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  • Writer's pictureAnnabelle Mebane

Codependency as a Defense Mechanism

By Annabelle Mebane, LMFT

One of our favorite topics to cover here is codependency. Codependency is a term used to describe a specific pattern of behavior that is particularly likely to develop in the context of a relationship in which one party is unwell in some capacity and the other party engages in behaviors designed to compensate. Folks who struggle with codependency often spend time worrying about the other and caretaking them at the expense of their own needs and emotions, and they may struggle to set boundaries. While their behavior tends to appear other-focused, these behaviors also function to help the codependent individual cope with their own emotions.

In other words, codependency involves a particular subset of behaviors that we would describe as “defenses.”

Defenses are any behavior that we engage in in order to manage, avoid, or control uncomfortable emotions. All of us utilize defenses. Defenses can include behaviors like joking/humor, sarcasm, overworking, drinking, procrastinating, perfectionism, etc. Defenses are not inherently good or bad; they are strategies we use to cope with our emotions. However, it is important to stay curious about how rigidly we rely on our defenses and whether our defenses are coming at a cost to our relationships, work, and/or long-term emotional/psychological wellbeing.

Some of the common defenses associated with codependency include:

  • anticipating others’ needs and desires and meeting them before the other person asks for them to be met

  • offering unsolicited advice

  • people pleasing

  • hyper-attuning to others’ emotions

  • problem solving for others

  • focusing on the other person’s interests at the expense of one’s own interests

  • seeking the approval of the other person

  • focusing one’s energy on preventing discomfort in others

  • “going with the flow”

These behaviors serve to defend against the individual’s feelings,

for example, core emotions like fear, anger, or sadness, or inhibitory emotions like anxiety, shame, or guilt (which also function to defend against the deeper core emotions). By engaging in these behaviors, the person feels a temporary sense of esteem or connection. But unlike behaviors that are freely chosen in service of one’s values (e.g. compassion, thoughtfulness, or kindness), codependent defenses are rigidly adhered to and can contribute to feelings of resentment or to a lack of awareness of one’s values and/or deeper emotions.

When we are able to notice that a behavior is serving as a defense against our emotions, we can begin to get curious about what those emotions might be.

When we are able to notice and experience our emotions, we are freed up to get curious about why those emotions might be visiting us. We can get curious about what our emotions may have to say about what we care about and what matters most to us. We can identify our values and connect with how we most want to show up in the world, and then we can use this knowledge to inform the behaviors we choose.

Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP) is a therapeutic modality designed to help us identify our defenses and then work to experience our underlying emotions and contact our most authentic, wholehearted selves.

As such, AEDP is particularly well suited to people who are struggling with codependency. For more information, check out our other blog posts. If you or someone you love is struggling with codependency, a therapist can help guide you in the process of changing this pattern of behavior.

If you or someone you love might benefit from therapy for codependency, anxiety, low-self esteem, trauma or depression, please contact Jodi Staszak, LMFT. Jodi offers Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP) for individuals, and Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples, in addition to Overcoming Codependency groups for individuals struggling with codependence. Jodi can be reached at 619-818-0375 or

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