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Work therapy – How our professional lives might be re-enactments of the past....

May 2024

Before I embarked on training as a therapist, I worked in the recruitment industry – helping people find jobs and careers.  I saw first-hand the value work brings to a person, especially if they were coming straight from school or were returning to work after a break.  Work can be good for mental health, a fact the World Health Organisation acknowledges; “…(those) with mental health conditions, decent work can contribute to recovery and inclusion, improve confidence and social functioning…”.  I have witnessed this.  However, I have also seen the damage poor work environments can have on a person – but, could something else be happening here?  Can we be more curious about our situation to discover if something is repeating from our (or our colleagues) past in the present workplace? 


  Work plays an important part in many our identity – it forms part of who we are; past, present and who we aspire to be in the future.  Not surprising, as it’s estimated we spend nearly a third of our lifetime “at work” (Office for National Statistics).  But what happens when it goes wrong.  Many clients in therapy will recount work experiences as difficult, troubling, and stressful.  But how often have you stepped back to think - what is happening here?  Can we be more curious...


  In her recent book, Naomi Shragai explores this idea that, maybe, what is happening at work has some deep roots in our childhood or family narrative.  Quite often, offices and business are constructed – consciously or otherwise – like a model of a family.  A boss might remind you of a maternal figure; compassionate, kind, reassuring, yet another manager might be more paternal with a stricter or more clear-cut style – or indeed, depending on our early parental experiences, these roles could be reversed.  Our colleagues might feel like helpful confidants or bitter rivals - siblings in effect.  Work is a system, just like any other system, which requires some level of compliance and abandoning of individual needs for the good or needs of the group.  So, when we are having a strong reaction to someone else at work, it might be helpful to pause and reflect on who this reminds me of....  What is this trigger saying to me....  Is this a re-enactment of a past experience?


  Clients bring these issues to their therapy, initially many do not see a connection with their family, childhood, upbringing and what’s playing out in the workplace.  And for some, it might not be the case.  But for others, with whom this resonates, it can bring a great deal of relief.  In therapy they can explore what is going on for them, and when the time is right, repair whatever deep-rooted emotion is being triggered in the workplace.  The boss is not their father, but in the moment of criticism – for someone who experienced their father as critical - it might feel like he is.  How can we communicate this and continue our professional lives?  Therapy can help provide a safe, confidential place where experiences can be explored until a connection is made.  Without this space – for reflection and time – the unconscious processes (narratives, beliefs and behaviours etc) will play out again and again.  This is repetition compulsion – when we will continue to repeat the early traumas of our past in the present. 

So, if your boss or colleague acts in a way which seems familiar – and you feel disproportionately affected - ask yourself “what is happening here?” – you might be surprised by what you reveal - which in turn could lead to a more beneficial experience of work....



Further Reading:

“Work Therapy – Or the man who mistook his job for his life.”  Naomi Shragai


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