My mother's dying words were, "You'll never be good enough"

I have trouble fitting in at work. I excel but I am in conflict with others: Why?


Cary Tennis
November 21, 2007 4:25PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

When I came into corporate America, I had lots of enthusiasm but little experience. So I listened and learned, and when my department went through a series of changes, I was told I had an excellent attitude and that, if anything, I should question management more.

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I got a promotion. Then I changed jobs. My new boss was a wreck -- stopped showing up to work; disappeared for a few weeks to get his mental health together, returned but wasn't very good at making decisions. Trouble is, he became ridiculously focused on me! He decided I was "arrogant" and a jerk and literally cringed every time I talked.

OK, so I tell myself, the guy's being a jerk, but we all have bad times. I approached him about getting the work done, told him I was there to support him and that I needed him to be my boss and that I liked having him above me because I still have lots to learn. Sounds like sucking up -- but I really did want a boss! I was in a new situation and needed someone to help guide me. It was all true! After about a year, my boss's behavior did not improve much. I approached his boss and asked if he could help me get the work I was tasked with done a bit easier. This guy asked me if I thought I could do my boss's job -- to which I replied, "No."

He said, "Are you sure? I was in a situation like this once and it was a great career move for me."

OK, so looking back now, I realize I was an idiot for not reading between the lines, but long story short, I didn't want to get ahead by kicking someone when they were down. I left that job about a year ago and moved elsewhere in the company. I know from a friend that when I left, there was a long period of time where my boss and co-worker celebrated because I was gone -- me, the evil one, you see. Then, after a few months without me, my boss's position was changed, and all his direct reports were taken away from him because, well, the poor guy couldn't do it.

OK, so here's my new job ... Everything going well, except ... after a few months, my boss starts saying things like, "You're so brilliant, you could have my job." But not in an "Oh, I'm so excited to give it to you!" way. Every time, I'd laugh and say something like, "Oh, you're too kind," and, "Oh, yeah right -- like I'd be able to get along at all here without you to guide me." Both true statements in my opinion -- I'm in a new country, a new culture ... I've learned a lot from her. I do, in fact, need her guidance. Day before yesterday, though, it got super-weird again ... she told me that she was a bit jealous because our CEO was calling me now instead of her for stuff. And I said, "Hey, you know I just come and ask you the question and tell her what you've told me! And besides -- you know you can have her! (ha ha ha)." We had a good laugh, but now I am terrified that I am "hogging the spotlight" or "acting arrogant," which is not what I mean to do at all.

My old boss was having a tough time, so I ended up doing some of the things he was supposed to. That happens sometimes -- we are supposed to work as a team, help each other out, right? My current boss and I work side by side, and I've learned a lot from her, but she's out of the office two days a week, and in the interim, people come to me as they are supposed to.

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I get the feeling from both of these people that what they would like me to do is sit down, shut up and do nothing. That is hell for me. I'm sorry, I can't sit at work and do nothing. OK, so perhaps they would like it if I did less -- or took less credit. Well hell, I try my damnedest to always deflect credit to my boss, or share credit with the whole team. I don't want to be arrogant! I honestly believe it takes the work of all of us to make good work happen! The other side of the coin is that perhaps I'm just a naive goofball who doesn't know how to make people feel comfortable with me (could someone please tell me how?) as I gain more skills in the workplace. I've even considered that maybe I have no idea how to be OK with success, or that I have deep-seated issues with power and am uncomfortable being in a position of power, though to have the lifestyle I want, I need to be in management. This feels right -- I always prefer to be the straight man, the best friend, not the leader in a relationship.

I had an overbearing mom whose dying words to me were, "You will never be good enough." Ouch. But I've been to therapy my whole life (really) and that no longer hurts me like it used to. But I think it's somehow linked with this. This power thing. I was also abused as a child, and of course that probably feeds into feeling uncomfortable with power, too. But I cannot see how! How? Please make it clear to me so I can do something about it?

I'm good at what I do now. I like what I do. But I'm doing it wrong because I am alienating my bosses, and people I respect tell me I don't fit. But my work (and my team's work collectively) just won the highest national award it could win in its industry -- for two years in a row! And I like it. And I don't want to stop. But I know that good relationships are essential in business, and I think I may be alienating yet another boss. I mean, I'll never get promoted if my boss hates me! You know?

Sorry to go on and on. But this is making my life miserable. I just want to do the work I enjoy, hopefully be promoted in the next few months, and not make people feel threatened. Or at least know how to deal with it positively if I do.

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Don't Hate Me Because I'm Competent

Dear Don't Hate Me,

Thank you for your long letter. I condensed it a good bit but it still ranges fairly long. I trust you needed to write it that long to get to the nub of it.

Working with others is very, very hard. It took me until I was in my mid-40s, after years of struggling spiritually, and with addiction, and with relationships and my attitude toward money and work, until I found sufficient humility and balance that I could even work in an organization without tending to push it into turmoil and drama with my neediness, my sensitivity, my brilliance unseen and unacknowledged by others, my resentment and fear, my prickliness, my inability to listen to criticism.

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You may be better adjusted than I was as a young man. But I think you are quite right to sense that your difficulties at work are related somehow to your mother's words that you "will never be good enough."

How are they linked? I think they are linked in that you are performing to standards not generated by your company but generated by your mother. You are not so much trying to please your bosses as trying to meet some impossible inner standards, the legacy of your mother's hateful words. The excellence you strive for is not the excellence that would make others around you happier and more fulfilled in their work. It is an excellence of your own devising, rooted in your struggle with your mother's curse, your struggle to overcome those awful, dreadful, debilitating words.

To the degree that you are performing to standards generated by your mother and not by your company, you will always be out of sync with those around you. It may seem to you that others in the company are slackers. But the company is what it is. It is bigger than you. It wants what it wants. I have a feeling it just wants you to fit in.

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In our struggles to grow and adjust as individuals, we often underestimate the gravity and depth of our difficulties at work, preferring instead to concentrate on our personal relationships or on our inner dialogues. We see our troubles at work as arising from "office politics" or some such abstraction. Luckily, many workplaces do have a high degree of structure that allows us to simply "do our jobs and go home." But those jobs are often not the ones that promise actualization of our deepest talents. Those are just "day jobs." Wherever people are striving to achieve deeply rooted personal goals, the psyche comes into play, and with it all our family patterns, ideals, spiritual hungers and so forth.

Here is the thing about working for a company: You are never really working for a company. You are always working for individuals. They had mothers, too. They had hectoring fathers and bullying brothers and tormenting sisters and mothers who told them they would never be good enough, too. Those needs may be hidden but they are very real, and when people you work for think about you and whether you are "doing your job," they do not think in abstract terms about how excellent your work products were; they think in terms of "Does this person help me feel better about how the work is going? Or does this person point out my mistakes in subtle ways and make me feel like I'm incompetent? Do I feel more secure or less secure when this person is around? Am I glad this person is there or do I often feel it would be easier to just do it myself, in my own way? Do I wish this person were gone?"

In some relationships performance and achievement are rewarded, but in others performance and achievement are punished.

In a relationship between a subordinate and a superior, your performance and achievement may be a threat.

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So ask yourself: "What do the individuals I directly work for really want?" Do not ask what is best for the company. Ask: "What do these individuals want from me?" Picture them. What do they want?

Come up with your own answers. What you feel that they want may seem dull and uninspiring to you. It may seem stupid. You may feel that even imagining honestly what they are like is a form of elitism, and you may feel guilty about it. But try seeing them as they really are. There's nothing wrong with that. They're probably fine with the way they are.

Then ask yourself not what you can do to improve them or enlighten them, but what you can do to simply fit in and try to be a harmonious member of the group.

All the other stuff will come, I think, if you can just learn to be a harmonious member of the group. Performance and talent are not your problems. Performance will come easily to you. Knowledge of the company will come easily. But if you want to become a manager, you have to learn to work with people, and the first step in working with people is understanding what they want -- not what they are supposed to want, or what their job descriptions call for, but what they want just as people, just like you, with all the same fears and aspirations.

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Just try to relax and fit in for a while, and see if things don't start going a little better.


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