For me, before my corporate jet encounter with the Pirate, showing up every day as the sweet little puppy dog was not working for me professionally. The stress of this constant and futile approval-seeking that I was subjecting myself to was threatening my physical and emotional health. I can only guess what unconscious buttons in these guys that my ridiculous behavior was pushing.
I wish I could say that the corporate jet moment of truth put a permanent stop to my people-pleasing behaviors and drive of approval-seeking forever. To be sure, it had a significant impact on my self awareness and my understanding how my behaviors invited certain kinds of unhealthy interactions with others. And I’ll always be grateful to my coach for helping me see what kind of dynamic I was creating that resulted in the exact opposite of what I really wanted. I wanted approval, respect, and a sense of validation and belonging. But the ways I went about going after those feelings were creating a dynamic that resulted in exclusion and disrespect.
It wasn’t until years later that I only just began the process of connecting the dots between my drive to please others – often at my own expense in some way – and what beliefs about myself that I had brought into my adult life from my childhood. Growing up I was driven to do anything I could to prevent another raging episode by my father. And I concluded that being the best girl ever – good grades and perfect, unprovoking behavior – would keep me safe from his rage one more day. And then another more day. And then the next.
What beliefs and behaviors did you learn as a child that you have unconsciously brought with you into your career? How have those beliefs and behaviors held you back from achieving the full potential that you know you are capable of? For me, it was the behavior of unconsciously seeking approval, more often than I care to admit, which resulted in some colleagues disrespecting me while I poured my life into my work – at the expense of anything that even resembled anything like work/life balance. For Martha, it was the belief that people can’t be trusted, which resulted in her choosing a solitary career path of being a writer. For someone else I know, it was the belief that the only way to be heard and respected was to behave outlandishly at work, yelling and shouting in meetings, and having over-the-top reactions to perceived slights. Someone else I know took on an unrelenting workload, without complaint, believing that if other people thought it was reasonable to heap the work on her, treating her like a pack mule, their demands and expectations must be appropriate. And her struggle was her own problem to cope with quietly. Someone else I know sees himself as a perpetual and helpless victim, always on the receiving end of other people’s maliciousness.
Those are only just a few examples of dysfunctional beliefs that are natural conclusions about the world that an ASDP might have learned as a child. And those beliefs are getting in our way. They are seriously negatively affecting us in ways that we may be completely unaware of. As many ASDPs have told me, “The formula of being driven, overachieving and constantly driving ourselves works for many years, until it doesn’t anymore [failed marriages, not taking care of our health, eating/drinking/spending too much, depression, moving away from our faith, etc.]. And then one day it all comes crashing down.”
So as much as we’d like to think that we left our painful childhood pasts behind us as we grew up, the workplace (and all those experiences we have working with colleagues who may represent to our subconscious various people from our young pasts) gives us fresh opportunities to discover what areas still need healing. And what opportunities we have to design and build full, healthy lives of self acceptance and joy – in all aspects of our lives, not just work.
Does this principle of using the workplace as a venue for emotional healing surprise you? As a culture, we have been taught to regard the typical workplace as a place of further wounding, not healing. Society will tell us that the workplace is an unhealthy environment where people mistreat each other, where we suffer stress-related physical ailments like high blood pressure, diabetes, addictions, and even cancers. But I’d like to use this chapter to invite you to look at the workplace through a different lens – the workplace offers many opportunities for healing, for finding your place in the world where you are welcomed by people who are glad to see you, and where you can fill your life’s days up using your potential and gifts to enjoy positive experiences and celebrate accomplishments. It’s a place where not only are you financially rewarded so you can take care of your fundamental material needs, but where you can also find meaning through fulfilling work and that sense of belonging that may have been missing up until now.
Exactly How Does This Healing-At-Work Thing Work?
When our friends think we’re overidentified with the work we do, they’ll remind us, “You’re not your job.” And they’re right. And when our friends think we’re overidentified with our wounded past to the point where we let the pain get in the way of our happiness, they’ll tell us, “You’re not your past.” And they’re sort of right about that. We learned about life and the world through our childhood experiences. And we bring those beliefs with us into our adulthood.
You’ve probably heard the expression, “Our past gives us lessons, but it’s not a life sentence.” When our wounded past consciously or unconsciously collides with our day-to-day career experiences, we’re presented with a choice: We can allow these impacts from the past – they occur in ordinary, everyday episodes that I call Bumper Car Moments – to wreck our reputations and threaten essential career
building relationships. Or we can be conscious of how these Bumper Car Moments can help us understand ourselves better and heal old wounds and correct limiting beliefs that we have dragged with us into our adult lives. We can use Bumper Car Moments as opportunities to practice different responses and gradually quiet the limiting belief voices that cling to us like burrs. And where better to experience a whole array of Bumper Car Moments than in the workplace?
We can do all that by intentionally rewiring our brain – taking advantage of that neuroplasticity we talked about earlier in this book – using positive (and sometimes even negative) experiences that we have at work to build new neuropathways that will eventually give us a brain that supports a calmer, happier, more focused, more productive, more optimistic sense of what we are capable in life overall.
In his book, The Power of Neuroplasticity, author Shad Helmstetter writes:
What goes on in your mind and in your life changes your brain physically. When you think or do something repeatedly, your brain actually changes its physical structure. Your environment, your experiences, your emotions, your attitudes, your self-talk, all of your perceptions – your brain is imprinting itself with every message it gets. And this discovery means that because your brain is constantly rewiring and changing itself, you are creating it at this moment, the person you’re going to become tomorrow, and you are physically wiring that person into your brain.
Martha and I are fond of reminding our readers, “The rest of your life is yours.” Neuroplasticity is the foundation of this statement. As much as we are truly affected by our past experiences and influences from others and their limiting beliefs – especially when we were children – we can start creating the rest of our lives starting now. Not by wishful thinking. Or artificially forced “positive thinking.” But by understanding the power of neuroplasticity and its therapeutic sibling, positive psychology, which is far more substantive than I initially understood it to be. And recognizing that we have all around us the tools and experiential opportunities to create the people we want to be. Not the people we were told we were by powerful, tormented early influencers who were struggling mightily with their own lives and taught us to see the world (and ourselves) through their own eyes. Those are lessons and beliefs we can start to undo any time.
So “healing in the workplace.” Is this a promise with an endpoint, after which everything will be rosy, happy, all the scars will disappear, your career will skyrocket, and all holiday family gatherings will be conflict-free? Well, that would be nice. And unlikely. (In fact, the healthier you become through healing at work, it’s possible you will see pushback from your family of origin because you might be demonstrating new ways of relating to them, to the world and to yourself that will feel like an affrontery, a rejection of established family cultural patterns. And someone might take it personally. And then make it their business to tell you all about how they don’t like the way you’ve changed. Change the rules of engagement unilaterally, and someone will likely tell you that they object. Just fair warning.)
Your family relationships will still be there. Your memories from the past won’t magically disappear. So, no, there is no endpoint with emotional healing, and there will be lingering scars. But with the healing that you take on in the workplace, using the equanimity- and awareness-building tools that you will be acquiring through the practices of positive psychology, neuroplasticity, and leveraging Bumper Car Moments at work, the power that the old wounding beliefs have held over you for so many decades will gradually give way to a healthier practice of separating yourself from other people’s issues, optimism, a grounded sense of compassion with boundaries, and a positive outlook. And those, in turn, will support and empower you as you discover new levels of self-acceptance and joy.
But what about those scars? Imagine having an accident with a kitchen knife. It’s severe enough that you have to go to the emergency room, which then sends you straight into surgery. It’s bad. And it needs expert attention. (This is just a metaphor, so don’t get too caught up in the grossness, especially if you don’t like the sight of blood.) Will there be a scar? You bet. But there will be one anyway. Would you rather have the scar from the damage? Or the healed, smoothed over evidence that you cared for yourself so much that you took action to stop the pain and the bleeding?
Your past will leave a mark. Depending on how horrible your past was, the mark could be intense too. But wouldn’t it be better if that mark told the story of how you prevailed? And healed? And found new opportunities to contribute your gifts to the world in healthy, meaningful ways?
That’s what the workplace can do for you. And all those relationships around you.
Exactly how does this work? Not by single-mindedly focusing on banishing the bad. But by replacing it – or, even better, displacing it – with an ever-growing accumulation of the good. When you pour more water into an already full glass, the water that was already there sloshes out. When you focus on pouring healing experiences, beliefs, and attitudes into your life, the new neuropathways will eventually render the old harmful beliefs, experiences, and attitudes obsolete. And your brain will start pruning and discarding those old, unwanted connections.
To be clear, the principles behind this message of healing in the workplace aren’t intended to replace whatever therapy program might be underway for you, either now or in the future. This framework is to support your growth and healing by using the elements already existing in your life as a working adult. Even if you’re working at home, which is very much the situation all over the world as we’re writing this book in 2020. It’s based on the philosophy and observations initially introduced by Martin Seligman, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of multiple books on the practical application of positive psychology. He has written over the years that he first discovered the need and role for positive psychology when he observed that his patients who were healed of their psychological pain weren’t necessarily happier people. They were healed “empty” people.
The removal of the pain didn’t automatically mean they had the skills and abilities to live lives that he would later describe as flourishing. To take the healing that extra step requires intentional noticing and onboarding of positive experiences. ‘Taking in the good,” as his colleagues would eventually phrase it. This can all be done by leveraging workplace conflict as your own laboratory for healing.
He writes: “Positive psychology holds that one of the best ways to help suffering people is to focus on positive things….Experiences that induce positive emotion cause negative emotion to dissipate rapidly.”
And then the idea is to keep repeating these experiences to further support the neuropathway connections that you want. In his book, Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness, Rick Hanson wrote, “In essence, you develop psychological resources by having sustained and repeated experiences of them that are turned into durable changes in your brain. You become more grateful, confident, or determined by repeatedly installing experiences of gratitude, confidence, or determination. Similarly, you center yourself increasingly…with an underlying sense of peace, contentment, and love – by having and internalizing many experiences of safety, satisfaction, and connection.”
(Notice those last three words: safety, satisfaction, and connection. If you know the famous triangle that makes up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you’ll recognize those as the first three must-haves that everyone needs in order to build the foundation of a satisfying life. And, assuming that you work for a company that cares about such things, isn’t it reasonable to be able to look for safety, satisfaction and connection at work?”)
Over the years, Seligman has been joined by hundreds of students, researchers, and scientists to further learn how positive psychology lays the foundation for a more rewarding life experience. And Seligman himself continues to refine his thinking on the subject. In one of his more recent books, he intentionally moves away from such words as happiness toward flourishing, which supports a fulfilling overall experience of well-being, without necessitating an ongoing positive feeling of happiness. You can flourish in the workplace, but, really, can you really expect to be happy 100 percent of the time?
Seligman writes that well-being theory features five elements that make up the actual experience of well-being (or flourishing). And, delightfully, you can identify and experience these elements at work:
Positive emotion. Seligman illustrates positive emotion as the pleasant life. In the workplace, you experience positive emotion on a day-to-day basis where the culture is congenial, trusting, you can focus on your work, setting aside the habit of hypervigilance long enough to get the work done, and the meeting concluded. Positive emotion comes when you generally like the work you do. It’s challenging but not so challenging that you experience toxic stress. You feel generally welcome, accepted and appreciated for who you are and your contributions to your community of coworkers. You may not realize the pleasantness of your life until one day you realize, “I’m not white-knuckling it here.” Maybe for the first time in your life. That’s positive emotion.
Engagement. Your company probably already has some kind of employee engagement or experience survey, which measures a wide variety of ways your company’s culture and values play out on a day-to day basis. Many companies start out their engagement journey by using off-the-shelf products like the famous Gallup Q12 Employee Engagement Survey. But as they gain more sophistication and experience in identifying what exactly they want to offer employees as an engagement experience, they customize their engagement descriptors. You’ll see some variations of these kinds of statements: “I trust that my supervisor cares about my professional development.” “I have the time, resources, skills, and materials that I need to do my job well.” “I am proud to tell my friends that I work for this company.” “I fully understand what is expected of me on a day-to-day basis.” To the non-ASDPs, these kinds of statements feel ordinary and the very least that can be expected of their daily working experience. But to ASDPs, who grew up in some level of chaos, where their needs might have been routinely put last on the list of family priorities, and where communication was unheard of, these kinds of descriptors are exotic indeed. To be able to go to work in a culture where these experiences of safety are expected is quite the exotic experience for hundreds of thousands of people who can’t shake the feeling that “the other shoe is about to drop.”
Positive relationships. No workplace is perfect. And I don’t know a soul who can’t tell you many, many stories about being on the receiving end of toxic internal politics, leaders, and colleagues at work. So I wouldn’t dream of trying to convince you that all workplace relationships are positive and without conflict. I also deeply believe that some of the most difficult negative relationships at work can teach us meaningful ways to develop more positive relationships with ourselves. The workplace gives you wide opportunities to develop relationships with people you would never meet otherwise – people who depend on you (and you depend on them) to work as teams to achieve mutually critical goals. Workplaces where the leadership places a high priority on safe places to learn, innovate and even fail provide an environment where your well-being is fostered in the company of people of many different backgrounds, with many different expectations other than to work together in harmony toward objectives you all share.
Even just having the experience of being in the company of people who are just kind to each other can be eye-opening. Martha recalls a time when she was visiting some family friends on Cape Cod the day after the patriarch had died unexpectedly. “I was the outsider in a living room full of people coming to Chatham from all over, all in various stages of grief. I discovered that I was unconsciously braced for a snarky comment or someone zinging an insult to another family member. But that wasn’t happening. I’ll never forget the a-ha moment when I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is how families act when they’re nice to each other.’ It was such a moment of revelation that I remember it to this day, over 20 years later.”
Meaning. You don’t have to feel that you’re saving the world in the work you do. And sometimes, even when you are saving the world, some days are so bogged down in administrivia that it’s hard to find the meaning on any average day. One of our friends works with Doctors Without Borders, which is one of the most meaningful jobs in the world. And even she will tell you that she knows that it’s time to come home for a rest leave when she finds the sound of gunfire going on outside the walls of her compound to be more irritating and disruptive than frightening. “I needed to get these emails written and the noise was distracting,” she’ll say with the same kind of roll of her eyes that is more expected from someone who is irritated by the line at the post office being too long.
So meaning isn’t about what you do and who you’re doing it for. It’s about the relevance of the work to you. In Martha’s research into the ordinary people love their jobs, she discovered that meaning breaks down into three categories. Each individual must be able to see how their work does one or more of these three things:
-Brings beauty into the world
No one else has to agree with you, or approve of the connection you make between meaning and the work you do. You must be able to see it for yourself. And when you do, you can see how your very existence benefits the world and humanity. No matter what your job is – unless you happen to be a drug dealer or a hit man – your job (and therefore your work) benefits mankind. Find that connection and you’ll get some of that positive emotion right off the bat.
Finally, Seligman identifies Achievement as the fifth component of well-being. We all want to know we’re competent, capable – especially if each accomplishment is successively more complex or challenging than the previous one. That is achievement. It’s a closed loop experience where we open the loop by setting an objective (or agreeing to take on an objective that our managers set for us). Then we pursue that objective until we accomplish it. And that’s when the loop closes so satisfyingly.
You make plan for the month. Or the annual budget you’ve just rewritten is a doable savings of many millions. Or you ran that sensitive negotiation in such a way that everyone believes it was a win/win, the pleasure of these achievements resonates in your neural pathways long after the project is completed and the entire team is on to the next one. If you’re an ASDP, this could be the first time in your life that you had the chance to see a project from beginning to end. It could be the first time in your life when everyone around you did what they said they would do. And together you carried your shared goal to the finish line.
These five elements combine to make the acronym PERMA. And Seligman points to them all as a group of essential ingredients for the creating and sustaining of well-being (or flourishing) for anyone, anywhere in their life experiences. But we’re especially interested in the workplace situation, and how you can use its opportunities for supportive experiences to build new neuropathways in your brain and use those positive experiences to displace the old beliefs and memories about who you are in the world.
So here are other opportunities that your workplace and professional life can help you build another you over time:
1. The workplace helps you create a new identity – one that’s real and more authentic to who you really are than the one you adapted from your family of origin. When you were hired, you were hired because they actively wanted you…you above everyone else who applied for the job. They don’t know you’re an ASDP, and if you don’t tell them, they never will know. Your colleagues take you at face value; they see you for who you are today. They don’t see you through the eyes of your controlling, negative parents, caretakers, or abusers. You’re coming in good.
2. The workplace gives you the opportunity to experience psychological turning points/new rites of passage that are independent of your wounded family of origin. We all know about the rites of passage in life that have been common for thousands of years: birth, marriage, aging, children and then grandchildren, even, I suppose, in some cases, divorce, are all rites of passage. They take us from one phase of life to the next natural stage. Along those same lines there are also psychological turning points that give us wisdom, insight, and experiences that can change us forever. These psychological turning points at work include moments of inflection when you discover your true nature in significant episodes. Like the time you stood up for yourself. Or the time you stood up for someone else. Or the time you successfully negotiated a pay raise. The time you waited to see if you would be one of those chosen to be laid off. And how you handled the news when you finally got it. Psychological turning points don’t have to have happy endings. Nor do you have to like what you’re learning about yourself. But even unpleasant or unwelcome outcomes can be used as a source for good and important personal growth.
3. The workplace is a lab that offers us the chance to acquire learnable skills that play a role in healing our secret wounded parts. Healthy, healing workplaces offer personal and career development opportunities just as a matter of course. But the courses – like, say, handling sensitive conversations, time management in chaotic conditions, or overriding your anxiety to trust someone at a crucial time – can be applied at home and in other parts of your life.
4. The workplace gives us the opportunities to build new professional families of sincere love and connection. We’re often warned by career experts not to get too emotionally attached to our coworkers; that the workplace isn’t family; it’s just a bunch of people working together until they’re no longer working together. No muss. No fuss. People come, people go. Org charts aren’t family trees. We learn soon enough, though, that inside the “family” of the workplace community, we build a connection with people that is as deeply rewarding – if not more so – as with our real family members. We go to their weddings. We go to their funerals. We celebrate milestone moments in their lives in between. (A female colleague was actually my birth coach when I went into labor unexpectedly with Joe, my first born, while I was on a business trip without my husband.)
5. The workplace – and our careers – give us the opportunity to take the best of what our families taught us and honor them by living out the values they handed down to us. The values we want to keep. The values that will see future generations toward even greater healing. Maybe starting with forgiveness.
We never finish learning about ourselves and life. Even if by the time we enter our professional years we think we finally have it all together – especially once we have started building lives of our own – we discover through workplace experiences where our unhealed bits are.
And at last, we have the tools and knowledge we need to mend and build ourselves to be the people we truly want to be.