Six Surprising Codependent Habits
I lived the first 30 years or so of my life rolling around in codependent thought patterns and habits, until I realized how deeply this way of thinking and showing up in the world had seeped into my mind, into my thoughts and feelings, leading me to act in ways that I now see as not aligned with who I want to be in the world.
Maybe you’ve been wondering if codependency is part of your own story. So many of my clients, friends and family members have the same question. Codependent thought habits can show up in sneaky ways in our lives, but you can begin to shift these patterns from a place of self-love, gentleness, and self-care always.
We’ll dive into how codependency can masquerade as love, some of its origins, and how to shift this way of thinking.
The question I often receive is, “How do I know if I’m being codependent?”
The concept of codependency originated in literature in the 1970s. The terms, which describes relationships in which the participants overly depend on one another, be it emotionally, physically, spiritually, financially too, at the cost of their relationship with themselves.
So you’re depending on someone else, how they feel, what they think about you, you’re depending on them and you’re taking your cues about how you feel about you from them. And this whole concept came about in the field of substance abuse counseling. What can make it particularly challenging to see in ourselves, is that you don’t have to have been raised in a household or a family where there was substance use or misuse to have learned codependent ways of being in the world.
If one of your parents, caretakers, maybe a grandparent or an aunty who raised you was raised with alcohol or drug use or misuse with a codependent parent or grandparent or caretaker, or by and with someone with mental health concerns, like depression, anxiety, narcissism, borderline personality disorder or bipolar. If the person who raised you was raised by a person who learned codependency at home, know that this kind of thinking, acting, being, it’s a lens.
It’s like a lens you use to see the world. And it can seep into the fabric of a family, leading to generations of codependent thinkers until someone, perhaps you, my love, stops to see those habits, to name them, and to begin the work of shifting and changing them.
One of the most common ways I see codependency show up for my clients is that they’ve learned to attempt to control others as a way of attempting to manage their own anxiety.
You feel anxious about a situation and you’re like, “Well, if only she stops doing that thing that’s annoying me, and if I can control her, then I will feel better,” which is just never true.
What makes it so manipulative and subtle is it can look like helpful suggestion making, like telling people what they should do, giving advice without consent.
And this also shows up as manipulative behavior with a goal of attempting to get someone to do or feel something without you actually directly asking for it. I will own this that I think mostly in my 20s, probably earlier, one of the codependent habits I picked up from my family of origin was guilting. I used to try to make others feel guilty for decisions that I had made, either based on their advice or their experience or not at all. If something hadn’t worked out the way I wanted, my brain would so quickly find someone to blame. And that, all of this is emotional childhood in full effect.
This is exactly what codependent thinking is. One key component is being in emotional childhood and blaming others for what you feel, as though anyone other than you could create those feelings for you.
Another codependent habit is not speaking your thoughts or needs directly, but rather, expecting other people to read your mind so you don’t have to take the risk of speaking up and potentially being shot down, which from an adult place and not an activated place, we can say that’s not a real risk. The worst thing that happens is you feel shot down.
But in that moment, it feels like a very real risk.
This habit of not speaking up can lead you to say yes when you mean no, overly caretaking others because you are not seeing or naming or expressing your own desires or needs, and therefore can lead to a chronic lack of self-care.
Complaining, whining, guilting, shaming, instead of speaking and asking directly often leads to anxiety because few people give their full attention and support to an adult who is complaining, whining, and trying to guilt or shame them. And so the complainer is often ignored, which just reifies their original worry that they won’t be listened to.
Projecting your anxiety onto someone else is also a codependent habit.
Then allowing your brain to tell the story that your anxiety is about them and their decisions, versus being a feeling that you generate in your body, with your own habitual thoughts.
Another common codependent move in a situation of anxiety or not getting what you’re demanding, is to get angry.
This can often look like raising your voice or shaming, blaming, guilting, criticizing, whatever is easiest to latch onto. And often involves the manipulation of roping someone else in as a way to not appear so selfish.
And what’s really fascinating about this one is that your adult brain realizes that it’s not going to get you what you want to be mean, to get angry, especially when what you really want is love or care or kindness or help or affection. But what it does do and why it’s a classic and in its way, genius favorite move of codependent brains is that it acts as a buffer, which is a thing that you use to distract yourself, for even just a moment, for the more challenging feeling that you don’t want to feel, giving you a feel-good hit of dopamine and endocannabinoids.
Here, anger may feel easier or more comfortable than anxiety, concern, worry, feeling abandoned, especially if you grew up with subtle or even overt anger in your household.
It might be your brain’s sort of go-to state. And because of the chemical shift that happens when you engage in the distraction of a buffer, your body just wants to do it over and over again.
Problem is, like any buffer, anger only raises your energy for just a moment. Only gets you attention for a quick second, and also often leaves you feeling depleted, drained, more distant from the ones you love, particularly when you’re projecting the anxiety, fear, blame, or shame that you feel in yourself onto someone you know isn’t causing your feelings.
Then that can lead to more anxiety, fear, blame, shame on the backend. When anxious, the codependent habit may turn to anger, which then leads to more anxiety in the wake of your outburst or unkindness.
Another common strategy is to abandon ship when you’re feeling abandoned.
To ignore the person who isn’t giving you what you want, even when you didn’t ask for it.
This can look like saying, “That’s fine, I didn’t want to hug and kiss you anyway,” or with a deflated energy to say, “Fine, I won’t even ask for love from you. Forget it, it’s off the table.” Or you may not voice it, but you may simply stop doing it. To stop asking for what you need, almost as a way to punish the other person and to try to make them feel as abandoned as you do.
Again, unlikely conscious mind, but this is the work to get in touch with these parts of our brain so that we can see when we’re carrying out these habits that don’t serve us. Because this habit is not likely to lead to you getting the love and care and support you want and need. Though it’s funny, right? It does work sometimes for just a millisecond.
That is, if you pout and look dejected around the right people, likely codependent people themselves, they may ask you what’s wrong, which might at least show your inner child that someone cares a little bit.
But in the long run, getting care because you’re withdrawing and pouting isn’t getting care as an adult.
It’s getting the kind of care one might give a child, given that this kind of stance is emotional childhood personified.
This kind of thinking and behavior, withdrawing from love or the chance of emotionally challenging or vulnerable situations, from that place of anxiety, fear, or worry, is also deeply anxiety-provoking and producing, my love.
One more habit is taking things personally and making things about you that are simply not about you, which I think can come from several different places.
But I think one of the most common ones is likely this fear that you don’t matter, and so it’s like your brain wants to jump to making everything about you.
It can also come from this perfectionist place or this fear of failure place where if you’re taking every single comment that comes your way and making it deeply about you, then you can criticize yourself, you can get mad at yourself, and you can name all these things that are wrong or bad or not great about you before anyone else can. To a brain wired for codependency, that can in its way feel safer than sort of not taking things personally and leaving yourself open to criticism or other people having opinions.
A final way that I see codependency showing up for my clients and the people I love is as this sort of, almost like a social anxiety. And I think the root of it is fear of other people’s reactions to us.
Fear of other people’s judgments, what they might think, and therefore again, in that deep reaches of our psyche, labeling yourself as unlovable or not worthy of love, but rather worthy of criticism, of blaming or judging yourself for not being perfect, as though that was a real thing, for not doing everything right in someone else’s eyes, and generally speaking, not having a positive self-regard.
Positive self-regard is when you decide to truly and deeply love yourself as yourself, regardless of your own missteps or goofs, knowing that to be human is to be fallible, perfectly imperfect, and to make mistakes.
Instead, when you don’t have a positive self-regard, you judge yourself harshly, assume others are judging you, and that means something and you care a lot about other people’s opinions or thoughts about you.
If you pause and think about it, you actually never know what anyone else is thinking about you really.
And this habit, this habit of judging yourself because you think someone else might be, it’s just so classically codependent as a way of thinking. And is often the deep root of codependency as a thought habit, and it’s often based in not feeling lovable. Not feeling and knowing that you are secure in your self-love and self-regard, regardless of what’s happening in your life, in your world, relationships, regardless of the circumstances and situations of your life.
This habit of blaming, shaming, judging yourself also produces more anxiety and worsens the tendency towards codependent thinking overall.
For each of these thought habits, I’ve called out how it can lead you to feel more anxious in the world, more unsettled. And I want to talk about what’s happening in your body. It is both an automatic and a habitual thing.
Your sense of self and safety and wellbeing are challenged. When someone doesn’t read your mind and thus doesn’t give you what you didn’t ask for, so you feel anxious, which leads your loving body, to respond with a rush of adrenaline, followed by a slower climb of cortisol.
So the triggering of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic and remember, autonomic, automatic nervous system. The autonomic or automatic nervous system is the one that controls heart rate, breathing, respiration, so you don’t have to think about your heart rate and think about moving my lungs, moving my blood.
I would just die very fast. It’s a lot to think about. And so our bodies and their infinite wisdom do not require us to think about these things. So the autonomic nervous system controls all of that. Your hearing, your seeing, it controls muscle movements, movement of blood, all the automatic things.
And there are two branches to it. Sympathetic, fight or flight, and parasympathetic, which then has branches, which are the ventral vagal, which is safe and secure, socially connected, dorsal vagal, which is your back’s up against the wall. That’s the freeze response.
When you get this adrenaline rush, this cortisol rush, this is the triggering of the sympathetic branch, preparing you to fight or flight. Preparing you to get angry, to storm off, to hurl accusations, to attempt to project your pain onto someone else as though that would take it out of your body for good, which of course it never can.
When that panic system is exhausted you may find yourself falling into dorsal vagal shutdown, the state of depressed energy.
That state of freeze or playing possum, which emotionally can feel like dissociation, numbness, dizziness, being off balance, hopelessness, shame, sense of being out of your body, disconnected to the world, or a sense of feeling trapped or stuck.
Common thoughts in this state are, “Things will never change, I’m so stuck, I’ll never be able to speak up for myself, she’ll never listen to me,” which leads us to feel more stuck and less able to speak up for ourselves. In both of these states, you are outside your agency, outside your power, and you have turned it over to another human to decide how you are going to feel, which also happens in the final neurological state I want to talk about.
That’s the fawn or appease reaction. The fourth reaction. And for some reason, it’s just not talked about that much and I don’t know why. So fourth, meaning fight, flight, freeze, appease. It’s also called fawning.
Fawning or appeasing can lead to not having or holding firm to your boundaries, and can often look a lot like manipulating when it’s done by adults.
It is actually very strategic and smart in its way for humans of all ages when there’s abuse or neglect or substance use involved. So fawning or appeasing, it’s a protective stance in which you try to make the other person happy so you can feel safe.
But what your brain and body are forgetting or putting aside in those moments is you and that your number one job is to attend to you and your wants and needs first, because no one else is going to do it, and not to push them aside, to try to make someone else happy, which you never can really do anyway, because feeling happy and joyful is always an inside job.
When we are fawning or appeasing, things can get rather complicated because you can get reliant on that person telling you you’re being so great, you’re doing so great, thank you for doing all of these things for me.
It can sort of create this loop where that person gets dependent on you. I mean, kind of what codependency is all about, right?
My love, my sweet one, I don’t want that for you. Not at all.
I want to guide you to live a life without these sneaky codependent thought habits, these subtle and not so subtle attempts to manipulate or control or change others.
And again, trust and believe that I get it. I get where it comes from and how challenging it can be to rewrite, to regulate, and I have faith in you.
I know you can do it, my sweet one, and I know it in my body, lo siento because I did it for myself. I broke free of codependent thinking and I know you can too. What I most want you to know is that feeling your feelings, while attending to your nervous system is the most important step to rewriting these patterns.
What you get to do to find your liberation is to – and deep breath here my babies, you’re not going to like it – my darling, you get to feel your anxiety.
You get to really feel it and please, trust and believe, I’ve had a panic attack on the six train. I know feeling your anxiety is a big ask but my love, attempting to use any of these other methods to push it away, to try to buffer against it. It just doesn’t work.
By feeling your anxiety and learning what it feels like in your body, where you feel it, what it does in your body and mind is key to not acting out in these ways that keep you stuck and suffering.
When you can acknowledge and feel that anxiety, when you can name it and get real with it, you can deal with it.
You can’t heal what you can’t see, and as long as you keep acting in these codependent ways, it’s so challenging to regulate your nervous system and you’ll keep going into fight, flight, freeze, appease, and you’ll be less able to address the underlying concerns.
And that old pull to tell stories about your unlovability, about other people failing you, that you can’t ask for what you need and want, those stories start to fade into the past. They become a set of unintentional thought habits you used to have and can be replaced with the intentional thoughts you want to have and believe and think now, as your more and evermore evolved adult self.
It is only from the place of unconditional love for yourself, the place of getting clean and clear about what you’re thinking and feeling, that you can learn to trust yourself, to make the most loving decisions on your own behalf, as your most loving adult.
My sweet one, you are a human, humaning along in this world, doing your darn best. So you’ve had codependent thoughts and habits. Okay. Me too. That happened. I was taught to do it, I kept doing it. It was modeled for me. Maybe it was modeled for you.
And while I’m clearly not out here being like, oh well, I kind of am. Where I’m going with this is to remind you to be gentle, loving, and kind with yourself as you discover these thought habits in your life.
Being mean to you with statements like, “I can’t believe I had those codependent thoughts for so long, how could I not see it,” and et cetera, those won’t get you anywhere but back in that place of low self-regard and low self-love that fed the codependent thoughts in the first place.
So okay, you have a history of codependent thinking. That’s what was. Bring in the love, be your own best friend, your own most moving parent, and know that all is well here. You’re growing and changing and becoming and that’s beautiful. Honor the process, my darling one.
Thank you for taking the time to read Feminist Wellness. I’m excited to be here and to help you take back your health!
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