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Darlene Lancer, JD, MFTDarlene Lancer, JD, MFT
A blog about Women’s Issues, Self-esteem and Relationships

Symptoms of Codependency

Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT Updated: Feb 10th 2012

sad womanThe term codependency has been around for almost four decades. Although it originally applied to spouses of alcoholics, first called co-alcoholics, research revealed that the characteristics of codependents were much more prevalent in the general population than had been imagined. In fact, they found that if you were raised in a dysfunctional family or had an ill parent, it's likely that you're codependent. Don't feel bad if that includes you. Most families in America are dysfunctional, so that covers just about everyone, you're in the majority! They also found that codependent symptoms got worse if untreated, but the good news was that they were reversible.

Here's a list of symptoms. You needn't have all of them to qualify as codependent.

  • Low self-esteem - Not feeling that you're good enough or comparing yourself to others is a sign of low self-esteem. The tricky thing about self-esteem is that some people think highly of themselves, but it's only a camouflage for really feeling unlovable or inadequate. Underneath, usually hidden from consciousness, are feelings of shame. Some of the things that go along with low self-esteem are guilt feelings and perfectionism. If everything is perfect, you don't feel bad about yourself
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  • People pleasing - It's fine to want to please someone you care about, but codependents usually don't think they have a choice. Saying "No" causes them anxiety. Some codependents have a hard time saying "No" to anyone. They go out of their way and sacrifice their own needs to accommodate other people.
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  • Poor Boundaries - Boundaries are sort of an imaginary line between you and others. It divides up what's yours and somebody else's, and that applies not only to your body, money, and belongings, but also to your feelings, thoughts and needs. That's especially where codependents get into trouble. They have blurry or weak boundaries between themselves and others. They feel responsible for other people's feelings and problems or blame their own on someone else.

    Some codependents have rigid boundaries. They are closed off and withdrawn, making it hard for other people to get close to them. Sometimes, people flip back and forth between having weak boundaries and rigid ones.

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  • Reactivity - A consequence of poor boundaries is that you react to everyone's thoughts and feelings. If someone says something you disagree with, you either believe it or become defensive. You absorb their words, because there's no boundary. With a boundary, you'd realize it was just their opinion and not a reflection of you and not feel threatened by disagreements.
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  • Caretaking - Another effect of poor boundaries is that if someone else has a problem, you want to help them to the point that you give up yourself. It's natural to feel empathy and sympathy for someone, but codependents start putting other people ahead of themselves. In fact, they need to help and might feel rejected if another person doesn't want help. Moreover, they keep trying to help and fix the other person, even when that person clearly isn't taking their advice.
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  • Control - Control helps codependents feel safe and secure. Everyone needs some control over events in their life. You wouldn't want to live in constant uncertainty and chaos, but for codependents, control limits their ability to take risks and share their feelings. Sometimes they have an addiction that either helps them loosen up, like alcoholism, or helps them hold their feelings down, like workaholism, so that they don't feel out of control.

    Codependents also need to control those close to them, because they need other people to behave in a certain way to feel okay. In fact, people pleasing and caretaking can be used to control and manipulate people. Alternatively, codependents are bossy and tell you what you should or shouldn't do. This is a violation of someone else's boundary.

  • Dysfunctional communication - Codependents have trouble when it comes to communicating their thoughts, feelings and needs. Of course, if you don't know what you think, feel or need, this becomes a problem. Other times, you know, but you won't own up to your truth. You're afraid to be truthful, because you don't want to upset someone else. Instead of saying, "I don't like that," you might pretend that it's okay or tell someone what to do. Communication becomes dishonest and confusing when you try to manipulate the other person out of fear.
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  • Obsessions - Codependents have a tendency to spend their time thinking about other people or relationships. This is caused by their dependency and anxieties and fears. They can also become obsessed when they think they've made or might make a "mistake."

    Sometimes you can lapse into fantasy about how you'd like things to be or about someone you love as a way to avoid the pain of the present. This is one way to stay in denial, discussed below, but it keeps you from living your life.

  • Dependency - Codependents need other people to like them to feel okay about themselves and they're afraid of being rejected or abandoned - even if they can function on their own. Others need to always be in a relationship, because they feel depressed or lonely when they're by themselves for too long. This trait makes it hard for them to end a relationship, even when the relationship is painful or abusive. They end up feeling trapped.
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  • Denial - One of the problems people face in getting help for codependency is that they're in denial about it, meaning that they don't face their problem. Usually they think the problem is someone else or the situation. They either keep complaining or trying to fix the other person, or go from one relationship or job to another and never own up the fact that they have a problem.

    Codependents also deny their feelings and needs. Often times, they don't know what they're feeling and are instead focused on what others are feeling. The same thing goes for their needs. They pay attention to other people's needs and not their own. They might be in denial of their need for space and autonomy. Although some codependents seem needy, others act like they're self-sufficient when it comes to needing help. They won't reach out and have trouble receiving. They are in denial of their vulnerability and need for love and intimacy.

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  • Problems with intimacy - By this I'm not referring to sex, although sexual dysfunction is often a reflection of an intimacy problem. I'm talking about being open and close with someone in an intimate relationship. Because of the shame and weak boundaries, you might fear that you'll be judged, rejected, or left. On the other hand, you may fear smothered in a relationship and losing your autonomy. You might deny your need for closeness and feel that your partner wants too much of your time; your partner complains that you're unavailable, but he or she is denying his or her need for separateness.
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  • Painful emotions - Codependency creates stress and leads to painful emotions. Shame and low self-esteem create anxiety and fear about:
    • Being judged
    • Being rejected or abandoned
    • Making mistakes
    • Being a failure
    • Being close and feeling trapped
    • Being alone

The other symptoms lead to feelings of anger and resentment, depression, hopelessness, and despair. When the feelings are too much, you can feel numb.

There is help for recovery and change. The first step is getting guidance and support. These symptoms are deeply ingrained habits and difficult to identify and change on your own. Join a Twelve Step program, such as Codependents Anonymous or seek counseling. Work on becoming more assertive and building your self-esteem.

Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT

Darlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and expert on relationships and codependency. She’s counseled individuals and couples for 27 years and coaches internationally and is the author of two books: Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You and Codependency for Dummies. Her ebooks include: 10 Steps to Self-Esteem, How To Speak Your Mind - Become Assertive and Set Limits, Spiritual Transformation in the Twelve Steps and Codependency Recovery Daily Reflections. Ms. Lancer is a sought after speaker at national conferences, on radio, and to professional groups and institutions. Her articles appear in professional journals and Internet mental health websites, including on her own, www.darlenelancer.com and www.whatiscodependency.com, where you can get a free copy of “14 Tips for Letting Go.” Find her on www.youtube.com, Twitter @darlenelancer, and Facebook.

    Reader Comments
    Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

    You do realize that this theory is a hoax, right? - Red - Jul 2nd 2014

    Listen, ladies and gents: there is no empirical data whatsoever to suggest that codependency even exists. The theory of codependency has not been accepted by the AMA or the APA and has never been included in any edition of the DSM. Therefore, you will never get any form of differential diagnosis to determine whether you have this dreaded "spiritual disease" or are simply a normal person because no hard-and-fast diagnostic tool exists. It is, however, a fantastic way to make money if you want to get into the cottage industry of writing self-help books for insecure and vulnerable people, who are looking for answers and will buy almost anything. Also, if you are therapist, you must surely be aware that no permanent "cure" for codependency exists, thereby ensuring that the patient will stay in therapy indefinitely. Let's face it, any so-called "disease" or "character defect" whose symptoms encompass virtually every behavioral and emotional trait known to mankind will be a great moneymaker for those who want to con you into believing that they can treat it.

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