HSPs, Are You in a Codependent Relationship?

A person in a codependent relationship

Here are twelve signs you might be in a codependent relationship and not even know it. How many do you relate to? 

Does it feel wrong to be without your partner? Does it feel selfish to take time for your own needs? Have you changed your habits and preferences to be with them — or have they changed theirs to be with you? 

If so, you might be experiencing codependence in your relationship and not even know it. 

Many people in codependent relationships never realize it, because codependence can often look like love and selflessness. When we think of unhealthy relationships, we tend to think of obvious red flags: physical violence, manipulation, coercion, and emotional abuse. Even the sneakiest examples, like gaslighting, are still readily recognized as unhealthy when they do come to light, because they’re clear forms of mistreatment.

However, what happens when the lack of health in a relationship isn’t due to explicit mistreatment? What if, instead, it was caused by depending too much on each other? 

That’s what codependence comes down to, and it can be much harder to identify. This is especially true for sensitive people, who prefer feeling a deep closeness with their partner. After all, where is the line between being “close” and being “dependent”?

As innocuous as it looks, codependency is an unhealthy element in a relationship — one that can end up harming both partners. And, in my experience as a psychologist, highly sensitive people (HSPs) may be even more vulnerable to codependency due to their high levels of empathy and desire to help others. I’ve certainly seen many of my own highly sensitive clients struggle with codependent patterns.

What is a codependent relationship? 

According to Judith Fischer, a developmental scientist who studies codependent relationships, codependency is an unhealthy pattern of focusing on others rather than yourself, suppressing your feelings for others’ sake, and seeking your sense of purpose in other people. In a 2008 paper, Fischer says that codependency entails having an undefined sense of self, to the point that codependent people rely on factors in the external world — especially relationships — to know who they are. 

Codependency is harmful because it’s a form of what researchers call “enmeshment.” Enmeshment is the experience of losing track of your separateness from others. Research shows that enmeshment involves “a diminished sense of self that includes a loss of autonomy in relationships, and an inability to fully experience, understand, and value one’s own thoughts, feelings, and needs in the context of relationship.” (You can understand enmeshment by picturing a continuum of boundaries, with enmeshment on one extreme end of the spectrum, and rigid boundaries on the other end. Social scientists and mental health professionals believe that the ideal lies in the middle of that spectrum, allowing for the healthiest way to relate to others.)

There are four factors that characterize codependency:

  • External focus, or focusing your attention and energy on others far more than yourself.
  • Self-sacrificing behavior, in the form of always putting your partner’s needs and desires ahead of your own comfort, goals, and preferences. 
  • Interpersonal conflict and control stemming from the need to keep the other person close. An example would be making career decisions based on what your partner thinks is best rather than what you yourself want. 
  • Emotional constraint, which involves suppressing your own feelings and never saying “no” to the preferences of your partner. 

Keep these four factors in mind, as they will become relevant later on!

Although unhealthy, codependency doesn’t necessarily involve intentional abuse; it’s simply a pattern one or both partners fall into. (Your partner may not even be aware that you aren’t getting your needs met — or they might realize it, but not know how to stop it.) Likewise, although codependency is often discussed within the context of romantic relationships, codependency can be present in any type of relationship. 

Ultimately, while human connection is an important need, we are whole people outside of our relationships. Codependency makes us lose sight of that, which is why it’s so harmful. 

What causes people to become codependent? 

It is believed that people fall into enmeshment during childhood development, in which the controlling nature of parents, combined with inadequate parental support in meeting our needs, ultimately results in a poor sense of self and believing that our purpose is to meet the needs and demands of others. 

Fischer’s work suggests that codependent behavior is a result of extremes: either a family dynamic that is so enmeshed that people become over-dependent on each other, or being abandoned by one or both parents. Either way, the catalyst seems to be having one’s behavior highly controlled as a child — once again, leading to a poor sense of self. In other words: people become codependent due to early childhood trauma involving important relationships, which makes it difficult to know who they are without such relationships. 

Yet, for HSPs, codependency can carry additional weight.

Why Codependent Relationships Are Especially Dangerous for Highly Sensitive People

Some researchers believe that sensitive people are more prone to codependent relationships. This is due to our difficulty setting boundaries with others, especially if we are not grounded with that strong sense of self. In fact, codependent relationships can prey on HSPs’ vulnerabilities: since we’re naturally empathic, we are more susceptible to people-pleasing, leading us to give too much of ourselves. 

Likewise, for many HSPs, we take it on ourselves to save others, and might even come to define our role within our relationships as “the rescuer.” When giving up our needs to prioritize and save others becomes the norm, we start to see ourselves by who we are in relation to others, losing our core self in the process. This makes it incredibly difficult to leave a relationship, even if we are able to recognize the toxicity of the situation. We may come to believe that we are responsible for the well-being of this other person, and therefore presume that we are doing something wrong by leaving. 

This is bad news for at least two reasons: 

  • First, according to Fischer, codependency is correlated with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and having an external locus of control (i.e., believing that our abilities are based on external factors beyond our control). 
  • Second, codependency is also associated with significant challenges with our emotions, relationships, and even jobs.

I’ve had clients ask me, “But aren’t we supposed to depend on each other? Isn’t that healthy in relationships?” 

Yes, but there is a difference between codependence and interdependence. 

Interdependence is recognizing not only the significant connection of our relationships, but also the reality that we cannot go through life alone. Interdependence also emphasizes the importance of mutual support and balancing give-and-take, while also allowing us to have boundaries and not lose ourselves in the process. Interdependence requires two whole people, whereas codependence tries to make two people into one whole.

12 Signs You’re in a Codependent Relationship

How do you know if you’re in a codependent relationship? Below are twelve telltale signs based on the most current research. You don’t need to relate to all of these signs to qualify as codependent, but if you relate strongly to several of them, it may mean you have codependent behaviors that are worth examining. 

Signs of codependency include:

1. You are constantly sacrificing your own wants and needs.

People in codependent relationships will often neglect their own wants, needs, and goals in order to prioritize the other person. Indeed, one of the four factors of codependency is self-sacrifice. This is not compromise, in which the other party also makes accommodations and adjustments in order to find that middle ground, but instead a pattern of constantly attending to the needs of the other and feeling guilty or ashamed for not doing so perfectly. Researchers believe that this is due to a fear of abandonment and rejection. 

2. There’s an imbalance — you are always giving, but never receiving.

Although HSPs tend to be natural givers, we are only meant to give so much before we receive in return. After all, healthy egalitarian relationships consist of overall equal give-and-take, even if that might look different moment-to-moment. Giving and never receiving becomes a pattern within codependency, leading to depletion, burnout, and resentment. 

3. You define yourself in terms of the other person.

The best relationships are ones that bring us joy and life. That being said, it is natural for us to experience sadness at the very thought of losing that person or relationship. However, codependency takes this to an extreme. With codependency, you may feel so linked with that person that you cannot imagine life without being in this relationship and do not know who you are without them. Using relationships to define who you are is part of that external focus of the four factors of codependency. 

4. You do not feel like a whole person.

One of the most iconic movie lines is “You complete me” from Jerry Maguire, often lauded as romantic. However, the implication of this sentiment is far darker than we give it credit, as it implies that we are not a whole person without someone else. When we believe this about ourselves, we then become more susceptible to codependency, in which we use our relationships to meet our emotional needs and fill our “holes” instead of addressing what is going on internally.

5. You become reactive.

Codependency may have you reacting in ways that do not feel like yourself. You may notice yourself acting erratically, such as yelling, screaming, crying, slamming doors, or throwing objects. Or, you may find yourself groveling to the other person for forgiveness, despite knowing rationally that you did not do anything wrong. This is because your brain goes into “emergency” mode, activating your fight-flight-freeze-fawn response. In codependent relationships, that fear of losing the other person becomes so great since the relationship has come to define you, that the thought of losing that relationship feels like upheaving your life and identity. 

6. It’s your job to save your partner.

When you approach a relationship with the goal of being the rescuer rather than an equal participant in the relationship, the nature of the relationship becomes exploitative rather than healthy. And while HSPs have a natural tendency to caretake due our compassion, fulfilling the role of rescuer goes above and beyond that, making it easy to fall into codependency. 

7. You feel an underlying insecurity.

In codependency, there tends to be a constant, haunting message that you are not safe in your relationship because the other person could leave you. This is often due to past childhood trauma, as well as that lack of confidence in yourself. After all, how are we supposed to feel secure in a relationship if we do not feel secure in ourselves? 

8. You lack stable, strong boundaries with others.

Boundaries within relationships are required to preserve your energy, respect your needs, and maintain your sense of self. When these aspects are missing, as they are in codependency, it becomes easy to rely too heavily on your relationship, losing yourself within that process.

9. You feel a drive towards perfectionism.

Codependency is rooted in perfectionism. And although perfectionism can come up in ways unrelated to codependency, one of the common ways codependency manifests is in perfectionism. This often looks like attempting to “perfectly” attend to others’ wants and needs, or presenting yourself as the “perfect person” in order to be “good enough” for others, beating yourself up when you fall short of those standards. 

10. You avoid conflict at all costs. 

HSPs are naturally conflict-avoidant– conflict tends to be too much for our sensitive nervous systems! However, codependency takes this to a whole new level, as suggested by interpersonal conflict and control being part of the four factors. This becomes unhealthy when you start to bury your feelings and opinions, opting to be internally unhappy rather than attempting to address the issue at hand. 

11. You rely on relationships for self-worth.

Part of codependency entails that your sense of worth comes externally instead of internally, relying on others for your emotional needs. This often comes up in feeling that you need to prove yourself to both others and yourself in your ability to not only have relationships, but also how you provide within those relationships. When those relationships crumble, so too does your self-worth. How could it not when the very foundation of your self-worth is your relationships? And yet, as with any external basis of self-worth, it always feels fragile and never seems quite good enough. Finding your purpose in your relationships is part of the four factors of codependency (i.e., external focus).

12. You (try) to refrain from expressing your emotions with others.

As discussed earlier, emotional outbursts are common within codependent relationships. However, the flip side of that same coin is that what is aimed for is the complete opposite- controlling your external expression of emotions as to not take up space, to prioritize the comfort of the other person, and to avoid the risk of them leaving you. Emotional constraint is part of the aforementioned four factors of codependency, and could look like refusing to cry in front of others, hiding when others have upset you, and refusing to lean on others for emotional support.

How to Break the Cycle of Codependency

Codependency doesn’t have to be a life sentence. Here are some steps you can take to start moving away from codependency:

  • Identify your healthiest relationships. Chances are, some relationships you have are healthier than others. So, what makes those relationships healthier? Is there less pressure for you to show up perfectly? More room for your feelings and needs? Equal give-and-take? Once you identify these factors, ask yourself how these might be incorporated into other relationships. Also, just by virtue of recognizing these healthier relationship dynamics, we are reminding ourselves that it is possible.
  • Look into what makes you, you. It’s important to know who you are, independent of your relationships. What makes you, you? What are the values that drive you? What are some aspects of your personality (as captured by the MBTI, Big Five, or Enneagram)? Are you an orchid, a dandelion, or a tulip? Take time alone for self-reflection and self-searching, and start to identify the things that drive you regardless of who you’re with. 
  • Give yourself lots of compassion. Coming out of codependent relationships is hard work. This is a great time to utilize self-compassion. Not only will self-compassion help you with the difficulties of this work, it combats codependency by countering the harsh self-judgment typically associated with codependency. 
  • Start to recognize your boundaries. In order to implement boundaries, you must first recognize what your boundaries are. Perhaps start with some self-boundaries (How much sleep do you need per night? How much downtime do you need per day? Any activities that you want to be more intentional about or put limits around?), which can be easier to enforce. From there, start to reflect on how you want others to show up for you.
  • Process the roots of your codependency. As discussed above, the seeds of codependency are sown during childhood. In order to truly address codependency today, it’s important to get to the root cause to promote true healing. When in doubt, I recommend working with a therapist on this step. 

No matter where your codependency started, you do have the power to overcome it. Doing so opens the door not only to healthier relationships, but to taking joy in your own hopes and dreams — possibly for the first time. 

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