Recreating Family at Work

By Merle Yost, LMFT

The family that we grow up in has a profound impact upon how we see the world. They teach us either directly or indirectly how to make sense of the world around us. Even though we generally grow up, move away and create our own lives, we still have a tendency to look at the world through the lens of perception that our family taught us.

The workplace becomes our artificial family. While we always have a choice about where we work, once we have made that choice we often have little or no control over whom we work with. Overall, we spend more time with our coworkers than with our families.

The boss becomes the parent, the coworkers become siblings and the direct reports become the children. It is not always this simple, just as families are not so simple.

If you had a negative relationship with a parent or parents, you will more likely have a negative experience with your bosses or superiors. Likewise, if you had a positive relationship with your parents you will more than likely have a positive relationship with your boss. This is not true in every case.

While not everyone recreates his/her family at work it is a common practice. Look around you, do you see your mother, father, siblings, extended family in some way. It might be a look, similar habits, gestures, personalities or temperament. Any of these can trigger a family reaction, without you even realizing it.

What can you do about it? There is a lot, actually. The first step is to see if you can recognize any of your family patterns at work. Are you having the same conversations about work that you did about being home with your parents? Pay attention and check out your responses and thought processes.

If you find your self with your family around you, the first step is to recognize that you can not see your co-workers clearly as long as you are projecting your family or a member of your family unto them. After you recognize the behavior, only then do you have the opportunity to begin seeing them differently and have a real relationship with them.

A Busy WorkDay in the City

Visualize the other person and say, ’You are not my." Say it several times. Breathe deeply each time. Make sure that your feet are solidly on the floor. The next step is to find a way to separate the family member form the co-worker. Visualize them both, but create a barrier between them. Build a wall, put a mote, anything that creates separation between them that you hold on to. The last part of this process is to again look at your co-worker and begin looking at how they are different from who they remind you of. You have already figured out how they are the same, put some conscious effort into seeing how they are different.

Another approach is to get to know the co-worker better. As you get closer to them it is harder for your unconscious to confuse them with your family member. What you are looking for is a new perspective on this person, so that you have a greater range of ways to respond to him/her. In the beginning you may need to remind yourself that this is not the family member and that you can choose to respond differently. With a little practice it gets easier.

If you find that you are doing this a lot and these simple methods are not helping, you may need to seek professional help to work through your family of origin issues. In my years of seeing clients both as a therapist and as a consultant, I have seen this destroy many jobs and work relationships. Usually, if you have a serious problem with this behavior changing jobs will not help. You will just find another place that while on the surface it may look different, will be the same thing all over again.

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