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Three months into my first corporate job, there was a moment when my face got hot, I began to shake, and I felt truly embarrassed, as if I were a failure. I had never felt so triggered; it was as if there was a fiery flashlight beaming directly at me. I hadn’t experienced such a complex range of emotions at work before, and I couldn’t figure out the reason for them. I turned to friends for help, and one of them confidently stated, “It sounds like you have a case of imposter syndrome.” However, another friend said, “No, Jamilla has anxieties because of all the abuse she has been through before.” And after hearing them both, I thought to myself that, well, maybe, they are both correct!
Someplace in between experiencing imposter syndrome and work anxiety at this particular job, I began recognizing unresolved workplace trauma that I had experienced in my past. At first, I believed it was solely because of the imposter syndrome I suffer from, arguably so since I have strived through difficult conditions to land on my feet. Like many of you, I often do not feel truly deserving of opportunities in spaces that may not value what I have to offer.
But while my imposter syndrome weighs heavily on me, I quickly realized there was certainly more to the emotions that I was grappling with at this point in my career. You see, I have survived quite a few difficult and truly toxic workplaces. I believe many of us are conditioned to refrain from discussing negative past work environments, as it could make a bad impression on new colleagues. However, this leaves people in a vulnerable place to potentially be treated in a way that triggers past work-related traumas.
Given my personal experience with the aforementioned workplace situation that triggered me in a negative way, I decided to write this piece for people like myself, who find themselves struggling with feelings like those that I had at work not too long ago. At the same time, I hope that this piece serves as a reminder that mental health is important, and because we spend most of our lives at work, it can very well heavily contribute to our emotional and physical well-being. Here are a few of the ways that helped me move myself past my trauma in the workplace:
1. Identify and understand your triggers My prior workplace trauma came to the surface at my current job when I perceived a senior colleague to be behaving both passively and aggressively rude towards me. We’d been working through some difficult conversations, and although her behavior towards me surely had nothing to do with me personally, I took it so hard to the point I was shaking, I started to feel flushed, and I also had a small panic attack.
The delivery of the colleague felt aggressive, and it was very similar to that of a colleague I worked with in a previous job who consistently attempted to make me feel less than capable. Now, in the grand scheme of things, this was likely an interaction that is considered “normal” in a corporate environment; however, my reaction to it wasn’t normal. This is when I concluded that I couldn’t process this scenario in a healthy way without first identifying what was happening to me.
2. It may feel like it, but it’s definitely not the end of the road My confidence hit an all-time low at work after this situation occurred, and suddenly, all the positive and ambitious intentions that I first had with this job declined, and it felt good to adopt a more passive and fall-into-the-background kind of approach. Indeed, it felt safe to avoid the colleague as well as anyone that was present on the day we had our exchange. However, the manner in which I reacted is not something I recommend- instead, it is important to reflect and embrace your triggers, and further use it as a sign to keep going, and not allow them to interfere in your career goals. At all times, remember that you are worthy and capable of overcoming uncomfortable exchanges with those in your workspace.
3. Work with a professional to help you cope Developing tough skin as a person working in a corporate setting can be exhausting. Also, you don’t always have to tuck away your trauma or triggers when you are off the clock. Talk with a professional about your experiences, so that they can help you better cope with complex and difficult scenarios at work. For me, I realized I didn’t want to face these new challenges alone, and ultimately sought professional assistance to continue having a more holistic and healthy approach to difficult people in busy settings.
4. Work on standing up for yourself This is something that I believe many of us can relate to. It can be intimidating and slightly scary, especially as a “lower” level employee, to stand up for yourself in a room full of people with a lot more experience, ego, and power than you. Having said that, it is imperative that we work on standing up for ourselves in situations that can be triggering. If I had been more assertive with my past trauma, it would have perhaps helped me better handle similar scenarios in the future, instead of completely shutting down. After all, giving critical feedback to those that make you feel anything but empowered should be called out. I am personally working on this, but I know that once I am more confident enough to do so, it will not only help those being triggered, but also those that treat others poorly in work environments.