While “codependent” is not a clinical diagnosis or recognized personality disorder, it remains a widely-used term for someone who’s self-sacrificing, a caregiver who gives at the expense of her own well-being, and who enables her partner’s addictive or self-destructive behavior. Breaking behavior that could be described as codependent starts with greater self-awareness. Notice when you’re ignoring your own needs and focusing all of your energy and attention on taking care of your partner and their needs. So, too, pay attention to when you feel anxious and driven to fix things, to do whatever it takes to reestablish peace in the relationship. In other words, notice how not okay you are with not okay.
At the same time, pay attention to how it feels to be reliant on your relationship and your partner’s state of mind for your own well-being. Notice what it’s like to ride the roller coaster of staking your equanimity on the current relational weather. How does it feel to tuck away or ignore your own needs so as to keep your partner happy and keep the peace?
No matter how familiar, manageable, and even necessary such behavior may feel, living it is never easy or comfortable—not when you start asking yourself what it’s actually like on the inside. In order to change the behavior, you need to get in touch with the suffering that comes with it—what it’s really like to choose a relationship with your partner over a relationship with yourself.
Investigating core beliefs
Once you become aware of your own behavior and the suffering that comes with it, the next step is to investigate the core beliefs that lead to it. Do you, for example, believe that it’s selfish to consider your own needs, or that being a we means there can be no me? Are you perhaps convinced that the relationship would not survive and that your partner would leave you if you stopped taking care of their needs so attentively or were more than just a “giver”? Or maybe the core belief is that no one really cares about what you need, and certainly not if it conflicts with what they need? For many people, what underlies this behavior is the belief that they simply don’t matter, aren’t good enough, and don’t deserve to have their own wants and needs considered, much less taken care of.
The core beliefs that sit below such behavior are often painful and related to early life experiences. Given this, it’s necessary to bring not just curiosity, but profound compassion to these deeply rooted belief systems that bleed out into everything else you think and feel. If you’re trying to change this behavior without investigating the core beliefs that drive and sustain it, and how you came to believe such things, you’re just trimming the weeds without pulling up the unhealthy roots. You may be able to temporarily change the behavior, but eventually, the patterns will return, because the deep-seated storylines beneath them haven’t been healed.
Investigating core beliefs can be a tricky, difficult, and painful process; it’s not something you should or even can do alone. Because you probably still believe the beliefs you’re attempting to unearth, it may not be possible to spot them, as they are baked into the lens through which you’re looking. We can’t see the thoughts/beliefs we’re holding as absolute truths—not if we still think they’re true. It’s helpful and often necessary to work with a professional to help support and guide you through this meaningful process.
Breaking free from codependence is about more than just awareness; it’s about action. You need to practice independent behaviors, otherwise known as not being codependent. That is, setting boundaries and actually saying “no”—out loud.
We’ve been taught that unlimited and unconditional giving without any boundaries—pure selflessness—is somehow spiritual, a form of divinity. But unlimited and unconditional giving can be, underneath the spiritual narrative, a recipe for being a doormat. It can mask what’s really a difficulty in setting boundaries and taking care of yourself.
Along with setting boundaries and saying “no” out loud, you need to practice paying attention to your own experience, asking yourself (frequently) what you want and need in any particular situation, how you’re feeling, and what would take care of you in the present moment. The idea is to make yourself a destination, and ultimately, befriend yourself—as counterintuitive as it may feel to treat yourself like someone who matters. You practice telling the truth, your truth, and being more honest about what you think, feel, and need. You try out a new model for love—taking the risk of experiencing what it feels like to show up authentically in your relationship and let your partner meet a (more) real you.
In essence, you practice not controlling the relationship and deliberately not fixing what feels like needs fixing. It may seem like you might literally die if you don’t fix it. Still, don’t fix it; you won’t die, nor will your partner, and they may even fix it for themselves. Your work is to get more comfortable with the uncomfortable, which means closing your mouth, sitting on your hands, or doing whatever it takes to refrain from jumping in to fix and control what feels not okay.
Baby steps and self-compassion
Remember, however, that you didn’t get this way overnight and you won’t not be this way overnight. Like every change process, it starts with baby steps—one small situation, one passing conversation at a time, and little changes one moment at a time. These baby changes add up and lead to big changes in who and how you are. As you embark on this process, one thing is critical: self-compassion. Wherever you are on this journey toward independence, and regardless of whether your baby steps are those of a toddler or a track star, and heading forward or temporarily backward, one thing matters most: that you be kind to yourself and stay on your own side. As it turns out, treating yourself like you matter begins, first, in this change process.
Feeling codependent is not fun; it’s painful and anxious-making—destabilizing. You’re constantly in a state of uncertainty and insecurity, not knowing if the ground is going to disappear beneath you. We don’t choose to be this way, so stop blaming yourself if you are. That said, it’s important to honor your intention to evolve, and the courage it takes to change this ultimately limiting behavior. Shift the unconditional, un-boundaried giving that you offer others, and turn it around: Offer it to yourself in the form of unlimited kindness, forgiveness, and compassion for however you got to where you are and however your path will unfold from here.