The 'walking wounded' and workplace dynamics

You may have heard the metaphor the walking wounded. It’s most commonly used in First Aid to refer to the people with minor injuries after an accident; the ones who get up and carry on while the urgent cases are attended to. But it’s a term also used in Counselling, (although as counsellors we use it in different ways). Since it’s used differently, I need to explain how I use it.

When I refer to the walking wounded, I’m talking about us. We’re walking around managing well; performing our roles; carrying out our jobs. But we have hidden emotional areas; painful ones. These are the parts of ourselves, the emotional wounds, we don’t show other people. Sometimes, we don’t even know about them ourselves, because they’re blind spots.

Unfortunately, we’re not as safe as we think, because wounding does reveal itself in a number of behavioural ways, and one way is through our reactivity. I’m not talking about everyday reactions (I don’t get on very well with that person), I’m talking about over-reactions (that person grates me so badly I want to smash them, or – I feel so insecure and anxious around that person I want to run away).

Of course we all get on with some people better than others, but there are some people who set our teeth on edge. We feel rage and extreme agitation. Or, on the other hand, the very sight of some people is enough to undermine our confidence, and we feel fearful, or threatened.

It often happens that there’s a mutual dynamic going on. What I’m saying is that the reactivity works both ways. In counselling language this is called psychodynamics, because it’s a two-way triggering process. You’re a reminder to each other of a conflictual relationship, or a power struggle, based in the past.

Sometimes, if your negative feelings are so deep that they’re not really about the person in your workplace at all, they’ll be rooted in childhood. It’s just that the tone of voice, the type of comment, the look, the mannerisms, are the same. And you wind each other up, or trigger the power play, and you can’t ignore it. You affect each other whether you like it or not. This is the unconscious level operating in the workplace.

Just to make it clear, when I talk about psychodynamics, I’m not referring to one-off over-reactions. I’m talking about reactivity that’s on-going and has a theme. You may be reacting to the authoritarianism; a request from them sounds like a command and your hackles go up. Or you’re reacting to their moodiness; it feels controlling because it affects the atmosphere of the workplace. It causes you to shrink and wither. Or maybe, it makes your blood boil, (there are as many emotional recordings and resulting reactivity, as there are people).

Sounds ridiculous? Maybe, but to be honest, workplaces can be ripe for anything to happen. The right explosive and they erupt. And we all know instances of workplace bullying.

The counselling approach I take is like peeling the layers off an onion, and getting to the core of the matter. It’s not far-fetched; it’s about exploring the storehouse of our emotional memory.

So if you’re in an explosive situation at work, or you’re being victimised, or bullied, and you suspect you also have an effect on the other person; then this is about examining your unconscious and bringing it to consciousness.

The unconscious won’t just go away. Changing or managing our behaviour – being more courteous, or more tolerant - won’t alter our deep inner core. The storehouse of the unconscious has been building up over a lifetime. So this is the goal, to discover what’s going on, to understand it, and deal with it.

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