One of the enduring questions of human development and behaviour is why we take the paths that we do. What influences us in our choice of partner, profession, lifestyle and other things that make us who we are? This is a deep and complicated question even if a “good enough” upbringing has been experienced but even more so when a history of abuse and/or dysfunctional parenting has prevailed. In this case, when lacking the foundation of security, how do abused children make their way in the world, seemingly dragging a ball and chain with them? A book I recently reviewed may offer some clues and answers to this.
The book in question is “Strong at Broken Places” by Linda T Sandford. The basis of the book are the stories of twenty child abuse survivors who figured that “the best revenge is living well”. Prevailing over a childhood of sexual and physical abuse, neglect, parental substance abuse and witnessing domestic violence, Linda Sanford asked them to look back and help us all understand how they fared so well. One of the first popular books on resiliency, Strong at the Broken Places was written for every survivor, friend, family member, mentor or helping professional who seeks the path towards self-forgiveness and healing.
Linda T Sandford spent most of time while writing her book explaining why she believes that abuse does not necessarily jump generations and the patterns of the past can be broken by survivors. This is often not the case when survivors of abuse choose a career path. It can be said that some abuse victims find their way in the working world because of the abuse and not in spite of it. Sandford eloquently uses a quote from Freud to start her reasoning: “there are two pillars of healthy life, love and work” It appears from Sandford’s research that many who could not find love, threw themselves into the other, making work the focus of their life.
In a normal family, parents are considerate and understanding with their children. They allow a child to be happy, responsible, creative and love is given and accepted by both sides. The child does not need to prove anything or work hard for the parent to love them and love is unconditional. In troubled families, abusive parents expect children to “do” for them in a spirit of “you are not good enough to love, you have to earn it”. Children, often thinking that this conditional love is better than none, “do” for their parents, becoming little “mothers, fathers, husbands or wives”. This lead Sandford to the following conclusion: in contrast to the stereotype painted by society that abuse victims are “underachievers”, many excel at work, maybe because this work ethic is instilled in them through the abuse itself. This success in the workplace is usually not turned into the self-esteem that one would imagine. Many survivors point to the fact that work gives them a place “to belong”, either mirroring early family life helping siblings or parents or giving them something that they had never experienced before. Sandford states clearly that for many abuse victims, work is a manifestation of her theory of “looking good on the outside”.
It is then not surprising that abuse survivors often choose careers that have some relation to the abuse they suffered. Concerning this point, there is a widely held prejudice that due to the abuse, abuse victims careers are somewhat chosen for them through the conditioning experienced by the abusive parent. For example, if an abused child finds comfort in the animals or plants, many believe that this would drive them to be vets or horticulturalists. Sandford’s research did find, however, that many abuse victims end up in the helping professions, ranging from nurses to therapists. Through abuse and neglect, many survivors had to take on responsibility for the care of siblings and indeed parents from a young age and also have an ability to anticipate inappropriate behavior. Characteristics needed in abundance when helping others.
For many survivors, the world of work is a meaningful place. Many abuse victims were brought up in poverty and working hard is a way of providing financial security. Many of the sample interviewed were self-employed in some way to avoid working “for” someone and many saw work as a way “offering social contact but without the need to show vulnerabilities or bare one’s soul”. Many survivors were by their own admission, workaholics, stating that this addiction was “more socially acceptable” and is “rewarded by society” bringing a sense of “self worth” to what they are doing. Sandford states clearly that balance in life is vital. What worked as a child, that is working hard to achieve, rarely works as an adult and many survivors use this “busyness” as a shield for depression. Sandford finishes by saying that she believes that “being should stand proudly next to doing and working”.