I’ve been failing at jobs all of my working life. As a moody teen, I didn’t last a week at my first job folding clothes in an upscale children’s boutique where my minimum-wage earnings couldn’t even buy one designer sock. I was miserable at retail jobs, too, unable to keep customer complaints and cranky bosses from striking blows to my self-esteem. Despite being an extrovert, I also failed at service jobs, like the fancy spa in California’s wine country, where my obsessive manager’s daily scolds regularly sent me me into the supply closet for a private cry. In good jobs and bad jobs alike, no matter how kind my coworkers and supervisors, I would inevitably quit with a gust of relief that only lasted until the next job began. It wasn’t until I quit my last job more than 10 years ago to become a full-time freelance writer, a field in which I thrive, that it became clear I was the common denominator. Eventually, I began to wonder about the roots of my unemployability.
An answer may lie in research published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, which found that adults with insecure attachments to their parents or caregivers as children tend to perform poorly in tasks and work when under stress or when negative emotions are present. “Attachment theory claims that early relational experiences we make with our primary caregiver shape the way we regulate our emotions and organize our behavior within emotional relevant situations,” said a co-author of the study, Melanie Kungl, a professor of psychology at Germany’s University Erlangen-Nuremberg, in an interview. Children whose caregivers don’t respond to their needs or signs of emotional distress learn “defensive strategies,” such as suppressing feelings or using poor coping skills, whose high emotional cost they may pay later in life.
As a child who shuttled between my divorced parents from the age of 2, spending a week at a time at each house, insecure attachment fits the bill. What little I saw of my mother after she worked long hours behind a department store makeup counter, was often in a drunk or drugged stupor from which I could not always wake her to feed me or take me to school on time. And while my father was solid on structure — bedtimes and mealtimes always reliable — he made his living selling marijuana at a time when getting caught still brought a federal prison sentence. Our lives were shrouded in code words, “tomato plants,” and secrecy about the identities of the men who visited our house with their black duffel bags, barely-hidden guns and tinted car windows. I became a classic child of dysfunction, suppressing my negative feelings from my conscious mind, but radiating anxiety that made teachers worry about me, and other kids avoid me.
Kungl said that insecurely attached children turn into adults who deny negative emotions and are less willing to confront them. In the workplace, this translates to a reduced ability to perform tasks and solve problems rationally. “Negative emotional states challenge our capability to [focus] on what needs to be done at work, and we may find ourselves having trouble concentrating.”
To test this theory, she and her colleagues designed an experiment with two groups: adults who identified as insecurely attached, and a control group of securely attached people. Participants were presented with a sequence of two different stimuli on a monitor: the letter W and the letter M, which resemble each other at speed. Their task was to press a button as fast as possible whenever they detected the letter W, which appeared only 20 percent of the time. The letters were also embedded in sets of background photos that evoked different emotional contexts. “The challenge here was to ignore the picture and focus attention on the task, which was to detect the letter W,” Kungl said. What they found was that insecurely attached individuals “behaviorally perform worse than securely attached subjects when target stimuli were embedded in negative-emotion contexts, as opposed to securely attached controls.”
Kungl’s team also hooked the participants up to electroencephalogram machines, to read their brain waves. Insecure individuals had “smaller amplitudes” during negative-emotion conditions compared with the control group. “This means that the appearance of pictures that evoked negative emotions clearly drained on mental resources that are needed to allocate attention to a task.”
Insecure attachment, they determined, not only makes it hard for people to avoid negative emotions, it distracts from mental attention and performance in the workplace. It also suggests that negative emotions take up a greater share of an insecurely attached person’s cognitive resources than those with healthy attachment. Boy, did this hit home! I could lose an entire day’s productivity and even a night’s sleep over the most minor workplace conflict.
However, there is hope for the insecurely attached: Adults are capable of applying strategies to deal with negative situations, Kungl reminds us. One is to seek external help from a professional, loved one or friend to open up about difficult feelings rather than suppressing them. Another strategy is to “make meaning of our experiences,” she said, so “we can integrate our past in our life history.” In my case, I also needed a third variable: the freedom and privacy of working for myself to find space to work through difficult feelings without anyone’s scrutiny.
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