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How to avoid dependent relationships at work

Do people keep coming back to you with endless questions? Is your to-do list mostly made up of things other people should be doing? Do people rely on you to solve their problems? Perhaps you are in a dependent relationship.

We all want to feel valuable. We all want to feel useful at work. Those feelings buoy up our job satisfaction and can provide a sense of job security too. But when others are dependent on you it can also become draining. 

The workplace is a breeding ground for dependent relationships, and not just in the obvious professions like healthcare.

There’s a whole web of other possibilities. You might be the leader who spends long hours hand-holding an under-confident member of the team.

You might be working evenings and weekends to prop up your own manager. You might be the lifeline for your clients.

You might be supporting a colleague who is going through a crisis. In all of these cases people do need help, but there is a cost to the helper too.

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Here’s what an estate agent said in a coaching session: "They latch on to me – I feel like I’m their therapist. They call me once a day crying down the phone for 30 minutes. And I can’t say I need to go now as I’d feel too guilty. But it means I have to work late and at weekends to catch up on emails. I’m helping the client; I’m helping the company; but it’s reducing my personal and emotional capacity."

The first thing to consider is why we end up in dependent relationships in the first place. Some of us go beyond the understandable need to be needed.

Some of us are people-pleasers who find it hard to say no. Some of us even have a compulsion to help others while denying our own needs – the Super-Helper Syndrome.

If you have a tendency to fall into dependent relationships, then that is going to keep happening until you unpack your own underlying motivations for why you take responsibility for other people.

Maybe you hold the belief, ‘they couldn’t survive without me’. It’s ultimately an irrational belief that makes you think that you are indispensable, that the dependent person would fall apart without you, and that you have no choice.

Only when you understand the beliefs that have been driving your behaviour can you start setting boundaries to manage dependent relationships.

That means learning to say no without apology, or at least having some effective push-back tactics, such as buying time or offering alternative solutions.

Although it can feel awkward and takes practice, being more assertive can actually benefit the people who have been depending on you. It gives them agency. It gives them the opportunity to learn and grow. They might eventually thank you.

Jess Baker and Rod Vincent are chartered psychologists and authors of The Super-Helper Syndrome - A Survival Guide for Compassionate People