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“Been There, Done That: Long-gone Family Issues can Resurface in Work Life”

Elizabeth Starr Miller | February 16, 2006

Everyone has experienced tense, stressful, and strained work environments, either by not getting along with colleagues or by getting stuck in the middle of an office feud. But according to Diane Ofarim, a licensed professional counselor at the Lakeshore Counseling Center in Evanston, the key to understanding and surviving a tense work situation is to understand what part you are playing in that situation. Then trace it back to similar experiences in your original family life and work through those issues in order to succeed professionally.

“The first group we are part of is our family,” Ofarim says. “Whatever stood out in your family life is going to come with you to the next group setting, which is school and then job.”

Ofarim, who specializes in working with individuals who want to overcome their internal obstacles in order to become successful in their professional lives, says unconscious dynamics might inhibit or sabotage one’s success in the workplace–a theory called repetition compulsion that was originally discovered by Dr. Sigmund Freud.

“Everyone thinks Freud is all about sex,” she says. “But one of his greatest discoveries was the generational pathology that goes on and on until someone turns the light on. It can get played out in the workplace as well as in the family.”

What this means is that ultimately, you are the origin of your problems, Ofarim says. “But when I say origin, I don’t mean blame. I mean that you are doing nothing to un-cause them.”

For example, a person might feel as if he or she is getting blackballed and moved out at the office and doesn’t understand why, Ofarim says. “The trick is to realize what part you are playing in that situation and then be able to neutralize it, instead of just being victimized by it.”

If you talk to the person being blackballed long enough, you might find out that something similar happened to him or her as a child, Ofarim says. “Maybe they never felt included, so they spend their work life having to constantly get approval.”

Indeed, group life regresses to the lowest common denominator, and that has to be countered by benevolence and insightful leadership, Ofarim says. “Find the person that is giving you the most trouble and take them to lunch and bring them coffee every day. Find out what that person needs, rather than just being defeated.”

If your boss is terrible and he isn’t able to change himself, you have to provide the leadership to yourself and others so that he can be the leader, she says, adding that this can be extremely difficult. “If you really want to stay in that work situation, instead of being victimized you have to do something,” she says. “You are going to have to be creative and take care of your boss so he can rise to the occasion and take care of you and others.”

According to Ofarim the three steps a person can take to overcome a bad office situation is to first realize that he or she is the origin of the problem and can change it. Second, in order to see that the person is the origin, he or she has to trace back what is happening at the office to similar situations in the family. And finally, the person has to gain insight into what is happening, intervene in the destructive process and turn it around.

“All of that is virtually impossible on your own,” Ofarim says. “But get over yourself and go talk to someone. Set a goal that you want to see them for 20 times. Talk to them about the work situation and ask for guidance. It can be life changing.”

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