Authentic Joy at Work: How Your Career Can Help You Heal Your Life


As a society, we’re used to hearing negative messages about how our jobs and workplaces are hazardous to our health. There are endless studies about our worklife promotes stressful lifestyle habits, invades our restorative family and personal time, stresses us out through being at the mercy of toxic bosses and coworkers, compromises our privacy, etc.  Our societal belief that our careers are bad for us is so ingrained in our subconscious that it’s almost like wallpaper: It’s there all the time, coloring our way of experiencing our days. It’s become a truism that, as a society, we’ve almost stopped double-checking entirely. As a result, when you look at HR programs, as supportive as they might be, they seem to be mainly designed to mitigate the negative health impacts on employees rather than enhance and celebrate all the positive health influences that careers bring our people.

Here’s another way of looking at your career. This applies to everyone, but it goes double (Triple? Quadruple?) for ASDPs (adult survivors of a damaged past). Work can help you heal your life. Since I write specifically for ASDPs (67% of Americans experienced at least one adverse event in their childhood; so this is a big audience), let’s focus just quickly on some of the life-limiting emotional wounds that ASDPs might bring to the workplace. Naturally, everyone is different. These examples may apply to you. Or not. Or you might have additional wounds to add to the list.

If you’re an ASDP, you were likely to believe that:

  • There’s a fundamental wrongness about you that makes you unworthy of any success or even respectful treatment that seems to come naturally to others at work;
  • Everyone “has it together,” except you;
  • You deserve the disrespectful treatment that you seem to attract from others;
  • Other people’s priorities are more urgent or important than yours;
  • Eventually everyone will see that you’re an imposter;
  • You can’t count on or trust anyone to keep their word;
  • You can’t let your guard down for even a second;
  • Overwhelm is the natural way to feel all the time;
  • You need to continuously prove yourself to others;
  • Whatever you do, even great accomplishments, are never enough;
  • You can never rest or celebrate because if you do, you’re letting your guard down;
  • If you do something wrong, even if you didn’t intend it, you will get into deep trouble.

You can recode your brain to give yourself the positive, resilient and optimistic life you want and deserve.

Do these beliefs sound familiar to you? What else might you add to the list?

Your past experiences and the lessons your parents or guardians taught you coded these beliefs into your brain. The people who gave you a damaged past taught you lessons about life, your rightful place in the world, and what to expect from others from a dysfunctional place themselves. Even if they looked successful to the outside world and on paper, you know what they were like behind closed doors. Now that you’re an adult, looking back, you probably would have wanted to rescue that child who was you. And give that child healthier caretakers.

And now you bring that coded brain of yours to work. You have seen that some of the old coping mechanisms that worked for you before no longer work for you now. For instance, where you might have once protected yourself by hiding, there really is no hiding in the day-to-dayness of the workplace. People see you every day and they come to know you by the way you behave – especially the way you handle stress and your workload in a team setting.

Here’s the great news: You can recode your brain to give yourself the positive, resilient and optimistic life you want and deserve. And your workplace gives you plenty of opportunities to rewrite your old coding into a great program that will take you to a new level of well-being.

As an ASDP, you know all about prevailing. And now you can work that special superpower to your advantage, and live a healing life that brings you joy.

Yes, People Can Change

And you can intentionally change in ways that will specifically benefit you and improve your life.

The key is psychoneuroplasticity – the science that has proven that we can write over old neuropathways that were installed in our brains as children. We can create new connections in our brains that reinforce positive messaging about ourselves, what we’re capable of, what we deserve, and what we can expect from life and others.

One of the most valuable approaches to making psychoneuroplasticity work for us on an intentional level is practicing what positive psychologist Martin Seligman describes as PERMA. This acronym stands for elements crucial for establishing an overall, sustained feeling of well-being. And here’s what’s cool:  We can activate all these elements in how we experience our work and careers on a day to day basis!

Ready to learn how? Here we go:

P stands for Positive Emotions:

Work gives us endless opportunities for positive emotions. This is especially the case in workplace cultures that are carefully stewarded by leadership that cares about day-in-and-day-out experiences on the job. But even if that’s not true for your company, you still can tap into on-the-job positive emotions. That time when you helped someone who was overwhelmed on a deadline. That time when someone helped you. That weekend when you and your team volunteered on a community service project. That quarterly goal that got met and everyone celebrated.

E stands for Engagement:

If there is an opportunity at work when you feel totally “in flow” in concentration on an effort that is personally meaningful to you, you’ve experienced engagement. When you understand exactly how your efforts serve the company’s big-picture goal, and you care about that, that’s engagement. When you feel authentically appreciated and recognized by your team and leaders, that’s engagement. When you care about the same things your company cares about, that’s engagement.

R stands for Relationships:

Your workplace is probably one environment in your life where people see you for who you are today, not the damaged past that haunts you to some degree or another. When you’re ready to build an identity for yourself that reflects who you are today, rather than what you have survived in the past, this is wonderfully freeing. You can use the workplace to create your own “brand,” and build authentic, trusting relationships that are mutually positive and supportive. You’re not denying or necessarily hiding your past in an unhealthy way. What you’re doing here in the context of building a positive life that you can call your own is replacing old, outdated beliefs and ways of relating to the world with healthy, experience-based, positive evidence that relationships that make you happy and at peace are within your grasp.

M stands for Meaning

One of the sad, debilitating lessons many ASDPs grow up with is the belief that there’s nothing they can do to make a positive difference in issues that are important to them. As children, they couldn’t influence the destructive behavior of the adults in their lives. But in the workplace, you can make a difference in important ways. Maybe the company’s mission is especially powerful to you – it serves humanity in some essential way that ignites your passion. Or you deeply care about your coworkers and you want to help them do their jobs.  There’s something about your job that has the potential of carrying valuable meaning. Find out what that meaning is, and focus your attention on how you’re effectively serving that meaning. And then you will be writing over the old brain coding that there is nothing you can do that will make a difference. Every day you can make an important difference at work in a way that’s meaningful. To yourself and everyone around you.

A stands for Achievement:

“Done” feels good, doesn’t it? Maybe for you “done” is a great day’s work. Or “done” is the completion of a course that qualifies you for the next stage in your career.  Or “done” is that great speech you gave at an industry conference. Setting a work goal and achieving it gives you a game-changing feeling of having some level of power or control over some aspect of your life. As you focus your energies and concentration toward that goal, that old, familiar feeling of out-of-control chaos has a chance to dissipate. And it’s replaced in your brain with the narrative that you can reach the goals you set out to achieve.

In his book, Flourish, Seligman talks about how PERMA counteracts depression, pessimism, overwhelm and debilitating, discouraging negative self-talk. He also shows how this new mindset empowers people to build more resilience and tap into fresh problem-solving abilities. The well-being that comes from PERMA is more sustainable and context-independent than simple happiness.

PERMA helps your mind prevail in a positive way over even the most discouraging of times in our lives and careers. As an ASDP, you know all about prevailing. And now you can work that special superpower to your advantage, and live a healing life that brings you joy.

Even at work. Or, rather, especially at work.

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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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