Matt was unhappy with his job. He became an accountant because he thought it would please his parents and that it would prove that he was better than what they though he was.
His oldest brother had been divorced three times; his middle brother has been out of work for six years, but Matt is still a baby as far as his parents are concerned.
Matt has lunch every day with his co-worker, Neil, who is a year older. Matt looks up to Neil and respects him for his success at the firm. He compares himself to Neil, but Matt hates the feeling of inferiority that the comparison arouses in him.
In counseling, I asked Matt when else he felt this way.
Matt: “I used to suck my thumb. My family used to ridicule me for doing it. One night, I was just falling asleep. I was snug and warm in my bed, and all of a sudden, the lights went on, and my father and brothers were standing over me sucking their thumbs and laughing at me. I was frightened, and I cried, and they laughed at me, saying ‘Baby, baby, baby!’ I never forgot it.”
From this experience, Matt conveyed the following 1) “I do not live up to expectations. I am not good enough.” (2) “It doesn’t matter whether it’s my fault or not. I’m not good enough, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” (3) “Maybe someday, I will be acceptable, but in the meantime, I am unworthy.” (4) “Only my brothers are acceptable to my father. I wish I were like them, but I am not.” (5) “I don’t deserve to be happy and happiness can end in disaster without warning.”
Matt has carried these unhealthy feelings from childhood into adulthood. He was still comparing himself unfavorably to “stronger men” like Neil. Matt has never worked through his unhappy status as the baby in the family, and he looks forward to an idealized future when he will be a “real man” like Neil. In the meantime, Matt cannot live his life in the present. It is as if he would only fail and be humiliated again anyway, so, why bother? This is called “discouragement.” His very real success in the present does nothing to offset it.
The antidote to unfavorable comparison is confidence, which is exactly what Matt has never had. His homework was to get some.
Matt was having difficulty getting along with his temperamental supervisor, Bob. Matt tended to cast his boss in the same mold as his father, and to react to his criticisms accordingly — stuttering, flushing, cowering, and generally wishing he were dead.
Matt’s homework was to: (1) stop perceiving Bob as his father, (2) stop perceiving himself as a baby and victim, (3) disengage from Bob’s overcritical antagonism.
Two days later, Bob made a scene at a meeting because Matt made an inconsequential typo, the kind that happens every day. Instead of feeling like an inferior victim, Matt decided to respond appropriately.
He didn’t deny responsibility or make excuses, as Bob expected him to. He did the unexpected: he assumed responsibility for his error, “You’re right, Bob; I missed that one, didn’t I? I’ll take care of it.”
Bob’s jaw dropped. Matt took the offending piece of paper and walked out of Bob’s office a free man. He was not the runt of the litter anymore. He felt like an equal member of the human race, no more and no less than Bob or Neil or anyone else. He was able to validate his success in the present. He had earned it.