Trauma with a small T: Therapy & How to Learn About What Drives you
I’ve been taking therapy for almost a year now and it’s been immensely helpful. This is one of the big reasons I’ve become much more honed and focused than ever. Talking to a professional therapist is a great way to understand what makes you do what you do and why you do this. And how you react to certain situations in life. Or in some cases, react badly or overreact to things.
I’ve been so fortunate that I was raised by incredibly kind, generous and kind parents. I certainly was not abused or treated poorly in any fashion, unlike so many others. But as young children, whether through family life or school life, we encounter experiences or situations that cut or hurt us severely. This could be being ignored by our parents, or having a series of biting criticisms from someone we care about. In most cases, this is unintentional but the reality is we’ve all suffered some small trauma in life.
And it’s this trauma that massively influences your personality, your drive and how you become the person who you are as an adult.
As many people who know me well, I am an intensely competitive individual. I have a very unhealthy drive to succeed & win, coupled with an intense fear of poverty & insecurity around money. This is a great combination for business but it is not necessarily a good combo for being a father, husband and in many cases, as a work colleague. Note: I definitely hope I have gotten better as I have gotten older.
With the help of my therapist, I’ve been able to trace much of this to a few key episodes in my childhood and young adult life. I grew up in a relatively financially challenged household in the early days, when my immigrant parents were trying to establish themselves in Canada (Another note: I have incredible admiration for what my parents did for me and my 2 siblings, I owe my parents everything). We were a single income family as my mom stayed home with us for the first 12 years of my life, focussing all her time and attention on raising us kids.
Now I will admit, I was far from a model child growing up. I ended up rebelling and got in trouble all the time at school. I fought. I goofed around and cut class all the time. I was a substandard student in topics that I hated like French, math and all the sciences. But did well in subjects I loved like English, History, & Law.
My mom was tough on us in what is now widely known as the “Tiger Mom’’ method. This method is basically the traditional Chinese way of criticizing, shaming and comparing each sibling with each other. Maybe even more impactful, was comparing us with many of our peer friends in the very large local Canadian Taiwanese community. I internalized comments like “Why can’t you be as good in math as Ann”, or “Lucas gets straight A’s, what is wrong with you? “Edith’s mom said she is doing great in school and won several scholarships, it would be nice to have a kid who did the same”. Or “hey, you got 98% on the test, what happened to the remaining 2%.” Some of this was that blatant, some of it was more subtle but that pressure was there.
You felt like you were never good enough and this methodology really works. Look at how many Chinese immigrant kids do well academically in school, end up in top tier Universities and climb the ranks of the various high status professions like Investment Banking, Medicine, Law and such. This is one of the reasons I tend to have unhealthy high standards which really help in the workplace. I also tend to be pretty intolerant of people who don’t work hard to meet these standards.
Another motivator in my life was feeling disrespected or not taken seriously. Written off without the benefit of the doubt. It happened all the time at home and at school, rightfully so because I was kind of stupid punk kid. A big episode in my life was when I was in University. I ended up studying History, while most of my friends were in the elite Engineering or elite Commerce (aka business school) departments. There was one time when my Commerce friends were talking about something they learned in their classes. When I asked about it, they were incredibly dismissive. They said in a somewhat demeaning way, “You won’t understand, you are a history major.”
I was so angered by this. And in my quest to prove them wrong, I went to the library and read every single copy of “Business Week”, “Fortune”, “Forbes” magazine and at least 30 best selling books in business that year. This incidentally was what sent me down the path in the business world. I fell in love with the stories, the excitement and potential impact that a well run business has on people and society. Plus the money helped and its ability to allow you to keep score. Hard to argue with having lots of money in the bank.
I was able to channel this feeling of being disrespected into something that was overall very positive. In fact, that has fed my own personal growth for the last 30 years at least. And with some pride, arrogance and satisfaction, looking through Linkedin recently, qualitatively and quantitatively, I have completely crushed all of those folks back in University and the peer group I grew up with from a business career perspective. These traumas are incredibly powerful if they can be harnessed well.
But I should note, if these traumas are not managed or controlled, it leaves a very unhappy soul. Even when you do hit all those external and internal targets. In fact, the minute you hit these targets, you are on to the next target and a brand new, higher level peer group. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But for me, I find it impossible to stop as there is always a new higher level to hit. It’s a switch that is very hard to turn off, as it’s so deep inside you. And it can be personally destructive if you don’t recognize and work on it. What’s the point of having some success if you can’t enjoy it?
Understanding and conquering these traumas are the key to personal happiness. This is something I’m still working on. So my recommendation? Start the introspection early, get professional help if you can afford it and begin the hard work of working on yourself. It’s really important to identify those small traumas in your past and to learn to live and deal with them. The sooner you do so, the sooner you will be more effective and happy in most aspects of your life.