How Your HR Career Can Help You Heal Your Past


When you think about it, a strong argument can be made that we begin our organizational training and development almost from birth. Our first bosses – our parents – first put us through an extensive orientation program. Then they layer on the skills and experiential learning required to perform satisfactorily in our new company – our family.  As we master each level, we’re assigned new skills and behavioral trainings, presumably designed to equip us to one day succeed in the larger corporation – that conglomerate we call “life.”

We all recognize the importance of the early influence of great bosses in getting our careers off on the right foot. If we’re lucky, we learn great skills from successful leaders. We learn how to function at a high level, with optimism, possibility thinking, confidence, the ability to collaborate with others. We even learn how to be great leaders ourselves by modeling those we admire. We’re on our way to a relatively happy life, realizing our potential, and enjoying the day-to-day of working with teams of fellow talented, positive, possibility thinkers.

But millions of us aren’t so lucky. Some of us were born into a familial organization led by “bosses” who were themselves damaged, abusive, narcissistic, overbearing, addicted, hyper-critical, neglectful, unpredictable, controlling, sick, even violent.  And so, in our earliest orientation years, we learn to be defensive, fearful, untrusting, braced for crazy. We enter our adult years unskilled at handling the basics of life: Standing up for ourselves, negotiating, communicating effectively in high-stakes situations. We have to learn all those skills, quite literally, on the job. Or we fail at the profession of being a human performing well at our highest capacity, in any role.

Our profession gives us that place in the world, along with the skills and opportunities to heal as we go.

As you read these initial paragraphs, you might be thinking to yourself, “Phew! Did I ever get lucky!”  In which case, I’m sincerely happy for you. But you probably know plenty of HR colleagues who had a difficult start in life – people I call Adult Survivors of a Damaged Past (ASDPs). It only stands to reason, because ASDPs are known to be especially attracted to “helping” professions – the kind you see in healthcare settings, for instance. In the corporate model, what’s more “helping” than HR? (So, if you know others in HR who would appreciate this article, please pass it on!)

The HR career is a gift to ASDPs. We work so hard to find a place for ourselves in our profession, our community, and the world. Our HR profession gives us that place in the world, along with the skills and opportunities to heal as we go.  Here’s how:

Your HR career will give you the experience of belonging in a community.

Isolation is a common experience among ASDPs. Damaged parents, who were likely ASDPs themselves, want their secrets kept. So they consciously, or unconsciously, keep their children socially separate. Children are taught not to trust outsiders, or expose their home life to outside world scrutiny. As a result, when we grow up, we commonly bring with us the habit of isolation. But when we join the HR profession, we join a tight community of professional colleagues where we learn the basic skills of working closely with others. Much to our surprise, we discover that our corporate life helps us meet that very basic need on Maslow’s hierarchy of need -- belonging. We have a place to go where we are expected, needed, wanted, welcomed, respected, trusted and supported.

Your HR career will restore your faith in humanity (don’t laugh).

HR professionals love to share “can you top this?” stories of wild employee behaviors and demands at work. We all do. But underneath those anecdotes lies a fundamental belief in people that HR professionals willingly hold precious. In the HR profession, you have the chance to witness people from all walks of life doing their best, pulling together as teams, sacrificing their personal interests for the sake of the organization, simply being nice to each other in even the most stressful of circumstances.

Your HR career will help you build your faith in yourself.

Children who grew up in damaged families commonly learn the wrong things about themselves and their place in the world. Their parents can only teach them what they themselves know; they were taught by their damaged parents; and so on going back for generations. As a result, ASDPs learned by watching people in pain (emotionally and/or physically), and they commonly carry into their adult lives a legacy of failure, despair, and poor coping skills that just bring more trouble into their lives. But the HR profession gives you the opportunity to learn different, healthier techniques for dealing with life’s challenges, even beyond the workplace: Having difficult conversations; enjoying positive collaborations; setting and successfully meeting goals; negotiating so that everyone wins; managing mindset so you can replace pessimism with confidence and optimism in times of uncertainty.

Your HR profession will teach you how to trust.

The childhoods of ASDPs are commonly marked with episodes of broken trust and fear. Neglectful parents broke their promises. Systems, such as extended family relationships and even child protective services, that were supposed to protect you dropped the ball. Lies were more easily told than the truth. And you were expected to behave as if the disappointment and shame didn’t matter to you. In contrast, the organization culture is set up to rely on and reward accountability, fulfilled promises and commitments, a collaborative spirit in which teams work together fully expecting each other to show up and hold up their end of the agreement. HR teaches you that you can reasonably depend on systems to carry you through to kept promises and achieved goals.

Your HR profession will teach you skillsets of positivity that you can take home to your own family.

Your family’s painful legacy of dysfunction can stop with you. You can bring home all the skills and functional approaches to interpersonal relationships that you learn at work to teach future generations how to take on life with positive expectations, resilience, hope, joy, love, and self-acceptance.

Your HR profession shows you that you’re more than your past.

It’s safe to assume that most people you meet as an adult professional have no clue what your past was. They see you for who you are now: An accomplished, respected, functional, intelligent, friendly, curious, caring professional who wants the best for all your colleagues. They want to partner with you because of what you bring to the table today, not who you were when you were a child surviving a secret life.

No matter where you are in your HR career, you can be the CHRO of your own life and the destiny of your family. In the normal course of your professional development, you are transforming yourself into the leader who inspires, sets goals, transforms challenge into actionable vision, shows entire communities of talent a better future that’s within their reach. That community may be your colleagues at work. But at home, that community is your family.

Your HR career gives you what you need to start a new personal life story that can inspire thousands deep into the future.  You can be the one who future generations will point to and say, “This is our family hero – the one who started a new family story.”

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© 2019 Susan J. Schmitt


Bio: Susan J. Schmitt Winchester is the Senior Vice President, Chief HR Officer 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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