By: Norell McCaw, PsyD

*Becky came to see me as a patient to address feelings of unhappiness in many of her relationships. In the beginning of treatment, she would often choose to use the session time to talk about her brother’s impulsive decisions, her partner’s alcohol abuse, or her son-in-law’s inability to hold down a job. These were the problems that kept her up at night. It didn’t take me long to recognize that we almost never talked about her.

Exploring who Becky was – her needs, desires, and sense of self – became the focus of her treatment. It was evident to me that focusing on her identity – who she was separate from the others in her life – was an unfamiliar and uncomfortable place for her. We uncovered that from an early age, Becky gained a sense of safety and security by taking care of others. Learning to repress her emotions and focus on others was Becky’s way of coping with and surviving a dysfunctional family. Caretaking became a measure of her self-worth.

Becky was codependent.

Codependent behaviors often start as normal, adaptive reactions to unhealthy people. However, these learned behaviors can develop into habitual and fixed ways of relating to others. Codependent people are often detached from their own needs and their identities are rigidly defined in the context of others. Typically, codependent people unconsciously seek unhealthy people in their relationships because they are most comfortable in the “fixer” role. Their obsessive efforts to change and control these individuals get in the way of their own happiness and well-being. The other person can be a romantic partner, sibling, parent, friend, patient, or child – with or without a mental illness.

Signs of codependency can include (also from **Codependency No More):

  • Low self-worth
  • Lack of trust in self and others
  • Feeling responsible for others
  • Feeling constantly let down by others
  • Feeling driven by pleasing others (rather than self)
  • Feeling guilty/insecure when receiving from others
  • Feeling angry when not receiving from others
  • Blaming others for unhappiness
  • Taking things personally
  • Feeling worthless/empty if there is no one to help or a crisis to solve
  • Talking/thinking a lot about other people
  • Avoiding talking about self
  • Avoiding thoughts/feelings by staying busy/distracted
  • Trying to control events and people
  • Denying/ignoring problems
  • Looking for happiness outside of self
  • Communicating poorly, often passive-aggressively
  • Feeling stuck
  • Having weak boundaries
  • Feeling sexually unsatisfied
  • Difficulty expressing anger
  • Difficulty saying “no”

Codependent people often have a generous and giving spirit that should not be squandered or devalued. Therapy can help individuals explore what parts they like about their caring nature and what parts get in the way of their own happiness. In Becky’s case, therapy helped her connect to her emotions and rediscover her identity. She learned how to assertively communicate her needs and set boundaries in her relationships. She attained greater self-worth and sought out healthier people in her relationships. She was able do all of this while also holding onto her nurturing and caring spirit. Additionally, her work on herself and movement towards good health started to inspire others in her life to seek help.

If you are looking for therapy assistance in San Diego, CA, don’t hesitate to reach out to a therapist in our office.

*Name has been changed to protect confidentiality.

**Beattie, M. (1992). Codependent no more: How to stop controlling others and start caring for yourself (2nd ed.) Center City, MN: Hazelden Foundation