First published on Entrepreneur.com on 12.27.22
According to the landmark CDC-Permanente study of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), two-thirds of Americans reported at least one of the following “Big ‘T’ traumas”: emotional, physical and sexual abuse, neglect, and household challenges of parental separation, substance abuse, incarceration, violence and mental illness. One in five reported three or more. It’s important to note that this study was conducted from 1995 to 1997, when very few talked about their emotional wounds. Though that is still the case today for many, these numbers are likely much higher given the sheer prevalence of stress, anxiety, PTSD, depression and other mental health challenges.
It would stand to reason that a portion of people who start businesses do so to fulfill an unmet need from childhood.
I believe that entrepreneurship can be a trauma response for many of us. From first-hand experience with four of nine ACEs and much trauma healing and integration work, I have come to understand that starting my own digital marketing agency was my attempt at recreating an environment in which I was valued.
Since I did not feel valued as a child because I didn’t feel loved by one of my primary caregivers, I sought to remedy those younger needs during adulthood as an entrepreneur.
How Past Trauma Manifests in Business
Psychological wounds from our younger years can manifest in business in several ways, depending upon the specific childhood experiences that have impacted you and the attachment style you likely developed. Here are a few concrete examples of how this showed up for me as the owner of a cause marketing agency for 14 years:
Perfectionism: Because I was inadvertently taught that I needed to earn my mother’s love as a child, I was a straight-A student in AP classes and always made the honor roll. I had perfect attendance and was the captain of multiple athletic teams. While that may sound like the achievement you want from your kids, that perfectionist tendency impeded my ability to trust my team fully — for fear that something would slip through the cracks and clients would terminate their relationship with us.
Overworking: Just like any other form of distraction from deeper suffering, working long hours is a form of addiction. In our society, overworking is rewarded and, in some cases, even expected by some employers. In my case, my ego was so wrapped up in my identity as a CEO that I could never zoom out to see the maladaptive behavior I was exhibiting. It negatively impacted my marriage, my physical health and my mental well-being. It’s one of the reasons I completely burnt out at 36.
Anxious attachment: Despite having genuine relationships with my employees, I constantly worried that they would leave my company (i.e., me) because the story I told myself was that I wasn’t a good enough leader. This led me to support them in many unconventional ways — which looked like conscious leadership from the outside — but the shadow side was a combination of fear of abandonment and lack of self-value.
Fear of loss: Although it was irrational and had never happened in fourteen years, I was petrified of litigation; I feared that some unreasonable client would sue my company, and I would lose everything instantly. My fear of loss and abandonment was so strong that I constantly perceived threats like these when they were nowhere in sight.
Scarcity mindset: I can’t tell you how many nights I woke up in a cold sweat or couldn’t sleep because I was worried about finances. My adverse childhood experiences ingrained in me that I wasn’t good enough, would never have enough and would inevitably fail. Despite year-over-year growth, I had difficulty believing that abundance was already within my grasp.
Recreating a More Ideal Environment
I never really processed the emotional experiences from my agency days — or the grief I felt after selling the company, for that matter — so I brought some of that into the next phase of my career.
I’ve discovered that it takes courage and consistent work to identify when your nervous system gets activated, try to recall when that feeling first appeared, and then recognize the difference between your body’s historical reaction versus the reality of the situation. Events will keep happening, but the reward of all your hard work is that you don’t react in the same dysregulated ways that you did before.
I’ve also found it helpful to actively create and refine more suitable conditions as a leader. For me, overworking was default as an agency owner. So, in my new roles, I did the opposite; I laddered down to a 3-day workweek over the last seven years. I hired an incredible executive assistant, and I delegate as much as he can handle (which is a lot) between two different businesses. And most importantly, I consistently engage in a mix of wellness modalities, healing practices and integration work to mitigate the fears, anxieties and mindsets that kept me small and just surviving internally.
If any of this resonates, I ask you to consider if you think you may have subconsciously created a leadership role for yourself out of a trauma response. If so, why do you think you did so? Being self-compassionate is key here as you begin to recall and process your past in order to look at your present with new eyes.