10 Ways Codependency Presents in Families

5 min read

In dysfunctional families, the younger people (or those who have less control), are often afraid to express their true feelings or their needs due to the emotional hold on them by those in power who perpetuate a cycle of power and control. In these environments, the focus becomes on managing and supporting the emotional needs and concerns of those in control, usually one or more of the adults, rather than the family as a unit. Eventually, these children grow into adults who struggle to express, or even identify, their own needs.

While the mental health community is breaking away from the term codependency due to it often being used as a form of victim blaming, it is still used in many healing communities to convey meaning and understanding of the behaviors. When I discuss codependency with clients, I prefer to liken it to the behaviors that survivors of relational trauma often had to develop in order to navigate, or even survive their situation. Rather than pathologizing, we can use it to understand and heal, leading to healthier communication, and healthier interpersonal relationships.

Source: N-Y-C/Pixabay

Source: N-Y-C/Pixabay

All of us can exhibit some minor signs of codependency depending on the situation, without it necessarily being overly unhealthy or extreme. But if left unchecked, such as when someone is in denial or unaware of their unhealthy communication or behavior patterns, it can lead to other issues in relationships. Those who grew up in environments where power and control were part of their whole upbringing may struggle to differentiate between what is normal and what is unhealthy.

Unfortunately, healing often starts in adulthood. Many of my clients, myself included, were unaware that their families may have exhibited unhealthy or even dysfunctional patterns until they were given the opportunity to learn what healthy communication and interactions look like.

There are many different ways that codependency can manifest, depending on the severity, and depending on the nature of the relationship. But here are some of the most common I notice when working with survivors of family trauma.

1. The family is constantly worried about the feelings and needs of one person. For example, the family revolves around mom’s moods, or grandpa’s drinking binges.

2. You find yourself anxious or worried if one of your family members appears upset, and trying to figure out what to do to “fix” it. Instead of worrying about a loved one, which is a normal reaction and usually age-appropriate, this often manifests in unhealthy ways. For example, a young child will be worried about dad’s problems, which are too big for the young child to fix or even understand.

3. You sometimes feel resentful that nobody seems to notice your feelings or take care of your needs. Often, this will result in stressful moments or situations where the people who are codependent get so stressed out putting their own needs aside that it will all blow up eventually—leading to episodes of frustration, feelings of depression and anxiety, and even moments of anger or rage.

4. You spend so much time taking care of the needs of the rest of the family that you do not know if you can recognize your own feelings or thoughts. When asked your opinion about something, you often say “I don’t know,” and look for others to answer. This is most common for survivors when they first begin the process of breaking free from any dysfunction within the family of origin.

5. You feel guilty for expressing needs or thoughts, because you worry about what others think and if they will be upset with you, or even leave. This is commonly seen in adult survivors of dysfunctional families who were conditioned to expect love and affection as being conditional.

6. You experience extreme symptoms of anxiety or depression at the thought of having a parent or family member mad at you. These negative feelings can cause you to lose sleep or mess up at work due to obsessing about the family member and what they may be thinking or feeling.

7. The family feels the need to “fix” or control one member’s behavior, such as addiction or mental illness, so much that it becomes consuming. An example of this is when the entire family’s day is spent making sure that grandpa’s needs are met so he does not drink.

8. There are constant feelings of, or worries about, abandonment and rejection that infiltrate your every day.

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9. There has been any kind of abuse in the family, such as physical or emotional, yet you still are pressured to support the one who harmed you. This can be external pressure, such as from family members, or internal, such as guilt.

10. There is a feeling of “walking on eggshells” around someone in the family, especially when they are upset.

If your family was constantly focused on managing the concerns of those in control, you could have learned some traits of codependency in order to navigate your family in the least stressful way possible. While this is not your fault, working to unlearn these behaviors and replace them with healthier communication can help you improve your relationships.

Codependency, like any unhealthy communication or behavior pattern, is usually treated on an individual or family level, depending on the situation. If the family members, particularly the adults, are willing and able to develop self-awareness, then family therapy can work. However, if the dysfunction is to the extent where those with the power are unable—or unwilling—to work on their own behavior, family therapy can be dangerous for vulnerable family members due to the risk of continuing psychological or emotional abuse. In these cases, it is recommended that the individuals receive their own therapy or do their own inner work.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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