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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

How codependence can ruin your career (and what to do about it)

Have you ever felt that you’re putting more into your job than you are getting back? Or find that your health, hobbies and relationships are suffering because you’re being sucked into projects or meetings that you know deep down you should have said “no” to? Perhaps you try to keep your boss happy then resent them for “exploiting” you?

Sheryl Sandberg (Chief Operating Officer of Facebook) made it very clear: the system may be flawed but you have to take back your power somehow and experience yourself as having agency and efficacy in the world. But why can it be so hard?

Codependence (or “codependency” in the US) is usually defined in terms of relationships where one partner gives too much and the other takes too much which slowly but surely erodes the former’s self-esteem. Codependence was developed as a concept to aid addiction recovery (alcohol, drugs) but has expanded to cover other addictions including work addiction.

If you’re a doctor, it’s very easy for us to justify our self-sacrifice at work in terms of it being part of a vocation. We work long hours, do unpaid overtime, take on extra clinics or projects because it’s the right thing to do and we must serve our patients.

These choices may be put under the label of “being good for the career” but in codependence they stem from a desire to be safe and accepted by doing what’s expected, a fear that we are inadequate and have to prove ourselves (c.f. impostor syndrome) and ultimately a deep need to be recognised as worthy and lovable.

I’ve certainly done all of the above and seen the impact on my health and personal life. The doctors and professionals I work with tend to struggle with these issues including guilt if they ever try to care for themselves or go after their real dreams.

Codependence can interfere with your career in two major ways:

1) You are codependent on your work or work relationships (e.g. with your boss) so you work too much, burn out and give up

2) You are in a codependent relationship in your personal life and give so much to it that you don’t invest in your career dreams and aspirations

In both cases, waking up can be very painful and it can take a while to recover.

So what should you look out for to make sure you are not behaving in a codependent manner? Pia Mellody who coined the term “codependent” identified five core symptoms:

  1. Difficulty experiencing appropriate levels of self-esteem (this is the main one from which the others derive)

  2. Difficulty setting functional boundaries

  3. Difficulty owning your reality

  4. Difficulty acknowledging and meeting your own wants and needs

  5. Difficulty experiencing and expressing your reality appropriately

You might be thinking “I have those but I feel fine” or “everyone has those at one time or another”. The difference, if you’re codependent, is that these symptoms dominate your experience and are causing chaos and misery in your life.

If you’re feeling that this might apply to you in any way, it’s important to get very clear on the dynamics that you’re engaging in and how are you’re keeping them going.

Doctors I coach are able to change their work situation when they see the flawed thinking driving their decisions. These can include how they disregard their own needs out of a misplaced sense of loyalty and a harsh inner-critic that pushes them harder and harder. Putting a finger on these will help to make different choices on a moment-to-moment basis. Over time, their situation changes and they can make life-affirming decisions.

Getting a grip on codependence takes commitment to a path of recovery. You’ll need to work on all the five symptoms and particularly learning to set boundaries both external (with others) and internal (with yourself) and will need to get help.

A few simple steps you can try to begin with:

  1. Find a way to relax and disconnect from the unhealthy work environment/relationship

  2. When ready, allow yourself to imagine what a healthy relationship to work might look like (it could be a job in a field that is more suitable for you; or finding more balance and ease in your current role)

  3. Take action (however small) towards realising this

  4. Notice the negative beliefs, assumptions and self-judgments as you try to take action and write them down

  5. Once you’ve got a list, apply forensic, detective skills to examine, reframe and dismantle them

  6. Replace these with healthier beliefs and assumptions

  7. Try to take action again and repeat the cycle as necessary until you find yourself in a better situation

Of course, it’s simple but not easy to, essentially, re-programme yourself, so it’s important to look after your nervous system. Remove yourself from negative influences as much as possible so you can allow new thoughts and insights to emerge. Find people with a healthy attitude to work who can give you a new perspective and support you where possible.

Until next week

Amina Aitsi-Selmi I help high achievers who feel stuck to take a big leap and get to their next level in life and work. Trying to work out how to create a life and career you love without chasing dead end rainbows? Book a life changing (free 60 minute) conversation here: Questions, comments or interest in Transformational Coaching? Email me on

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