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Toxic Relationships at Work? Let Me Count the Ways

Father Damien Karras: "I think it might be helpful if I gave you some background on the different personalities Regan has manifested. So far, I'd say there seem to be three. She's convinced..."
Father Merrin: "There is only one."
The Exorcist
There is no panoply quite so dazzling as the list of unsavory characters you'll encounter at the office. At times it reads like the latest edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders . Or maybe Dante's Inferno. How many toxic profiles can you spot from past or current workplaces?

Everyone will recognize the depressive, the abusive, the narcissist, the passive-aggressive and the anal retentive. But there are more subtle categories, too: projector, cynic, blamer, co-dependent, exhibitionist, martyr, disingenuous, repressed. One symptom will often mask another. Bullies, as we know, are basically insecure. Grandiose personalities may suffer from Imposter Syndrome and the compulsively competitive are just plain annoying.

Factor in a myriad of branches and tributaries (mis-appropriator, vicious gossip, false friend, shameless user, suck-up...the variations go on) and soon you'll need to take a power nap. Where do all these unstable people come from, anyway? Did the postal service stop hiring?

Then there are the seemingly infinite patterns of neurotic behavior resulting from ­-- and in turn perpetuating -- the underlying conditions found in closed systems, where resistance to change is fundamental. Unspoken beliefs, rules and expectations are always a trap in such environments. Blind obedience bottled as "teamwork" or "cooperation" is equally destructive. Enmeshment and pressure to conform "no matter what" stifle the creative potential of individuals and groups. Speed limits are strictly enforced.

But identifying, cataloging and analyzing every type of aberration is a task for mental health professionals. So if that's not your career, go ahead and take the day off. It's far more practical -- and way easier for me -- to lump them all into one neat little radioactive basket: Emotional Neediness.

Think of EN as a form of attention deficit disorder. Attention deprivation, really, Godzilla-style. Not enough of the right kind of attention elsewhere in life and now the pain has migrated here. People, like Japanese movie monsters, will attempt every conceivable strategy to compensate those missing nutrients. What's for lunch? Marketing? Mmmmmm...they taste a bit like chicken.

It takes two distinct types of EN to make a lethal cocktail -- yours and the other person's. Through simple awareness of your own unresolved issues, you can avoid having to re-enact with co-workers scenes from an imperfect past. When there's a conflict, be clear about what's your responsibility and what isn't. Quit trying to "fix" people; don't even tell them what their problem is. The exact cause of the neediness is irrelevant, no matter whose it is. What matters is that you learn how to dodge the bullets of someone else's unhappy childhood or marriage by declining a part in their Passion Play.

Tolstoy began Anna Karenina by announcing, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Companies are surely as complex and chaotic as families. And managers can appear, at the most inconvenient times especially, as clueless as sitcom dads. It's a blurry line between life and work.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not immune. For seven and a half years I was in what could only be described to as a dysfunctional relationship. Whenever I walked in the door, it was always, "Do you realize what time it is? Where have you been? Who were you with? You never tell me anything! We're not communicating!" So I finally had to let my admin go. The new one is much better, but she thinks I don't respect her boundaries. At least that's what her diary says.

We all carry our parents around inside us, don't we? Whether living or not, they're alive in our thoughts and feelings. They gave us life and remain primary forces that animate and sustain us throughout our existence, like respiration and circulation. Much of it was enriching and some of it, no doubt, was limiting. Either way, by taking stock of personal baggage you'll be able to circumnavigate a thousand and one snares that could otherwise impede your professional journey. And by recalling that toxic behavior in yourself and others comes from a single source, you can move on to more important things.

My editor likes me to offer concrete advice, so here it is: Going to the office? Leave Mom and Dad at home.

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