Bad boss or vulnerable adult child?

(image source unknown)

There is very good science that shows adverse experiences in the first ~5 years of life can set up life long physiological changes re: levels of cortisol, hyperarousal of the nervous system, aggression (Why Love Matters: How affection shapes a baby’s brain by Sue Gerhardt).

There is also very good research that shows these adverse experiences, more formally known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (see Adverse Childhood Experiences Study) are the precursors to a life of other physical, mental and relationship issues; with a strong correlation between an increasing number of adverse experiences and a persons early death.

Source: UCL Institute of Health Equity, The impact of adverse experiences in the home on the health of children and young people, and inequalities in prevalence and effects

Unfortunately Adverse Childhood Experiences are a lot more common in our society than you may imagine. They really shouldn’t be, but they are.

Did you know that 1 out of 6 children (on average) here in the UK experience some form of child abuse? That climbs to a staggering 1 in 4 girl children. Yes, right here in our community.

Source: NAPAC Training for Individual Professionals, 27 September 2019, Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse (2017)

And that the effects of this abuse can remain with them undiagnosed and/or unremembered for the rest of their life.

Childhood abuse takes many forms – neglect, physical, sexual, emotional, narcissistic. Also organisational and ritualistic abuse.

The effects of physical, sexual or emotional abuse and neglect in childhood play a key role in the development of mental, emotional, social and physical health difficulties later in life.

73% of the abuse has been conducted over a number of years and most remain unreported to the police. By far the most common perpetrators of child abuse are family members rather than someone outside of the immediate family. Most commonly Father then Mother, then Brother and Stepfather.

Source: NAPAC Training for Individual Professionals, 27 September 2019, Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse (2017)

Surviving a controlling parent

There is a rather frightening but accurate sketch I came across one day which reminded me of the many the stories I have heard from those in counselling who have lived through being abused by a controlling (sometimes narcissistic) parent (source)

Drawing by Jeremy Griffith illustrating how children become ‘power addicts’ or ‘crippled’

“The child is turned into either a […] power addict, or a psychologically crippled, broken person as an adult.”

Often in my volunteer counselling with individuals who are suicidal, I ask them the question “Do you really want to take your own life, or are you suffering so badly that it seems the only way to find some relief?”

Probably 8 out of 10 times they report being so distressed that they can only think of seeking relief from their own experience of life.

Our early emotional experiences are latent in all that we do, all the time

Research shows that the occurrence of childhood abuse is not limited by race, creed, culture, class, religion, socioeconomic factors etc. It doesn’t discriminate who it happens to.

Which means that it’s not unreasonable to expect that the 1 out of 6 adults (or 1 out of 4 women) who have experienced some form of Adverse Childhood Experience aka ‘child abuse’ to be found in the workplace in the same proportion.

These are the people around us each and every day.

Consider the bad boss in the work place

I personally believe it is meaningless to see the boss as a “good person” if they abuse the people around them when under pressure.

They may have the same well intentioned, internal kernel that all other humans have (apart from sociopaths with no empathy, although they don’t have the capacity to realise this…) but in those moments of pressure the good boss becomes the perpetrator nonetheless.

Helping the boss with their poor behaviour at those times of pressure is what is needed, not just tolerance and sympathy from those around him/her.

A case in point is the bullying I both witnessed and experienced on two different occasions in the UK public sector, perpetrated by individuals who I suspect really did need professional help:

One was most likely on the Asperger’s spectrum, undiagnosed or undeclared and which probably required close and ongoing OT intervention and supervision. The other individual projected outwardly as incredibly confident, but probably suffered at the hands of extreme anxiety, self-doubt and internal criticism.

I wonder how many of these “bad bosses” have had some form of Adverse Childhood Event as a youngster.

Frank Ray

Ask any project manager about the key to their success, and they will say that delivering a project is often more like a "dark art" or by chance, than a predictable science.

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Nick 21 October 2019 Reply

Regarding your quote and diagram
“The child is turned into either a […] power addict, or a psychologically crippled, broken person as an adult.”

I feel as one of those children that this is a very simplistic potentially dangerous view and misses the fact that all children react uniquely and differently to those challenges. We all evolve throughout life except in the poor case of those for whom the pain is too much and they make another choice. I personally don’t identify with either presented choice, many of the people I have met who overcame or found ways through the challenges in life became better more rounded, compassionate people that built successful lives and happy relationships. To add further evidence what about people such as Gandhi, Martin Luther-King, Nelson Mandela or the survivors of the nazi concentration camps all of whom had to overcome tremendous emotional, physical, psychological abuses and go on to be among the world’s greatest influencers ? Are they broken or power hungry people ? It is in acceptance of our lives as they are, not trying to change others and through forgiving those that may abuse us, that we move beyond the self and towards selflessness and happiness.

There are undoubtably bosses out there that exhibit the characteristics you mention, some of whom may be broken by events in their earlier lives hurting others to express their pain and make themselves feel better but equally some who don’t have that excuse but choose to exert power over others anyway.

I wholeheartedly applaud the work you do volunteering in a highly complex and challenging way but coming from a place of experience and from one who has spoken too many that have had similar experiences I would ask that you broaden the diagram and balance it with the people who made successful transitions as it could be at risk of labelling all of those victims/survivors as negative outcomes which I am sure is not the intent, when in reality there are a lot if not most that learned some really valuable lessons through adversity, recognise the successes of coming through difficulty and either have or will go on to greatness as did Gandhi, Martin Luther-King, Nelson Mandela and so many more.

Frank Ray 28 October 2019 Reply

Hello Nick, thanks for reading and also for taking the time to comment. I agree with your comment re: broadening out the range of possibilities – I’ll have a think about how to portray that more in the article. The diagram and quote isn’t actually mine, as referenced, but I agree the author’s view seems a little “split” or black and white. However, I picked it as the image reminded me of so many of the stories I have heard from those in counselling who have lived through being controlled by a narcissistic parent. Maybe some work here to better place the image in my context perhaps. Thanks again

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