Far from over: How your upbringing impairs your work performance

As children many of my now adult clients were exposed to suboptimal parenting. What happened – and oftentimes what not happened – in the interaction with primary caregivers during childhood has left psychological marks. Childhood is the longest phase in life as is impacts who we are as professionals and how with think and operate at work.

Your childhood is past, but the effects are far from over

Many adults fail to see the true results of suboptimal parenting on their behaviour today. There are many reasons for this. One is that we often minimise our past. Even in cases of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, people often say: “It wasn’t that bad. Other people have it worse.”

People frequently tend to believe that they are fine unless things are really bad. “If I can function, if I don’t have a mental disorder, if I have a job and relationships – I am fine”. In fact, suboptimal parenting can actually lead us to be outwardly successful. A child who has learned to perform – for love – can grow up to be a workaholic who doesn’t know how to rest. The adult might be outwardly successful with their strategies of adaptation, even when they suffer internally.

Emotional Neglect

This denial is particularly true in cases of emotional neglect. In these cases, there often aren’t “bad memories”. However, parents who never hit or yelled can still have left lasting emotional scares. It’s what was not there, that causes problems to the work performance. Children are not only harmed by receiving what is bad for them, but also by not receiving what they need: appreciation, playfulness, joy, carefree being (often traded in for a rigid focus on grades, discipline and performance). Emotional abandonment is just as damaging as physical abandonment.

Smothering / Possessiveness

The flip side of emotional neglect is smothering. Parents who do not give their child freedom, who are overly protective and oftentimes intruding into their lives. Damage is done to the sense of Self when the opportunities to explore skills and boundaries are limited by an overpowering parent. The child’s individual experience of emotions is frequently taken out of hand, twisted, amplified or muted – replaced or overwritten by the parent’s or desired experience.

Typical challenges at work

Many people have a mixture of abuse, neglect, and enmeshment/smothering in their childhood. At work and in private, the adult can struggle with boundaries, discipline, balance, and self-care:

  • Not recognizing red flags in work relationships – being unclear about professional boundaries
  • Being perfectionistic, setting unrealistically high standards, investing too much time to reach an optimal outcome, doing too much and doing it too diligently
  • Catering for everybody’s needs but your own
  • Finding yourself being caught in the middle – feeling unable to assert yourself, voiceless, powerless
  • Always carrying GUILT, wherever you go, whatever you do

52% of the participants in a Nottingham Business School study that was cited in People Management Magazine agreed that their individual productivity had been affected by their trauma. The majority in the study reported that their employers were not able to respond to their needs helpfully.

  • Dealing with authority figures: either being afraid of authority figures or resistant to being controlled
  • Chronic emptiness can lead to difficulty in finding fulfilment at work
  • Catering to everyone else’s needs, people-pleasing, or an inability to say no
  • Procrastinating and struggling to start new projects as well as under-performance

Upside of Perfectionism

Some of the traumatic long-term effects actually manifest as benefits at first: People pleasing, perfectionism, and over-performing can be highly valued by managers. Colleagues will appreciate the person who is always helping out, often excelling every task and unknowingly engaging beyond boundaries.

In these cases, it may seem like there is no downside. But our bodies and minds are paying the price. Seemingly unrelated issues such as back pain, skin problem, digestive issues, blood pressure, and even injuries that are taking forever to heal can all be tied to the effects of stress and repressed emotions.

The Body Says No

The physician Dr. Gabor Mate wrote When The Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress, merging his experience with his patients and scientific data. He says: “When we have been prevented from learning how to say no, our bodies may end up saying it for us.”

Recognising the role our own developmental trauma plays in our lives is paramount. The parenting we have been exposed to is not our fault. The aim is not to blame, accuse or condemn what we have lived through. The aim must be to regain the power to observe, learn and grow. 

Our trauma does not need to control us. Instead, we can get to a place where we can emerge as an embodied, present adult who responds to situations with insight, knowledge and wisdom.