Codependency always wanting to help

Written by on August 11, 2013 in Psych - Comments Off
Addictive Behaviors

Most of us want to help other people at points in life as it is part of being kind to want to encourage others in their time of need. Helping a fellow human being, while it can be uncomfortable, has advantages, it makes both parties feel satisfied and emotionally connects us up with another person. Therefore, people feel as if they are a part of the world which improves the life of another and in helping others makes the world a better place. However, it is essential to reflect and ask two questions: Do You Always Want to Help Someone?  What is the cost in providing this assistance?

This article will be discussing three areas:

  1.  How people can provide assistance to another person who is feeling sad, angry or anxious and in genuine need of support.
  2. Co-dependency and the people that always seem to enjoy helping others who are in need.
  3. How can people make sure that by offering help they are not placing themselves at risk

What is a Crisis?

If a person feels sad or depressed it does not mean they are in severe distress or suicidal. A crisis or emergency situation only lasts hours to days, in some cases weeks and is usually short term in quality. The crisis does not go on forever. A person in crisis is at risk of doing impulsive acts that involve risk taking behaviors, health harming behaviors and perhaps a suicide attempt. A suicide attempt occurs during a crisis point when typical problem solving strategies are not sufficient in maintaining a normal stable emotional state.

Helping someone in need is a social behavior, meaning it is a voluntary action intended to assist someone with sharing, comforting or rescuing. These are voluntary actions having the intent to help others, with reward regarded or disregarded. In psychology, helping someone in need is an altruistic behavioral model, meaning selflessness in principle or a practice of concern for the welfare of others. However at times it turns out that more selfish motives such as pleasing friends or gaining something can be the cause of volunteering to help.

Image Creative Commons

Image Creative Commons
How do people decide to help someone

Latané and Darley (1970) developed a step-by-step explanation of how people decide whether or not to help in an emergency. The five steps are:

  1. People must be consciously aware or notice that a situation is an emergency. Sometimes minor life circumstances, such as how much of a rush a person is in can prevent people from noticing someone else in trouble. In their research, Darley and Batson (1973) conclude that seminary students who were rushing to give a presentation were much less likely to help a seemingly injured fellow student groaning in a doorway than those who were not rushing. The students personality scores were not a predictor for helping nor by the topic of the sermon, as half of the students were about to give a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan.
  2. People must interpret the situation or event as being an emergency. When others are present, people are more likely to assume an emergency is something that is not harmful. This occurs because people look to see others’ reactions and when they realize that everyone else has a blank expression, they believe there must be no danger.
  3. Latané and Darley (1970) confirm this hypothesis by asking people to sit in a room where white smoke began pouring out of a vent. The more people there were in the area the less likely anyone was to seek help and the longer they took to provide assistance. People in groups will convince each other that nothing is wrong and gain false reassurance from each other. Someone must assume responsibility. When there are many witnesses, there is diffusion of accountability, the phenomenon whereby each person’s sense of responsibility to help decreases as the number of witnesses’ increases. Everyone assumes that someone else will help, and as a result, no one helps.
  4. There must be a basic understanding of how to help. A person must know what type of assistance to provide, or they will be unable to help.
  5. The person must decide to carry out the desire to help. Even if someone knows what type of help to provide, they might decide not to intervene because they feel unqualified or are too afraid of the costs.

What is Codependency?

The term codependency came about over forty years ago and originally applied to the spouses of alcoholics. Historically, the notion of codependent appears straight out of Alcoholics Anonymous, sharing the understanding that the present knowledge of alcoholism was not entirely the problem of the substance abuser, but also includes family and friends. Codependent stands for co-alcoholic.

Labeling a person codependent came about primarily by people in the mental health profession. The term relates to the older psychoanalytic concept of a person who has a passive dependent personality and someone who attaches to a stronger personality. The original book by Melody Beattie, “Codependent No More” in 1987 subsequently broadened the term to include the idea that the codependent person fixates on another person for subsistence and admiration. Professionals further explain that an adult from a dysfunctional family or one who has had a parent in poor health has a greater chance of becoming codependent. Investigations show that the features of codependents are prevailing in the general population.  Codependency has begun to find its place as being a cultural expression.

Codependency is a psychological state or a bond with a person who is manipulating and has an unhealthy condition that typically links with narcissism or substance abuse. Codependent people receive sustenance by the inadequacies of, or limitations of another person. This position regularly involves setting a weaker priority on one’s own shortcomings, while being extremely preoccupied with the needs of other people.  Codependency can take place in any relationship, including work, family, friendship, romantic, peer or people in the community. As mentioned, codependent was a term used to describe the thoughts and behaviors of partners associated with chemical dependency, persons living with, or in a relationship with an addicted person. Further documents explain comparable patterns in people who have an association with someone that has a psychiatric illness.

Today, the term further expands stating that having a dysfunctional nuclear family leads to becoming codependent. The results are a dysfunctional relationship between the codependent and other people.  A codependent has the helping someone else addiction as they need to be needed. At times, the codependent will cause the other person to continue be in need of assistance.  The professionals work in this area label this way of life enabling. The enabler will purposefully ignore someone abusing a substance but will call in sick for someone who has an addiction, they will withhold encouraging a sick person to receive treatment, and at times others will hinder a child’s efforts to become self-sufficient.

In the comprehensive sense, codependency is an addiction to people, situations and behaviors. These people have the false notion of attempting to regulate their own internal feelings by externally controlling people, behaviors, and situations. In every area of life, the codependents central focus relates to control or lack of it.

Codependent Characteristics


Codependency may be characterized by denial, low self-esteem, excessive compliance, or control patterns. Narcissists are natural magnets for the codependent. A codependent person has a conventional way of behaving, feeling, and thinking about themselves and others that can produce discomfort. They are self-destructive because they customarily answer to people that are harming themselves and injure themselves in the process. They have sufficient purposes. They aspire to take care of a person who is undergoing pain, but the care taking harmonizes with habitual thoughts and behaviors which are self-defeating.

Co-dependency is an acquired response that can be passed on from one generation to the next. Years of examining interpersonal bonds in families have raised awareness that codependent reactions stem from the result of learning by modeling family members who display the behaviors. This is the emotional and behavioral conditioning that affects a person’s capacity to have a healthy, mutually gratifying connection. They share a link with those who have a “relationship addiction” by virtue of forming or maintaining relationships that are unilateral, emotionally damaging and/or abusive. These habits can cause people to hold onto destructive relationships and can disrupt relationships that may otherwise have worked.

There are repeated rescue attempts to allow the needy individual to continue on a destructive course and they becomes dependent on the unhealthy caretaking. As the dependence develops, the co-dependent feels a sense of compensation and satisfaction from being needed. Just as soon as the caretaking harmonizes with failure and acknowledging this compulsive behavior, they believe there is no choice and are unfit in the relationship, but, powerless to break off from the series of behaviors that creates them. Co-dependents view themselves as victims and have the attraction to that same weakness in love and friendship relationships.

When others keep taking, instead of giving back co-dependents get seriously annoyed as they usually have a subconscious belief that there will be compensation for their behavior. The co-dependents anger may remain below the surface and which will not be expressed as angels have the reputation of being pleasant all the time. However, the co-dependents rage seeps through in in passive aggressive or self-destructive behaviors. At times, people who are codependent take on the role of martyr. This is the result of placing the needs of others before their own and in doing so ignore taking care of their own needs.

A codependent may suffer from a ‘Messiah Complex’ where they see a problem and view themselves as being the only person who can help. A spouse may cover for the alcoholic partner, a father may make excuses for a child being a bully, or preventing a friend who needs emotional support away from calling a counselor. A codependent therapist or psychiatrist will never think their clients therapy as being complete. This is one reason to spend the first few counseling sessions evaluating the problem and setting up a schedule to complete the work. Codependent people tend to set themselves up as the “victim”, yet, are regularly in the hunt for approval. During times of dispute and when they stand up for themselves in an argument, they feel guilty which creates a sense of need as they cannot stand not being helpful and the feelings associated with being alone.

The only cures for codependency require finding the genuine, healthy sources for positive self-esteem to replace the negative ones. There are many codependency recovery workbooks that can be truly helpful in the recovery process. Codependents have to learn how to wean dependent people off of their help, which may result in the dependent person abandoning the relationship. Although very painful, this is better for both people and is forcing both to find better sources of fulfillment. It is a growth for the codependent to find productive and fulfilling activities that do not involve satisfying needy people. There are many ways to be productive without attachment to a chronically emotionally bankrupt person.

Codependent people are in search of acceptance. They recognize other people’s needs ahead of their own, which creates a sense of being useful as they cannot tolerate the idea of being alone without helping down and out people. They tend to set themselves up as being the victim when arguing, and when they do defend themselves, they feel guilty. By recognizing other people’s needs before their own, they fail to take care of themselves. Co-dependent behaviors can prevent people from finding peace and happiness with the most influential person in life…. themselves.

As people age, they realize that there are people who are givers and then there are takers of the world. Sometimes, people teach others to be Takers, by doing everything for them, and insisting that they do not need any help in return. In other words, they are playing the Superwoman or Superman role in relationships. At times, givers attract takers (and vice versa) like the negative and positive attraction in magnets. Givers are truly grateful recipients, whereas takers have a sense of entitlement. Givers consider other people’s needs and the importance of balance with getting their own needs met. Takers are not even aware that others people have needs. Givers experience extreme joy in giving. Takers feel resentment or a sense of obligation while giving.

The benefits of helping someone

Image by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig on Flicker

Image by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig on Flicker

Children who help or volunteer are less prone to developing risk taking behaviors. One research study, conducted by the Search Institute, examines the lives of 47,000 children in 5th through 12th grades across the United States (Benson & Roehlkepartain, 1993). The study indicates that children who volunteer just one hour or more a week were less likely to have at-risk behaviors, and tend to have a more optimistic outlook on life. Even children who are coerced to help or volunteer are more likely to grow up to be adults who demonstrate empathy and compassion. Communities with many volunteers are more stable and peaceful places to live, which in turn encourages others to volunteer. Whatever the reason, helping especially in terms of volunteering services improves the health, happiness, and in some cases longevity.

 Rules for Helping Anyone

  1. Examine the sincere desire to help verses feeling as if this is a commitment, or a life calling.
  2. Only listen to what is being said, without reacting to fixing the problem.
  3. Focus on the emotions until this person can problem solve

Tips for Helping Someone

  • Try not to think for the person that is requesting assistance. It is not polite to provide advice, explanations, or interpretations. These types of statements can be taken as an insult as some may think that the helper is implying that the person in need cannot think for themselves. Wait to be asked for advice and give it extremely carefully.
  • Do not probe for deep emotional feelings. If this person clearly asks for advice on a highly emotional level then do not produce levels of emotional connection that are outside of the ability to manage. However, if the helper thinks that the person in distress just needs to express their feelings then the helper must be willing to sit through, watch and listen.
  • Keep the focus on the task at hand as this protects the helper from getting absorbed in the problem. When someone is experiencing a problem that has a lot of emotional attachment try to pay attention to the emotion not the problem. Let this person know that you commiserate with how badly they feel. If they are angry try to persuade them to explore the anger and talk-out the problem, while neither agreeing nor disagreeing. For example, if this person is afraid stay with them to listen and provide support.
  • Remember your place in the situation. This person came to you because they wanted help, and could have decided to go to a friend, preacher, a therapist, a parent or sibling.  They chose you, so be honest, even if a stranger.  Be aware of personal boundaries.
  • Strive to understand. There are three components of helping when people experience negative emotions: empathy, understanding and analysis. Therapists offer analysis, friends show compassion and fun, and strangers can provide support and empathy.
  • Signs of Restlessness.  Many people when agitated shake, pace the area, wring their hands, or continually move their legs up and down. Persistent restlessness is a sign of extreme emotion and disorganization. If the person in distress is becoming increasingly agitated it is essential to attempt to help them calm down, so they can concentrate and not feel out of control. It might be too much to manage if all of that passion and confusion were expressed. If the agitated behavior continues, it is time to change the subject and perhaps ask them to go for a walk. They cannot think clearly enough to problem solve.
  • Be aware of knowing when the support is not working. Know the limits and do not be afraid to explain them. There are times when compassion and caring may not be enough to improve the situation. If the helper becomes frustrated or anxious, remember that people cannot truly help unless they want to, and they cannot want to help if they are running out of emotional energy. Sometimes the best response is too lovingly say, “I do not think I can help with this anymore”.
  • The person in distress may ask where they can turn. Explain to them all the information known about community resources, and take the time to help them find the resources that can help address the issue. Explain that they are not alone and that you are happy to help in other ways.

Understand some people just always seem to feel sad or angry. However, some people with codependency are always wanting to help someone. Do people need a friend, counselor, minister or family member? Take a moment to think about relationships. Ask the question, “Do I usually have fun with people?”  or “Do I always seem to be discussing some problem that needs to be fixed?”

Let relationships be friendships as it is not healthy for people too always want to help.  If someone is always asking questions like: “What is wrong, you seem a little down?”  “You are not looking good today, should we talk?”  Then they are not offering a relationship. They are offering some sort of helping hand, maybe a codependent relationship. If people are not having any play or leisure time with other people then relationships have taken on another role, such as a therapist or minister. The specific problems that can emerge with these types relationships are harmful and too numerous to mention. Try to withdraw cautiously or insist that the relationship change into something you can both count on to be fun and entertaining. Ask these questions, “What am I getting from this relationship?” and “Do you always want to help?”

Live Well,

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Dr. Cheryl MacDonald, RN., Psy’D.
Health Psychology of San Diego
Ask a question, schedule an appointment call 760 439-9331



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  2. Aday, J.B., Jr. (1995). An analysis of codependency in adult males: A comparison of adult males from chemically dependent families with adult males from nonchemically dependent families. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering.
  3. Anonymous Co-Dependents Anonymous, Phoenix: Co-Dependents Anonymous, 1st ed. 1999
  4. Cluster C Personality Disorders: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-IV, Washington: American Psychiatric Association, 4th ed. 1994.
  5. Codependence: Benjamin J. Sadock & Virginia A. Sadock (eds), Kaplan & Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry on CD, Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 7th ed. 2000.
  6. Robert Hemfelt, Frank Minirith, Paul Meier (1989) Love is a choice: The definition book on letting go of unhealthy relationships
  7. Latane, B., & Darley, J. 1970. The unresponsive bystander: Why doesn’t he help? New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  8. Miller, Angelyn. 2008. The Enabler: When Helping Hurts the Ones You Love.  Arizona:  Wheatmark Press