Building Healthy Relationships
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 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 short-term 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 left-over 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
If you identify with any of these examples, don’t despair. You can
learn to communicate effectively with your supervisors by using the following
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,
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
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.
For more information,
or call 310.477.4849
continued in ABILITY Magazine subscribe
Other articles in the Jane Pauley issue include Letter From The Editor,
Gillian Friedman, MD; Humor: Whats up Doc?; Headlines: MS Cruise, Breast
Cancer & Court Ruling; Michael Rogers-A Journey of Self-Discovery;
Butterfly Power: Native American Healing; Bipolar Disorder: Standup Comed
Showcase: Sixth Annual Event; World Ability Federation; Events and Conferences...