Breaking the Cycle of Codependency: 3 Steps to Be Confident, Feel Your Feelings, and Establish Healthy Boundaries
By Briana MacWilliam MPS, ATR-BC, LCAT Art Therapist, Author, & Attachment Coach.
Codependency is a term used to describe a relationship between two people in which one depends on the other for emotional or financial support. This type of relationship can often result in an unhealthy and unbalanced dynamic, with one partner feeling overly responsible for the other’s wellbeing. In some cases, codependency can be passed down through generations. It is common for children of codependent parents to develop similar patterns in their own relationships as adults.
In this blog post we will explore:
- How codependent messages are passed down to the next generation, and the underlying beliefs they install.
- How this can negatively impact our self-esteem and ability to recognize and establish healthy boundaries.
- A case example of what it would mean to recognize and recover from codependent patterns in love.
- Three steps to heal codependent wounds.
After reading this post, you will be able to…
- Recognize codependent patterns in yourself and your relationships.
- Rebuild self-esteem and respect, through the development of strong boundaries.
- Reclaim autonomy in your life and relationships.
So let’s dive in!
What is Codependent Behavior?
Codependency involves an emotional and behavioral pattern of basing our worth and identity in the opinions, emotions, successes or failures of others. It can manifest itself in different ways such as:
- Overly accommodating somebody else’s needs at the expense of your own.
- Avoiding conflict and placating the other person’s moods or opinions.
- Needing validation and approval from others to feel complete.
- Believing that our destiny is controlled by somebody else’s behavior.
- Feeling responsible for fixing, solving, or rescuing people in your life who are suffering from emotional pain.
- Feeling guilt or shame when we don’t live up to somebody else’s expectations.
Where Does Codependency Come From?
Codependent patterns are often passed down from generation to generation. Unconsciously, a child will pick up on the messages their parents’ behavior is sending: that they need someone else to take care of them, or that they are not capable of taking care of themselves. This can become a part of their identity and lead them to form codependent relationships in adulthood as well. Usually assuming one role or the other; the caretaker or the dependent.
For example, Janine’s mother demonstrated a caretaking role in a codependent dynamic with her father, who was an alcoholic with an explosive and unpredictable temper, who was also intermittently loving and playful. This inconsistency in behavior created tremendous tension and anxiety in the home. Rather than setting boundaries or enforcing consequences for his behavior, Janine’s mother was constantly making excuses for him, trying to protect his feelings or justifying his behavior.
As a result, Janine grew up with the idea that she had to take care of others in order to be loved and accepted. She also felt it was her responsibility to make sure her relationships worked out, so she stayed in unhealthy situations longer than necessary and found it hard to express her needs or set boundaries.
This led to feeling anxious and insecure in her relationships as an adult.
Eventually, she was able to recognize the patterns she had unconsciously adopted from her mother’s behavior and made changes to break free from them.
So let’s look at how codependency can be treated.
How Can Codependency Be Treated?
As Janine decided to take a concerted look at her life and the codependent patterns in her relationships, she followed a three-step process. This process included:
- Reframing codependent beliefs: Recognizing the underlying beliefs that filtered her perception of reality and her own lovableness.
- Allowing for feelings: Learning to feel a range of emotion, instead of jumping in to try to people-please as a way of avoiding difficult emotions.
- Establishing boundaries: Recognizing her own personal needs and preferences, so she could establish healthy boundaries around them.
So let’s explore each one in detail.
Step #1. Reframing Codependent Beliefs
Through self-reflection, Janine was able to recognize some of the underlying negative beliefs she had about her lovableness and worthiness of love. Some of these beliefs sounded like…
–I am only lovable if I take care of someone else.
-I must give up my needs in order to make someone else happy.
-My worth is determined by how useful I can be to others.
-If I express my true feelings, it will result in conflict.
-It’s not safe to rely on others for support.
With conscious effort and the help of a trained therapist, Janine was able to identify these negative beliefs and replace them with healthier ones that allowed her to feel more secure in her relationships. She also learned how to communicate her needs and set boundaries, both of which helped her build stronger relationships.
Some examples of the healthier beliefs she developed included…
–I am worthy of love and respect, even when I don’t take care of someone else.
-My needs are valid and should be taken into consideration in my relationships.
-My worth comes from within me, not how useful I can be to others.
-It’s okay to express my true feelings without fear of conflict.
-I can trust others to support me emotionally.
Step #2. Allowing For Feelings
Learning to feel a range of emotion, instead of jumping in to try to people-please as a way of avoiding difficult emotions, can be a difficult task.
It requires connecting to your body as the first organizer of experience, and attending to your sensations as important information about how you feel about something. What you like and don’t like. What you want for yourself, and what you will reject.
Creative arts therapies approaches were very helpful for Janine to discover her own preferences in a fun and playful way. She might not have had a word for what she was feeling, but she could describe it with a color, a shape, movement, or sound – and this connected her to her body’s ability to express what she couldn’t yet say.
Janine came to realize that you feel a powerful emotion, this clues you into an important need, and once you recognize the need, its much easier to establish boundaries around it.
Step #3. Establishing Boundaries
Boundaries in romantic relationships are guidelines, rules, or limits that help to define acceptable behavior and feelings between two people. Boundaries can help couples establish a mutual respect of each other’s needs and feelings while creating a safe space for communication. Examples of boundaries in relationships include:
- Deciding how much time is spent together
- Setting expectations about communication
- Determining how and when to resolve conflicts
- Establishing financial boundaries
- Deciding how much you will share with each other
Setting healthy boundaries in relationships allows both parties to feel safe, respected, and heard. It also helps to prevent codependent behavior from developing or continuing in the relationship. Knowing what your boundaries are, begins with recognizing what you like and don’t like. What feels safe and what feels unsafe. It’s tapping into a sensation in your body that eventually informs your understanding of how you feel about something.
That is why it is so important to let people feel their feelings, comfortable or uncomfortable, because it helps them to define their needs and boundaries – which ultimately helps us to define who we are, and who we want to be!
For Janine, this involved recognizing when she was taking on someone else’s emotional energy and personal baggage as her own. And then choosing to take action to separate herself from the situation, and establish some parameters around it.
Learning to recognize, articulate, and enforce her boundaries was a challenge for Janine. Because it felt like she was abandoning her partners, if she admitted to having different preferences or tastes. It felt like being separated or disconnected from them, and that felt like psychic or emotional death.
Eventually however, she realized creating a healthy degree of separateness and autonomy actually gave her more freedom to be herself, and therefore show up more authentically to her relationships, including standing up for herself and saying “no” to maltreatment.
For example, Janine found that when her partner would speak to her in a dismissive or condescending way, she reacted by staying silent and becoming passive. Now, she chooses to use her voice and set a boundary by calmly telling him how his behavior makes her feel and that she does not appreciate it. Unless he changes the way he speaks to her, she will not respond to him, and she will have to re-evaluate her investment in the relationship.
Janine takes the time to explain why it is important for both of them to respect each other in the relationship. She allows her partner to have his response, even if it’s an angry or upset response, but she won’t accept disrespect from him.
If he begins to reject her boundary setting and tries to tear down her character, she removes herself from the situation, and won’t respond to him until he apologizes and takes ownership of his behavior towards her.
Overall, with conscious effort, self-reflection and the help of a trained professional, you can develop new habits that allow you to form strong bonds with yourself and others and create a meaningful life. Working on these changes may seem overwhelming but the outcome of healthier relationships is worth it.
Codependency can be passed down from parents to children and can manifest itself in different ways, such as people pleasing, anxious attachments, or an inability to recognize or set boundaries. It is important to recognize if this is something you have inherited or learned and take action to break free from it. With conscious effort, self-reflection and the help of a trained professional, you can learn how to form strong bonds with yourself and others, as well as create healthy relationships for yourself and your children.
It may seem overwhelming at first but putting in the time and effort to break free from codependent patterns and create healthier relationships is worth it. Doing so will lead to more secure, confident, and happier relationships with yourself and others.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article and I hope it has been helpful in understanding how codependency manifests itself in our adult relationships. I wish you all the best as you make your journey home to yourself and experience the joy of meaningful relationships.
Briana MacWilliam is an author, educator and licensed and board-certified creative arts therapist with more than 15 years in the field, helping adults struggling with insecure attachment attract and/or cultivate loving relationships, using her trademarked method. To learn more, visit her website at https://brianamacwilliam.com/.