(Disclaimer: If you’re an Adult Survivor of a Damaged Past (ASDP), some of what you will read below may feel familiar to you. But I also want to acknowledge the fact that your career success to date is as a result of a heroic effort to rise above your past. You have grown to be a self-actualized, competent, effective, successful adult. You bring high-achieving, high-performance standards to your career and company every day. And yet there are those remaining feelings that compromise the joy and self-acceptance that you also deserve to experience. This is what we’re talking about today.)
Nobody ever said that valuable gifts are only wrapped in pretty boxes and feel-good experiences. Some of the most valuable gifts of life hurt. And they hurt a lot because they force you to look unblinkingly at some fact of your life that is standing in the way of your growth and your ability to achieve your full potential.
This is the gift of the workplace as a powerful venue for healing from your damaged childhood. Many ASDPs, like me, the workplace is our first opportunity to realize just how much healing needs to be done. Up until our first job, we had been living inside the context of our damaged family, using all the powerful coping mechanisms that we had developed over time to help us survive the abuse, neglect, rage, lies, narcissism of those who were supposed to take care of us. As we grew up, those coping mechanisms have turned into behaviors that were our “normal.” And they were normal at home.
But maybe not so much in the workplace. We bring those old behaviors of surviving, succeeding, protecting ourselves and relationship-building into a relatively intimate culture (these people see you every day; some count on you to perform; others are judging your performance). And you’re suddenly feeling over-exposed and vulnerable all over again. It’s hard to hide your struggle and suffering. People are watching.
When shown this list for the first time, they often realize that they’re not alone in these feelings. And how they’ve grown up is actually a very normal outcome to a very abnormal childhood.
Oh My God, That’s Me!
More importantly, you can no longer hide your struggle and suffering from yourself. You may have grown up with the assumption that whatever happened to you in the past is in the past and can’t touch you now. That your new adult life is a fresh start, a clean slate. And any past unhappiness you haul into your new experiences is just something to get over already. You can power through anything, right? You’ve already proven you’re a survivor. It’s all just mind over matter. You don’t need any help, you think.
It’s often at this juncture when someone kind and caring notices your pain and gently asks you, “Have you ever seen the Laundry List?” The Laundry List was written by Tony A. and published in 1978 in the book, Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families. This book, lovingly referred to as the Big Red Book by millions of adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs) since, lists 14 common life experiences and emotions that ACOAs and children of dysfunctional families endure – often in silence and isolation. (Because we’re talking about adult survivors of a variety of damaged pasts, not just alcoholic caregivers, I’m going to use the acronym ASDP from here on out.)
When shown this list, they often realize for the first time that they’re not alone in these feelings. And how they’ve grown up is actually a very normal outcome to a very abnormal childhood. These 14 common life experiences and emotions stemmed from a set of coping mechanisms that ASDPs needed to survive. But now those same mechanisms are maladaptive, meaning that they’re getting in the way of living a life of happiness, healthy relationships, and successful careers.
Since my message to you is strictly focused on how to use the workplace as a venue for healing from the past, let’s just focus on your on-the-job experiences as we look at the Laundry List below. If you’re an ASDP, you will likely recognize yourself here (and if you know ASDPs, this would be a good list to show them):
1. We become isolated and afraid of people and authority figures. You are often uncomfortable working in teams where you have to rely on others to honor their commitments. And you are anxious when dealing with your boss – a feeling that is reminiscent of the way you used to feel with your parents.
2. We became approval seekers and lost our identity in the process. You are so eager to please people, you see yourself behaving like a puppy dog (I once discovered that I was acting like a golden retriever puppy in the company of my colleagues, whom I saw as hungry wolves and bears). Your coworkers don’t know what to make of you. And if asked if they respect and value you, they are likely to say no.
3. We are frightened by angry people and any personal criticism. You feel judged, small, and overpowered when your coworkers lose their temper, raise their voice, or blame you. You dread performance appraisals because negative observations make you feel like you’re being personally destroyed. No one really enjoys annual reviews. But where others might take a criticism as an isolated invitation to improve in that one area, you feel as though your worthiness as a human being has just been called into question.
4. We either become addicts, marry them or find another compulsive personality such as workaholism to fulfill our sick abandonment needs. As an ASDP, you commonly find yourself either working for other ASDPs or addicts. Or you discover that you’ve hired them. And suddenly, company objectives are interwoven with people trying to work out their childhood issues with their colleagues. And you’re all caught up in the drama.
5. We live life from the viewpoint of victims and are attracted by that weakness in our love and friendship relationships. You are drawn to personal friendships with colleagues who focus only on negative stories of victimhood or who routinely let down their teams. Just as importantly, you shy away from building personal relationships with empowered, successful coworkers who can be your true role models for building success.
6. We have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and it is easier for us to be concerned with others rather than ourselves; this enables us to avoid looking too closely at our own faults, etc. It’s said that ASDPs don’t have friendships (or healthy working relationships), they have case loads. Taking on other peoples’ problems helps you feel strong, even sane and stable. But, in truth, you’re just putting off the real hard work on yourself.
Do you have what it takes to be willing to lose a workplace relationship, a promotion, or even a job, if it means taking a stand for your professional reputation when someone demands just way too much?
7. We get guilt feelings when we stand up for ourselves instead of giving in to others. If you grew up in an abusive household, you remember how dangerous it was (and still can be) to stand up for yourself – especially to authority figures. Standing up for oneself is hard enough for anyone. But you never learned to skills of calmly establishing boundaries and saying no in a safe way. It has always been much easier to capitulate yet again, promising yourself that you’ll draw the line the next time when you’re feeling more confident. But that time never seems to come.
8. We became addicted to excitement. Do you say, “I work best under pressure?” Do you let things go neglected so long that by the time you get around to focusing on them you’re in a panic? Do people routinely come to you because you can reliably keep a cool head when chaos reigns?
9. We confuse love and pity and tend to love people we can pity and rescue. This is closely related to #6 above. This scenario might show up for you in that ASDPs confuse coaching with codependency when dealing with our coworkers. You find that you’re the one who always “has time” for a meeting from someone who just wants to vent. Hours go by, you haven’t done your own work, and the coworker is going over the same problem for the umpteenth time. This behavior intrudes on your home life as well, when you find yourself hanging on the phone listening to hours of the same unresolved dramas from coworkers who have your home phone number but no will to fix their own problems.
10. We have stuffed our feelings from our traumatic childhoods and have lost the ability to feel or express our feelings because it hurts so much – denial. If you are an ASDP, you probably grew up being told that many of your basic needs, preferences, wants were selfish – especially when compared with the magnitude of your parents’ requirements, worries, tragedies, addictions, moods, and other kinds of drama. If that was the case in your childhood, you grew the habit of telling yourself that you were insignificant, especially as compared with the larger issues swirling around you. Consequently, today you can talk yourself out of letting people know what you want – whether it’s a promotion, a raise, a new assignment, or even a desk chair that rolls smoothly. Someone else’s issues always take priority.
11. We judge ourselves harshly and have a very low sense of self-esteem. When we were children who depended utterly on our damaged parents or guardians, we came to our own conclusions as to why we weren't getting what we needed to thrive emotionally and physically. The adults in our lives couldn't be wrong – we needed them too much. So the only conclusion we came to is that we must have been bad and unworthy. Even as we grow into adults and can give ourselves what we need, that belief is still deeply ingrained. It touches every aspect of our lives, including our workdays and career. As a result, we overcompensate with perfectionism, we beat ourselves up for saying what we think is the wrong thing. We blow small mistakes out of proportion. We subconsciously signal to others that we volunteer to be the scapegoat, and it’s okay for them to take out their frustrations on us or use us as a pawn in office politics.
12. We are dependent personalities who are terrified of abandonment and will do anything to hold onto a relationship. We all know that it’s typically not cool to say to a coworker or boss, “It’s not my job.” But still there comes a time when someone at work pushes your boundaries, and you’re brought face-to-face with your will to say “no.” Do you have what it takes to be willing to lose a workplace relationship, a promotion, or even a job, if it means taking a stand for your professional reputation when someone demands just way too much?
13. Addiction is a family disease. We become para-addicts who took on the characteristics even though we don’t use the addictive substance ourselves. If you grew up with damaged parents, they taught you behaviors and dysfunctional ways of interacting with the world. Maybe you didn’t take on their addiction or foundational dysfunctional nature. But maybe you learned that it was okay to break your promises. That eating too much sugar is great for stress relief. That the best way to deal with a problem is to simply ignore it and it will eventually go away. That the best way to get someone’s attention or obedience is to yell at them. How do those old childhood lessons show up in the way you behave at work?
14. Para-addicts are reactors, rather than actors. Many ASDPs grow up believing that they are powerless to improve their situation. They’ve seen the adults in their lives make promises, try to keep them and give up at the first hint of struggle. These ASDPs grow up to believe that will power alone won’t enable them to create the change and improvement they dream of. Many simply become passive in the face of challenges that might be seen as opportunities by someone else. Instead of being the captain of their own ship sailing to the destination of their dreams, they’re bailing water constantly struggling to keep that ship from sinking.
Do any of the characteristics of the Laundry List sound like you? If you’re an ASDP, you probably identify with at least a few of them. The big surprise, here, is how they might show up at work for you.
The gift, though, is that the workplace is a great opportunity for you to learn new behaviors and beliefs that will help you not only thrive in your career but also benefit your private life as well. The workplace is where you will learn so much more about people and the way the world works beyond the tight confines of the troubled home of your childhood.
The workplace is also where you will meet other ASDPs (you didn’t think you’re the only one, did you?), who are struggling with the same issues you are. And then, when the moment is right, you can kindly and gently ask: "Do you know about the Laundry List?" And then sit with them as they realize, “Oh my gosh, that’s me!”
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© 2019 Susan J. Schmitt