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Codependency at Work: How We Lose Ourselves in Relationships with Toxic Bosses

When we think of codependent relationships, we usually picture a specific type of romantic partnership characterized by emotional enmeshment, poor boundaries, and self-sacrificing behaviors. However, codependency can also manifest in the workplace—particularly in relationships with toxic bosses.

At work, codependency involves an employee consistently prioritizing their boss's needs, moods, and goals above their own wellbeing, values, and career aspirations. You might find yourself constantly trying to please, pacify, or rescue your boss—at the expense of your own mental health, work-life balance, and job satisfaction.

While your intentions may be to keep the peace or gain approval, this dynamic ultimately leads to a loss of self. Over time, you may struggle to separate your own identity, needs, and worth from your boss's opinions and demands.

So how does codependency develop in the workplace? And what are the signs that you might be losing yourself in a relationship with a toxic boss?

Origins of Codependency at Work

Codependent tendencies often stem from early experiences and dynamics in our families of origin. If we grew up in households where love and acceptance were conditional, inconsistent, or required self-suppression, we may have learned to prioritize others' needs as a survival strategy.

These patterns can carry over into our professional lives, especially if we land in a work environment that mirrors the dysfunctional dynamics of our early years. A boss who is unpredictable, emotionally volatile, or manipulative may feel familiar to someone with a history of childhood emotional neglect or abuse.

Moreover, certain personality traits and work styles can make individuals more susceptible to codependent relationships at work. People-pleasers, perfectionists, and those with high empathy or conflict avoidance may be more likely to take on the role of caretaker or peacemaker with a difficult boss.

Organizational cultures that reward self-sacrifice and unquestioning loyalty can also foster codependency. In these environments, employees may feel pressure to constantly prove their dedication, even if it means tolerating mistreatment or compromising their own needs.

Signs of a Codependent Relationship with a Toxic Boss

1. You constantly anticipate and try to manage your boss's moods.

Do you find yourself walking on eggshells, trying to read your boss's emotional state? Do you go out of your way to prevent or soothe their temper tantrums, even when it means taking on extra work or blame? Constantly trying to control another person's emotions is a hallmark of codependency.

2. You struggle to set boundaries or say "no" to unreasonable requests.

Codependent employees often have difficulty asserting their limits, even when their boss's demands are unrealistic or inappropriate. They may agree to work late, take on extra projects, or even do personal favors for their boss, fearing that saying "no" will lead to rejection or retaliation.

3. Your self-worth is tied to your boss's approval.

In a codependent dynamic, the employee's sense of value becomes dependent on their boss's validation. They may go above and beyond to seek praise, taking any criticism or even the lack of acknowledgment as a deep personal blow.

4. You make excuses for your boss's bad behavior.

Codependent individuals often rationalize or minimize their boss's toxic actions. They may find themselves saying things like "That's just how they are" or "They're under a lot of stress," rather than acknowledging the harm caused by their boss's behavior.

5. You neglect your own needs and goals to cater to your boss.

In a codependent work relationship, the employee's own career aspirations, work-life balance, and even personal values may take a backseat to their boss's demands. They may pass up opportunities, tolerate unethical behavior, or sacrifice their health and relationships to avoid displeasing their boss.

Breaking Free from Workplace Codependency

Recognizing the signs of codependency is the first step towards reclaiming your autonomy and wellbeing at work.

Here are some strategies for breaking free from a codependent dynamic with a toxic boss:

1. Set clear boundaries: Communicate your limits calmly and firmly. Practice saying "no" to unreasonable requests. Remember, your job description is not "mind reader" or "emotional punching bag."

2. Detach from your boss's moods: Remind yourself that you are not responsible for managing your boss's emotions. Focus on your own emotional regulation and self-care.

3. Seek support: Reach out to trusted colleagues, a mentor, a therapist, or a coach. Having a support system can help you reality-check your experiences and strategize solutions.

4. Redefine your self-worth: Reconnect with your own values, goals, and accomplishments. Your worth is not determined by your boss's approval.

5. Consider your options: If attempts to set boundaries are consistently met with pushback or retaliation, it may be time to consider a job change. Your mental health and career fulfillment matter.

Remember, codependency at work is not a reflection of your competence or character. It's a pattern that emerges in the context of dysfunctional power dynamics and toxic personalities. By recognizing the signs and taking steps to prioritize your own needs and autonomy, you can break free from codependent cycles and reclaim a healthy sense of self in your professional life.


Photo of Kelly Judd, life coach for women, a white woman with dark hair and large tortoiseshell glasses, slightly smiling at the camera

Hi, I'm Kelly. 👋 I help you make hard decisions and do hard things. Like you, I spent decades putting others' needs before my own. After almost 20 years of leadership roles and a lifetime’s worth of plot twists in my personal life, I made the empowering decision to seek greater meaning and purpose in my work, helping others to reconnect with their authentic selves and discover the joy, peace, and clarity that comes with finally identifying and prioritizing your own needs.


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