Codependency is a learned behavior, so thankfully, it can be unlearned. Codependents can take action and change the pattern of low self-esteem and worthlessness by recognizing that these traits are unhealthy and lead to unhappiness.

Codependency: A Term Widely Used But Greatly Misunderstood


By Valerie Gullo

People who are codependent often take on the role of martyr. They put the needs of others before their own, thereby forgetting to take care of themselves. Codependents “need to be needed” and do not like the thought of being alone; they are constantly in search of acceptance.

Most Common Symptoms of Codependency

Care-taking: One who is codependent feels responsible for others. These individuals have a compelling need to help a person resolve a conflict or solve a problem. They are compelled to help everyone, yet feel that no one ever helps them. However, codependents will never ask anyone for help, and when asked the question, “What’s wrong?” or “How can I help you?” a codependent will say nothing, other than “I can handle it.” Codependents are usually over-scheduled, over-worked and under pressure. They only feel secure when they are giving to someone, yet become very insecure when someone tries to give to them. They also cover things up and lie to protect their family from perceived problems. 

Low SelfWorth: Most codependents come from dysfunctional families in which they did not feel loved or accepted by their parents. They don’t feel they are smart enough, pretty enough or good enough. They will not accept a compliment from anyone, yet they will complain that no one gives them compliments. Codependents often feel like victims in their lives and harbor a tremendous amount of shame. They have typically been the recipient of sexual, alcohol, drug, physical, abandonment or emotional abuse.

Repression: Codependents repress their own desires, wants and needs. An overwhelming sense of guilt is also part of their coping strategy, and they tend to repress this guilt through drugs, alcohol, spending money, eating/not eating and worry. Codependents often worry about everything, even about the slightest or most absurd things.

Controlling Behaviors: Tactics like helplessness, threats, coercion and manipulation are used by many codependents to control people and circumstances. They fear a lack of control over events, and therefore try to control everything. Consequently, they feel frustrated when they cannot be in control. They do not like change. When it comes to controlling behaviors, there are two types of  codependents: they either dominate a situation by acting like tyrants, behaving as if their word is law, or they manipulate a situation by acting helpless and weak, controlling a situation with guilt and pity.

Denial: Codependents pretend their problems and situations are not as bad as they truly are. They also try to ignore and avoid their problems by staying busy or focusing on something else. Many codependents are workaholics.

Dependency: Codependents are constantly looking to others to supply them with happiness; people are a necessity. They feel unworthy of love and that no one is ever there for them. As a result, they frequently tolerate abuse and feel trapped because their fear of change is so great.

Poor Communication Skills: Most codependents cannot communicate properly and avoid getting to the point of a discussion. They are always apologizing for bothering people. They ask indirectly for things by crying, sighing or walking around in a depressed state.

Poor Boundaries: Codependents allow others to abuse and hurt them repeatedly and tend to stay in bad relationships for the wrong reasons. They try to help or fix others, stay in a bad relationship for the children’s sake, lie to themselves, and feel like they deserve to be treated poorly due to their lack of self-esteem.

Lack of Trust: Trust is a major issue for codependents. Besides not trusting themselves, they don’t trust the decisions of other people. They second-guess their feelings and will often find themselves trusting someone who is completely untrustworthy.

Sexual Problems: Just as codependents are caretakers outside of the bedroom, they are in the bedroom as well. They withdraw from their partners sexually and emotionally, lack sexual desire, lose interest in their partner, abstain from sex for a plethora of reasons and have strong sexual fantasies about other people.

Most people will demonstrate some of the traits mentioned above, but if you find yourself associating with 20 percent or more of the above symptoms, you are likely a codependent.

How Does One Become Codependent?

The key is “prolonged exposure to oppression.” Earnie Larsen, a nationally-known author and lecturer who has been referred to as an authority in dealing with issues like codependency and dysfunctional behaviors, states, “What we live with we learn; what we learn we practice; what we practice becomes habit, and our habits have consequences.” 

Codependency is a learned behavior, so thankfully, it can be unlearned. Codependents can take action and change the pattern of low self-esteem and worthlessness by recognizing that these traits are unhealthy and lead to unhappiness. Codependents should seek help from a qualified professional to begin healing the negative patterns of codependency. Mr. Larsen states, “If nothing changes, nothing changes.”

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