Years ago, I had a boss whom I desperately wanted to please. If I’m honest, I wanted to please almost any person in authority at the time, but my drive to impress her was even stronger than most.
This wasn’t because she was a hard-driving leader. In fact, it had very little to do with her at all other than that aspects of her personality mirrored those of my mom. Just like my own mother, my boss confided in me, sometimes inappropriately, making me feel chosen and special. She unloaded her emotions on me, which I took as a sign of my value to her. She was a big-picture thinker, impulsive at times, and notoriously unreliable. Still having much emotional work to do back then, the familiarity of these qualities were like a magnet for me.
To be clear, it took me dozens of therapy sessions to acknowledge this connection. But when it came, it hit hard.
I realized, with the help of my particularly patient therapist, that I was playing out at work the same dynamics that had characterized my childhood. Specifically, I was suppressing my own reactions to stay valued, but then boiling over with resentment later. I was overextending myself constantly in order to feel good enough. I was abandoning myself and my own boundaries to maintain the security of being in her favor.
The day that drove this home for me was one in which my boss and I were in a board meeting together, and I was presenting some data. When a moment arose in which she was going to look bad to the board, she pointed the finger at me. And then I lost it.
Tears welled up in my eyes and the rage was red hot in my belly. I had to step out of the meeting to ground myself. I felt betrayed, as I imagine many of us would. What I recognized, though, was that in a different context – with a different boss, I would have been angry, but not like this. I would have felt disappointed and frustrated and attributed the situation to a poor managerial move on her part. I wouldn’t have felt stabbed in the heart.
The intensity of my feelings pointed to something else. I’d been taught that was is hysterical is historical. That means that if our reaction to a situation is disproportionate to what’s actually happening, it’s because it’s linked to something in our past. This wounding I felt told me that this wasn’t just a bad boss interaction. This was trauma.
Let’s get one important thing out of the way. I am not here to tell you that every aspect of your personality is rooted in your childhood trauma. There’s a powerful trend right now to label every negative coping behavior as a function of trauma (or ADHD), and, to be honest, it’s both reductionistic and stale.
On the flip side, this over-labeling trend seems to reflect a cultural awakening to the experience of trauma. Perhaps as a remnant of #metoo or the advent of Instagram therapists, we as a society are finally recognizing that trauma is much more far-reaching than most of us ever imagined.
Trauma has been more recently redefined in popular culture to rightfully include relational harm that was done to us, both intentionally and unintentionally. The conversations we’re now having are about not just life-threatening events, but also about things like growing up with the trauma of food insecurity or raging parents or a chronically ill sibling.
Trauma is not just about what happened to us. It’s often equally about what didn’t happen.
It’s about the security and stability that were lacking. The missed opportunities for real attachment with a loving caregiver. The absence of attention or nurturance or support. The experience of having to mask important elements of our identity. The fear of loss of love. And so much more.
With this framing in mind, we start to recognize just how these early experiences can shape how we engage with the world. And we can begin to notice just how often our styles of engagement impact how we work.
Trauma plays out at work because we are people at work – it’s as simple as that. We are interacting with other humans, which means that our relational patterns get activated.
Certain relationships at work – like mine with my former boss – are like putting a key in a lock. They intensely trigger old feelings or dances.
It doesn’t have to be a particular person, however, that points to your own trauma. It could be a type of situation, a way of approaching your work, or choices that you make for yourself or others.
Here are some of the most common ways that I see trauma-based patterns showing up for people in their professional lives:
- Working beyond your physical, mental, and emotional capacities.
- Agreeing to things that you internally know you can’t or shouldn’t do.
- Feeling devastated when something goes wrong.
- Staying in roles that fail to utilize your skill or potential.
- Being indecisive in small and/or big choices and getting caught in analysis loops.
- Staying quiet when you experience or observe inequity or injustice.
- Freezing up in important moments.
- Experiencing strong feelings of resentment.
- Finding yourself in patterns of feeling lost and uncertain of what you want.
- Experiencing burnout repeatedly.
- Feeling the need to constantly prove your worth or value.
To be clear, there are systems – like capitalism – and business cultures that foster many of these patterns. But for those of us who have had the opportunity to have our emotional and relational needs met, we tend to be able to see how these systemic forces are driving the behaviors and we don’t like it. We might stay in the situation for a while – particularly if we have few other options – but we work to remove ourselves from toxicity.
When we’ve experienced trauma, our framework for the world is skewed and we accept these patterns as necessary or the paths to “safety.” We might even be told by trusted others that they see us struggling in these ways, but we might dismiss it or suppress it.
As someone who has worked hard to adjust patterns – and continues to be on that journey – what I can say is this:: The work that you do to heal your trauma is more valuable than any other professional development course or additional certification you can pursue. It will pay dividends to your wellbeing and peace to address these patterns at the root.
The beauty, too, is that small changes to how we engage in work help us to heal trauma from the outside in.