Hope for Relationships

The whole-person approach to healing

When Work Hurts

Are your work relationships mirroring a history of emotional abuse?

Work had been a place where Cindy could always count on feeling good about herself. She liked the job and she knew that she did it well. Lately, though, just the thought of going to work sent her into a panic.

As I reviewed Cindy's work situation, she explained that although she was doing the same job, she had a new supervisor. The previous one had been a friendly, laid-back man who enjoyed jokes and gave Cindy a high degree of freedom to do her job without interference. Her new supervisor was completely different. Rarely smiling, he seemed to Cindy to hover over her desk, alert for anything she might be doing wrong. It wasn't just her; he was like that with the other women in her department.

Soon after he had begun supervising her section, an accounting error had been found. Not a major one, but enough to raise eyebrows. Everyone was understandably nervous about tracking the cause of the error. To Cindy's horror, one of her co-workers intimated to the new supervisor that Cindy was responsible. Instead of asking her about it, he immediately assumed she was at fault. Though the error couldn't be traced back to her, he now treated her as if her work product was inferior to the others. Not only was she working under a suspicious boss, but she had found out just what kind of friend she had in her co-worker.

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This would have been a difficult situation for anyone. But as we talked about it, Cindy said to me, "You know, I felt just like I did when my dad used to get mad at me. I was always the one to blame. I could never do anything right. And Mom used to let Dad think that I was at fault. She never stood up for me. I was the scapegoat. That's just how I felt at work when that happened. Like I was a kid again. My boss was my dad, and my friend was my mom. There I was again, taking the blame for something I didn't do!"

Cindy was able to confront her friend about how she had acted and to learn to work for her boss without feeling guilty about doing her job. She had to pull herself away from her past patterns and deal with her work situation in the present. It wasn't long before her boss was transferred to another department where he wasn't responsible for the work product of so many people.

You work relationships can be affected if the personalities of your boss or co-workers closely approximate someone in your past who emotionally abused you. Your boss could be just like your dad. A supervisor could treat you just like your mother did. A co-worker could remind you of the way a sibling used to talk to you.

Persistent emotional abuse in a work environment may make you particularly susceptible to:

  • distortion of what is normal
  • undercutting of a strong and healthy sense of self
  • perfectionism
  • hypersensitivity
  • excessive compliance or passivity
  • rejection of authority or need for controlling authority figures
  • establishment of a potential for emotional abuse in future relationships

Do you recognize any of these experiences in your current job? If so, no amount of money is worth staying in an abusive work environment. There are laws now to protect workers from what is known as a hostile work environment as it relates to outright harassment.

If you find yourself in a hostile work environment with an abusive person, you should consider looking for another job, even if the law isn't on your side. Is it fair that you should have to leave your job? No. But it might be better for you in the long run.

2009 Gregory L. Jantz, Healing the Scars of Emotional Abuse, Revell

Gregory L. Jantz, Ph.D., founded The Center for Counseling and Health Resources in Edmonds, Washington.

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