Explore the difference between codependent vs empath and learn how to heal from codependency – without losing your empathy.

Relationships can bring up a lot of emotions. You may feel your partner’s emotions just as deeply as your own. If you identify as an empath, you’re probably very used to feeling and identifying with others’ emotions. 

It’s completely normal (and lovely) to want what’s best for your partner in the relationship and beyond. But if you’re consistently putting your partner’s needs above your own and spend all your time worrying about how they’re feeling, you may be more than an empath, you may be in a codependent relationship.

Keep reading to learn more about the difference between codependent vs empath and what to do if you think your relationship is becoming unhealthy.

Understanding Codependency vs Empathy

In relationships, codependency and empathy can appear similar. Both empaths and codependents typically understand and share others’ feelings. They deeply feel the emotions of their partner. But beyond these similarities, codependents vs empaths are actually quite different. 

What is an Empath? 

An empath is an individual who is highly tuned in to the feelings and emotions of those around them. Being an empath goes beyond having empathy. Empaths not only understand others’ feelings but actually feel what another person is feeling at a deep level.

This can be a wonderful trait. Empaths are often great listeners and understanding partners and friends. Empaths are also typically good at detecting dishonesty in others and have strong intuition.

However, without strong boundaries and a strong sense of self, empaths can risk emotional burnout and even codependency in relationships.

A woman sits on her phone and researches the difference between codependency vs empath

What is Codependency?

Codependency can look a lot like empathy on the surface, but it’s really quite different. Codependency is a problematic relationship pattern that involves trying to control and win love from people who are emotionally unavailable, such as addicts or individuals with narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder.

Codependent partners not only feel their partner’s emotions, they consistently put the feelings, needs and desires of others above their own. They are pathologically caring and sacrifice their own needs and sense of self for their relationship. 

As a result, they often find themselves in relationships with egotistical, self-centered and selfish people who take more than they give back to their partner. A codependent partner will try to control and change their partner’s behavior (usually unsuccessfully).

What is the root of codependency?

Codependency usually begins in childhood, so it’s important to understand the impact of your childhood trauma and wounding. 

If you’re codependent, you may have experienced:

  • Neglectful or abusive caretakers
  • An addict or mentally ill parent
  • A codependent parent
  • Overbearing, controlling and authoritarian parent that discouraged independence
  • A home that lacked boundaries
  • A volatile home where you had to learn how to sense your parent’s mood to stay safe
  • Love that was conditional on your achievements or obedience

How do I know if I am codependent?

It’s not always easy to spot the difference between codependent vs empath. The best way is to understand the signs of a codependent relationship and reflect on whether they ring true for you and your relationships throughout your life.

Signs of a Codependent vs Empath in Relationships

Codependents and empaths often function in similar ways in relationships, however, there are some key differences. 

At a basic level, while codependents and empaths both feel their partner’s emotions deeply, empaths are able to do so while maintaining a strong sense of self. Codependents, on the other hand, struggle to maintain their own identity in relationships.

Codependent vs Empath graphic

Codependent Partners and Relationships

Codependent partners:

  • Feel other people’s emotions but are often cut off from or dismissive of their own
  • Lack boundaries (they feel bad setting them or don’t know how)
  • Doubt and override their intuition
  • Are attracted to and keep attracting toxic partners
  • Try to fix toxic people and addicts rather than leaving the relationship
  • Are emotionally unavailable or vulnerable without boundaries
  • Lack confidence and self-love
  • Are invested in changing and controlling others

Empaths and Relationships

Empath partners:

  • Feel emotions deeply – both their own and other people’s
  • Have boundaries to protect their energy
  • Are connected to their intuition
  • Can recognize toxic people and relationship patterns
  • Do not let toxic people into their emotional space or set clear boundaries with them
  • Are emotionally available and vulnerable (but with boundaries)
  • Are self-confident and self-loving
  • Accept self and others as they are, without trying to change or control them

As you can see, while codependents and empaths demonstrate some similar qualities, healthy empaths are able to feel their partner’s emotions deeply without sacrificing their own needs or dismissing their own feelings. They’re able to set clear boundaries in relationships and avoid toxic people and relationships.

Can you be a codependent empath?

If you’re wondering if you’re codependent or empathic, you’re not alone. So, are codependent people empathic? The short answer is yes. 

Often, people who are codependent think they are empaths and may not realize the unhealthy relationship patterns they’re engaging in. 

A simple way of looking at the connection between codependents vs empaths is this: all codependents are empaths, but not all empaths are codependent.

Are codependent relationships bad?

Unless a relationship is abusive or dangerous, then a codependent relationship is not inherently bad. In some cultures, for example, a codependent dynamic is a social norm for married couples and both partners may be very comfortable in their roles.

However, in many cases, codependent relationships can absolutely be problematic for both partners.

As a codependent, you may have a history of dating narcissists, addicts or mentally ill partners who are not able to put your needs or desires ahead of their own. You may find yourself going above and beyond to make your partner happy, essentially performing for their love.

Often codependent partners overfunction in the relationship to make up for their partner’s underfunctioning. You may give more than you take. And while it’s not a bad thing to be giving in relationships, codependents are often resentful of their partner’s lack of reciprocation.

Codependent relationships also lack boundaries. You may take part in snooping, controlling behavior or even acceptance of abusive treatment.

And codependent relationships don’t serve the partners of codependents either. As a codependent, you might make excuses for your partner’s behavior and protect them from the consequences of their actions. You may minimize your partner’s negative qualities or try to manipulate, control and change their behavior. 

All of these patterns and behaviors result in a relationship that is very one-sided, lacking boundaries and trust and can destroy your sense of self.

A woman sits with her head in her hands while researching codependent vs empath

How to Move from Codependency to Empathy

The good news is, that it’s totally possible to move from a codependent to a healthy empath. It does, however, take some serious work to heal from codependency.

Here are some of the best things you can do to start healing:

Put Yourself First

Commit to your own healing above everything else. This can be really challenging, especially for someone who is used to putting everyone else’s needs above their own. But it’s critical to make healing a priority.

Set Boundaries

Learning how to set boundaries and hold them is critical to healing from codependency. One of the biggest differences between codependent vs empath is the ability to set and hold boundaries, even in the face of big emotions.

Share Your Needs

Start speaking your needs and desires, even if it means your partner gets mad or leaves. While it’s difficult seeing a relationship end or change, it can make room for new, healthier relationships.

Stop Making Excuses for Your Partner

If you’ve been covering up or lying about your partner’s behavior, it’s time to stop. Recognize that you’re not helping yourself or your partner when you enable them or try to control and change them.

Start Working on Self-Love

It’s cliche but true – you must first love yourself before you can truly love someone else. And if you want to have a healthy relationship that is not codependent, you need to give yourself kindness and positive self-talk.

Make Self-Care a Priority

Give yourself the same care and attention that you give to your partner. Put yourself first for a change. Take care of yourself the way you take care of others. Figure out what brings you joy and do more of it, whether it’s getting a monthly massage, reading a good book or spending more time with friends.

Heal Childhood Trauma

So much of codependency begins with your experiences in childhood. One of the best things you can do to heal from codependency is to work on healing your inner child. Working with a trauma-informed therapist, such as an attachment-focused EMDR therapist, is a good option.

Date Yourself

You need a therapist, not a new partner. Stay single for at least a year while working on yourself. If you jump into a new relationship too soon, the codependency cycle is likely to start up again. Spend time hanging out with yourself. Learn what you like, try new hobbies and spend time with friends. Learn to be happy on your own.

Tune Into Your Intuition

Somatic work is a great way to better understand your emotions and tune in to your intuition. One of the biggest differences between codependent vs empath is the lack of connection to your intuition that many codependent individuals experience. Working with a somatic experiencing therapist can help.

Stop Trying to Change People

Accept people for who they are and believe them the first time when they show you who they are. Don’t take on any more projects! Instead, find people you care about and accept just as they are.

A woman and therapist discuss the difference between codependent vs empath

Get Help Healing from Codependency

If you’re comparing codependent vs empath and realizing you’re leaning toward codependency (or maybe are fully there), then it’s time to seek professional help. While it’s possible to start working on overcoming codependency on your own, a trauma-informed therapist is going to give you the support you need to get to the root of the issue and truly heal.

An EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapist is a good option to help manage any childhood trauma and wounding that may be contributing to your issues with codependency. A couples therapist could also help if you want to work with your partner.

Looking for immediate help with codependency? Check out our webinar, Codependency 101. Sign up today for instant access to more than an hour of education about the signs of codependency, the problems with a codependent relationship and how to stop being codependent.