4 Causes of Codependency and How to Heal

Codependent people often feel responsible for helping other people with their problems. In a relationship, a person struggling with codependency typically won’t express their needs or wants for fear that their needs will be “too much” or will lead to rejection. They’ may feel under-appreciated, used, and have difficulty setting boundaries with others. But, it’s important to understand that codependency is rarely just a “personality trait” or bad habit. Usually, it results from adverse experiences, typically from childhood. The more you understand about codependency, the easier it will be to identify it in yourself or in someone you care about.

Let’s take a look at four causes of codependency and what you can do if you or someone you love is struggling with it.

1. A Scary or Unsafe Upbringing

Codependency is often a result of a traumatic experience, like growing up in a home with domestic violence or living with a parent who abuses drugs or alcohol. In these cases, codependency can be seen as a survival mechanism gone wrong. Children in these homes learn to become hyper-responsible in order to try and make the situation safer or more tolerable. The trouble is that this strategy often works too well and this painful dynamic in reinforced into adulthood. As a result, adult codependents struggle to let go of this responsibility and often find themselves in codependent relationships.

Codependency can be an adaptive response to trauma. In some cases, codependency may be the only way a child knows how to survive in a dangerous or unstable home. As adults, codependents may struggle to break out of this pattern, often finding themselves in codependent relationships that mirror those from their childhood.

2. Parents Who Had Poor Emotional Boundaries

Sometimes, parents can start to treat their children like confidants rather than little kids. They might talk to their children about financial burdens or problems within their marriage. Children feel like they have to take care of their parents and help them with their problems in exchange for love and attention. This pairs the feeling of love and care with the role of emotional support which can often lead to codependent relationship dynamics in adulthood.

This trading-love-for-emotional-labor dynamic can also make the child feel bad for wanting to be independent and cause them to feel guilty whenever they leave the house or desire a life of their own. When they become adult these people often struggle with intense feelings of guilt or shame when the need to set healthy boundaries or disappoint others.

3. Under-Protective Parents

Parents who are under-protective don’t support their child’s development enough, leaving their children to fend for themselves much of the time. They might be involved with a social life, too wrapped up in work, or even dealing with mental health issues. Whatever the case, under-protective parents aren’t there for their children in the way they need. That often leads to insecurity within the child. It’s not uncommon for children of under-protective parents to have to “grow up” very quickly. They’ll start to take on responsibilities at a young age and will feel guilty as adults if they ever need help from other people. They may seek out and attract people who need taking care of as adults so they can stay in the familiar role of feeling strong and independent.

4. Overprotective Parents

Overprotective parents can give their children too much support as they grow up, often because they cannot themselves tolerate the idea that their children may struggle or feel emotional pain. While that doesn’t necessarily sound like a bad thing, it can end up hindering a child’s development. Children need certain obstacles and challenges to grow and thrive and learn important tools for self-efficacy. When parents remove those obstacles, children never get the opportunity to learn these lessons and even get the message that they can’t cope with life’s challenges. Children quickly learn that they need to be “ok” at all times to keep their parents from feeling anxiety or viewing them as struggling. This can lead to major issues of codependency later on in life. For example, when that individual is faced with challenges they may feel an intense need to “keep the peace” or be perfect.

What Can You Do?

If any of these issues sound familiar or you have experienced any of them, it’s never too late to seek out help. Getting to the root cause of codependency is the first step toward healing it. You can break the cycle of codependency by seeking out help and learning to tolerate and move past feelings like guilt and over responsibility that come up when you try to shift your boundaries and behaviors with the people you love.

When you’re honest with yourself about your behaviors and where they started, you’ll realize that it will be much easier to take control of your life with the help of a therapist or a recovery group like Codependents Anonymous (CODA.) Outside supports help keep you accountable to your goals as well as provide support and empathy when things get difficult.

Are you or someone you love struggling with codependency? Don’t hesitate to contact me to set up an appointment. Together, we’ll dig deeper into the root cause of your codependent behaviors and develop skills to help you overcome them.

Hello, I’m Miriam. I’m a psychotherapist with an online practice in California and Illinois.

Learn more about me and how I can help you here.