Insights into Psychology

What Is… Codependency

Insights into psychology: Codependency

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms.  This week’s term is codependency.

We hear about codependency often, particularly in relation to addiction.  What does it actually mean, though?

GoodTherapy’s website says: “Codependency involves sacrificing one’s personal needs to try to meet the needs of others. Someone who is codependent has an extreme focus outside themselves. Their thoughts and actions revolve around other people”.   It adds that people who are codependent tend to have high levels of shame and low self-esteem.  They have a tendency to try to save others from themselves, and may use it as a way to cope with emotional abuse.  Adults who had enmeshed interactions with parents in childhood may become codependent.

Al-Anon, the support organization for families of alcoholics, was founded in 1951, and Wikipedia identifies it as one of the earliest recognitions of codependency.  The idea of codependency became much more widely known in the 1980s with the publication of several widely read books on the subject by authors including Melody Beattie.  It is not recognized as a diagnosable mental disorder, although it had been proposed for inclusion in the DSM-III-R.

Mental Health America says that codependency is often referred to as “relationship addiction”, adding that it’s a behaviour that may be learned within dysfunctional families and passed down from one generation to another.  While it comes with good intentions, repeated rescue attempts actually promote the other person’s continued destructive behaviours.  The MHA website offers a codependency questionnaire on its website to identify if you have signs of codependency.

According to Psych Central, “Codependency is characterized by a person belonging to a dysfunctional, one-sided relationship where one person relies on the other for meeting nearly all of their emotional and self-esteem needs. It also describes a relationship that enables another person to maintain their irresponsible, addictive, or underachieving behaviour.”  Several symptoms of codependency are given: low self-esteem, people-pleasing, poor boundaries, reactivity, caretaking, control, dysfunctional communication, obsessions, dependency, denial, problems with intimacy, and painful emotions.

For me where all of this gets a bit messy is separating out codependent vs. healthy helping behaviour.  My last boyfriend struggled with addiction, and I tried very hard to support him in overcoming that addiction.  It caused a lot of distress for me, and eventually I ended the romantic relationship because I couldn’t continue to cope with the consequences of the substance use.  However, we remained friends until he died of a fentanyl overdose.

Looking back, probably some of my behaviour could be considered codependent.  I guess where I make the biggest differentiation is that my self-esteem never depended on anything to do with attempts at rescuing him.  I was probably looser with boundaries than I should have been, but I didn’t see my primary role in the relationship as rescuer.

Is codependency something you’re struggled with or questioned yourself on?


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

Visit The Psychology Corner for an overview of terms covered in the What Is… (Insights into Psychology) series, along with s a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

8 thoughts on “What Is… Codependency”

  1. You often say you don’t have the same level of trauma history as many other bloggers, but then tell stories like this. I feel like it may not be codependent, per se, if you didn’t compromise your own boundaries in ways that hurt your life or value, but losing someone to an OD, work bullying, seeing the roughest side of how we treat the I’ll everyday in your work. All of those are valid things to say impact your life. You can always own a story whether or not you own a label. People put a lot of stock in technical definitions, but those continuously evolve with new editions and are oft just manifesting cultural and political realities of their time. Codependency was a very 1980s/1990s term, with a lot of its 90s baggage. But, there’s value in learning about it for people who have experienced any kind of mental health challenge or trauma if only to pick and choose what pieces of the term to guide them as part of their general recovery. I don’t think of myself as codependent, though I’ve been in unhealthy relationships as an adult (not specifically drugs, but there are other ways you can cross boundaries for someone that can affect you.) So, I found reading about it in childhood and adulthood helpful, but I don’t really think of myself as one. It was just another source of data, but not ultimately an identity I connected with.

    1. It’s interesting, despite a lot of difficult stuff that happened with my ex-partner who ended up ODing, I always had the resources available to process it, and able to not take on responsibility for what I had no control over. It’s really been in the last few years that I haven’t had enough internal resources. And for whatever reason I was always able to maintain a clear separation in my work with clients, and have never taken their struggles on personally. But I think those kinds of boundaries are always worth giving some thought to, whether they’re crossed or not.

  2. OMG! I’m so sorry about your boyfriend!!! Whoa! That’s so sad. I’m so sorry to hear it! 🙁

    No, I don’t think you were being codependent, because you were trying to help him overcome it. If you’d been supporting his habit and getting him out of trouble so he could keep being addicted, that would be codependent, but you tried to help him rise above it. I’m so sorry for your loss. 🙁 He was very, very blessed to have you in his life, and I’m sure he knows it where he is now. Very blessed. You weren’t codependent. You were kind and loving. 🙂

  3. Yes, so much, with my older daughter. I check ALL the boxes. It’s super weird when it’s your kid because figuring out the line between being a good mom and being codependent- especially when your child has mental health issues rather than addiction related mental health issues- is SO HARD. I’m really trying though. My own struggles recently have been a big wake up call.

  4. First of all,I’m so sorry about your x. And I really learned a lot about both my own thinking and others here. To try to save or help everyone and neglect myself is something I’ve done to much. It’s actually this last two years I’ve said no and stop. I burned the light in both ends and I’m exhausted. Ty for a really good post

Leave a Reply