Palo Alto Counseling, Psychotherapist in Palo Alto and Menlo Park, CA, California - Carol Campbell, MFT
706 Cowper Street, Palo Alto, CA 94301 • (650) 325-2576
License MFC 28308
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When Your Boss Drives You Crazy

by Carol Campbell, MFT

Just about everyone has had the experience at some point in life of working for a boss who has a unique ability to push buttons, squash motivation, question competence, and instill despair. At the risk of sounding a bit like Pollyanna, I'd like to suggest that the boss who is over the top irritating might actually become a gift to your life, albeit thoroughly disguised.

The trick is, you need to be able to consider the possibility that this boss is not just your boss – he or she is also a powerful symbol for some painful emotional trauma in your past. The vehemence of your reaction is the big clue that your unconscious mind would prefer to avoid interacting with the boss, because there is too much overlap between the boss and someone else from long ago who hurt or scared you deeply. You have worked hard to keep this trauma out of your mind, and now the boss is making it hard to keep it repressed. So the boss becomes a problem.

A couple of examples might help you see where the "gift to your life" business comes in. I remember working with a guy I'll call Fred. Fred came to see me for some help deciding whether or not he should quit his job. Even though he liked the career field he was in, his life seemed miserable because of the terrible anxiety he felt whenever his supervisor was nearby. Fred experienced him as critical and aggressive, sometimes in a mean way. Fred had bad dreams about being treated unfairly. He would get a stomachache before his weekly meeting with the supervisor. He obsessed about how to prepare his reports so that the boss finally would acknowledge Fred's good work. Fred was puzzled by how tormented he felt, because having gotten hired for the position had felt like a great honor. He wanted more than anything to please the boss. Why was he so miserable, when he had this opportunity to work for a purportedly charismatic guy who had created a thriving business? Why couldn't he make the boss like him?

I asked Fred to tell me a bit about his past. It turned out that he had grown up with a highly critical mother and a frequently absent but also abusive father. Fred had a history of going to work for very strong, commanding sorts of characters, all of whom treated him badly, despite how hard he tried to impress them. It became clear that Fred was caught in a repetition compulsion, unconsciously seeking out authority figures in his life who would provide the same sorts of devastating feelings of incompetence that he had experienced every day with his parents when he was young.

Until we figure out how to escape the pattern, we all seek out what is familiar, even when what is familiar is terrible pain. We keep doing the same things, endlessly hoping for a better outcome next time. With help from a therapist, we can break through to healthier ways of living. That is what happened for Fred. Gradually he was able to see that the boss was not really on a pedestal, could not tolerate having someone else have good ideas, and actually had no interest in supporting Fred's career. Just like his mother had been, the boss was envious of Fred's abilities, threatened by Fred's successes, and cruel in his communications. Through his therapy Fred came to embrace a determination to recognize abusive treatment and avoid it. He eventually quit his job working for that boss and happily went into business for himself. Ultimately Fred saw the boss as a difficult and unwanted gift, in that the toxic work environment that the boss had established forced Fred to face his childhood issues and to take responsibility for creating a better life for himself. If he had not confronted his issues so perfectly embodied in the boss, Fred might still be suffering.

Another example of the boss-tormented soul was Sylvia, a middle-aged manager in a technical field. Sylvia realized that her negative feelings for her boss Trudy were interfering with her life. Sylvia kept thinking about how annoying Trudy was, even on weekends and holidays. I asked Sylvia one day to tell me what it was specifically that bothered her about Trudy. She started out with sarcastic comments about Trudy's lack of sense regarding fashion – it bothered Sylvia that Trudy was quite frumpy and out of tune with what colors and fabrics go together well. Trudy, a large woman, was not well groomed, and had a disheveled look to her.

Then Sylvia got into how Trudy was incompetent for her managerial position. She said that Trudy tried to bluff being competent, but that she struggled with basic management skills, such as time management, making tough decisions, and communicating clearly. She rarely tuned in to Sylvia's responsibilities or showed anything resembling support. Sylvia found it hurtful that Trudy often failed to remember key pieces of information that Sylvia had told her the week before. Sylvia felt invisible, uncared about, and grossly unappreciated, despite getting frequent high praise from others who respected her intellect and abilities.

I asked Sylvia if Trudy reminded her of her mother. Sylvia laughed, and assured me that they were nothing alike. "My mother was a small Jewish woman obsessed with her weight and that of everyone else. She didn't have a career like Trudy does. She just stayed home in bed being depressed. She was pretty inept for a mother – never asked where I was going or what I was doing. She read a lot, but didn't insist I stay in college. Terrible cook..."

I said, "Uh huh... So let me see if I have this right. Trudy is neglectful, and your mom was neglectful. Trudy's appearance is of a stressed out person, maybe even depressed – and your mom was depressed. Trudy lacks the basic skills of being a manager, and your mom lacked the basic skills of being a parent. Trudy leaves you feeling invisible, and your mom couldn't see you for who you are." Sylvia's eyes got big as it dawned on her that she almost felt as if Mom had been brought back to life in the guise of Trudy.

As we did some therapy around Sylvia's issues with her parents, her hostility toward Trudy disappeared. Trudy still bugs her from time to time, but no longer holds the power to make Sylvia's work life miserable. Next time your boss arouses your anger, check to see if there might be some transference from your childhood. A licensed mental health professional would be happy to help you work through the troubles and free you to have a more authentic relationship with authority figures.

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Calls regarding appointments are welcome at my private voicemail: 650-325-2576.

Carol L. Campbell, MFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist providing psychotherapy and psychoanalysis for individual adults and couples in Palo Alto, California. She has degrees from Brown University and Santa Clara University and has been licensed since 1991. Carol is a graduate of the Palo Alto Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Training Program sponsored at Stanford by the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis and was a candidate at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California in San Francisco from 2010-2011. She is also a clinical member of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists and the Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology.

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