Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash

Is it Passion or a Trauma Response?

I was talking to someone recently about my desire to help trauma survivors overcome the lasting effects of trauma on their careers, and the comment I got was, “Wow, I can tell you are really passionate about that.”

I have heard this so much throughout my career that it started to sound like being passionate was somehow dirty or wrong. As a trauma survivor, I don’t always know how to receive the comments I get from people. Are they speaking in code? Are they saying something I should be picking up on? Does everyone else understand this social cue, and I just don’t?

I started thinking about the different times in my career when people said that to me and considered the context of those comments. The results of this meditation were pretty powerful for me, and I’m sure others have experienced the same thing. Perhaps there are others out there who have had to deal with someone who was passionate about something, and it was rather uncomfortable for you. Let’s lift the covers and take a peak at what was going on for me to see if you relate to it or not.

Fighting To Be Heard

Throughout my career, I often worked hard to be heard and understood. I have a propensity for seeing things that others do not see. It is not unusual for trauma survivors to have neurodivergent ways of thinking due to adverse childhood experiences during critical times of development. It has been both a blessing and a curse for me. Being able to see connections that others do not see makes me feel pretty smart, only to have that feeling neutralized by my inability to communicate to others what I am seeing. It then becomes an exercise in frustration.

On more than one occasion, I was symbolically patted on my head and told to stay in my lane by managers who would not even try to listen or investigate what I was attempting to communicate. I felt dismissed and rejected.

I had this insatiable desire to stand out in the crowd and set myself apart from others. I wanted to be seen. I wanted to be heard. That does not seem abnormal, does it? After all, we all want to be seen and heard, right? But for me, there was this extreme intensity about it, like I was fighting for my life.

This intensity drove me to do things that negatively impacted my career advancement. For example, when I saw my manager “stealing” my idea and trying to claim it as his own idea, I “threw him under the bus” in a big meeting in front of senior leaders by asking him questions that I knew he didn’t know the answers to since it wasn’t his idea. Throwing people under the bus, especially your manager, is not a great career advancement strategy, and I highly recommend not doing it, but I did do that.

Another thing I did when I didn’t think people were listening to me or were patronizing me was to get louder and more “passionate.” Again, this was not your “I’m a Carolina Panthers fanatic” kind of passion; this was more like, “I am fighting for my life” passion. Needless to say, my career advancement opportunities were significantly limited.

Being Heard

I was 15 years into my 21+ year career at my company before I had a manager who took the time to really listen to what I was trying to communicate. She was willing to listen to “what” I was saying rather than “how” I was saying it. She wasn’t “put off” by my passion; she listened and asked questions to help me clarify what I was trying to communicate. I remember the day I felt really heard and listened to like it was yesterday. I was like, “Wow, they are really listening to me, and I don’t even need to raise my voice!!” It felt so good. It felt so validating. After that one day of being heard, I started settling down and changing. I finally felt appreciated for the value I brought to the table and started to have confidence in my view and opinion of things.

Overly Passionate

Years later, after I entered trauma therapy, I got curious about my passionate desire to stand out in a crowd and to set myself apart. What I discovered was so fascinating. I could trace this “fighting for my life” passion for being heard back to a near-drowning incident that I had when I was four years old when I fell into the lagoon at my aunt’s house and couldn’t swim. I could see kids jumping off the pier near where I was, and I called out to them, and I can’t remember anything after that. My aunt tells the story about her neighbor jumping in, rescuing me, and bringing me to her front door soaking wet. I was finally able to see why I had to be heard. I could see why I felt like I was fighting for my life… because I was.

This was a trauma response that had woven itself into my very being. I continued to repeat the scenario over and over again, and even though I wasn’t really fighting for my life at my job, I still felt like I was.

Once I realized what was happening and corrected the belief that I needed to stand out in the crowd to survive, I could actually be part of the crowd. I was able to belong and allow myself to feel included.

I am telling you this because I want you to know that sometimes there is a trauma story behind the “fighting for your life” passion. People who have not yet processed their past trauma are still “fighting for their lives”; they are still fighting to be heard and seen.

Positive Passion

Just because I worked through correcting the belief about what I needed to do to survive does not mean that the behavior does not still creep in every once in a while. This pattern of behavior is a well-worn neural network with over 50 years of practice behind it, so, understandably, it will take some time to change.

So, when I hear the comment, “I can tell you are really passionate about that,” I have to stop and ask myself whether I am “fighting for my life” or just have strong, intense emotions about something. I have to ask myself, “Is this passion or a trauma response?”