Codependency and Boundaries

Woman's hand blocking a line of falling dominos – codependency and boundaries

Trying to change someone’s behavior (often via managing, mothering, manipulating, or martyring) is a type of codependency where you violate another person’s boundaries. Tolerating someone’s harmful behavior, oddly enough, is also considered codependent; although here you’re allowing them to violate your boundaries. These are essentially the outtie and the innie of codependent dysfunction.

There’s a wonderful place somewhere in the middle where you respect others’ boundaries as well as your own.

It sounds like, “I love you… AND… I’m not comfortable with X behavior. I don’t wanna blame, shame, judge, criticize, or try to change you. But I’d like to tell you how I feel about it. If you can refrain from doing X around me, that would be delightful. If you can’t, that too is just splendid, but consider yourself notified that I’m not gonna be around for it.”

The most powerful thing about a healthy boundary is that it’s fairly neutral. It’s not emotionally charged. There’s no argument, debate, or conflict to be had. No control, shame, or manipulation intended.

It’s a statement of fact.

“X isn’t ok with me, so I’m not gonna participate in it.”


Boundaries are simply self-respect made visible. Think of them as self-love and self-care that come out your mouth in front of other people.

The Great Codependent Illusion

“If only you would ______, then I would be happy.”

This is the emotional ebola virus at the heart of codependency. It destroys its host from the inside out and spreads unimpeded to all who come in contact with the sufferer.

Unfortunately, this belief was actually true during some people’s childhoods. Growing up with chronically unmet needs, they did in fact need their parents to do something different in order to feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure. Children do not yet have the skills, power, or resources necessary to care for their own needs.

However, this view of themselves and others gets wired into their nervous systems and programmed into their subconscious. It becomes a fundamental axiom of their entire blueprint for human connection that persists well beyond its necessity or usefulness in adulthood.

Codependency is a trauma response. And like all trauma responses, that shit is unrelenting.

Healing From Codependency

The decidedly inconvenient and unsexy truth about healing from any kind of relational trauma is that it must be done relationally. I.e., you’ll need to reach out to another human being for help if you wanna mend your shattered belief that relationships can be safe. So, first and foremost, I will suggest working with a trauma-informed coach, therapist, teacher, or mentor of some sort. Anything else I have to say on the matter is a distant second to that indispensable piece of advice.

To reiterate, codependency presents as an issue of blurred, missing, or violated boundaries (mental, physical, emotional, etc.). So, in addition to working with a skilled professional to resolve the underlying trauma, your next move is to learn and practice setting, maintaining, reinforcing, and respecting healthy boundaries — with yourself, others, work, time, money, food, etc. A phenomenal book on the topic is Nedra Tawwab’s Set Boundaries, Find Peace. I dipped that whole book in highlighter juice. A real gem, that one.

Next, you might consider what Joshua Fields Millburn had to say, “You can’t change the people around you, but you can change the people around you.” Meaning you can’t force the people in your life to be healthier, but you can surround yourself with healthier people (here is a great exercise for implementing such change).

Also, keep in mind that you’ve likely contributed about 50% to every one of your dysfunctional relationships (not just romantic ones). I say this to avoid the mistake of (once again) blaming your unhappiness on “those people.” You were likely hanging out with unboundaried sickies because, in some way or another, you were just as unwell. Takes two hands to clap, ya know.

Nowhere is this more obvious than with family. If we have poor boundaries, it’s usually because we grew up in a dysfunctional environment with people who also had poor boundaries. So when you begin to recover from codependency, at some point you will probably become acutely aware of the appalling lack of personal boundaries amongst your family members. All the guilt trips, gossip, blame, shame, manipulation, control, and unabated fuckery of various ilk will take center stage.

While “What to do when you find out your family is an emotional cesspool” could be an entire article unto itself, for now, I will simply share a few guiding principles.

Boundaryless Family Systems

Dealing with your dysfunctional family will likely be a lifelong journey, but here are a few nuggets of wisdom that I believe to be both true and helpful:

• It’s difficult to heal your burns from inside a burning building.

By this I mean you’ve got to put some distance between you and the environment that required you to be codependent in order to survive. I’m not saying you need to amputate your whole family or move to Siberia. But at the very least, cultivate physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and financial independence from them. If you are beholden to sick people in any way, they will continue to transmit their sickness to you.

• You don’t owe them shit (and vice versa).

Interacting with your family out of guilt or obligation can only perpetuate and reinforce the self-abandonment that was required to tolerate their neglect, abuse, or abandonment in the first place. If your family is the “After all we’ve done for you, this is how you treat us” type, this is damn near the definition of codependency, conditional love, and emotional blackmail (I do something for you, and now you owe me).

Back away slowly. You’re dealing with people deeply convinced that you are responsible for their feelings. This level of emotional immaturity cannot be reasoned with. And only when you, too, believe that you’re responsible for their feelings will you be compelled to interact with them against your own better judgment (e.g. voluntarily spending holidays around people, places, and things that consistently make you hate your life).

• You are NOT responsible for them (and vice versa).

This cannot be overemphasized. You aren’t responsible for their feelings, sickness, healing, or well-being, what they think about you, what they say about you to other people, whether or not they understand or agree with you. None of that shit is in your job description, nor is it within your power to control.

Not your circus, not your monkeys.

And if trying to “help” (or just rolling around in the mud with them, as the case may be) is your way of convincing yourself that you are loving, caring, and kind, I’ve got bad news and worse news. First, suffering the brunt of dysfunctional behavior does not make you a better person. And secondly, the belief that what you do for others is what makes you valuable is essentially the beating heart of all codependent pathology, and therefore more of a problem than a solution.

The Antithesis of Codependency

Remember, you are responsible for the quality of the people around you, the quality of your relationships, and the quality of your life — all of which hinge on the quality of your personal boundaries.

Many people carry unresolved relational trauma from their childhood that manifests as physiological sensations of powerlessness. But those feelings aren’t facts. You are not powerless. You’re in charge of your whole ass life, whether you like it or not.

Sure, all kinds of unsavory shit happens that is beyond anyone’s control — death, disease, abuse, racism, awful parenting, global pandemics… you name it. No one is immune to the vicissitudes of life. But you are definitely the captain of your ship (and only your ship). In this way, personal responsibility is the very antithesis of codependency.

And please know I’m not suggesting fierce independence, anti-dependence, or social isolation is the goal here. No. Balanced interdependence with safe, mature, and healthy people is ideal.

And you can only get there when you stop violating others’ boundaries and allowing them to violate yours.


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*This article contains an Amazon affiliate link to the book mentioned

Published by Adam

Mentor, coach, speaker and educator for over 12 years. I have recovered from and triumphed over many obstacles and afflictions. It brings me tremendous joy to help others overcome similar circumstances so they can live their best lives.

10 thoughts on “Codependency and Boundaries

  1. Love my Saturday morning wake up calls with Adam (physically and emotionally!). I love how you write and each article has multiple golden nuggets of perspective and truth presented in a funny and beautiful way 🙂 Thank you!

    1. Yayyy! Love to hear it. Thanks for sharing your gratitude, Rita. I feel truly blessed to have a growing readership ❤️.

  2. Thanks Adam, I’ve recently woken up to the fact that I have strong codependent traits. 6 months ago I would have resolutely told you I didn’t because I never asked anyone for help, so how could I be codependent?! It was quite the mental wakeup call that I needed to be honest!

    1. Codependency is such a nebulous web of control, compliance, denial, avoidance, low self-esteem, hypervigilance, over-functioning, etc. that most people would be hard-pressed to diagnose themselves anyway. Codependency is kind of a blanket term for a vast network of maladaptive coping mechanism (one of which is never asking for help, haha). But I’m delighted to hear that you’re making strides on this journey of self-discovery. Good for you! ❤️

  3. This is the most helpful article yet. Perfect timing since my current goal is to refine my personal boundaries (mostly by no longer allowing others to violate them with impunity). Thank you!

    1. You are most welcome, Ron. Oh how the world would change if we all learned about healthy boundaries in grade school. And that is a fantastic goal! Something I continue to work on in my own way. Godspeed, my good man.

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