My son is 30 and a lawyer. He is ambitious and enthusiastic, but he’s now in his fourth job, and already wants to leave after just a few months.
When he starts a new job, he is generally happy, but within a short time he realises there’s a gap between the job description and the reality, and wants to get out because he feels he’s wasting his time. He says the problems he encounters are poor management and bad organisation.
Although I think each time he has good reasons to resign, I try to suggest that there might be something in him – his expectations, his choices – which could explain that “pattern”.
In his current job he resents his young superior’s constant rewriting of his contracts, mostly for minor grammatical details. He acknowledges that she is neither harassing him nor ill-intentioned.
His older sister (also a lawyer) sees nothing wrong in his boss’s behaviour. My son dismisses her help and thinks that she’s too “submissive”.
I told him recently that he can’t have it all. That it could never be perfect, just like in a relationship.
I would very much have liked to know what your son was like as a young boy. Could he take criticism? How was he with authority? He seems to struggle with seeing others’ point of view, or thinking he’s never wrong.
My specialist this week, psychotherapist Chris Mills, thought you sounded really sensible. You could see that there was a problem but realised that this may be down to your son’s attitude. “In a way,” said Mills, “your son’s fighting off admitting he has a problem, so he’s making the problem literally anybody else’s.”
What might this problem be? “For all that your son does brilliantly, he can’t seem to grasp that he can’t relate well to other people; if he could just admit that, it would transform his relationships and his working life would be more bearable.” The people around him seem to see this, yet he doesn’t.
“He reminds me of students I used to work with who never failed at anything and it made them incredibly fragile,” says Mills. “Failure, which is entirely ordinary, becomes terrifying to those who aren’t used to it. Sometimes people who are super intelligent find it incredibly difficult to adjust to the ordinariness of the everyday, which is full of people getting things wrong and disagreeing with you.” Mills further pointed out that success in everyday life is “being able to deal with that failure and not expecting life to be tidy or linear”.
We also thought it was interesting that he comes to talk to you. Mills thought it seemed slightly immature – that your son felt that only his mum really understood him.
I think you’re doing all the right things in bringing a bit of ordinariness to his complaints, and asking him to look at his own role in things. I know people like this: they leave job after job (or relationship, an interesting parallel you made there), never looking at the common denominator in all of it: themselves.
We learn by our failures and they help us develop. Acknowledging our failures is a strength, but only if we can see them as our failures, and not attribute them to others.
Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a family-related problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa on a family matter, please send your problem to [email protected]. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions: see gu.com/letters-terms.
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