Codependency Explained: Part 1

Codependency Defined

Codependency is a catch-all word that is misused and has worked its way into our everyday language. Its true definition can be fluid and confusing. I like to describe it as an undercurrent that guides how someone interacts with the world. It is more of a way of being than a diagnosis. You can be diagnosed with depression or ADHD. You cannot be diagnosed with codependency.

There are two main themes of behaviors that come from codependency; passive and aggressive. I don’t know exactly who said it, but someone who knew what they were talking about described it perfectly. “Codependency is waiting for the other person to change without taking any action.” Melody Beattie, the goddess of all things related to codependency, said, “A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.” Those two quotes have two very different relational perspectives. One is passive. Hanging out, waiting for a situation to get better on its own without doing anything to address it. The other is a more aggressive vibe, but they’re actually very similar.

Childhood trauma survivors have some level of codependency. That’s understandable if you reframe it as an outdated coping mechanism that tries to make the impossible work so they can avoid grief and pain. Whether the coping mechanism style is passive or aggressive, is largely determined by someone’s childhood and personality. The common traits that unite both the passive and aggressive energies are control and manipulation.

What It Is Not

Historically, we thought of a codependent person as someone – typically a woman – who is an overly patient and willing soul who is terrified of being abandoned by a bad partner. Or, it’s thinking that someone can’t manage social situations without their anchor person. That’s a pop psychology construct and is garbage.

A Good Analogy to Illustrate Codependency

Remember your first car? It was probably a cheap and rundown car that you bought for less than $1000. “There’s no power steering and the radio makes a weird screeching sound, but I don’t care.” The buyer should understand that the car is working right now but is at the end of its life and you can’t expect too much from it. Someone struggling with codependency will likely have magical thinking about that car. The codependent buyer usually isn’t focused on the power steering or the radio. They may have not even noticed them. A codependent person will happily pay $1000 for a car like that. And for the first week they might find the lack of power steering amusing or irrelevant because it belongs to them and they love it. But on the fifth day when it breaks down on the highway, a codependent might be shocked that they ended up there at the side of the road. They get the car towed and fixed. They have some good days with the car, but soon the same thing keeps happening over and over. But the magical thinking about what the car is is still there. Some codependents might get aggressive with the car and try to shame it into being what it’s not. Some might really root for the car like it’s the underdog and not want to give up on it.

Unveiling the Magical Thinking

Have you been in a relationship where you kept trying but were unable to accept that it just wasn’t working out? Would you have felt bad for the car because it’s such a mess? Or, would you have been disgusted by the car, forgetting that you picked it? What about family; have you had a similar dynamic with them when you were growing up?

If you grew up in trauma or abuse, you had nothing to work with. You did your best with what you had. This analogy isn’t about blaming you for your relationship choices. The analogy is about a dysfunctional undercurrent that we have in us that needs things to work out or be different. The magical thinking isn’t new; it starts really early in our lives. Those struggling with codependency will think a junk car will be different for them. That’s the magical thinking. This is where your inner child shows up. It’s the inner child that engages in the magical thinking and takes control of your decision-making. If you have an inner child that runs your decision-making, or has ever run your decision-making like that. The fantasy is “this will be different for me.”

Signs of Codependency

  • Needing to be needed
  • Self Betrayal

  • Self righteousness, either internal or external

  • Overly navigating people

  • Everything has to be ok.

  • Conflict averse

  • Insecurity

  • Perfectionism- and acting out when it’s not good enough

  • Defaulting to authority figures or more aggressive peopl

  • Struggling to have your own voice or expression

  • Being numb or unaware of other people’s dysfunction

  • Controlling someone’s behavior
  • Latching on to people, places, and things out of desperation

  • Thinking you can’t do better in relationships or jobs

  • Avoiding boundaries because you’re unsure or second-guessing yourself

  • Tons of energy going into making the situation work

  • Intense guilt and shame

  • Unable to let others do things

  • Caretaking

  • Hyperresponsibilty

  • Rescuing

Types of Codependents

Caretakers (Passive) Caretakers always want things to be ok. If things are not ok, they will become really upset. Not being okay with others is their main trigger and they will have immense anxiety around things not working out. Their main strategy is to keep the peace, make things work, being selfless, and taking on a lot of burden and assume they are inferior. The caretakers need to be seen as stuck in a situation that they are trying their best to get out of. It’s not always literal caretaking. For example, when someone volunteers out of the anxiety of silence, they take on the burden of the task because they can’t stand the silence.

Change Others (Aggressive) These people are rooted in being dissatisfied, yet still very much invested in the relationship, friendship or job. The change type tends to give advice, offer solutions, and then get really hurt and angered when the person doesn’t change. They get to be superior in inferior relationships. It’s from the perspective that they’re stuck in something that they don’t see that they may need to leave. People who want change want to be seen for their kind and gentle efforts or accepted for that.

Both Try to control, have low esteem issues, and refuse to move on from the job or relationship. They both communicate in ways that are overly nice or politely martyr-like, which are examples of being passive-aggressive and they both try to manipulate. But not in a nefarious kind of way. You could look at that navigating people an example that is to sort of manipulate, it’s like they’re manipulating the person thinking they’re going to be mad when they’re not. We can manipulate with kindness or criticism. Codependency is never really a forthright communication style. Both are waiting for a situation to change without taking any real action. We enter into a power struggle rather than our own inner healing.

Codependents Are Not Evil Manipulators

There isn’t usually any sort of nefarious motivations for codependents to manipulate or control a situation. If you’re uncomfortable with the word “manipulation,” maneuver or navigate is also accurate. It’s all very subconscious. We’re trying to make this more conscious. I’ll get into this more in my next blog post.

Of Course, It All Starts in Childhood

Our family of origin is where we learn how relationships work. Children absorb how the family operates. We either absorb how our parents navigated relationships or we develop a skill set to survive our parents. This becomes blueprint for life and relationships. The blueprint is running us.

Part 2: I’ll get into the specifics of what codependent behavior looks like and how to make changes.


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