Nonviolent Communication and Codependency Recovery

Codependency can be described as a compulsive or habitual style of relating with others, which is outward focused and characterized by display of learned roles (e.g., caregiver, hero, people pleaser) and lack of awareness of one’s own feelings and needs in the moment. In codependency literature, these roles developed for survival purposes in family systems that included secrets and shame. As adults, these habitual roles are often re-enacted in the face of unpredictability, change or stress, and can be described as the inauthentic self.

Codependency recovery involves reclaiming the true self; the authentic self, taking responsibility for our feelings, and learning to care for and love that self. In my personal and professional experience as a psychologist, I have found that Nonviolent Communication tools are a wonderful adjunct for the recovery process.

This article will provide a review of some codependent patterns and corresponding recovery behaviors, as identified by Codependents Anonymous, Inc. (2010). NVC principles and ways of using NVC to complement the recovery process will also be identified. An example will be provided to demonstrate how the principles can be applied in our daily affairs.

Compliance patterns include assuming responsibility for others’ feelings, giving up our own truth to gain approval, putting aside our own interests to do what others want and compromising our integrity to avoid rejection.

Recovery involves taking responsibility for our feelings and allowing others the same privilege.

According to principles of Nonviolent Communication, all human beings have the same needs and needs are life serving. Human beings enjoy giving, when they know that they have free choice and that their needs also matter. We can listen to another’s feelings and needs, with empathy and resolve conflict via negotiation, in a manner that honors the needs of all.

If we act out of guilt or obligation, we may feel resentment as a result. However, when we ‘land on’ our life-serving needs, we can more effectively problem solve solutions in harmony with these. We can set healthy boundaries as well as make do-able requests and develop relationships with others based upon mutual regard and equality.

Using NVC, we can identify our values and needs and speak and act in integrity with these values. We can say ‘no’ respectfully and also hear ‘no’ without giving in or giving up.

For example, we can say no by expressing our feelings of discomfort and our needs that would not be met if we were to agree with the other’s proposed strategy. We can also propose an alternative strategy. In this way, we can start a negotiation process that will consider all needs involved.

Avoidance patterns include: judging harshly what others think say or do; using indirect communication to avoid conflict or confrontation, withholding expression of appreciation, and making assumptions.

In recovery, we use direct communication to resolve conflict and deal appropriately with confrontation. We are able to set and maintain healthy boundaries, express appreciation freely and honor our feelings and share them when appropriate.

According to principles of NVC, feelings are indicators of and caused by needs. Positive feelings are indicators of met needs and negative feelings indicate unmet needs. My feelings are messengers of my needs and your feelings are messengers of your needs.

With NVC, we can learn how to speak our truth with compassion for ourselves and others, listen without becoming defensive or taking things personally, negotiate and resolve conflict in ways that honor the needs of all concerned.

For example, if I am feeling worried, I may have a need for reassurance. Likewise, if the other person is feeling worried, they may have a similar need.

Controlling patterns include: attempting to convince others what to think, feel or do; freely offering advice without being asked, act in a demanding manner, use blame and shame, adopt an attitude of indifference or authority, and pretend to agree with others to get what they want. We may also be perfectionistic.

Recovery patterns include: developing relationships based upon equality, giving advice only when asked, asking directly for what we want and negotiation that honors integrity.

According to NVC principles, all actions are attempts to meet human needs.

There is no conflict at the need level, since all human beings have the same needs.

With NVC in our recovery tool box, we understand the needs that motivate us to act, we speak with authenticity and treat others with respect.

If someone hears a demand, they have 2 options: submit or rebel. We can respect the other’s willingness to comply by making requests without making demands

For example, after expressing our feelings and needs, we can ask the other if they would be willing to do what we are asking. If they are not willing, we can listen with empathy for their needs that would not be met, if they were to say yes.

Denial patterns include: having difficulty identifying and minimizing our own feelings, mask pain with humor or sarcasm, express negative feelings indirectly, and are unable or unwilling to ask for help when it is needed.

In recovery, we can identify our feelings, acknowledge when we may need help, express feelings directly and openly.

According to principles of NVC, we can take responsibility for our feelings by connecting them with our needs in the form of I messages. We can make do-able requests in the service of our needs that also honor the other’s choice.

With the use of NVC, we can identify the difference between thoughts and feelings, we can know which feelings belong to us and which do not; express our feelings and needs directly and ask for help, when we have a need for help.

When we are honest with ourselves, without judgment, it is easier to be honest with others, without fear of judgment. If I am honest with myself, I will be less likely to agree to do things that are not in integrity with my values, interests, beliefs and choices.

NVC teaches us to listen with empathy; this involves listening with presence, and to understand another’s feelings and needs, without protecting, giving advice or rescuing another from their own painful feelings. It also teaches us not to be afraid to hear criticism!

For example, suppose someone tells us we are lazy. We can listen for their observations, feelings, and needs. E.g., when you saw me taking a break, did you feel frustrated because you have a need to make more progress with this project?

Rather than responding with an excuse or in a defensive manner, we can say “I’m sorry” using NVC by expressing our feelings of regret along with how our needs were not met by our own actions. In the above example, I might respond by saying “I’m feeling sad because I have a need to contribute in a fair manner, as well as take care of my energy level when it feels low”. At the point when all needs have been heard, solutions to meet all needs may organically emerge.

Low self-esteem patterns include: difficulty making decisions, judging ourselves harshly, difficulty setting boundaries, or admitting a mistake, unable to identify or ask for what they want or need, and have difficulty  getting started and/or completing projects. We may also fear other’s criticism and judge our actions by other’s standards.

In recovery we are accepting of ourselves, feel worthy to receive praise, we have selfconfidence, can admit mistakes, and trust ourselves to make effective decisions.

According to NVC principles, when our actions are in harmony with our needs and values, we will experience a sense of integrity

With NVC as a tool in our recovery tool box, we can engage in regular self-care behavior, build self-trust and act with integrity. We can also use self-empathy to assess how we feel and what we need in any situation. Being honest with ourselves allows us to be honest with others more easily.

NVC also teaches us how to resolve inner conflict and provides a process for healing the past through mourning, self-forgiveness and consideration of all of our values for future planning. We can also celebrate by expressing positive feelings when needs of ours have been met.

Sometimes a strategy will meet some needs at the expense of others. For example, saying yes when we really want to say no. While this strategy could have met some needs for acceptance and belonging, it may not have met our needs for self-worth, selfrespect and/or self-care. We can also consider different strategies if a similar situation were to recur, that would honor all of our needs.

To support our continued recovery process, there are several online and in person twelve step groups (e.g., Coda, Al-Anon, ACA-Adult Children of Alcoholics) and NVC practice groups available. 

Co-Dependents Anonymous (2010). Recovery Patterns of Codependence.
Topic written by Donna Steckal, Ph.D., Certified Trainer (, on behalf of
PuddleDancer Press for use on