When The Boss is A Bully

I was once seeing two young women for therapy during roughly the same time period, and the differences in how they each handled very difficult bosses were instructive.

Carla could tell a good, amusing, entertaining story about the boss she assisted and how insane he was. Eventually, Carla stopped entertaining me and exposed how deeply resentful she really felt. But Carla was so good at being perfectly accommodating that her boss considered her indispensable, and came to depend on her more and more. While Carla was complaining bitterly to me in therapy, at her office she was smiling and entertaining and placating her boss without any setting of limits.

Carla also had a boyfriend whom she complained about, yet she couldn’t stand up to him, even though we agreed he seemed to endlessly avoid real commitment. As we explored further, the pattern and its history became more visible. Carla had been daddy’s girl until Carla was a young teen, at which point her father stopped being interested in his family and found a young girlfriend, bought a motorcycle, copped out of paying for Carla’s college expenses, and so on. It seemed that Carla was used to being in relationships where she gave her all, but ended up not getting much in return, especially if she tried to get her needs recognized. She kept working harder at being the perfect daughter, the perfect girlfriend, the perfect assistant. She had become used to being the one who did all the giving, and couldn’t see that she repeatedly got stuck in involvements with people who responded to her ambivalently, as her father had, and balked if she asked anything of them. Luckily for Carla, a friend gave her name to another company, and she left her underpaying job for a much better situation. But Carla still needed to learn to believe in herself enough to form healthier, more mutual relationships. As confident as she was in her talents, she lacked confidence in her sense of authority and entitlement in relationships.

Another patient I’ll call Andrea had grown up feeling that her parents had her back at all times; and that they trusted and admired her. Andrea was working on important issues in therapy, but confidence in what she deserved in her relationships wasn’t one of them. After an initial good year at her job, Andrea’s boss began playing her off against a co-worker. The boss was always demanding more of her, but would make himself unavailable to Andrea when he knew she wanted anything from him, and wouldn’t go to bat for her with the higher ups when it would have been appropriate to do so. In her second year, after a holiday bonus that fell short of what Andrea knew she deserved, she started looking for work and quickly found a far better paying job. She was careful to communicate with her new potential employers what her salary requirements and expectations would be, and what her hopes were in terms of office environment. Andrea and the company heads who interviewed her hit it off beautifully. She started her new job full of excitement and hope.

Angry, selfish, demanding, sadistic – whatever flavor of craziness a boss might come in, it’s likely that anyone who works will encounter a bad boss sooner or later. If you are constantly frustrated about your boss, and you’re not finding ways to make your situation better, you may be part of the problem, and professional help may be advisable. When so much of life is our work life, doing whatever it takes to make work better should be a no-brainer.