Cora was a marketing executive in a utilities company. She felt stuck in her career and a kindly boss who had worked with me himself suggested me as someone who specializes in career issues. Cora was the breadwinner in her family and was finding her long commute to work exhausting. Her partner and teenage children were keen for her to relocate but despite shortages of people in her specialism, Cora was being turned down repeatedly at the interview stage.
On the face of it this looked like a simple request for help with how to get through an interview successfully. Often a single session is enough to show clients how they might transform their chances of success in future. But even in my initial conversation with Cora, it seemed that there was more to it than just learning how to answer interview questions with more panache. We agreed four sessions to include looking at her early life, how she got into her current role, what she really wanted from a new job and how to present herself convincingly through her CV and at interview.
Before I learnt from Julia Vaughan Smith about her definition of trauma, I was only half aware of how powerfully early life experiences could shape us. I often accepted a client’s description of their childhood as ‘ordinary’ or ‘perfectly OK’ as not worthy of further discussion time. A different kind of question with Cora soon told a different story. Yes, it was an ‘ordinary’ childhood with prosperous parents who believed in education as the route to success. So nothing exceptional there. A little gentle probing told me that Cora’s father was more often absent than present because he worked for a foreign company which demanded long postings in other countries. Hints had led her to believe that her conception was an ‘accident’ and she was an only child. Her mother, said Cora, ‘didn’t do affection’. Any expression of feelings was punished with coolness, irritation and criticism. At eight years old, Cora was sent to an exclusive girls’ boarding school. During the summer holidays there was always several weeks of a ‘camp’.
What does this do to a small child? In Cora’s case she learnt to assume that she was insignificant and unlovable because if you were significant and lovable your parents would have connected deeply with you and expressed their affection openly. School taught her beautiful manners and a respect for authority. It taught her stoicism and apparent independence. But you could not be in Cora’s presence for long without noticing that she followed every statement of opinion with a self-deprecating counter-opinion. She often looked down, her smile was a little nervous she sat in her chair looking small and hunched. No wonder she was failing to get a new job.
I would never previously have described Cora’s experience as ‘traumatizing’ but now I know that it was. Cora never felt safe as a child and never felt accepted for who she was. We explored these ideas including looking at the emotionally austere upbringing that both her parents in their turn had experienced. Then we explored the healthy self that was yearning to emerge, including the person who was consciously parenting her children in a very different and much warmer way than she had experienced herself. That led to a discussion about career direction and to identifying a different kind of role. This made it easy to create a new CV and to handling the interview with aplomb.
I would never claim that Cora is suddenly a new person because these patterns and assumptions go so deep. But she is now working twenty minutes from home and enjoying her new job. Slowly, possibly very slowly, that healthier self is more visible.
Cora’s case shows that trauma does not always mean drama, violence and obvious deprivation. Sometimes it is right there in plain sight in the brisk, remote parenting of a mother and father with a nice house and plenty of money, but who believe that they are doing the right thing by telling the child that they should pull themselves together, be tough, try harder, stop crying, do better, stop seeking attention. As Cora said to me in a chilling phrase which I will never forget, ‘I learnt at home and then at school that it was no use crying because no one would ever come to comfort me’.
If you would like to explore these ideas and learn how to use them in coaching, register for our next workshop.