Avoidable Miseries of the Workplace

We want to identify the inner dynamics that can ruin the pleasures of work.

Work, paradoxically, is a blessing and a curse. It can torture us when we have it and depress us when we don’t. What’s worse, loading “Sixteen Tons” of manure from “9 to 5” on “Maggie’s Farm” after “A Hard Day’s Night,” or having to beg, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” in “Allentown” because the “Unemployment Blues” means “I Ain’t Got No Home in this World Anymore”?

This post offers some psychological insight to help workers find greater enjoyment and creativity in their labor. (The agony of feeling useless that’s inflicted on the reluctantly unemployed will be the subject of a later piece.) Work satisfies basic physical, psychological, and emotional needs, yet people can find ways to suffer even when they hold excellent jobs.

A straightforward psychological principle assures greater enjoyment and creativity in the workplace: Once we manage to avoid unnecessary emotional suffering, we’re much more capable of appreciating our work and being successful at it.

Emotional suffering is related to the state of our psyche, in conjunction with the extent of our self-knowledge. When our psyche is contaminated by unresolved issues and conflict, we can suffer anywhere, anytime. In fact, unconsciously we often go looking for ways to suffer. For some, even a beautiful sunny day on the golf course can be a time of frustration and disappointment.

How do we sabotage the satisfaction and joy that work can produce? One way is to feel controlled and dominated by supervisors or bosses. Often we feel this kind of tension even when the boss is being appropriate and just doing his or her job. Many of us carry an unresolved conflict in our psyche: We hate feeling controlled, yet the feeling is familiar from our past. We’re emotionally inclined to interpret different situations through that impression of being controlled. Actually, the feeling is not so much about being controlled as it is about feeling we’re being forced to submit to the person with the power. The big hurt is feeling that we’re somehow a lesser person because of our “required” submission.

Your boss might not actually be controlling or dominating you. However, if you have an unresolved issue with feeling controlled, you’re programmed, in a sense, to feel that you’re being controlled, dominated, and forced to submit. Your impression of reality becomes subjective, not objective. You slip into an old, familiar feeling of submission that you believe your boss is causing you to feel. This means you’re failing to perceive or understand your lingering affinity for that disagreeable feeling. The feeling originates from old memories of childhood “submission” to the necessary requirements of socialization. The rage of the child during the “terrible twos” is the loud protest against the feeling of being forced to comply with (submit to) the authority of parents. As adults, we fail to see this part in us that’s willing to relive those old affronts to our childish stubbornness. Instead, we blame the boss for inappropriately trying to control us.

Sometimes, of course, the boss is actually a controlling personality. This can make it even easier for us to feel controlled. If we don’t have an unresolved issue with feeling controlled, we won’t suffer even if our boss is actually being a jerk and assuming a controlling, dominant posture. When we see our unconscious participation in producing conflict, we don’t get triggered by the boss. We don’t feel dominated by the boss, whether he or she is a petty tyrant or not. If the boss is dysfunctional, we don’t take personally his or her directives or tactics. We’re able to do our work, maybe even enjoy it, without feeling like a slave or some lesser person. However, we’re only able to be cool and detached in this way when we have resolved or at least recognized our emotional weakness for feeling that we’re being forced to submit.

We can also muffle or stifle the satisfaction of work by feeling devalued and unappreciated. It’s the sense that both our work and our own person are not appreciated. With bosses and coworkers, we can feel we’re not respected and valued. This introduces other emotional issues. Unconsciously, we may be inclined to lug along wherever we go our expectations of rejection, criticism, or disapproval. Such expectations, like the expectation of being forced to submit, are mostly unconscious. Consciously, we hate the rejection or the criticism; unconsciously, we expect them and can be compelled to replay those feelings.

This is the ambiguous nature of inner conflict; We hate certain unpleasant feelings on one hand, but expect them and go looking for them on the other hand. Before we can resolve such conflict we need to make it conscious. We especially have to become conscious of our emotional attachment to negative emotions such as rejection or criticism. This means we need to expose in our psyche our own secret willingness to replay and recycle these unresolved painful emotions in the different situations in which they can arise.

Other psychological issues that can produce agony in the workplace also originate from within us. These include expectations concerning failure, along with problems of procrastination, blocked creativity, and personality clashes.

Many of us feel like failures, even when we’re relatively successful. Our inner critic (superego) can rule our personality with unreasonable demands and unfair accusations. We can be particularly vulnerable to inner critic attacks because we carry in our psyche an ego-ideal. This is an unconscious self-concept that derives from the self-centeredness with which we are born. Children are speaking under the influence of their ego-ideal when they boast about or think about the great accomplishments they will achieve in the future: “I’m going to be president when I grow up,” or “I’m going to be the greatest artist in the world.” Sigmund Freud discovered the existence of the ego-ideal, and in 1914 he wrote that what a person “projects before him as his ideal is the substitute for the lost narcissism of his childhood in which he was his own ideal.”

This means that, while acute self-centeredness fades as the child ages, the child still maintains remnants of grandiosity in the ego-ideal. This inner agency can become a serious liability for adults. That’s because our inner critic unjustly torments us for not living up to the illusions of our ego-ideal.

Our inner critic lashes out at us with any discrepancies found to exist between the grandiose presumptions of our ego-ideal (“I am great; I will do great things”) and the hard-nosed reality of our less-than-glamorous circumstances in the world (“I’m just the editor of a small-city newspaper”). Many people feel guilt, anxiety, and intense dissatisfaction when reminded inwardly that they’re not living up to their ego-ideal and its naïve, childish expectations. We take a verbal beating on the psychic battlefield. Our critic attacks, often quite viciously, and we defend, often quite ineffectively. Our ego-ideal makes us sitting ducks. Yet we can escape from this suffering, as well as the suffering of other conflicts, by becoming conscious of how inner dynamics produce false readings of reality.