What is Codependency?

By Vanessa Kensing, LMSW

Some of us are natural caretakers. We empathize easily, enjoy interpersonal connection, and value being of service to others. When expressed within healthy boundaries, these are attributes of great value. However, when expressed to the extreme, forgoing your own needs, it is codependency.

What is Codependency? 

The hallmark of codependency is a manner of behaving and relating to others where self worth and emotional regulation is dependent on others. 

Much of the early literature on codependency focused on individuals in relationships with those suffering from addiction. And while that still applies, codependency can also be found in other types of unhealthy family, romantic, peer, and professional relationships. 

How does it develop?

Codependency is a learned way of behaving, and for many it begins in childhood. Children growing up in chaotic and/or dysfunctional families experience unpredictability, lack of support, blaming, shaming, judgment, denial of issues, refusal to ask for outside help, unrealistic expectations, neglect, and/or abuse. Due to lack of healthy communication, children internalize these issues as their fault and feel that it is their responsibility to fix them. As they grow older, this way of behaving in relationships is continued, and they believe that they are responsible for others and everything around them. Since this an impossible task, it leads to feelings of failure, rejection, and anger. 

How does it manifest? 

  • Sense of responsibility over others’ actions
  • Sacrificing one’s own needs
  • Comparing self to others
  • Difficulty being true to self
  • People pleasing
  • Tendency to do more than their share
  • Tendency to be hurt when others don't recognize their efforts
  • Issue with control
  • Need for approval
  • Guilt when expressing personal needs
  • Difficulty identifying emotions
  • Difficulty with change or decision making
  • Difficulties with boundary setting 

Mental Health Symptoms:

  • Low self esteem
  • Low sense of self worth
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Guilt and Shame
  • Obsessive thoughts and behaviors


As mentioned above, codependency is a learned way of relating, and therefore can be unlearned! Through identification of behaviors and distorted thought processes, new ways for relating can emerge. Likewise, healing from painful childhood experiences can help in finding the courage to build a stronger sense of self-worth and new healthy relationships. Therapy is a safe place to explore these issues and engage in the healing change process. 

Vanessa Kensing, LMSW is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you feel you are struggling with codependency please connect with us at Cobb Psychotherapy and see how therapy can help.