What Is Codependency?

There is a very simple way to understand codependency: It’s the process in which a person regularly puts one – or more – people’s needs, comfort, and approval above their own needs, comfort and self-respect. If you regularly put someone else’s “okayness” above your own in order to keep them happy, make them stay, prevent problems for them, or win their approval then you are most likely struggling with codependency. If you are doing this, you will probably feel exhausted, overwhelmed, not good enough, and resentful. Of course, this way of living is personally painful. However, it also destroys relationships because we are not being authentic with them with reduces intimacy and increases resentment. Disconnection, and resentment, of course, break down relationships with others. This way of living also reinforces low self-respect and self-esteem as well as disconnection from the self. A common symptom in codependency is not knowing who you are, or having lost yourself along the way.

However, since codependency is a term that often is unclear, or confusing, even though many people resonate with it, I wanted to create a clear definition of it. My definition of codependency is featured in both of my books; The Codependency Recovery Plan: A 5-Step Guide to Understand, Accept and Break Free from the Codependent Cycle and The Codependency Workbook: Simple Practices for Developing and Maintaining Your Independence.

My definition of codependency is:

Codependency is the process in which people’s focus on the world is external, so they seek their worth, and proof of their worth, from others rather than using an internal compass. Their focus is on “other worth,” instead of “self-worth.” A person who is codependent doesn’t believe in their inherent value, so they believe they need external measures to “prove” their merit.

A classic example of codependency is a person believing their spouse’s addiction is proof of their worthlessness. This false belief then leads to another false belief which is that if their spouse recovers then, they will have worth and value. These beliefs will then drive them to spend much of their energy trying to fix, or heal, their spouse. This will likely lead to a cycle of resentment between both spouses; the codependent partner will resent that they can’t “fix” the other and thereby, are still “worthless,” and the addicted partner will resent trying to be changed or controlled.

Another common example of codependency is a single person believing that they will be lovable when someone wants to be in a relationship with them. They will then be desperate to have proof of their lovability so they will likely date people who don’t share their values or meet their needs and spend months, or even years, in relationships that ultimately won’t lead to lasting commitment, joy or peace.

Of course, as evidenced by these examples, living in codependency is a deeply painful way to live as it drives us to find proof of our value and yet, invest our energy in ways that will never lead to self-love or self-respect.

The healthy contrast to codependency is interdependency. This occurs when a person is focused internally first, because they trust in their inherent worth. They have a healthy sense of self and self-respect, so their actions reflect self-awareness, maturity, and integrity. So, an interdependent person would still likely love to see their spouse recover from an addiction, but their experience is vastly different than someone’s in codependency. They will know, deeply, that their spouse’s addiction – or recovery – isn’t a reflection of their worth as they know they have value no matter what. They also know that they can only support, not fix, their spouse. Or, a single person may still desire a committed relationship but will only invest in potential relationships when they identify their dating partner shares their values, respects their needs, and wants a lasting relationship too.

Interdependent relationships are mature, healthy and stable ones. They are made up of two adults who each have self-love and self-respect and are clear on their personal needs.  Each person in the relationship is responsible to either meet their own needs or seek support when they need assistance. And since, they also have other-love and other-respect, when they need support, they communicate their needs kindly and clearly. They also understand the ongoing need for compromise and negotiation because both people know they matter equally.