This week, Systemic Coach Zita Tulyahikayo and barrister and NLP Master Practitioner James Pereira QC discuss how family upbringing can manifest in behavior at work that limits professional performance and the realisation of full potential.
Look in the mirror when you get ready for work in the morning. Who do you see?
A familiar face, of course. But written on that face, and within the mind and body behind it, are the records of your upbringing, your life experiences, your parents, and the family members who have influenced your journey to where you are today.
Whether we wish it or not, whether we realise it or not, when we leave for work, we take our parents, our families and the experiences from our upbringing with us. Our companions are not easily seen. But they are as real as our own flesh and blood. Their presence manifests itself through our thoughts, feelings and behaviour.
The limiting effect of unresolved issues
The difficulty comes when we carry with us unresolved and unacknowledged issues from the past. Unresolved and unacknowledged issues influence our behaviour without us realising it, so that rather than genuinely choosing how we act and react to a particular circumstance, we behave automatically and in accordance with a pre-programmed set of responses.
These responses will have been developed at an early age as survival mechanisms to deal with traumatic experiences which we faced when growing up. Although they have served their purpose of getting us through childhood, they still run in our adult lives. Like Pavlov’s famous dog, we respond in anticipation of something that is no longer there.
This is the legacy of trauma.
The legacy of trauma has a profound impact on how we perform at work, because it limits our freedom to choose how we express ourselves in a given set of circumstances. Instead it imposes a pre-set response to those circumstances which is at its worst highly inappropriate and at its best limiting of our full potential.
To be clear, trauma can mean any experience which has left an unresolved impact that still negatively affects our lives. It could be something serious like physical or sexual abuse. But it could be something apparently benign, such as losing a race on sports day, falling off your bike, or a throw away remark made by a parent or carer. Often these events are long forgotten in our conscious memories. The body, our subconscious, is skilled at hiding away events that cause us emotional pain and distress.
How do we know if we or a colleague is affected by issues from the past?
There are many kinds of behaviours that are indicators of the operation of trauma. We list some of them below. These are of course generalisations. We give them to illustrate the kinds of issues we are talking about. Everyone’s circumstances are different and personal to them.
Indecision and lack of assertiveness
If someone is brought up by a parent who was harsh and controlling, they may well as a child develop a defence mechanism of internalising their own needs and desires in order to avoid conflict, allowing the parent to control and make decisions. In later life this can manifest in indecision, or in a willingness to go along with others at the expense of pressing their own opinion.
Such people may present as being an accommodating or particularly thoughtful co-worker. In one sense they may be very pleasant to work with. However, unknown to themselves, and to others, they are in fact running an old pattern of behaviour which they adopted to survive childhood but which no longer supports them in adult life. Such people often feel frustrated because they sense that their potential is being wasted. They may not contribute to the team unless a very safe, non-judgmental environment is created for them to share their thoughts. They cannot understand why.
Inability to defend boundaries and say no to additional work
We all know people who seem willing to take on ever more work to the detriment of their wellbeing, people who can be relied on to shoulder burdens at the last minute, even if it means cancelling weekend plans and letting down friends and family. Such people can appear to be a great asset to an organisation. But of course, no one can seriously sustain repeated self-sacrifice over the length of their career. For these people, burn out is usually a question of when, not if.
Patterns of behaviour like this can arise as a result of a childhood lacking in expressions of love and support from a parent. Faced with an apparently cold, distant or unhappy parent, the child sets about devising means of trying to get close to their parent, make them happy, and please them in order to receive love and approval. This can lead to a pattern of behaviour where the child sacrifices his or her own needs in order to try and please their parent. Personal boundaries become blurred. The reward of approval, if it ever comes, affirms that the pattern of behaviour is worthwhile and to be repeated.
Fast-forward to the adult in working life, and it is easy to see how the pattern will manifest in work and client relationships.
Being defensive, reactive and confrontational
Many of us strive to be open-minded, calm and thoughtful when faced with challenges which seem to question the how well we have done our job. Being able to take on board comments that can seem like criticisms, and learn from them, is an invaluable tool for professional growth.
However, many people are highly reactive to professional challenges of this kind. They become defensive, take everything as a personal slight, and feel as though they are being judged unfairly or misunderstood. Such feelings often arise as a result of severe parenting where the child is told or made to feel that they are not good enough, not clever enough and inadequate in some way or another. This can cause feelings of deep insecurity, loneliness and resentment of others, and a sense that any form of questioning of their behaviour is a kind of attack or put down.
The result? These people become reactive and defensive as a means of protecting themselves, and they respond the same way as an adult in the office as they did as a child in the home.
What can be done?
There are many ways to heal unresolved traumas, and different ways will work with different people. Talking therapies can be beneficial, though finding the right kind of talking therapy can be a challenge: not all talking therapies are created equal, neither are all therapists.
The central theme is perspective. Once we can understand what happened, why it happened and view it with a sense of compassion, it is possible to change disruptive behaviour patterns, simply and easily. Journaling, self – reflection, hypnotherapy, coaching, NLP and psychotherapy are all avenues which can assist. The critical thing is to be willing to explore within, and to find someone with the right skills and temperament to support you.
Those who do not take responsibility for themselves will either live their lives without understanding why things keep happening to them, or they will have change forced upon them in some way. Sometimes the turning point is a traumatic experience in later life: a divorce, ill-health, or the death of a loved one; a so-called mid-life crisis. Such events can bring to the surface unresolved wounds, literally forcing us to confront them before we can move ahead with our lives. Often the unresolved wound is the cause of the very crisis that leads to its healing. But waiting for a trauma in later life is hardly an attractive strategy.
Our greatest teachers
All of us have someone, or something, that triggers a response in our behaviour that is unwanted or unhelpful, that holds us back in some way. We should remember that such people or events are our greatest teachers. They present our greatest opportunities for learning about ourselves. Of course, whether we choose to learn or not is really down to each of us as individuals. What choice will you make?
The authors welcome feedback from anyone concerned with the issues raised in their writing, and are also interested in hearing from anyone with suggestions for future articles. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @LifeTherapyZita and at james.pereiraQC@ftbchambers.co.uk and on Twitter @JamesPereiraQC.
The full Loving Legal Life series can be found here.