Credit - Illustration By Lauren Hall for TIME
Treva Brandon Scharf was anointed her family’s healer-in-chief at an early age. She learned quickly what the job entailed: to be of service. “I was a natural-born helper, fixer, rescuer,” recalls Scharf, 60, who lives in Beverly Hills, Calif. Her parents’ problems became her problems; there were no distinctions or boundaries. When they split up, she soothed her father as he cried, reassuring him that everything would be OK.
“I was 6, 7, 8,” she says. “I didn’t know if everything was going to be OK.” Scharf didn’t realize it until years later, but her family dynamic was codependent. That’s the word commonly used to describe complex, learned relationship patterns hallmarked by behaviors like an exaggerated sense of responsibility for others, difficulty identifying one’s own feelings, an extreme need for approval, and excessive self-sacrifice.
Codependency isn’t an illness or personality disorder; it’s not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which means it isn’t an official diagnosis. But it can deeply affect people’s well-being and relationships—Scharf believes it’s part of the reason she didn’t get married until age 51. For years, broken divorced men were “[her] jam,” since she was conditioned to try to stitch people back together. “They needed some healing,” she says. “And there I was. I knew that dynamic. Your job is not to fix someone—that’s their job—but there can be this gravitational pull to get involved in their chaos.”
Like Scharf, people who are codependent often attribute their tendencies to early childhood experiences, says Ingrid Bacon, a psychologist in London who studies the lived experience of codependency. “They say they were raised with caregivers who didn’t encourage them to develop a sense of self,” she notes. “Or they didn’t feel loved unconditionally or validated.” Codependency can lead to an array of problems: As part of her research, Bacon has interviewed people struggling with depression, addiction, and other mental health problems, “and they identified codependency as something that was at the center of their issues,” she says. “One woman said to me, ‘I think codependency is the mothership of all addiction.’”
Fortunately, it is possible to heal. Therapy can be helpful, as can joining support groups and reading books about how to strengthen your sense of self. But the first step, of course, is simply to recognize the signs of codependency. Among them:
More From TIME
You lack a clear sense of self
People who are codependent often behave like chameleons. “They’re always becoming and being what other people want them to be or become,” Bacon says. “They don’t have a clear sense of who they are.” Many struggle to find their place in the world because they can’t differentiate themselves from their family unit. It’s difficult for them to determine where they begin and end, and where their family members begin and end.
One participant in Bacon’s research described “trying to fit in with every situation” rather than being true to her authentic self. Others said that as they took on subservient roles in their relationships, they lost sight of any semblance of personal values and needs. This “insufficient individual identity,” as Bacon has called it, is what many people focus on correcting as they recover from codependency. “They look for ways of rebuilding their lives, and they go through this process of self-construction,” she says. That can mean figuring out what their hobbies are and what they want to do with their lives, or even just what they would eat for dinner or watch on TV if they weren’t considering someone else’s preferences.
You have a deep need for external validation
Because people who struggle with codependency don’t have a clear sense of identity, they’re externally focused—which means they look to others for validation and self-worth. That’s why many are drawn to people they need to save. Often, that manifests as a tendency to land in relationships with people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, Bacon says; they see helping them as a purpose. “They want to have that sense of identity that they’re a good wife or husband, or a good mother,” she says. “By helping them, it gives them a sense of identity.”
What makes a family? Our writers explore:
You have trouble saying no
Codependents tend to be people-pleasers who have trouble saying no, says Jessica Baum, a Florida-based psychotherapist and author of Anxiously Attached. (Interestingly, some research suggests that women—who traditionally struggle with prioritizing their own needs—are more likely than men to be codependent.) “They abandon parts of themselves and lose their voice,” she says. As a result, they sacrifice their own needs for the perceived needs of their family members again and again: giving up hobbies to be more available to their loved one, watching the movie the other person wants to watch, operating on someone else’s timetable. “It all stems from wanting to connect,” Baum says. “These are ways that we learn to stay in connection when we’re young, and they’re adaptive strategies we use when we’re older.”
You step into a caregiving role
The way Sara ONeil recalls it, she practically came out of the womb codependent. She spent decades of her life trying to save people she cared about, or at least change them for the better—until one of her friends died in 2016. “That was the first time I realized that I had thought my worry was protecting him,” says ONeil, a 40-something who lives in Nashville. “When he died, I was like, ‘It didn’t work.’ I was gripping all these people—clutching onto them—and I let go for the first time ever.”
Like ONeil, many codependents have an exaggerated sense of responsibility for their loved ones, often stepping into caregiver roles. This dynamic is particularly prevalent in households in which a parent has an addiction or is depressed, says Avigail Lev, a clinical psychologist in San Francisco. The codependent person will make it their singular mission to ensure the other person doesn’t suffer. If they were on a plane that was crashing, they wouldn’t put the oxygen mask on themselves first, Lev says. They’d put it on their loved one. “The other person is a part of them,” she says, and the idea of surviving alone would be unbearable.
People who are codependent often have a subconscious desire to control or influence their family members—which might manifest as being overinvolved. For example, if a parent sees something painful happening in their child’s life, they’ll try to gain control by interfering and getting too involved, says Tara Lally, a supervising psychologist at Hackensack Meridian Health in New Jersey. “That’s because the child’s pain is the parent’s pain,” she says.
There also might be overbearing tendencies: For instance, a mom not allowing her 12-year-old to have a voice in choosing their own clothes, or closely monitoring her 16-year-old’s class schedule and homework. “You could be overinvolved mentally, emotionally, physically, or spiritually,” Lally says.
You struggle to make decisions
Making decisions can feel excruciating for people who are codependent. They might freeze when it’s time to decide what to have for dinner, where to go on vacation, or who to invite to the party. Codependents often rely on others to make decisions for them, because they lack confidence in their own judgment. “If you’re wanting to get a new job or make a big change, you’ll need a lot of reassurance and feedback,” Lev says. “Is this the right decision?” Someone who’s codependent won’t be able to figure that out for themselves, instead needing the OK from loved ones in order to move forward.
You get mad a lot
People who are codependent often experience a lack of emotional regulation—and, as a result, have a good deal of interpersonal conflict. Young people, in particular, might struggle to become aware of their own feelings and fail to develop the self-awareness necessary to recognize their own thoughts and opinions, says Kaytee Gillis, a psychotherapist based in New Orleans. Instead, they’re consumed with managing their family members’ feelings. As a result, codependents often get so stressed that “it all blows up, leading to episodes of frustration, feelings of depression, and even moments of anger or rage,” she says.
You’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop
When someone’s family is codependent, they often spend hours of every day riddled with anxiety about what’s around the corner. Baum describes it as “a sense of impending doom inside their body”—which drives people to try harder and harder to fix (and fixate on) their loved ones. Sometimes, those who are living with codependency feel embarrassed, or as though it’s something to hide. Baum and other experts emphasize that there’s no reason to feel ashamed. As Scharf points out, codependency is inextricably linked to many wonderful qualities: “It’s a virtue,” she says. “My mother had a saying that a virtue, when misused, becomes a vice. You can be generous, you can be kind, you can be compassionate, you can be empathetic—those are all beautiful things that go along with being codependent. But when misused or overused, they can work against you and backfire.”
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.