The word “co-dependency” is typically used to describe people who rely on others to make them happy by thinking well of them. Since others don’t always appreciate them, this approach often leads to an unhealthy relationship. Co-dependents usually live their lives in the shadow of someone else. They may feel controlled by others and they also may feel the need to control others so they will feel affirmed.
Co-dependency is learned. It includes behaviors, feelings, and beliefs which lead to sacrificing values and personal needs in exchange for love and approval of others. Co-dependents frequently take responsibility for others, while neglecting their own wants and needs. They are caretakers out of the need to be perceived as worthwhile since they are desperate for approval. This is much different from caretakers who feel secure in themselves and help people out of an abundance of altruism and generosity.
Most co-dependents appear to be strong and in control. However, inside they often feel inadequate and scared, and they desperately fear a loss of control. The need to control is usually an attempt to reduce their anxiety and self-loathing.
Many co-dependent people have been raised in dysfunctional families. They often were not respected and they were taught that they were not important. They were encouraged to set aside their own needs and wants, and take care of others. In many cases, missed being carefree and childlike while they were taking care of other family members.
People experience co-dependency in different ways. Typical characteristics might include:
- An exaggerated sense of responsibility and at the same time, having difficulty making decisions.
- A preoccupation with others wants and problems, while neglecting themselves. This includes being compassionate and loyal even to those who might be hurtful to them. It also involves a difficulty knowing and expressing their own feelings - and yet having sensitivity toward others feelings. Others' attitudes determine their reaction and other people are responsible for their happiness.
- Difficulty in maintaining healthy relationships. Co-dependents may have learned that "love" and pain go together, and therefore they gravitate to needy or abusive people. They fear being rejected and hurt. They may appear non-demanding, but beneath this is a feeling of urgency for love and approval. There is a reluctance to trust others because that involves being vulnerable and/or asking for help. There is also a fear of abandonment, rejection, and loneliness, and, therefore, the co-dependent will easily sacrifice their own needs to keep a relationship intact.
- Perfectionism. Co-dependents set inordinate expectations for themselves, thinking that if they succeed they will gain worth. Because what others do is a reflection of themselves, co-dependents also expect a lot of others.
- Guilt, often felt when co-dependents stand up for themselves or are criticized. Co-dependents also experience discomfort when they are praised.
- A tendency to use food, exercise, work, sex, excitement, and alcohol or drugs to help deny problems and to numb uncomfortable feelings.The job of recovering from co-dependency is to become "undependent." This involves learning to love, accept, nurture and take care of themselves. It includes realizing that they alone are the center of their own lives and that others, although important, should not become more important than they are. It also entails accepting responsibility for creating their own experiences and feelings; while at the same time not taking responsibility for the experiences and feelings of others. As co-dependents learn to love and trust themselves, they will discover they have plenty of energy to do what they want to do and still have energy left over to care and interact with others.