Driven people in the downtown tech, finance, and advertising scene have been drawn to working with me over the years, probably because I feel familiar, a kindred of sorts, so they feel my office is a guilt-free zone. They come in spent, burnt out, unable to hold down the fort because they are at that watershed in their life of professional relevance vs. personal meaning. The quest is daunting.
Last week in INC, there was a piece about individuals with the entrepreneurial spirit. Steve Banks said, “… the most successful entrepreneurs…often have at least one thing in common: they come from dysfunctional families. They have a competitive advantage in the marketplace because they’re used to managing that chaos at home.”
My own work with clients, along with my personal experience, has shown this to be true. I come across many driven professionals who are on the fence about the power of psychotherapy, but time and again, I have witnessed the link between the successful, Type A entrepreneur and the chaotic family environment. Though incredibly competent in the work environment, these individuals often struggle to maintain rich relationships, a healthy body and a peaceful life outside of work and they are lonely and longing for more but cannot quite put their finger on what.
I’ve come to find that, even without a radical transformation from Type A to Type Zen major shifts can occur which can allow you to move from a burnt out Type A, to a nourished Type A. The following case is a combination of many of my clients which demonstrates this fact to a T!
Danielle, 35, is a successful executive. She is young, artistic and wildly smart with a pedigree that wows. As a Harvard Business School grad, Danielle has worked at some of the glitzier companies in town. Despite how fantastic her life appears, she knows something is amiss. “My desire for a promotion is like this insatiable hunger. I put everything else second. Then, at the end of the day, I come home to an empty house and it sucks.”
What we uncovered in therapy is that Danielle’s young chaotic family life required her to be a little parent. Now, as an adult, she can’t tolerate being in a relationship with someone who is interested in noticing what is going on beneath the façade of overachievement. A therapist’s desire to see you is where vast amounts of healing take place in this work, however unnerving it can feel to be cared about for the very first time like this. This kind of caring and seeing may manifest as a question, a simple glance, a moment of empathy or the silent space for pure human expression.
One day Danielle made the connection in a session that she had become very good at “seeing” other people because she hasn’t, yet, learned how to be “seen”. When I asked her about this she said “I feel like I am saving the world so I don’t have to feel how mad and sad I am that no one ever really took care of my needs as a kid ”. This was a profound life altering awareness.
Here is what Danielle discovered in the course of therapy:
- Danielle could only feel close to people when she was taking care of them. This was a safer way to connect because she felt like she was in charge.
- Deep down she believed eventually it would be her turn in to be cared for, over time, she began to get angry that people she helped rarely returned the favor or flat out took advantage of her.
- By giving to so many people, she got to avoid fully feeling her anger and sadness about how emotionally vacant and lonely her young life was. Loving someone was scripted for her with the plotline “I must deny my own needs for love”.
- The chaos of having so many people needing something from her was familiar and therefore comforting and her corporate entrepreneurism was comfortably familiar until it became torturous.
- Loneliness and anger, it turned out were her saviors. The very ugly feelings she brought into therapy: her loneliness and her aggression were the healthiest parts of her saying “I want something different.”
Danielle didn’t stop becoming a giver nor a type A through the course of therapy. She still gives quite a lot. Instead, she gives with intention rather than with a false giving that was trying to cover over the pain of her childhood. Sure, folks that want her to care for them still come around from time to time but her anger usually pinches her, makes her chest tighten, her jaw clench and her arms throb and now she listens to that anger that is saying “No this is not for you.” Near the end of our time together she said to me, “You know Traci, there are better ways to save the world than denying myself my own needs and desires.” As a therapist, those are the moments you aren’t sure who is the therapist and client for everyone benefits from ah ha moments like that.
I think for every driven person the self-inventory is always, how are you denying your authentic needs and desires and why? Are you needing more connection, help, fairness, care, reciprocity, love, touch, play? Are you giving up those needs to save the world so you can avoid or distract yourself? Are you harming yourself in professional pursuits but don’t realize it until you are really far down the path of the injured superstar? Are you lonely because you have spent so much of your life cultivating the kinds of connections that are about performing rather than “true” relationship? If it is working for you go with it. If not, it may be time to grow.