An entrepreneur struggles to shake off her past

How would you react to being sexually harassed by an employee?

By Alexander Stein
Featured on Fortune Small Business

(Fortune Small Business) – Debra Cullen (not her real name) has spent her life trying to keep things the same. “I don’t like change,” Cullen told me during our first therapy session. But her life has changed, and she’s at a loss.

Cullen, 44, owns and runs a mid-size East Coast sports-management agency. For two years she was sexually harassed by one of her best employees – let’s call him Todd. Cullen had hired Todd away from a rival agency. He was married and 15 years her senior. For a while they worked well together; Todd was a star agent and trusted confidant.

And then he changed. Cullen is tall and athletically slender, with blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes. She’s single, and in a male-dominated industry, her good looks had always been a strategic advantage. Until now.

Beginning as suggestive compliments about her appearance, Todd’s insinuations rapidly became explicit propositions. Distraught, Cullen considered jumping her own ship to escape. Then Todd announced that he was leaving and relocating to a distant city. Bullet dodged. But the pressure of fending him off and hiding the matter from her staff and friends had taken its toll.

Cullen was upset when she walked into my office, and I could understand why. But I was filled with questions. What had prevented this apparently strong, capable businesswoman from ending an abusive relationship? Why would she consider abandoning her business instead of firing Todd, her employee? Why the secrecy? And given her apparent passivity, how had Cullen built a successful business in a cutthroat industry dominated by powerful men?

Many folks behave self-destructively, despite knowing better. But most successful entrepreneurs are able to formulate a positive image of the future (also known as a goal) and then take concrete steps to realize that image. In other words, they embrace change.

Shadows of the past

But Cullen’s childhood experiences had left her with an abiding fear of change – at least in her personal life. By the time she was 12, Cullen and her family had moved 10 times, following her father, a college athletics coach, from job to job. “We left our house, school and friends one day, and the next, moved into a new house, started a new school and charged ahead without a hiccup,” she told me. No complaints. No whining. Just do it.

At critical junctures she was forced to abandon familiar surroundings and end important relationships. Her rare displays of sadness or anger were usually met with derision. “I tried to be perfect,” Cullen said. “I did everything I was supposed to, but nobody said ‘Thanks’ or ‘Good job,’ because we didn’t consider it anything special.”

I’m not suggesting a migrant childhood is traumatic by definition; a lot of families move around. But Cullen’s parents and siblings never let her adjust to all the changes or even express her true feelings about them. “I’d come home from school, Mom would tell me to pack, and we’d move the next day,” she recalls.

To a great extent, this childhood pattern explains why Cullen was unable to dismiss her obnoxious subordinate. He triggered painful memories of being pressured to do things she didn’t want to do. He made her feel weak, over-powered and humiliated – just like when she was a child.

Fortunately, in her analytic work with me, Cullen is gradually confronting and revising those debilitating ideas about strength and weakness, about admitting vulnerability and expressing feelings. At the same time, she’s learning to value the assets that made her successful in the first place: a deep understanding of her clients’ issues and an extraordinary ability to advocate their interests.

Slowly Cullen is learning to embrace change, not fear it. And that’s a lesson we can all take to heart in uncertain times.

Alexander Stein, Ph.D., is a practicing psychoanalyst in New York City and a principal in theBoswell Group, a consulting firm.