Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Mother and Child Fusion (or: Mr. Bowen, meet Mr. Berne.)

You cannot quit me so quickly
There's no hope in you for me
No corner you could squeeze me
But I got all the time for you, love

The Space Between
The tears we cry
Is the laughter keeps us coming back for more
The Space Between
The wicked lies we tell
And hope to keep safe from the pain

-- Dave Matthews Band, "The Space Between", Everyday Music

Yesterday, I made the decision not to do the interview with the big company on the East Coast. My choice was grounded in the realization that the intensity of the interview process would have been too severe, given it was supposed to be only a practice experience.

On Monday, one of the recruiters with whom I had been working called me to give me a walkthrough of what would happen during the interview. He said it should take 12 minutes, but it wound up being a 37 minute call. I took over three pages of notes, covering logistics, question topics, their interviewing technique.

He said that the interview is designed to determine whether the candidate fits a target personality, namely a person with the ability to think quickly on his or her feet, explain his or her position clearly, respond readily to frequent interruption, and withstand continuous questioning of judgment.

They do this by giving you tasks that require a lot of thinking and then frequently stopping you to ask questions. They might try to cast doubt on your thought processes even if you're on the right path, just to see how you react. This goes on for about 6 - 8 hours, depending on whether they believe you are a strong candidate, and there is little room to come up for air.

On Tuesday, the recruiting firm e-mailed me a document with a list of technical questions and programming tasks that candidates were being given over the past few days. Some things I could answer, but there were a lot of areas where I had skill gaps, gaps that were large enough that I couldn't cram for them within a couple of days. Most of these questions originated from either the esoteric regions of the C++ language or from things you see only in academic computer science courses.

Being a self-taught developer who had picked up things as he needed them, there's a lot of these areas that I know about, but I haven't invested the time to learn them in depth. It was becoming clearer to me that I probably wouldn't weather the interview both on knowledge areas and temperament. The hour or two multiple choice tests that I had been taking for prospective employers were draining enough for me. Extrapolating that out to four or five times the load plus interruptions, I probably would have been a frazzled mess.

My anxiety level was pretty high coming out of the weekend, but these two exchanges cranked it up to a whole new level. After a lot of agonizing, I placed a call on late Tuesday afternoon to the recruiter and explained my position tactfully and honestly, saying that I wanted to take the interview seriously and put my best foot forward. However, I felt that I couldn't do that with the skill gaps, and I had doubts that I would be the right personality fit. I thanked them for all the help they had provided and apologized for the cancellation. I told them had I known earlier about the interviewing process, I probably would not have agreed to the in-house interview.

I've talked about the need to face my fears, so one could argue that the decision to cancel was a cop out. "You surrendered to your overactive amygdala!" you might say, pointing a finger at me.

I don't think that was so much the case here. Anxiety has its role, and it's true that a lot of times, I feel anxiety based on imagined issues. This time, I had concrete information on the process, and I knew myself well enough that it was outside my capacity.

The real question is the agonizing I went through to make the decision. The only real loss on the part of the company was airfare (an electronic ticket at that) and a canceled hotel reservation. Moreover, I probably helped protect the reputation of the recruiter by not going through a process where I had a good chance of crashing and burning. Why was it so hard for me to make the phone call to cancel?

The answer lies in a realization I had in Monday's therapy session. While most of my work is done from the Bowenian mindset (differentiation of self), my therapist likes to put things in perspective by using ideas from Transactional Analysis, namely the parent and the child ego states.

My parent ego state is in the image of my mother, someone who lavished love based on my achievements and how they reflected upon her. When I did well in school, it made her look like a good mother, although she was largely an absentee figure in my upbringing. The praise that I got from her motivated me and became the cornerstone of my sense of validation. Isolation from my peers reinforced this bond to the point where it was nearly impossible for me to rebel openly against her.

Under that warped mental model, I managed to do pretty well academically up through my college years. The implicit fear was that if I failed to meet her expectations, she would withdraw, thereby completing her abandonment of me. To the child ego state, abandonment = death, so that means doing nothing to bring it about.

How does this relate back to what I'm going through now? The Achieve to Gain Approval model propelled me for a long time, so it is something my mind adopts when a large task comes along. I unconsciously attach to this task a person whose favor will be curried by its successful completion, and anything short of that is not an option. In this case, the recruiter filled this role quite nicely. I was no longer doing this interview for my benefit. I was doing it to make the recruiter look good.

It is quite plausible that the anxiety I was feeling was caused by the inner struggle between the child ego state and the parent ego state. The sensible adult, me in the present, was caught in the crossfire. A doodle I made during that therapy session depicts it pretty well.

The critical parent is on the left, the distressed child is on the right. I'm trapped in a box somewhere in between.

When I started therapy, I set a goal of increasing my differentiation of self, especially with my wife and relatives. This week I realized that the biggest fusion battle may not be going on with others; it's the one going on in my mind, between mother and child.

Once I was able understand that the indecision stemmed from this battle, I was able to calm down and call the recruiter to carry out the cancellation. And in reality, it turned out okay. No guilt or shaming from the recruiter... just thanks for my honesty. I was seeing alignment between who I was and what I was actually doing... I was taking a step closer to integrity.

My path to self validation requires that I get rid of the Achieve to Gain Approval model. In other words, I have to stop turning people into my mother.
blog comments powered by Disqus