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What is Codependency and What Can I Do About It?

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Written by Haley Richards, LPC

You may have heard of the term codependency, and be wondering if it applies to you or a loved one. Oxford English Dictionary defines codependency as excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner.  If this does apply to you or someone you love, one of the first steps in changing is realizing what the issue is and accepting that we see ourselves in these traits.

According to Melody Beattie, author of “Codependent No More” (1992), one of the signs of codependence is the following: caretaking – thinking and feeling responsible for other people’s feelings, thoughts, actions, choices, wants, needs, well-being, lack of well-being and ultimate destiny. Codependents may have low self-worth and may come from troubled, repressed, or dysfunctional families. They may push their thoughts and feelings out of their awareness because of fear and guilt, obsess and feel anxious about problems and people, may try to control events and people, or ignore problems and pretend they are not happening. They look for happiness outside of themselves, and have a difficult time expressing their emotions honestly. They may have weak boundaries, a lack of trust, anger, sex problems, or may become depressed or experience an addiction (Beattie, 1992, p. 41-50). 

Many codependents have addictive qualities – to others it might seem like the codependent is addicted to being treated badly, and is addicted to helping others because that is where the codependent obtains their self-worth. Others may wonder, why do they stay in their relationship? Codependency, if left untreated, can eventually lead to depression, mental illness, physical illness, eating disorders, other addictions, or even suicidal ideation (Beattie, 1992, p. 50). 

Codependence was born out of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and the spouses having a separate meeting while the AA meeting was going on. The name “codependence” most likely evolved from the term “co-alcoholic” when it was observed that significant others displayed certain characteristics (Morgan, 1991). They also state that at first it was thought that the cause of the codependent’s actions and behavior was the experience of living with a chemically dependent family member. However, when the chemically dependent family member began to recover, the codependent’s behavior stayed the same and sometimes worsened. 

After further investigation, it was found that the cause of the codependency was actually the codependent’s upbringing, not necessarily their current living situation. Even further examination showed that the codependent didn’t need to have a chemically dependent person in their life currently in order to display codependent traits, it was enough to grow up in an addictive home, for example. 

So how do we treat codependence? Many times, people with codependent tendencies feel anxious and especially sensitive to a fear of abandonment, being rejected by loved ones, and feeling out of control. People with these tendencies may have been hurt in the past and have intense fear of being hurt in the future. 

Ways to Cope and Grow:

Focus on Yourself – Stop trying to change people or fix people who don’t want to change. Reconnect with your own dreams and aspirations. You may need to devote time in your schedule to figure out what those dreams are, as you might not have thought about them in a very long time. It may take time to change the focus from other people to yourself, and that’s ok. Don’t blame yourself if it’s difficult at first. Small progress is still progress. Try your best to keep increasing your progress.

Calm – Feelings of anxiety often accompany codependent tendencies, and there are many different ways to cope with anxiety. Deep Breathing can calm us and help us manage our emotions. Inhale for 5 seconds, hold for 5 seconds, exhale for 5 seconds. Try this for 3 minutes and feel the calm take over.

Challenge irrational thoughts by being aware of the traits of codependency and talk through what it would look like to have healthy boundaries with those you love. Exercise is also a great way to distract yourself, increase self-esteem and strength, not to mention increase health. 

Live in the moment – Grounding exercises can bring you back to the present. Go through each of your senses and list things you can hear, see, touch, taste, and smell. Try not to be fixated on the future and what might happen. 

Join a recovery community or seek out counseling – or both! There is a recovery community just for codependents, it is called CODA (Codependents Anonymous), and you can find more information on their website, CoDA.org. Counseling can also help, and can be used at the same time as group counseling in a recovery community. Individual counseling can provide a treatment plan tailored to your needs, and provide support and accountability while you recover. Call Counseling Works to get started!



Beattie, Melody (1992). Codependent no more: How to stop controlling others and start caring for yourself. Minnesota: Hazelden Publishing.
Morgan, J.P. (1991). What is codependency? Journal of clinical psychology, 47(5), 720-729.

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