Fighting with Ghosts From the Past

Mitchell was doing well when we ended therapy after a year of weekly sessions. He was not doing well when he returned a year later.

He had originally contacted me to help him with anxiety and emotional eating. At the time, he had just moved back home with his parents after finishing college, trying to begin adulthood as a young gay man in a small conservative town. He was also trying to find an entry level job for a career in marketing.

Any one of those adjustments would have been difficult to deal with on their own; together they were overwhelming. His first step to address the challenges was to move to the city. He focused on making the transition from being a student who had never been in a relationship or had a real job to posing as an adult who knows what the hell he’s doing.

He successfully worked through the anxiety and eating issues that he had been struggling with and we ended therapy with the understanding that he would continue to touch base as needed. Eventually, months went by without hearing from him, and I assumed all was going well.

As it turned out, it was going well, until it was not. He contacted me to set up an appointment.

When we met, he explained that he had been applying for jobs over the summer and was hired for an entry level position at a large international company. Although he was overqualified for that particular job it was the kind of place that, if you can make it through the first year, you become part of the system and can make a career out of it.

Mitchell knew he could succeed at the level that he was hoping to reach, and based on his screening exam and interview, the person who hired him knew that he had the potential as well. But this entry-level job was so simple that he felt impatient from the start.

His immediate supervisor saw that he wasn’t being challenged and was having difficulty maintaining interest. They agreed that he would work with a mentor to help him with staying focused and motivated until they can find a more appropriate position for him.

The mentor was an older woman who was kind and supportive, and she reviewed the work he had been doing over the past few weeks. But she had her own idea of what was wrong. In her view, the problem seemed to be how Mitchell was doing his job.

She debriefed him on what she observed, and among her comments was a minor correction about the way he was entering data. She pointed out that it was inefficient and demonstrated how it should be done. He said that it was easier and more intuitive for him to do it his way and, in any case, his results were accurate.

Mitchell made clear that this began as a polite exchange, but the conversation quickly escalated until he said, “Well, you’re just a corporate bureaucrat.

I had been rooting for his success since he began his job search. I was shocked by how he seemed to suddenly throw this opportunity away before he could barely adjust the comfort settings on his office chair.

“So, what do you think was going on?” I asked.

To make sense of it, he went back to the history that we had covered in the first round of therapy of growing up in a strict household and feeling bullied at school as a not-so-well closeted adolescent.

“I was somebody who was never rebellious and never fought back. But I was like everybody’s punching bag. I hate when I feel that powerless.

“As I got older, I started to be very defiant. So now, whenever I get in a situation like with this person at work, it brings me back to the past, and I’m not going to be a powerless victim again. I’m going to rebel and fight back.

I asked him if he felt bullied by this mentor, like he felt in high school.

“I don’t think so. But she has this condescending voice, that reminded me of my high school teachers, and I just couldn’t take it. So, I told her, ‘you’re just a corporate bureaucrat.’”

He emailed me the next day and said that he was fired.

I had been rooting for his success since he began his job search a year earlier. I was shocked by how he seemed to suddenly throw this opportunity away before he could barely adjust the comfort settings on his office chair.

Ghosts from the past don’t just come back to haunt us periodically, they take up residence in our minds. They become filters that transform new experiences into the traumatic ones that created them and then they challenge us to try to change what happened.

When we accept that challenge hoping to change the past, we recreate new traumas instead by sabotaging what’s happening now, and the cycle continues.

When Mitchell stood up to the consultant at work, he felt like he was finally, heroically, standing up to all those bullies — parents, teachers, classmates — who he felt had tormented him without consequences.

He fought them where they were living, and he hit the target.

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