A recap on what can make our work life traumatic.
As I mentioned several weeks ago, the definition of what makes something traumatic – whether at work or in any other sphere of our life – is highly subjective.
As a trauma therapist, the way I define trauma is this:
“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.”
For me, the emphasis is on that specific part: “that overwhelms this individual’s ability to effectively cope with what they went through.”
Therefore, when we have adequate internal and external support, we don’t overwhelm ourselves, and/or we reduce the opportunity for potentially traumatic overwhelm.
Moreover, we increase the odds that we can properly metabolize and digest the overwhelming experiences so they don’t lodge in our nervous systems and neural pathways as traumatic responses, allowing us to respond more functionally and adaptively to the situation(s).
So, in essence, one of the primary ways we can avoid recreating our trauma history (or traumatizing ourselves, period) in our work lives involves increasing our support.
But how can we increase our support?
Increasing your support is critical to avoiding trauma in your work life.
When it comes to increasing the support in our lives to avoid recreating (or creating for the first time) trauma, we can imagine the following will be helpful:
1) First, develop great internal support.
What does this mean?
I always think of it this way – “don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg” (aka short-sighted destruction of the most valuable resource).
YOU are the most important asset in your work life.
So take care of yourself.
Sleep, nutrition, exercise, regular medical appointments, whatever it means and looks like for you to take great care of your basic biological needs to show up consistently and be well-resourced for your work life.
And taking care of yourself and cultivating great internal support can and should also mean doing your own personal psychological work.
Develop great internal support by tending to your physiology and psychology to show up well-resourced for your work life.
And often, in pursuit of cultivating these internal supports, you may need and want to develop great external supports to help you do so.
2) Develop great external supports.
Again, part of what can lead to childhood trauma (or adult trauma) is not only the absence of internal support to cope with what happened but also the absence of external support to help us cope with what happened/is happening.
If a parent is the abuser of a child and that child has no one to turn to for emotional support, that’s one example of a lack of external support.
If a young girl experiences abuse from her church community and the entire church community blames her and fails to support her, that’s another example of a lack of external support.
Whether you’re a child or an adult, all of us crave and need external support to help us process and move through the challenging experiences of life (and our work life).
So develop your “team” of external supports as a key strategy to avoid recreating trauma in your work life.
Look for an executive coach.
Line up a solid financial team.
Pursue generous and equitable peer groups.
Seek out a mentor.
Join a church or spiritual groups that nourish you.
Now, a caveat and a very quick word about seeking out a therapist vs. a coach or business mentor:
By all means, trust your intuition and seek out who you truly believe will be the best fit for you but also remember that the work of therapists vs. coaches can be summarized like this:
Therapists actually have the tools and training to address any cracks in the proverbial psychological foundation that needs to be repaired whereas coaches are only equipped to deal with further building upon a firm, non-faulty foundation.
So if you come from a trauma background or suspect you might have cracks in your proverbial psychological foundation, consider seeking out a trauma therapist specifically above and beyond any coaching you do.
A well-trained trauma therapist can, of course, be one of your key external supports, but they can also help you develop those above-mentioned internal supports and provide evidence-based treatment to help process any memories, triggers, maladaptive beliefs, and behaviors triggered by your work life.
3) And finally, to not recreate your trauma in your work life, question anything that would harm or fail to support “the little ones inside.”
Admittedly, this is my most esoteric point in the essay.
And to be clear, I’m an Ivy League graduate, a New Englander, and a trauma-trained clinician with a skill set grounded in evidence-based interventions.
I’m grounded in the pragmatic and the proven.
But still, there’s this other piece of me, the part that’s lived in Northern California for 17 years, the part that feels connected to her soul, and the that is a mom that wants us all to think very deeply about this piece, too:
Question anything or anyone that would harm or fail to support “the little ones inside.”
What do I mean by this?
Business and work – as with any other social, structural system in the world – has been historically Patriachical, Racist, and Capitalistic.
These are forces that have shaped the modern business world and that most traditional business advice stems from (think profits above people, bigger margins at all cost, more is better, grind hard now so you can rest later, and other messages that tend to sacrifice self and others for traditional markers of “success.”)
So my last piece of advice speaks to being wary when we do seek out external support and attempt to cultivate internal support.
Be mindful of the place where guidance, advice, or attempt to soothe and support is rooted in.
Ask yourself: Does this advice, guidance, and support feel good to the 4-year-old in me? The 8-year-old in me? The 12-year-old in me?
Be mindful that as you seek out support to help you avoid recreating your trauma in your work life that much business advice may be well-intentioned but accidentally retraumatizing.
And tying this all together – the more you get comfortable questioning what would harm or fail the little ones inside, the more you develop those internal supports I mentioned above.
Remember: no one is the expert of your experience except for you, so please question the kind of guidance you receive through the filter of what would harm or fail to support “the little ones inside” of you.
So, how do you increase self-awareness and be curious about what your work life is reflecting back to you?
Before I explore what it means and may look like to increase your self-awareness and be curious about what your work life is reflecting back to you, I want first to reframe what a wonderful opportunity work provides all of us with.
Work, for most of us, is where we spend the bulk of our hours and life energy.
There is ample “grist for the mill,” so to speak if we pay attention to our relationship to work and what gets triggered in us at work.
But this opportunity only exists if we’re being mindful.
Mindful of work as a mirror for our own personal patterns, our triggers, and our growth edges.
With increased mindfulness, we can use our work lives as a laboratory to do the deep repairing work needed for our personal psychological histories.
It’s a beautiful opportunity (and, let’s face it, it can also be an AFGO, too).
So how do you bring that self-awareness and be curious about what your work life is reflecting back to you?
You can start by asking yourself the following:
- Did I relate to any part of this two-part essay?
- What’s NOT working well in my work life?
- What in my work life feels hard, wrong, and familiar but not necessarily functional?
- How am I showing up in my work life, in my role, in a way that feels like an extension of the role I played early on in my family? For example: Sacrificing myself first for others? Going it alone versus asking for support? Fearing that I can’t trust anyone?
- How’s this – the ways that I’m showing up – working out for me?
- What’s the likely outcome if I keep playing out this familiar role? Doing this same dance? Staying locked into those same patterns?
- What and who did I not have back then that I could give myself now that would help me?
- How can I show up for myself with different, more functional, and adaptive beliefs and behaviors in my work life now?
- What would that take? What would be possible if I gave myself more support and used work as a laboratory to change my patterns consciously?
Sit with these questions. Journal about them. Bring them to your therapist for exploration and conversation. See what comes up for you.
And please also know that these inquiries are just the tip of the iceberg that I share with my clients – many of whom are very high functioning and/or upwardly mobile and accomplished but who have unresolved relational trauma histories and symptoms at play that are being triggered in their work life.
When we work together as therapist and client, we go much, much deeper into exploring how and why you might be recreating your personal trauma history in your work life and, very importantly, we focus intensively on how we can change that for you.
So if you recognized yourself in this two-part essay series and you suspect you may be recreating your own personal trauma history in your work life, and you would like evidence-based psychotherapeutic support via EMDR and or my relational trauma recovery therapy services, I’d genuinely love to be of support to you.
I absolutely love helping accomplished 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 doing it).
Let’s face it: you’ve already invested so much into your education and professional development. A short-term investment in EMDR specifically can accelerate your progress even more (plus, it can have amazing benefits for your relationships, esteem, health, and general well-being).
I’m taking on new clients right now and would love to support you.
Please feel free to reach out if you feel like now is the right time to transform those old, unhelpful patterns.
And until next time, please take such good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.