Source: flickr image by Kenneth Lu
The word “codependency” —ignoring our own wants in order to serve others or gain approval — has entered the mainstream vocabulary. The concept evolved from the term “co-alcoholic,” which describes an alcoholic partner’s passive, enabling behaviors, while neglecting to recognize how they’re being affected and not affirming their own needs and limits.
At the heart of codependency is responding automatically to others’ real or imagined needs, while bypassing our own inner life.
Here are some signposts of possible codependent patterns:
Are you often worried that your partner might get upset or leave you if you don’t comply with what they want, which leaves you trapped?
Is it difficult to set boundaries — noticing, honoring, and expressing views and needs that may differ from others? Do others’ needs quickly overtake yours?
Do you find it difficult to pause and consider your own feelings and desires — including your “yes,” your “no,” and your “maybe” — before responding to others.
- Do you notice yourself feeling resentful and depleted because you often respond to what others want from you without considering what you need?
If any of the above are true, you may be inclined to minimize your own needs and put others ahead of yourself as a way to deal with your desire for connection, belonging, or self-worth.
However, remember that life is complicated. Don’t be too quick to label yourself as codependent. Using a pathological label to define yourself may be a disservice.
The Fine Line Between Caring and Codependency
There’s a fine line between being loving and codependent. If we slap the codependent label on our kind, empathic impulses, then we might as well dismiss all the great spiritual teachers, such as Jesus and the Buddha, as hopeless codependents! The impulse to be kind and responsive may be coming from a humanistic or spiritual place inside us.
It takes discernment to distinguish codependence from basic human caring and compassion. We humans have a need not only to be loved, but also to love. It often feel nurturing and rewarding to care about others. And it’s difficult to argue with the fact that our world could use a little more sensitivity and compassion.
People with narcissistic tendencies may find a sort of comforting self-protection in the term “codependence” — interpreting self-centered behavior as admirably non-codependent. It might activate shame to be perceived as weak, soft, or tender. They may be quick to shame others as being codependent, while seeing themselves as commendably strong and independent. A disdain for empathy and compassion may actually make them counterdependent, which is the opposite extreme of codependent. Fearing attachment, intimacy, and vulnerability, they live behind a well-defended wall that ensures their isolation–-oftentimes even if they seem lively or charismatic.
One aspect of love is seeing what people need—and, if we can, giving that to them. We extend ourselves without overextending; our caring lives in dynamic balance with caring about ourselves. We enjoy the satisfaction of being responsive to others’ needs, while also being attentive to our own.
Casually tossing around the codependent label may overlook how we are complex creatures driven by multiple motivations. If we neglect ourselves in favor of attending to others, we disserve ourselves. But clinging too tightly to our independence or being too vigilant about steering clear of codependence, we may avoid the interdependence that allows for healthy intimacy and connection. Psychotherapy can be a useful way to become more mindful about our motivations and behavior–and find a wise balance between caring about ourselves and being kind toward others.
© John Amodeo
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John Amodeo, Ph.D., MFT is author of the award-winning book, Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships. His other books include The Authentic Heart and Love & Betrayal. He has been a licensed marriage and family therapist for over 35 years in the San Francisco Bay area and has lectured and conducted workshops internationally.
flickr image by Kenneth Lu