Codependency? or personality disorder?

The hallmark of a personality disorder is a chronic and pervasive struggle to get along with others. Specifically, personality disordered individuals have consistently distorted interpersonal views and boundaries, and are unable to be appropriately intimate with others. Their behavior, personal and social functioning, and perception of self, others and the world is distorted by a dark and ominous lens through which they see the world. These fixed relationship patterns and coping mechanisms that manifest time after time, in varying circumstances and typically during stress.

In the context of interpersonal transactions, these patterns cause individuals to gravitate toward dysfunctional extremes: on one end, a complete lack of empathy and intimacy (anti-social); to the other end, inappropriately intimate, attention seeking behaviors that deeply fear abandonment (borderline and histrionic).

As related to the discussion of co-dependency, histrionic personality disorders experience an intense need for the attention of others and their relationships are thought to be more intimate than they really are. Borderline personalities have an approach to relationships that is governed by fear of abandonment.

Codependency is identified as enduring dysfunctional personality characteristics, distressful emotions, behaviors, and coping mechanisms resulting from anxiety caused by fear of abandonment. Codependency is one identifier of histrionic and borderline personality disorders.

The threat of losing a relationship kicks into gear all the behaviors triggered by fear of abandonment, with the intended purpose of desperately hanging onto that person. What behaviors?

  • Attempts to control others, demanding attention, or any manipulation designed to make someone else do something to reassure the codependent about the relationship.
  • People pleasing, such as buying gifts, doing tasks, or helping, designed to prove the codependent’s desirability, thus reassuring the codependent about the relationship.

  • Clinging behavior, such as continued texting, phone calls, showing up at work, following, checking texts or emails, all showing a need for attention designed again to reassure the codependent about the relationship.

  • Panicking if the partner or friend doesn’t call when expected, or if the partner’s mood is off. The codependent takes this as a sign the relationship is over when, in reality, the partner’s mood has nothing to do with the codependent.

  • Creating turmoil, chaos, or drama, which is actually a means for the codependent to gain attention, albeit negative. Any attention is good attention in the codependent’s mind.

  • Focusing on the thoughts, feelings, moods, and emotions of others and using those clues to react. The codependents own, genuine feelings or emotions are buried deep or ignored.

Individuals who grew up in dysfunctional families rife with mental illness, addiction, substance use, and violence are likely to experience distorted personal boundaries and intimacy problems with others as they grow into adulthood, creating the opportunity for codependency to take hold. Co-dependency was originally described as co-addiction, or traits that enabled the alcoholic or addict to continue his or her addiction, but that term is now expanded to include any behaviors and traits brought on by the anxiety caused by fear of abandonment.

How does one treat such personality patterns?

First, it is most important to graduate from denial and accept one’s own personality traits and coping mechanisms as potentially dysfunctional and counterproductive. As the Twelve Steps describe, acceptance is the first step. Dysfunctional thinking should be addressed with the goal of replacing irrational thoughts with more productive ones. Spend time considering triggers and determine coping mechanisms that can divert stress and dysfunctional behaviors.Current and past issues, and family of origin patterns should also be explored. All this is best done in a safe, stable, and trusting therapeutic environment.

If you want to know more about codependency and how it relates to your personality, contact Jill Ann Nelson at or via