The difference between compassion and codependence centers on how a person views himself or herself. Compassionate people possess the ability to empathize and sympathize with the suffering of others while taking responsibility for their own needs. Codependent individuals put the feelings of others before themselves, setting aside their own needs in order to serve someone else. One accepted theory links compassion and codependence to setting boundaries and respecting the limits set by others.
Codependent people typically do not set personal boundaries for themselves and cannot recognize boundaries set by others. Their behavior is based on sacrifice and a perceived obligation to help others fix their problems. They commonly work to protect others from the consequences of behavior and do things for others they are capable of doing themselves. Compassion and codependence might be explained as opposites, because compassionate individuals control their own lives and allow others to do the same.
When a person does not set personal boundaries, or if he is unsure of them, he might not feel safe. He may possess a strong urge to help someone, despite his own unmet needs. Codependent people commonly navigate toward people who need to be rescued and protected. They need to be needed and might suffer from low self-esteem.
A person who takes care of his or her own needs and well-being can feel empathy for others without sacrificing personal boundaries. He might possess the ability to help someone, without expecting anything in return, because the compassionate person typically respects the personal boundaries of others, allowing them to make their own mistakes and develop coping skills. Compassion is considered a valued virtue in various religions as a human endeavor to end suffering.
Some psychologists believe the way people develop compassion and codependence traits hinges on whether they promote their own growth. Those who take personal responsibility for their own happiness are generally able to feel empathy for others in a healthy way. People with codependent personalities might lack compassion for themselves, making them unable to give true compassion to others.
Signs of codependency include a desire to make others happy and keep peace, no matter the cost. A codependent person might believe others owe him and resent them while trying to fix their shortcomings. He generally wants others to like him and will do whatever is necessary to gain approval, even if it means neglecting himself.