How to Overcome Codependency by Listening to Your Anxiety
Is caring for others is a familiar role you may take in your relationship with a partner, friend, or family member? Are you a caretaker for someone who is struggling with addiction or mental illness? If so, do you find it hard to practice self-care? Does taking care of your needs feel like a selfish thing to do? If any of the above struggles resonate with your experience, then codependency could be dictating your life and making it difficult to begin caring for yourself.
What Is Codependency?
Codependency makes it feel uncomfortable to set boundaries with others. Guilt and shame kick in leading to an endless task of meeting the needs of others. Sometimes codependency is related to a need to prevent rejection and abandonment. Attempting to control others and maintain perfection can sometimes help relieve the anxiety that often accompanies codependency.
The problem is that codependency makes self-compassion and feeling enough seem like far-fetched concepts. Not taking care of one’s mental or physical health can really take a toll on one’s mental and physical health.
In this blog, I will discuss what codependency is, how anxiety plays a role, and how to overcome codependency by listening to your anxiety.
Codependency Vs. Caring for Others
It is a natural response for you to want to help and care for others, especially your loved ones. As a therapist, caring for the well-being of others is all-too-familiar for me, and having grown up with a codependent parent, I have experienced how it feels to be greatly impacted by others and their struggles.
Although it is a natural instinct to care for others and to be impacted by them and their problems to some degree, what sets this natural reaction apart from codependency?
Signs of Codependency
Let’s take a look at several signs and traits of codependency, according to Melody Beattie, the author of “Codependent No More:”
- Caretaking behaviors: thinking and feeling responsible for others’ thoughts, feelings, actions, needs, and well-being; feeling guilt when others have a problem; offering unwanted advice; doing favors for others that you do not want to do; and difficulty with receiving help from others.
- Low self-esteem: blaming yourself for everything; feeling ashamed of who you are; feeling like you are not enough; gaining self-worth from helping others; losing self-worth when other people experience problems, and difficulty accepting compliments and praise.
- Controlling habits: believing you know how people should behave and how events should turn out; attempting to control events and people through advice-giving, guilt, or manipulation; and feeling controlled by the events and other people.
- Difficulty with appropriate boundaries: difficulty saying ‘no’ to others; overextending yourself in relation to others; feeling pressured in being responsible for others; anticipating the needs of others; and difficulty in identifying and asking for what you need, how you feel, and what you are thinking; and difficulty with self-care.
- Dependency: trying to prove you are good enough and perfect; depending solely on others and things outside yourself for happiness; difficulty leaving unhealthy or abusive relationships, and seeking relationships in which your needs cannot or will be difficult to be met.
Codependency & Anxiety
Anxiety is an emotion we experience when fear or worry is present about a situation we are already experiencing or about a situation we anticipate occurring. For example, we might experience anxiety during a stressful event such as a job interview, or when we anticipate an upcoming new or stressful situation, such as meeting new people at a party.
Anxiety is oftentimes connected to the messages or rules that we hold about ourselves, others, and the world. I call these are our unconscious or automatic messages. These messages are often times created based on past experiences including experiences we have had with others in a family and other social units (e.g., school, friends, work).
These messages often start with a “don’t.” Examples include don’t:
- Express your feelings
- Be yourself since that is not enough
- Speak or try to solve problems
- Be selfish, and care for others instead
- Trust your judgment
- Hurt or upset others
- Make mistakes
Listening to Your Anxiety in 5 Steps
The process of listening to your anxiety is an essential step in learning about your unique struggles with codependency and paving the path towards recovery. Below, I will walk you through a series of steps that can be utilized to understand your anxiety and its unique functions. Examples will be provided at each step to help you understand how each step can be applied to your life. However, keep in mind that these are general examples related to codependency; thus, it is important to take time to consider what specific examples may apply to your unique struggles with codependency.
#1 Identify Anxiety Triggers
What circumstances, situations, and events trigger your anxiety? These triggers usually occur within our relationship with others. And oftentimes, the triggers include circumstances that you feel may violate or activate your automatic messages in some way. For example, you may experience anxiety when they are told by a friend to help with a favor that you do not want to do. Not wanting to do the favor is a violation of your message, which states that you must care for others at the expense of your own needs in order to keep others from abandoning you. As a result, you may experience anxiety over the idea of not doing the favor for a friend.
#2 Pay Attention to Anxiety in Your Body
How do you know when you are anxious? What changes do you notice within yourself? Examples of physical and psychological symptoms of anxiety include:
- Increased heart rate
- Difficulty breathing
- Racing thoughts
- Chest pain
- Nausea or stomach aches
- Difficulty concentrating
#3 Note Any Messages That Cross Your Mind
What messages cross your mind when you are anxious? These messages are our automatic or unconscious messages that we spoke about earlier. For example, we may tell ourselves that we are weak if we feel and express our emotions. Or we may think that others will leave us if we express what we need and how to feel.
#4 Notice How You React
How do you react when worried? How do you interact with others? Do you withdraw, react, and/or attack? Some people attempt to self-cope by engaging in substance use or over-eating. Others isolate and become passive towards others. Sometimes, a person will attack through blaming statements, passive-aggressive comments, or physical aggression. These are a few ways that some people may behave when they are anxious. How do you behave?
#5 Listen to Your Anxiety
What are you looking for in moments when you experience anxiety? Some examples may include: wanting to be heard and validated; wanting to prove that you are enough; attempting to avoid rejection, abandonment, and disapproval; seeking self-love, self-acceptance, and happiness; desiring inner peace and relief from the fears and worries; and ultimately freedom to just be yourself.
Self-Care & Overcoming Codependency
When you have identified what you are looking for in moments when you experience anxiety, you have also identified what you need. This is an essential step in recovery of codependency because often times your needs are dismissed or pushed aside in the context of your codependent relationships in order to meet the needs of others.
And when your needs are pushed aside, it can leave you feeling worthless, lonely, resentful, angry, and anxious. You then spiral into anxious attempts at controlling others and events around you in order to get rid of your anxiety.
By taking the steps listed, you can begin listening to your anxiety and move towards making room to care for the person that matters the most…you! As you learn more about your anxiety and the messages it holds, you can begin to challenge the parts of your messages that no longer serve you in a healthy way, and begin to develop new messages that can help you create a secure sense of self and healthier relationships. Within this process, you are also determining your needs, which brings you one step closer towards self-care by effectively communicating your needs and feelings to others, and seeking healthy ways to care for yourself. I encourage you to begin your journey towards codependency recovery today by following these 5 steps.
- Beattie, M. (1987). Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself. New York, NY: Hazelden Foundation.
- Beattie, M. (1989). Beyond Codependency and Getting Better All the Time. New York, NY: Hazelden Foundation.