After connecting with countless Social Workers who struggle separating themselves from their clients' emotions and problems, I've decided to outline the tell tale signs of codependency in the field of Social Work. By the end of this blog post, I trust that you'll have a sense of whether you have a codependent relationship with your work and, if so, what to do about it.
Does this sounds like you?
You've spent your life caring for others, making sure everyone else is okay, trying to please and look out for other peoples' needs. This has served you well in your career in many ways, but as you try to perfect your role as Social Worker you continue to feel unfulfilled, anxious, or depressed. Or perhaps you're not even sure how you feel!
If this sounds familiar, you're in the right place! As someone recovering from people-pleasing and codependent patterns myself, I understand the struggle of wanting to do it all while not letting a single person down. So, keep reading, I got you!
I've been there...
I first learned the term "codependency" when I was working as a Social Worker at an outpatient addiction clinic. It was framed as a "relationship addiction" that often surfaced as my clients entered substance use recovery. Basically, instead of numbing their feelings by using substances, my clients would distract themselves by focusing on other people's problems.
The more I learned about codependency, the more I saw my own relationship patterns reflected back to me. This was the catalyst of my own healing journey, and led me face my own childhood trauma, unlearn unhealthy coping mechanisms, and change my understanding of what a healthy relationship looks and feels like (including my relationships with my clients, coworkers, and employer).
The more I connect with other Social Workers, the more I notice similar relationship patterns, including excessive caretaking to the point of self-detriment. Learning to recognize the signs of codependent habits and what to do about them had such a phenomenal impact on my life (it set me free, renewed my passion for Social Work, and saved me from burnout) that I wanted to share some of what I learned with you!
Before I get into the signs of codependency, I want to make sure we are on the same page about what I mean when I say "codependent".
What is Codependency?
One of my favourite definitions of codependency is from an article on the Good Therapy website. It states: “Codependency involves sacrificing one’s personal needs, to try to meet the needs of others. Someone who is codependent has an extreme focus outside of themselves. Their thoughts and actions revolve around other people ".
There is a clear difference between codependency and being a kind, caring person. As Social Workers, we strive to maintain our sense of empathy and compassion. However, we cross into harmful codependent patterns when we give so much of our time, energy, emotional bandwidth, and sense of self to others that we don't properly care for ourselves.
The Good Therapy article on Codependency also states: "Someone who is codependent often builds their identity around helping others. They may depend on others to validate their self-worth and a codependent person may deny their own desires or emotions to get this approval”.
I have come to recognize that an exaggerated focus on others at the expense of oneself, is a coping strategy that many people develop in reaction to unhealthy or unsafe relationship dynamics. Often these develop in our family of origin, but we can also learn to anticipate others' needs and put our needs aside in unhealthy or chaotic romantic relationships, friendships, and workplaces.
It is important to offer ourselves compassion if we see these behaviours in ourselves. Chances are when we started relating to others in this way, we were doing the best that we could to survive and feel safe!
There are many misconceptions about codependency. Some people view it as an identity, a personality flaw, or even a personality disorder. But there is a reason that codependency is not listed in the DSM!
Codependency is about how we relate with and interact with others and ourselves; it's a set of learned behaviours and attempts to keep ourselves safe in relationships. It isn't innate, and as such, it's something that we can change. This means that if codependent habits are no longer working for you, you can learn new ways of relating to yourself and others that serve you better.
“Codependency is about how we relate with and interact with others and ourselves; it's a set of learned behaviours and attempts to keep ourselves safe in relationships. It isn't innate, and as such, it's something that we can change.”
Highly Sensitive People & Codependency
Codependent relationship patterns are common with Highly Sensitive People (HSP) due to their immense capacity for empathy. As HSPs sense and feel other people's emotions, they may struggle to separate their emotions from others. This is particularly true if we weren't taught how to set healthy boundaries and how to regulate our emotions from a young age. Learning how to set internal and external boundaries is very important for HSPs to help them maintain a healthy sense of self.
9 signs you have a codependent relationship with Social Work
So, could you have a codependent relationship with Social Work? Here are some signs that you may be sacrificing your own well-being in the name of Social Work.
Sign #1. Your identity and self-worth is tied to helping
If you're not helping or giving to others, you're not sure who you are. When you're in situations where you're not able to help, or your help is rejected, you feel worthless and lost. You find it difficult to receive help from others.
Sign #2. You pick up the feelings of your clients & carry them around
During sessions with clients, you can really empathize with them and sense what they are feeling. But when the session is over, you continue to feel those emotions and worry about your clients. You feel responsible for client outcomes and well-being, and only feel okay when your clients are doing okay.
By the end of most days, you feel overwhelmed, drained, and bogged down with many people's emotions and troubles. It's difficult for you to determine what emotions are yours and which are your clients'.
Sign #3. You prioritize your clients, employer, or team at the expense of your own goals/well-being
Because you feel responsible for your clients' emotions and are driven by a desire to make sure everyone is okay, you often sacrifice your own needs.
This might look like coming into the office early, staying late, skipping lunch, or not taking breaks. It might also look like not following your passions into new projects or job opportunities due to a feeling that your boss and clients need you focused on other tasks. You might even stay in an unhealthy or toxic workplace due to a belief that they will not be okay without you.
Sign #4. You keep your own needs to yourself in the workplace
You don't speak up for yourself or ask for what you need due to a fear of inconveniencing others.
This might look like...
Rarely or never saying “no” or setting limits with clients, coworkers, and employers
Always saying “yes” to new tasks and requests, even when at capacity
Not asking for what you need from your employer, such as accommodations, sick days, or a reduced caseload
Sign #5. You're exhausted but feel like you are never doing enough
Rather than paying attention to your own energy level and needs, your focus is on your clients, your team, and/or the service you provide. You often feel like it's your job to make sure that your program, team, or service is functioning well, so you push yourself to your limits. No matter how hard you work, you never get to a point where it feels like it's enough.
Sign #6. You have trouble identifying and articulating your emotions
When someone asks you "How are you?" you dive right into a story about what has been happening at work, with your clients, or with your team. If someone asks you "How do you feel right now?" you have trouble identifying your own emotional state and body sensations.
Sign #7. You bring work home with you
You find yourself worrying about work on your evenings and weekends. Sometimes these worries keep you awake at night or prevent you from relaxing on your vacation. You struggle to separate work life from your personal life to the point that they start to meld together.
Sign #8. You're either the peace-keeper or advocate on your team
If you're the peace-keeper on your team, you likely feel distressed when there's a conflict between team members. You might attempt to anticipate others' needs and to bridge gaps or mend disagreements.
If you take on the role of advocate on your time, you might believe that you know what's best for your clients, colleagues, and team. You feel a strong compulsion to fix things for your clients and your team, and feel frustrated when they don't take your advice. You expend a lot of energy trying to change things so that they align with your view of what is right, even if it leaves you exhausted and drained.
Sign #9. You feel resentful
You notice that you're starting to feel resentful or frustrated about being the go-to person for certain tasks. You feel like you're always being overburdened with more to do than you can manage. You feel annoyed that you're exhausted all the time and that others aren't helping out or behaving in the way you think they should.
You might be wondering...
But, is codependency always unhealthy?
Doesn't my focus on my clients' needs make me a better Social Worker?
While effective Social Workers are empathetic and genuinely care about their clients, caring without healthy boundaries is detrimental to both you and your clients.
If you're so focused on your clients' needs that you're not taking care of your own, you increase your risk of burnout. Burnout often includes feelings of resentment and irritation, which makes it much harder to show up for our clients with compassion. For many Social Workers, burnout leads to leaving the field of Social Work completely. This means you won't be able to show up for anyone!
Social Workers are role models for their clients. Setting healthy boundaries and practicing self-care, helps our clients learn how to do the same.
And finally, being overly focused on our clients' needs is a minimizes our clients' resilience, strengths, and capabilities. Ideally, we offer tools for clients to learn to take care of their own needs, rather than creating a relationship where they remain dependent on us.
Don't worry, there is a solution!
If some of the signs above resonated with you, you might be wondering what the next steps are. Here are a few great places to start!
1. Practice turning your attention inward. This will involve practicing mindfulness, and noticing when your attention is on others or you feel a strong pull to react right away to try and prevent pain or struggle for someone else. Pause. Take 3 deep breaths. And ask yourself, how am I feeling? what do I need right now?
2. Show up for yourself. You know all that care and support you pour into others? What if you poured it into yourself? Imagine what would be possible. If you're not sure how to support yourself, just imagine if a client was feeling the way you are feeling. What would you say to them? What would you do? Offer the same to yourself.
3. Develop energetic boundaries. As you start to build an understanding of what you need and what your limits are, you will be able to start setting energetic and emotional boundaries. This means separating your emotions from others and letting your clients and coworkers be responsible for their own feelings.
4. Take responsibility for your own well-being. If others are responsible for their well-being, that means that you are responsible for yours. It is not your boss', coworkers', or clients' job to predict your capacity and boundaries. It is your job to express these so that others know what your limits are. Protect your time and energy by setting clear boundaries and saying "no" when you are at capacity.
5. Lean into joy. One of the best things we can do to shift away from codependent patterns is to live our own lives. What brings you joy? What do you like to do just for fun? Make space for these things in your life. Prioritize them.
6. Get support. The process of changing codependent behaviours is a tough one, but you don't have to do it alone! I offer 1:1 Coaching for Sensitive Social Workers navigating the Social Work field, including support with learning how to honour your own needs and set boundaries. Reach out! You may also benefit from the support of a therapist or counsellor, a support group, or your clinical supervisor!
"One of the best things we can do to shift away from codependent patterns is to live our own lives. "
Ready to start turning inward and taking care of yourself?
If you're feeling disconnected from yourself, and want to offer yourself some space to explore your own emotions, needs, and desires, then Social Worker Refresh might be just what you need! In this 14-day wellness series, I bring together the tools and exercises that helped me turn inward with curiosity and kindness so that you can learn how to tend to your own needs, reconnect with your true self, and bring more joy into your life.
Learn more about Social Worker Refresh here.