So I guess I’m into admitting things on here now…? Last week I came clean as a swear-aholic (damn right!), a few months ago I talked about being a perfectionist, and really the whole point of this blog was to come out as an abuse survivor and talk about it.
Well, it’s time to admit one more of my issues: I’m a recovering codependent.
It took me a long time to realize my issues with codependency. In fact, I had no idea what “codependent” meant until 2016 when it came up at the mental health day program I attended. I remember that day so clearly because when the clinician explained codependency to our group, I got shivers up my back: I had never been described so perfectly before.
Language has power, right? And so does knowledge, to paraphrase the familiar colloquialism. Coming to understand the word “codependency” and recognizing how I participated in codependent relationships…shit! It was eye-opening! And it allowed me to take a monumental step forward in my therapy work and in my recovery as an abuse survivor.
I now imagine a codependent relationship as a circle—it’s a revolving loop of two people who need each other in the worst possible way. I’ve come to believe that it’s also a form of self-medication; whether we are the person in the relationship who holds power or we are their victim, we’re still using another person to try to fulfill a need.
In emotional abuse, power-hungry narcissists create a “sub-reality” in which they gaslight, manipulate, use, or otherwise abuse their victims. Narcissists prey on passive individuals who often have a strong inclination towards being caregivers and once victims are convinced that we’re responsible for our abusers, the cycle of codependency is created.
But how can you recognize signs of codependency in your own relationship or with people you care about?
Never fear, I have a list! (Note: I’m going to assume in my list that you are looking to identify codependent tendencies in yourself, but you could easily interpret these when looking at someone else. Also, I use the term “partner” when talking about the other person in a relationship, but for most of these points it could also be your parent, sibling, friend, coworker, or another person in your life. Read it however you need to.)
How to Tell If You Are Codependent: A Handy List
1. You define your worth based on the opinions of others
More likely, on the opinion of one, specific person (i.e. your partner). Codependent people require external sources to tell them who they are and if or how much they matter.
2. You no longer trust your own experience.
You question your feelings, thoughts, and behaviours and always assume that you are wrong. You live with a deep sense of shame, guilt, or embarrassment, regardless of what you say or do.
3. You consistently put your partner’s needs before your own.
You never say “no,” you get things done regardless of your own needs, and if your efforts don’t “work” you become depressed and feel like a failure.
4. You cover for your partner’s shortcomings and feel responsible for their behaviour.
You come to believe that no matter how they act, your partner’s behaviour is a reflection on YOU because you have assumed responsibility for it. (Or rather, they have foisted the responsibility upon you and because you’re codependent, you accept it.)
5. You feel viciously abused by the mildest criticism.
This is because you’re working so damn hard to keep the person who holds the power happy and because you depend on them for your own happiness. In this situation it’s easy to begin thinking self-deprecating or suicidal thoughts, especially in moments when you feel criticized.
6. You seek permission from your partner before doing anything.
Since you can’t trust yourself (see #2) and you need the approval of another to let you know that what you’re doing is okay (see #1), you always have to ask for permission first. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, without your partner’s “okay” you can’t confidently do anything. (And it should go without saying that gaining this “permission” is often excruciatingly difficult.)
7. You are always afraid that your partner is going to leave you.
This becomes your worst fear and leads to doing just about anything in order to ensure that your partner stays with you.
8. You focus on your partner’s emotions and struggle to differentiate between how you feel and how they feel.
Instead of having your own thoughts and feelings, you become a mirror for the other person’s emotions.
9. You change your personal values for your partner’s.
You become utterly loyal to them and adopt their values as your own. You may take on their interests and hobbies and will quickly back off when challenged to avoid anger or rejection.
10. You have become hyper-vigilant and are compelled to keep track of your partner at all times.
You know their routine inside-out and backwards, you jump up as soon as they enter a room, you are constantly listening out for them, and you put significant effort into anticipating what they need before they even need it.
11. You’ve become controlling with others (NOT the person you are codependent with).
Since you feel so utterly out of control in your own life, you attempt to regain a sense of stability by exerting strict boundaries or expectations on other people, or in other places, in your life.
12. You avoid conflict with your partner at all costs.
Your #1 operative is to keep the peace with your partner, so you acquiesce, you give in, you avoid; you do whatever is necessary to make sure everything is “okay.”
13. You allow your body to be used for your partner’s pleasure.
Sex becomes an act of duty and you allow your body to be used regardless of whether or not you want to participate. You may fear your partner’s touch, but you’re simultaneously compelled to give in because you can’t say no and view sex as one of the things you “have” to do in order to keep your partner happy.
14. You participate in self harm in response to the codependent relationship.
“Self harm” can happen in many ways, but it is all an attempt to regain a sense of control (see #11). We typically think of self harm as cutting yourself, but it can also include bingeing on or restricting food, pulling out your hair, picking at your skin, forcing yourself to stay awake, exercising excessively, using drugs or alcohol, or engaging in any behaviour that intentionally causes your body harm.
I’ve heard it said that once you’re an addict, you’re always an addict, and I now know that one of my addictions is being codependent. I vividly remember living that way, but after a lot of very hard work, I’m now able to have healthy relationships instead of destructive ones.
I hope sharing this helps other people recognize codependency and take steps towards managing it in their own lives or with someone they love. Thankfully, I’ve been able to radically change my experience and the best advice I think I can give is to reach out, get help, learn more, and focus on your own needs first. You can overcome codependency. You absolutely can.