“I’m not an ASDP but…your message really resonated with me.” Yes, I’ve heard that before. I’ve read that before. Heck. Even I still have trouble admitting to one person, never mind a whole audience, that I’m an ASDP myself. There are times I still stumble over the acronym. Adult Survivor of a Damaged Past. But, yes, there’s no getting around it. That’s me. Is that you? I have known so many people who reject the idea that they’re ASDPs because they carry this belief, even an unconscious one, that having a damaged past means that they are damaged themselves. A damaged past does not mean a damaged you. In this article you’ll learn why.
I started noticing this pattern of people denying their damaged past earlier this Spring as I began speaking more publicly about the research I’m doing in this area. I was packing up after my keynote speech at the Maine HR Convention this past May where I debuted in a public forum the basic principles of my forthcoming book, Healing At Work: The Adult Survivor’s Guide to Using Career Conflicts to Overcome Your Past and Build the Future You Deserve. Up until that morning no one had formally spoken out about how the workplace can be a place where we can actually heal from our difficult start in life. And now people wanted to talk to me confidentially (I even got a hug from the A/V guy). But first they had to make sure that I understood that, “I’m not an ASDP, but….”
When the truth eventually comes out, your life will begin to change. I remember the day it happened to me. I had been seeing a therapist about how I showed up (or didn't show up) in my marriage to my now ex-husband. She gently suggested that I attend a week-long retreat at Onsite, a beautiful, rural retreat in Tennessee, dedicated to providing therapeutic and personal growth workshops. (Before you get excited, just know in advance that you have to give up your phone and laptop upon check-in. For seven days.) There were 32 of us in our group, although we were often broken into smaller groups of 8. Suffice it to say, it got intense pretty quickly.
No one had ever said that to me before. I had never in my entire life acknowledged that what I had experienced in my family was, over time, traumatic.
The exercise of one particular day was to draw on poster board a timeline of our lives, not tracking the highlights of our lives, but noting episodes of trauma that we experienced while growing up. We were asked to think about both large and small traumas. When I stepped back from what I had created and told the group my story, the group therapist* simply observed, “You have had a lot of trauma in your life, Susan.” With that I burst into tears.
No one had ever said that to me before. I had never in my entire life acknowledged that what I had experienced in my family was, over time, traumatic. In that moment at Onsite, I felt that my cumulative experiences were acknowledged and validated. I won’t describe what happened next, out of respect for Onsite and its processes. But that day picked me up, and put me back down, standing solidly on my own two feet, searching for the many, many answers to the question, “What do I do with this knowledge and insight now?” This work that you see here is one of the answers.
There are so many reasons why our adult versions don’t allow ourselves to fully recognize the extent to which we suffered as children:
- We ASDPs grow up holding the secret that we’re suffering because we feel we have to protect our parents, who are likely to be ASDPs themselves, never getting what they needed while growing up. Now it’s up to us to make sure they’re protected because we know so much is at stake. Their reputations. Their careers. Their standing in the community. Their feelings. Now and forever. Is it any wonder that, even if we know the facts and details intellectually, on a deep, identity level we learned to keep their secret, and its impact, even from ourselves? And we carry that habit into our adulthoods? And then when someone actually puts words to our buried feelings, it comes as a shock. It can be even a frightening moment. And then there may be tears. But there will be breakthroughs.
- We might still be emotionally dependent on the caretakers of our past, even if they have died. ASDPs commonly don’t fully emotionally separate from their parents or guardians. We still worry about their disapproval, somehow falling short of their high expectations. We want to keep their legend alive and honored. That’s what they expected of us then; that’s what they would expect of us now. We must continue to obey.
- They told us, “Stop crying, or I’ll give you something to really cry about.” They reminded us that our basic needs were met, food on table, roof over head, shirt on back. I remember reading the book, The Prince of Tides, and thinking about what monstrous things were done to the three children of the protagonist’s past. My past was nothing like that. So what did I have to complain about? Many of us get into the practice of minimizing our own damage, using comparison as the tool to our own disadvantage. Soon that practice becomes habit, and then we don’t even realize anymore that we’re actually diminishing ourselves by our own minimizing self-talk. And then we believe it when we say, “I’m not an ASDP, but….”
- We worry about the feelings of our fellow survivors, even decades after the negative events occurred. Our sober, responsible parents did the best they could under impossible circumstances. They were younger then than we are now. They did their best. What possible good would it do to drag up old memories that can’t be re-lived with happier endings? Why bring them more pain now, especially when times are peaceful? Haven’t they earned the right to experience some kindness and consideration, now that you’re all grown up?
- When we do actually think about what happened to us in our pasts, we take some kind of stoic pride in how we are able to be successful and functional (in our own minds, at least) despite the emotional disadvantages and diminishing messages we had growing up. We’re kidding ourselves, really, because what we’re actually doing is feeding a tendency of over-achievement and, often, perfectionism, while continuing to deny ourselves some of the emotional basics that would make us feel whole and give us confidence and peace of mind if we only allowed ourselves to look at what we need. One ASDP I know says that inside she feels like the hollow core of a toilet paper roll. Outside is clean, abundant, useful, like a new roll of toilet paper. But inside, there’s just the emptiness of the cardboard roll that’s left when all the goodness is used up. She says that feeling of emptiness just never goes away.
- And, finally, what would happen to our careers should the truth about our past come out? We work hard to be the reliable, creative, innovative, energetic, positive, contributing professional who dependably overdelivers every day. Why compromise that reputation with letting a truth or two squeak out in an unguarded moment? Why become the one about whom coworkers whisper to each other, “That’s the one who…?
We’re so habituated to hiding the thing that makes us most ashamed that we don’t have the chance to stop and consider the gifts our damaged pasts bring to our adult lives.
Said Carole, whose 42-year-old alcoholic mother died when she was only 12: “I hear colleagues complain about some petty thing going in their lives at the moment – a fight, say, with their mother. And I think to myself, ‘If you only knew what I don’t complain about, it would ruin your whole day.’ And then I think, ‘They probably have secrets as big as mine.’ I know I have my secrets, so why wouldn’t others have theirs? I think my own past gives me a depth of empathy and acceptance that I might not otherwise have.”
We are in the habit of worrying that if our secrets are discovered, our professional reputation might be ruined. Our chances of promotion might be threatened. Even now, as I write this, I wonder, “Who at work is going to see this and maybe start having doubts about my professional abilities?”
The most valuable reminder I have to offer you is the one I have to remind myself: A damaged past does not mean that we are damaged.
In fact, we’re so habituated to hiding the thing that makes us most ashamed that we don’t have the chance to stop and consider the gifts our damaged pasts bring to our adult lives. We bring to work the empathy that Carole speaks of. We have a kind of sixth sense in that we know on an intuitive level when people are struggling with issues that are getting in the way of their work. We can be very effective leaders because we have already done much of the truly hard work on ourselves. We are self-aware. And we bring a level of compassion to the workplace because we know what it feels like to stand up to and survive some extremely difficult times. Our willingness to own the past and the effect it continues to have on us today empowers us to support our colleagues and direct reports in a way that perhaps they have never felt before.
So. When we meet at a speech or lecture, I’m not going to say, “Yeah, right,” when you come up to me and say, “I’m not an ASDP, but….” I’ll take you at face value and let you tell me your story exactly how you feel safe to. But if you do want to risk it, and speak your true past, come sit by me.
*I remember the therapist’s name but won’t mention it here out of respect for his privacy. Confidential to C: I think of you almost every day with immense gratitude.
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