mixed feelings is a bi-weekly advice column. Every other week, a different mental health expert, author, or journalist will respond to most pressing existential conundrums. If you’re dealing with one right now, use our anonymous write-in form to be considered for a future newsletter.
dear mixed feelings,
I’m a codependent person. I’m not sure if I’ve always been this way or if it’s a result of going through a very rough breakup seven years ago.
I learned about co-dependency five years ago and realized that I fall into that category. I have since done a lot of contemplating and have made some (small) effort to become more independent but haven’t had any luck changing.
I’m ok with being single, but I have a hard time not having a go-to person to rely on when I don’t have plans on a Saturday night or someone to watch movies with on the weekends…I have some really great friends but it’s not always the same.
Is codependency something you can change about yourself? Or should I just accept it and learn to cope with being alone? — Co-depGirl, she/her
I was a sophomore in college when I realized that I was deeply entangled in a relationship that wasn’t serving me. My therapist called it “codependency,” and though I’d heard the mental health buzzword before and was familiar with what it entailed, this was the first time it was showing up in my own life.
As an underclassman, I didn’t have much figured out. I changed my major every few months, my living situation was constantly in flux, and I didn’t have a core group of friends yet. I had nothing to dedicate myself to. So, I got into a romantic relationship way too quickly and let my identity slip away.
Instead of holding space for myself, I filled up my time with him. His wants and interests became almost indistinguishable from mine. He wanted to go to classical concerts, so I went without considering whether I actually liked classical music or not (I don’t). I switched to the creative writing program because he thought I’d like it (I sort of did!). He wanted us to visit his family during long weekends, so I bent my plans to fit his, even though I didn’t know if I was ready for that next step (I wasn’t).
What I really wanted was stability, and though I couldn't admit it at the time, this relationship gave me an unhealthy version of it. It wasn’t until it began downward spiraling that I realized I had little to no connection to myself. So after we broke up, I found myself in a liminal state: floating in between who I am and who I would become in my relationship.
I wish I could say that after putting in some work for a cute moment, I magically let go of my codependency. That was not the case. Along with going to therapy and unlearning coping mechanisms I’d had since childhood, I consciously made an effort to live life on my own terms until a version of myself that I recognized — and liked — began to bloom.
The good news is this: You’re one step ahead. Recognizing your codependency and wanting to break away from this behavior is a feat in and of itself — celebrate your self-awareness. It’s scary to admit that your relationship with yourself may be lacking. But the journey to yourself is lifelong, and there’s magic to be found therein.
what even is codependency?
Codependency can be difficult to spot because it can fester in any relationship, whether it’s romantic, platonic, like you’re describing, or familial. “When you are in a relationship and you place other peoples’ health, their safety, their welfare before your own, [that’s codependency],” says Michaiah Dominguez, an NYC-based mental health counselor and relationships specialist. “In essence, this is the loss of a sense of self. There's a loss of a sense of your own needs and your own emotions. It becomes self-defeating.”
Some mental health professionals believe that codependent behaviors start in the family unit. Often, a person becomes codependent because someone in their family was or still is. Seeing this dynamic throughout life can lead them to believe this is what they must do to maintain relationships. In fact, Dominguez says that the term “codependency” was originally used to describe family members who frequently self-sacrificed to “help” their loved ones and had difficulty not getting absorbed in the consequences of doing so. This is only exacerbated by cultural and societal expectations.
do the hard thing: look inward
I’m a femme-presenting POC and was raised in a very codependent, immigrant household. For people like me, codependency can be a means of survival — a type of self-preservation, a way to keep the peace. Growing up, it was easier to put my needs aside for the comfort of my family. I lived in constant fear of my dad’s explosive anger and exhausted myself trying to course-correct it. I’d tell lies, feign sickness, and hide to avoid spending time with him which could lead to a potential blowout. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stand up for myself. I didn’t want to start a fight and ruin the day for not just myself, but the rest of my family.
Over time, I realized that I had forgotten what my wants, needs, and opinions even were. Even after I moved out, the effects of my upbringing lingered, making it easier — natural, even — to lose my priorities in non-familial relationships. I had to unlearn this way of being and, instead, use radical imagination to outline what a nourishing, joyful life meant for me.
Try to understand the ways in which your childhood and past relationships have informed your present self, as it will make your codependent habits easier to catch and eventually break. The more you check in with yourself, the more equipped you’ll be to show up with authenticity — and make it harder to give away little pieces of who you are to others (or feel lost in their absence),
you need people, that’s okay
All this isn’t to say you should self-isolate. Not being codependent isn’t synonymous with not needing human connection, so normalize your desire for people. “It’s simply the extent that you’re willing to go that makes it pathological or a problem,” Dominguez adds.
Forming interdependent relationships is about balancing alone time with seeing others and building mutual dependence in those relationships. In non-codependent relationships, there’s breathing room — space to express your feelings, even when it’s hard. If you’re always overextending yourself in relationships, it’s important to know when you don’t have the resources or time and then say “no.” Saying “no” doesn’t make you a bad friend. Interdependent relationships hold you, both figuratively and literally. They’re about honoring yourself and others.
If you’re dealing with codependency issues, healing can start with establishing boundaries with friends. Dominguez came up with an acronym, “B.R.B.,” that might help you avoid falling further into patterns of codependency:
Brainstorm: If your first instinct is to problem-solve and put your own well-being aside for someone else, start brainstorming with them instead. Don’t work towards “saving” them, but rather, ask them questions. Who can they call? What resources do they have? This takes the pressure off of you and helps all parties feel empowered, shifting the dynamic away from codependency.
Resist: Next, resist the urge to save. Resist the urge to pick up the phone every time you find yourself alone.
Be Brave: Allow yourself to take up space in relationships and know that sharing your feelings or challenges isn’t burdening others. You can — and should — take up space in relationships.
reframe “alone” time
You mentioned you have a hard time being alone, but I wonder if things would change if you were able to reframe this time and space, rather than get lost in feelings of intimidation or restlessness. Of course, this is way — way! — easier said than done, but try to see these gaps in plans as an opportunity to get to know yourself. “The more effort you put into identity work, the less room there is to be performative to others and dependent on other relationships,” Dominguez advised.
One thing is certain: You deserve a life in which alone time feels like a gift, rather than a time of restlessness. It can be hard to balance the person others want you to be, who you are in different relationships, and who you want to be. So, carve out the space you need to remind yourself of who you are.
In my newfound singledom, my journey started small. I scrolled on my phone and clicked on things that resonated with me, I listened to music that brought me comfort, I watched the movies and shows I’d been meaning to see, I spent time with people that made me feel good about myself and free to express whatever thoughts and feelings I was holding.
I asked myself: What feels good? What doesn’t? What do you want to accomplish today? What about in a few weeks? What does your perfect day look like? In doing so, I eventually discovered my passions and joy outside of that relationship. Outside of any relationship, for that matter. I reclaimed my life, my identity.
You will, too. — Aarohi Sheth
Unpacking codependency is easier said than done. And articulating my own experience with codependency has always been a challenge. Thank you for this beautifully written and incredibly insightful nugget. Working on becoming my own best friend is scary as hell but I’m not turning back!
I've gone through some cycles of thoughts where I'm confident in the fact that I can be alone and am actively getting out of my comfort zone by trying to hang out with new people in a new city. But then part of me is also like...am I diving into these new situations with new people to not be alone. But then also going back to thinking that I've actually been spending a lot of time on my own, etc , etc. Lol never ending