After an 18-year corporate career in marketing, I turned my focus to the helping professions and became a marriage and family therapist. After earning my Master’s degree, I spent five years working with couples, individuals and families, helping them address and resolve to the best of their ability their emotional and relational wounds and challenges.
During that time, I worked with clients dealing with some of the darkest and most challenging aspects of human experience, including rape, incest, pedophilia, depression, drug addiction, suicidality, alcohol, substance abuse, and attempted murder. And I witnessed firsthand what having a deeply troubled and traumatic childhood can do to us when we’re adults.
When I changed directions to serve as a career and personal growth coach, it didn’t take long to see once again the deep connection between our childhoods (and what we learned about ourselves, the world and how to cope) and what is unfolding in our careers. And if we look close enough, we can often see that the dysfunction of our families of origin has been often mirrored in the dysfunction of the work environments we choose. Now, it takes only a matter of minutes to see how people’s childhood environments, parents’ behavior, and upbringing are still hurting them today.
Below are five glaring signs that what you experienced in childhood is negatively impacting your personal and professional life today:
1. You’re scared to speak up to advocate for or defend yourself
So many unsuccessful and unhappy professionals have a severe resistance to and fear of speaking up for themselves. They simply can’t advocate or stand up and fight for what they want and deserve. In exploring what’s underneath their resistance to supporting their own needs and wants, it’s often because it wasn’t safe to do so back when they were children. Many were punished (some severely) when they spoke up and challenged the authority figures in their lives. Others were told that their opinions were stupid or childish. Still others were ridiculed for what they believed and said.
In short, they learned that speaking up for themselves was the quickest path to shame and humiliation.
2. You don’t experience yourself as a person of worth or value
Similarly, when I’m working with a professional who’s finding that she has been habitually passed over for promotions, or can’t seem to be treated well or compensated fairly no matter what jobs she holds, we often see that at her core, she believes she’s “worthless.” She questions that she’s good at anything at all, and wonders what value she has to offer. These individuals have no idea how talented, accomplished and amazing they are, or how what they have achieved is important in the world.
These feelings don’t emerge out of the blue. If your parents treated you like you were nothing – devoid of value, importance or worthiness of love, or if they were too busy with their own challenges to offer you any real love or healthy attention – it’s more than likely that that feeling of unworthiness is with you today (unless you’ve done some therapeutic work to heal that feeling).
And if you were raised with only conditional love – meaning you had to meet certain conditions and criteria in order to be loved, cherished or respected – then these conditions are most likely still what you’re trying to fulfill in your adult life.
3. You’re highly defensive and reactive, and can’t respond with calm or equanimity
I’ve worked with people who’ve sought help to uncover why they’re not doing well in relationships with others – why their bosses, colleagues and peers don’t like or respect them. They sense something isn’t quite right in how they behave, but it’s all they’ve ever known and they can’t recognize the true problem.
Very often, their inability to relate successfully with others is rooted in a deep insecurity that formed in childhood. They lack the ability to connect with others with compassion, understanding or emotional balance. These folks are highly reactive and defensive, seeing everything as a slight or a slap down. They ruminate on the negative, and their discussions escalate quickly to confrontation and conflict. As a result, they feel alone, misunderstood and resentful of others who seem to have “more” than they do.
If the parenting you received was intensely strict, authoritarian and controlling and if you were somehow told (overtly or covertly) that you were not smart, talented or capable enough, you might be experiencing some trauma around feeling competent and capable. And your core response then is to see others as the enemy and defend yourself at every turn.
4. You’ve internalized the narcissism or emotional manipulation of your parents or demonstrate some narcissistic traits yourself
Studies have found that approximately 10% of the U.S. population has borderline personality disorder and/or narcissistic personality disorder. If that’s accurate (and from my anecdotal research, I believe the number of true narcissists is higher), imagine the millions of adult children of narcissists that are alive today, trying to overcome the trauma, and find success and happiness.
When you’re raised by a narcissistic parent, you experience wounds that will stay with you throughout your life unless you address them actively and openly.
Experts say that when a child is trapped in a narcissistic relationship system with a parent, they either internalize the narcissism (it becomes the voice inside of them that then turns against them as persecutor) or they externalize it, by projecting onto others the shame, guilt, humiliation and fear that they experienced but couldn’t tolerate.
If you want to recognize narcissism in yourself or what’s around you, below are the nine traits of narcissism outlined in the powerful book Will I Ever Be Good Enough, by Dr. Karyl McBride (which I highly recommend). Narcissistic personality disorder is a spectrum disorder, meaning that narcissistic people will exhibit some of these traits, not all, and these traits appear on a spectrum of varying degrees.
The narcissist personality:
1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance, e.g. exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements.
2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love.
3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high status people (or institutions).
4. Requires excessive admiration.
5. Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.
6. Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e. takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.
7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of her.
9. Shows arrogance, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
The bottom line is that when you’ve been traumatized by narcissism as a child, most likely you’re carrying a wound inside that has to be healed. If you don’t address it, it will wreak havoc on your relationships, your personal and professional fulfillment and success, and your own self-concept and self-esteem.
5. You don’t believe you have what it takes to make true positive change in your life
Finally, I’ve seen that people who feel hopeless and ineffectual in making change often experienced a childhood that taught them they don’t have what it takes to create happier outcomes. They weren’t guided by their parents or other authority figures to understand that how we think and operate in life can indeed bring about different (more satisfying) opportunities, outcomes and possibilities. If as a child you faced hardships and trauma but had no positive way to frame or understand these challenges and see what could be learned from them, then helplessness and hopelessness can set in, and stay with you into adult life.
If you recognize any of these experiences as your own, know that these challenges can be overcome. Millions of people the world over have addressed wounds from their childhoods and healed them so they no longer impair their ability to experience success, fulfillment and happiness.
The first step is recognizing that change is needed, then finding the right kind of support to hep you address, shift and heal what no longer serves you.
Healing yourself and experiencing more self-love, self-acceptance, bravery and wholeness will be a true game-changer for you, not just for your career, but for your entire life.