A photo of a man and woman holding hands on a beach.

If you identify as an empath then you are used to feeling the emotions of others as if they were your own. Empaths are highly attuned to other people’s feelings and can literally walk a mile in their shoes.

Your gift intensifies in close relationships, to the point where your loved one's emotions can sometimes feel overwhelming. You want to help your partner or family member and will go out of your way to try and make them feel better.

But sometimes it's not easy to know whether you are truly acting as an empath, or if you might be exhibiting a type of self-sacrificing known as codependency.

We all can agree that supporting the ones you love is a beautiful way to live. But when you start putting someone else’s needs above your own, when you're on call for them 24/7 and drop everything when they call, there may be a problem.

So what is that line and when is it crossed?

To understand more, we must go back decades and revisit the original meaning of the term “codependent.”

Where did the term codependent come from?

In the 1930s, when Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was created, it became apparent that partners and families needed treatment as much as the alcoholic. They coined the term co-alcoholism to indicate that partners were intertwined with the alcoholic's unhealthy behaviors, and they too needed help.

Over the next few decades, mental health professionals recognized that co-alcoholism went beyond relationships with alcoholics to relationships with addicts of all kinds, and the term co-alcoholism changed to co-chemically dependent, and then was shortened to co-dependent.

More recently, the term evolved into a popular psychology buzzword. We use it to describe someone who is excessively reliant on another for their emotional well-being. They habitually sacrifice themselves for that person—even though the person being depended on may not return this care.

To be clear, when used in this context codependency is not a mental health condition or a diagnosis. Rather, it is a type of relational style where someone has a compulsion to care for another person. 

Why do people confuse empaths with codependents?

Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m not a codependent, I’m an empath?” And somehow it didn’t sound right? 

Well, you were correct, it usually isn’t. 

On the surface, a codependent can look like an empath because both are seen as caring and helpful, and both can feel overwhelmed by the needs of others. Both have a tendency to see others as an extension of themselves and can struggle to assert healthy boundaries. 

But underneath the surface, two very different things are going on.

Let’s look at five differences between empaths and codependents that will help clear up the confusion.

 #1: One is a relationship style, and the other is a personality trait

The term “codependent” describes a particular type of relationship, while the word “empath” describes a personality trait. The codependent suffers from a relationship addiction while the empath, with the appropriate boundaries, enjoys the gift of deeply felt empathy.

A codependent is so focused on another person’s needs that they sacrifice their own well-being. They feel a responsibility to fix the problems of their loved ones, and there’s an obsession with people who seem to “need” them. They are addicted to a relationship, and this addiction keeps them from taking care of themselves.

The empath feels the emotions of everyone around them. When they learn to take care of themselves, this personality type enjoys a life of beauty and connectedness.

#2: One is made, and the other is born

Often, codependency is linked to patterns of attachment styles that we learn in early childhood. This is where family dynamics are unhealthy, and the child does not get what they want or need from their primary caregiver. Children who have insecure attachment styles often grow into adults who are anxious, fearful or clingy in relationships.

The empath is born with a sensitive nervous system that contains brain cells called mirror neurons.  While everyone has mirror neurons, these brain cells are more sensitive (and possibly more numerous) in the empath and enable a deep resonance with the feelings of others.

So, you could say a codependent is made, and an empath is born. 

#3: One focuses on one person, and the other on many

While a codependent may lose themselves in a specific person or relationship, an empath is affected by the emotions of everyone. They can sit next to almost anyone and pick up on their sadness, joy or fear, and start feeling these emotions as their own. 

Here’s an example. If a codependent is sitting on a park bench with their partner, they will be focused on the needs of that person alone, above everyone else’s and above their own. If an empath is sitting on that same bench next to their partner, they will pick up the emotions of their partner AND random people they see and hear—like the mother who is struggling near the swing set with her toddler, or the angry couple arguing under the oak tree, or the family celebrating a father’s birthday. 

The empath will feel it all. The codependent will instead be tuned in to the person they are addicted to, and who often demands their full attention.

In fact, it’s possible for codependents to be so focused on the one person whose needs engulf them that they become cold and detached to anyone else.

 #4: One is motivated by a need to control, and the other is motivated by empathy

The codependent is motivated by a need to control the behavior of the one they are in a dependent relationship with. The word “control” may sound harsh or inappropriate given that the codependent is so self-sacrificing. But the truth is, they are scared of losing the relationship, and they will “manage” the feelings and behavior of their loved one to keep them happy. 

The empath’s wish to help is quite different. They are motivated by their experience of other peoples’ emotions and, when they get overwhelmed by the emotions around them, they are more likely to retreat than to control. 

#5: One has negative outcomes, and the other can have positive outcomes

Codependency is not a clinical condition, but it can have very bad effects. Therapists generally treat it with the same level of care given to alcoholism and other addictions. Nothing good comes from codependency, and if not addressed it can hold someone captive to low self-esteem, confusion and poor physical health.

An empath, however, has every opportunity to reap the benefits of their empathy. All that is needed is awareness and appropriate boundaries for the empath to thrive.

Last Thoughts

Whether you are an empath, a codependent, or both, it’s helpful to know the difference since the terms have been confused in recent decades, and especially when the confusion has kept some codependents from getting help.

In any case, you are never powerless. You can learn to set boundaries, and you can decide not to react knee-jerk style to the emotions of others. And remember: no one is responsible for another person’s happiness. Taking care of yourself first means you are then able to offer your best self to others, without sacrificing your own well-being.

Becky Green
Becky Green is a Social Worker and MBTI® Practitioner certified by The Center for Applications of Psychological Type. Becky loves to explore human differences, and she is convinced that proven typology tools can help us foster compassion today when it's sorely needed. Her INFJ happy place is writing in her home office with 432 Hz music playing and a dog named Rocker on her lap.