Part 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. Trauma changes you inside. Situations, places and people that may feel perfectly safe to someone who hasn't experienced trauma, can feel threatening and unsafe to someone who has. The world can be a scary place lonely & pressurised. Survivors tend to response differently than may be expected, which can be difficult for others to understand. The survivor themselves often fails to understand what’s happening, so why should anyone else.
The informal setting and laid-back culture of the third sector can offer something of a safe haven to employees & volunteers alike who are returning to life following trauma; It can provide 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 at A Positive Start CIC, my priority is to provide a calm, supportive and compassionate, trauma informed environment, where people can feel at ease, to afford them the space they need to develop and grow.
A person-centred, people first, philosophy built on the foundations of integrity & truth.
I wasn't aware of this 'third sector' option when I set out on my own journey 25 years ago. After a significant period of social isolation, violent emotional and physical abuse and the disturbing upheaval and withdrawal that followed in the aftermath,
instead 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 'one sheet' 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 Sales. I was desperate to believe change was possible, even for someone as useless as the likes of 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. No one was aware of the back drop, it was something to be ashamed of, not talked about and you instinctively know to conceal wounds from a pride of lions. Still, I took to the process like a duck to water; it felt comfortable, familiar even, structured and organised.
Within 6 months I was invited to HQ, where I was greeted by Sir Peter Vardy himself. He took me on a guided tour of his empire, introducing me to his top team and thanking me for the fantastic job I was doing for him, shaking my hand and presenting me with a Vardy values card from his pocket. That bit of printed plastic meant more to me than Sir Peter could possibly have imagined. I was blown away by his generosity and kindness and the Values card given to remind me that respect and recognition actually stood for something here.
If only he knew who I was and where I had come from! If only he knew what it was to be me standing there, dying inside - the pathetic, cowering, idiot - worthless and shameful; nervously hiding the broken empty soul inside this suited impostor standing before him.
I was delighted and devastated in equal measure. Delighted because I had never experienced acceptance & recognition like it, devastated knowing in my heart that I wasn't the brilliant person he seemed to think I was. I looked like a competent professional, I even acted and spoke like one - but inside I was still that useless, stupid, good for nothing no-hoper that didn’t belong here, and I was certain my masquerade would soon be uncovered .
Once in post in the dealership, 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.”You want equality Blondie; you’ve got it! Go grab the power pack and start that car!“ was the raw introduction to my Sales Manager. I very much doubted that he’d woke the kids, washed, fed, dressed and dropped them off at school, or prepared the evening meal in the slow cooker before his working day began, Still his ‘idea’ of equality ensued. My first day on the sales floor, I reached out to the only other female in the department and asked for her help completing a finance form that was unfamiliar to me. "I'm not here to help you sell frigging cars" came the abrupt response as she looked straight through 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 and the new car that accompanied it, I'd have to learn how to rely on myself, and quick.
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 near the top 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 mental 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.
I needed the reassurance that I was doing okay. I didn't know that at the time. I had absolutely no idea how fragile I was and I would wager, few people genuinely recognose their own weaknesses.
Sadly for me, as the monthly deadlines drew nearer and the pressure started to mount, self doubt and panic would kick in and like a sandcastle in a sand storm, I would begin to crumble. Confusion would descend like a heavy black 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, ugly,- broken. The belief that I was the failure who was failing miserably, would completely overwhelm me. Consumed by self doubt, the negative thoughts in my head would offer me a thousand reasons to leave.
I'd often 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 tearful broken women in my experience, and so they don't!
As the self doubt and negative thoughts started to over shadow me, a few of my colleagues would come to my aid to comfort me, almost as if they could smell the fear & doubt arriving. With the warm, sweet 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 a terrible environment for a female' - 'You'd be so much better off doing something less stressful' 'At least you've given it a go Lass, but I can see why you'd hate it' ', The long hours just aren't suitable for you, 'you have children to take care of & Management don't give a shit about that'! 'They treat us all like idiots' 'I don't blame you for wanting to leave - I'd quit too 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 - time and time again.
I'd lay awake all night playing the scenario 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 and unable to sleep. I'd manage to drift off and the nightmares would come, he was right here by the side of my bed! I would jump up in panic, sweating and shaking, unsure if the dark menacing figure here to end me was real or not.
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. It was decided my apparent craziness was either because; I was a woman trying to 'make my mark' in a mans world, or I was a woman ‘on the rag’!.
As infuriating & ridiculous as that was, nothing I had ever experienced up to that point, gave me any reason to doubt it.
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 a female out of my depth - as if that was a valid reason!
At one dealership, as the seeds of doubt began taking hold, my General Manager called me into his office "Take a seat " 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! I thought I was going to cry!
"Well, two things; 1. You need to start believing in yourself ... and 2. you need to beware of 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 Neg-Nega ( Negative), Deb - he'll steel the milk from your tea and the joy from your soul - now get back to your phone 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 to cope with the pressures at work. Even though the waves still came, they were fewer and my response to them, was 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 pressurised working environment could potentially serve me better. I made the transition from sales to service stepping off the roller-coaster for good aiming to support others. Initially taking a role in mental health & trauma recovery before becoming a Manager for a charitable organisation, and providing a calm and safe environment for others. I started to realise somethings about myself that 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 recognised the landscape of trauma, because I had lived there for so long.
I finally came to understood what ‘Beware of ghosts’ really meant, which in turn has made me mindful of the impact my actions and words have on others - something I still work to improve every day.
'Misery loves company'; or so the saying goes; and 'Ghosts are people who are desperately unhappy in their own lives, who neither recognise or understand their own pain. They enjoy draining the joy and happiness from the lives and souls of others. Ghosts are individuals who when they sense pain; they smile kindly to your face while confirming the fears and the negative thoughts that you hold about yourself. The juxtaposition of a smiling face and destructive agenda, makes you question your own reality.
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 undermining you by encouraging your self-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 that they care when indeed they don't - He or She is not your friend - you can be certain of that as I am.
The person smiling while encouraging you in a positive way, challenging the negative beliefs that you hold about yourself, praising, empowering, supporting and believing in you, recognising your strengths, not your weaknesses; not just for a short time, but always - over many months and years - 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. Whenever the negative thoughts surface, this may help - ABC thinking - Acceptance - I accept that I feel (nervous/angry/scared/etc) Belief - and I still love and believe in myself Change this moment will pass & things will change for the better
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 & less expensive than recovery - (in every sense of the word).
For more information about the services we offer email firstname.lastname@example.org
Loving yourself may not come naturally for everyone, for many different reasons. Some people have to learn how to love & pay more attention to themselves. Through our Senses Self Care sessions, we aim to help you explore this part of yourself, not in a selfish way, and not in a way that means neglecting other people in your life, rather in a balanced way that allows you to feel happier, healthier, more confident & more at peace within yourself, with a view to improving quality of life, relationships, financials, career prospects, overall health & mental well-being. 'If you are looking for that one person who will change your life; look within' .