Break free: The truth about codependency and how to overcome it

Codependency is a dysfunctional relationship pattern that typically involves one person who is excessively reliant on another person for their emotional or physical needs, while the other person in the relationship assumes the role of the caregiver or enabler. 


Codependency is not the same as being dependent on each other in a healthy relationship. In a healthy relationship, both individuals rely on each other for emotional support, but they also maintain their own separate identities and are able to function independently. In contrast, in a codependent relationship, one person may sacrifice their own needs and desires to take care of the other person, leading to an unhealthy imbalance in the relationship. This can result in feelings of resentment, frustration, and emotional exhaustion for the caregiver or enabler, and a lack of personal growth and development for the person who is overly dependent.

Codependents share a common focus on other people's problems, often wanting to fix or help them. They feel compelled to intervene, worry excessively, and neglect their own needs. Anger and feeling unappreciated are common, as they give but do not receive in one-sided relationships. 

People who recognise codependent traits in themselves may wonder where these tendencies come from. The question then arises: what causes codependency, and why is it difficult to break away from codependent relationships? Although answers to these questions differ among individuals, for most, codependency develops during childhood. This is significant because children’s brains are still developing and are highly "plastic" meaning they can be shaped by experiences and environments.

In childhood, the brain undergoes a process of rapid growth and development, with neural connections forming at a rapid pace. This makes children highly sensitive to environmental factors such as stress, trauma, and relationships, which can have a significant impact on their brain development and long-term well-being. In essence, the plasticity of the developing brain makes children highly receptive to the messages and experiences they encounter, which can shape their beliefs and behaviours in profound ways. 

Through repeated exposure to stressful or traumatic experiences, such as growing up in a household with addiction or dysfunctional family dynamics, children can internalise certain beliefs and behaviours that contribute to codependency. For example, if a child grows up with a parent who is an alcoholic and consistently neglects the child's emotional needs, the child may learn to prioritise the needs of others over their own in an attempt to avoid conflict or seek validation. Furthermore, they may develop strategies to manage their emotions and seek validation and security from their parents or caregivers. One common coping mechanism is to assume a caretaking role, whereby the child takes on responsibilities or tasks that are beyond their age or developmental stage to help their parents or siblings. By doing so, the child may feel like they are contributing to the family and gaining approval or recognition from their parents, which can boost their sense of self-worth and value.

But when the child's efforts to help or caretake are not acknowledged or appreciated by their parents or when they are blamed for the family's dysfunction, the child may begin to internalise a belief that they are inadequate, unworthy, or responsible for the family's problems. This can lead to feelings of shame, guilt, and self-doubt which can persist into adulthood and reinforce a pattern of seeking validation and worth through caretaking and helping others. Over time, this pattern of behaviour can become deeply ingrained and can lead to a sense of dependency on others for validation and self-worth. This can manifest as codependency in adult relationships, where the individual may continue to prioritise the needs of others over their own and struggle to set and maintain healthy boundaries.

In a similar vein, if a child is raised in an environment where emotions are not acknowledged or discussed openly, they may develop a tendency to deny their own emotions and prioritise the feelings of others. This can lead to a pattern of caretaking and people-pleasing in relationships, which can be a hallmark of codependency. 

Individuals who grow up with this type of childhood conditioning may develop a deep-seated need to seek validation and feel needed by others. This is often driven by low self-esteem and feeling unworthy of love and attention, which motivates individuals in adulthood to overcompensate by excessively caring for others, often at the expense of their own needs. This is often why codependents seek out relationships with individuals who require constant care and attention, and who may exhibit addictive or problematic behaviours. Despite being capable individuals, it is for this reason that codependents may remain in unfulfilling or abusive relationships, as they feel they do not deserve better and struggle to relinquish their need to fix and control others.

Because individuals with codependent tendencies prioritise the needs of others over their own, it can often lead to feelings of anxiousness. They may constantly worry and fear that they will not be able to meet the needs of those they care for, which can contribute to feelings of guilt, shame, and inadequacy. These negative emotions only reinforce the belief that their self-worth is tied to their ability to help and fix others, leading to a cycle of anxiety and codependency. This anxiety can also manifest in the form of fear of abandonment and rejection, which can lead codependents to stay in unhealthy relationships despite the harm it may cause them. Codependents may believe that they cannot survive without the other person, and this fear of being alone or rejected can keep them trapped in toxic relationships.

Recent studies have demonstrated that the connection between psychological and physical pain is strongly influenced by the central nervous system and brain functions. The brain and the body have a complex interplay, and emotional stress can trigger physical responses due to the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). 

In the case of codependency, the constant preoccupation with the needs and problems of others can create a cycle of psychological distress that activates the HPA axis and SNS, leading to physical tension and discomfort. The activation of the amygdala can also prompt the release of stress hormones like cortisol, which can exacerbate physical discomfort. As the amygdala is responsible for processing emotions and detecting threats, it can be triggered by the fear of rejection and abandonment, leading to physical symptoms such as muscle tension, headaches, and insomnia.
Codependent individuals may also struggle with setting and enforcing personal boundaries, as they may feel guilty or anxious about saying no or setting limits on what they are willing to do for their partner. They may also avoid conflict or confrontation, which can result in repressed feelings of anger or resentment. Over time, the codependent individual may become depleted and feel unappreciated, as they are constantly putting their partner's needs ahead of their own. This can lead to feelings of low self-worth and a lack of personal fulfilment. In some cases, the codependent individual may become so enmeshed in the relationship that they lose their sense of identity and become defined by their role in the relationship. 

In order to break free from codependent patterns in relationships, individuals need to learn how to prioritise their own needs, set healthy boundaries, and communicate effectively with their partner. This may require therapy or other forms of professional support, as breaking free from codependency can be challenging and may require significant personal growth and introspection.

The rewards for breaking free from codependency can be significant. People who break free from codependent relationships can experience greater self-esteem, increased self-awareness, and a sense of empowerment. They can learn to set healthy boundaries and develop fulfilling relationships based on mutual respect and reciprocity. They may also develop a better understanding of their own needs and desires, leading to greater personal fulfilment and satisfaction in life. 

Ultimately, breaking free from codependency can lead to a more balanced and fulfilling life, with healthier and more meaningful relationships with others.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Edinburgh, City of Edinburgh, EH8
Written by Aaron Kelly, MSc, MSc, MA (Hons) MBACP
Edinburgh, City of Edinburgh, EH8

Aaron Kelly is a psychotherapist who is deeply committed to helping people overcome mental health challenges and live happier, more fulfilling lives. Aaron is known for his compassionate and empathetic approach to therapy, working closely with clients to understand their unique needs and challenges in order to help them achieve their goals .

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