“From error to error one discovers the entire truth,” Sigmund Freud
Henry, a coaching client in his early twenties, was seeking my help to improve his relationship with his new boss who Henry was convinced disliked him. He came to a session with the following story.
“I was running late for work last Friday,” he said.
“Embarrassing to admit it - I was late because I was tired and hung-over. Being late, I just knew Steve would fire me the moment I turned up,” he continued.
“As I walked in I suddenly felt ten years old again being sent to bed by my angry dad as he tore up my rubbish school report into bits of confetti. I remember dragging myself up-stairs to my room, blinking back the tears.”
Henry was upset at the memory, as if he may have to start blinking back his tears again.
Your feelings about your father, who he is or was - is always there in the back of your mind when your boss is a man. In fact, the type of relationship you had with your dad will be played out at work with all the men in your organization who have power over you.
The father of psychoanalysis himself, Sigmund Freud called this transference. According to Freud, we transfer our early relationships with our parents onto other important people in our lives when we grow up. The problem is we just don’t see when we’re doing it.
My dad always felt like stranger to me who I thought would leave me, my older brother and mom one day. My premonition was right, dad left for good when I was 15 to start a new life with a new woman. Until he left, dad was unpredictable and frightening when he got angry which was too often.
Before my psychotherapy training which gave me the chance to work through my personal issues in therapy myself, male bosses put me on edge. I constantly feared I’d lose my job. If I make a mistake I expected to be punished. I had nightmares I’d be shamed in front of my co-workers just as I was often humiliated by dad in front of my brother and mom.
Fortunately for Henry, his boss didn’t sack him the previous week.
‘After he turned to look at me a smile broke out over his face and he said, “You’ve made it in! No-one else is even here yet. Go and grab yourself a coffee, you need caffeine!”’ he said.
I explained to Henry his dad was nothing to do with Steve but the feelings of panic were all to do with his father and his childhood. He looked hugely relieved. He stopped looking so anxious and began to smile.
Do this now
Take a moment to remember being 8 years old. Remind yourself where were you living. Where were you going to school and who were your friends were. Write down the following questions in your journal and answer each one as fully as possible.
How did I feel about mom?
How did I feel about dad?
What three words best describe my parents relationship back then?
(If you had siblings) How did my relationship to my parents differ compared to my brothers or sisters.
What is my relationship like with your parents now?
What do you wish I’d heard dad say growing up?
What do you wish I’d heard mom say?
If you could say anything at all to your parents today with no consequences what would it be?
Why? Most of us can connect to memories of being 8. We are old enough to have our own thoughts and feelings and yet we are still very much subject to the power of our parents.
The moment I started training as a psychotherapist and learnt about transference I saw how my difficult relationship with my dad had affected relationships with male bosses in a bad way. This was such a revelation. This awareness started to cure me of my fear and I started to form far healthier relationships with the men I worked for. My training and personal therapy shone light on my unconscious fear which meant I was no longer taking my frightening dad to work every day. Now neither will you.
Am I done yet? This task taps into your unconscious ways of seeing other people that were laid down during your earliest years. It’s bit like sediment at the bottle of vintage wine. Yet, by bringing your awareness to these habits starts to give you some agency and increasing self awareness. Your may always have a tendency say to be wary of male bosses if we had a difficult relationship with your dad but now you know this you’ll be surprised how much easier it is to be more yourself with him.