What is Codependency?

Picture of Sam Grimaldo, LMFT, LPC

Sam Grimaldo, LMFT, LPC

Sam is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Professional Counselor in San Antonio. He specializes in working with couples to recover from disconnection caused by trauma or addiction.

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Codependency is a term that’s often thrown around, yet its true meaning remains elusive to many. As we delve into the world of relationships, let’s take a closer look at codependency — what it means, how it manifests, where it comes from, and how to break free from its clutches.

What is Codependency?

Codependency is a behavioral pattern that surfaces in relationships where one person becomes so invested in meeting the needs of their partner that they neglect their own. This condition often occurs when one person enables another’s addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement1. It’s a type of dysfunctional helping relationship where one person relies on the other for meeting nearly all of their emotional and self-esteem needs1.

While the term ‘codependency’ originated from the field of substance abuse, referring to the enabling behavior of a loved one towards an addict, it has now broadened to include a range of other harmful behavioral patterns.

The Characteristics of Codependency

Codependency is not always easy to identify because it can manifest in many different ways. However, some common characteristics include:

Lack of Boundaries:

A significant characteristic of codependency is the lack of boundaries. Individuals struggling with codependency often find it challenging to establish and maintain personal limits, resulting in the blurring of lines between themselves and others. They may feel excessively responsible for other people’s actions, feelings, and problems, blurring the distinction between their own needs and those of others. This inability to set boundaries can lead to a loss of self-identity, as they continuously prioritize others’ needs over their own, often at the cost of their mental and emotional well-being. The struggle to differentiate where they end and others begin can create a cycle of resentment, exhaustion, and dissatisfaction, further fueling the codependent behavior.

Low Self-Esteem:

Low self-esteem is a central aspect of codependency. People with codependency often harbor feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness, constantly comparing themselves to others and feeling ‘less than’. They tend to derive their sense of value from external sources, such as the approval or validation of others. This reliance on external affirmation perpetuates a vicious cycle of dependency, as they start to believe that their worth is tied to their ability to meet others’ needs or expectations. When this perceived obligation isn’t met, their self-esteem takes a hit, leading to feelings of guilt and shame. The continuous struggle with self-worth can create a damaging pattern of self-neglect and self-devaluation, further deepening their codependent tendencies.


People-pleasing is a common symptom of codependency and is often driven by an intense desire for approval and fear of rejection. Codependents frequently put others’ needs and wants before their own, even at the cost of their happiness or well-being, in a bid to be liked or accepted. They may go to great lengths to avoid conflict, often conforming to others’ expectations and suppressing their own desires or opinions. This constant striving to please others can lead to feelings of resentment and exhaustion, yet they continue this behavior, driven by the fear of displeasing others. Over time, this people-pleasing tendency can erode their sense of self, as they lose touch with their own needs, desires, and values, further entrenching the cycle of codependency.


Reactivity is a defining trait in individuals struggling with codependency. They often have a heightened sensitivity to others’ thoughts, feelings, and actions, and may react intensely to perceived criticism or rejection. This can result in emotional volatility, as they constantly respond to the emotional environment around them rather than their internal feelings or needs. Their sense of self can become so intertwined with their relationships that they may feel extreme joy or despair based on others’ moods or behaviors. This reactivity can also lead to defensive behaviors such as blame-shifting, denial, or rationalization, as they struggle to manage the emotional turmoil within them. Over time, this constant state of emotional reactivity can take a toll on their mental health, perpetuating the cycle of codependency.


Caretaking is a prominent characteristic of codependency, often manifesting as an excessive need to help, fix, or rescue others. Codependents may find themselves drawn to individuals who appear to be in need or who struggle with their own issues, such as addiction or emotional instability. The codependent individual often believes that their worth is tied to their ability to care for others, and they may neglect their own needs in the process. While caretaking can be seen as a selfless act, for codependents, it’s often driven by a deep-seated fear of abandonment or rejection. Over time, this pattern of excessive caretaking can lead to burnout, resentment, and a loss of self-identity, as the codependent individual becomes increasingly consumed by the needs of others.

The Roots of Codependency

Codependency often has its roots in childhood, where one had to adapt and develop these behaviors to cope with a challenging environment. This could be due to growing up with an unstable, ill, or alcoholic parent, being part of a dysfunctional family, or experiencing emotional or physical abuse2.

These adaptive behaviors from childhood can become maladaptive in adulthood, leading to unhealthy patterns in relationships. It can result in the codependent person losing a sense of themselves, their needs, and their desires as they become overly focused on their partner.

The Impact of Codependency

The impact of codependency on relationships can be profound. It often leads to unbalanced relationships, where one person’s needs are met at the expense of the other. This imbalance can lead to resentment, frustration, and dissatisfaction in the relationship.

Moreover, codependents often find themselves in a cycle of choosing partners who need ‘fixing,’ thereby reinforcing their caretaker role. This pattern can lead to a series of dysfunctional relationships, causing emotional distress and preventing the individual from realizing their full potential.

Breaking Free From Codependency

Recognizing and Overcoming codependency often involves a journey of self-discovery and healing. It starts with recognizing and acknowledging the problem, taking responsibility for one’s own happiness and well-being rather than depending on others for validation. Therapy can be instrumental in this process, providing a safe space to explore underlying issues and learn healthier ways of relating to others. Building self-esteem and fostering self-compassion are crucial steps, as is setting and enforcing personal boundaries. Learning to communicate assertively rather than passively or aggressively can also help. Self-care should be prioritized, including physical health, mental well-being, and personal interests. Over time, individuals can break free from the cycle of codependency, cultivating healthier relationships and rediscovering their sense of self. It’s important to remember that this process takes time and patience, but with persistence, overcoming codependency is entirely possible. Here are some steps to start:


The first step is acknowledging the problem. Recognize the patterns and behaviors suggestive of codependency in your relationships.

Seek Professional Help:

Therapy can be instrumental for individuals dealing with codependency. A therapist can provide guidance, support, and tools to help break the cycle of codependency.


Prioritize self-care. It’s not selfish to take care of your own needs and do things that bring you joy. Codependents often lose themselves while caring for others, so it’s essential to reconnect with yourself.

Set Boundaries:

Learn to say no and set healthy boundaries. You have a right to your own feelings, needs, and desires. Setting boundaries can help you reclaim your sense of self and promote healthier relationships.


In conclusion, codependency is a complex issue that affects many people. However, with awareness, support, and care, it is possible to overcome its challenges and build healthier, more fulfilling relationships. Remember, it’s okay to ask for help, and it’s okay to prioritize yourself. You deserve happiness just as much as anyone else.


  1. Mental Health America. (n.d.). Co-Dependency. Retrieved from https://www.mhanational.org/issues/co-dependency 2
  1. Darlene Lancer. (2016). Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You. Hazelden Publishing. 2

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