Alison, a 35-year-old account manager, cringed every time she had to ask her boss for anything. Whether it was a question about her work or a request for an extra vacation day, she would become fearful. Though her boss rarely came across as anything but even-tempered, Alison continually anticipated he would become angry and shout at her. In an attempt to thwart this expected response, she would become meek and childlike, losing her professionalism.
Often, Alison would sidestep speaking up directly, hoping her supervisor would read her mind. He would inevitably fail. She would feel cheated, confirming her impression he was taking advantage of her without proper reward. Alison was unaware she was responding to her boss as though he were her father, who had verbally abused her in childhood.
Katie, a 40-year-old woman in middle management, harbored resentment at having to answer to anyone. She constantly expected special favors and was appalled when her requests weren’t granted. She would act out by showing up late or making up far-fetched excuses for why she wasn’t meeting her deadlines. She had already been fired from two previous jobs for attitude problems. Unconsciously, Katie was setting herself up for strike three. She was unaware that she was rebelling against 20 ABILITY those in authority to compensate for having been stifled and disregarded by her caregivers in childhood.
Tom, a 38-year-old sales representative for a large company, constantly competed with the other reps in a desperate search for accolades and strokes from the CEO. He would go out of his way to befriend his boss, disregarding professional boundaries. Tom was actually trying to win the approval he had never received from his father. The CEO, however, had more important things to do than spend his time adoring Tom. Though he thought of Tom as a great salesman, he was forced to set firm limits. Tom often felt rejected and wounded, unable to understand why his boss didn’t seem to like him.
Most of us have had a time or two when a boss or someone in authority has pushed one of our sensitivity buttons. Sometimes our reactions are completely justified, based on inappropriate behavior from the boss. But, more often than not, our reactions are based on experiences we had in childhood. If we were emotionally wounded, neglected or abused in childhood, we’re likely to expect the same negative behavior from others in authority positions. On the other hand, if we had nurturing, supportive caregivers, we’re liable to expect positive responses.
Anytime we bring our past experiences, whether positive or negative, into present reality, we are having what’s known as transference reaction. Transference is defined as the unconscious reassignment of feelings from previous relationships to present ones, and the unconscious reenactment of the dynamics of past relationships in current ones. As you can imagine, the relationship between a boss and a subordinate mimics the relationship between a parent and a child because of the power differences. Thus, the supervisor-supervisee relationship becomes fertile ground for transference.
When transference is taking place, we stop communicating effectively. We become childlike and may resort to immature behavior like whining, yelling, becoming enraged or calling in sick when we’re not. Sometimes we may act out our feelings in more passive ways by showing up late to work, not meeting our deadlines or burdening others with our duties. When we have a conflict with a boss or supervisor, we may catch ourselves gossiping or bad-mouthing him or her.
Though these methods of expression can produce shortterm relief from our distress, if we continue these behaviors, we’re liable to get ourselves fired, become unable to meet the demands of our jobs and/or lose favor with our co-workers and supervisors.
In order to create a positive and productive relationship with our supervisors we must become aware of any leftover emotional wounds or unrealistic expectations we might be carrying from childhood into the workplace. We must deal with the present reality and weed out the transference. In doing so, we can then develop healthy boundaries and communication skills.
Alison, Katie and Tom, like many of us, all experienced less-than-ideal caregiving in their childhoods. Alison’s dad was an angry man who constantly yelled and called her names. Katie’s parents devalued her opinions and thoughts. They restricted her from speaking her mind and stifled her ability to learn effective self-expression. Tom’s parents were inept at providing positive reinforcement. They had no idea how to express their love in the ways Tom yearned. All three employees brought their unhealed feelings of deprivation into the workplace, unwittingly expecting their superiors to compensate for their losses. They had to recognize this was too tall an order, and they needed to let go of this expectation, find healing tools for themselves and develop appropriate boundaries.
If you identify with any of these examples, don’t despair. You can learn to communicate effectively with your supervisors by using the following guidelines.
1. Recognize you are not a victim. While children have little real power to make decisions, adults always have options, even if none is very appealing. If your boss treats you with disrespect or exploits you, keep in mind you have the option to leave the situation temporarily or permanently, if necessary.
2. Avoid power struggles by accepting two things: your boss has the right to ask for whatever he or she wants of you and you have the right to accept or decline the demands.
3. Take good care of your body, mind and spirit outside of the workplace. Make sure to get proper sleep, exercise and nutrition. Develop a social network of nurturing friends and support. And take time to play and rejuvenate while you’re away from work.
4. Don’t harbor resentments. If you feel you are being taken advantage of, then go directly to your boss and express your feelings. Always use I statements and avoid accusations or blame (e.g., “When x happens it makes me feel y,” rather than “You’re not treating me fairly”).
5. Don’t personalize the impersonal. Sometimes other people are in a grumpy mood or on edge. It doesn’t necessarily mean you did something wrong. It’s your boss’ responsibility to let you know if he or she has a specific gripe with you. Keep in mind that supervisors are not immune from their own transference reactions.
6. Accept responsibility for your own behavior. This is especially hard if you feel as though you were blamed unfairly for things in childhood or if you weren’t taught to be accountable. But it’s critical to professionalism to take ownership of your own actions. If you’re coming to work with personal problems or unrealistic expectations of what your employment can fulfill in your life, then it’s your job to get these in check.
7. Most importantly, keep in mind that your boss is not your parent. He or she is an individual whom you choose to work for. If you act like an adult, do the job you were hired to do and set healthy limits, then you’re likely to be treated with the respect you deserve. If not, then you always have the option to quit.
by Debra Mandel, PhD
Dr. Debra Mandel, a licensed psychologist, columnist, speaker and media expert, has been counseling individuals and couples for more than 20 years. She has appeared on numerous national television shows and more than 200 radio programs. She is the author of the book Healing the Sensitive Heart: How to Stop Getting Hurt, Build Your Inner Strength and Find the Love You Deserve and of two CDs, The Abuser Friendly Syndrome and Creating Healthy Boundaries in the Workplace. She has a forthcoming book,Your Boss Is Not Your Mother.