Today, you’re going to learn how to break free from codependency and savior complex using powerful strategies.
Codependency can be defined as “an addiction to people.”
Codependency is a belief of helplessness over one’s feelings and an attempt to control inner feelings by controlling people, things, and events on the outside.
Savior complex is one trait of codependency. Codependents are naturally giving, sacrificing, and consumed with the needs and desires of others.
In a relationship, the codependent becomes addicted to another person and becomes enmeshed in the other person so much so that their sense of self becomes severely restricted and influenced by that other person’s identity and problems.
What Is Codependency?
The Merriam Webster’s online dictionary defines codependency as: “A psychological condition or a relationship in which a person is controlled or manipulated by another who is affected with a pathological condition.”
In other words, codependency is a disorder of selflessness, passivity, and personal powerlessness.
They repeatedly find themselves attracted to partners who are a perfect counter-match to their uniquely passive and submissive attitude.
Codependents confuse caretaking with love. Their role as the martyr who is endlessly devoted and loving is an extension of their yearning to be loved and cared for as children. (*)
They yearn to be loved, but because of their chosen partner, they habitually end up feeling unappreciated and used.
Although they are unhappy, they pretend to enjoy the relationship, while harboring feelings of anger, bitterness, and sadness.
They are also convinced that they will never find someone who will love them for who they are. Their low self-esteem manifests itself into a form of learned helplessness that keeps them stuck with their emotional manipulator partner.
They believe that being alone is the equivalent of feeling lonely, and loneliness is too painful for them to bear.
Codependency is not equally intense with everyone.
For some people, codependency is integrated into the relationship without constituting a real problem. For other people, codependency becomes very often an out of control issue and attracts toxic people.
What Is Savior Complex?
Also called messiah complex or Christ complex or savior complex or white knight syndrome.
It is a need to “save” people by fixing their problems. (*)
People with savior complex might:
- believe helping others is what gives them meaning and purpose
- only feel good about themselves when they’re helping someone
- spend so much time and energy trying to fix others that they end up burning out or experiencing compassion fatigue
Codependent people typically have an exaggerated need to fix others. This causes them to have an overactive “savior complex.”
What Codependency Is Not
Some people are labeled “codependent” simply because they are taking care of a sick relative or helping someone.
Codependency is about the act of taking care of someone. It’s about the motive behind the act.
Is Codependency a Disease?
That codependency is a disease that was first suggested in 1988 by psychiatrist Timmen Cermak.
Although Disease may sound morbid, codependency is only a condition with progressive symptoms that impair normal functioning.
Alcoholism was termed a disease in 1991 by the American Medical Association (AMA) along with drug dependencies.
Since then, experts have applied the medical model of disease to sex, food, and gambling addictions, and also codependency.
The Spectrum of Codependency
The severity of codependency symptoms varies depending on a number of factors, such as:
- Being under stress
- Being in a unhealthy relationship
- Past traumas
- Your family dynamics
- Your addictions
Whether or not you identify as codependent, recovery can still help you alleviate any symptoms of codependency you recognize.
Recovery can help you feel good about yourself, live more authentically and enjoy intimate relationships.
How Do I Know If I Am Codpendent? 14 Symptoms of Codependency
1. Hidden Shame
Shame is a healthy emotion when it prevents you from doing something that’s considered socially unacceptable, like attacking or insulting someone.
However, shame becomes toxic when you internalize it and turn it into a belief about yourself. Rather than thinking, “I made a mistake,” you may find yourself thinking, “I am a mistake.”
Toxic shame is a painful feeling of unworthiness and inadequacy.
For most codependents, shame is internalized from childhood experiences and persists longer after the initial trigger.
Like an open wound that has never healed, toxic shame makes ordinary shame last longer and feel more intense.
Shame can cause low self-esteem and other codependent symptoms, such as people-pleasing, control, caretaking, depression, intimacy problems, lack of boundaries and assertiveness, and perfectionism.
Internalized shame also creates a sense of inferiority. You may compare yourself negatively to people and believe that you’re never enough: that you’re not doing enough, good enough, attractive enough, smart enough, etc.
2. Low Self-Esteem
Self‐esteem reflects how you think about yourself.
Although self-esteem is a self-appraisal that is not based on what others think, codependents look to others for validation. Other people make them feel good or bad.
People with high self-esteem feel bad when they have a difficult day or become ill, but this feeling is fleeting and doesn’t reflect their self-esteem. They know they have the resources to recover.
There are codependents who would bend over backwards to accommodate others. They desperately want others to validate them, like them, or at least need them.
As a result, they priorities other people’s needs and feelings and may even become what they believe is expected or desired by someone else.
The more the codependent looks outward to define how they should feel, think, and behave, the more disconnected and estranged they feel from their inner self.
4. Guilt and Apologizing
We feel guilty when we think we’ve said or done something that violates an ethical principle or hurts someone else.
Codependents blame themselves often for things that are out of their control, such as other people’s feelings and behaviors.
Guilt could get compounded by feelings of shame. You may find yourself thinking, “I shouldn’t have done that,” followed by shame, “I’m selfish.”
5. Pursuit of Perfection
Self-comparison to ideal standards can cause ongoing self-judgment. This makes a perfectionist in a constant pursuit of illusory standards that are always out of reach.
Perfectionism is unhealthy because it’s usually driven by internalized shame that the person is flawed.
6. Unhealthy Emotional Boundaries
Boundaries define where you end and others begin. They protect you from others and prevent you from violating others’ boundaries.
If boundary setting wasn’t modeled to you growing up or your needs and feelings weren’t respected, you may find it difficult to recognize when others invade your personal space and vice versa.
Setting healthy boundaries starts with self-awareness. As you get in touch with your feelings and needs, you’ll be able to define where you need boundaries.
When your boundaries are weak, you may allow others to blame, control, abuse, or take advantage of you. You may feel responsible and even guilty for someone else’s problems and feelings.
If your boundaries are rigid, you may isolate yourself and struggle with emotional intimacy.
7. Depending on Others
Codependents are by definition “dependent.” Their dependency comes from low self‐esteem and fear of abandonment.
Codependents can become so invested in others that they lose who they are – their feelings, needs, interest, dreams, etc.
Their thinking and actions would revolve around worrying about, changing, and reacting to someone else.
Signs of dependency may include:
- Difficulty making decision on your own
- Valuing other people’s opinion over your own
- Feeling disconnected from yourself
- Fear of being alone
- Excessive thinking or talking about someone
- Giving up your plans and interests to be with someone
- Adapting to other people’s opinions and interests
8. External locus of control
In his book Psychology and Life, psychologist Philip Zimbardo explains that “A locus of control orientation is a belief about whether the outcomes of our actions are contingent on what we do (internal control orientation) or on events outside our personal control (external control orientation).”
People with an internal locus of control are more likely to take responsibility for their lives, create their own happiness, and tend to be less influenced by other people’s opinions.
Codependents have an external locus of control. They usually blame outside forces for their circumstances and don’t believe that they can change their situation through their own efforts. This causes them to experience learned helplessness.
This learned helplessness leads codependents to stop trying and overlook any opportunity for change and relief.
9. Lack of Assertiveness
Healthy communication is clear, honest, and direct. Codependents have poor communication skills. They usually struggle to express their feelings and needs. This is mainly because:
- They fear criticism and rejection
- They avoid conflict
- They don’t want to be a burden or sound “selfish”
- They fear making a mistake
- They worry they might hurt someone else’s feelings
Codependents are other-defined. Their actions and moods are predominantly determined by outside influences.
A simple text message can ruin their mood and how they think of themselves.
11. Savior Complex: Control and Caretaking
While it’s normal to need control and predictability, it becomes problematic when you try to control what’s out of control.
Codependents engage in covert or indirect control. This may include:
- Gifts and favors
- Helplessness or passivity
Healthy caregiving entails listening to other people’s feelings and needs and allowing them to find their own solutions.
This means respecting the other person’s separateness and boundaries and offering support without feeling the guilt or urge to fix their problems.
You recognize that it isn’t your job to save people or change them.
Denial refers to the inability to acknowledge the truth of something. It is considered the hallmark of addiction, but it also applies to codependents’ addiction to others.
Codependents typically blame others without looking at their own issues.
Codependents are also unaware of their feelings and needs.
13. Painful Emotions
Painful emotions codependents experience may include, anxiety, shame, resentment, fear, anger, hopelessness, and even depression.
14. Physical Symptoms
Stress caused by codependent relationships can affect physical health and wear down the body’s immune and nervous systems.
Health problems may include, heart disease, digestive issues, sleep disorders, headaches, muscle tension and pain, obesity, ulcers, and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Can You Be Both Codependent And Counterdependent?
Counterdependency is the state of detachment and the denial of personal need and dependency.
A person may be codependent in their personal relationships but Counterdependent at work, or the opposite.
Can you heal from codependency?
Although the broken relationship guide received from their parents may seem permanent, as humans, we have remarkable transformative potential.
We are capable of healing and rising above the seemingly indisputable impact of our childhood.
Psychotherapy, 12-step recovery program, and a change of lifestyle can make it possible for the codependent to build (repair) their tattered self-esteem and begin to enjoy love, reciprocity, and mutuality.
Get FREE Overcome Codependency Worksheets
How To Break Free From Codependency? Top 12 Strategies to Overcome Codependency For Good
#1. Connect With Yourself
Before connecting with others, you must first connect with yourself.
Connecting with yourself is about becoming someone who is centered and less likely to be distracted easily by what’s happening around him.
Spending time with yourself doesn’t mean doing an activity alone like reading or watching TV. It means focusing on what’s going on inside, getting to know yourself, and discovering rich and nourishing inner resources.
Some of the best techniques that will help you connect with yourself are meditation, spending time alone, and journaling.
1. Practice Meditation
Meditation helps you find balance and inner peace. It’s especially helpful to manage your day-to-day stress. It helps you control your mind and emotions.
2. Spend Time With Yourself
Spending a few minutes every day in your own company, is another way to connect with yourself.
Getting to know someone requires time together.
You have to commit to spending more time alone to become friends with yourself so that later when you’re around others you can check in with yourself and not get lost in someone else.
This could be part of your meditation sessions, or it could be done as part of your self-care routine.
3. Daily journaling
Writing your feelings and thoughts in a journal helps you connect with your inner self.
You can also use prompts to help you begin like:
- “Right now I’m feeling . . . because . . .”
- “If I could talk to my younger self, I would say …”
- “For me self-love means…”
- “Things I can do to help my mental health are…”
- “What do I like most (and least) about myself?”
- “What excites me the most?”
- “What nourishes me most?”
- “What was my most painful experience? Did I learn from it?”
- “What was the biggest challenge I overcame? What did I learn?”
#2. Develop Self-Awareness
Start paying attention to your internal experience throughout the day.
See if you can notice how you feel while someone is talking to you.
- Do you silently blame or criticize yourself or others?
- How often do you agree when you don’t know?
- Do you talk to fill an uncomfortable silence?
- Do you ask questions instead of talking about yourself?
- Do you apologize often?
- Do you deflect compliments?
This should be done with an attitude of curiosity, without judging yourself.
Listen to your body and the internal emotional information it can provide.
Try sitting quietly. Take deep, relaxing breaths and bring your awareness into your belly or heart.
Notice what’s going on. Notice the temperature, color, sounds, and movements. You can focus on an issue in your life and notice your bodily sensations around it.
#3. Build Your Emotional Vocabulary
Your feelings are part of your internal feedback system. They’re your compass in life so it’s important to pay attention and listen to them.
Emotional intelligence includes being aware of your emotions, feeling, naming, and expressing them.
Anxiety, guilt, and worry are milder forms of fear. Jealousy can be a combination of anger and fear.
#4. Honor Your Feelings
Although feelings aren’t logical and may sometimes seem irrational, there’s usually a good reason for them.
Ignoring your feelings will most likely intensify them.
Acknowledging your feelings doesn’t mean you need to base your decisions on how you feel, you can allow yourself to feel sad while doing the things you have to do.
Honoring your feelings means responsibility for them, without blaming others. No one makes you feel something without your consent.
Positive beliefs about your feelings:
- I have a right to feel my feelings.
- No one can tell me what I “should” feel, even me.
- I don’t have to defend my feelings.
- All my feelings are okay, even anxiety and painful feelings.
- Allowing myself to feel my emotions is healthy.
- My feelings are a valuable feedback about what’s happening in my world.
- What I’m feeling will eventually pass.
#5. Change Your Limiting Beliefs
In order to create lasting change, you need to change your beliefs, not just your environment or your behavior.
You can move to another city, delay replying to texts so you won’t appear too desperate, but you don’t change your beliefs, any change you make won’t be sustainable.
When you shift your beliefs, an automatic ripple effect to the outer aspects of behavior and environment is created.
You might not notice the results in a week or a month, but consistent practice over time will lead to significant transformation.
1. Becomes Aware of Your Negative Beliefs
The following is a list of negative beliefs you may have:
- “I have no value on my own therefore I shouldn’t exist for myself.”
- “My value comes from the people who agree to stay by my side in exchange for my dedication to them.”
- “I must be constantly present in the lives of the people who are important to me in order to ensure prominent place in their lives.”
- “The only thing that matters is having people’s affection and acceptance, in exchange I’m willing to give my love and help without any reservations if required.”
- “I have to fill you with love, if I don’t, you will abandon me.”
If you find it hard to convince yourself that these are negative beliefs, consider the people that left you because they perceived your love as dense and complicated and the times you felt betrayed by people whom you considered ungrateful.
2. Create Positive Beliefs to Replace Your Old Ones
The best way to change your beliefs is to create affirmations that, when repeated day in and day out, will replace your old beliefs.
Examples of these affirmations:
I’m worthy and lovable the way I am.
I’m good enough.
I prioritize my own needs first.
3. Positive Affirmations Alone Aren’t Enough
Change happens when thoughts and behavior are in alignment.
It’s not enough to affirm to yourself that you’re worthy, you need to treat yourself as if you’re worthy. You need to start taking care of yourself and prioritizing your own needs.
You change by turning your belief into experience.
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#6. Identify Your Basic Emotional Needs
Your previous relationships can also provide insight into what your needs are.
When you identify your own basic emotional needs and work on meeting them, you will likely engage in relationships that are complementary and supportive of where you are.
This doesn’t mean that you need to meet your needs by yourself. It simply means that you need to take responsibility for these needs and acknowledge that you are your own primary caregiver and must meet your own needs as much as you are able.
This is done through self-care, and compassionately treating yourself, especially when you make mistakes and feel inadequate. This also means setting healthy boundaries with others and practicing being assertive enough to say no when you need to.
Common Emotional Needs Include:
Acceptance, affection, appreciation, belonging, closeness, communication, community, companionship, compassion, consideration, consistency, cooperation, empathy, inclusion, intimacy, love, mutuality, nurturing, respect/self-respect, safety, security, stability, support, trust, warmth
I can get my need for connection met by
* Incorporating a daily mindfulness practice (connection with self).
* Having lunch with a friend once a week (connection with friends).
* Performing at least one act of kindness each day (connection with the community).
We all have needs, and each person’s needs are personal and based on their history. These needs are also fluid and may shift depending on your life stage. So make sure you regularly check-in with your needs.
This way connecting with others will come from a place of wholeness, not starvation and lack.
#7. Define Your Priorities and Values in Life
Take some time to define what components you’d like to include in your life.
Whether it was personal growth, friends, leisure, work… make a list of these components and visualize what you would like each part of your life to look like. Then list the things you should be doing in order to make that visualization a reality.
If you take the personal growth area, you might see yourself reading books, attending workshops and seminars, taking a class… take action on it, and begin by adding these tasks in your calendar.
If you find yourself at a workshop not being able to concentrate and overcome by the wish you were with your ex, don’t let it weaken your commitment and affirm to yourself that you’re here to learn!
Slowly but surely, the neediness will disappear, and the task at hand will become more enjoyable.
If you take the area of friends, visualize yourself inviting them over dinner or having a terrific evening out.
Pick the phone and arrange with them to hang out. With enough commitment, you’ll soon let go of wishing you were with your ex and start building healthy relationships.
To identify your values, ask yourself the following questions:
- What makes you the angriest about things in the world?
- Which organizations or charities do you, or would you, support?
- What mentors or public figures do you respect or admire? Why?
- Which religious beliefs do you agree and disagree with? Why?
List of positive characteristics and values
Appreciation of others · Artistic ability · Awareness of environment · Assertiveness · Balance · Being part of a community · Being in a team · Capacity to change and develop · Chilling out · Collaborating with others · Connecting with people · Creativity · Excitement · Financial management · Family commitment · Freedom · Friendship · Fun · Generosity · Helping others · Honesty · Honour · Humour · Independence · Individuality · Intelligence · Integrity · Intimacy · Kindness · Learning from experience · Looking after myself · Love · Musical ability · Networking · Not taking myself too seriously · Organizational skills · Physical health · Physical fitness · Relaxed approach and attitude · Reliability · Religious lifestyle · Risk-taking · Self-awareness · Self-expression · Sensuality · Sexuality · Sharing · Solitude · Social conscience · Standing up for rights · Spirituality · Stability · Success · Understanding
#8. Create Goals For Yourself
For each area of your life, create specific goals that will help you maintain these components of your life.
You may not be able to cover each area every day. An important work project might take much of your time.
The goal is to have an overall balance, so you won’t find yourself dependent on one single area of your life.
Some people, despite having many things in their lives, only have one area that means everything to them. Make sure that you’re fully committed to every area of your life.
In other words, consciously, give everything you’ve got to each area of your life.
#9. Dealing with Feelings of Shame
Shame exists on a spectrum, with healthy shame at one end and toxic shame at the other.
Healthy shame is saying, “I did something bad.” Toxic shame, on the other hand, is saying, “I am bad.”
Toxic shame can be physically paralyzing and mentally lethal.
The best way to deal with feelings of shame is to have compassion for yourself instead of self-punishing, and to allow yourself to be vulnerable with a safe person.
How to be compassionate towards yourself?
Treat yourself as you would treat a dear friend.
When you catch yourself judging and criticizing yourself, acknowledge that this is your inner self-critic at play, and challenge that voice with more compassionate self-talk.
When you first practice self-compassion, it might feel unnatural. It’s unlikely to generate feelings of warmth, but that’s a sign that you need more practice.
Sharing your difficult feelings with a safe person and experiencing empathy help reduce feelings of shame.
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#10. Raise Your Self-Esteem
You get to choose focus on what puts you down or on what lifts you up.
Stop waiting for others for recognition and praise and start giving yourself that. In fact, your own acknowledgment and praise will last more than that which you receive from others.
Make a list of your successes, even the seemingly small ones. This will back up your positive affirmations.
Praise yourself as you would praise a friend.
#11. Practice Self-love
Loving is a combination of an attitude of acceptance and compassion and acting lovingly toward yourself.
Many people share the misconception that self-love is egotism or narcissism, but narcissists actually loathe themselves. Their ego is compensation for a lack of self-love.
Nor does self-love take away from your ability to love others. In fact, the more you love yourself, the more able you are to love others and allow yourself to receive their love.
Notice when you’re having negative thoughts about yourself and try to treat yourself with compassion.
Notice when you’re stressed, overwhelmed, or exhausted and find ways to care for yourself.
Practicing a self-care activity for 10 minutes a day is a good start.
#12. Express and Assert Yourself
Once you identified your feelings, values, and needs, the next step is to express and assert yourself.
Assertive communication is about clearly and politely stating what you think, feel, need, or want. You can also explain why.
Assertive communication is respectful, direct, and nondefensive.
Many people confuse thoughts and feelings in speaking.
For example, when a friend is late to a meeting, telling him, “I feel you were inconsiderate” is not an expression of your feelings. It judges his behavior without telling him how his behavior affected you.
The rule is: if you can substitute the word “feel” for “think,” then you’ve expressed a thought, which is often a judgment about the other person.
Instead, try saying, “I felt hurt (or “disregarded”) when you didn’t show up on time.”
The more vulnerable you are in expressing your feelings, the more receptive your listener will be.
Communicating your needs can be frightening, especially when you’re not used to it.
Many codependents believe that should be able to instinctively know and anticipate their needs, and if they ask for it, they may devalue it, saying, “It doesn’t count because I had to tell you.”
Start practicing asserting your needs, by saying something like, “It’s important to me that you __,” or, “I’d really appreciate it if you __.”
You may also let the person know the positive effect of meeting your need, “If you __, it would make me feel closer to you.”
Change Is a Process
When you begin your healing and change process, expect things to get worse before they get better.
When you stop avoiding and numbing your feelings and start facing them, you begin to feel the pain or shame that your dysfunctional behavior was protecting you from.
But if you can sit with that pain and tolerate those raw feelings and process them in a healthy way, you will no longer need the dysfunctional behavior and you will be able to enjoy a healthier relationship not just with other people, but most importantly with yourself.
Relapse is an inevitable part of that process. Don’t let the relapse hijack your self-confidence. Instead, use self-compassion to get yourself back on your feet.
Think of progress as climbing a mountain. Often times you feel that you’re in the same place you started – it’s the same view, but the truth is you’ve climbed higher and came so far.
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- Portions of this article were adapted from the book Breakup Bootcamp: The Science of Rewiring Your Heart, © 2020 by Amy Chan. All rights reserved.
- Portions of this article were adapted from the book The Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love People who Hurt Us, © 2013 by Ross Rosenberg. All rights reserved.
- Portions of this article were adapted from the book Codependency For Dummies, © 2012 by Darlene Lancer. All rights reserved.
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- Codependency of the Members of a Family of an Alcohol Addict – ScienceDirect