Pain rooted in childhood events can cause inappropriate reactions

WORKING WOMAN

January 31, 1993|By Niki Scott | Niki Scott,Universal Press Syndicate

Your boss assigns you one of those tasks everyone hates. You nod agreeably, smile cheerfully and go back to your desk looking every inch a mature, competent adult.

Then you spend the next hour gnashing your teeth and muttering to yourself, "It's not fair. It's not! It's not! She always gives me the rotten assignments. She never gives me the good ones. It's because she likes the others better than me."

And you sound (even to yourself) just as you did when you were 6 years old and had to clean your room while your little sister got to go out and play.

Or your partner on an important project comes up with a brilliant new way to accomplish it. You tell her how perspicacious she is, tell all your co-workers how imaginative she is, tell your boss that she's downright brilliant.

Then you spend the entire evening moaning, "Why, oh why didn't I think of that? Now she's going to get all the good assignments -- and no wonder! What is the matter with me? Why am I so dumb? Why am I so slow? I'll never amount to anything. I'm a failure, that's what I am.

And you sound (even to yourself) just as you did when you were in the eighth grade and couldn't master algebra as fast as the other kids could.

All of us replay our childhood struggles at work from time to time -- less often if we've resolved them, more often if we have not -- which isn't surprising when we consider how similar our work environment can be to that of a family.

We're together most of our waking hours, are held accountable by authority figures -- much as we were by parents and teachers -- and interact with co-workers who seem to have a lot in common with the siblings and classmates with whom we grew up and competed.

As a result, if we believed as children that a sibling was favored over us, we may find it difficult to shrug off the rotten assignments that come everybody's way and take it very personally if a co-worker is chosen over us for a plum one.

And if our parents held other children up to us as examples of how we should be, or encouraged constant competition between our siblings and us, we may find ourselves less than thrilled when a co-worker comes up with any idea before we do.

If we were labeled, ridiculed or punished because we couldn't master algebra (or anything else) fast enough, on the other hand, we may panic still when someone at work out-thinks us.

And if confrontation was dangerous or forbidden when we were growing up, we may swallow our perfectly justifiable irritation or anger today, perhaps turning it against ourselves in unhealthy ways.

If we lacked a stable, consistent environment when we were young, we may have a tendency as adults to stay too long in dead-end, unrewarding jobs because anything feels better than being uprooted.

And if we hungered for approval as children and never got it, we may work harder and longer than anyone else, with less expectation of recognition or reward than is reasonable.

Sometimes just being aware that our childhood circumstances often are behind our occasionally inappropriately intense reactions to events at work can defuse them.

If it doesn't, it's a good idea to ask our friends, relatives and local mental health centers for the names of qualified counselors who can help us work through these old issues.

Because while we had no control over what happened to us as children, we do have control over the rest of our lives. And there's just no reason to let old childhood pain get in the way of our success and happiness today.

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