You're starting your own business only because you can't stand to work for yet another untalented, ungrateful boss. Or so you need to tell yourself, anyway

My group-therapy patient Doreen was, once again, speaking at great length about her frustration with her job--the company that didn't value her services enough, the boss who never listened to her suggestions. It simply wasn't fair, she said. Her new manager, a woman whom Doreen labeled a "catty ball breaker," was only the most recent entrant in a list of three bosses, none of whom would give Doreen the respect she felt she deserved.

The group had heard Doreen speak this way before--blaming others for her difficulties and describing her situation in such a repetitive manner that other group members became bored and irritated. Still, for Doreen any participation was an improvement. In most sessions she refused to take part at all, fending off inquiries with brief, defensive excuses. "I'm blanked out right now," she would insist, or "I just don't get it," with no explanation as to what she meant.

On this particular day I felt compelled to confront her about her complaints. "OK, I hear that your boss mistreats you," I said. "No one enjoys being mistreated. I understand that, but I feel it is important to turn your attention to these questions: What role do you play in this painful relationship with your boss? What could you do to improve the situation?"

"My boss is a bitch and you're asking about my role?" she asked, shaking her head.

"Doesn't it seem striking that this situation has developed at three different jobs?" I replied. "Maybe in some way that you don't recognize there's something you're doing that's contributing to all of this."

She fidgeted for a minute. "I'm stuck in the same shitty place. Why can't you help me instead of asking questions?" She seemed to disconnect, visibly reverting to her helpless posture. "I don't know what you want me to say," she said.

We've all been unhappy in our job, but the core of Doreen's problem, I'm certain, lay elsewhere--in her inability to take responsibility for her own life. It's a familiar issue, particularly for entrepreneurs, who at some point have to make the decision that they will be fully responsible for their own work environment. Even so, many are only too happy to rail on and on about their last boss, that miserable micromanager whose multifaceted incompetence left them no option but to set off on their own. But in truth, their outward-directed anger is an expression of a difficult internal struggle that most of us wage at one time or another: the battle between accepting responsibility for our own life decisions and our deep, enduring desire to have someone else take care of us.

It's a common and debilitating problem, and one that appears in many guises. Consider the following therapy incidents:

  • A patient involved in a highly destructive romantic relationship told me, "I can't bring myself to end it. Sometimes I pray that I'll catch him in bed with another woman, so I'll be able to leave him."
  • One group leader I know uses a "can't" bell, which he rings whenever a patient in his group says, "I can't." He rings and rings until the patient restates the sentence substituting "I won't."
  • A sexually compulsive patient on a business trip arrived in a city and immediately set about calling a number of women, attempting to set up a rendezvous. No luck! They all had previous engagements. His response: not disappointment but relief. "Thank God," he said, "now I can read and get a good night's sleep, which is what I wanted to do all along."

In fact, Doreen's complaint that I kept asking questions instead of offering help is itself very revealing. There's a comic pop-culture image that psychotherapists act as parrots, simply returning the patients' statements with questions. ("I don't know--what do you think you should do about x?") While there is a grain of truth to that accusation, there is also a serious, practical underpinning. All too frequently patients are looking for a therapist to answer questions for them--and will perform all sorts of verbal gymnastics in an attempt to give up responsibility for their own progress. It is the therapist's job not to give in to those varied, cunning strategies.

Accepting responsibility for our life situation is crucial in order to change and grow. But there are a number of powerful reasons that many of us go to great lengths to avoid doing so. First, the realization that you craft your own life design frequently brings forth guilt, casting earlier decisions in a less-than-flattering light. You may look at the dissatisfying path your life has taken and regret what you've done. "If I can change things now," you might ask, "why didn't I do so earlier?" Further, you may see that you have only yourself to blame for your predicament. Fortunately, that experience of regret offers the therapist some powerful leverage. I often ask patients to project themselves into the future and consider what they can do at this moment to avoid feeling angry with themselves later on. That forward-looking approach usually yields excellent fruit, giving patients a sense of control in pursuing their goals.

A second reason we resist assuming responsibility is that many of us have, buried within us, a wish for someone to take care of us. The French author AndrÉ Malraux once asked a parish priest, who had been hearing confession for 50 years, what he had learned about mankind. First of all, people are much more unhappy than one thinks, the priest replied, and the fundamental fact is that there is no such thing as a grown-up person. For us to assume responsibility fully, then, we have to give up the comforting notion that some adult will ultimately rescue us.

Third is the powerful notion that therapist Erich Fromm labeled the "lust for submission." Simply put, freedom, the immediate corollary to acknowledging our own position of responsibility, presents us with an awful quandary. While we ordinarily think of ourselves as yearning for freedom, it is also true that freedom invokes such fear in us that we race to give it up--embracing totalitarian regimes that remove the burden of choice from us. At times, it can seem that even a tyrant, as Fromm has written, is better than no leader at all, for leaders--from Stalin to parents to the executives for whom Doreen worked--provide us with structure, which is immensely comforting.

Starting your own business is an exhilarating and frightening leap, and one that invariably ignites those warring impulses. Not that entrepreneurs are likely to recognize what's at the core of their internal struggle. They often attribute their feelings of anxiety to inadequacy, believing that, as one patient told me, "if I were the real thing, it should be easy, right?" As business founders add employees, I've frequently heard them wonder why their hires demonstrate so much less commitment and enthusiasm than the founders themselves. It may have to do with the work environment, but as with Doreen, the discomfort felt by those hires may also reflect the fact that they simultaneously desire, and resent, any structure placed upon them.

So the next time you wonder about the grousing and grumbling you hear among your employees--the ones upon whom you've generously bestowed stock options--realize that their dissatisfaction may have little to do with you. More likely, it springs from the same place as the grumbling you have heard, and perhaps still hear, within yourself.

Irvin D. Yalom, M.D., the author of the novels Lying on the Couch and When Nietzsche Wept, is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. Ben Yalom, a San Francisco-based writer, is working on a book about remarkable individuals and their mentors.