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Codependency Defined

Let's try to get some clarity on an issue that is important but often challenging to define.

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Codependency is a widely discussed topic that can be foggy to define and is therefore often misunderstood.  Defining codependency is a real challenge. If you Google it you will find more information than you know what to do with. I’ve worked with codependency for a long time, and I’d like to share some information about it that I think is the most clear and helpful for people to know.

The simplest definition is that codependency is difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships. This may be a little on the vague side, but in my experience codependency can manifest in several different ways so I don’t like to get too specific when defining it.

To be more specific, my preferred list of criteria comes from the 12 Step program Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA).  This list is on the long side, but since codependency can look like different things I like that the CoDA list tries to encompass all of them.  The CoDA list breaks the criteria down into five categories of patterns: denial, low self-esteem, compliance, control, and avoidance.  

When people look at this list, a common question is, “How many of these items do I need to check off to be codependent?”  While there’s no specific number you need to hit, my rule of thumb is if you identify with more of the items than not then you might have some codependency issues.  

Due to the length of this list I’m not going to unpack each of the criteria, as that would make this a very long blog post!  I will make future posts where I do go through each of the categories separately and elaborate on each of the items within them.

So here is the list created by CoDA:

DENIAL PATTERNS

CODEPENDENTS OFTEN…

  • Have difficulty identifying what they are feeling
  • Minimize, alter, or deny how they truly feel.
  • Perceive themselves as completely unselfish and dedicated to the well- being of others
  • Lack empathy for the feelings and needs of others.
  • Label others with their negative traits.
  • Think they can take care of themselves without any help from others.
  • Mask pain in various ways such as anger, humor, or isolation.
  • Express negativity or aggression in indirect and passive ways.
  • Do not recognize the unavailability of those people to whom they are attracted.

LOW SELF-ESTEEM PATTERNS

CODEPENDENTS OFTEN…

  • Have difficulty making decisions.
  •  Judge what they think, say, or do harshly, as never good enough.
  • Are embarrassed to receive recognition, praise, or gifts.
  • Value others’ approval of their thinking, feelings, and behavior over their own.
  • Do not perceive themselves as lovable or worthwhile persons.
  • Seek recognition and praise to overcome feeling less than.
  • Have difficulty admitting a mistake.
  • Need to appear to be right in the eyes of others and may even lie to look good.
  • Are unable to identify or ask for what they need and want.
  • Perceive themselves as superior to others.
  • Look to others to provide their sense of safety.
  • Have difficulty getting started, meeting deadlines, and completing projects.
  • Have trouble setting healthy priorities and boundaries.

COMPLIANCE PATTERNS

CODEPENDENTS OFTEN…

  • Are extremely loyal, remaining in harmful situations too long.
  • Compromise their own values and integrity to avoid rejection or anger.
  • Put aside their own interests in order to do what others want.
  • Are hypervigilant regarding the feelings of others and take on those feelings.
  • Are afraid to express their beliefs, opinions, and feelings when they differ from those of others.
  • Accept sexual attention when they want love.
  • Make decisions without regard to the consequences.
  • Give up their truth to gain the approval of others or to avoid change.

CONTROL PATTERNS

CODEPENDENTS OFTEN…

  • Believe people are incapable of taking care of themselves.
  • Attempt to convince others what to think, do, or feel.
  • Freely offer advice and direction without being asked.
  • Become resentful when others decline their help or reject their advice.
  • Lavish gifts and favors on those they want to influence.
  • Use sexual attention to gain approval and acceptance.
  • Have to feel needed in order to have a relationship with others.
  • Demand that their needs be met by others.
  • Use charm and charisma to convince others of their capacity to be caring and compassionate.
  • Use blame and shame to exploit others emotionally.
  • Refuse to cooperate, compromise, or negotiate.
  • Adopt an attitude of indifference, helplessness, authority, or rage to manipulate outcomes.
  • Use recovery jargon in an attempt to control the behavior of others.
  • Pretend to agree with others to get what they want.

AVOIDANCE PATTERNS

CODEPENDENTS OFTEN…

  • Act in ways that invite others to reject, shame, or express anger toward them.
  • Judge harshly what others think, say, or do.
  • Avoid emotional, physical, or sexual intimacy as a way to maintain distance.
  • Allow addictions to people, places, and things to distract them from achieving intimacy in relationships.
  • Use indirect or evasive communication to avoid conflict or confrontation.
  • Diminish their capacity to have healthy relationships by declining to use the tools of recovery.
  • Suppress their feelings or needs to avoid feeling vulnerable.
  • Pull people toward them, but when others get close, push them away.
  • Refuse to give up their self-will to avoid surrendering to a power greater than themselves.
  • Believe displays of emotion are a sign of weakness.
  • Withhold expressions of appreciation.
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