I wrote a post recently about learning to live with moderation, and was surprised to find it was quite popular. Several people told me many of the things I mentioned were very familiar to them… so I thought I would write a little about codependence and what it actually is.

I think these days when we think about codependence we can often think of Glenn Close boiling bunnies, or of some weird couple who are joined at the hip and finish each other’s sentences. It has quite negative connotations these days, but at the same time I think society and the mass media seem to idealise codependent behaviour as the norm, or at least as desirable.

I’ve been reading about this a lot lately, and Pia Mellody, widely considered to be an expert in the field, says there are five primary symptoms of codependent behaviour. When I read this list, I felt like my entire life was being laid out before me:

1. Self-esteem issues – in most of us this shows as low self-esteem or what Mellody refers to as “other-esteem” – where our sense of self worth comes from something other than ourselves. So rather than just being comfortable in the knowledge we’re ok and worthy of love just as we are, we attach our sense of worth to our achievements or our looks or our bank balance or whatever – I am worthy because I got an A in that exam or I am worthy because I earn a lot of money. In some cases self-esteem issues can show as overly high self-esteem, where we think we’re better than those around us. For many of us, it can show as a mixture of the two, whereby we always feel the need to fit ourselves into a hierarchy: I’m better than her because of XYZ but he is better than me because of ABC. I do this a lot. Throughout my life I have gained my self-esteem through achievements, work, what other people think of me, my parenting, whatever. I can’t stand alone; I need something else to say I’m ok as a person. And I constantly rank myself against others: better than this person; not as good as that one. It’s infuriating.

2. Trouble setting functional boundaries – when we don’t have functional boundaries, it often means we can end up letting people walk all over us. Or we might build a solid brick wall as a boundary so that nobody can get to us at all, and therefore we have no intimacy in our lives. Sometimes it’s a bit of both. A lack of functional boundary means we end up living at the mercy of those around us; doing, thinking and saying whatever they think we should. It’s worth noting here that in many cases the other person doesn’t explicitly say that we should do, think or say something; we just do it because we want them to like us. I am awful for this, especially in romantic relationships. I have often lost sight of myself in a relationship and allowed the other person to dictate things – in many cases, without their ever wanting to. 

3. Difficulty owning our own reality – we don’t necessarily know who we are. So we might have issues surrounding the reality of how we look (when I look in the mirror, I don’t see what you see when you look at me), we might have issues with understanding, processing and expressing our feelings (I often don’t really know how I feel, which sounds stupid), we might have trouble figuring out our behaviour and what we do or don’t do. This can all mean we have trouble figuring out who we are, or who we should be. And we have trouble making decisions that would positively impact our lives – because we don’t necessarily understand where we are now, and where we might be if we made this decision. Honestly, a large part of my having a nervous breakdown was that I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t know who I was or what I liked. I still find it really hard to set goals because I don’t necessarily know where I want to end up. Also my issues surrounding the reality of how I look are just plain massive. I’m working on spending time just thinking about how I feel about things.

4. Trouble identifying needs and wants – our needs are the things we need in order to live a good life, so things like food, clothing, shelter, emotional nurturing etc. Our wants are the things we want in order to bring joy to our lives. A codependent person confuses the two; we might neglect our self care, never buy new clothes, not take care of our home environment etc. We might become dependent on others, expecting them to meet our needs, or we might become anti-dependent, where we won’t allow anyone else to meet our needs. Some people become “needless/wantless” where we don’t even acknowledge that we have any wants or needs – or we might get confused between what is a want and what is a need, so we would buy ourselves new clothes instead of asking someone for a hug. That sounds stupid, but I’ve done it more than once. I have lots of new clothes.

5. Trouble experiencing and expressing our reality in moderation – so we don’t experience anything in moderation. Everything is an extreme; either I’m feeling everything very vividly and wildly, or I shut down and avoid feeling anything at all. Codependent people often appear to others to be extreme in many areas of their lives. This lack of moderation is what I wrote about before;  everything is an extreme. For me this even comes down to my wardrobe; I own a lot of grey and navy blue clothes and tend to wear shapeless, boring outfits but every now and then I go bonkers and wear really extreme outfits. I also went through a 2-year stage of having outrageous hair. When I decided I liked piercings, I ended up with over 30 of them in a short space of time. 

These symptoms are the “core” symptoms of being codependent so they’re things a codependent person will recognise in themselves, but others may not recognise about them. For example, as I mentioned the other day, the majority of people will tell you I am incredibly independent but actually I just pick and choose with whom I am needy. 

Pia Mellody also defines “secondary symptoms” which are more obvious to the outside world – but this is already quite a long post, so I will deal with those in another one! 

Reading this list of symptoms was for me like a light bulb being switched on; I felt like this woman had been following me around and making notes about my life. But I also have massive anxiety about being “out” as codependent – because of the negative connotations associated with it, and because … well, I don’t know. I just feel very thingy about being so vulnerable right now. But it is what it is; this is who I am right now.

Vicky Charles

Vicky is a single mother, writer and card reader.


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