Will your return to the office have a fairytale ending?
Heigh-ho! It's back to work we go - for many of us, at least. But whether you feel happy about returning to the office or a little bashful, it is still a time of great uncertainty.
Will it be safe? Will I harm my career if I don't go back? Will my boss accept my decision to carry on working from home? How we approach these questions will depend, to a large extent, on our personal 'script' - a kind of fairytale we created for ourselves in childhood which unconsciously drives many of our decisions. And like all fairytales, it will include an element of 'magical thinking'.
For example, if I want the happy ending I must work hard, suffer and wait to be kissed in my sleep by a (rather creepy) stranger. Such scripts, as they are called in the theory of transactional analysis, are a useful way of dealing with unresolved childhood issues such as how to get unconditional love and acceptance. Of course, their 'magical' solutions don't work when dealing with real-life practical issues such as navigating the return to workplaces amid a pandemic. But being aware of your personal script can help you understand and deal with some of the anxieties that will inevitably arise.
Let's say that when you were a child you received the unspoken message from your parents: 'We'll only love you if you work hard and put your own needs last.' They probably wouldn't have meant to give you this message, but may have been overwhelmed first-time parents who were unconsciously fearful of their own needs not being met.
Now let's say you have grown up and your boss asks you to come back to the office after lockdown.
This situation may well trigger stress - and with it a return to your childhood script. So instead of your boss's voice, on a subconscious level, you are hearing your mother or father telling you to put your own needs last in order to be loved and accepted.
Someone blindly following this script might agree to go back - even though they are not sure that all workplace safety precautions are being taken - because of their magical belief that unless they work hard and suffer, something terrible will happen.
Of course, every person's script is different. Another common one, which I have encountered among coaching clients, contains the message: 'Don't trust people.' Perhaps you unknowingly wrote this script for yourself when a parent or someone close to you went away or died, and it was a useful way for you to feel safe as a child. But when you are an adult deciding whether to trust your boss when he or she assures you there are office safety measures in place, it is no longer so helpful. If you take that leap of faith and return to work, it would mean deviating from your protective script - and inviting 'disaster'. So you stay at home, even though there might be benefits to going back.
It's important to say that your employer might really have failed to put in proper coronavirus precautions. On the other hand, they may have done far more than you assume. The truth is, nobody is quite sure how safe returning to offices is or even whether it's desirable at all. The only way to we can approach this situation of great stress and uncertainty with true confidence is to gather as much information as we need to make an informed adult decision. So if asked to go back into the office, we can choose not to either comply without question or blindly refuse but instead calmly weigh up the facts about, say, the frequency of deep cleaning, the amount of space between desks or the ventilation.
Re-write your script
In order to access the rational, adult parts of our minds it helps to be aware of the patterns from childhood that could be influencing our thoughts without us realising it. We all have life scripts and we all feel at least some anxiety about change and uncertainty. Understanding this can help us to feel we are not alone, and that we do not have to act out our childhood story - but are free to rewrite it, if we want.
While letting go of a belief in fairytale endings is uncomfortable, it gives us a chance to shape the story of our own lives - without having to wait for our slobbery prince to come.