My Boss, My Parent

Originally posted by Merle at PSYCHED Magazine


The boss employee/relationship is inherently problematic.  Being an employee makes you dependent in much the same way a child depends on its parents. What most people do not take into account is that their relationship with their parents usually is an overlay of their relationship with their boss.

Childhoods are a laboratory for children to make sense out of the world. From the moment they are born, babies, then children and then young adults strive to make sense out of all the data that is coming at them. All of these unfamiliar experiences are labeled and categorized in that vast database of the mind, to be pulled out later to either validate or revise our beliefs about the world.

Growing up in our families, we come to believe that what we experience at home is how all relationships work, this is how all people treat each other and this is what is normal. So we take all this stored “data” of early life experience into school, the workplace, our romantic lives and relationships and use it as the template to make sense out of what is happening in our daily lives.

It’s sad to say that most families are not role models for mental health or healthy relationships. Most people get little to no training in raising children and usually bring their parent’s style into the equation. Or conversely, people may be consciously trying *not* to copy their parents when raising their own children.

So what does this have to do with the boss/employee relationship? Because we are dependent on our bosses in much the same way our parents were, we overlay the relationship with our parents onto the one with our bosses. And so the fun begins.

For example, if John had a “helicopter mother”, over-involved and interfering with his path to self-reliance and problem solving, then the employee is probably going to be lost without someone telling them what to do, and when and how to do it.

While there are micro-manager bosses out there, more than a few, most managers have too much work of their own to have the time to constantly direct each employee’s activities. So the over-mothered employee becomes lost, and the boss thinks they are incompetent.  In reality, the employee had just not learned the skills to be functional and operate independently.

Another response to over-involved or intrusive parents is to be anti-authoritarian. Suzanne for example reacts to anyone telling her what to do with internal tension, anger and even rage. This can be problematic in the workplace and consciously, may make no sense in the actual situation.  But those pesky feelings keep getting in the way. Suzanne might even understand the boss is just doing their job, but it pisses her off nonetheless.

As I often tell my clients, this is not a thinking problem it is a FEELING problem. Any situation that unconsciously recreates the parent-child relationship is going to cause the same emotional response.

If you could not trust anything your mother told you, or if either parent was not really there for you, this emotional response is very likely to be recreated in the workplace.

No one gets out of childhood unscathed. We all have wounds and deficits. I often say that families are the therapist’s guarantee of full employment. But it is not necessary to be trapped in your prior family dynamic and relive it over and over. Of course, therapy is one option. Another is learning a characterological system like the Enneagram. It is an excellent tool to help understand the child frame of reference you are set with and how to break out of it, so that relationships are truly about the present situation.  With this understanding, you can see how the other, whether in work or life, is probably operating out of their childhood reality.

As romantic relationships will draw us to reenact our family dynamics, we often are drawn to work situations that mirror our families’ dynamics. So until we get a conscious viewpoint of what’s happening and work through the original family issues, it is common to recreate it over and over until we do.

So the next time you are stuck in a difficult workplace situation with a boss or co-worker, look for the parallels to the dynamics of your childhood and ask, how is this the same and how does it differ?