How to Change Codependent Thinking.
In this article, you’ll learn about “codependent thinking” and how self-defeating beliefs can impede your recovery from codependency. You’ll learn how to recognize codependent thinking and replace it with positive self-talk.
What is codependent thinking?
Codependency refers to an unhealthy relationship dynamic where one person is focused on taking care of, fixing, or controlling the other to the extent that he neglects his own needs. The relationship becomes enmeshed – there aren’t clear boundaries or a sense of being separate, unique, independent people.
Codependency is built on low self-worth – feelings of inadequacy, relentless self-criticism, and shame (the feeling that there’s something fundamentally wrong with you). As a result, codependents have an unhealthy need to be needed and liked; they need others to validate that they are worthy and lovable, so they do whatever it takes to make others happy, often sacrificing their own needs, interests, and goals in the process.
Codependency stems from trauma (something you experienced or generational trauma) and this trauma often includes:
- Being told you’re unlovable, inferior, unacceptable, etc.
- Being judged harshly
- Being blamed inappropriately for things you didn’t do or couldn’t control
- Being ignored
- Being abused or hurt by people who profess to love you
- Being told your feelings don’t matter
- Not receiving guidance or age-appropriate rules and boundaries
- Not having your boundaries respected
- Not feeling safe to be yourself
- Regularly feeling scared, anxious, or on-edge
- Experiencing your caregivers as inconsistent, unpredictable, untrustworthy
- Not having your emotional and/or physical needs met
This type of trauma can lead to a harsh inner critic that reflects a belief that you are unlovable, inferior, unacceptable, and so forth. Codependent thinking perpetuates these beliefs. It can include thoughts that you are inadequate, unlovable, difficult, or needy. And these thoughts lead us to behave in codependent ways, such as controlling, enabling, self-sacrificing, and passive-aggressive behaviors.
Your thoughts matter, but they aren’t always accurate.
As we grow up, we develop beliefs about ourselves (such as, I’m smart or I’m unlovable) based on what others tell us and how we’re treated. Usually, these beliefs start forming when we’re young and don’t have the cognitive abilities or life experiences to question whether they are accurate. If, for example, your mother always told you that you were difficult, there’s a good chance that you’ve gone through life believing this.
And if you think you’re difficult, it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You’ll unconsciously look for evidence to support the belief that you’re difficult — and because we all have a negativity bias, you will unconsciously interpret things to perpetuate this belief. You can learn more about this kind of distorted thinking here and how to change it here.
Even as an adult, your self-talk probably reflects the messages you got in childhood. Some people even recognize that some of their self-talk sounds exactly like critical comments their parents or siblings made. Without realizing it, we internalize these negative messages and reinforce them – making them stronger – when we repeat them to ourselves.
And, as I mentioned earlier, your thoughts matter because they influence your behavior.
How to change codependent thinking.
We all tend to have a default setting when it comes to our self-talk, but codependent thinking can be changed. It takes effort, intentionality, and practice.
Step 1: Notice codependent thinking.
Often, we need to slow down and tune into our thoughts. As you go through your day, try to pay attention to what you’re saying to yourself. Is your self-talk negative, pessimistic, or self-critical? Or is it supportive and helpful? Or perhaps there’s some of both.
You may find it helpful to question how accurate your codependent thinking is. How do you know your thoughts are accurate? What is the evidence that it’s true? Does it reflect who you are (or want to be)? Is it really your voice or are you repeating what someone else said to you? Is it helpful? Does it support healthy self-esteem and self-care? Does it keep you stuck in unhealthy patterns, or does it move you toward growth? Is it kind?
Step 2: Replace codependent thinking with healthy self-talk.
When you notice yourself using negative, inaccurate, overly harsh self-talk, try to replace it with something that is more accurate or based in self-compassion. Try to talk to yourself like a beloved friend.
If your thinking is unhelpful, unkind, inaccurate, or leads to codependent behaviors, try to replace it with positive self-talk. Some examples are provided on the chart at the end of this article.
Step 3: Practice.
Repetition is important in order to change your thinking. Remember, you’ve been thinking in a particular way for years. So, it is going to take lots of practice before a new way of thinking feels comfortable and happens automatically.
However, even if you don’t completely eliminate your negative self-talk, every little bit will help you cultivate a stronger sense of self-worth and change the codependent behaviors that stem from feelings of shame and inadequacy.
As you read the examples of codependent self-talk at the end of this article, notice which ones resonate with you. Your self-talk may be a bit different, of course, but this list reflects many of the false beliefs codependents hold.
Examples of self-talk for codependency recovery.
|Codependent Thinking||Healthy Self-Talk|
|Everything’s my fault.||I will take responsibility for my thoughts, feelings, and actions. And I will allow others to take responsibility for themselves.|
|I’m worthless.||I am worthy of love, happiness, success.|
|I shouldn’t have any needs.||Everyone has needs. My needs matter.|
|I shouldn’t spend money or time on myself.||Balancing my needs and other people’s needs is healthy, not selfish.|
|I don’t know how to deal with my feelings.||I can tolerate difficult feelings.|
|I shouldn’t feel angry.||Anger tells me that something is wrong. It’s okay to feel angry.|
|Mistakes prove I’m inadequate.||Everyone makes mistakes.|
|I have to be perfect.||I accept myself – flaws and all.|
|I have to do everything myself. I can’t count on anyone.||I don’t have to do everything myself. I can ask for help.|
|There’s one “right” way to do things.||My way isn’t the only way.|
|I don’t want to let anyone down.||It’s okay to say “no”.|
|I have to keep everyone happy.||We are all responsible for our own feelings. I can’t make someone happy (or unhappy).|
|I need others to validate my worth.||My self-worth doesn’t depend on other people’s approval.|
|I have to prove my worth by taking care of others, sacrificing my needs and wants, never making mistakes, and working excessively.||I value myself. I don’t have to prove anything.|
|It feels scary when I can’t control everything.||I accept that I can’t control everything.|
©Sharon Martin, LCSW
|If I don’t take charge, this family will fall apart.||I can cope with whatever happens.|
|I need to rescue people; I can’t let them suffer.||It’s not possible for me to fix everyone and everything.|
|If others would take my advice or let me help, things would be a lot better.||I will let others solve their own problems. When I do things for people, I’m not letting them grow and learn.|
©2022 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photos courtesy of Canva.com.
Free yourself from codependent patterns
Learn more about how to end codependent relationships
Navigating the Codependency Maze provides concrete exercises to help you manage anxiety, detach with love, break through denial, practice healthy communication, and end codependent thinking. It was written by Sharon Martin, a psychotherapist with over 20 years of experience helping people overcome codependency, people-pleasing, and perfectionism and find their way back to themselves. For more info and to view sample pages, click HERE.