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7 Signs of Codependency - and How to Change

Updated on January 9, 2015

Why Am I Codependent?

The simple answer is "Because it was passed on to you by those who were supposed to protect you. Sad but true."

Chances are very good that you were raised in a less than healthy environment where some level of abuse occurred. It could have shown up as verbal ("You're an idiot", "I wish you were never born", "You're no good"), physical, sexual or emotional (deliberately making you feel alone, terrified, unloved, confused). Addiction is very often present.

At the core of codependency - and the original meaning of the term - is the all encompassing effort of one person to shield, take care of and compensate for the addict. For instance, if dad was a drunk, mom would lie to the neighbors, wear herself to the bone trying to be both the mother and father, and put up with dad's abuse for the sake of keeping the family together. She is consumed with worry, resentment and fear. Living like this is draining, so much so that the needs of the children, often emotional, go unmet. Everyone learns to lie, ignore their feelings of fear and pain, and most of all, not to talk about 'it',

Is it any wonder, then, that these children grow up to feel alone, secretive, out of touch with their true emotions, guilty, depressed and ashamed?

When a child is raised in a home where there is ongoing tension, anger, fear and general instability, certain 'survival traits' begin to manifest. These eventually become the core personality of the victims of addiction and abuse (or neglect). These symptoms include:

  • low self-esteem
  • anxiety
  • poor or non-existent boundaries
  • controlling
  • not able to trust
  • anger/rage
  • poor communicator - can't convey what they are feeling or thinking
  • amnesia
  • sexual dysfunction
  • secretive
  • lies easily
  • sleep problems
  • ongoing physical issues
  • track record of dysfunctional relationships
  • numbed out
  • shame filled
  • abandonment issues
  • thought disorders (fuzzy or unclear thinking)

The list goes on, but if you can relate to more than two of these, you are codependent. Each disorder can be its own topic for discussion, but in the context of this article, the important point to see is that the people and events that shaped your life in these unhealthy ways are still very much in control. The only way to overcome their effects is to take away their power.

7 Traits of Codependency

There are many, many traits that emerge from being codependent. For simplification, I've broken them down into seven categories. Understanding them is a good place to begin the process of undoing decades of bad wiring (lies.)

  1. Highly Self-Critical - When a child grows up hearing messages like "You're so stupid" or "You're ugly," on a regular basis, those 'lies' become the only truth they know. As an adult, he or she then repeats the lie. "I'm stupid." "I'm ugly." Those ongoing tapes in their heads constantly reinforce the beliefs from their childhood. They are always afraid of being less than others. It's a common reflex to be critical of others in the attempt to make themselves feel better for a moment. Self-loathing, a fear of intimacy ("What if they find out what a loser I really am?") is common. In addition, they tend to have a negative attitude in general.
  2. Self Destructive - This is an obvious outcome of trait #1. When she truly believes she is worthless, the codependent will not allow herself to even dream of a happy life. She will settle for the painful, mediocre existence she believes she deserves. There is often a separation from any sort of higher power and a terrible, neurotic fear of death. She feels powerless and victimized, often making choices that will guarantee her failure. Addictive behavior is also an easy and common trap for self-destructive people.
  3. Inconsistent - When a person is self-destructive, he or she can't help but be inconsistent. They are procrastinators; finding it next to impossible to finish projects - especially if it might result in a shred of happiness for them. Believing they don't deserve it, they will jeopardize themselves in order to end up with the pain and disappointment they believe they do deserve.
  4. Can't Say "NO" - Because they feel feel unlovable, codependents have a very hard time with boundaries. Everyone's needs have equal importance to them and they will wear themselves out trying to make sure all of them are met...and exceeded! They end up feeling exhausted and resentful but do not have the ability to say 'no' to anyone. They often become martyrs ("I try so hard to make her happy") They feel responsible for everyone. They are the ones who get through a conversation without saying "I'm sorry" several times. Sexual promiscuity is common due to a lack of self-worth.
  5. Difficulty Maintaining Healthy Relationships - Insecurity, fear of intimacy and lack of good role models makes it difficult for many codependents to get into and maintain relationships with people who are emotionally healthy. They often act or speak out inappropriately and this sends the wrong signal to others. Intimate relationships are often based in the same dysfunctional beliefs as they learned in childhood because that is all they know. Drawn to drama and pain, the codependent will recreate the very life they are trying so hard to break free of. In addition, there is often a very real loss of identity, meaning they don't really have a good sense of who they are, so they act fake; becoming whatever the other person wants. Of course, no long-term relationship can be sustained on this kind of behavior.
  6. Given to Mood Swings - Being codependent is like standing on shifting sand. One day you think you can handle life, the next day, it feels completely overwhelming. Emotionally healthy people are able to disengage, think things through, feel their feelings and then keep going. Not codependents. Our emotions drive the train. When we get angry (which is often) the result is a deep, bottomless depression. We lose days at a time, unable to function. This, of course is the reason we have to deal with issue #2 above. In addition, we are prone to periods of terrible anxiety, where we can become suicidal. Once we pass through that, we are easily swayed into becoming manically happy and obsessed with something or someone we believe is going to make us happy. When that doesn't work out, we fall back into despair and depression. Numbness and the inability to think clearly muddles our efforts to live a normal life. Many times this is because we never really dealt with so many painful events of our past. Ongoing fear and a general nervousness are common for codependents.
  7. Prone to Ongoing Physical Problems - There's three reasons why this is the case. First, by being sick (whether real or made up), we finally get the attention we never got as a child. It's wonderful to have people fussing over us; making exceptions for us. Finally, we're special. The second is that we're not good at taking care of ourselves. Either we are trying to hurt ourselves by neglecting our bodies because we don't believe we deserve to be healthy, or we just don't have the energy to make the proper choices for healthy living. Third, many forms of physical problems are the manifestations of unresolved trauma. If we do not seek out help for the toxic events of our past, the physical issues they cause can destroy us.

Tools for Change

The single, most important tool you have in the efforts to reclaim your life is knowledge. The majority of people who display codependent behavior don't know it. They do not have the knowledge needed to make a decision to change.

  • Read everything you can get your hands on regarding codependency. You'll realize immediately that what you thought was craziness on your part is all just part of the disorder. Learn about the roles that ongoing shaming, trauma, abuse, addiction and other toxic events have played in your life. You aren't crazy, the environment you grew up in was.
  • Make a commitment to do whatever it takes to overcome your circumstances. The simple truth is that no one can do this for you. Blaming others is just a reaction, it's not the way to get healthy. Don't waste another minute letting yourself be a victim. Get proactive. The more work you do, the stronger and more empowered you will become.
  • Seek out like-minded people. Codependency is like any other addiction. It runs our lives, leaving us feeling out of control. Find a group such as AA or ACA (adult children of alcoholics), NA (narcotics anonymous) or group therapy to be with others who are committed to working out their issues. Drugs and alcohol present the same challenges as what you're dealing with.
  • Be willing to acknowledge a higher power. There are those who don't believe that 'religion" is necessary to heal. I encourage you to seek not religion, but relationship with God in a way that works for you. Remember that God gives all of us free choice and He didn't cause your pain, people did.
  • Learn how to incorporate Mindfulness, the simple art of non-judgmental self-awareness, into each moment. It will gradually transform how you live.
  • If you have serious physical issues that may be the result of past trauma, I urge you to seek out professional help. Go to Peter Levine is a recognized expert in this field. His information is good place to start.

You are about to undertake the monumental task of rediscovering who you really are. You
will no doubt get frustrated along the way. Please be gentle with yourself. Do not give up. Don't listen to the damaged people from your past (or maybe even your present) who don't want you to be free and happy. Don't worry about fixing anyone but you. If you are truly ready to let all that pain go, then nothing can stop you. It's going to take time. But look how long it took you to get to this point. Keep going. You are worth it.

Jeanette Menter is the author of, "You're Not Crazy - You're Codependent" including A Guide to Recovery Through Mindfulness. Available at


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    • jmenter profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeanette Menter 

      4 years ago from las vegas

      Hi Denise...I believe that when we carry the effects of our toxic past around all the time, we become, in a sense, broken. But we sure don't have to stay that way. Thanks for reading!

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 

      4 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      With all that a person with codependency is dealing with, it is easy to see what they have difficulty in relationships, both with friendships, and romantic relationships. Just knowing that one is not "broken" in this instance is helpful!


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