Here's How To Tell The Difference Between Empathy & Codependency
Empathy is important. It's what makes us human. Empathy allows us to form bonds and have awareness beyond our individual perspective.
People who experience high levels of empathy might label themselves as "highly sensitive," meaning their energy is affected by the emotional states of those around them. You might have walked into a room after an argument and felt the tension in the room, or you may have watched a movie and found yourself crying when a character experiences a sad event. In those moments, you're experiencing empathy.
But there's another unhealthy behavior we often confuse for empathy—and that's codependency.
Codependency is different from empathy because there is a lack of authentic self.
A "self" is our internalized perception or sense of who we are in the world. Simply, it is how we think about ourselves and is a source of self-esteem.
Because of our past experiences, many of us do not develop a stable sense of what makes us us. To fit into our earliest relationships, we developed a habit of looking externally to find approval, validation, and our sense of worthiness. Over time, our relationships came to be based on someone giving us something that we do not have internally rather than mutual vulnerability and sharing.
Codependency is a learned behavior that begins in childhood, when there's a lack of boundaries within our family dynamic. We learn as children that in order to receive love, we have to be hypervigilant to the emotional state of others around us.
Let's say we had a critical, perfectionist mother. In order to receive her love, we had to appear a certain way and keep things perfectly clean. Subconsciously, the message is "I am not worthy to receive love unless I am perfect." Our focus is placed outside of ourselves to get our mother's approval because as children, love means survival.
While love and external approval no longer means survival, for many of us, it still feels that way. This is because our earliest relationships create our attachment styles. If we have not healed from those attachments, we will carry the same behaviors into our adult relationships.
At the core of codependency is the inability to regulate our own emotions.
Codependency can manifest in many ways. You might be constantly analyzing your partner's behavior; even simple things like not responding to a text or needing a night to themselves may cause panic. You might find yourself being highly indecisive; even simple decisions seem overwhelming, and you find yourself calling your mom daily to help you make them. Or maybe you want to start something new but feel paralyzed with fear at just the thought of putting yourself out there. Each of these is a sign that we're outsourcing our internal state to those around us, a core component of codependency.
Empathy is different from codependency in that we have a solid sense of self. With empathy, we understand that people's emotional state and behavior is not something to take personally, change, or fix. How people respond to us is not an indication of who we are. Our sense of self is not defined by those around us, which allows us to follow our unique journey even if that means being misunderstood.
When another person is having an emotional experience, empathy allows us to hold space. We can be fully present and listen.
But with codependency, we lack the ability to regulate our emotions: When someone comes to us needing support, we cannot hold space. Instead, we offer solutions and instantly go into "fixer" mode because we cannot tolerate the emotional discomfort we are experiencing. We may also attempt to say things like "it could be worse" or "at least X didn't happen." While we have good intentions, this makes those around us feel not seen or heard.
If you feel as if you're codependent, don't panic.
Society tells us that empathy means not having boundaries, sacrificing ourselves, and engaging in people-pleasing. We've been conditioned into these beliefs—but that's a good thing because it means we can also unlearn them.
True empathy means having clear boundaries around what we will and will not accept. It allows us to understand why someone does something while also holding people accountable for their behavior. And, maybe most importantly, empathy allows us to understand that everyone has their own version of truth, and it is not our place to enforce that truth on those around us.
Nicole LePera, Ph.D., is a holistic psychologist and the founder of the Mindful Healing Center in Center City Philadelphia, where she works with individuals, couples, and families taking gut health, sleep, movement, cellular health, belief, and mindfulness into treatment. She also shares teachings on wellness through her popular Instagram account @the.holistic.psychologist, which has over a million followers and counting.
A former psychotherapist, LePera received her master's degree and Ph.D. in clinical psychology from The New School and her bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Cornell University. She has evolved her more traditional training to develop an approach that acknowledges the connection between the mind and body. She views mental and physical struggles from a whole-person perspective and works to identify the underlying physical and emotional causes. She understands that balance is an integral part of wellness and empowers individuals to heal themselves, supporting them on their wellness journeys.
LePera covers topics like boundaries, trauma, ancestral healing, re-parenting, mind-body techniques, and more on her Instagram and YouTube channel.