person include but are not limited to:
- Self-worth/self-esteem that depends on how other people view them.
- A deep-seated desire/need for approval from others.
- Doing whatever possible to avoid conflict.
- Often apologizing or taking blame for something that is not their fault to keep the peace.
- A mood that constantly reflects how others around them are feeling, rather than expressing their own unique thoughts and emotions.
- Making decisions based on what they feel the people around them may want them to choose.
- Taking on more work than they should/can to lighten the burden placed on their loved one(s).
- Guilt, stress, and/or anxiety when doing something just for themselves.
- An overwhelming fear of abandonment and/or rejection.
- Idolizing the individual or group of people they have codependency issues with, often to the point where they excuse inexcusable behavior.
What is healthy interdependency?
What would be better than codependency would be called healthy interdependency. Healthy interdependency is a careful balance between relying on another individual (or group of people) and being able to be relied upon by that same individual (or group of people). There is nothing wrong with relying on others. As mentioned before, humans have evolved as an inherently social species that are healthier, stronger, and more powerful in groups…healthy groups. When partners, for example, learn to lean on one another to complete the gaps in each party’s ability/skill/etc., the partnership can become more robust and structurally sound.
In a healthy interdependent relationship, each person can confidently:
- State their own needs and wants.
- Let the other person know when they feel overwhelmed or overburdened by what is being expected of them.
- Ask for support when they feel like they are struggling.
- Feel safe and comfortable being their authentic selves.
It is important to note that codependency doesn’t just show itself in romantic relationships. For example, those who have stayed up late to help a fellow student or coworker with their project despite not having finished their own could be unknowingly manifesting codependency in their professional lives.
So where does codependency come from?
It is not exactly known why and how codependency is developed, but some key situations have been recognized as potential contributing factors. These include but are not limited to:
- Having experienced any kind of abuse (physical, sexual, verbal).
- Having grown up with a caregiver with a mental health issue such as borderline personality disorder (BPD) or narcissistic personality disorder.
- Having grown up with very controlling and/or protective caregivers who disabled their child/children from developing healthy concepts of boundaries and safety.
- Having experienced abandonment, especially as a child.
- Having experienced criticism/bullying from parents, siblings, peers, etc. that has planted the seed for feeling unconfident in creating any new relationships.
These above situations all fit neatly under the umbrella of having experienced enough hardship in life to now not know how to be oneself. The theory suggests that if they have been abandoned or hurt by the people they loved, they may be more likely to consciously or subconsciously figure out how to make a life behind a people-pleasing mask. If they become ‘easy’ and ‘unproblematic’ to be around, maybe they will be accepted and, in turn, not abandoned.
How to tackle codependency
Codependency is not a mental health diagnosis; it’s a coping mechanism. It can be helpful, right from the start, to remember that falling into the pattern of codependency: a) is nothing to be ashamed of, and b) can be combatted.
Some ways to start breaking the pattern of codependency in any kind of interpersonal relationship include but are not limited to:
1. Learn to spend some time alone – The longest relationship that life gives an individual is the one they hold with themselves. Therefore, this relationship must be nourished just as much, if not more than, the relationships with others. It may be uncomfortable to spend time alone at first because an individual is so used to always being in the presence of someone else, but it is in that alone time that they can rebuild their own personality and authenticity.
2. Pursue former interests/hobbies – If possible, it can be very helpful for a person to try to remember what used to fill their time and what makes them feel fulfilled. Even though it may have been a long time ago, it doesn’t mean those aspects are gone – maybe they’re just hiding and waiting to be found again. If a person remembers enjoying their college yoga class, for example, maybe it is a good idea to look for local yoga classes to resume this previous interest.
3. Ask for help – Sometimes it can be really hard to see where everything got so complicated. A trained mental health professional can provide support and encouragement for an individual to figure out the potential underlying root(s) of their codependency (e.g. abandonment). Once the individual develops more self-awareness about what could be underneath their feelings of codependency, they can make peace with those roots, and ultimately decrease their codependency.
4. Practice direct communication – If an individual finds themselves wanting to be as low-maintenance and easygoing as possible, they may not remember the last time they were direct and clear in their relationships. It can be helpful to start spending a few minutes every day practicing saying ‘no’ or expressing themselves in a mirror. This exercise can make eventual healthier direct communication with others a little easier.
5. Treat yourself – It’s okay to go buy that six-dollar coffee. It’s okay to take the long way home to finish the rest of the playlist that was started. It’s okay to hang out with an old friend without inviting anyone else to join. Practicing little bites of individual self-love can be very empowering.
6. Reflect – It can be helpful for an individual to spend time reflecting on the people in their lives who seem to be in very healthy and happy relationships. What are they doing differently? How can they maintain their independence while also being a strong unit? Even writing down any discoveries or thoughts from these reflections can be helpful to look back on when thinking about what stands out in their relationship from an outside perspective.
7. Challenge yourself – When there is codependency, it can be very difficult to feel like there is any space or energy to do anything for oneself. But if an individual can start to notice the patterns of what they tend to rely on their partner/friend/coworker for, they can challenge themselves to do more of this on their own. For example, if a person notices that they always rely on their partner to walk into a party or social gathering first, they may try to make this a personal challenge to accomplish as an individual activity.
8. Practice daily affirmations – Creating personalized positive affirmations to repeat every day can help to boost self-confidence and even clarity. For example, a codependent person repeating, “I am capable on my own” every morning while making coffee can really help them to not lean into the previous decision to wait for their partner to wake up to start their own day.
Codependency happens. Often. Rather than focusing on what’s wrong with this pattern, it’s important to think about how one can take their individuality back, or at least try to achieve a healthier balance.
Everyone has been dealing with their own unique set of challenges since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, but that doesn’t mean that these challenges have to be heavyweights forever. Learning to be happy and interdependent may not take all those challenges away, but it can help an individual to feel that they living more authentically and fully. Each individual has their own unique personality, and that personality deserves to be encouraged, accepted, and protected.
For further reading:
Robertson, M. (2020). Codependency Rx for women: Rising above codependence to reclaim life. Independent .
Teri, S. (2009). Codependent no more. Phoenix Books Inc.
Weiss, R. (2018). Prodependence: Moving beyond codependency. Health Communications, Inc.
For further information:
Fox, M. (2019, July 4). What is healthy dependency vs codependency in a relationship -. Mindy Fox, MFT Neurofeedback Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Torrance CA. Retrieved June 2, 2022, from https://mftherapy.com/dating-tips/what-is-healthy-dependency-vs-codependency-in-a-relationship/
Martin, S. (2021, September 15). 5 signs you’re a codependent parent. Live Well with Sharon Martin. Retrieved June 2, 2022, from https://www.livewellwithsharonmartin.com/5-signs-youre-a-codependent-parent/
Paul, M. (2021, June 25). 7 signs you’re in a codependent relationship & why it’s unhealthy. mindbodygreen. Retrieved June 2, 2022, from https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/signs-of-a-codependent-relationship/
Selva, J. (2022, May 23). Codependency: What are the signs & how to overcome it. PositivePsychology.com. Retrieved June 2, 2022, from https://positivepsychology.com/codependency-definition-signs-worksheets/