As a corporate VP turned therapist and career coach, I’ve spent years dissecting my own life: exploring my childhood, my development to adulthood, and the key themes that have followed me into my professional life. I’ve always suspected – then came to realize with great clarity — that our professional identities and behavior simply can’t be divorced from who we are as whole persons.
When my friend Mary Lou Quinlan, award-winning marketing expert turned bestselling author, actress and playwright of The God Box introduced me to Lauren Letellier, also a business executive turned playwright and actress, and told me I had to see Lauren’s new play, I listened. My daughter and I saw Lauren’s one-woman show, The Fiery Sword of Justice Saturday night in New York City, and were riveted and moved.
The Fiery Sword of Justice is Lauren’s comic cautionary tale about a high-powered public relations executive (herself) whose compulsive truth-telling cost her her job. The show, which is running at The New York International Fringe Festival through Aug. 22, is a harrowing yet deeply funny story of how childhood coping strategies learned in an alcoholic and emotionally abusive home shaped Lauren’s professional adult self. I realized when I left the play that I, too, had fallen on my Fiery Sword more times than I could count during my corporate career.
I asked Lauren to share more about her insights and experiences regarding both family and business dysfunction.
Kathy Caprino: Lauren, what parallels do you see between dysfunction in business and in families?
Lauren Letellier: Let’s face it, for many people the workplace is a kind of dysfunctional family. Secrets kept, information withheld, constant anxiety, lack of trust and illusions of control are common to both dysfunctional families and dysfunctional workplaces.
People who grow up in families with addiction, neglect, abuse, or other dysfunction are often afraid to express themselves honestly for fear of triggering disaster. They keep their thoughts hidden to stay safe, acting agreeable, ultra-competent or over-controlling. Or they may take the opposite tack by withdrawing or acting out. We all know the unwritten workplace rules: don’t disagree with anyone, don’t point out problems, keep your head down.
The business model of public relations agencies, where I spent the bulk of my career, actually is codependency. The client needs the agency, but has all the power. The agency needs the client’s business to survive, and will do what it takes to keep it. Just like in an alcoholic family. At its worst, it can be an extreme example of dysfunction: chaotic and traumatic, with all the power on one side. I once worked with a guy who liked to say there are more adult children of alcoholics in public relations than in any other profession.
Caprino: How are these dysfunctional patterns best addressed and resolved? In the same ways for both?
Letellier: I believe that unless childhood trauma can be resolved, people who grew up in dysfunctional families are destined to cycle through reenactments of the past in their personal and professional lives. I am an object lesson. I grew up with an unstable alcoholic mother and left home as soon as I could. I tried to put it all behind me and focused on building a successful career. Then one day I found myself working for an unstable drunk with anger management issues. It triggered the same fight/flight response that had propelled me away from home. It’s essential to recognize the effect of post-traumatic stress disorder in oneself. I didn’t, and it blew up my career.
Nobody talks about how dispiriting it is to work in an environment where power dynamics are misaligned. Instead, business “thought leaders” (a term I despise because so few are even thoughtful, let alone leaders) seem to be working really hard to convince us how imperfect we are. We’re all being force-fed same diet of LinkedIn LNKD -0.94% life-hacks for success: get up at 5:00AM, cultivate emotional resilience, and remember to do that one thing that successful people never fail to do. To me, these listicles are a distraction from the real problem, which is that people deserve a level of sanity, safety and stability that is simply not available in most of today’s workplaces.
Caprino: What contributes to these dysfunctional behaviors – is it culture, society, bad parenting, emotional disorder, lousy communication skills?
Letellier: It’s probably all of those things. Speaking from my own experience, I believe that nobody with hidden, unresolved wounds from childhood trauma is going to have healthy communications skills. And these wounds can reopen years later to disrupt parenting, adult relationships, and careers. More than 78 million Americans, or 43 percent of adults, have been exposed to alcoholism in the family, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency. That means almost half of the labor force may be struggling with self-regulation and emotional balance.
Caprino: How do we as individuals and organizations move forward to effectively address the dysfunction? Is it even possible?
Letellier: First, I would love to see a study conducted on the impact of childhood trauma on business performance. I think it’s a hugely under-researched issue and should be quantified.
Second, I believe there’s an enormous gap between what mental health professionals are trained to treat, and what many of their patients actually experience. I’ve talked with therapists about growing up in an alcoholic family, and also about my discomfort with the artificiality and emotional manipulation I saw at work — the very same issues I struggled with as a child. Not one of those therapists helped me make the connection. Not one.
It has occurred to me that while therapists often have clinical and academic backgrounds, the majority of their patients are corporate types like me. I think mental health professionals should have to do a mandatory two-year rotation in a big company as part of their professional training.
Finally, everything starts with self-awareness. Many adults from dysfunctional families make the mistake of believing they are no longer affected by the past. But if they realize their past is affecting their present, and they want to do something about it, here’s what I would recommend:
1. Read Tian Dayton’s book The ACOA Trauma Syndrome: The Impact of Childhood Pain on Adult Relationships.
Dr. Dayton’s book is the authoritative guide for facing, processing and healing childhood pain caused by familial dysfunction. I saw myself on every page. It should be required reading for mental health professionals, executive coaches, life and career coaches, human resources professionals and government policy makers.
2. Find your tribe.
I resisted going for years but when I finally went to an Al-Anon meeting, I knew I had found my tribe. It’s healing to talk about painful things with people who’ve had similar experiences, and this is a safe place to do it. I also found a way to turn my mess into success: I took a playwriting workshop with a gifted teacher named Matt Hoverman (Go-Solo.org). The act of writing and performing The Fiery Sword of Justice, my personal story of trauma and redemption, has been the most valuable thing I’ve ever done. I had to examine my past in order to determine my future.
3. Don’t expect support from family or business colleagues.
Be prepared for family members to experience your willingness to confront the painful past as threatening. You’ll be excavating things they’d rather forget. Find a supportive safe community, like Al-Anon or ACOA, before broaching the subject with family, friends or business colleagues.
4. Use anxiety as information.
When you feel anxiety building in personal or professional situations, try to ask yourself, “What’s being triggered?” It could be something from your past, and not something you need to react to in the here-and-now.
Kathy Caprino, M.A. is a nationally-recognized career success coach, writer, trainer and speaker dedicated to the advancement of women in business. She is the author of Breakdown, Breakthrough:The Professional Woman’s Guide to Claiming a Life of Passion, Power and Purpose, and Founder/President of Ellia Communications, Inc. and the Amazing Career Project, focused on helping professional women build successful, rewarding careers of significance. A Forbes, Huffington Post and LinkedIn contributor and top media source on women’s career and workplace issues, she has appeared in over 100 leading newspapers and magazines and on national radio and television. For more information, visit www.kathycaprino.com and connect with Kathy on: Twitter, FB, LinkedIn.
This article originally appeared in Forbes.