Workplace Emotional Traps, Part II: Constraining Roles and Fatal Attractions

In this second of the four-part Workplace Emotional Traps series, I’ll be sharing some thoughts from authors Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster about the roles you play at work, especially the constraining or confining ones you don’t really want, and what to do about relationships with coworkers that start out just fine but seem to eventually take a nose-dive that threatens your sanity.

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Choose Your Roles

As the authors of Working with You is Killing Me put it, “If the role fits, you don’t have to wear it.” Sometimes you get stuck in a role because you play it once and then everyone just expects you to keep playing it, whether you really want to or not. Other times the constraining role you find yourself caught in is entirely of your own making. In either case, you must be willing to change yourself to improve your situation.

Part of the problem is when you don’t even realize you’ve become the victim of a constraining role. You have to pay attention to what’s happening to you at work so you can notice if you find yourself feeling boxed in or “branded.” Other times you’ll feel as if your intentions have been completely misinterpreted, which can be a sign that others are assuming you’re playing a particular role when you don’t think you’re playing that role at all, meaning a lot of the time you really are. Many of these roles are archetypal and recognizable when you see them: The hero (needs to feel they are better than everyone else), the caretaker (feels like they have to solve everyone’s problems), the rebel (often also the scapegoat), the martyr (always overworking and taking more on), the entertainer (keeps everyone laughing to reduce tension), the peacemaker (doing whatever it takes to keep the peace), and the invisible one (stays low-key and out of the spotlight).

Once you realize you’re often playing one of these roles, then you have to ask yourself if its holding you back. If so, then you need to find ways to “unhook” from that role. There are some specifics to each role. Heroes need to learn to say “no” and admit they have limitations. Caretakers must learn to realize that they aren’t personally responsible for solving everyone’s problems. Rebels need to learn self-control when it comes to their often impulsive and inappropriate outbursts. Martyrs need to learn that it’s more important to keep themselves healthy and sane than always taking on more work. Entertainers need to realize they have value to add that doesn’t involve humor. Peacemakers often must lean how to exist in uncomfortable situations without needing to reduce or eliminate the tension.

When Relationships Go Sour

When you find yourself scratching your head (or pulling your hair out) because a relationship with a coworker has turned into a nightmare, such situations often follow a pattern and a fall into one of several types of sour relationships, including the following: The exploder (what began as a dynamic relationship turns into dynamite; the empty pit (started out nice but becomes needy); the saboteur (starts out sweet but becomes sabotage); the pedestal smasher (begins by fawning but turns to fault-finding); and the chip on the shoulder (when appreciation becomes argumentative).

All five brands of soured relationships follow a 7-phase pattern: 1) The initial “honeymoon” period where the relationship seems great; 2) Consumption, the person’s dark side comes out and begins to consume you; 3) Rehearsal and recovery, where you try to prepare for interactions with the person, and recover from their damaging effects; 4) Conversion obsession, where you’re constantly dreaming up ways to try and change the other person; 5) Post-interaction heartburn, where every interaction leaves you feeling really burnt-out; 6) Allergic reaction, where even just hearing the person’s name triggers a negative physical reaction in you; and 7) Imprisonment, where you’re dejectedly resigned to the awfulness of it.

To change a toxic relationship, you have to detect you’re in it, then detach from it emotionally, then go even further to depersonalize it because the other person will never change, then deal with it by responding with business tools and boundaries to protect yourself. You’ll need every good “unhooking” technique you can muster to get through these fatal attractions.

The good news in all of this is that you really can overcome constraining roles and fatal attractions to vastly improve your overall work experience. The key, of course, is mastering the unhooking techniques that allow you to pause and redirect the rush of emotions that can throw you into a deep tailspin.

August 13, 2015   Updated :August 13, 2015   culture; emotional traps   

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