Am I Codependent? Getting a Good Codependency Definition

Posted by on in Attachment, Blog, Codependency, Self-esteem, Trauma | 7 comments

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Are you trying to find a good codependency definition?

Maybe you’ve read Codependent No More or you’ve got a copy of Facing Codependence on your nightstand—highlighted and earmarked.

Maybe you recognized yourself in those pages.  I know I did.

Whether you’re a fan of Pia Mellody or Melody Beattie, or even if you’ve never read anything by them, it’s okay.  You’re beginning to put words to what you think is going on—and that’s a start.  There are many different codependency signs and symptoms, and it can be confusing trying to get a clear codependency definition.

So, you’re wondering:  Am I codependent?  What is codependency?

I’d argue that a better question is:  Am I anxiously or avoidantly attached?

In any case, if you’re looking for a good codependency definition, you’re in the right spot.

What is codependency? Two codependency definitions to consider.

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Here’s my definition of codependency:

“Codependency describes a pattern of problematic behavior in relationships.  People are who are codependent often end up rescuing and caretaking significant others– often at their own expense.

People struggling with codependency are often numb to their own needs and feelings, and they don’t communicate these well to others.  They tend to be afraid of rejection and abandonment, express anger indirectly, and often feel guilty saying no.  They don’t feel secure in their relationships, and they struggle with intimacy.”

The term “codependency” emerged from the field of addiction treatment and the term became popular in the 80s and 90s.  CoDA (Co-dependents Anonymous International), is an AA-inspired program that assists people with recovery from codependency.  They define codependency behavior within five major domains:  control, denial, low self-esteem, compliance, and avoidance.

While CoDA doesn’t offer a codependency definition outright, you can get a good sense of how they define codependency from their patterns of recovery list.  Because I don’t have permission to reprint the criteria in this post, you can see more about CoDA’s signs of codependency here.

Codependency definition problems:  describing too many things at once

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Describing too many things at once– this is at the heart of the “What is codependency?” identity crisis.  “Codependency” describes different, sometimes contradictory styles of behavior.

After all– how can someone be both extremely loyal and vulnerable to exploitation, but also be distant and avoidant of intimacy at the same time?

Well, people can switch relational strategies.  That’s one reason.  Different relationships may pull for different dynamics.

But there’s something else going on as well, which is part of what makes defining codependency difficult.

Codependency describes two primary styles of attachment, or ways of relating in relationships:  anxious attachment and avoidant attachment.  These two styles use very different strategies to meet needs in relationship, which is why some of the signs of codependency sound contradictory.

The vast majority of traditional “codependent” behavior describe anxious attachment.  But of the five domains CoDA uses to define the concept, there’s an entire “avoidance” category.  And, many of the descriptors in the “denial” category would describe avoidant attachment as well.

Anxious Attachment and Avoidant Attachment in Codependency

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Research shows that most of us have a primary way of getting our needs met in relationships—this is known as our attachment style.  Our attachment style is learned, based on our early experiences in childhood.

Some of us avoid relationships in general and prize our independence and autonomy at all costs—we downplay emotional and relational needs. That’s known as dismissive or avoidant attachment.

Others are very focused on relationship needs—they seem “clingy” in relationships, anxious about how things are going, and very fearful of abandonment.  That’s known as preoccupied or anxious attachment.

Codependency describes behavior for both anxious and avoidant attachment styles.  These styles are inherently contradictory– they have different strategies for managing needs for closeness and independence– hence the trouble with trying to come up with a single definition of codependency.

Read on to learn more about anxious and avoidant attachment styles and how these overlap with codependency signs and symptoms.

Am I codependent?  A self-assessment

Here are some common signs and symptoms of codependency that I see in my practice.  Make a note of how many of these characteristics describe you.

People-pleasing and anxious attachment codependency signs

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+ feel guilty saying no

+ trouble identifying one’s own feelings and needs

+ being a “foul weather friend

+ poor boundaries (eg, overly accommodating)

+ conceal “unpleasant” feelings from others, especially anger

+ low self-esteem

+ loyal and faithful to a fault

+ strong need for control over situations and people

+ anxiety and rumination about personal relationships

+ fear of abandonment

+ reliance on others’ approval

+ exaggerated sense of personal responsibility (eg, always apologizing for things that aren’t your fault)

+ a tendency to be “overly helpful”

+ often described as needy, clingy, too sensitive, overly emotional in relationships

Sound familiar?

In my practice, I specialize in working with people-pleasers, aka people who have an anxious attachment style.

People-pleasing is a common style of codependency.  But, it’s not the only way that codependency behavior shows up.  If these signs don’t look familiar to you, you may still struggle with codependency.

Avoidant attachment codependency signs

If you tend more towards an avoidant attachment style, the signs and symptoms of codependency list would look more like this:

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+ uncomfortable getting close to others

+ dismissive of feelings in yourself and others, tending to be emotionally withholding

+ find yourself in relationships with others who are clingy, needy, and overly emotional

+ often have romantic partners who complain that you aren’t present or available

+ would rather end a relationship than talk through a conflict

+ often described as a very private person, hard to get to know, doesn’t open up easily (or at all)

+ appears indifferent in relationships

+ use substances, work, and other relationships to control how much intimacy is possible in a relationship (eg, triangulation through affairs, addiction, workaholism, etc)

+ uncomfortable with giving or receiving affection or praise directly

+ feels direct expression of emotions is weak or a waste of time and energy

+ uncomfortable relying on others, asking for help, or going to therapy

How many of those features describe you?

As you can see, these styles represent two very different configurations of behaviors people use to meet needs for connection and independence in relationship.

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So, instead of asking “Am I codependent?” and What is codependency?” I hope you’ll start asking

“What is attachment theory, and how can I learn more about it?”

Attachment theory is a wonderful way of understanding relationship problems.  It’s also backed by decades of research.

That’s why I prefer to talk about these behaviors as examples of anxious or avoidant attachment rather than codependency. 

Codependency is trying to describe many different relational strategies all at once, and I think that can be confusing for people when they go looking for a good codependency definition.

Still, I know that the idea of codependency has a lot of name recognition, which is why I’ve written these posts and used this label.

My hope is that by reading these articles, you’ll look more into learning about attachment theory, anxious attachment, and avoidant attachment.  If the notion of codependency resonates with you, I’m betting these new terms will, too.

The Myth of Codependency:  a critique

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If there’s one message you take away from reading this post, it would be:  learn more about your attachment style.  Read up on attachment theory.


Attachment theory offers a better, more evidence-based understanding about relationship patterns.  Don’t get me wrong, there has been some research done on codependency– mostly in the 80s and 90s, when the term was popularized.  A lot of the most popular books out there on codependency are based on people’s personal experiences and observations.

You can see this in how the notion of codependency has evolved over time.  In the addiction world, codependency was seen as an inherent part of the dynamics in families with addiction.  We now know that there are actually many different family configurations and kinds of trauma and dysfunction that can cause “codependency.”  Addiction is not a required part of the equation.

So, it’s not that the notion of codependency isn’t describing something useful.  I just think that attachment theory does a better job of describing it– along with several other common behavior patterns, besides– and it offers more concrete ideas about the causes and treatment for these dynamics.

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For example, in laboratory studies, researchers have been able to identify attachment patterns in children as young as one year old, and can reliably predict with about 70-80% accuracy what that child’s attachment style will be when they reach 18 years of age. 

In social sciences research, that kind of predictive accuracy is nearly unheard of, but it’s a consistent finding across many studies and many decades of research in attachment theory.

The codependency model of relationships doesn’t have this kind of model for understanding, classifying, and predicting behavior and problems.  It describes problematic behavior seen in relationships—but that’s about it.

So, if you’re interested in making changes and think codependency is something you struggle with, I really urge you to look into insecure attachment—specifically, anxious attachment.

Getting help for codependency

If you’re looking for codependency therapy in Austin, Texas, you’re in the right spot.

I’m a counselor specializing in codependency and people-pleasing.  I do my best work with people who are anxiously attached.

If you’d like to come in and talk about the possibility of working together, you can set up your free consultation here.  Please note:  I don’t offer teletherapy at this time, I only offer counseling for codependency in the Austin area.


  1. Hi,

    Oh I wish you were in the California/SF Bay Area. Do you happen to know any counselors that specialize in codependency in this area?


    • Hi, Elizabeth! Thanks for writing. I’ll send you a quick note with some ideas. If you take a look at my testimonials page, it talks at the bottom about how to find a counselor in your area that may practice in a style similar to mine:

  2. Thank you so much for this post. I’ve been struggling to understand Codepencncy but the attachment styles that you described above really hit home for me. I wish you were taking new patients. Do you have any book recommendations you could give? I really want to break free.

    • Hi, Maddy. There are some great books about Codependency by Melody Beattie and Pia Mellody that could help– just search their names and you’ll find lots of great options. For learning more about attachment styles, especially anxious attachment, I would try “Anxious to Please” by James Rapson and Craig English. For finding therapists in your area, try looking at my testimonials page, it talks at the bottom about how to find a counselor in your area that may practice in a style similar to mine:

      Hope this helps!

  3. This is really a great article! Thanks for putting it together.
    My question is what if both lists identify you? People have called me a people-pleaser and a lot of ways I am.. but I also identify with so many things of the avoidant list too.

    Any thoughts?


    • Hi, David! Thanks for your comment, I’m glad you found the article helpful. In terms of attachment styles, the fact is that nearly everyone has traits from each attachment style type, as relational bonds are co-created with different people who bring different traits to the table. For the purposes of research and classification, people are assigned a primary type, but we use different relational strategies at different times– depending on who is across from us, our stress levels, and many other things. If both lists feel like they resonate, you may look into the Fearful Avoidant attachment style and see if that resonates. Best wishes!

      • Thanks Ann!
        That’s very helpful. I have been working with a therapist for sometime now around various aspects of co-dependency. It’s really taken a toll on my 20 yr marriage, but we’re working through it. I only see my therapist every 2 weeks and only for an hour so I try to take a lot of the learning on myself to be more informed so I can learn how to be a better recovering codependent :-) I’ll for sure look into Fearful Avoidant attachment style and see what I can learn. Thanks again!!

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