What Causes Codependency and How to Break Free in Recovery

Before knowing what causes codependency, it’s essential to understand what it is and how it affects us. First, codependency is a psychological condition that causes a person to depend highly on specific loved ones. This dependence usually involves self-sacrifice as the deterrent to caring for personal needs and emotions. Additionally, codependents attempt to fix other people’s issues or problems.

Codependency is not an officially recognized mental illness or disorder. However, it is a psychological construct that overlaps significantly with other psychological conditions.

What is Codependency in Simple Terms?

Codependency is an unhealthy reliance on a partner, friend, or family member to fulfill emotional, mental, physical, or spiritual needs. It’s a circular relationship of giving and taking. One partner, the taker, needs the other to meet their needs, and the other partner, the codependent, requires to be needed. As a result, the codependent feels worthless unless catering to the taker’s needs, even to the detriment of sacrificing their own.

Codependency may feel like emotional fulfillment, but it is unhealthy and leads to poor mental health. A codependent relationship can be with a loved one, including a spouse, family member, or friend.

What Causes Codependency?

There are a few considerations for what causes codependency. However, childhood abuse, neglect, and trauma are the typical root cause of these tendencies. Children develop this survival skill as a response to being in an unhealthy environment. They don’t understand that their parents are incapable of fulfilling their needs. It can leave a child questioning if something is wrong with them and often feel like they don’t matter (1). So they adapt with fawning rather than using the freeze or fight or flight response.

Fawning is a term defined by therapist Pete Walker as the fourth response to trauma (2). Essentially fawning is a means of appeasing the caregiver to avoid whatever threat they impose. Ultimately, this leads to the child becoming the caregiver in the home. They may be responsible for doing grownup things such as making appointments, parenting their siblings, or providing emotional support to their parents or caregiver.

In addition, protective parents can become overprotective. Parents may have the best intention, but being overprotective leads to codependency. Having an overprotective or under protective parent is a factor in codependency. For example, overprotective parents may be so overbearing with safety that the child grows up afraid of learning new things.

Another example is if an overprotective parent provides for their child’s basic needs without teaching them independence. Then, they may become codependent on someone else to maintain those life skills in adulthood. 

On the contrary, an under protective parent doesn’t provide enough guidance and support for a child’s healthy development. Often these children grow up resisting help and instruction. Another common denominator of codependency is growing up in a household with substance abuse or mental disorders.

It makes sense that these parents would be under protective due to being consumed by their disease. It’s safe to say there is neglect in homes with substance use and that it’s part of what causes codependency.

Dysfunctional families foster dysfunctional relationships. So many people demonstrate codependent traits for their entire life without acknowledging that this learned behavior is the root of their self-destructive behaviors.

Another cause of codependency is when a child grows up under the care of someone with a personality disorder, including narcissistic, dependent, or borderline personality disorder. To accommodate them, a codependent may suppress their self-identity (3). As a result, they find ways to meet their enabler’s emotional needs rather than developing their own.

Are Codependents Narcissists?

Codependency and narcissism may have a closer relationship than once believed. Both codependency and narcissism are usually rooted in childhood abuse, neglect, and trauma. While the outward behaviors are different, the psychological needs of these conditions are the same. They typically rely on others to define their identities because they struggle with a sense of self and knowing who they are. In addition, they care about what people think and place significant importance on it.

People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) are hyperfocused on their needs and wants to be met, with no regard for the feelings of the people fulfilling them. A narcissist needs others to inflate their egos and may require a continuous stream of admiration and applause to feel validated (4). On the contrary, codependents are interested in serving the needs of others due to their constant desire to be needed. Both conditions want to feel loved and meaningful, but their methods are different for obtaining that reality. According to Psychology Today,

Although most narcissists can be classified as codependent, the reverse isn’t true – most codependents aren’t narcissists. They don’t exhibit common traits of exploitation, entitlement, and lack of empathy.

However, both conditions can become pathological without professional help and guidance.


What Do Codependent Symptoms Look Like?

Now that we’ve established the causes of codependency, it’s important to know the signs. There are various symptoms of codependency. A codependent person will demonstrate several, if not all, of these symptoms of codependency.

1. People Pleasing

Codependents have an incessant need to please others. So they are loyal to a fault. They go out of their way to make people happy, even at the expense of their happiness. They value the approval of others more than loving themself. People pleasers often behave as if they cannot say no due to fear of adverse effects on the relationship. In addition, the fear of disappointing someone or their rejection overwhelms them to go along with things instead of saying no (5). As a result, they give up their passions and interests to spend time pleasing their enabler.

2. Low Self-Esteem or Self-Worth

Having low self-esteem is indicative of codependency. Low self-esteem presents differently in different people. Some people overcompensate for their false feeling of inadequacy by demonstrating how highly they think of themselves as a facade.

3. Poor Communication Skills

Codependents have spent their lifetime suppressing their own needs, resulting in poor communication skills. A codependent doesn’t openly express their wants and needs for fear of abandonment and rejection.

4. Lack of Boundaries

Codependents feel responsible for other people’s feelings, reactions, and problems. Or they may blame their feelings on someone else. So a codependent may demonstrate weak or stringent boundaries with others. In addition, sometimes, people flip back and forth between weak and inflexible boundaries (6).

5. Need to Control

A codependent feels out of control and finds themself trying to control events and people through guilt, advice-giving, and persuasive tactics. As a result, events and people manage them, often making them angry. As a result, they’re afraid to let others be who they are. Or allow things to occur naturally.

6. Being Reactive

Do you internalize criticism and become highly defensive when someone disagrees with you? Codependency expert Darlene Lancer LMFT explains, “A consequence of poor boundaries is that you react to everyone’s thoughts and feelings.” She elaborates, “If someone says something you disagree with, you either believe it or become defensive. You absorb their words because there’s no boundary.”

What are Some Codependent Behavior Examples?

Depending on our personality type and life experience, codependent behaviors present differently. However, there are several common codependent traits, including,

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  • Need for constant reassurance.
  • Overwhelming fears of rejection and abandonment.
  • Offering unsolicited advice to others.
  • Feeling like a victim.
  • Compulsive and impulsive.
  • Obsessing over a partner.
  • Revolving their entire life around another person.
  • Using manipulative behaviors, shame, and guilt in an attempt to control other people’s behaviors.
  • When their partner, or person, is their only relationship.
  • Feel guilty when doing things for themselves.
  • Taking the blame and apologizing profusely to keep the peace.
  • Excusing and tolerating unhealthy behavior including being abused.
  • Not having an identity without them.
  • Inability to accept that people love them.
  • Taking on more than you can handle to receive praise and approval.

How Do You Break Codependency Patterns?

The good news is that you can break codependent behaviors and patterns once you’ve recognized your tendencies. Some people can overcome codependency on their own. However, more rooted cases may require professional help from a therapist or psychologist.

Set Boundaries

Setting and enforcing personal boundaries is vital in breaking free from codependency. Take time to establish what is acceptable and unacceptable for you in your relationships. Once you’ve determined your boundaries, it’s crucial that you implement them. Boundaries are the only way to participate in a healthy relationship.

Stop Negative Thinking

There are several patterns of negative thinking, including black-and-white thinking, overgeneralizing, jumping to conclusions, and personalization and blame (7). So stop negative thinking by first observing your thoughts for negativity. Then, once you’ve identified the thought, you can dismiss it as unhelpful and replace it with a positive one.

Practice Self-Care

Habituating self-care practices is crucial for overcoming codependency. A codependent person is so busy taking care of others’ needs that they must learn to take care of themselves to break free from codependent tendencies and behaviors. Identifying what your needs are is the first step in caring for them. Self-care can be anything from taking a shower to saying no. Self-care is self-love, and it’s essential that you master it.

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Get Therapy

Getting counseling or therapy services to stop being codependent may benefit you, particularly if you are not experiencing any successes on your own. Finally, speaking with a professional can bring things to light and frame a new perspective. There are in-person and online therapy services available. However, online therapy is more usually readily available.

Co-Dependents Anonymous

Some people benefit from a group environment of their peers. For example, a group called Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA) is a 12-step-based recovery plan for codependents. Much like Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.), CoDA is a group meeting-based program that follows the Twelve Steps and Principles, loosely based on A.A.s doctrine. There are in-person, phone, and virtual meetings.

In Summary

Codependency is usually rooted in childhood trauma, neglect, and abuse. It’s a survival skill developed to cope with an unhealthy living environment. Codependents are involved in circular relationships of giving and taking. The codependent is the giver who is consumed with pleasing the enabler. There are various symptoms and behaviors involved with codependency. However, it’s not a mental health illness or disorder. Instead, it is often a co-occurring symptom of a personality disorder.

After understanding what causes codependency, working on identifying behaviors and overcoming said tendencies is essential for breaking free. A codependent relationship may lead to unhealthy coping skills, difficulty maintaining healthy adult relationships, and poor mental health.

Additional References

  1. https://www.michellehalle.com/blog/codependency-and-childhood-trauma
  2. http://www.pete-walker.com/codependencyFawnResponse.htm
  3. https://psychcentral.com/lib/symptoms-signs-of-codependency
  4. https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/codependency-narcissism-may-have-more-in-common-than-you-think-0807187
  5. https://whatiscodependency.com/people-pleaser-pleasers-pleasing
  6. https://whatiscodependency.com/symptoms-of-codependence
  7. https://www.verywellmind.com/how-to-change-negative-thinking-3024843
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Elizabeth Ervin is the owner of Sober Healing. She is a freelance writer passionate about opioid recovery and has celebrated breaking free since 09-27-2013. She advocates for mental health awareness and encourages others to embrace healing, recovery, and Jesus.

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