What is Codependency?
Robert Subby defines codependency as “An emotional, psychological, and behavioral condition that develops as a result of an individual’s prolonged exposure to, and practice of, a set of oppressive rules.”
The term comes out of treating alcoholics and their loved ones, who developed codependent patterns to cope with the alcoholic’s behavior. Codependency is a pattern of response. It’s a habitual way of reacting that is learned as a coping mechanism to an unhealthy situation.
Researchers found that the codependency habits become so ingrained in people that they persist beyond the interaction with the addict. That is, these patterns can exist and be passed down in families over time, even when the addiction is no longer present. I think many of the patterns that are classically defined as “codependency” are actually ingrained into our culture, some as gender roles and some just as “this is how people ought to act”.
How Does Codependency Apply to Business?
Business involves interacting with people on a daily basis. If we’ve learned disempowering ways of interacting from our family history, personal relationships, or from our training to be “good girls” or “strong men”, it is likely those same patterns will play out in business relationships.
If you often feel confused, angry, overwhelmed, or hurt in your business, you may find value in looking at the issue of codependency. Looking at these patterns can lead to more ease, clearer boundaries with customers, and ultimately, making a lot more money.
My Experience With Business Codependency: Boundaries and the Right to Say No
I used to have such a hard time establishing boundaries with people that I just would avoid meeting clients in person. I disliked phone calls as well. Email conversations I felt OK about, because I could think about how to respond. It was so ingrained in me to feel bad about my right to say “no” to requests that I limited my exposure to “on the spot” situations where people might ask me for more than I wanted to give. In email, I worked long and hard developing replies that worked in situations where I wanted to say no. I created mantras for myself of “It’s OK to want what I want.”
One of the hardest things for me to work through was saying no to work that didn’t interest me. I felt I needed to “have a good reason” to turn down paying work. If I didn’t have one, I felt I ought to take it. Heck, I even thought I ought to want to take it. Who was I to have preferences anyway?
created snippets to send in response to “Request Quote” inquiries that looked boring to me, or weren’t the kind of work I wanted to be doing:
Thank you for your interest in my web design services. I’ve looked over your responses and included them below.
Unfortunately your website project falls outside of the scope of the work that I do. My niche is to work with small businesses and artists to create online stores and galleries.
I have created a list of other great providers, including other web designers in town who could be a better fit: http://www.redacorn.com/providers.html
Thank you again for your interest and good luck with your site!
I had different ones depending on why I didn’t want to take the project. “I don’t think we’re a good fit to work together” is a good standby. It took a long time to be able to accept that I want to be interested in the projects I’m working on and it’s OK to turn down a project if I don’t want it. I had this ingrained rule of “You should want to give if someone asks.”
These kinds of “rules” hamper our ability to respond to our true needs and the needs of our customers.
Here are some examples of internal rules that can get in our way:
- If something goes wrong, it’s my fault.
- If someone is angry, I’m to blame.
- If someone’s upset, I caused it and it’s my job to make them feel better.
- If someone is in trouble, I automatically should help them.
- No one else can do this work. My clients need me.
Here are some behaviors that we can find ourselves in when we are operating under the above rules:
- Responding to criticism by defending yourself or “going overboard” to fix problems.
- Responding to angry customers by making exceptions to your company policies, working beyond your stated hours, or giving refunds that are not in your policy.
- “Guessing” what might make your angry customer happy (out of panic) instead of asking them to state their needs clearly.
- Dropping everything to deal with an angry client, or someone who is in a hurry.
- Lowering your rates or charging less to avoid having to say “no” to a client that can’t afford you.
- Continuing to work with clients that drain your energy.
- Continuing to work on projects that aren’t alive for you.
How do you work through codependent business patterns?
My strategy has been to:
- Read books about codependency and self-esteem. Understanding the underlying causes has been very helpful.
- Pay attention to my inner dialog. I try to notice what I’m telling myself, and instead use affirmations that I’ve consciously created that affirm my worth and my boundaries.
- Think like a bigger company. It doesn’t have to be a big evil corporation. Would Ben & Jerries offer a discount on their ice cream if someone complained it was not affordable? Of course not. That’s their business, to sell expensive ice cream. That’s that.
- Take things much less personally. The first time I whined about my clients and how they didn’t appreciate me to someone who had been a designer for many years she said “It sounds like you want them to approve of you. You’re taking things too personally. It’s just business.” That helped me get out of the trap of “If they don’t like the design I made, they don’t like me.” That meant I could really listen better to what they needed, and more clearly ascertain if we were a good fit to work together. It’s this kind of healthy detachment.
Here are some inner mantras (affirmations) to get you started:
- Everybody makes mistakes. Every business makes mistakes. It’s OK.
- Nobody is every perfect, and no business can serve everybody.
- I am doing the best I can and that’s enough.
- I believe in my product and I do a good job.
- It’s OK to want what I want.
- It’s OK to say no in any situation.
- I am at choice.
- Someone else’s failure to plan is not automatically my problem.
- I get to choose who I work with, and I choose people who respect me and my work.
- My time and work is valuable, and I choose to provide it to people who honor that.
- It’s OK if I choose different clients.
- It’s OK if my clients choose different providers.
I have found that my emotional skills are directly transferable to my bottom line. The more I work out my emotional “stuff”, the more clear I have become in my ability to seek out the work I want, say no to the work I don’t, be clear and clean with boundaries, and charge based on the value of my work rather than on my self-worth.
Have you had experiences that resonate? What has worked for you in setting boundaries with your clients?
Great post! I don’t work for myself much, but there are some core issues here that are common with other codependency experiences at work. The most valuable thing for me in this post was the list of “internal rules.” I do a lot of reading about codependency, but it’s nice to hear others’ express it — it really drives the point home.
Codependency at work is, in my opinion, a vastly under-explored area. We need more resources in this category, and you’ve given us another piece of the puzzle.
Hi, thanks for stopping by!
I completely agree that it’s very under-explored. Some work has been done around healthy vs unhealthy corporate cultures, but I think there is still just a lot of interpersonal relating in the world of business that isn’t looked at.
Thank you for writing this article. I have been struggling with this for a while and just realized i was codependent at work!
Your words have encouraged me!
This article really resonated with me, thank you! Could you perhaps name some of the books you mention reading above? I’d like to try reading a book about this, especially one that addresses the workplace in particular.
@Sandra The classic one that I read first is “Codependent No More” by Melody Beattie (though it might be a little dated now). I haven’t read one that’s just related to the workplace though. I also found “Healing the Shame That Binds You” by John Bradshaw to be helpful in regard to toxic rules we internalize. Lastly, “Non-violent Communication” by Marshall Rosenberg is a great framework for how to communicate from a place that honors both yourself and others.
Thanks so much Emma, I will check those out!
Chatone Morrison says
Gorgeous post! Wow! I just happened to be writing a bit on codependency at work on my blog, POSITIVITALES, and wanted a reference from the web. I stumbled upon this and I am so happy! I’m no expert – but this is an expert-level article. Thank you!
Hi Emma. I realize this post is several years old, but I just found it thanks to a Google search and it’s just what I needed. I’ve even bookmarked it so I can refer back when I find myself lacking boundaries or saying yes too much! Thank you!
Thanks Amberla, so glad it was helpful!
Almost exactly my experience with codependency affecting my design business. I get the avoidance of in person meetings and trying to respond only via email. I read Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend, Codependent No More by Melody Beattie and joined a Codependents Anonymous 12 Step Group. I’m making progress and may actually start enjoying my work again. Thanks for putting words to my experience.
Really great post that’s helping me with the book I’m writing. Thank you so much!