“WTF, ASDP?”

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(A note from Susan: ASDPs experience life and work in unique ways – as individual as our fingerprints.  All our life circumstances, how we were raised to believe about ourselves and what to believe about others, influence the career paths we end up on. My career path has been an international corporate one, where my success path continued to climb, despite the emotional turmoil I worked hard to overcome.  In contrast, my Healing at Work co-author, Martha Finney, decided to hop off the career path altogether and build a self-employed life of writing and publishing. Since our professional success stories are at opposite ends of the employment spectrum, we thought you might like to read about her experiences too. Here is Martha, in her own words.)

While Susan and I were wrapping up the final chapters of Healing at Work, I had a houseguest for an extended stay. After decades of solitary living, it was pleasant sharing my space with someone who is also a smart, self-employed, ambitious, idea-driven professional. Especially at the end of the day, when we would kick back and watch some TV together. She introduced me to some programs I would never have watched on my own – primarily competitive reality TV shows.

Competitive shows make me tense; everyone is so mean. If I’m going to watch a cooking show, for instance, I would naturally go for The Barefoot Contessa or The Pioneer Woman, where nice, smiling ladies cook yummy meals for loving friends and family. Everyone is welcome to sit down at the same table, eat the same thing, and smile kindly at each other. But my guest loves the cutthroat shows like Chopped and Top Chef. In these shows, there is only one winner at the end of the season. And everyone else disappears one by one, heartbroken and disappointed. Every night I would identify with the loser of the evening and feel demoralized by the zero-sum game aspect of storyline.

Things were a little different with the 2019 season of Top Chef, though. Everyone was so nice to each other. Sure, they were competitors, with only one clear winner at the end of the last episode. But there were many challenges where they were still expected to work in teams. By the time the last episode revealed the winner, she won the final challenge with the support of the others – the previous shows’ losers who returned to support her as sous chefs. If there is a codependent node in our brains, that aspect of the show lit up in my head like an arcade light.

“You know,” I mused as the final credits rolled, “If I won this show, I wouldn’t feel right taking the prize money all for myself.  I’d want to split it evenly among everyone. They all helped her get there.”

To which my guest – who has no trouble with the competitive spirit – looked at me aghast and said exactly this, “WTF, ASDP?”

I grew up with this constant sense of being in hiding. Hiding the fact that I was still growing up and needed at least one parent who was aware enough to teach me how to move through life with confidence and self-regard, not shame.

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Which was only my latest reminder that I’m not cut out for organizational life – especially if my getting the job meant that all the other applicants would lose out. My friend’s reaction to my out-loud thoughts also gave me some insight into what it must be like to work with me, when the occasion calls for group effort. How awkward would it be, for instance, for the other chefs on Top Chef to be told that the winner was divvying up her $250,000 prize so that everyone would get an equal share of the prize money?  Would they all be thinking to themselves, “WTF?” And reluctantly take the money anyway?  (In thinking this scenario all the way through, if I was one of the losers, would I have accepted my share like everyone else? It’s not entirely out of the question that I would divvy up even my share among my peers, willing to settle for bus fare home. With everyone, the chef competitors, the producers, the advertisers, the suppliers, the TV watchers in living rooms the world over going, “WTF?”)

Yes, I’m an ASDP. My mother was a violent alcoholic who drank so much she died of cirrhosis at age 42. She used her little girl as the scapegoat on whom she futilely tried to evacuate her own self-loathing. I was her “mini-me,” and it was easier to take her pain out on me than it was to look in the mirror. My father had a high-stress job with the CIA, which required secrecy and hypervigilance for the sake of national security. We moved once a year until I was 13; we were always afraid of being “discovered.” There were fights, police cars in the driveway with lights flashing red and blue in the night, hospital stays, broken bones, lies and neglect. The family motto seemed to be, “Kids are resilient, she’ll get over it.” When my mother died, my father and I went into a different kind of dysfunction – I spent my teenage years keeping him company night after night, quietly reading, both of us grateful for the serenity. Finally. In my relief, I had decided to take an emotional vacation from life. My only job was to be no trouble for my father.

I had stopped growing…all those teenage years when kids are supposed to be at least a little annoying as part of the natural maturing process, I was the ideal companion to a man who just wanted to take a breather from life as well. Kind of like his surrogate wife, secretly sacrificing my own needs out of awareness of the fact that he’d had enough family turmoil over the last couple of decades. No muss no fuss.

I grew up with this constant sense of being in hiding. Hiding the fact that I was still growing up and needed at least one parent who was aware enough to teach me how to move through life with confidence and self-regard, not shame. But I was still on the run. Traveling incognito. I was an escapee from my own life and the truth about what it was to be me. That fear of being discovered that I had grown up with? I took that fear with me into my adult life. And more than once I noticed my feelings and impulses and asked myself, “Why am I reacting to this situation like a fugitive?”

I carried this fear of discovery with me when I tried to join the world in a series of jobs. This was in the years before the world began to study and understand the common characteristics of adults who survived abused childhoods. All I knew was that I was weird, and my number one job was to hide the fact that I was freaking out inside. The day-to-day expectation of showing up at work looking relatively sane and competent made me feel at risk of being exposed. How long could I keep up the mask?

Being an ASDP brings a level of weirdness to the workplace. We’re trying to figure out what normal is in an entirely different community of people that has dysfunctions of its own – company politics; leaders with personal problems of their own, who may not be the most talented people people; being expected to do more with less; and that bugaboo that gets most of us at one time or another: competing with people we like for the one promotion opportunity that’s currently available. Non-ASDPs and ASDP colleagues alike are working out their own personal and professional challenges. And then we bring into the mix our own beliefs, behaviors, and anxieties. And we ASDPs tend to confuse others with bizarre behaviors that no one can predict – like my vicarious impulse to divvy up the hypothetical prize money. On a regular day-to-day basis, the overall vibe is just weird. We’re hiding something (our pain, our anxieties, our feelings of being unworthy or ashamed).

Being an ASDP brings a level of weirdness to the workplace. We’re trying to figure out what normal is in an entirely different community of people that has dysfunctions of its own.

How Being An ASDP Affected My Workplace Experience

I would routinely accept the initial rock-bottom salary offer, grateful that someone saw value in me, having no clue that a negotiation was expected. I took everything way too personally, routinely crying in the ladies room stall because someone looked sideways at me, or spoke with a slight edge in their voice. I always felt that when my boss was in a bad mood, it was about me and I was going to be fired. I wouldn’t have a clue exactly why but there was always this feeling of an axe hanging over my head on a fraying rope. Psychologists have noted that that’s a common feeling among traumatized people. They even have a name for it: Cherophobia (chero in Greek means rejoice).

I couldn’t say “no,” or “I don’t understand the assignment,” or “I’ve never done this before, can you tell me how to do this?” because I didn’t want to show people that I was stupid or unqualified for the workload. I would take on assignments that were over my head and the anxiety or confusion would slow me down. I hoped that acting “as if” (as if I was confident, as if I belonged, as if I was carefree, as if I was optimistic, as if I wasn’t frozen in fear) would build up an impression among my coworkers that I was competent, talented, valuable, dependable, etc. And that I’d just figure out the puzzle along the way. But instead, in retrospect, I think I just broadcasted a signal that I wasn’t being entirely authentic or maybe even, at times, sane. I developed a habit of changing jobs once a year, duplicating the rhythm of moving once a year as a child. My internal clock said, “Get out now before you’re found out.” (What being “found out” meant was anyone’s guess. The fugitive spirit inside me just said, “Time to split.”)

Because the therapy world was only just beginning to discover the long-term psychological and behavioral impacts of starting out life as abused children (and because of my own go-to habit of making my choices without benefit of the advice of others), I was finally exhausted by my string of failed attempts to fit in and function inside an organization setting. My few futile attempts to seek counseling make me cringe today when I remember how destructive they were – because, like me, the counselors didn’t have the confidence to say, “This is out of my range of competence.”

My decision: To be a self-employed writer and ultimate expert on – ironically – career success inside corporate cultures. The thing that eluded me personally was the question that has driven my entire career: How do people achieve fulfillment and reach their potential inside the work aspect of their lives?

Do I still travel incognito? To a certain degree, yes. But doesn’t everyone to some extent? Whether we’re ASDPs or not, we edit what we reveal about our true natures and pasts with the people we work with. That’s what keeps the organizational mechanism moving relatively friction-free. And that is, word has it, what makes us grown-ups. Even though we may not feel entirely grown up on the inside.

What Working With an ASDP Must Be Like for Others

When my houseguest reacted so strongly to my musings about sharing up the hypothetical Top Chef prize money, I started to think about how confusing it must be for others to have worked with me over the many jobs I had before I decided to jump off that career path altogether. What’s it like to work with ASDPs in general, for that matter?

Here are some characteristics generally associated with ASDPs. And how we might be experienced by our coworkers:

Many ASDPs feel constant pressure to be perfect. It’s challenging to relax with someone who isn’t comfortable in their own skin. So, as ASDPs tend to be hypervigilant about work, their colleagues pick up on that tension. Commonly, coworkers also interpret that ASDP drive for perfection as being competitive against them – therefore even untrustworthy. In reality, though, ASDPs are only competing against themselves and the voices in their heads telling them that they are unworthy unless they deliver flawless work.

Many ASDPs have trouble letting loose in a spirit of fun. When the family of origin is constantly in some kind of fugitive, survival mode, fun isn’t something that comes naturally. I remember as a pre-schooler standing apart from the rest of the kids playing on the playground, and thinking, “I don’t get it.” Today, as an adult, I look at photos on Linked In of workplace teams joyfully celebrating some off-site retreat and “goofball” team-building game, and I think, “I’m so glad I don’t have to do that.” I really can’t get excited about standing on the top of a telephone pole.

Many ASDPs don’t openly share personal stories. I can stand in a break room and listen to a colleague complain about his or her bossy mother. And not share a word about my own. My thinking: “If you knew even a smidgeon about my past, it would ruin your whole day.” Sharing personal stories is a culturally acceptable bonding ritual, the more reciprocal the better. But ASDPs whose pasts are so horrible that they believe that the movie Carrie has a happy ending, just don’t want to go there over the office coffee pot. They’re actually doing their non-ASDP colleagues a favor. But their colleagues can misinterpret the ASDP’s silence as being judging, secretive (in a bad way), stand-offish.

Many ASDPs have boundary issues. This is actually the opposite of being secretive. Some ASDPs don’t realize that their colleagues feel like they’re being held responsible for the ASDP’s feelings or “triggers.” Some ASDPs identify so thoroughly with their pasts still, not embracing the positive belief that the rest of their life is theirs to create what they want of it, that they over-burden their colleagues with their stories and feelings. Their coworkers discover that they have to modify their own behaviors to prevent emotional outbursts. And before long the workplace culture has a walking-on-eggshells feeling. And when the ASDP goes to the break-room for a fresh cup of coffee, everyone clears out.

Many ASDPs accidentally offend and hurt feelings. Sometimes, as an ASDP, it feels like you were raised by wolves. Overly strict caretakers compensate for their own personal shame by taking it out on the children – even in their facial expressions and their tone of voice. A coworker once said to me, “You know, you could have said that much more nicely and gotten an even better reaction from people.” And I thought I was being nice. More than once I’ve had people say to me, “Don’t look at me that way!” and I realize I’d been scowling. (In contrast, there’s a lovely young woman who works the drive-thru window at the café where I buy my stress-eating, comfort muffins. And the first time I saw her, I thought to myself, “Now here’s someone who has been smiled at since she was a baby.”)  Harsh words and stern expressions are “normal” to many ASDPs. And we learn very quickly in the workplace that what comes naturally to us is the very thing that gives others the wrong idea about who we are.

“Did I Say Too Much?”

As I write this, I wonder if I might have over-shared. But then I remember that the purpose of this piece is to let others know that they’re not alone.  If 100 people were to be crammed into the break room, statistically speaking, 67 of them would stick around and whisper in my ear, asking me if there’s a secret handshake we can all agree upon. It’s an isolating life, this business of trying to look like we’ve got it all together when we’re all just trying to get on with things and do the best we can.

A few years ago, I was having lunch at an elegant Washington, DC, place to see and be seen (the kind of high-quality, lifestyle moment that would have been completely beyond my mother’s imaginings). My lunchmate is also an ASDP.  Because of the very upsetting breaking news of that particular day, we had the following conversation:

Me: “Do you think that having been ASDPs might uniquely equip us to handle the chaos that might be coming our way as a nation?”

Him: “Maybe so. Or maybe we’ll be the first to break. And there will be pictures of us in The Washington Post yelling at taxi cabs and shaking our umbrellas at pigeons.”

We laughed sardonically and resumed eating our salads. The choice to eat a healthy lunch, I thought, is a vote for the future. All hell might break loose, but our arteries will be in great shape.

I look back on that day, and I consider the amazing collection of coincidences that brought Susan and me together on this project, and I am grateful for how our respective paths brought us to this place where we’re working together.

When I think about Susan’s courage and determination to thrive on the successful corporate career trajectory, I ask myself repeatedly, “How did she do that?” And I both admire and envy the fact that she has built a world-class niche and reputation.

When I think about my earliest decision to jump the career tracks, I know that I was both following my heart and my fears. And yet my life has given me gifts. For example, as a result of my career decision, I live in a beautiful resort mountain town where many people would love to live. But they can’t because towns like this aren’t good for growing corporate careers. So they can only come on vacation. I can live and work anywhere, and so I live and work here. I am comfortable in chaos and uncertainty – in my chosen lifestyle and workstyle, there is plenty of both.

My history and my father’s example, especially, has equipped me to establish intimate rapport with strangers quickly. And almost every conversation is deep with meaning. My life is varied, interesting, and I am led with a strong sense of purpose. True, it might take me longer to lose myself into the concentrated joys of creative flow than others because I have to settle down the PTSD drive to run away from my desk. But, thanks to this work, I know that I’m not the only one who has to tell the negative thoughts and urgings to simmer down so I can get some work done.

And the work itself? I have the freedom to choose the main theme of my professional life: Positive experiences in the workplace.

I have learned so much in the research of this book. My only wish is that I could have passed this knowledge on to my mother before it was too late for her.

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© 2019 Susan J. Schmitt

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Bio: Susan J. Schmitt is the Group Vice President, Head of Human Resources for Applied Materials, in Santa Clara, CA.  This article was written based on the principles from her forthcoming book, Healing at Work: The Adult Survivor’s Guide to Using Career Conflicts to Overcome Your Past and Build the Future You Deserve (with Martha I. Finney). Contact Susan here.

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