Conceptualising Codependency: The Real Meaning

What is the real meaning of codependency? Do you identify with this concept yet are unsure about what exactly it means? Seems not many do. Let’s check out why this doesn’t actually matter all that much.

Narc Wise is about getting some balanced narcissism happening in your life. Growing healthy self-love and inoculating yourself from abusive narcissists on your journey to finding freedom & joy.

The key areas of interest on this mission are learning about Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), and any personal patterns which may be hindering getting to where you want to be.

In working with people in similar circumstances, and through my own stories, it is clear that often those who have experienced multiple relationships with abusive narcissists have a distinct set of traits commonly bundled together under the label of ‘codependency’. This concept is therefore integral to the Narc Wise mission.

Let’s check out the “meaning” of codependency, with a sneak peek at its relevance with respect to NPD. I’ll start with the academic stuff, and end with the real stuff: what it feels like.

Definitions, classifications, labels…we must find a one size fits all box for it to be legit!

Defining codependencyResearch on codependency underscores at every turn the lack of consensus on the helpfulness of such a concept. Arguments on this front hail from various disciplines and cover points ranging from lack of agreement on concept/construct definition; to lack of reliability and validity of construct; to the inherent sexist nature of pathologizing seemingly female traits; to the problematic nature of classifying interpersonal behaviours as a disorder etc. (Anderson, 1994; Lindley, Giordano & Hammer, 1999).

Detailing codependency as an addiction, disease or personality disorder as stated, depends on the theorist. Some of the definitions put forward include:

  • Suffering which results from focusing on the needs, emotions, and behaviours of others (Farmer, 1999)
  • A disease of lost self-hood (Whitfield, 1991)
  • “A pattern of behaviour of painful dependence on compulsive behaviours and approval from others in an attempt to find safety, self-worth, and identity” (Anderson, 1994, p.678)
  • “Continued investment of self-esteem in the ability to control feelings and behaviours, whether in oneself or others, in the face of adverse circumstances” (Stafford, p.274)
  • Compulsive behaviours consistent with the belief that one can control the behaviours of others through force of will (Morgan, 1991)

Pinpointing the guts of codependency becomes a more elusive goal when you check out the myriad characteristics that describe the codependent. A brief snapshot of the more commonly cited includes:

  • Compulsion
  • Denial
  • Low self-esteem, self-confidence and sense of worth
  • Depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, hypervigilance, PTSD
  • Constriction/repression of emotions
  • Inability to identify/communicate own needs
  • Poor/weak boundaries
  • Enmeshment in familiar relationships throughout adulthood to those experienced in family of origin (e.g: with substance dependent individuals, or personality disordered etc.)
  • Focus on meeting others’ needs to the exclusion of meeting one’s own
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Shame
  • Controlling
  • Overinvolved in the lives of others
  • Enabling maladaptive behaviours of others
  • Caretaking
  • Intense need for approval and acceptance
  • Poor capacity for self-care
  • Overly willing to accept blame and responsibility for others

(Anderson, 1994; Beattie, 1992; Irwin, 1995; Morgan, 1991; Lindley, Giordano & Hammer, 1999; Stafford, 2001)


Another key argument for the weakness of the concept is that many of these traits are present in the majority of us, to a greater or lesser degree, hence we are also seeking to pathologize ordinary aspects of personality and the everyday consequences of the ups and downs of any relationship (Anderson, 1994).

Whilst true to a certain extent the same is also relevant for narcissism. Disorder occurs when a persistent pattern of behaviours and traits impairs the daily functioning of an individual. Pretty sure that we can agree that those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) are impaired (and particularly gifted at impairing others!) providing (in part) justification for its classification as a disorder.

Why is it so difficult for the same logic to be applied to codependency? With enough amplification of any trait, impairment ensues.

Whilst academically the concept is fraught and somewhat outdated, I can’t help but ask myself, so what? Here’s why…

The real meaning of codependency

Give it any label you like. A person who identifies with the pain arising from codependency played out in all areas of life, including multiple unhealthy relationships often with abusive narcissists, will tell you: I don’t care. I don’t need it to fit into theoretical frameworks, or classification manuals for mental health disorders, or for it to be recognised by the gods of psychiatry or psychology. What I need is to find my way to a happier, healthier life.

Check out those common traits and characteristics again. Maybe it’s a mish-mash, but some of us feel a little mish-mashed, and it goes something like this.

For the codependent, feeling lost and empty, a person shaped receptacle to be moulded by the needs and whims of others, is a function of having forsaken our true selves, our very identities. We give and give, to fill that aching void.

real meaning of codependency

Denial is fundamental to ignoring the fact that we have been betraying ourselves, our needs, for the longest time. This causes a deep sense of shame. It also breeds frustration, anger and resentment when meeting the needs of others forsaking our own.

These are all emotions we have become adept at denying. In fact, our capacity to fully allow the range of positive and negative emotions is stunted. Identifying, owning, or expressing our emotions is at the core of who we are, and yet we are disloyal to our deepest selves, endlessly seeking external validation, acceptance, and love.

All of this becomes terribly muddled. The void within, and discordant emotions which try so hard to be heard, are confused within us. We believe we are at the mercy of the behaviours and actions of others, and for the codependent, these in truth do determine our inner landscape so very much. So, we equate the pain within as being caused by those who surround us. To quieten this, we falsely seek to find peace by controlling the behaviours of others.

Oh the loneliness of it!

Enter the Narcissist, the insatiable taker seeking the insatiable giver. The combination is perversely perfect. Almost divinely so. Must be the devil at play with one wicked sense of sick humour.

So, the meaning of the concept of codependency doesn’t lie in any kind of official recognition that it ‘is a thing’, it lies in our recognition of ourselves. This recognition, albeit a bit ugly at the outset, also holds a promise of beauty.

Identifying with these clusters of characteristics that are apparent in others who have borne similar struggles is strangely comforting when we have lost touch with our true selves. “It’s not just me!”  Such a reassuring discovery! As are the realisations that there are reasons for codependency, as well as pathways out of the lonely hell where our gorgeous true selves are waiting impatiently for us.

For the codependent enmeshed with an abusive narcissist, walking this journey is so very critical to getting narc wise. When the void is full up with internal validation; and a strong, clear sense of self and balanced narcissism takes residence, healthy giving and taking in relationships becomes the status quo.

The devil loses out, ha! The abusive narc won’t be chasing this rock solid sense of self, it’s too damned hard to manipulate. You will also be repelled by what’s on offer knowing your worth is so much greater than the narc can ever appreciate, and that your precious and valid needs will never be met. The pattern is broken.

being rock solid

Coming articles on this will look at causes of codependency; the links between narcissism and codependency; and practical tools on breaking free of codependent behaviours.

I’d love to hear from those who are happy to share in the comments section, their meaning of codependency, and how this has possibly played a role in their finding an over-abundance of abusive narcissists in their lives.

I’d also would love to hear how you have broken free – any words shared will be received with gratitude by me as well as no doubt those struggling to find meaning in their journeys, so please do leave your valuable comments.

Maggie x


Hungry for more?

There is simply no book as relevant to anyone wanting to heal codependent wounds as Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More.  In fact all of her work is transformational in this space, and I strongly urge you to get your hands on what you can. Her words are full of wisdom, honesty and kindness in encouraging us all to tackle our codependency.

I don’t have a link to this, but I also recommend installing the ‘Language of Letting Go’ app (also by Beattie) on your phones, for daily mindset check-ins to set your intentionality throughout each week. Get it if you can, this has been a powerful recovery tool for me.

(Note – if using link/s provided to purchase, you’ll receive free shipping and title heavily discounted. You’ll also be supporting my work in providing you free resources on this site, by earning a very small commission, at no extra cost to you – thank you 😊)


  • Anderson, S. (1994). A critical analysis of the concept of codependency. Social Work, 39(6), pp.667-685.
  • Beattie, M. (1992). Codependent no more. Minnesota, US: Hazelden.
  • Farmer, S.A. (1999). Entitlement in codependency. Journal of Addictive Diseases, 18(3), pp.55-68.
  • Irwin, H.J. (1995). Codependence, narcissism, and childhood trauma. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 51(5), pp.658-665.
  • Lindley, N.R, Giordano, P.J., & Hammer, E.D. (1999). Codependency: Predictors and psychometric issues. Journal of clinical psychology, 55(1), pp.59-64.
  • Morgan, J.P. (1991). What is codependency? Journal of Clinical Psychology, 47(5), pp.720-729.
  • Stafford, L.L. (2001). Is codependency a meaningful concept? Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 22(3), pp.273-286.
  • Whitfield, C.L. (1991). Codependence: Healing the human condition. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.

5 thoughts

  1. Thank you for your articles. I am first saddened to find myself in this spot but am becoming empowered to remove myself from this spot. I will be camping out at narc wise and taking notes to become better equipped for this new journey. It is imperative for me but also for my children. I need to stop this cycle.

    1. Dear Amy, what an uplifting message! You do indeed sound like you are taking your power back. I’m sorry that you must in the first place, but you are quite clearly on a mission to reclaim what is rightfully yours & rebuild a life where freedom & joy are yours. How wonderful. I believe that nothing will stop you in getting there with all that determination I can feel in your words. I send you all the strength, courage, swift healing, light & love that you might need along the way. Maggie x

  2. Just found Narcwise today and have read several articles. I left my narc 4 months ago. It was exhilarating but riding the waves of the highs and lows has been hard. I stayed in the cycle for 9 years. 5 brutal discards and 2 attempts to leave before finally going no contact. It’s been brutal. I’m in therapy but find I’m giving the answers I seek. I have always known that I lose myself in romantic relationships but have now realized it is my codependency that is keeping me in abusive relationships. I have had at least 4 relationships that I can identify as a narcissist/codependent situation.

    I appreciate the info on codependency and recognize it as a shift in what I’ve been focusing on. I’ve read everything I can about narcissism and now it’s time to focus on my contributions to my seemingly endless need for strong, successful, abusive males with a dash of misogyny. I look forward to any and all other articles on how to heal myself permanently.

    1. Dear Honeygirl, thank you for your message. What a massive shift you’ve made. Once we turn within & take account of why some of us are drawn repeatedly to this type of person, this is the beginning! This is the breaking of the cycle. Of course, there is much work to be done, but the quality of this work changes entirely & the positive shifts become more frequent & more powerful because for perhaps the very first time, we have claimed the power to change for ourselves rather than hoping some external force will magically make things work out for us at long last. How wonderful. How exciting! I’m so very pleased for you. Sending you so much light & love – I hardly need to remind you cause you already know: you’ve got this gorgeous one. Maggie x

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