Do you wonder if you are Codependent? Do you regularly sacrifice your opinions, needs or wants, and then feel resentful? Do you feel guilty saying no and resentful when you don’t? Are you controlled by, or try to control someone else, whom your thoughts and feelings revolve around, as in the Barry Manilow song, “I’m glad when you’re glad, sad when you’re sad?” Are you afraid of speaking up? Resentment, guilt, control, and fear are the hallmarks of codependency, a term once used only to describe the enabler of an alcoholic is now more generally applied to unhealthy dependency.

Melody Beattie in Codependent No More, describes a codependent as: “A person who has let someone else’s behavior affect him or her and is obsessed with controlling other people’s behavior.” John Bradshaw, author of Healing the Shame that Binds You, says, “Internalized shame is the core of codependency.” Expert and author of numerous books, Earnie Larsen defines it as: “Self-defeating, learned behaviors or character defects that result in diminished capacity to initiate, or participate in, loving relationships.” In Facing Codependence, Pia Melody writes, “Two key areas of a person’s life reflect codependence: the relationship with the self and relationship with others.”

The seeds of codependence are in childhood, when a child has no choice but to accommodate a parent who is controlling, selfish, depressed, addicted, or abusive. Such children don’t get the sense that their wants or needs matter. The family may be one of addiction or neglect, where children take on parental responsibilities and lose touch with themselves in the process. On the other hand, a family may seem perfect. The parents give their children the best of everything, but they expect perfection or adhere to rigid rules and beliefs, leaving no room for individuality and self-expression to flourish.

Codependents usually do all the giving in relationships. Caring and helping others is fine, but if it’s at the expense of oneself, or if you don’t believe you have a choice – that it would be selfish not to or you’d risk losing the relationship - then care taking is not just a behavior, it’s an identity and source of self-worth. Alice has a big heart and a string of failed relationships. When she likes a man, she gives more than she gets. She helps her them with whatever their problem is. The men take her for granted or feel smothered, and eventually leave.

Codependents learn in childhood to attune to the needs and moods of a parent, so much so that they usually don’t know what they want or need. Others’ needs, desires, and definition of reality take precedence over their own. Sometimes, they don’t even know what they think or feel and have difficulty describing themselves. When asked, they shift to talking about family members or their job.

A codependent conversation sounds like this:

Him: “Where would you like to eat?”
Her: “What do you feel like?”
Him: “Whatever you want.”
Her: “Do you feel like Chinese?”
Him: “Do you? Would you like Italian?”

You get the picture. Neither person will assert a position. No one will take responsibility for a choice. Maybe, one doesn’t want to dine out and rather watch a TV show, but doesn’t want to disappoint the other, or is ashamed to admit they can’t afford it. Other times, neither knows what he or she wants. Sometimes, an argument starts. It’s impossible to problem-solve or compromise if you don’t take a position. Issues and feelings are avoided, problems don’t get resolved, and resentment builds.

Codependents frequently become obsessed with another person. Their thoughts, motives, and actions begin to revolve around someone else instead of their own feelings and goals. Cindy was preoccupied with Nick’s health. She oversaw his diet, managed the marketing, and gave him nutrition articles, oblivious to her own health problems.

Codependents may try to control others’ feelings and reactions with gifts or flattery, like “buttering up” to be loved, to get what they want, or to keep the peace. They give with an expectation, and when it’s not fulfilled, they are not only hurt, but also resentful and feel owed. Healthy giving is for the pure joy of it.

Because their boundaries weren’t respected as children, codependents don’t set functional limits with themselves and others. They may be overly invested in someone else’s problem or work long hours on the job to the detriment of their family or themselves. They never say no. They may have been taught that it’s selfish or “un-Christian” to assert their will, and don’t notice that someone else doesn’t mind using up their time and resources.

Jane was an accomplished landscape designer, but underbid her projects and spent many uncompensated hours with customers who gabbed away or changed their minds. She was always running behind, and resented that she felt constantly pulled by her customers’ demands. To her, charging more and setting boundaries was unthinkable.

In an organization, a codependent works harder for less and may be the “go to” person who’ll take the unwanted assignments. Another is a martyr at home, never asking for help and never heeding her own needs for rest and rejuvenation. Both get satisfaction in being needed and relied upon, but eventually at a price. These women believe they won’t be valued if they don’t do extra work. Underneath they fear losing a client, job, or relationship.

Sometimes, one partner appears more needy and dependent, because he or she is possessive, jealous, calls frequently, or constantly seeks reassurance and attention. However, the other partner is also codependent by allowing him or herself to be controlled by these unreasonable demands.

Low-self esteem is characteristic of codependence. Childhood experiences and messages imprint feelings of being unlovable or unworthy. Codependents are hard on themselves. They push and judge themselves, and often are high-achievers and perfectionists. This sets them up to be in an abusive relationship or one where their needs are not met. They’ll tolerate it even despite being attractive, smart, or successful at work, because underneath they believe they don’t deserve better.

The first step in change is awareness. Joining a group or 12-Step Program is effective, because it’s important to share, get feedback, and hear others’ struggles and successes. Therapy or an assertiveness class can help you to identify your needs and feelings, and to try out new behavior. It’s hard to change on your own, because it’s difficult to see outside your own mindset, and you’ll need support when risking new behaviors that create guilt and anxiety. The risks are worth it. You’re worth it. Take back yourself!

Get a FREE REPORT on 10 Steps From Self-Criticism to Self-Esteem at

Darlene Lancer, MFT, Copyright, 2009

Resources: Al-Anon Family Groups
Codependents Anonymous
Adult Children of Alcoholics

Author's Bio: 

As a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Darlene Lancer She's worked with individuals and couples for more than twenty years. Her particular focus is on relationships and helping clients overcome obstacles to lead fuller lives. (See

Darlene has helped many couples find their way to marriage, to a happier marriage, and also to amicably separate. She views people both as expressions of their own individuality and as part of a dynamic family system, and helps clients to balance both their autonomy and interpersonal intimacy needs.

She is a codependency expert, having worked extensively in the field of addiction both in private practice and at Brookside Institute, as well as numerous hospitals and treatment facilities. Helping substance abusers and their families find recovery has been a rewarding part of her practice. Additionally, she's familiar with 12-Step Programs.