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By Justin Cannady, Inclusion-Focused Design

I wore all of this like a badge of honor. No… more like a shield of invincibility. I had heard that everyone is replaceable, but I knew I wasn’t.

In 2019, I worked an average of 70 hours per week at a national nonprofit organization. 

At the time, I prided myself on my dedication and hard work. Others in the organization could rely on me to go the extra mile. I even solved the problems that had nothing to do with my job. I wore all of this like a badge of honor. No… more like a shield of invincibility. I had heard that everyone is replaceable, but I knew I wasn’t. I was the senior manager of our online learning strategy and implementation—a critical role in the new post-Covid world.

In the spring of 2021, I was laid off. 

Despite my dedication, innovation, and the years of hard work I had put in, I was told that I was no longer needed. I felt embarrassed, disappointed, and, among several other emotions, betrayed. I felt rejected by the organization to which I had given so much. Though I had not experienced this sort of trauma before, it felt strangely familiar.

As I reflected on my own experiences and dug into the research, I discovered that the deep sense of betrayal and rejection was not only a reaction to being laid off, but it was a symptom of codependency, something that I had struggled with in my personal relationships but had never applied the framework to my professional life.

What is Codependency?

In a nonprofit organization, where resources are often limited and there is a constant need for help, individuals with codependency may be drawn to the environment.

Popularized by Melody Beattle’s book Codependent No More: How to stop controlling others and start caring for yourself, codependency can be described as an addiction to prioritizing others’ needs over your own. A person suffering from codependency often excessively relies on others for approval and identity because of their own lack of self-value. I describe codependency as an addiction to people. 

Having a former partner that suffered from addiction, I understand the endorphin-fueled fix that accompanies approval from others. I also know that the fix is never enough to be satisfied; if years of 70-hour work weeks didn’t satiate, then nothing would have curbed the cravings.

I, like most individuals with codependency, often have difficulty setting boundaries and feel a strong desire to be needed by others. This led me to become enmeshed in the problems of others and to put the needs of others before my own. 

In a nonprofit organization, where resources are often limited and there is a constant need for help, individuals with codependency may be drawn to the environment. They may be willing to sacrifice their own well-being in order to help others. This can be especially problematic in a nonprofit setting, where a person with codependency may be taken advantage of or become overextended, leading to burnout and other negative consequences.

Soulmates: Codependent Behaviors and Nonprofit Careers

Codependent behaviors are learned responses to past experiences. We don’t arrive on this earth addicted to people, but through our early experiences and trauma, we learn the unhealthy coping mechanisms of codependency.

It’s not uncommon for people in the nonprofit sector to feel like they’re working harder than ever but not seeing the results they want. I was drawn to the nonprofit world because of its purpose and mission and because it gave me a sense of security that my work was being valued and appreciated. I observed many of these same traits and behaviors in other individuals with codependency. Like magnets, individuals with codependency and nonprofit organizations seem to have a distinct attraction to one another. Maybe it’s because of the need to be needed we have. Or a predisposition towards feeling guilty when we don’t contribute. 

Whatever the cause, I realized that my dedication and long work hours had been driven by a deep-seated need for approval. 

Codependency doesn’t live in a vacuum. My codependency grew every year until my layoff in 2021. Each year, I volunteered for more work with little to no additional compensation, just because “that is what a hard-working educator should do.” 

Looking back, I never remember having an organizational leader, school administrator, or supervisor who checked in about the amount of work I was taking on. Most of the time, I was encouraged to do more (especially when I worked in a high school). Much less often, there was the pseudo-empathic statement from a supervisor to “remember to take care of yourself” while also mentioning all of the extra projects that they needed to finish. The veiled meaning was “look at how hard I am working; you need to work this hard too.” I know my supervisors had this same conversation with their bosses. After all, the apple doesn’t fall far from leadersh… I mean, the tree.

Codependent behaviors are learned responses to past experiences. We don’t arrive on this earth addicted to people, but through our early experiences and trauma, we learn the unhealthy coping mechanisms of codependency. Since nonprofit organizations are often under-resourced, the codependent behaviors of these individuals thrive well in these environments. Individuals with codependency don’t mind pushing themselves beyond their limits or leaning in to do the work of multiple people, because it gives them a sense of purpose and feeds the need for validation. 

Unfortunately, this often goes unrecognized and unacknowledged and leads to burnout.

There is Hope

Maintaining healthy boundaries, recognizing and communicating one’s needs, advocating for oneself, and creating a healthy work/life balance are important steps to avoiding burnout. 

Many individuals in nonprofit work are naturally drawn to the sense of purpose that comes with this type of career. Still, persons with codependency must be vigilant about how this can lead to burnout. These individuals and leaders in nonprofit organizations should be aware of the top concerns of people with codependency:

  • Concern: Individuals with codependency often have difficulty setting and maintaining healthy boundaries. They may say yes to every request, even if it means working long hours or taking on additional responsibilities. 
  • Solution: I have found setting small boundaries in ALL aspects of life (not just work) allows me to become stronger in setting work boundaries. As a recovering codependent, this was an extremely difficult first step. The beginning of my journey started with Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself by Melody Beattle and my therapist. 
  • Concern: Individuals with codependency often find comfort in the fact that there is no cap on how much work they can do to receive recognition and approval. The struggle stems from a sense of self-worth tied to praise and recognition.
  • Solution: I found constant reminders and daily affirmations were most effective when I was building the idea of my self-worth. There was a point in my life when I thought I couldn’t be loved if I wasn’t doing enough for others. I created a Codependent Printout (based on the work of Nicole LePera) and hung 5 copies of it around my house — especially in places that I often look (e.g., next to my bathroom mirror, on the fridge, etc.). I read the words out loud every time I saw it hanging there. I thought it was silly at first. Then one day, I actually believed the words I was saying. 
  • Concern: A person with codependency may struggle with feeling guilty or anxious when they are not working as hard as their colleagues or taking on extra responsibilities. It can be difficult to recognize that everyone has different capacities and capabilities.
  • Solution: Radically change your view of “work” by reading Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport and Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving by Celeste Headley. If you don’t have the time, let me summarize it: We have been programmed to think hard work is divine and laziness is evil. We have also been programmed to think of work as production for others. The fact is that about one-third of a person’s life is spent at work (more for the active codependents). That’s a lot of time to dedicate to a company, coworkers, or anyone else. I started finding tasks and projects in my work that allowed me to gain fulfillment and satisfaction for doing them. Cal Newport (Deep Work) gives the analogy of a blacksmith making a sword — a good blacksmith takes pride and pleasure in their work; they don’t just bang on the anvil all day for someone else. Can you find your sword project in your work?
  • Concern: Individuals with codependency often have trouble communicating their needs, making it challenging to advocate for themselves at work. As a result, they may end up feeling undervalued and unappreciated in their jobs. Codependency makes it difficult to speak up and express one’s needs and feelings due to the fear of having difficult conversations.
  • Solution: Enter Brené Brown! My journey of building enough bravery to have difficult conversations began with Brené Brown’s TEDTalk, The Power of Vulnerability. From there, I read Rising Strong, which helped me build the resilience I needed from these difficult conversations. Though I recommend reading all of her work, Dare to Lead helped me understand how to have difficult conversations at work while being my authentic self. 
  • Concern: Individuals with codependency suffer most from an unhealthy work/life balance. This is indicated by poor boundaries between work and home life, a lack of enjoyable activities outside of work, and a lean network of support. Individuals with codependency seldom take time off for themselves. 
  • Solution: According to an article in U.S. Travel, American workers collectively gave up over 230 million vacation days in 2018 — about $65 billion. How much have you given up in previous employment or at your current employer? I found it was a lot easier to take a day off here and there instead of trying to bank up for large vacations. I also set a self-imposed cap on the amount of paid time off (PTO) I have. My limit: no more than 5 days. 

Often, we walk on the edge of a cliff. Our codependency allows us to push the limits of our compassion, making us great assets for nonprofit organizations. However, untreated codependency can leave us burnt out, with no capacity for ourselves and our loved ones.  

Maintaining healthy boundaries, recognizing and communicating one’s needs, advocating for oneself, and creating a healthy work/life balance are important steps to avoiding burnout. 

Often overlooked is the power of a supportive network of friends, family, and coworkers. These individuals can provide emotional support, advice, and help when needed. The people in your support network can be valuable resources for you since they can help you cope with the challenges of your work.

In addition, leaders in nonprofit organizations must also play a role in ensuring that all employees maintain a healthy work/life balance. This can include setting a good example by taking time off, engaging in self-care, and vocalizing the importance of rest and self-compassion. By creating a culture that values and supports healthy work/life balance, nonprofit organizations can help to prevent burnout and ensure that all employees are able to thrive.

I still struggle with overworking, but I don’t work 70 hours anymore. I sometimes look to others for validation, but my day isn’t completely derailed if I don’t get it. Occasionally, someone crosses my boundary and I don’t respond, but I learn from it to see if I need to adjust my boundary or how to respond differently in the future. There are other small steps that I continue to take daily as I recover from codependency. 

One of the most important steps I take is looking back and being grateful for the small (tiny, itty-bitty) steps I started to take years ago. Recovery from codependency is a process, and it takes time. What steps are you already taking? What is one small step you can take today? Continue to take small steps every day to prioritize your own well-being and to create a healthier and more balanced life.


Portrait of Justin Cannady in front of a green pattern

Justin Cannady (he/him) is an experienced learning designer and equity champion. As the learning experience designer for the National Center for Computer Science Education, he is dedicated to creating engaging and inclusive learning experiences for students and teachers. As the founder of Inclusion-Focused Design, Justin is passionate about using his skills and expertise to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in education and beyond. Contact him at justin@ifdesign.info to learn more about his work and how he can help your organization.

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