How Your Past Lives Rent Free in Your Present (Part 2)

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“Life is difficult.”  M. Scott Peck opened his 1983 book, The Road Less Traveled, with these three simple words. And all over the world, hundreds of thousands of readers opened this landmark book, read the first sentence, and exhaled. As universal as the experience of a difficult life might be, to see those words written so simply and plainly was also an almost universal experience of “Oh, that’s right, I’m not alone.” Which is an easy truth to forget, particularly in a modern society where we’re expected to move through our days smoothly, creating no trouble or drama for others. (About the same time this book came out, there was an anti-perspirant commercial whose tag line was, “Never let ’em see you sweat.”)

And this is especially true at work, isn’t it? You’re expected to perform your role without apparent stress or strain. There is no room for self-doubt or anxiety. Your teammates want you to be easy and pleasant to work with. All. The. Time. You want to naturally attract the respect of your leaders, the collaboration of your colleagues, and the dedication of your direct reports. And everyone is watching. No pressure, though.

When you consider this list, you might discover that you’re one of the 67%. Or you know, love, or work with at least one person who is.

But your ability to pull this off is complicated by memories and messages from your past that may make life hard for you today. Bad things happen to everyone. That’s life, as Dr. Peck told us. And those of us who resist any feeling that even begins to look like self-pity will say, “Yeah, but what happened to me was nothing compared with fill in the blank.”  We have a wide variety of motivations to minimize or completely ignore the long-term effects of negative childhood experiences that continue to make our lives harder than they have to be now that we’re adults.

  • We believe that “dwelling on the past” gets us nowhere.
  • Our parents implicitly or explicitly told us that whatever happened to us (or whatever they did to us) was “no big deal.” Or that it didn’t happen at all.
  • We rationalized the bad experiences by telling ourselves that “my situation wasn’t nearly as bad as what others have dealt with.”
  • We have a conscious or unconscious shame that whatever happened to us as children must have been something we brought on ourselves.
  • We’re loyal to our parents or their memory. Now that we’re adults ourselves, we look back on them with compassion and understanding, “They did the very best with what they had.” Which is likely to be true. They probably came from damaged pasts themselves. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that our very real needs weren’t met.
  • We are a culture that celebrates “mind over matter” and discourages anything that even begins to hint of self-pity or wallowing in the unfixable past.  Even the band The Eagles, who made their fortune writing countless songs wallowing in self-pity, eventually wrote a song called “Get Over It.” No one likes a whiner, right?

Since the release of The Road Less Traveled, epidemiologists have been discovering that some childhood experiences really do have long-lasting impacts on a person’s prospects for living a healthy, fully self-actualized adulthood.  Even the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is getting in on the act. Why?  Not only are Adult Survivors of a Damaged Past (ASDPs) not alone, they make up at least 67% of the U.S. population. Of that 67%, it becomes a matter of scale.

While psychologists and therapists have long been aware of the mental health impacts of trauma-based childhoods, serious research into the physical long-term effects of these hard starts in life started only a couple of years after Peck’s book was published. Back in 1985, Dr. Vincent Felitti began connecting the dots between adult obesity and childhood trauma. Joined ultimately by CDC epidemiologists David Williamson and Robert Anda, they went on to establish a list called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that an individual might have experienced before age 18. There are 10 identified ACEs:

  1. Emotional abuse (recurrent)
  2. Physical abuse (recurrent)
  3. Sexual abuse (contact)
  4. Physical neglect
  5. Emotional neglect
  6. Substance abuse in the household
  7. Mental illness in the household (including living with someone with depression, mental illness, or who had attempted suicide)
  8. Mother treated violently
  9. Divorce or parental separation
  10. Criminal behavior (including a household member going to prison)

According to the book, The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-term Effects of Childhood Adversity, by Nadine Burke Harris, the researchers found that 67% of the population experienced at least one ACE while growing up. And 12.6% had four or more ACEs in their childhoods. The long-term physical impacts were also studied. The higher the individual’s score (one point per ACE), the higher the likelihood of experiencing heart disease, cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

That news is bad enough. But then layer on top of those statistics the likelihood of generations repeating the dysfunctions of generations before them, as well as the genetic likelihood of becoming abusers or addicts themselves. Then layer on top of that the beliefs about themselves and their worthiness that ASDPs bring with them into adulthood. Then layer on top of that the lack of healthy, positive social skills and performance habits that their parents or guardians neglected or were unable to teach them.  And now you’ve got a lot of troubled people coming to work every day for whom life is really difficult.

When you consider this list, you might discover that you’re one of the 67%. Or you know, love, or work with at least one person who is.

What I know as a CHRO who is also an ASDP is this:  ASDPs grow up with the heavy burden of keeping their family’s secret…secret. As ASDPs become adults, their family secrets transform into emotional obstacles to their own success, such as paralyzing self-doubt, people-pleasing, and trust issues. Many ASDPs I know report that having to go to work every day, seeing the same people, performing under some level of pressure, makes them feel vulnerable and exposed. That eventually their secret of having a troubled mind will be found out. Their mask of perfectionism and total self-control will be ripped off. And then some vague, horrible thing will happen – like their lives, security, careers will come flying apart.

Here’s the good news: While no one can undo the past, the workplace is where you can acquire truly learnable skills and insights that will help you discover ways of accepting yourself and your life story and as a result accept others more readily. When you’re in a community of people who sincerely care about your success, you are surrounded by people who will lift you up. And you will learn to see yourself through their eyes – not through the lens of your past.

That’s right. You really aren’t alone. We are here for you.

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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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