Sunday, August 30, 2009

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.


I met Lauren, an attractive middle-aged woman with warm, deep blue eyes, for a perfect cappuccino at Didier Dumas’ in Nyack the other day. She had called to tell me about the support groups at the Mental Health Association in Valley Cottage, for people with bipolar disorder and for their friends and family. I asked her to tell me how she got involved, and here is what she said:

She met Josh, her second husband, after being introduced through a dating service. They talked on the phone and he seemed very interesting, very well-mannered. She had divorced at a fairly young age, and raised her now-grown children as a single mom. Josh had raised four children, all Ivy League grads, now with families of their own. He was divorced after a 27 year marriage, and he continued to work in the highly specialized medical field in which he had been quite successful. Lauren and Josh began dating, and soon Lauren learned that Josh’s career had been marked by a series of repetitive conflicts with colleagues; that he needed a lot of attention; that he could at times be inappropriate and demonstrate poor judgment. Lauren continued to date him because in spite of the “issues,” he was also sincere, kind, loving, generous, adventurous, and fun.

Lauren and Josh were married for about a year, when Josh’s strange behaviors escalated. Lauren needed to tend to her ailing elderly father, and as she became less available, Josh became increasingly resentful. He made big messes in the house and didn’t clean up; he’d be banging around working on projects in the middle of the night; he’d easily get angry to the point of screaming. It escalated to the point where Josh seemed completely out of control. Lauren laid down the law and got him to see a psychiatrist; the psychiatrist arranged for an inpatient hospital stay. Bipolar disorder, which should have been diagnosed when Josh was in his 20’s, was at long last identified, and medications were prescribed. Josh started acting like himself again.

Getting the medications right took about six months. Lauren stood by Josh even though she was wounded, feeling self-protective as Josh recovered. At the same time, she learned everything she could about bipolar disorders, she became a walking encyclopedia on the subject. She learned about the mood swings, from manic highs to dark, depressive lows. The highs involve distorted and dangerous thinking, and self-destructive behavior – extreme irritability and anxiety are common; as are grandiose, euphoric states. The depressions are dark, deep, agonizing. These moods can be mixed, they can alternate, they can be separated by relatively normal periods. Lauren had seen it all with Josh.

Lauren made it clear she wouldn’t be Josh’s nurse or his mother – he would have to be responsible for his medications, for monitoring his behavior, for staying in therapy. And he would need to take responsibility for his impact on her and on the others around them.

Josh and Lauren (not their real names) attend both the Bipolar Group and the group for Friends and Family of people with Bipolar disorder, at the Mental Health Association of Rockland in Valley Cottage. For information on the Bipolar group that meets on Tuesday nights please call Leslie Davis at (845) 638-2576; for the Friends and Family group please call Donna Davidson at (845) 613-7086.

As I left Lauren and told her I would tell her story in this column, she couldn’t help becoming tearful. “I’m so grateful,” she told me. “People need to know about this illness, how to treat it, how to get support.” Lauren, thank you for having the generosity and the courage to share your story; I know it will be greatly appreciated.

© Daniel Shaw 2008


If you were the one without a partner at your family gatherings this season and you weren’t happy about that, you are not alone. A lot of people I talk to are despairing because they have tried and tried, and they still haven’t found a partner. They wonder what they are doing wrong; they wonder if all men/women are just like the last disappointing, unreliable person they dated.

Of course there are many factors that might cause someone difficulty in finding a partner. One problem I encounter quite frequently is unconscious ambivalence – deeply conflicted feelings that are not fully recognized.

I often get astonished stares from people when, after lots of listening and exploring about what is going on with their unsuccessful dating, I question if perhaps they might be more ambivalent about wanting intimacy than they realize. I’ll point out that they have a history of choosing ambivalent, passive, commitment-phobic partners; they have a history of staying with someone too long, even when it didn’t seem right from the get-go; and that they display many other behaviors that suggest that without realizing it, they are making the same bad choices again and again. Then there are the relationships in which both people continually feel like the victim of the other – I’ll save that one for another column.

Working through ambivalence, I will typically explore three areas:

1. Desire. Do you really want intimacy? What were your parents like with each other? What were you like with each of them? Based on your parental models, does intimate relating evoke fears of being smothered? being dominated? being neglected? being expected to be perfect? being constantly on the defensive? Even though you truly want a committed, intimate relationship, there can be another more hidden part of you that fearfully anticipates repeated hurts and disappointment. When these kinds of fears are not conscious, they have an undermining effect on the fulfillment of our desires.

2. Entitlement. If you believe we are all born deserving love as our natural birthright, are you sure you still believe you have that right? If not, what changed? Was your love and affection for your parents welcomed with tenderness, or was it ignored, even rejected? Was love given to you conditionally, begrudgingly, stingily? Were you led to believe that you were never good enough, and therefore didn’t deserve love? Were you expected to meet all your parent’s needs for love, but made to feel guilty about wanting anything for yourself? Now as an adult, when dating, do you make yourself like a commodity, an object to be chosen or rejected? Why aren’t you entitled to choose?

In order to exercise your right to choose, and not remain stuck in the helpless, passive position of waiting to be chosen, you need to flush out the old negative messages and work on internalizing new ones - mesages that support you to believe deeply that you are good enough to have the right to love and be loved. If that reminds you of Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley character, so be it: Stuart Smalley had the right idea (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”).

3. Hope. Do you feel hopeful, confident and optimistic that you will find love? Can you find a way out of discouragement and disappointment, out of fear and anxiety? I recommend you stop thinking that you are being singled out by unseen powers for endless punishment – you’ll never prove it. You are better off working toward developing patience, and the hopeful, optimistic conviction that you have as much right as anyone else to find happiness.

If you are stuck in repetitive, discouraging relationship patterns, don’t give up. I’ve seen again and again that people who are willing to work hard at clarifying their desires, overcoming fears, and building a healthy sense of entitlement and hope, can succeed in finding and sustaining love that lasts.

Rx for Parents With Children

If you are married or partnered with children, answer this: when was the last time you went out on a date with your partner, without your kids? If you have to think about it for more than fifteen seconds, you may just have identified one of your biggest problems as a couple.

When two people make a life together and include having children, they take on innumerable responsibilities. In our commendable efforts to be good, loving, responsible parents, we often forget to plan ahead – to the time when those kids will grow up, start their own lives, and fly the coop. I’ve noticed that many people whose partnerships are hitting the rocks are just at the point of approaching or having to adjust to an empty nest. Again and again, I hear that their life was all about the kids. With the kids gone, they don’t know who they are as people, or as a couple.

The big joke you always hear about married couples and life partners is that their wedding rings have cut off all sensation to their genitals (rim shot sound effect, please). But let’s be honest: happy unions aren’t just about having more sex. You can’t rely on sex alone to create the sense of being recognized, seen, heard, acknowledged and appreciated. Those are the things aside from sex that most partners crave, whether they admit to it or not. What does create the sense of being deeply known and appreciated is the time that a couple puts aside for each other, through the years, to be alone together, to open up to each other, to depend on each other and trust each other.

That is why it is so important to stop making excuses for not hiring a sitter, or having appropriate friends or relatives take the kids for a night or two on a regular basis. Using children as an excuse to avoid deeper connection with a partner is an easy trap to fall into, and a hard one to get out of. If you haven’t been dating your partner; if dating your partner feels like cheating on your kids; if you’re avoiding acknowledging pent-up frustrations or resentments; if you’re having arguments or important discussions on the fly, by e-mail, or when you’re half asleep; if you’re not finding the time to speak and show your love and appreciation because you’re assuming that it’s understood – don’t be surprised that you feel disconnected.

The best way to draw closer and stay closer to your partner is to regularly take time for just the two of you, out of the house, without the kids – at least once a month, but preferably more. You don’t have to dress up, you don’t have to put any pressure on yourselves. Yes, now and then, plan something wildly romantic and special. But for your regular, recurring dates, keep it simple. Don’t always make it a movie or a show, where you barely get to talk. Just go someplace casual where you can hear each other. Maybe you’ll have an argument that you needed to have to clear the air; maybe you’ll be quiet because you’re just calming down and relaxing; maybe you’ll stop worrying about the kids for a minute and take care of each other a little. In whatever way it happens, you can tell each other all about yourselves, and just be the two of you again -- the same two people, more tired, older but still recognizable, who were once so wildly, crazily in love with each other.