How to heal emotional scars from past jobs

by Ana Lopez

Opinions of contributing entrepreneurs are their own.

“Jena, I think I have PTSD from my last role. It’s affecting how I get to my new job, and I don’t know what to do about it.”

While this person almost always definitely doesn’t qualify for a PTSD diagnosis, the pain in their statement is real. It’s incredibly common to experience a major negative event at work, such as bullying, harassment, discrimination, or job loss. For example, a study of the Institute for Bullying at Work found that 19% of employees have experienced workplace bullying, while a study of Zippia found that 83% of American workers suffer from work-related stress.

Related: 5 Easy Ways to Reduce Stress and Enjoy Your Work

How professional scar tissue is emerging in new roles

The psychological impact of these events can be transferred to a new role in substantial ways. Common ways professional scar tissue transfers to a new professional chapter include:

  1. Hypervigilance: You’re always looking for the shoe to drop. You don’t expect to be fine. You are anxious, intense and tense. This affects your ability to work effectively with others because you always expect the worst.

  2. People pleasant: You go above and beyond, have few boundaries and always say “yes”. You are afraid of disappointing others because if someone is unhappy with you, you are afraid of losing your job or not getting the recognition you deserve.

  3. Micromanagement: You are involved in details that you don’t need to be involved in. When you know absolutely everything about everything, you have more control over your situation. This will make people annoy you. You are labeled as being too “in the weeds” and not giving people enough space to do their jobs.

  4. Being too careful: It is important to learn from past mistakes. Sometimes we can go too far and be overly rigid and inflexible because we fear that the next mistake will be catastrophic (as it may have felt in the last job).

  5. Self sabotage: If you expect the worst, you will likely manifest your reality. I often see people whose fear of failure becomes all-consuming, and they unconsciously engage in self-defeating behavior. Unfortunately, in these situations, what they fear eventually happens.

  6. Fury: You fear that you will be taken advantage of and you struggle with the trust of your colleagues. You carry anger with you from past experiences that have absolutely nothing to do with your current job and team. Your team senses your wrath and intensity and wonders what they did to deserve this.

Related: Career Trauma Is Real. Here’s how to recognize and recover from it.

How to manage your career baggage and master your healing journey

While professional baggage is common, it is your responsibility (not your employer’s) to manage it. I often see people expecting their new team and new manager to tiptoe around their triggers. As a business psychologist who has coached dozens of people dealing with these challenges, the best results come when the person with the baggage takes charge of their own healing journey. Ways to do this include:

  1. Recognize your triggers and plan for them: It’s likely that some of the new teammates’ personalities will remind you of people from your past. Clarify who those new people are, how they trigger you, and how to better plan your interactions with them.

  2. Take more breaks: As people heal from caregiver baggage, I recommend scheduling more breaks throughout the day. Breaks help to reset the brain. Shake off the energy. Have a healthy snack. Move your body.

  3. Say no:” If you overworked yourself in your last job and burned out, learn from the past. Know your limits and communicate them.

  4. Focus on sleep, good nutrition, exercise and hydration: The base never dies. While you are healing, focus on making your body healthy. This way your nervous system is prepped and ready to take on the day.

  5. Focus on building strong relationships: Most career baggage is rooted in trust issues. Developing positive relationships with colleagues and managers can help you build confidence in your new job. Push yourself outside your comfort zone and take part in networking and team bonding activities.

  6. Practicing Gratitude: Your new job is not your old job. One way to train your brain for that new reality and avoid falling into old patterns or behaviors is to have a consistent gratitude practice. Practice thanking for the positive aspects of your new role. This allows for more psychological separation from past negative experiences.

Remember that overcoming scar tissue professionally is a process that takes time and effort. At the same time, you are responsible for your own healing journey, so take charge. While on this journey, be patient with yourself and seek help when needed. With the right support and strategies, it is possible to move forward and thrive in your new role.

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