Do you feel like you apologize too much for what you say or do? Do you tend to think of others more than yourself? These traits sound like they would be good to have, but sometimes too much of a good thing is worrisome. In other words, sometimes putting others before ourselves are signs of codependency.

Codependency is often discussed in relation to those suffering from alcohol or other substance use problems. Individuals who attempt to support those suffering are labeled as codependent. They unwittingly enable the user to continue inappropriate behavior at a high cost to the codependent. However, the definition has been expanded to others who develop these traits early in life and find themselves in challenging relationships in all areas of their life. Work, friends, family – all of these can be potentially difficult for codependents.

As a counselor, I look for clues of codependent traits. Codependents often arrive for sessions and spend much of the time talking about their significant other, or a family member that is impacting their life. The stories aren’t about their feelings, but what the other person is doing. This is important because codependents are often out of touch with their feelings. They are so worried about the other person they aren’t aware of the impact on their emotional well-being. If you allow another person in your life to make demands on you, to control you, to hurt or use you repeatedly, and, despite the pain this causes you, you continue to allow it, that’s a red flag.

Thinking about your childhood may provide some clues because codependence, as it usually has roots in early relationships. The parent-child relationship is our first intimate relationship and it sets the stage for our patterns of behavior as adults in close relationships. As children, many codependent people had to suppress their own wishes and needs to win the approval of a difficult, unstable, or addicted parent. Having to take care of an addicted or emotionally troubled parents at a young age is also associated with adult codependence. Children with manipulative parents who convinced them to accept abuse or excessive control as love, may be at risk for codependent relationships. Additionally, many codependent people grow up with a codependent role model who selflessly sacrificed on behalf of under functioning others. To them, codependent relationships are normal and routine. Unconsciously, they learn unhealthy behaviors in relationships, that they enact automatically as adults.

Codependency is not a diagnosable mental health condition. However, it can be debilitating for those suffering and often lead to other conditions such as, depression, anxiety and substance use disorders. The primary symptoms associated with codependency may be people-pleasing behaviors, the need for the validation, and approval that comes from caring for and rescuing others. The codependent person may also have poor boundaries and a fear of being alone.

Other characteristics of codependency may include:

Sensitivity to criticism
Perfectionism and a fear of failure
Denial of personal problems
Excessive focus on the needs of others
Failure to meet personal needs
Discomfort with receiving attention or help from others
Feelings of guilt or responsibility for the suffering of others
Reluctance to share true thoughts or feelings for fear of displeasing others
Low self-esteem
Internalized shame and helplessness
Projection of competence and self-reliance
A need to control others
Self-worth based on caretaking
Feeling undeserving of happiness
Caring for and enabling someone who uses drugs or alcohol

(Information provided by Co-Dependents Anonymous International)

There is hope for those that struggle with codependency – identifying the traits and behaviors is the first step. If you suspect you are in a codependent relationship or that you’re codependent, there is support in the form of individual therapy and support groups. Co-Dependents Anonymous International is an organization that provides information as well as meeting locations for those who want to start the process to recovery. Additionally, you can contact a counselor or therapist in your area. Be sure to ask if they have worked with codependents before. This will enable you to find someone who can support your needs and work with you in developing stronger boundaries and making healthier choices in relationships.