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Codependency Vs Caring: Differentiating Between The Harmful And The Helpful

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When we care for another human being, it is natural to exhibit certain behaviors and experience particular feelings. There does, however, come a point at which the way we act and think become somewhat less healthy. One way in which this can manifest is through codependency.

Unfortunately, there is an issue with the common understanding of this concept and it has led to people being described or diagnosed as codependent who are no more than caring individuals.

What this article will attempt to do, then, is highlight the differences between a person who is a ‘carer’ (a term we will use throughout to describe someone who is caring in the traditional sense) and someone who can legitimately be labelled as codependent.

The Crutch Of Helping Others

When a person is consumed by codependency, they define themselves through the help they give to the other party in the relationship. The care they provide is what gives their life purpose and meaning; take it away and they struggle to function independently.

In a sense, they are reliant on the other person and their role as caregiver; it forms a crutch upon which their existence is based.

A carer, on the other hand, makes a conscious choice when they help someone. They do not need to assist others, but they do so because they see it as the right thing to do. Such individuals may be described as caring, but they do not allow this to become their raison d’être (reason for being).

The Need To Feel Needed

Codependents put so much emphasis on helping another person because they have an insatiable desire to feel needed. They often mistake the other person’s dependence on them as a committed, loving relationship (although it can happen in friendship and family settings too).

It doesn’t matter to them if the sharing of responsibilities is entirely one-sided or the partnership is based on cycles of distress and rescue, they view it all as a healthy, intimate bond.

When a carer forms a relationship, they do so for very different reasons. They may like to feel loved and wanted for who they are, but they also respect the other person’s autonomy. They understand that while there are many benefits to sharing a life with someone, they are entirely capable of surviving by themselves if they had to.

Separation Angst

With so much of their own identity tied up in the relationship they have with another, a codependent finds any lengthy separation from them unbearable. With no one there to serve, they begin to feel empty as if a part of them has been taken away.

Naturally caring individuals are quite able to fend for themselves when a loved one is absent. Yes, they will miss them, but they will not let it impact the running of their life in any major way. They will be able to cope just fine, even for prolonged periods, because they are secure enough in themselves.

A Lack Of Boundaries

Those prone to codependent behavior struggle to observe the boundaries between themselves and the other party. The idea that they are an individual is foreign to them and they prefer to think in terms of a joint being.

The result is that they can’t comprehend what is theirs and what is not. They let the other person’s feelings dictate their own, they fight their battles for them, and they give up ownership of their belongings, money, and even their body.

Carers retain the mental distinction between them and others. They are able to set clear and firm personal boundaries that preserve their unique character and habits. They can still be influenced by third parties, but never let their sense of self get muddled with another.

Feeling Responsible For Others

Another consequence of the absent boundaries is that codependents feel responsible for the actions of the other person. They see such behavior as an extension of themselves and experience guilt when it goes against accepted norms.

This is one of the reasons why they will wait on them hand and foot; by providing everything for the other person, they avoid many of the situations that might be viewed in a negative light.

In contrast, a carer knows that we are ultimately responsible for our own lives and won’t seek to defend behavior that they disagree with, no matter how much they love the perpetrator. They may regret what other people have done, but they will be less prone to feelings of guilt.

Acting In Their Best Interests

Codependents may like to think that they are helping another person by saving them from themselves, but it is often the case that they are simply enabling the continuation of unwanted behaviors.

Whether it’s keeping someone in poor physical or mental health, promoting their under-achievement, or supporting their addiction, codependents don’t necessarily act in the other person’s best interests. They are actually doing what’s right for them by maintaining the relationship and thus the meaning they take from it.

Carers take a different approach because they are more able – and more willing – to see the problems that the other party faces. They don’t act for themselves, but rather for the individual who needs, and often wants, to improve their own situation.

Putting The Other Person First

In a slightly paradoxical way, codependents also tend to put the needs of the other person first in any relationship. They will sacrifice their enjoyment, their time, and even their well-being if it means they can provide satisfaction.

The important distinction between this point and the last is that they will give and give as long as it does not require them to sacrifice the relationship in its entirety. And just as with the previous point, they will not be too concerned if they might actually be hindering the other person’s long term happiness or health.

A carer will be willing to make some sacrifices to help another, but there will be limits to what they will do. They place too high a value on their own needs and desires to put them aside entirely.

The Lie Of Dependency

There are, of course, many people who rely on others for much of their day-to-day care, but the codependent mindset assigns this need even when it is not initially present.

They may see a perfectly self-sufficient individual as requiring their help just because it suits their wish to provide it. Eventually the other person may come to depend on them for a great number of things that they would have previously done themselves.

A carer sees things differently. They will seek to help people retain as much independence as they can, even as their abilities fail them. They will be of assistance when called upon, but they will not thrust their help upon others who do not ask for it.

Dealing With Rejection

When someone with a codependent personality has their offer of help rejected, or when there is no recognition forthcoming, they feel a great deal of emotional pain.

This goes back to their need to be needed and their reaction when it is absent. Without the appreciation of others, they feel worthless and lost because this is all that really brings them peace.

A carer will not be as disgruntled should their efforts go unnoticed; they may be grateful for any thanks that come their way, but they primarily give out of their desire to do good.


The very basis of a codependent’s life is their relationship with another person and this leads to an unhealthy level of attachment and interest in them. They reach a point where almost every waking thought involves the other party.

They wonder what they are thinking, how they are feeling, while trying to foresee their every wish and want. They are so emotionally reliant on them and so anxious about losing them that they become truly obsessed.

A carer may experience some anxiety and insecurity, but this is perfectly normal while it remains sporadic. They are also better at communicating these feelings to their partner which helps to resolve the issue before it can grow in their minds.

The Inability To Break Free

Even if a relationship reaches a point where both parties are unhappy, a codependent will struggle to end things because of the overwhelming guilt they would feel. Furthermore, unless they can rapidly replace the other party with a new dependent, they will be forced to face time alone which is like a living nightmare for them.

A caring person will understand that, even if it results in a great deal of temporary pain, sometimes it is best to go your separate ways so that you may find more lasting joy and satisfaction. They will not be so selfish as to hold on to a relationship merely as an alternative to being alone.

The Rewards Of Enabling

Perhaps the pivotal difference between codependents and carers – the one that underlies all of the above – is in what each one takes from helping another person.

A codependent is rewarded for their enabling behavior with a stable relationship that provides meaning and purpose to their life. Their reasons for being a caregiver are primarily selfish in nature, locking another person in bondage even if it isn’t what’s best for them.

A genuinely caring individual may feel positive emotions when providing assistance to others, but they would be just as likely to help even if they were to suffer somewhat because of it. They show real selflessness and seek only to promote the well-being of the other person.

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About The Author

Steve Phillips-Waller is the founder and editor of A Conscious Rethink. He has written extensively on the topics of life, relationships, and mental health for more than 8 years.