Chapter One. From Sales to Service
The flexible working environment of a third sector post often appeals to people who are on a journey of recovery after trauma. The informal setting and laid-back culture can offer something of a safe haven to employees & volunteers alike, providing a stepping stone for those either in search of purpose, or looking to ease themselves back into employment.
Both as a Project Manager working in the third sector, and as the founder of A Positive Start, my priority is to always provide a calm, compassionate and understanding environment where people can feel at ease, develop and grow. A person-centred, people first philosophy built on the foundation of integrity & truth.
I wasn't aware of this 'third sector' option when I set out on my own journey. After a significant period of social isolation, violent abuse, upheaval and the withdrawal that followed in the aftermath, I found myself at the opposite end of the stress-less scale, on a dynamics training course preparing for a fast paced, target driven opportunity in Sales.
Drawn by the pull of its positive demeanor and unwavering belief that anything is possible for anyone, I soaked up the eagerness and exuberance like a super absorbent sponge. A million miles from the pit of despair where I had come from; a desperate baron landscape, where nothing was possible and everything was a problem, to the high-octane, can-do, culture of a car showroom. I was the perfect candidate for this. I was desperate to believe change was possible, even for someone like me and I accepted my company chip with excitement and gratitude.
Captivated by my newly discovered enthusiasm for life, sales training provided focus, boosted my confidence and lifted my self-esteem from the gutter. I took to the process like a duck to water; it felt comfortable, familiar even, structured and organised.
Once in post however, it wasn't long before the cracks in my newly formed, wafer thin armour began to show. The predominately male environment of the motor trade isn't known for its compassion or kindness. My first day on the sales floor, I reached out to the only other female in the department and asked for some support completing a finance form. "I'm not here to help you sell cars" came the abrupt response as she walked straight passed me, "you'll have to figure it out for yourself like I had to"!
I quickly learned that the positive energy circulating in the training rooms of HQ, were not being pumped into the showrooms of the dealerships. If I wanted to keep this job, I'd have to learn how to rely on myself, and quickly.
I started every month in pretty much the same way, firing on all cylinders, high on life and running at a million miles an hour. Focused and determined as though my life depended on my name being in the top half of the Sales Board, and for the most part, I was pretty good at it, I usually held my own. Staying ahead of the game quickly became a matter of personal pride, my well-being depended on it. No one wanted to be that person not selling, whose name stood out by being at the bottom. The embarrassment and humiliation of being that guy just wasn't worth thinking about.
Sadly for me, as the monthly deadlines drew nearer and the pressure started to mount, self doubt and panic would kick in. Confusion would descend like a heavy black rain cloud and with it came my deepest, darkest fears; I was useless, incapable, I wasn't good enough, I couldn't cope, I was stupid, worthless - broken. The belief that I was the failure who was failing, would completely overwhelm me. Consumed by self doubt, the negative thoughts in my head would offer me a thousand reasons to leave.
I'd find myself hiding in a car on the forecourt, or in the toilets embarrassed and sobbing uncontrollably for no apparent reason, much to the annoyance of my then, unsympathetic Manager who would promptly summon me to his office and order me to 'get a grip, give my head a shake & or get the fuck out of his garage. Sales managers aren't equipped to deal with teary women in my experience and so they don't!
As the self doubt and negative thoughts started to creep in, a few of my colleagues would come to my aid to comfort me, almost as if they could smell the fear arriving. With the warm smile of a caring friend, they would pull up a seat next to me and impart their words of wisdom;
"You're absolutely right' - 'this is an terrible environment for a female' - 'You'd be so much better off doing something less stressful' 'At least you've given it a go, but I can see why you'd hate it' ', The long hours aren't suitable for you, 'you have children to take care of & Management don't give a shit about that'! 'They treat you are an idiot' 'I don't blame you for wanting to leave - I'd quit if I were you'!
Full of shame and self loathing, and far too cowardly to face my boss, I would scurry away like a thief in the night, posting the keys to my demonstrator through the letter box after everyone else had gone home.
I'd lay awake all night playing the scenario over and over in my head, until I had a headache, twisting and turning, I'd beat myself up, my head thumping and shoulders aching with tension - I was exhausted.
A few days would pass and the smog would finally start to drift, quickly followed by pangs of dread and regret at the realization that I now had no job & no income. I'd pluck up the courage to finally answer the phone to my boss, I'd be summoned back to work, feeling embarrassed and stupid. I'd apologise, offer some feeble excuses for my apparent crazy behaviour, I'd feel judged, but still, I'd beg my boss for forgiveness, promise never to do it again, beg for another chance, promise to try and stop 'wearing my heart on my sleeve' bury my shame and start the whole sorry cycle again. Three or four times this would happen, before either my manager just had enough, or my shame became to heavy for me to bear. At that point, I would leave for good, heading off to try and blag my way into another job without any hope of getting a reference.
Luckily enough, the revolving door of sales always has enough room for one more quitter.
My monthly compulsion to run became something of a standing joke among my peers, regardless of where I was at. Oblivious to my previous battle for survival or the scars that endured, the judgement of others only added to my sense of failure. No matter how hard I tried to fight it, I just couldn't escape the fall. Everyone had decided it was because I was a woman trying to 'make my mark' in a mans world. Nothing I had ever experienced up to that point, gave me any reason to doubt that.
Remarkably, I kept this ridiculous pantomime going for several years, from garage to garage, town to town, desperate to find peace, desperate to find my place. Oddly enough, I never once made any connection between my previous experiences of trauma and my inability to hold it together under pressure; I always believed I was either just a really crap person or it was because I was female out of my depth.
At one dealership, as the seeds of doubt began taking hold, my General Manager called me into his office "Take a seat Deborah" he said, in his usual gentle manner "I want to let you into a secret". "Do you know that you are brilliant at what you do?"
I didn't know what to say!
"Well, You need to start believing in yourself ... and you need to beware of those ghosts"
I don't doubt for one minute that the blank, gormless expression on my face will have told him I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about!
"Watch out for Mr Nega-Nega, Deb - he'll steel the milk from your tea and the joy from your soul - now get back to your desk and sell some cars" .
Leaving his office, I still wasn't sure what he meant by Ghosts, but his kind words had certainly eased my mind. It would take at least another ten years before I recognised the importance of what he had told me.
Slowly but surely, with the support of my manager, I learned how to cope with the pressures at work. Even though the waves still came, they were fewer and my response to them, less destructive.
My manager; clearly picking up signals I was unaware of, would call me into his office just to crack a joke or he'd send me out on my own to check that every car on the pitch had clean mats in or fresh air fresheners. I'd moan about these pointless tasks at a time when I was stressed out; " Why is it always me", I'd grumble. I had no idea he was doing what he could to help me focus my mind away from the negative influence of others. As my mental health started to improve, I was able to focus more. I was promoted to Sales Controller, which did far more for my self esteem than it did for my wage packet.
I took up reading, cycling and walking. Self improvement became my focus and self belief became my aim.
Eventually it dawned on me that a calmer, less pressurized working environment could potentially serve me better. I made the transition from sales to service stepping off the roller-coaster for good, initially by taking a role in Mental Health recovery before becoming a Manager for a charitable organisation, providing a calm and safe environment for others. I started to realise somethings about myself that I had previously gone unnoticed.
I was a dab hand at recognising pain & doubt in others, just as my manager had once recognised the pain and doubt in me. Having previously lived on my nerves for survival, I'd developed something of a sixth sense, becoming super sensitive to the feelings of others and aware of the signals that they were inadvertently giving off; which can be both a gift & a curse.
I finally came to understood what Beware of ghosts really meant making me mindful of the impact my actions and words had on others - something I still work of every day.
'Misery loves company'; or so the saying goes; and 'Ghosts are those people who are desperately unhappy in their own lives and enjoy encouraging unhappiness in others. Ghosts are individuals who sense pain; they smile kindly to your face while confirming the fears and the negative thoughts that you hold about yourself.
This is both confusing and damaging for people recovering from trauma. Truth is what you are anchoring for in the uncertainty of doubt, Truth that you can cope and reassurance that you will. Truth that you are a person of value, and reassurance that this doubt will pass. It is extremely difficult to know what the truth is when you are unsure of yourself, consumed by self doubt and loathing.
This is what I know to be true;
The person who is smiling at you while encouraging your doubts, confirming the negative beliefs and fears that you hold about yourself, while at the same time empathizing & sympathizing with you giving you the impression they care. He or She is not your friend.
The person smiling while encouraging you in a positive way, dismissing those negative beliefs that you hold about yourself, praising, empowering, supporting and believing in you, recognising your strengths, not your weaknesses - He/She is your Beacon of light.
Listen to them, believe them, focus on what they are telling you. The doubt and confusion will pass.
Remind yourself everyday:
You are stronger than you think.
You are confident, you are capable, you are connected.
At A Positive Start we are passionate about Recovery and Prevention. Recovery, because those of us who have lived experience, know how incredibly important it is to be understood.
Prevention because prevention is far easier & much cheaper than recovery.