Demeaning Boss=Recreation of Childhood?

It’s hard for me to believe or admit, but I’ve been working for the same demanding, demeaning boss at the same firm since I finished law school some seven years ago. I put in all kinds of extra hours and essentially devote my life to the firm, and I’m not sure why, except that I feel as if I must please the boss no matter how little allegiance or respect he shows me. My girl friend thinks that I’ve recreated my family (father was alcoholic), and I’m trying to decide it that’s psychobabble or valid.

While it may be uncomfortable to admit, your girl friend probably has a point. It is not unusual for people raised with an alcoholic or addicted parent (many of them high achievers, and some of the most reliable employees) to grow up with characteristics that are contrary to their own wellbeing. These may include an exaggerated sense of loyalty or need for approval, an overemphasis on control, a sense of “faking it” or wearing a mask, and considerable difficulty setting reasonable limits or making their own needs a priority. In many instances, they can barely identify their own feelings or wishes, yet are heavily burdened by “shoulds,” basing their sense of self-worth on what they can do for others.

How an adult child of an alcoholic (ACOA) adapts to life is determined in large part by how and when the alcoholism has expressed itself in parental behavior. Typically, in their attempts to keep the family afloat while under the stress of active alcoholism, the children adopt strategies that develop into family roles, e.g., “family hero,” “scapegoat,” “lost child,” and “mascot.” The essential problem for the adult whose personality evolved in such a family is that s/he will continue to rely on ways of adapting that worked well to help the alcoholic family survive but that are maladaptive and unnecessary in their own lives. Your example is a common one.

Just knowing about these patterns may be of some help, but most people cannot simply choose to override longstanding personality characteristics; rather, they need help and support. This can come from an appropriately trained therapist and/or from a peer support group. In Massachusetts, self-help meetings for ACOAs can be found either through Al-Anon and CODA. Al-Anon (781/843-5300), the 12-step group for family and friends of alcoholics, has certain designated ACOA meetings. CODA (Codependent Anonymous, at 978/952-6510) is another 12-step group specifically for those with relationship problems originating in dysfunctional families. There are also a number of good books on the subject. Two of the early books that were part of the foundation of the ACOA movement are Adult Children of Alcoholics by Janet Woititz and It Will Never Happen to Me by Claudia Black. Both are likely to be found at your bookstore or library.

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