Written by DiveThru Team
Reviewed by Natalie Asayag MSW, LCSW
What Is Co-Dependency? Warning Signs + How To Overcome It
Published May 14th, 2021 & updated on May 18th, 2021
If you’re stuck wondering ‘what is co-dependency’ and ‘how do I know if it’s happening to me,’ we’re here to give you alllll of the answers. Have you heard of the term co-dependent before? You seem like a brilliant human so we’re going to assume yes! Typically, this word is used to describe a person or relationship that comes off as kinda ‘needy.’
For example, if you think one of your best friends is in a co-dependent relationship, you might feel like they neverrrrr wanna hang out unless their partner tags along too. It’s like they’re glued at the hip or something. And when you DO meet up, they just text their partner the entire time instead of, ya know, actually hanging out with you. It’s like their relationship is all they care about!
Even though we all have (at least) one of these couples in our social circles, actual co-dependency goes a lot deeper than coming off as super clingy! Let’s dive thru it.
What Is Co-Dependency?
First, let’s mention what co-dependency is NOT, because that’s also important. Wanting to be there for a friend or family member and helping them out because they’re struggling? Not co-dependency. Enjoying someone’s presence sooooo much that saying goodbye makes you feel super sad? Still not co-dependency. Making the occasional sacrifice for your relationships? You guessed it, NOT co-dependency!
Okayyy…so what exactly is co-dependency, then?! This term can be confusing since it’s misused a lot but think of it as constantly giving too much to another person — so much that it becomes really, reallyyy unhealthy for both of you.
Co-dependency is all about prioritizing the needs of someone else over your own, which often also means neglecting your needs altogether. You might feel responsible for the emotions and behaviours of this person, so you’re always trying to please them to avoid making them upset. Heck, your mood might totally depend on how this person feels and behaves! It’s like you can’t be happy until they are.
Co-dependency can make you lose your sense of self. Your whole identity and self-worth are tied up in your relationship with another person.
Co-dependence is thought to be developed early in a person’s life, particularly in family environments with dysfunctional dynamics. Once someone is stuck in this cycle, it can leave them feeling emotionally and mentally drained. Until someone with co-dependent habits starts to recognize the red flags and work through them, it can negatively impact their mental wellbeing in a big way!
Co-Dependency Warning Signs
Spotting the red flags of co-dependency can be really hard, especially for someone who has developed a pattern of these behaviours. Buuut patterns can be broken! The first step is noticing the warning signs so that you can address them head-on. Here are the top signs but there are many others to look for as well:
- Feeling drawn to people who can be ‘rescued’ or ‘fixed’
- Putting someone else’s needs before your own
- Feeling responsible for someone else’s feelings or behaviour
- Giving too much time and energy in a relationship
- Fear of being rejected, abandoned or alone
- Difficulty making decisions on your own
- Needing constant approval from others
- Difficulty expressing your thoughts and feelings
- Compromising your values or feelings for others
- People pleasing to feel needed and accepted
- Poor boundaries (or none at all)
That’s…a lot to take in, isn’t it? But co-dependency IS a lot for a person to deal with.
From Childhood to Adulthood
If you grew up in a dysfunctional family with parents who weren’t the most dependable, you likely had to fill their grown-up roles, like making dinner and getting your younger siblings ready for school.
Since you had to pick up all of your parents’ slack, you felt overwhelmed. You were so busy taking care of everyone else, it became part of your identity. You were the strong, dependant one who everyone relied on. If you stopped looking after everyone, then everything would just fall apart. Everyone needed you to survive. So, the pattern of learned co-dependency begins.
Maybe later in life, you’ve unconsciously gravitated towards relationships where you could still fit that caregiver role. It’s how you see yourself: the nurturer who everyyyone depends on. Without putting someone else’s needs above your own, you wouldn’t know what to do with yourself. It would be like stripping away your identity and self-worth.
So instead, you tend to find best friends who are always in crisis mode and need a ton of emotional support. Your romantic partners are usually detached, emotionally unavailable, with a complicated past, currently fighting addiction and substance use disorders, or potentially dealing with untreated mental illness. As a co-dependent, you’re convinced that you can fix your partner. If they’re unhappy, then you can’t be either. The cycle continues!
Sound familiar? If these warning signs sound like your current situation, don’t be too hard on yourself! Again, learned behaviours can be unlearned. We know it’s not easy, but we believe in you 100 percent!
8 Ways To Overcome Co-Dependency
Unlearning those patterns and behaviours takes time, a LOT of self-reflection and self-work. Here are 8 ways you can start to break away from co-dependency!
We also wanna mention that speaking to a therapist is always a good idea. Sometimes overcoming co-dependency can be difficult to do on your own, so never feel ashamed to reach out for help!
1. Recognize The Problem
The first step to overcoming any problem is admitting to yourself there’s a problem. This isn’t always easy, we know! If you’ve been stuck in a co-dependent relationship for quite some time, it might feel normal to you at this point. Buuut deep down, you probably know something is wrong and needs to change.
Reflect on the past and ask yourself when your pattern of co-dependency started. Was it growing up? Was there a traumatic relationship you dealt with in your past? Which relationships do you notice similar warning signs? It’s important to gain some clarity here, but it can also be very emotional to explore. Working through this process is probably best with therapy. You don’t have to deal with these overwhelming thoughts and feelings alone!
2. Get Some Space
This is probably gonna be a harddddd one, but one of the next things you can do to break out of co-dependency is to get some space from the other person. This doesn’t mean your relationship is over. It also doesn’t mean you can’t ever have a healthy relationship! In fact, having some distance and time apart is super healthy in relationships.
If you have become used to relying on this person and have lost your sense of self as a result, taking a step back from the relationship might feel like the end of the world, but we promise it’s not. You need to learn who you are by spending time alone. Even though it can be scary, it’s totally worth it! ‘Cause, you’re pretty awesome.
3. Do Things For YOU
If you’ve been putting other people’s needs above your own since, like, forever — now’s the time to be selfish. Learn more about what you like, your interests, and your passions. Start putting more time and energy into things that make YOU happy.
Going off the last point, getting some space is a great time to become independent and form your own identity. Maybe your self-worth has been defined by how much others need you, but this clearly isn’t healthy. Instead, take the time to just live your life how you want. Join a book club, learn an instrument, or take up crochet. Go for walks by yourself, or treat yourself to lunch at your favourite cafe. Don’t forget that your schedule is entirely up to you!
4. Set Boundaries
Boundaries are limits. We set limits with things that make us uncomfortable or unhappy. If you’re struggling with co-dependency, there’s a good chance that you may not have effective boundaries in place with the people in your life. You’ve been putting their comfort and needs above your own, which has probably been so emotionally draining for you.
You’ve gotta start living for yourself, and that includes setting some firm boundaries. Can it be nerve-wracking? Maybe at first, but once you get the hang out of it, we promise it’s NBD. Here are a few simple ways you can create healthy boundaries and combat co-dependency:
- Don’t try to solve someone else’s problems. You can listen and show support, but be mindful of how you’re feeling too. You only have so much emotional energy to give, and most of that should be saved for yourself!
- It’s okay to say no. If you’re a people pleaser, we know this is a tough one. But saying no does not make you a bad person. You can still be polite and say no to things that you don’t want to or can’t do.
- Ask yourself if you have the emotional capacity, time or energy to do something for someone else right now. Is doing something going to leave you feeling drained? Will you be able to meet your own needs afterwards? Be honest with yourself and remember: you’re allowed to be selfish!
5. Learn About Healthy Relationships
If most of your relationships have been co-dependent or unhealthy, you might have a hard time recognizing what a healthy relationship looks like. But guess what? You can always learn! Talk about examples of healthy relationships in therapy. Ask other people in happy relationships about their experiences. Fire up the Google machine and go down the rabbit hole of how to build strong, healthy relationships.
There’s a lot of useful info out there, so why not learn from some of the best? This is a great step in understanding how co-dependency has affected all of your past relationships, and what you can do moving forward!
6. Be Kind To Yourself
It’s safe to say that if you’ve been dealing with co-dependency for a while now, you might also battle with low self-esteem and self-worth. We just wanna say that first of all, you matter. Your thoughts and feelings are always valid. So please, be kind to yourself!
It’s a common cycle that so many other people are also struggling with, so you’re not alone. Try showing yourself compassion and even give yourself words of encouragement. You’re gonna get through this and kick co-dependency’s ass!
7. Practice Self-Care
Ya wanna know how to REALLY be kind to yourself? By practicing self-care! Putting all of your time and energy into a co-dependent relationship can drain you mentally and emotionally. Now is the time to show care to priority #1: you. Grab your journal and write about how you’re feeling (we love journaling here at DiveThru!), water your plants, enjoy a nice bath with your favourite scented candles and bath bombs!
There’s no wrong way to practice self-care, as long as it makes you feel happy and at peace. So try incorporating little bits of self-care into every day, not just special occasions! Your mental health will thank you.
8. Reach Out For Help
You might be used to solving everyone else’s problems, so we get it. It’s hard for you to ask for help. But guess what? You need it sometimes! And that’s okay! Everyone could use a lil’ support now and then, so don’t be ashamed or feel guilty for admitting that you can’t do everything on your own. That’s just called being a human being. If you need someone to talk to, reach out to a person you can trust. You. are. not. alone.
Co-dependency can be hard to overcome, but staying in a co-dependent relationship is even harder in the long run (on your mental health!). We know you can get through this and fully support how you feel right now. Hopefully, these tips have given you a great starting point! You’ve got this.