Just so you know. Even though this is the first post of 2020, and even though the title is “The Rest of Your Life is Yours,” this isn’t one of those “today’s the first day of the rest of your life,” New Year’s inspirations. This is a very special message to a very specific group of people – those of us who grew up in unstable homes and who have brought into our adulthood negative beliefs about ourselves, our lives and the world. We have seen how experiences from our childhood created an adulthood that at times gets in the way of us achieving success, healthy relationships, self-acceptance, joy and a fundamental peace of mind.
We wonder if we’re doomed to struggle with our pasts for the rest of our lives. Will the way we started out dictate the way we experience life forever? Will we always be mostly “adult survivors,” identifying primarily with the memories of “adverse childhood experiences,” constantly working around them so that others never find out, hiding them behind a mask of smiles and confidence, over-achieving behavior and people pleasing, living in some level of constant stress, anxiety and worry?
Here’s my first piece of Happy New Year great news for you: No! The rest of your life really is yours. And with some understanding of how your brain works, you’ll be able to see how the stress you’re carrying around with you now is a completely normal reaction to what it is to become an adult survivor of a damaged past (ASDP). And how you can actually rewire your brain to become a flourishing and joyful adult.
In this first blog post of 2020, I am going to start treating you to excerpts and sneak peeks into 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 (Spring, 2020), which I’m writing with Martha I. Finney. I’m going to show you how a childhood marked with traumatic experiences changes your brain, which then affects the way you experience life long after the traumatic events are past. And then I’ll show you how the latest developments in positive psychology will offer you the tools to rebuild your brain so that it’s oriented to a healthy, functional, joyful, experience of your life moving forward.
The past really is in the past. The rest of your life really is yours. Isn’t it time you built a life that truly gives you joy?
The past really is in the past. The rest of your life really is yours. Isn’t it time you built a life that truly gives you joy?
Damaged is Not Doomed
As Martha and I have been researching Healing At Work over the last year, we have compared notes from our own personal pasts. We have also spoken with other ASDPs, as well as watched online FB groups to see how ASDPs continue to wrestle with their pasts, well into their adulthood, including at work. The stories are different, but with similar themes. Do any of these comments ring true for you?
- "No matter what I do, I never feel like it is enough".
- “Whenever I feel especially proud of an accomplishment I’ve worked hard for, I automatically remember my father telling me, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself.’ And then I feel bad for feeling good.”
- "I will focus on pleasing others and then maybe others will accept me".
- “I don’t feel that I deserve to be happy when there’s still someone in my family or on my team who is wrestling with a major life challenge. I tell myself that I can enjoy life when that problem is solved.”
- “I won’t ever deserve to call myself happy or a success until my father stops drinking.”
- “My parents were addicts and eased their anxieties with drugs. I don’t even drink, but overeating is the way to relieve stress.”
- “No matter what I achieve in life, as long as my mother tells me that I’m a disappointment to her, I will never feel worthy of anything – especially the positive regard of others.”
- “I grew up watching my parents make promises and break them. They set goals and never achieved any of them. My parents role-modeled big dreams and big failures. Is that why I constantly self-sabotage at work?”
- “Whenever someone says something nice or encouraging to me, there’s a big piece of me that wonders if they’re really talking down to me with hidden barbs of criticism.”
- “I always feel that even my best efforts at work aren’t good enough, and that there is someone who is secretly mad at me. I’m constantly braced for an unexpected outburst of anger. It never comes, of course, but it’s exhausting being on the alert and afraid all the time.”
- “I don’t mean to but it seems that I repeatedly offend people by the way I say things and my tone of voice. I’m a nice person, but people repeatedly tell me that I come across as mean, angry or judgmental. I don’t get it.”
- “I feel like I’m under some kind of evil spell. I know that I deserve a better life, but I can’t seem to snap out of this cloud of funk that covers over everything I do and experience. I just want to hide so that my coworkers can’t see how sad I really am inside.”
- “If my coworkers knew the real me, they’d either recoil in horror or disgust, or they wouldn’t respect me. I have to keep up appearances so that I don’t lose whatever effectiveness I have. It’s exhausting to hide behind this mask all the time. I’m constantly afraid I’m going to let it fall, and then my secret will be out.”
Do any of these thoughts feel familiar to you? Can you add different ones to the list? If you’re an ASDP, like Martha and I are, we’re thinking that you can. And that you’re probably emotionally exhausted. And that you’re wondering if there will ever be a time in your life when you’ll be able to leave all this behind you to finally build a life of self-acceptance and joy.
The short answer is yes. You deserve to take control of the life you build for yourself from this point forward. While you can’t undo the past, you can take steps to dissolve its negative effects on your life from now on. And you can also learn how your damaged past gives you gifts you would not otherwise have. Science has caught up with ASDPs since we were all children, struggling to thrive in troubled homes, governed by troubled adults. With every passing year, researchers in neuroscience and positive psychology are amassing new insights and techniques to help lead us out of that funk into a brighter future that sets the stage for a full life of potential, promise and joy.
So, if you’re an ASDP who struggles with enjoying life or achieving at school or work at a level that you know you’re capable of, it’s not a matter of attitude or laziness. You’ve been carrying around a brain that has been physically affected by your early experiences. Just as you wouldn’t expect yourself to run a marathon with a broken leg, if you’ve been beating yourself up for not performing at your desired level, the time has come to cut yourself a break.
A Little Bit About Your Brain
Let’s first talk about this word, trauma. If you find yourself resisting this word, for any reason, I respect that. You may have indeed had a completely trauma-free childhood. Or maybe you did experience some terrible events that made you feel unsafe, unworthy, unloved, or unwanted – or all of the above. If this is the first time you’ve stopped to even consider trauma as it might pertain to your life, I know how that feels, too. Even though I remember in great detail what happened to me and my sister growing up, I didn’t actually hear the word trauma associated with my childhood until I was 54!!! Yes, many of us minimize, rationalize or detach from negative things that happened to us when we were little. If trauma doesn't resonate for you, read on.
In this blog post, I list what the Center for Disease Control has identified as adverse experiences that can set a child on a painful, difficult lifelong path. If you can identify with any of them, or if they bring up similar memories – or if you know someone who can relate – you’re in the right room. Keep reading.
It’s not uncommon for adults to rationalize their harmful or neglectful treatment of the children in their care by saying, “Kids are resilient. They’ll get over it.” But brain researchers discovered that the brain itself is actually physically altered by traumatic experiences. Here are a few examples of what happens to the physical brain when it suffers emotional shocks or chronic stress and fear:
- The stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, weaken the learning areas of the developing brain, which ultimately compromise a child’s ability to learn and reason. The weakened neural pathways that have been exposed to cortisol and adrenaline, make the child less capable of coping with adversity as an adult.
- Trauma causes the hippocampus to shrink, which then impairs the child’s capacity for paying attention and retention.
- Trauma attacks the amygdala, which makes the child (and eventual adult) likely to react to emotional triggers and have difficulty regulating emotions.
- Trauma impacts activity in different areas of the cortex-frontal lobes. As a result, a survival response is easily and often triggered. And the ASDP is often on the alert for the next threat, the next “shoe to drop.” Psychologists refer to this as hypervigilance.
- And, as if that wasn’t enough, the ASDP not only actively struggles with life difficulties but also doesn’t get to enjoy the positive experiences of life. Researchers have observed that the “reward pathways” in the brain inhibit the ASDP from experiencing the pleasure of accomplishment and motivation.
So, if you’re an ASDP who struggles with enjoying life or achieving at school or work at a level that you know you’re capable of, it’s not a matter of attitude or laziness, or even the distractions of Facebook or Instagram. You’ve been carrying around a brain that has been physically affected to some extent by your early experiences. Just as you wouldn’t expect yourself to run a marathon with a broken leg, if you’ve been beating yourself up for not performing at your desired level, the time has come to cut yourself a break.
This Is Where the News Gets Good
Just as researchers have discovered that the ASDP brain is physically damaged, they are also compiling more and more evidence that you can actually fix it. The neuroscientists are fond of the word neuroplasticity to describe the fixable and changeable nature of our brains. Psychologists look to the field of positive psychology to reveal life practices that actually support the healing journey of the wounded ASDP brain.
So this is why I say, “The rest of your life is yours.” It’s not necessarily about coming to terms with your parents or guardians whom you might hold responsible for those childhood experiences that still haunt and distract you. Although it would be nice, and forgiveness is a healing path on its own. It’s about intentionally proclaiming your right to own your life’s journey starting now, and building up positive and meaningful experiences that fill your mind and start repairing your brain.
By now, most of us have heard about the power of positive thinking. Many successful people endorse the fundamental concept that good things will happen if you keep your mind focused on the “sunny side of life.” Others dismiss it as a bunch of hooey. (At its simplest level, if you have equal choices of positive and negative interpretations of an event, why not go for the positive? At least you’ll feel better while you wait for the event to unfold. Easier said than done, I know.)
Neuroscientists, who study the way the brain functions, have made discoveries that actually legitimize the concept of positive thinking. It all has to do with changing the physical nature of the brain by thinking new thoughts, which in turn create new neural pathways. All those negative stories that have been driven into your mind through destructive messaging as a child – and likely by yourself as you have taken on the job of beating yourself up – have created neural pathways that keep you caught under that spell. It’s like being on a runaway horse – that horse being your self-talk – running around a circular path that gets deeper and deeper with every cycle.
With patience, practice, and determination, you can redirect that self-talk horse to a different track. One that shows you beautiful scenery, kind faces of people sincerely cheering you on, fresh beliefs that support your dreams, goals and self-image. With every turn on this track, your horse digs a deeper, more defined, easily trackable path of joyful and supportive thoughts. And eventually, that old negative track gradually fills in and shuts down because it’s not being used anymore.
Which track do you want to choose? The choice is definitely yours. Because the rest of your life is yours.
Even though the concept of positive psychology has been around since the 1950s, it wasn’t until 1998 that it was formally established as a scientific field of study by psychologist and professor Martin Seligman. He has written that when he discovered upon successfully treating his patients for the painful, psychological issues that kept them from living full lives, his job was only half done. He may have had a “cured” patient, he wrote, but he also ended up with an “empty” patient. The discipline of psychology had been so focused on the pain that psychologists neglected to thoroughly understand what psychological attributes created fulfilled lives. A huge piece of the human psyche was begging to be explored and developed.
What does it take to be actually and actively happy? And how necessary is it to remove all sources of unhappiness to achieve happiness?
Depending on where you are in your own journey of self-discovery as an ASDP, you might already know how your childhood has colored your adult life with sadness, frustration, fear, anxiety, and stress. Maybe you believe that your adult life is permanently affected by the dysfunctions of your childhood. Maybe you believe that you can’t begin to build any positivity until you’ve resolved the painful issues of the past. That would be the old school way of addressing the past issues that are still driving the way you experience life today. Or you may even be completely unconscious of how negative things that happened to you when you were little are affecting you at work today. That was definitely true for me.
Remember the horse and the track we discussed above? Your resolve to move your horse to the positive track and start creating new grooves is the key to the research that Seligman and his colleagues have developed over the years. While many researchers are still pursuing an understanding of what makes happiness, Seligman has moved beyond that to an even more exciting question: What does it take to achieve well-being? He prefers well-being over happiness primarily because happiness can be fleeting, depending on temporary circumstances. Well-being is a sustained experience of life that overrides whatever might be happening to you from one day to the next.
If you really want to stake a claim to your life and call it yours, regardless of what dysfunctions and messaging might still be going on around you, well-being is what you want. Seligman has identified these five characteristics of a life of well-being:
- Positive emotions
They make up the acronym PERMA, which is much easier to remember. We’ll dive more deeply into PERMA in future blog posts this year. But for now, I want you to consider two things:
Each one of these characteristics are entirely within your control in your life and at work. You don’t need to have had a perfect childhood to “deserve” any of them. You don’t need to have someone else’s approval before you can reach for a better experience. Every single one of these is what you make of them. It might not be easy to improve your experience and it might force you to make some uncomfortable choices – having better relationships, for instance, might require that you intentionally change your circle of friends or your employer. But, if you bear in mind that if you keep your horse on the positive track, the deepening pathway will make improvements come more naturally in time.
And the second idea to keep in mind throughout 2020 is that you can experience all five of these characteristics at work. Of course, not every workplace culture is perfect. But it’s much easier to reach for a happier, healthier workplace environment where you can be proud of your achievements doing meaningful work with coworkers who inspire you than it might be to separate yourself from your painful family of origin.
You can make the decision right this very minute to start infusing your work life with PERMA attributes, and you can start compiling experiences and stories that will help you build the life you truly desire and deserve.
The rest of your life really is yours! Let’s make 2020 the year you grab the reins of that horse and create the path to a personal story of well-being that will inspire generations to come.
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© 2019 Susan J. Schmitt