Building on my post about “psychological operating systems,” I want to discuss the related concept of “code debt” as a metaphor for old patterns and mindsets that can hold us back.

In the computing and technology world, “code debt” (and the related concept of technical debt) refers to a buildup of old programs, patches and “work-arounds” that may get us through our day-to-day work, but are no longer efficient or effective. Eventually we spend more time patching the old system than building the new, more effective one that we know we need. In terms of code debt, think outdated or hastily created programs, policies and protocols. In terms of technical debt, think of outmoded tools, hardware or infrastructure. In either case, if this debt builds up for too long, a system may slow down or fail entirely—with consequences ranging from minor to catastrophic. Ideally, you don’t wait this long to address the needed system maintenance.

Similarly, people and relationships can develop a kind of psychological “code debt.” You run “programs” about your identity or ability that made sense years ago—but hold you back now. You apply “band aid solutions” to personal relationships without fully addressing the simmering resentments underneath. You find that old habits impede your success when placed in a new work role. In each case, you need to break free of old patterns—address “code debt”—and develop new mindsets and behaviors that serve you well in the here and now.

As a psychologist, I am particularly interested in helping people assess their “code debt,” and the hidden thoughts, patterning and biases that drive them.

There are two things to know about “code debt:” it’s perfectly normal to have it, and it’s not easy to address it. Why do we allow our “code debt” to grow so large?

Psychological “code debt” builds up for good reasons. Perhaps as a child or a young person, you created a system that worked for you and then you “just kept swimming.” It’s familiar, it’s proven to work, you trust it. Why mess with success?

But over time, situations change for all of us. Even the best system or the fastest computer becomes outdated or limited. If you want to access those new tech features, you must give up the old system. Or if you want to succeed in your new role, you need to behave differently with your co-workers. Change like that takes time and energy and planning and discipline. It’s no wonder that people hang on to what’s familiar!

But—the longer you put off addressing your personal “code debt,” the more likely that you will reach a point of crisis. An unattended relationship fails completely. A career role that you secretly hate becomes untenable—for even one more minute—and you quit. Many of my clients only come for counseling once a crisis has occurred. It’s far better to come in earlier, when the chances of salvaging a relationship, a job, or a life dream are greater.

I have seen many examples of people facing up to their personal “code debt” and creating new chapters in their lives. Sometimes the evolution is subtle and internal, witnessed only by the person themselves or their close family or friends. Other times, there are more sweeping changes: Embarking on a new career path, taking risks on new relationships, moving across the country or the world. I have also worked with couples that were able to redesign their relationships to be more fulfilling and appropriate to their current selves. For individuals, facing up to psychological “code debt” can happen at any age, from 20-somethings letting go of adolescent self-image issues or damaging family messages to 50-year-olds capitalizing on their life lessons and finally taking responsibility for their own well-being and destiny.

And of course, collective psychological “code debt” also impacts teams and organizations of all sizes.

Is psychological “code debt” holding you back? I’d be happy to help you get clear of it.

—Thomas J. Doherty, Psy.D.

Published by Thomas Doherty

Psychologist Thomas Doherty's work on environmental sustainability and health has been featured in publications like the New York Times and in talks worldwide. Thomas consults with individuals and organizations through his business Sustainable Self. He was the founding Director of the Ecopsychology Certificate Program at Lewis & Clark Graduate School and Founding Editor-in-Chief of the peer-reviewed academic journal Ecopsychology. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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