The One Question That Can Change Everything for ASDPs


When we were children just learning about life, the people with the most influence on our beliefs were the adults in our immediate circle – usually our parents, sometimes guardians, possibly other influential adults. But what if they were adult survivors of damaged pasts (ASDPs) themselves? The adults from their childhoods taught them harsh lessons about the world, and their place in it. And to be fair, those generations were likely ASDPs too. That’s how dysfunction and failure get passed on into the future.

This unhappy legacy can stop with you. You can be the one to put the stake in the ground and say, “Enough!” You can be the one to choose a more joyful, confident way to experience life – and then model new skills, behaviors, and beliefs about the world for future generations. You start by changing your assumptions about people and the way the world works. Get into the habit of asking yourself (and whatever family members are willing to join you on this adventure) this powerful question:

Are you sure?

Here’s what this looks like as a moment-by-moment practice:

“I have to be perfect all the time. Falling short of perfection will be held against me forever.”

Are you sure?

“It’s my job to please others.”

Are you sure?

“People can’t be trusted.”

Are you sure?

“My boss is in a bad mood. That must mean I did something wrong.”

Are you sure?

“I just got frowned at by a stranger. I’ve just been harshly judged.”

Are you sure?

“I will never be happy.”

Are you sure?


You can be the one to put the stake in the ground and say, “Enough!”

“My past defines who I am today.”

Are you sure?

“If I’m not explicitly invited, I am specifically unwelcome.”

Are you sure?

“People can’t change once they’re adults, which includes me.”

Are you sure?

“I don’t deserve to be happy if someone else is unhappy.”

Are you sure?

“If I have what someone else needs, I must give it to them, even if the sacrifice hurts me in some way.”

Are you sure?

“I can’t say no if that would disappoint others.”

Are you sure?

“The odds are stacked against me.”

Are you sure?

“Uncertainty means certain disaster or disappointment.”

Are you sure?

“Everyone else is perfect, happy, healthy. When they find out the truth about me, they’ll lose respect for me and I’ll be rejected.

Are you sure?

“Everyone else is stupid and screwed up. I’m the only one who sees the world correctly.”

Are you sure?

“Everyone else has it figured out except me.”

Are you sure?

Don’t blame yourself for carrying those beliefs into your adulthood. But it can all stop with you. There is almost always a more empowering, compassionate way to view the world.

These statements come from ASDPs I know. Do you recognize them? Or maybe you can think of others not listed here.  Here’s the thing to keep in mind and hold in your heart: If you have automatic negative beliefs about yourself or the world, they were likely installed by earlier generations who wanted to protect themselves and their secrets. Don’t blame them for teaching you only what they knew about life.

Why “Are You Sure?” Can Change Your Life

When you consider the above list of sample beliefs, you might recognize some. Or their example might bring to mind others that have become so ingrained in the way you experience life that they’re practically unconscious at this point. Either way, they are beliefs that were designed to keep you safe at one point, but instead they served to keep you playing small as you grew up to become a working adult. Or the influential adults in your childhood taught you some of these debilitating beliefs to explain away why they were struggling – even failing – to thrive themselves.

Overall, you can bundle all these beliefs and put them into a basket of hopelessness, barriers, even ongoing threat. These life lessons were passed on to you to help your caretakers cope with their own stress. The result: You ended up inheriting the stress itself, with few tools to cope with it in a healthy way.

Says Molly Birkholm, an expert in trauma treatment and resilience-based programs and co-founder of Warriors at Ease, which teaches yoga and meditation on military bases and throughout the Veterans Administration:  “If we believe that the world is a threatening place, we are likely to feel stressed most of the time.”

For ASDPs, that stress shows up as chronic stress – that ongoing hum of tension and dread that just won’t be relieved no matter how much you work, how frequently you job hop, how much chocolate you eat, how much wine you drink, how much money you lose at the slot machines. And then, because of the chronic stress, ASDPs suffer a higher incidence of high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, diabetes, premature aging, even cancer.

Chronic stress can literally make us stupid. It attacks the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain we depend on the most at work. And it makes us lonely, disconnecting us from not only others but also ourselves – which results in higher suicide rates and a life of violence.

So three simple words.  Are. You. Sure. Can they really change your life?  Yes. Here’s why: They make you stop that headlong run into a self-destructive thought pattern. If you recognize yourself as an ASDP, you already know that you grew up not getting everything you needed. But you got that basketload of messages you specifically didn’t need.

Undo those messages every time they come up as undeniable beliefs.  “Are you sure?” Look at each one as it comes up and you’ll very likely come to believe that, huh, maybe there’s a more helpful way to experience each moment as you learn healthier ways of interacting with people.

Don’t blame yourself for carrying those beliefs into your adulthood. But it can all stop with you. There is almost always a more empowering, compassionate way to view the world.

Now you have the single most important question to ask yourself every time a debilitating belief comes up for you. And as you reprogram your mind to take a moment and ask that one simple question, you are reaching into the future and influencing new generations to choose a more positive way to look at a happier life.

Yes, I’m sure about that.

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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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