Is Tension in Your Workplace Triggering Past Trauma?

 

“I’m having a lot of tension with my team supervisor lately.  Our interactions remind me of some things I went through way back when.  I thought I had gotten past it.  I worked through how I was treated in middle school already, and now this issue with my supervisor is reminding me of what I went through back then.
“She says things to me like, ‘Can’t you do anything right?’  She rolled her eyes when I asked an important question in a meeting last week, and said something sarcastic. People giggled, and I felt humiliated.  It’s to where I avoid consulting with her, because I want to avoid being on the receiving end of this treatment.  I want to do a good job and get along with people at work.  
“I’m tired of feeling like a bullied kid. I want to be able to feel differently and be valued.  I know I am smart and hard-working. The worst part is, I keep wondering how much of this is something I am really doing wrong, and how much is not me, or even about me? Am I too sensitive, making a big deal out of a stupid comment, or am I really being treated badly? I’m a hard worker, but it’s starting to affect my performance.  And I want to be a good worker and team person and feel positive about my workplace, like I did when I first started here.”
Work issues can be tricky, right? Because unlike our friendships or other people we actively choose to be with, we usually only have limited control (if any) over who we work with.  Just like school.  And what happens when someone we work with is behaving in a way that feels adversarial?  We can feel helpless or ostracized, just like we did as kids. 
 You aren’t in this for more meaningful connection, like you (ideally) would be with friends. It’s great if it happens, but that’s not the main reason you and your supervisor are in each others’ lives. It’s a working relationship, with different goals. But that doesn’t make it okay for you to feel like this.
There are many ways you can deal with this. Checking in with trusted friends, coworkers, or other folks you have experienced as honest and reliable are great starts.  There are resources for dealing with work conflict.  It can occur because of anything from different communication styles, all the way to actual bullying or abuse.   Often there are channels through your Human Resources office or legal channels to go through in that instance.  Or even a job change.   
That speaks to concrete steps.  But the other piece is coping with the distress you are feeling personally.
Might it help to talk to a therapist? You know I’m a big proponent of talking to someone supportive, non-judgmental, and trained to help you work through it.
“Oh, come on.  These things were not such a big deal, and I’m not such a snowflake.  I get it. We were kids. I’m a grown-up now.”
You know something? That’s not even the point.  It’s true, you are not a kid anymore, and your coworker or supervisor is not the same person who put you through a bad thing or things in middle school.  Yes, middle school is (thankfully, for many) over.   Does it help relieve your symptoms to know this? Does it really help to give yourself negative talk and call yourself a “snowflake”?  Maybe that gave you perspective, and that’s great.  But if you are still feeling these unwanted feelings, or replaying these memories, this type of self-talk probably only made you feel worse.
When something is very distressing, whether it is happening now or it triggered something from before, it’s how it’s popping up in our lives now that we want to address.   For instance, you may be feeling the following:
 The memories and images (whether from an earlier incident or from last week)  play over and over in your head. Strong feelings (or body sensations) pop up – in dreams, in moments during the day,  or in a particular location at work.
Your stomach went in knots when you went down that particular hallway. 
You feel like you are breathing fast, or not well, at certain points, like the start of a meeting.
You want to not feel these things, but “pushing” those feelings down only helps for a minute, and then they come back.
These memories, sensations, and feelings can be like annoying gophers popping up, all the way to charging bulls that get in the way of how you want to live life.
 And this thing going on now with your supervisor has really triggered these memories/sensations into high gear.  
So what can you do?
Step back and examine the situation.  Go through the steps above, checking in with friends and trusted colleagues. If the situation merits more formal workplace intervention, you may want to go through the appropriate channels, such as Human Resources, to address this.
Assess your symptoms. Do at least some of them match with this checklist?  If so…
Accept help.    Sometimes we need concrete guidance and resolution to this here-and-now issue with your supervisor.  Do the steps above, if they apply.  
But when it comes to what’s being triggered for you, that’s where some deeper work can happen, too. 
It doesn’t make you weak to admit that this is really bugging you. It takes courage to admit something in your world is not right and you want to work through it with a professional. By the way, I’m also talking to the guys out there who are being told that.  Or think that.  Or have been told to think that.  This process is effective on people regardless of gender, gender identity, or other such factors.  The idea is to get you to a place where it is NOT impacting you so much, and you can start finding ways to deal with these issues, past and present.

Think about it. When you are ready, give me a call.

Some guidelines on next steps:
When you call me, leave me a message.  (If you don’t hear back right away, hang tight! I will usually call you back during my office hours.)  When we connect, we will do a 10-minute telephone consultation about yourself and what is happening right now.  You may want to pick a good time and place to call me, so that you can speak freely to me about your concerns.
If I am a good fit for you, we will schedule your appointment. I look forward to hearing from you!

Author: Irene

Irene Ilachinski is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker working as a psychotherapist in private practice in Fairfax, Virginia.

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