I’m a recovering codependent.
Until a few years ago, I never gave codependency much thought. I’d heard the term used but judged it harshly, reserving it for those who couldn’t stand on their own two feet without help—and I wasn’t that person.
Except, I was.
After decades of hiding my codependency from myself and others, I arrived at rock bottom following the epic disintegration of my marriage. Broken wide-open, I began to accept my part and look at my long string of failed relationships with a brutally cold eye. What I saw pierced right through my worn, tattered heart.
As an Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACA), I was completely unaware of the codependency that began in childhood and weaved its way through every facet of my being—affecting how I interacted with the world around me. Codependency became part of my DNA; I changed and adapted to protect myself from the excruciating feelings of rejection and insecurity I suffered as a child.
Codependency often revolves around addiction in the family, but that’s not a requirement. Any family system that discourages the open expression of feelings and direct, honest communication can lead to codependency. Our emotional needs go unmet, and we feel ashamed of our traumatic emotional wounds, low self-esteem, and low self-worth.
We retreat deep into ourselves—into our world of emptiness and isolation, devoid of the meaningful connections we crave.
Growing up feeling unsafe and alone, we subconsciously begin to craft a collection of self-defeating coping mechanisms around how we react to people in our relationships—and we learn early on to develop controlling behaviors designed to make ourselves feel safe.
Many of these traits and behaviors are well known: people-pleasing, rescuing, fixing, poor boundary setting, poor communication skills, hyper-vigilance, and perfectionism. We use them all as we continually look outside ourselves to fill our empty voids. Codependency affects all relationships but is amplified in our romantic ones, our primary source of validation and self-worth.
Recovering from codependency is f*cking hard—it requires a lot of deep inner work, and we often need help as we slowly unravel our codependent behaviors one strand at a time.
The hard work of recovery demands that we take an honest look at some hard-to-swallow truths about codependency:
1. We manipulate connection.
Codependents can be some of the most generous, giving people out there, but the reason for this is often less noble. Although we mean well, we subconsciously turn to manipulation to prove our self-worth and soothe our intense fear of abandonment.
Ultimately, our generosity is motivated by insecurity and fear rather than kindness. Below the surface, we’re desperately trying to stay ahead of the feelings of low self-worth that threaten our ability to connect.
We put the wants and needs of others ahead of our own, and we don’t practice boundaries out of fear of upsetting our partners. We’re unconsciously manipulating our way into secure relationships.
We don’t act of malice but out of fear that we would never have the love we desire so badly if our true, unlovable selves were exposed.
2. We are Love Bombers.
In the beginning, we’ll go overboard in a blaze of fireworks and shooting stars that light up our dark sky. It’s a dazzling show of flowers, romance, poems, gifts, dinners, affection, favors, and compliments that fills the air like confetti that lands at the feet of our star-struck lovers.
We’ve set the bar unsustainably high, and we’ll be chasing those initial days for the rest of our relationship. It’s a slow slide back to reality, and we’re terrified that our flawed, authentic selves aren’t worthy of the love we have.
3. We struggle with Love Addiction.
Love bombing might be manipulative and unsustainable, but it feels f*cking great at the time. Pure dopamine-driven euphoria keeps us lost in the clouds of a blissful high.
We’re starved for love and affection and feel powerless against the potent mixture of attention, passion, and sex that comes with new relationships. I was addicted to love, and I’d be quickly overwhelmed by the excitement of my fast-moving, intense relationships.
In all our euphoria, we won’t see the red flags. We take huge emotional risks without a care in the world.
4. We abandon ourselves.
Ironically, while we struggle with fear of abandonment, we’re quick to abandon ourselves to stay connected to our relationship. Because we have no real sense of self or self-esteem, the connection to our relationship is much more important than the connection to ourselves.
Our individual needs are sacrificed as we merge into our relationships until we can’t tell where our relationship ends and we begin. Eventually, our self-abandonment takes a toll, silently filling our empty spaces with resentment and shame.
5. We self-sabotage.
We aren’t comfortable with prosperity; joy makes us anxious. We’re always waiting for the shoe to drop because we don’t feel deserving of the feelings we have. Our insecurities leave us hyper-vigilant, always searching for signs of trouble confirming our deepest fears—that we are unloveable.
We react to all this anxiety by pushing our relationships into uncomfortable narratives filled with insecurity and rejections. Worse, without the skills to navigate the conflicts we create, we’ll again feel isolated and alone—wrapped inside the familiar childhood feelings we’ve carried into adulthood.
6. Our lives grow smaller over time.
We trade pieces of ourselves for love and connection, and our world begins to shrink. Over time, the line between our individuality and the relationship becomes unrecognizable. We rarely venture beyond the walls of the relationship, and the parts of ourselves we enjoyed living beyond those walls are lost.
Without the encouragement to grow as individuals, we unconsciously grieve the loss of ourselves as we navigate the tight spaces between people-pleasing and conflict avoidance. Our voices are silenced; we’re unwilling and unable to advocate for ourselves and our needs. The love we once thought would set us free now wraps us like a straight jacket.
I’ll be the first to admit that these traits are tough to swallow. It takes a lot of courage to look at the parts of ourselves we’re most ashamed of, but to make the most of our recovery, we must tackle our most challenging issues.
We must acknowledge and accept that these behaviors keep us from the lives we want. While resources like therapy can be an important part of our recovery, the real work comes when we begin to actively change our patterns of behavior.
We learn to accept imperfection—in ourselves and in others. We begin to navigate healthy connections without manipulation. We learn to nurture our individual identities within interdependent relationships. We trade love bombing and love addiction for building strong, healthy relationships. We work to strengthen our self-trust and self-esteem and meet our own needs rather than relying on others to meet them.
We have suffered alone in our pain, but we aren’t alone at all. The experiences we share can be a source of great strength. We are in this together, and if we can find the courage to work hard and support each other, we just might find our way to the better lives and relationships we deserve.