How Your Past Lives Rent-Free in Your Present (Part 1)


I am beginning to spread the word about how to build a life of self-acceptance and joy, despite self-esteem wounds that so many of us bring into our adult lives. When I first began this research I specifically looked at adults whose childhoods were negatively impacted by parents and guardians who were alcoholics, narcissists, addicts, etc. But then someone came up to me after a speech a couple of weeks ago and said, “How about people who had great home lives but were bullied at school?” And then more people told me that they don’t remember a necessarily difficult childhood. But somehow they carried with them into their adulthood a debilitating or limiting belief or expectation that is holding them back from their ability to live out their full potential in their careers. (You may be thinking, “This doesn’t apply to me.” But if you’re experiencing stress, anxiety and worry at work, come along on this journey anyway because you may recognize some of the experiences I’m about to describe.)

And I’m struck by some of the messages I’m getting from my early readers. They begin with, “I’m not an adult survivor of a damaged past (ASDP), but….”  And then they describe the stress, anxiety and worry at work they face today. And now they’re writing to me seeking insight. But first they have to reassure me that they’re not ASDPs themselves. (I expect before too long, I’m going to get an email that concludes with, “Asking for a friend.”)

Why are we so reluctant to look at our pasts and point to specific events that have lasting impacts on our futures? I have some guesses to put out there:

  1. We’re still loyal to our parents and want to protect them from the judgments of others. And the last thing we want to do is devastate them with “accusations” from long ago that they have absolutely no power to change now.
  2. We don't want to, either explicitly or implicitly, admit any weakness to anyone. We have become experts at image management and to suggest we have some part of us that is damaged is simply not possible.
  3. We may compare ourselves to others' stories and decide that ours wasn't nearly that bad as theirs. For example, many of us read the book or saw the movie, The Prince of Tides.  This story is an extreme example of abuse and childhood trauma. We minimize or rationalize our own stories because we conclude that ours wasn't "that bad."
  4. Some adults, some of us, came to believe that we didn’t deserve anything better. This could have been because of intentional or unintentional things that happened to us. That belief continues, even though we would never in a million years treat our own children or coworkers the same way we were treated.
  5. We don’t want to appear (even to ourselves) as someone who indulges in self-pity. No one wants to hear about our pasts over an expensive coffee at Starbucks. And how many times can you hear yourself going over old wounding events at a therapist’s without thinking to yourself, “Oh my gosh, just get over it already?
  6. We may doubt our own memories. Our parents or guardians might have told us “that didn’t happen.” Or “it wasn’t that big a deal; you’re blowing things out of proportion.”  Or “kids are resilient, they’ll get over it.” And psychologists have discovered something called false memory syndrome, in which people sincerely remember things that actually didn’t happen. And we wonder, “Maybe I made the whole thing up?”

We may think that we’re doing a masterful job of moving beyond the haunting feelings that something was wrong in our past. But the lasting effects still show up in our adult lives – especially at work.

We may think that we’re doing a masterful job of moving beyond the haunting feeling that something was wrong in our past. But the lasting effects still show up in our adult lives – especially at work:

  1. We have trouble asking for what we want or need.
  2. We believe that we are never good enough and need to keep proving ourselves.
  3. If we don’t have what we want or need, we believe that it’s because someone smarter, wiser, less crazy than us knows better than we do. And has decided accordingly. They’re right. We’re wrong. It’s better not to speak up.
  4. We feel manipulated by people who tell us they know a better way or promise us a feeling of approval, belonging and safety. All we have to do is set aside our own preferences and do what they say.
  5. We believe that unless we’re 100% perfect, we’ve 100% failed.
  6. Because of this pressure to be perfect, two things happen. Some of us become over-achievers, which is how I have a history of coping. Others have trouble starting or completing projects. And when they do finish a project, they deliver it with a sense of shame, “It could be better.”
  7. We either have trouble trusting our colleagues and teammates or we naïvely trust too easily, not discerning who is worthy of our respect and who is not.
  8. We feel constantly “braced for crazy,” someone else’s unpredictable outbursts of rage, even in the most benign situations. And when someone else does behave irrationally, we believe that somehow we’re the ones who caused the upset. Therefore, we deserve the resulting disrespectful treatment.  Underneath all of this, is a fear of getting into trouble and being punished.
  9. We believe we’re the only ones who feel this way. And so, we keep these debilitating feelings secret. As a result, we construct our own barriers to career success and personal healing.
  10. We can’t imagine a life where we’re not walking on eggshells trying to please people who won’t be pleased, no matter what we do.
  11. When things aren't going well, we quickly draw conclusions and make assumptions about the other person involved that fit our story from the past. "Uh oh, it must be my fault."
  12. We misinterpret a completely benign event, overreact emotionally, and we’re embarrassed afterwards because, not for the first time, we’re told, “If you only had given yourself the chance to understand the situation, you would have seen that it this was an easily manageable challenge.”

All these feelings and beliefs get in our way of living out our full potential and experiencing self-acceptance and joy at work. Even if our careers and resumes look great on paper, we know the secret hurt we carry with us. And, when we allow ourselves to really stop and look at what it’s doing to our lives, we realize we’re capable of so much more. If only we can set the pain aside.

Setting the pain aside is not about “curing” the past or blaming those who raised you. That ship has sailed and there’s no rewriting history.  Besides, if we stay stuck on blaming others for what's happening to us today, we give up all power to change our future.  And you can fill up your present and future with beliefs and experiences that together build a life of self-acceptance and positivity. You can learn new, healthy ways of thinking about yourself and your place in the world.  It takes practice, experience, learning, validation, support. And, yes, learnable skills.

But, assuming that you are indeed an ASDP, the first step is to gently and objectively address the fact that, yes, negative, and for many, even severely bad things really did happen to you as you were growing up. Psychological researchers have created a list of 10 damaging experiences that children suffer and that can affect the rest of their lives. In my next blog I’ll introduce them to you.

And then maybe you’ll know for sure whether you’re an ASDP. Or maybe you know someone you can help. And if you are not an ASDP but are dealing with more stress, anxiety and worry at work than you want, the lessons and skills we teach may very well serve you as well.

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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.

4 thoughts on “How Your Past Lives Rent-Free in Your Present (Part 1)”

  1. Susan,

    Thanks for sharing. Everyone we meet has a story and can be a short or long novel. Typically we meet them in the middle of their story. I have found as a leader that helping them shed the negativity of their past while shaping their future is our real work. It’s amazing to know how many lives we can change during our career journey. My greatest joy has been helping and healing through work. So glad you are putting context behind this work and sharing it with the world.

    Look forward to hearing and reading more…..

  2. Your descriptions of thought processes & mechanization an ASDP person goes through are spot on. They go on not just in the work environment but in every day life too. I’m looking forward to this journey with you. It doesn’t matter if a person has had marathon therapy or just enough to “cope” with a given situation, new insight in its always helpful and enlightening.

    • Thank you so much for your note and your words of encouragement.
      I am pleased you are on this journey with me.


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