Deep Change II: Healing Your Relationship with Power Can Transform Your Organization

The Story of Sharon

The discussion of corporate power, its misuses and abuses, abound in our world today. The story of John took this issue to a deep place: the place where change must occur in order for our world to recover. This place is within each of us. How do we use our personal power? Misuse and abuse of personal power can undermine the potential of any corporation. And right use of power has the ability to transform it.

An interesting perspective on the issue of power … what if we look at the misuse of power manifested in those who don’t use their power? If those who abuse their power obviously are doing so from early wounds … then what about those who don’t use their power when it is needed, out of frozenness, their inability, their own childhood wounds.

Imagine if … corporations, their employees and leaders fearlessly worked to improve our world. Imagine if … both the leaders and the employees of every organization worked with their feelings so they didn’t have to act them out on the corporate and world stage. Imagine if … every one of us—however we were wounded, however we misuse our power—did our own healing work so that we could contribute to this vision in the best way possible.

As leaders and members of an organization, are you prepared to personally take on the challenge of deep change? Are you willing to look at how the transformation of your inner world can in turn transform your outer world? Are you willing to heal your relationship with power for the betterment of yourself, an improved impact on your employers, co-workers and employees, and the transformation of your organization?

Sharon cringes every time her boss, John comes to her desk right outside his office. And she wants to crawl out of her skin when he begins talking to her in his so familiar way, “Shaaaa-ron …”

Sharon is familiar with the cadence and the tone. As a child, her mother began scolding her just that way every single morning. It was like the daily wake-up ritual. So she knows exactly what to expect next: a half-hearted compliment, followed by a criticism clothed in a question, chastising, belittling, contempt, and an outright accusation. Each time the content was different, but the elements were all there.

Sentence by sentence John chips away at Sharon’s self-confidence and her sense of self-worth. “Good letter, Sharon, but don’t you think it would help if you used spell-check on your work? I’ve asked you to do that before. Have you no pride in your work? Are you deliberately trying to make me look bad?”

Sharon has been losing weight. She has been unable to sleep well at night. She’s been in a constant state of tension and nervousness. And she is trying harder and harder to please John … to no avail.

She hates working for him, but she needs the job. Although she is very capable and could easily find another job, she is unable to extricate herself from John’s abuse of power … precisely because it is a reenactment of her childhood family abuse dynamic.

When we experience pain and trauma as children, we cannot bear the pain. Without even realizing it, we bury the feelings that are too much for us to feel, along with the decisions we make about ourselves, others, and life, and sometimes even along with the memory of the painful event. These feelings, decisions, and memories drive us from beneath our conscious awareness, leading us to create situations in our lives that mirror or even duplicate the original painful experiences. We may unconsciously draw people into our lives like those who originally hurt us. We may unconsciously perceive or interpret experiences so that they appear the same as previous experiences. Or we may react to either real or perceived here and now experiences in the same way we reacted to our childhood experiences.

If Sharon was abused as a child in the same way John is abusing her now … she may feel all the same things with John that she felt as a child.

Day by day passes with no change in the scenario … until one day John loudly, publicly humiliates Sharon. He comes charging out of his office screaming at her. She apologizes profusely. He screams again, “If you want food on your table, clothes on your body, and a roof over your head, you’d better do exactly as I say!”

She wants to scream back at him. She wants to tell him she’s had enough. She wants to run. She wants to quit. Once again, however, paralyzed with fear, she can take none of these actions. She is unable to move, unable to find her voice, unable to even look at him. She cannot even cry.

The whole experience is so shocking, if you asked Sharon what happens next, she wouldn’t be able to tell you. Interestingly, the same would be true of John. It is actually a trauma for both of them. It is as though each falls into a trance and comes to minutes later, Sharon at her desk, John in his office, starting all over again.

A few minutes later, he comes out of his office and before he can say a word, Sharon raises her hands to shield her head and whimpers, “Please don’t hit me. Please don’t hit me.”

Sharon is living repeated reenactments of the abuse she lived and relived as a child with her mother. In fact, John threatens her with the very same words her mother used continuously, “If you want food on your table, clothes on your body, and a roof over your head, you’d better do exactly as I say!”

She is caught in the reenactment. She keeps receiving the abuse. She keeps being unable to stand up for herself or extricate herself. What is she going to do?

One day, going through John’s mail, Sharon spots the title of an article in America’s Business Journal, “Is Abuse of Power Wreaking Havoc with Your Business?”

“Oh my!” Sharon takes a deep breath. “I want to read this. I have a feeling it will help me somehow. But how do I find a way to read it without John knowing and attacking me again? “Well,” she strategizes, just like she had done when she was a little girl, “if he doesn’t know it’s arrived, there won’t be a problem. I’ll just have to find a way to take it home and get it back for him before he realizes.” Nervously she slips it inside one of her large magazines and into the huge purse she carries with her everywhere she goes.

After dinner that night, Sharon sits at her dining room table amazed as she reads the article. It’s calming and upsetting at the same time. According to the authors, some form of abuse occurs in most of the companies in the country. That means she’s not alone. At the same time it indicates the level of abuse in the country is enormous. She is filled with questions. “How do so many people come to the point of acting abusively? And how do so many people come to the place to allow it?”

Sharon reads and reads, absorbed in what she’s learning from others about the life she’s been living. And about the life John’s been living, too. She learns that people can get help to stop abusing their power, and that people can get help to stop allowing themselves to be abused. With this awareness, she wants to get help. One of the authors of the article is in the business world. The other is a psychotherapist. Sharon decides to call the psychotherapist for an appointment.**

Sharon calls me on a Saturday morning, and working at my desk, I answer the phone. Nervous about intruding on my weekend, she begins by apologizing. “I’m so sorry to bother you on your weekend. I thought I’d just get your voicemail.”

I assure her it’s OK, that I wouldn’t have answered the phone if I weren’t fine with it.

She sounds frightened, “Are you sure? I’m really sorry.”

I reassure her, and ask why she’s called.

She tells me she wants to come talk with me about her abusive boss and how she feels trapped in her job. We set an appointment for Monday evening after work, and as she says goodbye, she pleads, “I’m really hoping you can help me. I’m at my wit’s end.”

Responding to her plea in a way that I hope might both empower her and give her hope, I offer, “Sharon, let’s see what together we can do to help you.”

I find Sharon sitting in my waiting room, trembling. Gently approaching her, I invite her into my office.

She sits down, still trembling … on the edge of tears.

I gently offer, “I’m here for you, Sharon. Let me know how I can help.”

“I’m so frightened,” she whispers, after a long silence. “I’m afraid of my boss, John.”

“What about him frightens you, Sharon,” I ask, inviting more.

“Everything!” she cries. And the dam bursts. She cries and cries, like a little child, perhaps a 3-year-old child.

I sit quietly, from time to time making empathic sounds that come from my heart and at the same time let her know I’m there with her.

Eventually she looks up at me, the tears still streaming down her cheeks. I’m right there, meeting her eyes with my own, and I ask her gently, “Who else are you afraid of in the same way you’re afraid of John?”

“My mother,” she says, this time not in a whisper but a voice tinged with anger.

“She treated me the same way John treats me. She did the same things – Every morning she began the day by scolding me. She began with a tease, what seemed to be a compliment, and then criticized me with questions, ridicule, disdain, and outright accusation. Each time what she was attacking me for was different, but the elements were all there. He does the same thing, Judith.”

“And what happened inside you when your mother treated you this way, Sharon?” I dig deeper to get to know her better and find the way to help her.

“I wanted to run away. I wanted to scream ‘Stop.’ I wanted to ask ‘Why are you treating me this way?’ I wished my father hadn’t died leaving me alone with her. I wanted to disappear. But I was terrified and couldn’t move a muscle, couldn’t speak a word, couldn’t even look at her. I felt like I would be trapped there forever. I was afraid I would die there in a frozen heap.” The voice Sharon didn’t have with her mother or John, is, thank goodness, coming to life with me.

‘Is that what happens inside you, Sharon, when John treats you the same way?”

“Exactly the same thing, Judith. Exactly. I don’t know what to do. I’m at my desk and feel like a child. How can I protect myself when I feel like a 3-year old? How can a little girl do my job?”

“Good, Sharon. Your answer and your questions show us how aware you are, and can lead us to the solution and the healing you need.”

“What do you mean, Judith? I don’t understand.”

“We need to stop in a few minutes . . . for today. But I’ll tell you what I mean and that can help you till our next appointment . . . if you’d like to come back. What I mean is this, Sharon: You were deeply wounded by your mother’s abuse of you as a very little girl. The feelings were too much for you to bear. The responses you had were impossible for you to act on. There wasn’t protection to help you feel or act. You were paralyzed with fear. Your experience with John is a re-enactment of those early times with your mother, and your reactions are exactly the same. . . because you haven’t yet found the help to assist you in healing the early wound. My training and my experience as a therapist are for just this purpose: to help you and others like you to heal the original wound to the very root, so you won’t have the same reactions if you find yourself in the same kind of situation, and maybe eventually won’t even experience the same kind of reenactment. Does that make sense to you, Sharon?”

With a bit of hope in her voice she asks, “You mean it is possible to heal this frozen nightmare?”

“Absolutely,” I smile back, “if you want to, and if you are willing to do the work to heal it.”

“I do want to come back next week, Judith. Will you help me?”

“Of course, Sharon. Let’s set an appointment for next week, and when you come, we’ll talk about how to proceed on a regular basis.”

We set the appointment, and before we stand to close the session, I ask Sharon, “What will you take with you when you leave today?”

“Hope, Judith. Hope that I really can heal this way of life I’ve been living as a frozen abused person.”

“That’s wonderful, Sharon. I’ll look forward to helping you move out of a life of abuse.”

There’s no need to do more today. Her leaving with hope is plenty to carry with her through her week. And I’m so aware that every session John has will help heal the abuse in their relationship. But so also will every session Sharon has help heal that same abuse.

** In real life, I would not see both John and Sharon, two people in a relationship, involved in the same situation. That would be crossing a boundary that wouldn’t be good for either of them. But in order to give an inside picture of the experience from every vantage point, I’m writing the stories as though I am working with both of them.

© Copyright 2009 by Judith Barr, MS, LMHC, therapist in Brookfield, Connecticut. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Connie

    Connie

    May 14th, 2009 at 2:20 AM

    Amazing how things that happened to us years ago and that we thought we had overcome still do make us the person that we are today. Unfortunately I think that especially in the workplace there are people in charge and coworkers who tune in to this better than we do and seriously take advantage of that. They know if we are short tempered or unable to say no to extra work and they prod us and push our buttons. How sad.

  • Cameron

    Cameron

    May 15th, 2009 at 11:23 AM

    I will admit to being a micromanager who feels like I have no time to let mistakes happen in my company. I think that a good worker will immediately pick up on the things that need to be done to keep an office buzzing and consistent and that he or she will begin to be able to do those things without having to constantly be told. Call that a personality flaw, but I just call it as someone who likes and expects things to be done a certain way. I do not think that I am uncaring or unfeeling, or even that I am a control freak, only that I have very high expectations of my employees and that I anticipate only the best from them. My company has my name on it and everything that they do reflects either poorly or positively on that- I prefer the positive.

  • Judith Barr

    Judith Barr

    May 17th, 2009 at 1:12 PM

    Mistakes, while truly problematic at times, are also part of life.
    None of us is perfect. None of us.

    We do need to correct our mistakes. We do need to talk with employees who make mistakes.
    Sometimes we need to acknowledge that a certain employee isn’t a right match for our company.

    Nevertheless, mistakes are part of life.

    They are magnificent teachers for us.
    Teachers about the content — the task we were doing when we made the mistake.
    And teachers about ourselves with regard to how we respond. . .
    both on the inside on a feeling level and on the outside in our actions.
    Mistakes can help us look at ourselves more deeply, in places we haven’t been aware.
    Mistakes can help us become aware that part of us is driving us in a way we aren’t yet conscious of.
    Mistakes can help us meet something in ourselves we need to heal . . . that we didn’t even realize.
    Mistakes can help us grow beyond what we thought was possible.
    Mistakes can help us deepen relationships.
    Mistakes can help us create something new.

    I remember the first time I made chocolate mousse.
    While whipping the cream — the first time I had done that — I made butter. Though disappointed I would have to go get more whipping cream,
    I was fascinated that I had made butter.

    And little did I know that once I learned to create whipped cream,
    I would make a chocolate mousse that was exquisitely delicious,
    moreso because I doubled something in the recipe and didn’t realize it.
    I had made a mistake and wouldn’t discover that fact for years!

    May we each look into ourselves earnestly —
    without rationalizing, without making excuses, without defending ourselves against the truth of the mirror —
    and discover more about ourselves in relation to mistakes.

    Many blessings in your self-discovery.
    Judith

  • Karianna

    Karianna

    May 19th, 2009 at 5:47 AM

    I literally freeze when I have to be assertive at work. It is just not in me to have to behave like this toward others. I have always been passive and do not like being in a position of leadership at all. I am too afraid of what others will think about me if I have to use some power over them. I know that there is a right way and a wrong way to do it but I think that my discomfort with it leads me to always do it wrong, and then end up having others mad at me. That is what I try to avoid at all costs! I have always been the peacemaker and not like to rock the boat, and at work I am exactly the same way!

  • Jada

    Jada

    May 20th, 2009 at 3:47 AM

    I love the piece Judith posted. Lord knows I’ve made many mistakes, but I always learn from them. We are human and we are going to make mistakes. That’s it.

  • Wilson

    Wilson

    May 20th, 2009 at 5:18 AM

    So what I take from this is that it is not always about the person in charge and how they use their power but it is also a great deal about how we in turn respond to that use of power when it is being used against us? I know that I get very defensive and do not take well to “constructive” criticism or any sort for that matter. I guess I need to screen my bosses more carefully from now on!

  • Sarah

    Sarah

    May 21st, 2009 at 2:41 AM

    I read this and thought that this Sharon was me. My earliest memory of the fear of verbal abuse was with regards to my dad. He could never accept any kind of failure. I used to so fear his criticism so much that I even chose a career path in college which he approved of. I took a job to find my boss was the same way. I took it all till I couldnt take it anymore. Knowing times are tough and its difficult to find a job change, I still chose to kick off my job and I have moved far from my parents. I am back in college doing what I want to do and doing 2 small campus jobs. Its good enough and what makes it worth the while is I am enjoying it for the first time in my life.

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