Codependency: Causes and Moving Towards Interdependence 

Melissa Bennett-Heinz
LCSW, LICSW, Gestalt Psychotherapist

self help/codependency

It is widely accepted that codependency is rooted in our childhood experiences. A child developing that is either having their emotions ignored or punished when expressing emotions, can lead to codependency, or as I think of it, a complete denial of one's own needs for someone else's gains. The emotional neglect or damage can negatively affect a child and cause them to one to feel worthless, unseen and shamed. Someone who is codependent believes their needs are not worth attending to nor have they ever learned how to feel, accurately name, or express emotions, needs or wants. While it is healthy to and normative to need and rely on other people, people who are codependent in their relationships are overly dependent on others emotionally. They need others to tell them that their feelings and needs are valid, that their opinions are acceptable, that they are good enough and they rely on others for their identity and sense of worth.

What's the link between codependency and attachment style? Codependence is, by nature, an anxious attachment style.  We begin our lives at birth completely dependent on our caregivers for our survival and this attachment/depended-ness goes on for almost two decades (or longer). A person who is codependent is seeking worthiness and love or belonging based on feelings of insecurity or inadequacy and requires the other person to give it to them. A codependent person looks to the other to repair a rupture in self-esteem, alleviate pain, and feel whole and worthy. This wound begins with our caregivers and the environment that surrounds us. 

What are actionable tips to switch from codependent to interdependent? First off, take a breath. It is not at all uncommon for many people to be codependent - it feels good to assist others and it's easy to become lost in a relationship that's important to you. Even trained professionals need consultation in setting and maintaining boundaries - it's hard for anyone to have an objective experience of themselves. You are likely doing the best you can with what you know to do. Be willing to be curious - this is the key! Some things to notice about yourself: How do you take care of yourself? Do you find yourself saying yes to things you often regret later? Do you feel drained either emotionally, physically, or financially? Are you resentful of a friend, loved one, or partner for your giving/helping? Have you neglected yourself self and put yourself second to someone else? It's possible to make changes. Here are a few tips to move from codependent to independent: 1) Begin by adding another voice to your internal dialogue by telling yourself it's okay to say no and you're still worthy even if you're not doing something for someone else. Even if you don't believe the words, start telling yourself a different story about yourself; 2) Take a manageable step of action in setting smaller boundaries such as saying no to things such as dinner out or helping someone else finish a project/clean their house/give a ride; 3) Practice hitting an internal pause button and ask yourself if it's something you want to be doing. If this feels like a big step, it might just hit the pause button, and when someone asks you for something, simply respond by saying you're going to need to think about it before answering; 4) Check in with yourself and ask how it feels to just pause. Take a breath - you're likely going to feel anxious and tightening/tension somewhere in your body. You can say yes or no later, but begin by checking in with yourself first. This accomplishment will help to build your confidence, and self-worth, and reduce your levels of anxiety; 5) Practice mindfulness - being present in the moment without judgment, simply noticing or observing what's happening from moment to moment without commenting or attaching an opinion; 6) Meditate or begin a practice of breathwork to calm your system down. There are a lot of apps - paid and free - that offer guided meditations, relaxation, and breathwork. Even just doing this for 5-10 minutes a day will help bring some calm to your system that can have lasting effects throughout the day.  

Practicing living these tips will not be easy and I still worry. Do your best to stay present and things one step at a time, one day at a time. Your happiness cannot be dependent to another persons behaviors and choices. You may need to wade into safer waters slowly while other people may need or desire to jump in. Either way will help shift you away from drowning in codependency.

“Ever since people first existed, they have been doing all the things we label "codependent." They have worried themselves sick about other people. They have tried to help in ways that didn't help. They have said yes when they meant no. They have tried to make other people see things their way. They have bent over backwards avoiding hurting people's feelings and, in so doing, have hurt themselves. They have been afraid to trust their feelings...they have worn sackcloth because they didn't believe they deserved silk.”


Melody Beattie