Does abuse define a career path?

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”.
Dr. Nicholas Jenner is a Counseling psychologist in private practice working with individuals,couples,  groups and companies globally. Online therapy is, in my experience, effective for treating a number of major conditions. Are you having issues that you need to talk through? I have a range of plans that can help you get the help you need.  Online Therapy details : Here ……

  7 comments for “Does abuse define a career path?

  1. danagidner
    June 15, 2013 at 10:32 am
  2. Ann
    June 15, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    Dear Dr Jenner
    I sit here shocked and feeling surreal after reading your post. You have no idea of how timely this article was, for me to read. It explains so much. Questions I had, that I literally wrote in my journal just yesterday – “why on earth do I have to work SO HARD at everything I do??” I suck the joy out of my own life because of this. I have caused myself such stress, heartache, frustration, self hatred – because I just couldn’t work hard enough to do things good enough… I am quite shaken. I didn’t connect it to the fact that I was, indeed, a ‘little mother’.

    I have been at a crossroads with my career for the past few months. Reading this has helped validate what I was beginning to suspect of the change I was anticipating making. I believe now that if I made the change right away it would only lead me to sustain this self-punishing work ethic, and destroy the love i have for that work. I know this because of how ive approached it, part time, over the last year. And I don’t want that anymore!!! I think at some point I will make the change, but now I can wait until I’ve learned more about working in a healthier way that sustains my energy better.

    Thank You for helping me learn that my work, and everything else i do in life doesn’t HAVE to be agony and exhausting,to be worthwhile. Deepest thanks, C.

    • June 15, 2013 at 2:26 pm

      Thank you and I am pleased that the post touched you enough to believe that change is possible..which, of course it always is…

  3. June 15, 2013 at 2:11 pm

    So true. I suffered emotional abuse as a child and became the parent (about 11) to my Mother who took her life when I was 16. I was determined to make my way in the world and worked hard to become a lawyer and a Judge. I was hard on my kids to whom I gave the childhood I wished I’d had and very disappointed when my two boys seemed to be totally without drive and direction when at school. I just couldn’t understand that. I suppose I was projecting my “drive” onto them. But fortunately they have both carved out careers for themselves, and they and my daughter (who seemed to be naturally determined) are now very close.

    • June 15, 2013 at 2:24 pm

      Hi Ken…a familiar story and one which has played out in my experience too.

  4. June 15, 2013 at 2:12 pm

    Also the blog explains why I chose Family Law (less well remunerated) than commercial law. Wanting to be empathetic, I suppose!

  5. June 16, 2013 at 2:33 am

    I too can relate. Having already tried drugs and alcohol as a means of escape, the next logical choice would be work. But being constrained in the work environment is often just a subtle reminder of the past abuse. In the past, I have thrown myself completely into work, leading to a number of mental breakdown. It seems like I just can’t live with or without work. It seems unfair that the lesser paid field of independent contracting is the only place where the pressures of the work environment are eased. All because of abuse long ago. It is tempting to simply whine, but I’m at such a crossroads that solutions are more helpful.

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