July 29, 2019

How Our Family Dysfunction Impacts Our Work

Mental Health & Wellbeing

We’re often told to leave our “personal lives” at home and put on our “work” selves. It reminds me of changing from PJs to my work clothes. It definitely can be seen as a strength to be able to compartmentalize. It is certainly true that your coworker doesn’t need to have the same information about you that your spouse does. However, what happens when we stop living a fragmented life and decide to bring our most authentic self to all areas of our lives?

First Things First

We need to recognize that no matter how hard you try, you cannot hide who you are when you go to work. Try as you might, you are not a blank slate when you show up to the job. Instead, the aroma of your experiences stay with you when you enter your work space. Here’s an example. Earlier on in my career, and truly most of my life, I have worked really hard to come across as competent, educated, respectful, and hard working person. I thought that those traits would speak for themselves when working with clients. I was a bit shocked when a client I had been speaking with on the phone, came into our first session and stated “Wow, I didn’t realize that you were black, you sound so educated over the phone.” In that moment I realized that this part of my identity and experiences that I carry aren’t left at my home when I walk into the office.

So if that’s true, that we carry who we are and the experiences that we’ve had into the work setting, it’s important then to take a second and consider, what about my identity and experiences impact the way that I function and interact at work? This is where I’d like to pivot and put more focus on our personal lives, specifically our families.

Power of Family

Families play such a unique role in shaping our identity, interactions with others, and our work spaces. There are two types of familial struggles that I think can negatively impact us. First, the family who struggles with enmeshment. Enmeshment is when family members have limited boundaries emotionally. This is the family who shares all decisions together and if one person cries, others feel that distress as well. The strength of this connection is that the families are deeply in-tune, empathetic, and loyal to one another. The difficulty is that there is a lack of autonomy and independence.

For families who are detached, they are on the opposite side of the pendulum. Being detached means that there is likely a lack of communication, independence, and a high degree of autonomy. Decisions are made apart from the input or consideration of other family members. The strength in this is independence. The difficulty is lack of emotional connection or interdependence on one another.

How Does This Show Up at Work

Putting those two spheres (work and family) together now, you may start to see how if you’re family leans to one of these extremes that could indeed impact your work life balance. For instance, the person who is a part of a more enmeshed family, may have difficult boundaries with work. They may work after hours, are constantly checking their work emails, and are heavily invested in the success of the job. As a previous hiring manager, these at first may seem like the ideal candidate. They are loyal to a T. However, if this is you, you’ve probably not taken a vacation in awhile, take work home, and are dreaming about the stressors of work. You may feel hurt at times that your job is not investing (or giving back to you), in the way that you have to it.

If you are from a family that is more detached you may still be engaged at work, but from an emotional distance. You have not made many personal connections with coworkers. You may be a loner who is a hard worker. However it may be difficult to do any team projects with you due to your high degree of independence and separation.

How Do We Reach A Point of Balance?

  • Acknowledge where you’re at and notice your tendencies in a non-judgemental way. Recognize how you got here.
  • Decide, “Is this the approach that I would like to continue to take at work?” If so, no need to follow the next few steps 🙂
  • Change steps for each:
    • Enmeshment-Learning to set boundaries is key. Stick to only working your assigned shift for the day. Engage in other activities outside of work that give you pleasure and give you a sense of accomplishment and joy. Notice and provide self-compassion to the moments of anxiety you feel when you set the boundary. And let your boss or coworkers know that you are wanting to make some of these changes
    • Detachment-Making small changes or steps can have a huge impact. Maybe you walk into your work space without your headphones on and your cell phone in hand. Maybe you decide to walk around and say “Hi,” to one person before you start your work day.

We cannot bring all of ourselves to our work space, but if you are interested in living a more congruent life, taking these steps can make all of the difference. If you’re interested in unpacking this further please reach out to me! I’d love to talk.


Written by therapist Pamela Larkin


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