Do you get so consumed with the needs of others, that you lose sight of your own?
Do you struggle with focusing on caring for yourself?
There's no shame in codependency—I've struggled with it for years. And I believe nearly everyone struggles with it on some level.
Learn the surprising antidote to codependency and how to take steps toward healthy dependence in this episode of The Best of You.
1. What is codependency?
2. What’s the difference between being kind and being codependent?
3. What are some examples of codependent behaviors?
4. Five signs that you might have codependent tendencies.
5. Two indicators you might be in a codependent relationship
6. Three practical ways to move toward healthy dependence
Key Takeaway: There’s a difference between being kind—and caring for someone else while causing harm to yourself.
Questions for reflection:
What keeps you from noticing and focusing on your own needs?
Which of the 3 steps offered at the end of this episode can you take to move toward healthy dependence?
Women Who Love Too Much, by Robin Norwood
Codependent No More, by Melodie Beattie
The Empathy Trap—blog post
Check out the Human Hope Podcast mentioned in this episode here
Hey, everyone. I'm Dr. Alison and I'm so glad you're here to discover what brings out the best of you. This podcast is all about breaking free from painful patterns, mending the past, and discovering our true selves in God. I can't wait to get started, as we learn together how to become the best version of who we are with God's help.
Hey, everyone, I'm so glad you're back for this fifth episode in our series on psychology buzzwords. I can't believe I've recorded five podcast episodes. And, at some point, I will record a whole podcast episode on the learning curve this has been for me, and all that it's brought up inside of me.
As I think any change, no matter how big or little, anything new that we take on brings up vulnerabilities inside of us. And it's been so interesting, to me, to see those come up inside of me through this process.
So thank you so much for being here. I am so grateful for your notes, for the comments you leave, for the shares, for the messages you send me. It helps me so much to understand what helps you, what's meaningful to you, and to just encourage me to continue to show up here every week and have these conversations with you.
Today, we are discussing one of my very favorite topics, which is codependency. Now the truth is, it's taken me a good 15 years to be able to say that this is one of my very favorite topics.
I used to hate this word codependency. In fact, one of my earliest encounters with this word was not so much in graduate school, as it was in one of my early counseling sessions. In which I was the client, and my therapist thought it applied to me and boy did I not like that. I did not like that at all, at the time.
I prided myself on my self-sufficiency. I prided myself that I didn't need anything from other people. I prided myself on the ways I only helped others. I was a psychologist. I wasn't co-dependent, who did she think she was? Oh, did that get to me.
Well, she was right. I absolutely have struggled with codependency. And with hindsight and a lot of work and a lot of self-reflection. I realized I've struggled with it most of my life and I've learned to embrace that struggle.
Because, as I always say, when I'm honest with myself, when I'm honest with God, when I'm honest with a few other people who I trust, I'm free. My soul is free, and it is a great way to live.
So I am excited to talk about this word today. Because I've become a bit of an expert on it, not just as a clinician, but in my own personal life.
So let's dive in what is codependency? Well, the term codependency first came about and is most often identified with addiction recovery movement, specifically A.A. Now it's so interesting, I want you to hear me explain this because I don't think people realize this when they throw around this buzzword of codependency.
But it started off, if you think about it, so we're going to break it down. Codependent, -co- means together or part of. Dependent means dependent on something.
So how this started was folks who were in addiction recovery programs. They were addicted to alcohol, addicted to substances were considered dependent. They were considered dependent on that substance. And what people began to realize was that often there was a family member who was a codependent.
And what that meant is that the codependent person isn't directly dependent on the substance, however, they're very much part of the addiction patterns. They're very much a part of the whole system of addiction, and in many ways, kind of contributing to the pattern of addiction.
So there's, that's where this word came from this codependent. Co- meaning mutual or together, and then -dependency meaning dependent on something unhealthy. So while the co-dependent person isn't dependent directly, maybe they're not the one with the direct problem. They're partnering with that person in a way that facilitates these unhealthy patterns of behaviors, so it's a partnership.
When we think of co-parenting, when we think of co-operating, it's a partnership, there's a partnership in this pattern of behavior. So that was the original inception of this idea of codependency. Partnering with a relationship that is unhealthy and leading to both people, essentially, contributing to a problem and both people needing to heal.
The dependent person, whoever it is that's dependent on the substance at the time, needs to heal from that. But also the codependent person needs to heal. Because there's something they're getting from that relationship, and there's something they're getting from caring for that person. Or enabling is the word that is sometimes used, some people don't like that word, but that you're getting something from facilitating those addictive patterns of behavior.
Now, this word has broadened a lot, and two women, in particular, in the 1980s. There's a book called Women Who Love Too Much by Robin Norwood. And another book called Codependent No More by Melody Beattie. Both of them came out in the mid-1980s and were super popular.
These books really got into a broader idea of this term codependency. That it's not just related to substances, or substance abuse, or alcoholism. But that any relationship where one person becomes so focused on covering over, or protecting, or facilitating another person's unhealthy behaviors.
They become a partner in the unhealthy of the other person, so this becomes a codependent relationship. That this is really common and it happens in all types of relationships, all types of relationships.
So the simplest way that I've come to look at someone with codependent tendencies and I'm not talking about a codependent relationship, we'll get into that. But someone with codependent tendencies, I want to be very clear, a little side note here, is I don't like labels and if you remember that from episode one, my very first episode, I go into the whole thing about labeling people.
You won't, rarely if ever, hear me say you're a codependent. Someone is a codependent because we're not one thing, nobody is only a codependent. So I like to describe it as someone with codependent tendencies and some of us have more of those than others. Although I think most of us have some codependent tendencies.
So with that caveat in mind, the way that I like to define it is, "When someone remains so focused on another person to the exclusion of remaining true to their own sense of self." Someone who has codependent tendencies bypasses their own self, to stay focused on someone else.
Often it's well-intended. Often people with codependent tendencies are trying to help. They're often trying to alleviate pain, they often feel like they're doing what's right. They're often trying to help people who are hurting.
And in many ways, that's why this is such a complicated topic because a lot of times people who are high in empathy, people who are high in caretaking people who are genuinely helpful, whatever these genuine good qualities are, they can get mistaken for codependent tendencies.
But there's a big difference and here is the difference between being kind and being codependent. It's when the healthy thing that you're doing is actually hurting. The helping that you're doing is actually hurting both the other person inadvertently, you don't mean to. But it is actually keeping them from doing their own work and more importantly, it's causing harm to you.
So that's the difference between being kind, being empathetic, being a giving person and being codependent, it's when the helping behavior actually is causing harm. It's keeping the other person from doing their own work, and it's hurting you. Because you're bypassing your own body, your own mind, your own heart, your own needs, in the process of helping that other person.
This is why it's so hard for people with this tendency to realize, and I speak from a lot of experience here, is because we think we're helping. But we're going too far, we're taking that too far and there's a core wound inside the sense of self.
There's a core wound inside that keeps us from focusing on our own needs, from focusing on our own pain, from focusing on our own hurts, it's too hard. So we bypass that work, and we constantly stay focused on this other person. We devote ourselves to fixing other people's pains, other people's problems, and it's at the exclusion of ourselves.
So here are some examples of that, let's say you are married to someone who has a really bad temper, who hasn't done their own work and most of your emotional energy is invested in smoothing the waters after they've made a big mess. Picking up the pieces after they've lashed out at the kids, or at a neighbor, or at a friend.
You're kind of walking around after this person, this volatile person. Just waiting to catch the pieces, and all of your energy is on keeping them together. And you're not even aware of how exhausted you are, of how your own life isn't being lived. Your own dreams, your own needs, your own wants, your own desires, are on the back burner. Because you're so invested in only maintaining this other person.
Let's say you have a parent, a guilt-tripping mom or some other sibling who is very demanding of you, and you bend over backwards to keep that person happy even though you're miserable inside.
Even though you might be neglecting people in your life who really do need you. Maybe even your own family members, your kids, or even just people who really actually love you and want to pour into you. But you're so busy trying to keep this person together. In the name of helping them that you're neglecting your own needs, you're neglecting the good things in your life.
So that's a picture of codependency. There's no shame in that, I don't want you to hear shame in this. I want you, again, remember always to get curious, "Is that something I do? Do I tend to be so consumed by the needs of others that I lose sight of my own needs?"
And if that's true, "I wonder why? What is it that makes it so hard for me to pry my eyes off of that other person's problems and listen to my own needs, to my own heart, to my own soul to the cries inside of me? What would it mean for me to just shift my focus to myself a little bit, to the work of honoring my own pain of honoring what's going on inside of me? What am I afraid of which keeps me from doing that?" I want you to begin to ask yourself those questions, if you're seeing yourself in these patterns.
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In a time when we are all desperate to find glimmers of hope Carlos is leading us in conversations that bring us just that. From fun discussions about everyday joy to polarizing and challenging topics, Carlos shows, even the most calloused heart, that there is still hope in humanity.
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How do I know if I'm codependent? Here are some of the signs. You can't figure out what you think or feel apart from the other person. I see this all the time as a therapist. I'll ask someone, "What do you think about this? What do you feel about this?" And they don't know they can't answer that question.
They might even start to answer that question with, "Well, my husband thinks."
Or "Well, my friend thinks."
Or, "Well, my parents think." And it's like, "Wait, no, what do you think?"
It's like they've never had somebody, really, pause long enough to put the spotlight on them, to put the spotlight on you. And, so, what do you really think about this? I don't care what all those people around you think, I want to know what you think, so that's a sign.
Number two, you deny your own wants and needs to make sure the other person stays happy. Now, I want to be clear, there's a place, I mean, if you're a mom out there, if you're taking care of someone who's sick, there's a place where we sacrificially give to others. I want to be very clear, I am all for that because I'm a therapist, I show up for people every day.
But there's a difference between caring for someone else and caring for yourself. And caring for someone else at the expense of yourself, to where you're causing harm to yourself. If you're caring for someone else to the degree that you're starting to cause injury to yourself, that's a warning sign.
I want you to take a look at that. Even in the hardest situations, where you've got to really be in the trenches with somebody. There's always got to be some space for you to get your battery recharged, for you to get your own soul cared for.
Number three, you explain away or excuse unhealthy behavior in other people. Very common when you're in a codependent relationship with somebody. You start to make excuses for their poor behavior. You start to "Oh, no, it's fine." And your friends all know. Maybe they don't say it to you anymore because they can't get through to you.
But you're explaining it away and folks around you are going, "I don't think it is okay. I don't think they're treating you right. I don't think that they should be yelling at you. I don't think that they shouldn't be spending that much time drinking, I don't think they should be XYZ." And you're like, "No, it's fine. I'm okay, I can handle it. I can take it." You're minimizing that behavior consistently.
Another sign is you want space for yourself, but you're afraid to ask for it. You're afraid. You're afraid that if you ask for what you need, it'll make someone else angry. So that's just a sign, that's a lingering sign of codependency where you're afraid to stick up for yourself or speak up for yourself.
Because you fear what other people will think about you. You crave constant assurance that you're okay, constant external validation. Now, again, we talked about this in the episode on Self-Love, and also in the bonus Q&A about this need for validation. There's a time and a place to get validation from other people.
But when it sort of feels like there's just an insatiable need inside, like, "I don't know who I am apart from other people telling me I'm okay." That's a cue, that you're putting yourself at the mercy of other people just a little too much.
We want to have healthy dependency, we'll get into that. But you also need to be able to honor yourself, to validate yourself, to trust yourself, we'll get into that that's a big one.
That there's a both-and there, where you can feel good about yourself, and also care what other people think. So if you're constantly needing external validation, it's just a cue that there might be some codependent tendencies there. Lastly, and this is related to making excuses for, but there's a tendency to tell white lies, and these little white lies come in so many forums.
It might be someone asking you, "How are you doing today?"
And you give a big smile and say, "I'm doing great." When inside you're dying.
Again, I don't want to shame you in this. I cannot tell you how many, this is me, all right, I am talking about myself here. So I mean, I've learned not to do these things. But it's coming from a very genuine place.
It's coming from a wounded place inside. It's like, I don't know how to let people in. I don't know how to just say, "No, thank you, I can't make it to that event." So I tell a white lie and I make up an excuse, and I say, "I'm going to be out of town." When in fact, I just can't make it or I just don't want to go.
This is just a sign, I've worked on this one so much in my own life, of just learning to say, I have to still talk myself through it. "No, thank you." And I don't even have to give an excuse about why I can't be there.
But this is very common, there's no shame in it. But it is a cue to pay attention to, that you've lost some connection. And, again, just to round this out, codependency is being so invested in caring for all the needs around us.
We're being so focused on other people, that we are losing connection with our core sense of self.
In our core sense of self, we get to just say, "No thank you."
Or "I'm having a rough day. I'm not doing so great today, thank you for asking, though."
Those are self-led statements. Those are strong, healthy sense of self-statements. And when we're slipping into codependency, we've lost touch with that core self. So we're focusing on that person in front of us and making sure they feel okay before we're checking in with ourselves.
So how do I know I'm in a codependent relationship? So if you have codependent tendencies, you know we tend toward codependent relationships. So if you're asking this question, there's typically one of two ways that these types of relationships show up.
One is you might be feeling consumed by a relationship, exhausted by a relationship. You can't get the space that you need, you're not seen in the relationship, you don't have a place. You're just constantly kind of like that example I gave you. You're just constantly following somebody else around, trying to clean up their mess, and there's never really a place for you to show up in it.
The other way that you can notice a codependent relationship, is you're constantly fearful of losing their love. And, so, you hardly even can let yourself entertain the question, "What do I need in this? What about what I need here, could I speak up for myself?"
Because the very thought of that brings some anxiety about losing someone's love. Now, again, this all goes back to our wounds. We talked about trauma last week, there's no shame in this. I'm just describing these feelings, so you can begin to get curious about these patterns in your life.
It doesn't feel good when you notice these feelings in a friendship, in a marriage, even with your children. We can be codependent in any of our relationships. Where you might be aware as a parent that, "I really need to set some limits with my kids, but I'm terrified. It's so hard for me to say 'No' because I want to earn their love."
Man, if you're aware of that, first of all, I just want to say to you right now, amazing. That piece of self-awareness in and of itself is amazing. Even if you're not sure how to heal from that yet, the fact that you're aware, "I'm aware that I'm a little bit afraid to set boundaries with my kids or say no with my kids because I don't want them to get mad at me." That awareness is so wise.
That's the beginning of healing because you name it. And you're honest with yourself and you take it to God, let God know, "God, I'm fearful here." And that's the beginning of healing. So that self-awareness is a great place to be.
So, again, no shame in this, if you're noticing this with your kids, with your friendships. Where you're aware, "I really over-please, I over-perform, in order to feel like I'm keeping somebody's love. I don't want to be this way, but I'm aware of it. It's hard for me to say no, I get scared."
This is a great place to start. This is a great sense of self-awareness. Pay attention to that, don't shame yourself for that. Get curious about that, that's how healing starts.
Finally, I want to move into a picture of healthy dependence. Because the opposite of codependence, or the antidote to codependence isn't being completely self-sufficient. We are designed to be in mutually dependent relationships. We are designed to depend on other people and for other people to depend on us. We are designed to have two-way relationships, where we show up with our needs and can get them met, and where the people we love show up with their needs and can get them met.
So this kind of healthy dependence is what we're actually striving for. And what's really hard about recovering from and healing from codependency, is it's all in the context of relationships. Early on in my training, I worked a lot with disordered eating, with food issues. Ad one of the things that's really hard if you're someone who's struggled with food is that you have to have a relationship with food.
You can't just remove food from your house. It's hard enough if you're addicted to alcohol, if you're addicted to drugs, it's hard enough. But you can remove all alcohol from your house, and just completely stay away from it.
Well, if you're dealing with something with food, you have to have a relationship with food every single day. Well, it's the same if you're dealing with these dependencies with other people. We have to be with people, we have to work these out in real-time, every single day of our lives.
We have to learn, in real-time, how to insert small changes, incremental changes in how we interact with the people around us. Because we do need people in our lives, so please go easy on yourself.
And as we're closing here I want to give you three things you can do to move toward healthy dependence. And remember healthy dependency is this two-way. There's a place for my needs and there's a place for your needs. And both matter and I'm going to try to figure out how to honor both.
With some people, depending on the nature of the relationship, and we'll get a lot more into that in other episodes. If people are really toxic, sometimes you just have to remove yourself.
But when there's a relationship where there just needs to be some tweaks, where you're just trying to figure out, "How do I show up? How do I honor myself? How do I stay connected to my needs? How do I stay connected to what I might want in this relationship?"
I want to give you three ways you can move toward that healthier dependence. All right, number one, notice any instinct to lie, to make up excuses, or to deny a genuine emotion, in any way.
Now, this takes some work but just start to notice. And I've really honed this in my own life to where I catch it like that. Just notice even this week, man, maybe this weekend you've got something you need to say, NO to, and just watch yourself. Just notice yourself start to make up an excuse, so you don't have to just say, "No, thank you." And just notice it right now.
If you can just take a pause before you start to tell the white lie, or make up an excuse, or make up an excuse for somebody else just notice it. Notice that, what would happen if you just paused before doing that, before doing the thing?
Another example, this is closely related to it. Number two, consider answering honestly if someone asks how you're doing. So that's simple, it's my challenge to you this week. If someone says, "Oh, how's your day going?"
I challenge you to pause, take a breath, check inside, and give an honest answer. You don't have to tell them your whole life story. You don't have to tell them the day, you could just say, "I'm really tired today." Just practice really noticing what the real answer is to the question and practice if you're feeling up to it, giving the honest response.
Now to help you with this, go back to the episode on Self-Love, I'll link to it in the show notes. There's an exercise at the end of this, I call the MEPS exercise. And if you're doing this every morning, you'll be more prepared to answer those questions, honestly.
"How was your day?"
"I felt a little scattered and off today. Thanks so much for asking."
It's just a tiny way that you're showing up authentically, you're connecting to yourself. And you'll find out how the people around you respond to you. Can your friend kind of go, "Oh, I'm sorry, tell me more about that?" Or does your friend just blow right past you?
Well, that tells you something about that friendship. Even with your kids, "I'm a little off today. Guys, I just need you to know that I love you. If I'm a little short with you, it's just because I'm struggling with some things and I'm going to get through it."
There's just a way of trying to show up honestly. It's hard at first, but really important as you're recovering from some of these codependent tendencies. And the last and third challenge I have for you, if this has resonated with you, is consider stating a preference, honestly.
So for example, if a friend says, "Hey, do you want to do this, this weekend?" Instead of always doing what you think will make the other person happy.
If it's authentic be genuine about it, but say, "You know, I'd actually prefer to do this."
Or, "I'd actually prefer to do this family thing this weekend."
Or let's say you have a mom who is like, "Hey, can you come over and take care of my cat this weekend." And you really can't, because you have a full plate, and she's actually going to be okay without it. And even if it's really hard and really scary practice saying, "You know I can't do it this weekend."
And I know that may sound simple, but if you're tracking with me, if this is something you've struggled with. You will know that some of these small things are some of the hardest things to do. Especially with some of the people where we've established these patterns of relating in a way that the person expects us to only show up for them.
Now remember, as we close, you are doing this not only for your sake. But if you've been over-investing in the people around you to the expense of yourself, it's not good for them either. So if you're pulling back just a little bit to be more true to you, to honor yourself, to be more authentic, to be more honest about what you need, it's going to be good for them too.
They might not like it at first, they really might not, I get it, but it's going to be good for them too. Because you may have been actually encouraging them to rely on you in ways that aren't good for you but they're also not good for them.
Maybe they'll go out and ask someone else. Maybe they'll go out and get the help that they need from someone else besides you. Over time, you'll start to see that. You'll start to notice and ask God for help with that.
Ask God, just say, "I want to practice being more honest. I want to practice creating more space for my needs. For my preferences in these relationships. Show me glimpses of how that's honoring, not only to me and to You, but it's actually going to help these other people."
Now, if you're in really toxic relationships, please hear me say get some help first. Don't do this alone. Ask for support from a therapist, I'll link to resources in the show notes. But I am so excited for you to join me on this journey.
This is all about becoming more of your true self, more true to who God made you to be. It's good for you and it's so good for your relationships, and for this world. Thank you for joining me. I look forward to seeing you next week.
Thank you for joining me for this episode of The Best of You. Be sure to check out the show notes for any resources and links mentioned in the show. You can find those on my website at dralisoncook.com. That's Alison with one -L- cook.com.
Before you forget, I hope you'll follow the show now so that you don't miss an episode. And I'd love it if you go ahead and leave a review. It helps so much to get the word out. I look forward to seeing you back here next Thursday. And remember, as you become the best of who you are, you honor God, you heal others, and you stay true to your God-given self.