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Am I recreating my trauma in my worklife?

Am I recreating my trauma in my work life? | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

As a trauma clinician and entrepreneur who has built a 22-employee multi-state, professional therapy corporation in the last few years, talking about trauma and work are two of my favorite subjects (other favorite topics, in case you’re curious, include my daughter, international travel, and Peloton). 

Lately, I’ve been talking more openly with other female entrepreneurs I know as well as other professionals at the top of their field (doctors, surgeons, lawyers, co-founders, etc) about both of these subjects deeply.

Am I recreating my trauma in my work life? | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

Am I recreating my trauma in my worklife?

In these conversations (not to mention through my own personal experience), I’ve come to realize how vividly our work life can mirror back to us our unresolved trauma patterns and, if we approach it consciously, provide one of the strongest vehicles for resolving these maladaptive patterns.

If you’re curious to know more about whether or not you’re recreating your own personal trauma history in your work life – no matter what your profession is – and, more importantly, if you’re interested in knowing how to not recreate your own personal trauma history at work, I hope you’ll find value from this month’s two-part essay series.

In this first essay, we’ll explore more about how and why our work life can serve as the ultimate mirror for our “stuff,” why our work life is excellent “grist for the personal growth mill” (so to speak), what exactly trauma is and trauma impacts you may recognize in yourself (at work or otherwise) if it hasn’t been processed, and then I’ll provide a concrete example of how this might look when someone plays this out in her business.

Two weeks from now in the second of this two-part essay series, I’ll explore the steps we may need to take in order to not recreate trauma in our work lives and provide you with a list of tools and prompts to deepen your understanding and inquiry about this.

Our work life as the ultimate mirror.

All content areas are portals into our psychological patterns. 

What do I mean by this? 

Effectively, how we do one thing is generally how we do everything when it comes to our primary psychological patterning.

For instance, how you eat, how you vacation and travel, how you approach money, all of it can be a window into your primary patterning (examples: a “never enough” pattern, a “I can’t trust anyone” pattern, a “catastrophic thinking, and relentless activity to avoid feeling your painful feelings” pattern, a “I trust the world and others” pattern, a “struggle to say no because of fear of rejection” pattern, among countless other patterns). 

In most cases, how you do one thing is generally how you do most things. 

In therapy, we could look at any content area to gain greater insight into our dominant psychological patterns (whether these are adaptive or maladaptive patterns), but certainly, our work life will often be more stark and vivid a mirror for us to do some self-inquiry. 

Why is this?

Because of the disproportionate amount of time spent on it, the growth inherent to most work life situations, and the higher stakes generally associated with it. 

Let’s break this down further.

When it comes to time, in general, for most of us, our work-life demands lots of attention and time in a way that few other things do. 

Yes, the way I vacation is a portal into my patterns but I do that 20 days a year (maybe). 

Personally, I do my business and work nearly 250 days a year (if you don’t include weekends and yet there are plenty of weekends where I work, too). 

Clearly, at least for me, there is a disproportionate amount of time spent on work which means there is a commensurate and disproportionate opportunity to be made aware of my issues, growth edges, and patterns as my work life mirrors them back to me in a way that other content areas (vacationing, for example) don’t allow as much. 

The other reason our work lives can serve as stark mirrors and powerful portals is that most of our work lives, particularly if you’re a professional and/or business owner, inherently involves some level of growth and advancement over the years – obtaining that advanced degree or professional license, going after the promotion, taking on managerial responsibilities, etc.

And this – growth and advancement – inherent to our work life – usually invites a certain degree of discomfort for most of us.

For example, taking on increasing responsibilities or being tasked with greater levels of risk and reward in your work life can often feel uncomfortable as you assume these new weighty tasks and realities. 

Perhaps, of course, this increased growth normalizes over time, but when it’s new and when we’re often putting ourselves in a position of attempting to grow and advance in our careers, there will likely be a certain amount of discomfort.

And in this discomfort, we usually get to see what our own adaptive or maladaptive beliefs and behaviors are when we cope with this discomfort.

And finally, another reason our work lives can provide a stark mirror into our primary psychological patterning in a way that few other things will is because, for most of us, our work life often feels high stakes. 

For most of us, our work lives are how we earn money in the world, how we feed our families, pay the mortgage, and attempt to feel a certain amount of logistical security in the world. 

Our work lives are also, for many of us, interwoven to some extent with our sense of identity, our personal reputation, our meaning and purpose.

All of which can make work feel higher stakes than, let’s say, a vacation or our relationship with hobbies, etc.

I outline the reasons that our work lives can provide a stark mirror into your psychological patterning not to overwhelm you but because I want to reframe that instead of this acuity feeling and being “bad,” it’s actually truly excellent “grist for the personal growth mill” so to speak.

Your work-life is excellent “grist for the personal growth mill.”

Your work-life is excellent “grist for the personal growth mill” – what do I mean by this?

Essentially, it can provide excellent material, insight, and knowledge for your personal growth and development if you approach it consciously.

For example, whatever your personal issues are, whatever the unresolved impacts of your relational trauma history are – the beliefs you have about money, yourself, your self-worth, your ability to set boundaries, your ability to have healthy assertive conversations and tolerate conflict and  being disliked, etc – all of it is going to show up (particularly as you advance in your career) providing you with an opportunity to be curious and conscious about whether or not those beliefs, behaviors, and patterns are working quite so well for you.

But in order to use our work life as “grist for the personal growth mill” and an opportunity to heal our unresolved trauma impacts, we first need to understand what exactly trauma is, what trauma impacts can look like, and how this might show up in our work life (practically speaking).

What exactly IS trauma?

Contrary to popular belief, trauma isn’t relegated to just a discrete set of experiences or incidents (like a car crash or wartime conflict).

Instead, trauma has a much more expansive definition.

Trauma can be an event, series of events, or prolonged circumstances that are subjectively experienced by the individual who goes through it as physically, mentally, and emotionally harmful and/or life-threatening and that overwhelms this individual’s ability to effectively cope with what they went through. 

What kind of events and circumstances might lead to trauma?

There are an endless number of events and circumstances that might lead to trauma but it might be helpful to think about them in four discrete categories with some attendant examples to help think through how this has, perhaps, shown up in your own life.

  • Acute Trauma: Acute trauma refers to a single-incident, one-time event such as experiencing a wildfire, car crash, school shooting, terrorist event, or house fire.
  • Chronic Trauma: Chronic trauma is a set of experiences that are repeated and take place over time, such as enduring vicarious trauma on the job, middle school bullying, poverty, exposure to violence in the community, or long-term medical challenges.
  • Complex Trauma: Complex trauma, often called developmental or relational trauma, is the kind of trauma that takes place over time in the context of a caretaking relationship (usually between a parent and child) that fails to adequately support the child’s biopsychosocial development such as when ongoing neglect, sexual abuse, physical punishment, witnessing domestic violence, or being raised by a personality- or mood-disordered parent takes place.
  • Historical/Racial Trauma: Historical and racial trauma refers to the experiences of racially-driven oppression, targeting, harassment, and discrimination that groups of individuals have experienced over time and that generations after them still suffer the effects of.

All of these categories of trauma and the attendant examples in them might overwhelm someone’s subject ability to cope with what they endured.

And what happens when something overwhelms our ability to cope?

When we experience an event, series of events, or prolonged circumstances that overwhelm our ability to effectively cope, our body and brain are changed both temporarily and sometimes long-term.

How do our brain and body change?  

When an event that feels life-threatening or deeply physically or emotionally unsafe occurs, our brain’s “reptilian” part (the limbic system, responsible for survival instincts and automatic bodily functions) takes over and the mammalian and neomammalian parts of our brain (responsible for emotional processing, cognitive processing, and decision making) go “offline” as we switch to pure survival mode. 

We stay in this mode until the event or circumstance passes – which can certainly be helpful in surviving the moment!

Then, in some cases, after we move through scary situations, and even if our body and brain respond this way, we’re later able to properly “metabolize” and “digest” the experiences we went through cognitively, emotionally, and physically, leaving us with no maladaptive trauma symptoms.

But at other times, when we aren’t adequately supported (either internally or externally) to make sense of and process the hardship we went through, our brains and the cells of our bodies are left with an imprint and impact of the experiences we endured and we may be left with a host of biopsychosocial consequences that impede our ability to move effectively through our lives, post-trauma. 

A partial list of trauma impacts might include:

  • Depression and/or anxiety (including generalized anxiety);
  • Irritability and being very short-tempered, having a short fuse;
  • Loss of interest in things that used to bring you pleasure, or in life itself;
  • Numbing through substances and behaviors, repeatedly and compulsively;
  • Trouble concentrating, focusing, and self-organizing;
  • Insomnia and challenges sleeping (including nightmares);
  • Feeling emotionally flooded and overwhelmed very easily;
  • An inability to visualize a future (let alone a positive future);
  • Hopelessness and a sense of despair;
  • Shame, a sense that you’re worthless;
  • Few or no memories, feeling like your childhood is a fog or a big blank;
  • Hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response, and general mistrust;
  • Body symptoms such as aches, pains, headaches, GI issues, muscle rigidity;
  • Substance abuse and eating disorders;
  • Self-harming or destructive behaviors such as cutting or burning;
  • Feeling like you have no true self, like you don’t know who you really are.
  • And more.

So why talk about trauma? Why talk about trauma in our work lives in particular?

What’s so important about this?

Because when we see a thing more clearly – in this case, a wider, subjective lens of trauma and examples of unresolved trauma impacts – we can perhaps see ourselves and our stories and how this is still playing out in our work lives more clearly. 

And in doing so, we can seek out the appropriate kind of help to resolve it and advance even further in our work lives.

Over the years, I’ve worked with so many extraordinary clients who have achieved high levels of academic, professional, and financial success but who still have unresolved trauma symptoms at play. 

It is possible to be both things: high achieving and have unresolved trauma symptoms

But often, at a certain point, this can feel a little like trying to race a fancy, high-performing race car down the highway with no gas in the tank.

But, when we become aware of any unresolved trauma symptoms and attend to them with proper attention and support, we give ourselves a chance to feel more ease, more integration, a greater sense of empowerment and agency (racing that car with more gas in the tank, so to speak).

So let’s break this down and take a look at an example of how this – unresolved trauma impacts – might actually, practically show up for someone in her work life.

An example of someone who might recreate their own personal trauma history at work.

Imagine, if you will, a little girl robbed of her childhood and raised by personality- and mood- disordered parents. 

In such an environment, devoid of consistent relational safety and adequate emotional nurturance, she may grow up to hold beliefs like:

  • “I can’t trust anyone.”
  • “People will always take advantage of me.”
  • “It’s safer to keep people at a distance.”
  • “Everything will fall apart at any minute.”

Along the way in school and her early career she may develop behaviors like:

  • Overworking to the point of sacrificing her relationships and health because she thinks everything will fall apart or fail if she stops working.
  • Binge eating and purging at night to cope with the increasing stress, anxiety, and vulnerability she has advancing in her academics and career.
  • Developing a growing sense of anger and resentment towards others who don’t work as hard as she does, wondering why everyone around her seems to be having fun and enjoying life when it feels so hard for her.

As she arrives solidly into her mid-career life this unresolved plays out in her own business in myriad ways:

  • She doesn’t hire until she’s beyond burnout, fearing handing over any part of her business to anyone else. 
  • She doesn’t let her COO and right hand see the numbers, fearing she’ll be taken advantage of if she does and robs herself of support. 
  • She keeps herself out of community with other entrepreneurs and business mentors, falsely believing there is no nurturance or support there. 
  • She feels more and more overwhelmed every day, dealing with depression, numbness, and dullness in her waking hours from working constantly and turning to substances for relief, recreating old patterning of attaching to food and drink versus safe, trusted others.

Her childhood patterns will extend into her business and commensurately her work life will reflect back to her what her unattended issues are (if she pays attention or if her work life forces her attention to them). 

This is, of course, one example that’s a bit more extreme. 

Unresolved trauma impacts may show up for some in more subtle ways: 

  • Challenges saying no or disappointing others to the point of sacrificing career advancement opportunities that require more people management; 
  • Staying in work environments replete with unsupportive (if not downright damaging) microaggressions because, while it’s not supportive, it’s familiar; 
  • An inability to stand up to a hostile co-founder because of fear of retaliation; 
  • Holding back from going after venture funding because of a lack of esteem; 
  • And so much more.

Whether the way your unresolved trauma patterns show up is obvious or more subtle, paying attention to your patterning is an enormous opportunity to advance your own personal growth work.

In the next essay of this two-part series (which will be published in two weeks) we’ll explore the steps we may need to take in order to not recreate trauma in our work lives and provide you with a list of tools and prompts to deepen your understanding and inquiry about this.

But, in advance of that essay coming out, if you recognized yourself even remotely in the first of this two-part series and you know you have some maladaptive beliefs and behaviors at play in your work life and you would like evidence-based psychotherapeutic support (EMDR) via working with a trained trauma clinician and an established business owner, I’d personally love to be of support to you. 

I absolutely love helping professionals and entrepreneurs work through the maladaptive beliefs and behaviors stemming from unresolved personal trauma so that they can achieve even more in the world (and feel better while doing it).

I’m taking on new clients right now and would love to support you personally.

If you’re anything like the other professionals and entrepreneurs I’ve worked with, you’ve already invested so much into your education, professional development, and skills.

A short-term investment in EMDR can accelerate progress even more (plus it can have amazing benefits for your relationships, esteem, health and general well being).

If you’re interested in working together, please reach out. It would be an honor to support you. 

Otherwise, I’ll be back on the blog with the second essay of this two-part series.

Warmly, Annie

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