Mental health is generally considered a very personal thi..." /> Mental health is generally considered a very personal thi..." />

How Family-of-Origin Issues Can Become Workplace Issues

Man angry during meetingMental health is generally considered a very personal thing. However, aspects of our mental health sometimes collide with our very public work selves. Much more than just depression or anxiety, the mental health umbrella also covers the underlying causes of why we communicate the way we do with one another. Most of the time, our families of origin are the biggest influences in how we communicate.

How our mothers and fathers express anger is the foundation for how we express anger. Sure, as we grow and develop we also learn from teachers, friends, coaches, or even television and other media. But our foundations come from our caregivers. I interact with you the way my family of origin taught me to interact with others; you interact with me the way your family of origin taught you to interact. In this way, we are all carrying around family baggage.

This notion extends to bullying behaviors. If I come from a family that manifests its expressions of anger as bullying, then those behaviors will likely seem normal or natural to me.

Have you ever said something to someone at work and been perplexed because he or she flew off the handle? It can be hard for people who have experienced bullying not to take things personally. People with a history of being bullied may, through no fault of their own, be emotionally fragile. They may get their feelings hurt relatively easily, and in turn they may shut down and become passive or lash out in an aggressive manner. Being bullied is awful, and this possible byproduct is just one of the reasons.

When someone with an aggressive communication style gets his or her first job, coworkers may not initially like the person. This might seem puzzling to the new employee, since he or she isn’t doing or saying anything out of the ordinary. The person may struggle to stay employed or get promoted and not understand why.

Dysfunctional communication styles damage workplace morale and may create a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I am sensitive to criticism, I may interpret comments as harsher than they were intended to be. If I react emotionally, my coworkers may feel like they have to “walk on eggshells” around me and may even choose to avoid me. If I notice people avoiding me, it might trigger my sensitivities and cause further alienation.

In my experience working with people who have family-of-origin issues, not only do they often have difficulty fitting in and making friends in the workplace, they typically do not understand why, which only adds to their feelings of frustration, shame, and worthlessness.

According to researchers at King’s College in London, people who experienced bullying in their formative years often drift from job to job, never quite fitting in. Such individuals typically work for less pay, take fewer risks, and apply for fewer promotions. They do not understand that they, personally, are not the problem; their communication styles are the issue, and communication styles can be refined and improved with observation, practice, determination, and perhaps therapy.

Businesses may benefit from periodically consulting with a therapist or conflict coach who provides lunchtime or after-work workshops on topics such as assertive communication, stress management, and team building. Such workshops could lead to improved productivity, reduced workplace burnout, and higher employee retention.


Takizawa, R., Maughan, B., and Arseneault, L. (2014). Adult Health Outcomes of Childhood Bullying Victimization: Evidence from a Five-Decade Longitudinal British Birth Cohort. American Journal of Psychiatry, 171(7), 777-784. Retrieved from

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by K. Michelle Tapia, MA, LMFT, Family-of-Origin Issues Topic Expert Contributor

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

  • Leave a Comment
  • Nori

    March 3rd, 2015 at 10:17 AM

    I don’t think that we would have nearly the amount of problems with this as we do if some people would just learn to leave all of their outside stuff at the door when they come to work.

  • Cason

    March 3rd, 2015 at 4:34 PM

    You have to understand that the way that you are raised is what determines who you are and how you interact with other people. If you have never been shown how to do this in a way that is healthy then how are you supposed to be able to exhibit that in any pat of your life? This is something that has to be practiced and become a habit, same as the old ways that you have been interacting with other people.

  • kerrie

    March 4th, 2015 at 3:30 AM

    understandable because these are the first people that we learn from
    if this is what was modeled to us then of course this is how we will behave too

  • Mort

    March 4th, 2015 at 2:34 PM

    I know that somewhere this is going to be useful but at the same time I have to think that once you get a professional job, it is time to put all of that side and be an adult like the workplace demands.
    Now this is coming from the point of view of someone who never had problems with my parents, was always encouraged to communicate in a healthy way, and to me that was normal.
    I guess I struggle with a lot of this because I never experienced this so to think that I would go into my job and have this breakdown of communication is sort of foreign to me.

  • jackson

    March 5th, 2015 at 10:28 AM

    Alright, it seems reasonable that we are taught how to behave in certain situations and that your parents or whoever raises you create the very foundation for our future behavior. But I also know that for better or worse I know the difference between right and wrong, professional and not, and there has to come a time when you are adult enough to move forward and do what you know to be right… which might go against the very foundation that you were provided with… but that can be a good thing for you!

  • so true

    March 5th, 2015 at 4:09 PM

    Dear Lord my boss needs to read this!!


  • Stacia

    March 9th, 2015 at 7:23 AM

    We all have our own unique problems… but why should we assume that others need to have to deal with them?

  • Cat

    March 25th, 2015 at 1:29 AM

    This is definitely true. I was raised by immigrant parents with a punitive critical abusive style, and even though I’ve worked hard to fit into society as I’ve grown up without their help, it’s not easy at all.

    Put it this way: imagine you were raised to believe that the only polite, friendly, innocent way to enter someone else’s home was via the bathroom window. Imagine your confusion when your would-be friends keep calling the cops on you instead. This is what life is like for people raised in dysfunctional families who modeled communication styles that feel like the equivalent of coming in through the bathroom window to normal folks.

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