I am from Southeast Asia. I have a long history of depression, anxiety, schizoaffective disorder, disordered eating, borderline tendencies, etc. I have been in therapy for the last three years and have just stopped recently. I have recently graduated with a degree in psychology and am planning on taking clinical psychology. While waiting for my application to be approved, I am currently working temporarily.
As a little girl, I was terrified of being yelled at by authority figures — Mum, teachers, and even friends. The fear was so paralyzing that my mind was never at rest. Now, my new boss seemed like a nice person, but she yells at the littlest things. She yells but never takes things to heart; the problem is, I do. I am affected a lot by them and the fear builds up. I’ve been trying to soothe myself down, because I can’t perform under such stress, but sometimes it gets to me. I still have a very catastrophic way of thinking, and I imagine the worst possible scenarios. Right now, I’m trying to distinguish between “I am an idiot” and “I do idiotic things”, as self-acceptance is an issue for me. Sometimes I get yelled at for nothing — like forgetting to plug in the cable for my internet. My colleagues have told me since my first day that she’s nice, just fierce. My boss has also told me to never take anything personally. But I just can’t help it.
I’m afraid that this will undo the work I’ve done in therapy. I’ve come a long way: long enough for the hallucinations to disappear, long enough for me to understand for the first time what it means to be happy. I’m terrified of falling back again. How can I calm myself down and not dread work all the time?
First of all, good for you for all the hard work you have done in therapy to improve your mental health! It sounds like your boss’s behavior is triggering some reactions in you that are old and familiar. Even when folks have done the work they need to do in therapy, there are often issues that arise again or events that bring back old feelings or behaviors. You may always notice a reaction in yourself to figures of authority. Co-workers and your boss herself have told you that her large reactions (e.g. yelling about an internet cord) are more about her than you. However, it is often the case that we have an intellectual knowledge of something before we truly feel it to be true.
You did not mention what you learned in therapy about how to soothe yourself and calm down. I’m sure you have some favorite techniques. There are relaxation strategies such as abdominal breathing and progressive muscle relaxation that are useful for reducing physical tension in the moment. Positive self-talk statements are reminders that can help direct you away from the catastrophizing that you are doing. For example, when feeling stressed about your boss you might have a catastrophizing thought such as, “This job is going to ruin me!” A way to acknowledge and accept that you are stressed without adding even more distress would be to say or think something like, “I’m feeling very stressed, but I can handle this.” It can also help to take a quick walk or break when feeling momentarily overwhelmed.
Although you may have success in coping with this by yourself, an alternative view is that this as not just your problem, but a problem within the boss-employee relationship. Ideally, a relationship is a two-way street when it comes to communication. Your boss has shared with you some self-knowledge (e.g. “I have strong reactions”) and has given you advice about that (e.g. “Don’t take it personally”). In professional relationships, managers and supervisors are often open to feedback about their management style and information about how their employees work best. Feedback is often exchanged in job performance reviews, but can also be given more informally. Without meeting your boss I cannot predict how she would react to a conversation with you about this issue. However, if you were considering communicating with her about this problem you are having, you could ask for some time to have a conversation and then respectfully discuss how you both could work together more effectively.
You mentioned that you are from Southeast Asia, but you did not mention the cultural background of your boss. It bears mentioning that if your boss is from a different cultural background than you, she might have little knowledge or understanding of the values you hold. Collectivist cultures, such as the Asian culture, hold the needs of the group in very high regard, as opposed to the needs of the individual. Harmony, dignity, and respect are often highly valued within collectivist cultures. If you and your boss are from different backgrounds, you may be working from different sets of values, assumptions, and priorities.
Finally, it might be beneficial to get some help on this. You said you recently discontinued therapy. Even when terminating therapy is exactly the right thing to do at the time, circumstances do change. The trick is to know your own red flags in terms of when a ‘booster’ session or two, or even resuming therapy, is warranted. In therapy you might be able to review how to use what you learned in counseling to solve this problem and what you can do to make your workplace a bit more enjoyable.
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