The #1 Symptom of Codependency (it’s not what you think)

In my previous blog post Learning how to Stand Back Up, Again: How to fight your inner demons  I laid out the 5 core symptoms of codependency as organized by Pia Mellody in her work, Facing Codependency.  While there are several books on the topic, the way in which Pia approaches codependency is palatable and comprehensive in how she puts “flesh” on the issue in all types of settings and relationships. In short, Pia does an excellent job in showing you the myriad of ways codependency looks across all platforms. Whatever you thought codependency was before, this perspective will likely give you a much bigger picture and understanding of an extremely common issue.

“Healthy self-esteem is the internal experience of one’s own preciousness and value as a person. It comes form inside a person and moves outward into relationships. Healthy people know that they are valuable and precious even when they make a mistake, are confronted by an angry person, are cheated or lied to, or are rejected by a lover, friend, parent, child or boss.” P. Mellody.

Core Symptom #1: Difficulty Experiencing Appropriate Levels of Self-Esteem.

“She has low self-esteem and we’d like for you to fix that.” This is something I’ve heard all too often from parents when they bring their kids in to see me for counseling. Let’s be honest, right out of the gate…..who doesn’t have low self-esteem?

This is one of the core symptoms of codependency because it gives us a window into the inner world of an individual. Pia explains that codependents typically experience self esteem at these 2 extremes:

They believe that they are worth less, literally, than others. This comes out of dysfunctional families where they were taught–directly or non-directly–that they are “less than” others. Maybe your mom always commented on how you should dress like Suzie because she always looks cute. Perhaps your dad constantly praised that one kid on your football team and how awesome he is and “you should hang out with him more” as if to suggest being around him you’ll be able to “pick up” his athleticism.

At the other extreme, codependents can feel “better than,” superior to others, an inflated sense of self….arrogant. These individuals were taught, again–directly or non-directly–that they were better than everyone else. Their parents/families reiterated to them that they could do no wrong. They were never held responsible for their actions. It is a false sense of power. It is just as dysfunctional as those who struggle with low to no self esteem. Both are false.

Which ever extreme you may fall into, you likely experience an over inflated sense of “other-esteem.” It is based on external things such as how others look, how much money they make, what kind of car they drive, how well their children perform, what degrees they have….

“Other-esteem is based either on one’s own “human doing” or on the opinions and behavior of other people.” P. Mellody

The most obvious place I’ve seen this is in the suburbs. Holy cow. To overgeneralize, it seems that so many parents live vicariously through their kids whether it be in performance in school, sports, crafts, etc. The chatter about whose kid did the best on a test, in a game, in the play.

This is a crushing weight.

Self-esteem comes from within and it begins with our parents. They teach us whether we’re previous, loved and accepted for who we are and not just for what we do.

If any of this rings true, acknowledge it. Don’t run from it or pretend you’ll “get over it.” The best thing you can do for yourself is to identify it and reach out. This inevitably effects your relationships with others, your marriage, what messages you’re giving to your children and, ultimately, the relationship you have with yourself.

Where are you in all of this?


Olivia specializes in restoring relationships and helping people identify what is keeping them from living in the full expression of who they were created to be. Check out her website to get to know her a bit better and how counseling could be the key to unlock all that is keeping you small, insignificant and frustrated in life.


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