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… even when you are not aware of it
Some time back, I was working with a small business owner who employed 7-8 people. On the outside, she had everything she needed to succeed: she was driven, innovative, genuinely cared about her customers, and offered services that for many people were a need rather than a luxury. Yet her results were bad and her business coach has told her she’d be bankrupt within 6 months if nothing would change.
She said the problems started when she ceased to be involved in „hands-on” activities and focused primarily on management. She trusted her staff to work well when she was not around, but instead they were continuously under-performing. Some of them started treating her with open or passive disrespect, making more and more demands or unexpectedly missing work.
I asked her how does she select her staff; she told me she delegates that to one of her senior staff members (let’s call her Mary). Soon it turned out that Mary was the key problem; one of her duties was to select and train new staff, but she slacked in both. Mary was also manipulative; she would hide certain passwords from her boss, would lie and gaslight her while in the same time pretending to care and worry for her. It wouldn’t take long before new employees would copy that attitude (And Mary would, of course, employ the kind of people she liked.)
My client was aware of all or most of that. The obvious next question was, why wouldn’t she let Mary go? The answer was not so obvious. She felt somehow emotionally attached to Mary; she was also afraid that other employees who liked Mary would be angry, but the key problem was hope. Somehow she felt she had to believe that Mary would finally „see the light” and change. (See also: When Hope is a “Negative” Emotion)
A few questions later, it turned out that Mary reminded her of her younger sister she was made to take care of when she was young. The sister soon learned to exploit such a situation and manipulate the parents against my client. This was now mostly in the past, but unconsciously, the unresolved emotions and unfulfilled hopes were still there – and the unrealistic sense of responsibility, too.
We can easily guess Mary learned her complementary behavioral patterns with/from her family, too. She didn’t necessarily have to be a spoiled younger child, she could have also observed such behavior from other family members. Perhaps, as a defensive strategy, she adopted the same behavior others used to control her when she was a child. She would reap some short term benefits from such behavior, but in the long run she would lose trust and respect.
Feeling like a child at work
I worked with some more bosses and managers with similar issues, and, on the other side, quite a few regular employees who would suddenly feel small and resource-less in front of their boss. Some of them told me they would literally feel as if they were physically shrinking to a very small size. I would ask: „How old do you feel then?” The answer tends to hover around 3 years old.
For some people, simply seeing an authority figure they feel they depend on, unconsciously reminds them of their original parent-child relationship and causes them to forget most of their adult resources. They might say, „It feels like my head is suddenly empty and I can’t find any words to say”. This sounds like they age-regress to memories created before they learned to speak.
Why does it happen
When we were children, particularly while we were toddlers, our brains were working in overdrive, trying to figure out the world and how to deal with it, as soon as possible. Through a combination of imitation and experimenting, we eventually learned what behaviors result in the most benefit and the least trouble around our family members. Those experiences became the script our brains tend to resort to in challenging situations. For some people, it’s to create drama, or to play a victim. For others, it’s to freeze and try to fade into the background. For some, it might be to blame themselves or to take responsibility. The problem is, what worked best in our families might not work best in the adult world.
The process of adapting to our families often requires us to ignore and suppress various painful emotions – and sometimes even happy emotions if they were not welcome in our families. However, life keeps showing us that suppressed does not mean gone. As one of the pioneering psychoanalysts C. G. Jung said, ‘Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.’
Unresolved emotions from childhood can not only motivate us to give or to forgive too much; they can also trigger unreasonable prejudice and dislike. If you had a brother who pushed you around, or an uncle who touched you inappropriately, or a cousin whom your mother liked more than you, whoever reminds you in some ways of those family members might seem unpleasant to you, even if they never do anything wrong. The resemblance might be purely physical, or they might just have the same name as the problematic family member. If not recognized and resolved, such emotions can drive even an otherwise good person to treat someone unfairly.
How does it manifest
Some more examples of how your upbringing influences your behavior at work:
- You might feel unable to set boundaries to others or to workload itself
- You might try to prove yourself too hard, and never feel it’s enough (I had a client who would even deny herself food and sleep until she’d finish everything she’d expect herself to do in a day, which was, as you can guess, usually too much)
- You might feel spontaneously attracted to people who seem „normal” or „familiar” to you, even if they don’t treat you well, and might not feel able to let them go, out of guilt or fear or hope
- You might feel an urge to play power games with your colleagues (which echoes sibling rivalry)
- As a boss, you might imitate authority figures from your past, not recognizing there might be healthier and more productive ways to motivate your subordinates
- You might feel it’s not acceptable to stand out or to ask for what you want
- You might procrastinate, either out of fear of mistakes, or because you hope for the solutions to come from the outside (like they did when you were little)
- You might have problems with discipline or an urge to defy authorities without a good reason
- You might stay at the job that doesn’t satisfy you anymore, because you’d feel guilty if you left.
How to stay adult
Describing all of our coaching would require a book (which I’m writing), but here are some helpful first-aid steps:
- There is no change without awareness. Pay attention and acknowledge what you feel, rather than avoiding or ignoring it.
- Recognize that, in spite of being strong, those feelings are probably not realistic.
- Remind yourself: “These feelings are a reaction to the past, not the present.”
- Ask yourself: “Who or what does this person/situation remind me of? How old do I feel emotionally?”
- Remind yourself: “This is not the same person or the same situation. I am an adult now and I have learned a lot since I was a child. What has worked in my family will likely not work now.”
- Consider what would be adult and mature behavior in your situation.
- Most of us are afraid of our own emotions more than anything else, and automatically try to escape and abandon ourselves in moments of intense emotional discomfort. If acting adult requires doing something that scares you, pay attention to be kind and supportive to yourself while dealing with the fear and any other unpleasant emotions. Rather than beating yourself up or trying to escape, talk to yourself the way a caring and compassionate parent or friend would do.
- Even if you have not dealt with the situation perfectly (which was probably the case), acknowledge the effort you put in, and recognize what you have learned doing so. Recognize you were able to deal with the discomfort and that every time in future it will be easier and you will know even better. Continue giving yourself emotional support, if needed.