If you’re an empath, or just a kind person (which I hope you are!), codependency is a concept you should be aware of. As with many “trendy” mental health and cultural terms lately, it can be overused and misused. But this one, similar to narcissism, as I discuss here, is worthy. And this blog will clarify a lot of things for you if you like helping other people but have codependent tendencies.
If you’re here, you probably suspect that you do have codependent tendencies. It’s ok, many of us do. And the tricky part is that it’s often the caring, bleeding hearts who do. There’s a crossover between these traits and they can get muddled. If you don’t get these things straight, you may wind up feeling drained, resentful, or burned out. You may find yourself in unhealthy or even toxic relationships (personal or professional), wondering how the heck you got here with the best of intentions.
Codependency Basics for Helpers and Empaths
There are many definitions of codependency, but one of the best in my opinion is that you are taking care of others for the conscious or unconscious purpose of taking care of yourself. The underlying reason for your selfless or caring acts is not purely to give from your heart. It may appear that way, but you’re really doing it for the benefit you receive. This benefit is usually to allay your own anxiety or fear. It may also be to receive approval, validation, or love. As I mentioned, you may not realize this is what you’re doing. Many of us grew up in families where that dynamic was modeled and didn’t know any different.
If you grew up with a narcissistic parent who manipulated you or it was all about them, becoming codependent is more likely. As children, our survival depends on our caregivers. We’re constantly perceiving their actions and words from that limited perspective and trying to make sense of it. When a caregiver is more of a taker than a giver, the child learns to intensely monitor their reactions and potential reactions as a way to try to get their needs met. This pattern of over-focus on the “other” then carries forth into adulthood. It’s one of the main aspects of codependency.
In other cases, the child becomes a narcissist too (instead of an empath and/or codependent) or develops narcissistic tendencies. The brain is thought to not be fully developed until around age 25, and it is especially impressionable and vulnerable before age 8. What happens at these ages can create limiting beliefs and self esteem issues. Most parents aren’t doing anything on purpose, they are just in their family patterns too.
What is the difference between helping people and being codependent?
If you like helping people or do so professionally, you can do it successfully even if you have codependent tendencies. When you are helping or caring for others in a healthy way, you are giving freely. At the core, it’s an offering with boundaries. You’re not doing it to get them to like you, love you, approve of you, or stay in a relationship with you. This can be a bit hidden. A good way to investigate is to ask yourself, if I’m truly honest, WHY am I doing this? Dig deep and journal on it.
With codependent tendencies, you derive a sense of self or worth or safety from helping other people. You also may be trying to reduce your own anxiety, as I mentioned earlier. It would more accurately be called people pleasing. You are trying to control the other person by pleasing them. You may deny that something upsets you, for example, in order to keep the peace. This isn’t sinister and doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Not at all! It is simply the pattern you picked up, from your family or experiences. And I would dare say that MOST empaths and sensitive people have this dynamic going on until they shift it.
How to Help People Without Being Codependent
Here are 5 tips that will help you help others when you have codependent tendencies. Follow my guidance to be of service while also staying true to yourself. It’s a good idea to check in with yourself here and there too.
1. Don’t let other people define your worth
Healthy helping is not attached to your worth or sense of self. You don’t “need” to constantly be rescuing, fixing, helping, pleasing. If you do happen to attempt to help someone, either in a personal or professional relationship, what happens afterward doesn’t bring up fear or anxiety in you. The person’s “results” don’t affect you. And they shouldn’t, because that has nothing to do with you. You can offer guidance or help, but it’s up to the other person if/what they do with that.
Each human is a sovereign individual responsible for their own life. It’s not your job to take on others’ burdens or requests or problems. Not doing so, and not being able to solve others’ problems if you try to help, are both not about you. Toxic people will, however, blame you, either directly or indirectly. This subtle or outright blame can keep you stuck or hooked into a relationship that is bad for you. Caring people are more likely to take on misplaced guilt and doubt themselves. These are all red flags. Extricate yourself as soon as possible from the relationship. If it’s a romantic relationship, it can be scary and you may need some support.
2. Say no
The next part of my above point is to simply say no. If someone asks you for help, you can say no. If guilt or fear arises when you say no, or when you do help and then stop helping, you probably have codependent tendencies. Bravo for noticing! Don’t be hard on yourself, awareness is the first step. My experience is that it can take some serious self work and support to break this cycle. Reach out to me if you need further help.
As the adage goes, “no” is a complete sentence. Feeling a need to explain yourself or give a lot of excuses indicates this codependency pattern. Just breathe through it and say no anyway (if that’s what you feel is best). Having boundaries like this often brings up a reaction in the other person. It’s to be expected, because they want your help, or have come to expect it if you’ve always done so in the past. Not everyone will respect your boundaries, unfortunately. But this is good information for you to know. You need to learn to value yourself above others (in a healthy way of course, not veering to the other extreme of narcissism).
3. Be honest
Get real about how you feel. If something upsets you or makes you uncomfortable, say so. You can do it with kindness. It isn’t a commentary on the other person, or on your loyalty. Also, when you’re not honest, other people can’t get to know the real you. You are hiding your true feelings and thoughts. This is exactly what people pleasing is! See my above point. This behavior is quite common in kind, goodhearted people. Starting to be more honest can bring up a lot of anxiety, including fears of abandonment. We fear that no one will stick around or accept our truth. However, other people ARE capable of respecting you, your feelings, and your boundaries. Have the courage to share openly.
4. Don’t take responsibility for what’s not yours
One of the hardest and most important life lessons is learning that each of us is solely responsible for ourselves. Being there for others is a beautiful thing, and humans are meant to be interconnected. But there is a fine line between mutually supportive relationships and those that are codependent.
Empaths, sensitive souls, and helpers (either in the helping professions or personally) are more prone to codependent tendencies. That’s because we truly care and want to connect with other people in a real way. We care about others’ happiness and success. At the end of the day, though, you are not capable of changing another person. Accepting this truth is sometimes a long journey.
5. Walk away if needed
Sometimes leaving a relationship is the greatest act of self love you could ever take. It can also be a huge gift to the other person, even if they never realize that. If you don’t feel safe (physically or emotionally), get out as soon as possible. If you’ve tried to make it work and the other person is not open to your feelings, thoughts, or boundaries, there’s a good chance this isn’t a good relationship for you. Ask yourself, does the prospect of leaving this dynamic make me feel relieved? Sadness and anxiety are of course natural, even when leaving is the right choice.
Read my blog here about how to protect your energy for some more guidance.
You Can Have Codependent Tendencies and Still Help Other People
In conclusion, you can still help people if you have codependent tendencies. It just may take a process of figuring out how to do it in a healthy way that serves the other person while still honoring you. If you’re in this process, I suggest a period of introspection where you don’t interact with others as much as usual. That allows you to detox in a sense, and reflect on what’s happening. If you need help, please reach out to a therapist. I’m also happy to support you, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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