People unconsciously learn behaviours over the course of their lives to protect and manage their needs. These become second nature, so that they stop questioning their usefulness and apply them automatically, whether they are good for them or not.
The same mechanism applies to codependency. Codependents are non-alcoholic or drug addicted people who are close to an alcoholic or drug addict. They suffer from “a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual condition similar to alcoholism.”(1)
Codependents often find themselves in a vicious circle by practicing behaviours that generate destructive reactions from the addicted person they’re attached to. These in turn, fuel the codependent’s dissatisfaction with himself/herself.
What codependents need to understand is that their behaviour is just a coping mechanism and it doesn’t make them bad or defective. These “self-protective devices may have outgrown their usefulness. […] and become self-destructive”(2) In essence, they’ve “been doing the wrong things for the right reasons.”(3)
But all this can change. It’s not easy. It’s not quick. But it’s worth it. Codependents will have to work on replacing old, learned behaviours with new, healthy habits.
Let’s look at five codependent behaviours and see what can be done to move away from them and onto the road to recovery:
Codependents feel responsible for other people’s feelings and actions. They feel compelled to help others solve their problems. That’s how they end up doing things they don’t really want to do, doing more than their fair share of work or doing things other people are already capable of doing for themselves. Needy people are attractive for codependents.
Codependents neglect their own needs by telling themselves they’re not important. They are left feeling unappreciated and used.
What can be done? People need to learn to be aware of their behaviour and not let themselves be controlled by others or allow themselves to be manipulated, shamed or coerced into doing things they don’t want to do. Codependents must stand up for themselves by learning to gently express needs: “I love you, but I love me too. This is what I need to do to take care of me.”
Codependents aren’t content with themselves and look for happiness outside themselves. They’re constantly trying to prove themselves worthy of appreciation or love and seek approval without thinking if other people are good for them. They don’t believe they can take care of themselves so they stay in relationships that don’t work and tolerate abuse to keep people loving them.
What can be done? People are only responsible for themselves – not others’ feelings and behaviours. Showing compassion and concern can be done without trying to rescue the chemically dependent. Learning to express feelings, without trying to fix things – is key. The codependent can simply say: “I’m sorry you’re having that problem.” and then let go.
Nobody has to feel guilty or ashamed for having needs and problems. It’s OK to be ourselves, with our feelings and thoughts. Talking openly and sharing is beneficial, even though people might not see immediate effects.
Codependents often blame themselves for everything, reject praise, but then get depressed from a lack of compliments. They think they’re never good enough and that their lives aren’t worth living, so they try to help others live instead.
They’re afraid of making mistakes, are perfectionists and find it hard to make decisions for themselves. Their life is governed by “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts”.
What can be done? Codependents may find it useful to practice listening to what people are saying and not saying’ without over-interpreting words. Even when people have done things they aren’t proud of, they can forgive themselves and quit hurting. Codependents might be afraid of rejection and therefore have adopted protection mechanisms. But if these aren’t proving effective, they have to unlearn them rather than letting them sabotage their life.
Codependents are indirect: they often don’t say what they actually mean, they blame or beg others. They take themselves too seriously, but also don’t feel that they are being taken seriously. They find it hard to get to the point and ask for their rights as they think they’re undeserving. They avoid talking about themselves as they believe their opinions don’t matter.
What can be done? There’s nothing wrong with talking about oneself or asking for what one needs. People don’t have to be afraid to talk about problems, express feelings and opinions. It’s their right to stand up for themselves.
They can try to be gentle and loving with themselves, but also be firm when somebody is mistreating them. Taking responsibility for communication and speaking one’s mind without judging oneself is an extremely liberating and useful skill.
Codependents have a high tolerance level. Although they say they won’t tolerate certain behaviours from other people, they gradually increase their tolerance until they do allow things they said they never would. They keep letting people hurt them and continue to stand there, while they complain and blame.
What can be done? Codependents need to learn to say no. Their opinions can be different from other people. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong. They don’t have to change opinions to suit anybody and neither does the other person, unless either of them wants to.
People can be assertive without being aggressive, by saying: “This is as far as I go. This is my limit. I will not tolerate this.”
We can all learn to do things differently, we just have to choose to try a different way. If that doesn’t work, there’s always another way to try. As Melody Beattie wisely puts it – above all, remember that “The only way out is through.”(4)
(1), (2), (3), (4) – Codependent No More: How To Stop Controlling Others And Start Caring for Yourself – Melody Beattie, Second Edition 1992, Hazelden.
Page last reviewed and clinically fact-checked | June 14, 2021