Codependence in Organizations – Patterns of Dependence and Abandonment


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In my previous blog I wrote about the destructive patterns of fear caused by psychopaths in organizations. I also mentioned that psychopaths form courts that include narcissistic people who are easy to manipulate by praising their inflated ego, and also codependent people who are often pulled into the relationships where they are mistreated.

However, codependency can start to live the life of it’s own in organizations causing problems and troubles even if there are no people with personality disorders around. So, how can this happen and what is Codependence?


Codependence as a Pattern of Survival


Codependence is best understood as repeated patterns of thinking, acting and relating. These patterns are usually formed in an environment where the person has to cope with strong, dysfunctional interactions between people. Often this environment is the nuclear family in the childhood, but sometimes it can be some other relationships in adolescent or adulthood. The dysfunction can be for example parent’s alcoholism, drug abuse, workaholism, personality disorder, domestic violence, abuse or some other strong phenomenon that affects the life continually. The child has to survive in this environment and thus he learns to adjust her thinking, behaviour and relating to this peculiar environment. When this coping process continues for months and years the child starts to master this environment. It is as if she had internalized the environment so perfectly that she intuitively knows what to do in situations that would leave most children confused and astray.

Classic example would be alcoholic father and (codependent) mother who tries to control the drinking. Everything in the family is more or less organized around the drinking. Weekends are often chaotic. Sometimes there are lots of laughter and joy when all the adults converse around the table with wine glasses, but sometimes there are conflicts and fights or passed out adult laying on the floor. Weekdays are more predictable and quiet. Father has hangover and mother gives him the “silent treatment”. Then the weekend becomes closer and father starts to cheer up and mother gets uptight again. The child learns to cope with these situations in a way or another. She either finds ways to control the feelings and moods of the parents or finds ways to escape the situation, or perhaps both. She becomes a master of anticipation and learns how to quickly interpret the mood of his parents. She might even learn strategies to affect the situation and the feelings of others. These skills are refined in her other relationships when he learns how to set up a scenery and hide what is really happening in her family.

This process is not intentional, it is just patterns of gestures and responses where the child learns the enabling constraints of her family and other relationships. She learns how to respond to difficult and constraining situation in a way which enables her to live as fully as possible. In this process quite peculiar patterns of relating are formed and sustained. If the child is clever these patterns work reasonably well. However, the downside is that these patterns will form so strong that they are often used in all situations and relationships. When the child grows up she can often find herself in relationships that seem to resemble the childhood. The spouse might turn out to be alcoholic or workaholic and the child seems to repeat the patterns of her mother, trying to control spouse’s feeling and behavior.

The common patterns of interaction include: strong fear of abandonment, highly developed “feelers”, strong need for controlling, overinflated sense of responsibility, taking care of others, unfounded guilt and shame, perfectionism and fear of failure… These patterns are forming the relationships in a way that it is quite easy to end up in another relationship with addict or narssistic person. Afterall, the codependent person has developed and refined patterns of interaction that are spesifically “crafted” for these kinds of relationships. There is a strong sense of familiarity and the codependent person paradoxically feels “safe” in this kind of situation. She knows exactly how to feel, think and behave in a relationship like this – even if it means grief and unhappiness. Codependent person confuses dysfunctional relationships to love and responsibility.

It has to be noted that these kind of patterns can form also outside the nuclear family environment. Teasing in schools or workplaces, dysfunctional relationships/marriage among other environments can also lead to these kinds of patterns of relating in time.


Patterns of Dependence and Abandonment in Organizations


So what does codependence mean in organizations? First of all, all of the survival patterns that codependent person develops are indications of her abilities for coping. They are not only dysfunctional, but also very important ways of dealing with difficult situations. This is why these skills are often used in many professions also. It is not uncommon for a codependent person to become nurse, doctor, social worker, police officer, psychologist or psychotherapist. In these professions she can utilize many of these patterns and become highly qualified professional. It is said that if you want to become a top violin player you have to start training as early as 5-years-old. Well, many of the codependents have started their training already in their mother’s womb (or even before, as some environmentally caused transgenerational epigenetic changes can happen already in the womb of grandmother!).

Sometimes the dysfunctional work environment may be due narssistic persons or psychopaths in the organization. However, even in these situations there needs to be people who are willing to tolerate that kind of behaviour. Organizations are patterns of interaction and these interactions always involve lots of people. Sometimes the work environment might become dysfunctional because there are codependent people around. These people are not trying to manipulate, control or take advantage of others in order to succeed themselves. They are simply following the habitual patterns of survival that they have learned in their past and perhaps still utilizing in their dysfunctional relationships.

They are supersensitive to any sings of personal critisism (real or imagined) and become easily defensive. They are afraid of abandonment and thus abandon others first. They try to control everything in order to keep situation safe, but in the process prevent others to do their jobs. They try to control the feelings and moods of others so much that they wear down themselves. They take responsibility of things that they can not control and get angry when they attempts of controlling those events fail. They are perfectionists and judge themselves harshly.

In short, codependent people try to survive in the work environment with the same patterns of relating as in their dysfunctional relationships. In this process of gestures and responses they unintentionally create dysfunctional work environment that resembles their own dysfunctional relationships, past or present.

There will be tabus and sceneries, norms that everybody intuitively know but can’t question. There will be secrets that are not discussed even though everybody knows them. There will be hurt feelings and abandonment, over and over again. And then there will be periods of silent treatment until the next crisis is on it’s way again. In short, the work environment will have the same familiar elements that the codependent person has grown used to.


Healing the Work Environment – Patterns of Trust and Compassion


The function of abandonment is to reduce possibilities for relationships. When codependent person is abandoned, her possibilities for cooperation, empathy and shared feelings are limited. On the other hand, when codependent person abandons someone else, she is protecting herself from abuse, critisism and hurt feelings.

The function of dependence is to connect with others, to keep people together so that they can support and protect each other. For the codependent person (as well as for addicts) this dependence is distorted and actually breaks connections, leading to isolation. So, in practise these patterns of self-protection turn into a problem themselves.

Complex patterns of relating are highly robust for changes and interference. In practice it is nearly impossible to break these dysfunctional patterns. Instead, the better strategy is to enable other patterns that could in time replace them. It won’t happen fast and easy, and there will be relapses back to the dysfunctional patterns, but there is possibilities for these new kinds of patterns to emerge. Ideal patterns for this purpose could be the patterns of trust and compassion.

The function of trust is to increase cooperation. If you can trust a person, your responses to different situations are open, you can think yourselves as a cooperative unit. If there is a problem you can trust that the other person is on your side, ready to help you. For a codependent person this might be rare feeling as she is used to the chaotic environment that is ruled by addiction. She is not used to people being accountable and available for her own needs. But when there is room for the patterns of trust to develop, it can be perfect antidote for (dysfunctional) dependency. Instead of hanging on to the person like drowning man to the life buoy, she can let go and let the other person support her. There is tremendous release of energy when you can focus fully on the situation and let other people support you, freely, without a need to control them.

The function of compassion is to create empathy and acceptance, without a need to justify or judge. Person who is capable of compassion can see the situation clearly without any fear. She can relate to the situation of other without feeling of being at risk herself. Compassion can create opportunities for cooperation and sharing the burden of feelings. This can be scary for the codependent person, as she is used to getting criticized and hurt if the real problem is brought up. Codependent person has also learned that the difficulties of other person quickly become also her problem. Thus it is difficult for her to feel empathy without accompanied fear. Compassion is perfect antidote for abandonment as it teaches the person to understand that in healthy relationships people can support each others without fear of turning into scapegoat. With compassion the difficulties of life are easier to handle and with self-compassion one learns how to let go of the unrealistic demands and criticism towards herself also.

So, in order to heal dysfunctional work environment, the key is to make room for the healthy patterns of behaviour and conversing in the organization. It might be that there are signs of dysfunctional patterns of conflict and fear, abandonment and dependence around. It would be nearly impossible to just prevent those with rules and regulations. Instead, there might be possibilities for enabling and strengthening the healthy patterns of courage, trust and compassion. This is especially true if the dysfunctional patterns are not sustained intentionally by some manipulating power figure, but instead are the unwanted result of unintentionally sustained patterns of survival and coping.