Unwelcome flashbacks
December 5, 2008 3:10 PM   Subscribe

My past experiences are coloring my perception of the present, my personal life is crashing into my professional life, help me make it stop.

Things are changing for me at work. I'm moving to a position that's a much better fit for my skills and interests. I'm in academia, so things like this don't happen often. It's awesome, and I'm grateful.

However, it's causing some anxiety and hurt feelings in the area I'm leaving, particularly with my immediate supervisor, who, along with his wife and children, have been close personal friends of mine. I expected some of this reaction from him, mostly because from his perspective, the change came out of the blue, and he feels that more notice would have been better, particularly given our friendship. I'm willing to take responsibility for the choices I made in that regard.

The problem is this: his obvious and oft-stated disappointment/anger/hurt feelings are taking a form which is eerily evocative of behaviors and attitudes belonging to a long-ago (more than 10 years) ex who was often emotionally and occasionally physically abusive. This makes my reactions and emotions respond at a level completely out of whack with the actual situation. Yes, it's stressful and sad, but no, I don't need to find a place to hide, or pack a "just in case" bag to be ready to flee when he approaches.

Now I've started having dreams where I'm in unhappy past places and situations, but he's taking the place of my ex who was really there. I have to consciously remind myself at work that all he's done is yell and say some unkind things, that he hasn't actually, and wouldn't ever, hit me. This seems ridiculous. I'm starting to feel like a tv movie Vietnam vet, leaping behind couches when a car backfires outside.

He doesn't know about the ex, and now is not the time to tell him. (Before all this happened, I would have been perfectly comfortable telling him about it, there just wasn't ever any reason to. I've had therapy, moved past it, gotten support, had subsequent healthy relationships, so, it's just not something that tends to come up in everyday conversation.)

My question is, how do I deal in the short term, since we'll be sharing office space for at least a few weeks longer, what's the best way to cope should additional confrontations arise (again, this is academia, drama tends to run higher than it did in non-academic jobs I've had, so confrontation is decently likely), and, is there anything I can do in the long term to more or less "unlearn" this association between my ex and this guy so I can have some hope of rebuilding the friendship?

Thanks, AskMe. You've always handled my non-anonyme questions so well, I have high hopes you'll be able to help me fix this, too. If I've been unclear, email followup to HeIsNotMyEx@gmail.com.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
1) Talk to a professional. You clearly still have some residual hurt from the ex, and even though in most situations you're cool with it, this is one of those times where there aren't many other places to go. Obviously you want to keep this friendship, right? It's worth it.
2) Does your university have an employee assistance program? Ours covers a number of areas, including trying to figure out difficult office situations and making the work/life dichotomy balance out.
posted by Madamina at 3:19 PM on December 5, 2008

...is there anything I can do in the long term to more or less "unlearn" this association between my ex and this guy so I can have some hope of rebuilding the friendship?

Run with it! Get ahead of the reactions before they get to you and you might be able to short-circuit them. This might seem even more ridiculous, but it can give you a new perspective: consciously and proactively act afraid around your associate, cower, or do whatever you think you would unconsciously do when you "flash back." This might give you an opportunity to at least grab the reins of your actions, and hopefully you might see how silly they are if they are truly unwarranted.

Another tactic I like is to draw caricatures of people that upset me. It gives me a little feeling of control as well.

I don't know, just some suggestions. Best of luck! Stay positive.
posted by Theloupgarou at 3:38 PM on December 5, 2008

Have you talked to him (as a friend, not at work) about why you made the decisions you did and how you feel about your friendship with him and his family? Maybe if you have a heart-to-heart with him, you'll be steeped enough in your friendship with him to be cured of the association between him and your ex. (Kind of like meeting fraternal twins and thinking that they look exactly alike, until you get to know them well enough to forget that you could ever confuse them.)

Also, yeah, talk to your therapist about this situation, since it sounds like maybe you've got some unexpected unresolved stuff about the ex rattling around in your head.
posted by desuetude at 3:46 PM on December 5, 2008

Could you just tell your soon-to-be ex-supervisor that his oft-stated disappointment/ anger/ hurt feelings are bringing up some rather unpleasant past memories, explain that this job move was ideal for you (and why it was ideal, so he doesn't feel like you're just trying to get away from him), and that you don't want it to ruin your friendship?

You can address your past with him in vague terms, without dredging up the details in public (or even to him). Or at least you can try. Maybe if you're more comfortable being vaguely open with his wife, try that angle.

In any case, good luck.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:49 PM on December 5, 2008

Ah academia...this is a situation I've seen at the college I work as well. My best advice would be to just wait out these hurt feelings. If your superviser is crossing that line, point it out and let him know you do not appreciate it. If they are truely good friends, they will continue to be in the future once the emotions settle down. For the sake of a better future though I would strive VERY hard to not act on your emotions in the spur of the moment. Try to self discipline these negative feelings out of your system...and focus on the things that keep you occupied during the transition. It may not feel natural, but you're doing yourself a favor in the long run. Very importantly though, find someone you trust and depend on to talk to about these emotions, and don't let them bottle up.
posted by samsara at 4:08 PM on December 5, 2008

Who knows, your actions may be triggering some past abandonment issues of his!

You should certainly talk to your current supervisor and let him know that, as difficult as this is for him, this is also a very stressful time for you, and you'd really appreciate it if he could chill out - that the intensity of his reactions is triggering some very challenging personal issues, and you'd appreciate his support in making the change go as well as possible.

As far as your dreams go, sometimes we dream about previous catastrophic situations as the subconscious' way of reassuring ourselves. It's as if your mind it reminding you, "this current situation is no where near as bad as that time - you survived then, you'll easily survive now!"

If you're looking for some treatment related to your PTSD, you might want to check out EMDR. Many people have had success moving on from traumatic triggers with a few EMDR sesssions. Here's the EMDR "Find a therapist" page.
posted by jasper411 at 4:12 PM on December 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Congratulations on moving up the career ladder.

Your friend/supervisor's reaction is very strange. As a friend, he should be able to put your happiness above his hurt feelings, and as a supervisor he should not be allowing his feelings to interfere with your shared work at all. Tell him that he's being disrespectful, hurtful and unprofessional. If he is a true friend, and has a basic grasp of his duties as your supervisor, he will back off.

You're asking us how to break the association your mind is making between your ex and your boss because it's 'ridiculous'. Honestly, I don't think it's ridiculous at all. You said your ex was emotionally abusive. Well, isn't what your supervisor is doing - yelling and saying unkind things to you - emotional abuse? Your supervisor is like your ex! The fact that your ex was also physically abusive doesn't change this.

The best way to break the mental connection between your ex and your supervisor is for your supervisor to stop acting like your ex did. If he doesn't, ride out the few weeks you have left working together, then get him out of your life for good.
posted by ShameSpiral at 4:32 PM on December 5, 2008

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
Viktor E. Frankl
This has helped me a lot.
posted by Kerasia at 5:45 PM on December 5, 2008 [7 favorites]

"all he's done is yell and say some unkind things"

Your supervisor has yelled at you. He has said unprofessional, personal things to you intending to hurt you.

He's the one who has to change, not you. Your emotions aren't causing the problem. His behavior is causing the problem.

"confrontation is decently likely"

The next time he takes a jab at you, say, "That's way out of line. Stop it now." Repeat as necessary. Don't say anything else, and if he doesn't stop, leave the room, pause only long enough to calm down, and then go directly to his supervisor or HR.

He's clearly violating workplace rules, and his behavior has nothing to do with your past. It doesn't really have anything to do with you--the problem is his inability to deal with things as an adult. You just happened to be the stimulus this time.

I strongly recommend that you say nothing about your past, because that will encourage him to make the situation your fault ("You're being too sensitive").

He doesn't sound like much of a friend.
posted by PatoPata at 6:37 PM on December 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

I second liketitanic - before I got to the bottom the first thing I was going to say, sounds like residual PTSD. The oddest things can trigger it. This isn't odd, but it's just to say, you can't tell what will bring old hurts, or hurts you healed over quickly, back up.

And while he is not your ex and is not being abusive to that extent, yelling and saying unkind things is inappropriate.

Friendship is friendship but business is business, even if the business is academia. Twice in my life I have made choices based on friendship and both times the friendship couldn't redeem the fact that the decision was a poor business one.
posted by micawber at 7:14 PM on December 5, 2008

I came in to say pretty much what PatoPata said already.

If this guy yells at you again, tell him straight to his face that that is the last time he is ever going to yell at you if he values your friendship. And mean it.
posted by flabdablet at 8:12 PM on December 5, 2008

For the friendship: distance is the answer. If he's your friend, he'll be happy for you when he sees how happy you are in your new job. I don't think he's an evil, abusive bastard. It sounds like he's just someone with a dramatic personality. "A brass band in a small room" is what my grandpa used to call it. You might like a marching band at half time on a football field, but damn, not when it's sharing a small office with you.

If you think it's just Brass Band syndrome, I don't think you need to confront him about anything other than when he really gets over the top. That's what's bugging you, right? The overwhelming fight or flight response that makes you want to shriek back at him when you know perfectly well that a jokey "chill out, dude!" would fit better? He won't be surprised if you do tell him pretty forcefully to back off. You won't be the first, and he's likely used to it.

Just tell him that he reminds you of your ex when he flips out. If he's a friend, he'll apologise and try to modify his behaviour. If he isn't someone you want as a friend, you'll have at least shamed him into thinking a bit about how he acts. You're out of there soon, anyway, right?

Those feelings you're having are valid. They're telling you that you're in an intolerable situation. Maybe taking charge of this particular intolerable situation with Brass Band Boss will give you a sense of power. You can tell him where to step off. You can tell him how his shouting makes you feel. You can leave, and you can still be friends afterwards. You don't have to put up with this crap. You are strong. By standing up for yourself, being honest, and moving on gracefully, you're reframing the old situation in a more positive way.
posted by Grrlscout at 2:13 AM on December 6, 2008

You describe psychologic transference. My old analytic psych prof defined transference as "viewing the present through past-colored glasses."

Insight-oriented psychotherapy would be useful for someone like you who wanted to understand why these issues keep cropping up in your life.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:42 AM on December 6, 2008

If you work in academia, there is never a good reason for a coworker to yell at you. You need to tell him this behavior is inappropriate, and if he continues, friend or not, you need to go over his head and let someone know about this unprofessional behavior.
posted by fructose at 9:47 AM on December 6, 2008

I don't think you're being unreasonable; I think your perceptions are rooted in reality. Yelling is not right. And the choice of academic supervisors is not unlike the choice of serious relationships. It's even more like a parental role, possibly, and particularly if you chose this person based on a sense of connection, it's not at all surprising that you might inadvertently choose someone with some traits or patterns you're susceptible to, or that those interpersonal patterns would get re-created with him. So, I'm not surprised that when pressured, your prof acts in ways that are "eerily evocative" of your ex.

I'd take some solace in two facts. One, the fact that you notice this and are having these reactions means that you've grown. You've developed "alarm" reactions to something you once put up with with your ex-. I can see that it's inconvenient that they're a bit turned up. But I would welcome them instead of trying to get rid of them.

The other fact is that you're almost out of there. You don't even have to solve this issue. Not only have you learned to recognize (very clearly) when someone's treating you bad, people like that are gradually getting phased out of your life or moving to more distant roles. That will make it easier for you to get over being accustomed to relating to anyone that way.

In the short run, I don't have an easy answer for you. Would standing up for yourself give you some relief, by proving to the scared part of yourself that you will protect yourself? (The book The Dance Of Anger, and also The Dance of Intimacy, by Harriett Lerner, have some tips on staying connected to people and talking when you're really angry.) Would it be better just to step away and reassure yourself that he's not your ex- again, and that you don't even have to ever see him again after three more weeks? It does seem like this might be a good time for a few sessions with a therapist, to help you process your feelings so they're not filtering into your dreams. You'll get through this, good luck.
posted by salvia at 12:27 PM on December 6, 2008

You're right. He's not going to hit you!! So what have you got to loose? Tell him to fuck right off. Or be tactful about it... less fun but achieves the same result.

But anyway, you need to explain to him that you're not his bitch and you do not tolerate being treated in this manner. Any time you let people do this to you - this is how you will feel. Fuck that. Don't just curl up and be a victim. Be defiant. Have some pride, self worth, anger. Anything!

Sometimes you can leave it all entirely unsaid and avoid the need to engage in any kind of verbal pissing contest. I think just knowing in the back of your mind that if they come any closer and shut up for 2 seconds - that you're going to bite their nose off - is something an aggressor can sense. (...bite their nose off?? Um, you know like a sudden glimmer in your eyes accompanied by an imperceptible but understood 'tiger in the bushes sound'.) Sure they'll keep carrying on so they don't loose face but they'll intuitively know you're not a good candidate for a 'whipping boy' and they tend to leave you alone.

(Maybe it's a reptilian brain thing or something? I don't know.)
He may not even realize he's doing it, the strong just prey on the weak. Sometimes they are mistaken and get told (warned) to take their game elsewhere (cue tiger). People make mistakes. It's a part of life.
Sometimes things come out of the blue. Sometimes friends are jealous as hell (Would he be behaving like this if you were moving on due to misfortune? Is he lashing out at you because you work under him so this should be his opportunity?) Also all a part of life. Meh.

Congrats on your new job!! :)

Oh! Btw, I had/have PTSD? and have noticed it flares up whenever I have real problems :) to think about. (Old irrational fears not qualifying as real problems I'm afraid!) Now whenever I feel it coming on I poke beneath what has become just a highly suspicious smoke screen. Stops it in it's tracks :)
Are you scared about your new job or something maybe? I know for me - (without realizing it) that would not be helping :)
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 12:35 PM on December 8, 2008

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