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Are you selfless or losing yourself? The difference between empathy and codependency

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Do you find yourself pouring so much time, attention, and effort into a relationship that you lose yourself? The drive to help loved ones when they endure difficult situations is normal! Empathy is foundational to forming and maintaining healthy relationships, but it’s often mistaken for a different, dysfunctional behavior; codependence. While empathy brings connection, understanding, and positive change, codependency can leave you empty, resentful, and drained. Let’s distinguish between selflessness and losing yourself in a codependent relationship.

What is codependency?

The term ‘codependence’ first appeared in the 1950s and was used to describe relationships involving addicted loved ones. Individuals became entangled in their loved one’s life and addiction, inadvertently enabling harmful behaviors by attempting to cover up, lie, make excuses, or help them avoid the consequences of their actions. These relationships were lopsided and consumed by a need for control.

Today, codependency extends beyond addiction and applies to any relationship where one person is mentally, emotionally, physically, or spiritually reliant on another. It’s important to note that codependence is not a mental illness, clinical diagnosis, or disorder; it’s a learned behavior, and unlearning it is possible.

What does codependency look like? Examining the signs

In a codependent relationship, your ability to meet the other’s needs defines your sense of personhood. You become so wrapped up in the relationship that you lose yourself, struggling to maintain an independent identity.

While there is no universal set of diagnostic criteria to measure up to codependence, there are commonly accepted signs:

1. You have an exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others. If a problem arises, like your partner neglecting to prepare for a presentation, you do everything in your power to prop them up and insulate them from failure because you believe it’s your duty to fix all their problems all of the time.

2. You avoid conflict.  Arguments and disagreements feel like a massive threat to your relationship, and you may fear that your relationship can’t withstand the friction. So you avoid asserting boundaries and take the blame even if it’s not your fault to keep the peace.

3. You ignore your needs and desires. Because your sense of self-worth and identity stems from the other person, you feel guilt or anxiety for doing things for yourself. You minimize, neglect, and abandon what you need to thrive to become everything the other person needs.

4. You do things you don’t want to do to maintain the relationship.  You may say or do things you wouldn’t normally in order to hold onto the relationship, even if it goes against your values or beliefs.

5. You constantly worry about the other person. You’re excessively concerned with their emotions, well-being, and the state of the relationship. This concern goes beyond normality, and you obsess over how they’re feeling with little regard for your own emotions and well-being.

6. You try to make decisions for the other person. Since you view it as your responsibility to resolve their problems, you try to control the situation by micro-managing their choices. You don’t consider their preferences or abilities and impose your solutions to get them to solve the problem the way you think is best.

7. You fear rejection or abandonment. Your sense of self is entangled with the other person, so a threat to the relationship threatens your identity. You get a sense of purpose and security because you believe they can’t reject you if they need you.

8. You have low self-esteem. You only feel valued when you’re needed, and your worth stems from being the problem-solver or fixer. It fosters dependence because you need to feel needed to feed your self-esteem.

9. You feel compelled to care for others even if you don’t have the capacity. You seek to earn praise or recognition by lightening others’ loads and taking on more than you can realistically handle.

10. You need to be liked. You constantly pursue others’ approval and recognition. You seek reassurance that the other person loves you, and you’re hyper-vigilant for any sign they could be angry with you.

11. You have trouble knowing how you’re feeling. You practice denying your thoughts and feelings so frequently that you lose touch with yourself and struggle to recognize, express, and process your true emotions. 

12. You have difficulty communicating honestly and authentically because you choose your words and actions based on how you think it will affect the other person. Your reactions tend to be disingenuous because you aim to keep the peace rather than be true to yourself. 

13. You can’t say ‘no.’ You find it difficult to set boundaries and assert yourself because you’re concerned it will damage the relationship. 

14. You avoid asking for help. Your role is the ‘fixer,’ and you worry you are inadequate if you can’t do all of it by yourself.

Examples of codependence in relationships

Romantic Relationship: A woman is married to a man who is an alcoholic. When he is hungover, she calls his boss to say he is sick and can’t come to work. She unknowingly enables him by giving him everything he requests and covering up for his destructive behavior. 

Familial Relationship: A college graduate moves back to his parent’s house. He tells them he will try to find a new place soon, but he has no money. He doesn’t try to get a job in his field or pursue any career and spends his days playing video games. His parents continue to support him financially, and he doesn’t move forward with his life.

Codependency means losing your identity

Pouring all your time, effort, and focus into supporting someone else in a relationship means you lose touch with yourself. Your preoccupation with fixing every problem the person has means you fail to cultivate your own hobbies, relationships, interests, and passions. Neglecting self-care leaves you exhausted, sick, overwhelmed, and even more fixated on your loved one’s issues. Codependency can create a dysfunctional dynamic where the other person becomes increasingly dependent on you, and you replace your needs with theirs. It’s important to remember that true compassion doesn’t mean sacrificing your identity.

Differentiating empathy and codependency:

Empathy is a powerful tool for forming healthy connections. It involves understanding and relating to others’ feelings without losing sight of your own. Empathy energizes and motivates you to help others based on genuine understanding and compassion.

Codependence gauges a person’s mood to determine how to react in order to be liked. It’s rooted in a need for validation and stems from outsourcing your self-worth to others.

Empathy allows you to be in tune with others’ feelings without losing sight of your own. You remain authentic to yourself. 

Codependence means you feel compelled to help others out of guilt or a belief you are responsible for resolving their problems.

Empathy fuels a drive to help because you feel for and understand the person’s situation. Empathy considers others’ needs and your own desires and limitations.

Codependence feeds your self-esteem and a sense of purpose by being the ‘fixer.’ It enables the other person’s destructive behavior out of your need for validation.

Empathy understands that others’ emotions and behaviors are not yours to fix. 

Codependence drains your energy in a one-sided and dysfunctional relationship. You spend a lot of time worrying, fixing, or trying to rescue

Empathy offers care while enforcing boundaries to protect yourself from overextension. You recognize if the person doesn’t want or isn’t ready to receive help.

Codependence originates in a need for control. You believe you know what is best for the other person and want to manage their life choices in a misguided attempt at caring. You try to protect the person from experiencing the consequences of their actions.

Empathy originates in a desire to understand by putting yourself in someone elses’ shoes. While you may relate to and care about the situation, you know it is necessary to hold people accountable.  

Codependence encourages you to abandon your needs and authentic self to accommodate others.

Empathy uses boundaries with the understanding your sense of self is not defined by those around you. It allows you to be in tune with another person without losing sight of your own.

Codependence prevents you from holding space for problems because you cannot tolerate emotional discomfort. Instead, you try to fix the issue.

Empathy allows you to hold space for others without trying to control or fix the situation. 

Empathy is a beautiful quality that strengthens connections without sacrificing your identity and well-being. When you notice you’re becoming lost in a relationship, it’s time to reevaluate and prioritize your well-being. 

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