Codependency is an extreme twining of a person's sense of self with another person or group. Codependent individuals have poor boundaries and are often perfectionists. They also struggle with anxiety and a fear of abandonment. A tricky person to deal with wherever you encounter one, but if you have a codependent boss? Talk about a minefield.
Codependency at work
Codependents struggle with low self-esteem and have a hard time maintaining (or even recognizing) healthy boundaries. They often need to establish a controlling relationship with others in order to feel personally validated, all while claiming to be taking "care" of those other people. For the codependent boss, this can mean an unhealthy degree of enmeshment with the entire staff, creating an atmosphere dominated completely by her issues. Or she'll latch onto specific employees, burdening them with the responsibility of managing her mental state.
A codependent boss fixates on controlling her environment and everyone in it, because she doesn't know how to control her own emotional state. She'll come off as hypercritical and micromanaging, apt to run herself ragged trying to do just the most to prove what a selfless caretaker she is.
Sucks for her? Obviously. Sucks for everyone who has to work for her? Oh yeah. Anytime you're stuck fulfilling someone else's emotional and psychological needs, you run the risk of burning out and melting down, which can spell disaster for an entire office.
5 signs of the codependent boss:
If you have a boss who seems to want to be your friend a little too eagerly — but also kind of your mom so she can tell you what to do — she might be codependent. Here are a few other signs to watch out for.
1. Poor boundaries.
Codependents often come from abusive backgrounds, which deprived them of attention and affection as well as healthy models for self-soothing and self-care. As a result, they often overshare personal details about themselves in order to establish intimacy, without realizing what they're really doing is forcing an unwanted intimacy on you, a violating act.
They share very personal information out of a need to feel right about their actions and decisions. This need for validation stems, in turn, from the fact that they're terrified of being wrong, and therefore being rejected.
2. Needs to control others.
A codependent's unfortunate background has taught her that the world is unpredictable and unsafe, that she is always in danger of losing not only love, but also being worthy of love. Remember, her sense of self is cultivated from the people around her, so she needs to feel in control and on top of all details in order to feel both good and safe inside. In short, to feel anywhere near content, she also needs to feel in control.
Other people with abusive backgrounds and resulting mental conditions often have a similar need for control. From a compulsion to keep the things on her desk in order to a need to make sure everyone around her does everything to her exact liking, the codependent's control issues are based on the fear of abandonment. Micromanaging makes her feel needed.
3. Everybody's friend (and also critic).
She's clingy, she's needy. She'll talk nice to your face, then complain about you to your coworkers vice versa. Your codependent boss lives in a highly political world, with her at the center trying desperately to maintain her unstable position. She has to be right, in control and never, ever the problem. She will position herself as the victim before she ever acknowledges she might be the one at fault. Someone else is always to blame.
In order for the codependent to feel safe, she needs to have people on her "side." She will very quickly turn your office into a clique-ish game of chess that makes the giant game board in Harry Potter seem tame.
4. Code Red.
When it comes to being stressed out, the codependent is almost always on high alert. She will work herself far beyond reasonable limits, and expect plenty of attention for her valiant self-sacrifice. And if she doesn't get that attention? Get ready for some pouting and even a good rant, complete with lashing out at anyone near at hand.
The martyr role your codependent boss casts herself in ties back to her need for attention and appreciation. Working herself to the point of exhaustion and letting everyone see her dramatic efforts to serve others is her way of seeking recognition and, again, validation.
5. Freaks out about her mistakes.
Dovetailing from her need to be right, and in control, is an inappropriate level of distress whenever your codependent boss does make a mistake. Because she's terrified of rejection and abandonment, even the smallest mistake could send her into a panic. All codependents suffer under this constant fear and anxiety.
If she does something wrong, she thinks, then everyone will hate her and no one will love her. Which means every bad thing she suspects about herself will turn out to be true. Why? Because she can only receive appreciation and a sense of self-worth from outside sources. She can't provide it for herself.
How to handle your codependent boss.
Dealing with someone who has codependency issues is never easy. It takes real work for anything you say to really get through their fear. But it can be done. Here are a few ways how.
1. Establish firm but kind boundaries.
This is easiest if you're just starting at a new job, but if you're reading this list and recognizing the boss you've had for a while (especially her unhealthy boundaries), it's still possible for you to reinforce your own personal limits. When she begins to talk about a personal issue or other details of her life you'd rather not know, feel free to say so. "I'm sorry, that's a little too personal for me" or "I'm sorry, that's making me a little uncomfortable to hear" might not make her happy, but it will go a long way toward stopping over-sharing in the future. And making it about you being uncomfortable, rather than her being aggressive or imposing, will soften the message a bit.
2. Over-state your case, the right way.
The codependent is always afraid. You know what it's like to be anxious and scared in a social situation, right? Shallow breathing, clammy hands, a loud buzzing in your ears. It's hard to focus, and definitely difficult to tune into the people around you, to really listen. Your codependent boss might be at this level of freak out more often than not.
Any time you need to make a point, especially if it's a personal concern, you're going to have to find a few different ways and occasions to say it. Reiterate your main points more than once. Talk calmly and don't get upset. Codependent individuals are hypersensitive to tone and facial expressions; she'll pick up on even the slightest hint of disapproval or anger in someone else's voice or face.
3. Be generous with your reassurances.
Once you learn to recognize the signs of codependency and divorce yourself a bit from your own personal reactions to her behavior, you might be able to see your boss in a more understanding light. Something in her background has caused her to become codependent, and she really does suffer under all that anger and critique. If she seems particularly stressed or down, letting her know everything's all right repeatedly could really make a difference.
Codependency is something that can be overcome or unlearned, but it takes time and a whole lot of work. And yes, it may sometimes feel like you're babysitting your boss. But remember, your codependent boss is dealing with a difficult mental condition. And she's still your boss. While at work, you have to adapt to her, more often than not.
4. Detach with kindness.
You're not going to fix your boss. That's on her. And there will be days when you just can't deal with her issues on top of your own, not to mention the work stress you already manage every day. On those days, put as much physical and mental distance as possible between yourself and your boss. Though this can be especially difficult if she's yelling or complaining at you, recognize that her issues are not your issues. You don't have to babysit her or cater to her needs all the time. If you're having a bad day, go ahead and have a bad day. Focus on yourself. Just make sure you don't start mirroring her habit of taking her moods out on those around her.
5. Feel free to leave.
Codependency is messy, both for the person dealing with the actual condition and for the people trying to cope with her behavior. Yes, there are allowances you can make for some poor behavior and ways to adapt your work and communication styles to suit her needs. But let's face it, a toxic environment is a toxic environment.
If you're dealing with a codependent boss who is not only not attempting to unlearn her unhealthy habits but is actively turning your office into a hellish place to come into every day: leave. It doesn't matter how great a job is on paper. If you're stressed to the point where your own mental health is at risk, find a new job. It's just not worth it.
We can all stand to cultivate a more informed awareness about mental health, in our personal lives as well as in the workplace. Your codependent boss is suffering the effects of a dysfunctional background. Keeping that in mind when dealing with her moods might help you weather them a little easier. But if you simply can't deal? Do what's right for your own mental well-being, and find a new job.