Codependency was a relatively unknown phenomenon even 30 years ago. The term originally emerged to describe patterns of behavior seen in those closest to an alcoholic or addict. Clinicians often used it in reference to parents or adult children of someone with a substance abuse issue. They seem to navigate their lives and relationships in similar ways.

Still, codependency doesn’t necessarily have a single definition. If you ask five therapists for the definition of codependency they might offer a few different answers. It’s not an official psychiatric diagnosis. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) doesn’t offer criteria that outline codependent behavior.

But does this mean psychiatrists and therapists can’t treat codependency? Not necessarily. They use various types of treatment to help codependent people return to their normal lives. Can eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy help? Possibly. Continue reading to find out more.

Understanding Codependency

It’s difficult to narrow down the definition of codependency. While groups of clinicians agree on certain definitions, these still vary depending on which group you ask. Most professionals agree on a general set of symptoms displayed by codependent people. They share similar patterns of seemingly compulsive and ingrained behaviors. These patterns land them in similar situations and relationships over and over until they seek help.

Looking for Signs of Codependency

Even though clinicians haven’t set a standard definition for codependency, there is a broad understanding of what it entails. Professionals first assigned a codependent diagnosis to people in direct contact with an addict or alcoholic. Now the term encompasses people in all types of codependent relationships, both with and without substance abuse.

Some of the traits codependent people share include:


People with codependency issues have an almost compulsive tendency to people please. They have a hard time saying “no” and usually feel anxious or guilty when they do. Codependent individuals regularly put the needs of others ahead of their own, which often leads to resentment
later on.


Codependent people rely heavily upon others to make them feel okay about themselves. Oftentimes they find themselves in either long-term relationships or an unending series of relationships. They have strong fears of rejection and abandonment, especially from those they care about.

Low Self-Esteem

The dependency and people-pleasing seen in codependent people generally stems from their low self-esteem. They use the approval of others to compensate for their overwhelmingly negative beliefs about themselves.

Struggles with Setting Boundaries

People with codependency issues have a difficult time setting boundaries because they don’t like to say no. Oftentimes they fear that saying no will hurt the other person’s feelings and cause them to be angry or leave.


Codependent individuals usually take on the role of caretaker. They concern themselves with the needs of other people while often putting their own to the side. These individuals seem to function best when someone needs them and are at a loss for what to do when someone isn’t reliant upon them.

How to Break the Cycle of Codependency - Hawaii Island Recovery
How to Break the Cycle of Codependency

The first step in breaking the cycle of codependency in your own life or family is to recognize that it is a problem that needs to be addressed.

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Difficulties with Communicating Effectively

Since they fear rejection and abandonment, people with codependency issues often won’t say what they mean. They might tell outright lies or leave out parts of the truth to keep others from being angry with them or leaving.


Being in control gives codependent people a feeling of safety and security. If they can control the people and situations around them, they believe that no one will leave them behind. They also believe that by controlling the behavior of others they will feel okay about themselves.

Types of Treatment for Codependents

The lack of a centralized set of behavioral symptoms make it a difficult condition for researchers to study. This doesn’t mean there is no hope for people who are codependent, though. Some professionals consider codependency a disease while others see it as a behavioral or interpersonal relationship issue. Regardless of how it’s defined, codependent people have multiple layers to their condition.

You might wonder whether eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, or EMDR, may help codependent people. EMDR is a type of therapy that helps people with deep-seated traumatic memories specifically. Many people who struggle with codependency likely have at least one traumatic episode they could target with this type of therapy.

Part of a real EMDR session at Hawaii Island Recovery

Real Part of EMDR Treatment with Client at Hawaii Island Recovery

It’s not specifically tailored to codependents, though. EMDR may help people with codependency issues address one of the layers in their behavior patterns. They can address their trauma with the help of EMDR. However, it works best as part of a continuum of treatment methods, mostly involving a therapist and forms of talk therapy.

Ultimately, one of the largest aspects of codependency is the low to nonexistent levels of self-esteem seen in codependent individuals. They rely on outside sources, especially people needing them, in order to feel okay, complete, and whole. Clinicians aim to focus in on raising a codependent person’s sense of self-worth. As their self-esteem rises, their obsessive need for the approval of others diminishes or disappears.

Call Hawaii Island Recovery today at 877-721-3556 to find out more about seeking treatment for codependency at our beautiful facility!