As a therapist who works from an anti-oppressive, anti-capitalist standpoint, few things are as clear of a red flag to me as when a client tells me that they work in a place that says “we’re a family.” Before I was a therapist — in the years during and after college, when I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life and was working in jobs that mostly made me bored and deeply unhappy — I worked in places that touted the same line, and it never sat quite right with me. The longer I practice as a therapist, and the more I have the privilege of seeing folks supporting folks in untangling their family histories, the more I am able to understand and articulate why.
When you’re told at a job, “We’re all family here,” what you’re really being told is, “We expect you to blur the boundaries between your work life and your personal life.” Over a year into working from home, and the boundaries between when we’re working and when we’re just living our lives are even more hazy — though in historically exploitative industries (many of which, we learned this year, are simultaneously characterized as “essential” labor), enforcing boundaries at work that are respectful of our humanity and dignity has always been a struggle.
Some of the ways this manifests: working longer hours, suddenly, or as part of an ongoing expectation; taking on roles that were not in your job description or that you haven’t been trained to do in order to be a “team player” or “help out”; coming in on your day off, if coverage requires it; not being allowed to take time off without first checking in about how this will impact the rest of the employees or the needs of the business; and keeping mum about salaries and raises, in order not to rock the boat.
The really ironic thing about this phrase, to me, is that it’s not even trying to disguise any of this if you think about what it means to “be a family.” Very, very few of us were lucky enough to grow up in families that were great at boundaries, and there’s a pretty succinct explanation for why: Boundaries, under white supremacist, cis-heteropatriarchy, question and threaten the very structures and systems that maintain it.
If you’re someone with one or many marginalized identities, you’d probably be hard-pressed to point to the situations in which it was modeled and demonstrated to you that your preferences, desires, and boundaries matter. I know that as an afab (assigned female at birth) person who was socialized feminine, it took me years — years! And multiple unpleasant experiences, from the inconvenient to the traumatic — to learn how to say, “No.”
Standing firm in my own needs, expectations, and boundaries was never taught to me, and arguably, it is still something I’m learning to do. It wasn’t something I was taught in school, and while my parents did a good job of intoning, “No means no” to me and my brother when we were kids, as an adult, I am still just at the very beginning of identifying and understanding how normative gender roles influenced my parents’ relationship and therefore what was modeled to me about intimacy, emotional labor, and self-advocacy. Unsurprisingly, these patterns have reverberated both in my personal, intimate relationships, but also in my professional relationships, too.
The relationships that we get into in the workplace — between employer and employee, or manager and employee — are inherently hierarchical, and inherently coercive. We all need to work to survive, but in many industries, the work is at will, HR departments exist not to protect the employees but rather to protect the company, and, in the most exploitative industries certainly, but more commonly in general as well, unions are hard to come by. This doesn’t lend itself to an even playing field, and employees — who need to work to survive, pay their rent, and put food on their table — are extremely vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation.
It makes me wonder just exactly what type of families employers are referring to when they tell us, “We’re a family.” Even my clients who come from mostly loving and stable homes — homes where the parenting was “good enough” — often must unpack their relationships in childhood as a means of understanding their current predicaments and sources of stress, tension, and rupture in their intimate relationships in adulthood. Codependence, guilt around saying no, and fears of being vulnerable abound. It’s hard not to infer that this is what employers are implying when they insist that, “We’re all a family here,” whether you work in reception, as I did for many years, or in the service industry, as a teacher, at a bank, at a grocery store, or in a strip club.
This can be a challenging topic to navigate with clients, particularly because of the coercive dynamics that we’re all living under in our capitalist system. Clients are often anxious, depressed, and sometimes even traumatized from the experiences they have at work, and most of the time, my approach is one that centers harm reduction rather than working with the naive assumption that anyone can “just say no” and opt out of these dynamics without putting themselves almost immediately into severe economic precarity. (My perspective on this is informed by my work as, and with, sex workers.)
Ideally, yes, I try to support clients in making decisions around boundary-setting at work that feel empowering to them — and, all workers under a capitalist system are working under duress, under coercion. (The element of coercion with regard to work often only gets mentioned when we talk about sex work and sex workers, but the fact is, that unless you’re somehow independently wealthy, you’re working because you have no other choice but to work.)
One place I like to start, ironically, is to go with the statement, “We’re all a family here” and ask clients what that means to them. What did boundaries look like in their family of origin look like? What was modeled to them? What was it like to say no? To express displeasure? To ask for what you need? To state a boundary? Were boundaries respected? What feelings come up when they set a boundary — fear? Shame? Guilt? Resentment?
We may not be able to change, with any immediacy, the systems that we’re living in day after day, but sometimes, we can circumvent or soothe the discomfort and pain of having to live in these systems by learning more about ourselves. By investigating the relational blueprints we’re working with, sometimes we can identify what room there is to nudge ourselves in the direction of choices that allow us a little more agency, and breathing room.