When someone describes themselves as a “people pleaser,” a counselor’s mind jumps to codependency. Usually, as the sessions progress, it usually comes to light that these self-identifying “people pleasers” have poor boundaries with friends, family, and colleagues, thereby making them feel like they need to meet other people’s need while theirs remain unmet.
Melody Beattie, a leading researcher in the field of codependency, describes the condition in this way:
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. – Codependent No More, 1992 ed.
Do you feel confused by that definition? This article will help explain and illustrate this definition later on.
Pia Mellody, another key researcher in the study of codependency has found that codependency makes it difficult to manage the following areas:
- Maintaining a healthy sense of self-esteem
- Establishing healthy boundaries
- Understanding and owning reality for yourself.
- Self-care, meeting your own wants and needs
- Not being overwhelmed by life
Regarding self-esteem, Mellody continues explaining, “if codependents have any kind of esteem, it is not self-esteem but other-esteem; which is based on external things” (Facing Codependence, p. 9).
A sense of satisfaction surrounding how others think we look or what others think of us isn’t necessarily wrong, but if we need their approval then we don’t have self-esteem, we have others-esteem. Maybe you are thinking, if this is what constitutes codependency, then aren’t we all codependent?
The reality is a lot of us are codependent to some degree. Technology has not helped. The invention of social media has ingrained comparison and other-esteem into the very fabric of society because social media is all about showing people what we are doing and awaiting their affirmation.
We’ve lost the art of keeping things to ourselves. As we’ve lost the ability to have a private life, we’ve lost our sense of personal worth and value assigned by God. We seek the affirmation of others, living from a place of codependency rather than a place of interdependency.
David Richo states, “In a healthy person, loyalty has its limits and unconditional love can coexist with conditional involvement. Unconditional does not, after all, mean uncritical. You can both love someone unconditionally and place conditions on your interactions to protect your own boundaries.” (How to Be an Adult, 1991, p. 58,).
What this means is that God can love us unconditionally without unconditionally condoning our actions and choices. Approving of our decisions and unconditional love are not the same thing.
A lot of people don’t understand boundaries. Boundaries are not things used to control other people, rather they are opportunities for us to decide how much we will participate with others, depending on the decisions they make. The goal of a boundary is to protect us, not control someone else.
In other words, it’s like when you lock your doors at night. Are you locking them to try to prevent crime and wrongdoing on the streets? Of course not. You are locking them in an attempt to prevent crime and wrongdoing in your home.
Boundaries do the same thing. They keep your sense of self safe. An alcoholic has the right to drink as much as they want to. No one else can make their choices for them.
So a boundary for someone in a relationship with an alcoholic might look like this: “You can drink whenever you want. That is your choice. However, know that if you choose to drink, I will choose to remove myself from the situation to protect myself. I know that if I remain nearby, then I will get hurt, and it is my job to protect myself.”
Some may complain this is manipulation, but that isn’t true. You are simply choosing to behave in a way that protects yourself without trying to control others.
An excellent chapter on boundaries is found in How to Be an Adult by David Richo. In the chapter, he says, “I know I have lost my boundaries and become codependent when: I don’t let go of what doesn’t work, and it feels like I cannot let go of what could possibly/hopefully work. Codependency is unconditional love for someone else that has turned against oneself.” (p. 59)
Boundaries and codependency are interlinked. Codependency is essentially not having healthy boundaries to protect yourself. Often, this stems from low-esteem because you don’t think you have the right or ability to stand up for yourself. As children, we are meant to depend on our caretakers.
As responsible adults, we should, in most circumstances, be able to take care of ourselves and, when we can’t, know when it is appropriate to ask for help. This is concerning a human dynamic. When it comes to God and us, we must recognize that he is the only person who can meet our every need on a spiritual level.
It is important to understand that being codependent doesn’t mean you are defective, bad, or hopeless. Most of the time, we learn to be codependent through our early life and family experiences. The lack of boundaries, low self-esteem, enmeshment, and other unhealthy behavior we see in ourselves were likely modeled for us at home.
The experience is only more intense for someone in a relationship with an addict. It may feel like the addiction has taken control of you and your relationship, making it feel impossible to break free from the codependency due to your love for the addict.
You may not have had a choice growing up. Codependency may have begun as a way of surviving, but we need to realize when it is damaging us and no longer helpful. If we don’t, it will remain a pervasive and unhealthy presence, preventing us from living from a healthy, confident place.
So what does it look like to have healthy boundaries?
David Richo provides an excellent summary of what they look like (see p. 59-60 in How to Be an Adult):
- A big part of healthy boundaries is asking for what you want and going to get it. By doing so, you claim your identity and reveal it to others, creating a sense of liberation rather than isolation, bitterness, or fear.
- Take care of yourself and receive love from God. Ask God for discernment and courage to know when a relationship has become toxic and no longer a safe place for you. Having a good support system is key for you to get helpful feedback about what is going on in your life ( therapists, friends, groups, etc).
- Look at how other people treat you and analyze the behavior. Don’t get bogged down in the emotion and tension instead of from a place of confidence decide how you will let yourself be treated.
- Face the fact that you may be intoxicated by unhealthy relationships, looking for love in all the wrong places. Hold a bottomline of how much pain, lying, and hurt you are willing to put up with in a relationship. Keep track of how others treat you and fight for yourself. If you don’t, no one else will.
- As we grow up, we need to learn and understand that God is the only person we can trust fully. Human beings can and will fail us. And we can and will fail those around us. But we need to learn to trust our self, knowing we are worthy of love and not letting other people or our pain define us.
Being part of a healthy relationship means investing in other people, giving up some of our power, without our identities being diminished. We love and surrender parts of ourselves as lovers, not as powerless victims. If we live as victims at the mercy of others, we will be unable to protect ourselves and live from a place of reaction rather than self-confidence.
Common Signs of Codependency
Professionals don’t fully agree on the defining characteristics of codependency, but usually look for these key signs when determining if someone is dealing with codependency (adapted from Melody Beattie’s definition in Codependent No More):
- Taking responsibility for other people’s thoughts, feelings, choices, or behaviors
- Finding a sense of value in “saving” other people from their own choices
- Doing things because you are expected to and saying yes when you really want to say no
- Being more concerned about other people’s wants/needs instead of your own
- Experiencing Uneasiness or guilt when someone helps you
- Being disappointed and sad when your whole life is spent serving others, while nobody serves you
- Finding yourself drawn to needy individuals and needy individuals being drawn to you
- Experiencing boredom or a lack of purpose if nothing is going wrong.
Melody Beattie then describes how low self-worth typically manifests for a codependent person:
- Tend to come from troubled, repressed, or dysfunctional families and deny this fact
- Blame themselves for everything
- Reject compliments
- Feel guilty about doing something good for themselves
- Fear rejection
- Take things personally
- Have been victims of emotional, sexual, physical abuse, neglect, abandonment or drug/alcohol addictions
- Their inner-dialogue consists almost solely of negative self-talk
- Help others instead of helping themselves
- Live with a pervasive sense of hopelessness that good things will happen to them
- Settle for being needed while believing others won’t love them
Jesus promised us a life of abundance, not a life making it through. This doesn’t mean we won’t have trouble or trials, but a Christ centered life has him a source of unconditional love, acceptance, and validation.
When we live from this place, a place of abundance, we can give love and care to others. If we live from a place of scarcity and searching for validation from other people, then we won’t have anything to give anyone.
Do you remember the famous passage where Jesus tells us to love others as we love ourself? We rarely ever talk about how that command is predicated on the idea that we already love ourselves. Some people think that we need to learn to love ourselves before we can love others, but the truth is that we already do love ourselves. Just as we feed, clothe, and nurture our own bodies, so we are to show love to others by seeing to their needs.
When we give anything, it should be done from a place of abundance, not scarcity. If we think we lack acceptance, love, etc., then it is difficult to give those things to anyone. Instead, we will always be looking to other people to fill us up with love and acceptance, which can only be found in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
If reading this article, you resonated with the signs and characteristics of codependency, resulting in depression, anxiety, and general apathy in your life, then reach out to a counselor. A trained professional can help you figure out what is at the root of your issues.
Dealing with symptoms is helpful, but can’t ultimately fix the problem. To really deal with the issues, you will need a counselor to help you process your life and story in order to develop a healthy sense of self. Reach out to us to day to start your journey of healing!
“Needed”, Courtesy of Cristian Newman, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Warmsweaterday”, Courtesy of Anne-Marie Pronk, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Yes”, Courtesy of Chris Benson, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Fear of Abandonment”, Courtesy of Rebcenter Moscow, Pixabay.com, CC0 License