I wrote this page because I've had so many people ask me, "Am I codependent? Is the way I'm acting codependent?" I think it is GREAT that there is enough awareness in our society about harmful relationship patterns that the question gets asked. I also see a lot of confusion about the difference between codependence and healthy interdependence, as well as confusion about why codependence is harmful in the first place. Hence, this page.
Codependence--in my view--can best be described as a compulsive pattern of caretaking or controlling others in order to "help" them whether they want or accept the help or not. Importantly, codependence is persisting in this pattern to the diminishment of one's own dignity, health, and well-being. Another way to say this is that the codependent person often feels safest in a helping role within relationships even if that helping is directly harming themselves. Sometimes that looks like caretaking a person who doesn't want the help or has no interest in changing their harmful behaviors. Sometimes it looks like being dissatisifed with others and micro-managing them, searching for a perfection that doesn't exist. Sometimes it looks like being a person who others run over because s/he won't ever assert needs or boundaries. There isn't just one way codependence shows up, but the root is the same--hurting yourself in order to take care of other people.
So the next question is, "What's the difference between being codependent and being a genuinely helpful person?" The difference is this: Being a genuinely helpful person respects YOUR limits, boundaries, and needs. You give, but you don't give beyond what you can, or should. The codependent person regularly finds him/herself in the position of having given way too much and being angry about it. See the difference? Genuinely helping others feels good and doesn't leave you drained. It enriches your life and makes you a bigger person. Codependence leaves you feeling angry and taken advantage of, or, unappreciated and frustrated. It diminishes your life and makes you feel like a smaller person. If this is a consistent pattern in your life, codependence may indeed be an issue you need to address in order to become a happier and healthier person. This is where counseling and healing work can play a vital role in helping you break old patterns, learn new ones and become a more authentic and effective person in your life.
I will also say here that I often see clients with a mix of healthy and codependent behaviors--in other words, healthy in some relationships, codependent in others. It's usually the case that the relationship triggering the codependent behavior is "firing" a pattern from earlier in the person's life that's not working for them and creating anger, sadness, and distress. This is another place where counseling can be helpful--sorting out the healthy from the unhealthy relationships, whether they be at home, at work, socially, at church, or with one's family of origin. Let's face it--in today's society, it just isn't that hard to get into an unhealthy relationship, is it? Counseling and healing work can help you know and love yourself in a way that keeps you safe and real in your life.
It's OK only to give what you can. I'll say it again: It is OK only to give what you truly can. All good relationships involve some sacrifice, but that sacrifice in healthy relationships happens from all the parties involved. It isn't one sided. In order to only give what you truly can, you have to know yourself, to understand who you are and who you aren't, to practice and be willing to set boundaries, and to be willing to become proactive about living your own life rather than lapsing into a victimized role out of habit. This is where the journey of counseling and self-awareness can play a vital and important role. The result of doing this work--which is hard--is getting to live a more authentic, connected, and peaceful life with more trust, honesty, and genuine love.