Do you sacrifice your own needs to fix or protect other people? Two leading experts reveal why we take on the caretaking role, and how to empower yourself and break the cycle
When we talk about codependent relationships, we often think of the romantic kind. But they exist in a variety of different partnerships, between siblings, parents, friends and even coworkers.
Codependents are often caretakers, which seems like a great quality — yet long-term, the behaviour can be harmful to everyone in the relationship. The result is a pattern of rescuing, resenting, and regretting.
Rescuers gain satisfaction by identifying with their caretaking role. They are generally proud of what ‘helpers’ and ‘care-givers’ they are, explains Dr Clodagh Campbell aka @The.Wellness.Psychologist. “Often, they are socially acclaimed, even rewarded, for what can be seen as ‘selfless acts’ of caring and thus this becomes a huge part of their self-identity and self worth.”
So how do you end up leaving your own wants and needs behind and assuming the roles of people pleaser, rescuer, and caretaker?
“A caretaker or rescuer can often take on responsibility for another, following feeling like they had to do so earlier in life,” says Dr Campbell. “For example, it can be due to parentification or feeling unsafe in a chaotic situation or environment. Or due to never feeling like they were wanted or acknowledged as a young child, and so construct a situation where they now feel needed and of value.
“The difficulty is, as adults, this pattern of taking care of others in order to feel worthy can be problematic, especially as until we can construct our self-worth internally we will never feel good enough.”
While codependency isn’t considered a mental health condition, there is, however, some general agreement on what codependency usually involves and often this includes various forms of self-sacrifice and neglect.
“Signs of codependency include controlling behaviours, dependency, people pleasing and poor self-esteem,” says Dr Campbell. “The main sign is consistently elevating the needs of others above your own.”
In order to shift out of co-dependency and unhepful, often problematic relationship patterns, there are a number of things you can do.
“Implementing and respecting healthy boundaries is integral to breaking away from this behaviour, as is developing healthy communication,” says Dr Campbell.
“Therapy can be incredibly helpful and healing for all parties. Having a safe space to gently explore relationship patterns will bring huge awareness and understanding to the individual(s). And when it comes to change, awareness is always the first step.
“The next step will be identifying and exploring the behaviours it would serve them to change, and how they can begin doing so. For example, working on their anxiety, need for control and sense of safety in the world and in their relationships, building their self-worth, practising creating and upholding healthy boundaries, and expressing their needs in their relationships.”
Psychotherapist Sarah Crosby aka @themindgeek and author of 5 Minute Therapy agrees. “It’s important to know that we can work on creating healthier relationships and there are many ways to do this. We can’t change something if we’re not aware of it, so knowledge is your first tool. As well as this, it’s important to start establishing an identity beyond the perimeter of the relationship. Spend time doing things that fulfil you, and make it a priority.
“In a codependent relationship, the balance of support is habitually askew and often to the detriment of our own needs. Boundaries are often lacking or absent altogether. It’s important to start communicating honestly, not stepping over your own boundaries.
“Keeping the peace is one of the most important duties in a codependent relationship. Many of us dislike conflict and confrontation but within a codependent relationship, we avoid difficult conversations or expressing our needs in order to keep the other person happy.
“For example: You wake up, it’s a lovely morning, the sun is shining. You ask your partner if they want a coffee. They say ‘no’ but to you it sounds short and perhaps a bit snappy. This is enough to upend your own handle on the morning, and your mood plummets.
“We go down the tunnel of analysis — what could be wrong? Was it something I did? Maybe they didn’t have a good sleep. What can I do to make it better (aka fix it)? We find ourselves analysing their behaviour, looking for signs of what we feel is sadness or anger.
“In the place of genuine and honest communication, we’ve stepped into the role of mindreader and rescuer. Our emotions are so dependent on the mood of the other that it is only when they seem happy or content again, we can begin to breathe deeply.
“It can be extremely beneficial to have a safe space to discuss our relationship with conflict, abandonment and control, as well as working on our capacity to be with uncomfortable feelings. If you can, consider reaching out to a mental health professional for support with this process.”
These questions will help you examine your relationship and determine whether or not you are in a codependent dynamic. If you answer yes to many of these questions, you may need some help to break the cycle.
1. Do you have a tendency to ignore or minimise your own feelings?
2. Do you do things you don’t want to do to make the other person happy?
3. Do you have a tendency to apologise or take the blame to keep the peace and avoid conflict, with an excessive need to get approval from others?
4. Do you have a tendency to neglect your own desires and needs?
5 . Do you experience guilt or anxiety when doing something for yourself?
6. Do you have a sense of self-worth and self-esteem that depends on what others think of you?
7. Do you take on more work than you can handle to lighten someone else’s load?
Check out thewellnesspsychologist.ie or @themindgeek for more