“You are not showing up like the leader you want to be.” That is what a courageous co-worker told me after three months of swirling in a dissociative trauma response. It was true, but it was still hard to hear. It was like someone splashed ice-cold water on my face. It woke me up.

Looking back on that conversation, I can see so much growth in myself as a person and as a leader. I learned a lot from that situation, and I’d like to take a few moments to share those lessons with you.

The Back Story

Several years ago, I landed my dream job within my company, leading a project that spanned multiple lines of business. There was a lot of visibility and pressure because I was charged with doing something that had been attempted four times before and had failed. I was excited about the opportunity because I enjoy doing hard things…things that no one else wants to attempt.

I had a lot of learning to do because I was unfamiliar with the process I was attempting to streamline and synthesize, but I was up for the challenge. I love to learn new things. I had a supportive boss who gave me the space I needed to learn and empowered me to do whatever I thought was right. I was living my dream for sure.

Influencing people without authority takes more time than authoritatively dictating to them how it is going to be

Influencing people without authority takes more time than authoritatively dictating to them how it is going to be, but it’s worth it because the adoption rate is much better when they help to develop the solution that works for everyone. I was making progress, establishing relationships with stakeholders, and getting them to buy into the vision of what the process could be when seemingly, out of the blue, a zip file of repressed memories of childhood trauma opened up and overwhelmed my nervous system and disrupted my mojo.

I’ve written about this in other articles, so I won’t go into a lot of detail here, but I will tell you that it took me a good two years of therapy to get back on my feet and on stable ground again. I was in a good place, to the point where I decided to take some time off of therapy. I had a support system in place, my manager was instrumental in helping me get grounded when I was triggered in meetings, and even though we were in the middle of COVID, I was feeling pretty good about the way things were going…until my manager decided to leave the company.

I was devastated. As someone with severe attachment wounds, it takes a long time to really trust someone and to attach to them, but I successfully did that with my manager. For me, her leaving was like having my heart torn out, and the rug pulled out from under me. I felt abandoned once again by someone I trusted. Obviously, I was triggered by this situation and was operating out of a much younger part of myself.

Turtling.” I pull all my extensions in and enclose myself within my shell so I won’t get hurt again.

I went into survival mode. My attachment style did not allow me to turn toward support, so I withdrew from everyone, even my core team. I disengaged from my team and stakeholders. I stayed on mute during calls and did not provide the needed guidance and leadership. I was in a fog. I felt lost and alone. This response is typical for someone with attachment wounds. Sometimes I refer to it as “turtling.” I pull all my extensions in and enclose myself within my shell so I won’t get hurt again.

Managers and employees leave jobs and companies all the time to pursue better opportunities, so that shouldn’t be a problem, right? It was a problem for me, and I suspect I am not alone. The problem was not with the situation but rather with what the situation triggered in me.

Lessons Learned

I will not shame myself for having this reaction because it is part of the “Living Legacy of Trauma,” as Janina Fisher calls it. A legacy is the long-lasting impact of particular events, actions, etc., that occurred in the past…in this case, trauma. This is an example of how past trauma affects us in the present.

I learned some significant lessons during that difficult season that I would like to share with you because you may be experiencing the same thing, and you are not alone.

  1. My attachment wounds run deep and are impactful in the present. I didn’t realize how much my attachment wounds impacted my ability to connect with others and turn toward support. Significant attachment wounds, like mine, go back to early childhood, and our once-adaptive coping strategies associated with those wounds are second nature to us (habitual) and difficult to change. If you always feel like you don’t belong and can’t significantly connect with people, you might have attachment wounds in your history. This is something that I am still working on in therapy because the roots run deep and still impact me today.
  2. I can’t do this alone. There was no way I could pull myself out of the deep, dark, and swirling hole I was in. If my co-worker had not reached down to me in the depths, I might still be there. When we’ve experienced relational trauma or neglect, we often tell ourselves that no one is going to be there for us, no one cares about us, and we have to do it ourselves. We have to learn to give people a chance to be trustworthy…even our therapists, by the way. I learned that I needed people to help me along the way, and by working on my attachment wounds, I was able to get to the place where I could turn to support.
  3. I need to understand my triggers and how they impact me. I was surprised by how much this situation triggered me because I had never accounted for potential triggers in the workplace. I learned that it was my responsibility to identify and manage my triggers. I needed to know what situations would trigger specific troubling behavioral responses. I also learned that I needed to share this list with some trusted people so that if they observe me exhibiting a specific behavior, they will know I am triggered and what to do to help me get grounded. As we get further along in our healing journey, we don’t need as much help managing our triggers as we do in the beginning because we are aware of them and know what to do to manage them.
  4. Continuous growth is necessary for moving forward. I mistakenly thought that since I had processed my past trauma, I was done with therapy, and I could leave the past in the past. Unfortunately, that was not the case for me and many childhood trauma survivors. Our past experiences and coping strategies are woven into the fabric of our being; they’ve changed how our brains are wired and impacted our nervous system’s ability to cope with stressful situations. Again, applying self-compassion here, I am not broken (and neither are you), but I have specific things I need to relearn that others might not have to. Growth is part of life. We should all strive for continuous improvement in our lives and careers. If we are not doing this with a therapist, perhaps a coach, mentor, or peer group can help.

Tips for Moving Forward

Trauma survivors did not have a choice about what we experienced in the past, but we do get to choose how we show up in the present. If we are not showing up the way we want to, then we need to take some steps to remove the obstacles that are in the way of allowing us to shine in our careers. Below are some recommendations to help you get started.

Assess Current State. I always start with an assessment or a “look-back” of a situation. With a lot of self-compassion, I want to know what went right and what went wrong. Where do I have opportunities for growth and improvement? Where have I seen growth that I have not seen before? In order for this step to really work, we need to be gut-level honest with ourselves AND not beat ourselves up for having shortcomings. NEWS FLASH…we ALL have shortcomings.

Identify Triggers. Each situation will elicit different triggers, and we should be aware of our triggers. Identifying and tracking our triggers is the first step in being able to address them. The things that I want to know are what the situation was, what the trigger was (what initiated the response), what I was thinking, feeling, or experiencing in my body at the time, and what my response (what I did to cope) was. I created a trigger tracker template to help with collecting this information.

Determine Target State. Determining the target state is defining how you want to show up and who you want to be. Setting goals for how we want to show up in the workplace will help us understand where we are headed and how to get there based on our assessment. It is essential that we clearly define what that looks like for us. For example, as a leader, I want to provide guidance and direction for my people so that they feel empowered and accomplished. I certainly did not do that in the example above, hence the comment that I was not showing up as a leader the way I wanted to. You don’t have to be a leader to do this exercise. How do you want to be seen as an employee? Do you want to be seen as a high-achieving go-getter? Or maybe being dependable is more important to you. This is about building your personal brand.

Chart Your Course. The next step in the process is figuring out how to move from point A (where you are now) to point B (where you want to be). Sometimes creating the path forward can be difficult. Questions like: where do I start, what do I need, how do I get there, will probably arise in your mind. This is not a linear planning process. For example, you can start at the end and work your way backward, or at the beginning and work your way forward, or you can start in the middle. Generally speaking, you will find that tasks or activities have dependencies, i.e., in order to do this, I have to first do this.

Expert tip: If you are a trauma survivor, you will need to account for your triggers, window of tolerance (optimal state of arousal), and the ability of your nervous system to manage change.

Develop a Support System. Even though this is a highly individualized process, it is helpful to have support. Coaches, Mentors, and Peers can be valuable resources for helping you see the whole picture. You can bounce things off of them and test your logic. Developing a plan in a silo is the easiest way to get off track. It is very helpful to have other points of view weighing in and providing guidance and counsel while doing this exercise.

Expert tip: When choosing your support team, make sure they are people you can trust and have your best interest at heart.

Get Started. The best plans will mean nothing if you do not execute them. If you dared to dream big during the planning exercise and you find yourself overwhelmed, simply focus on the NEXT RIGHT STEP. You only have to take that first step to get momentum. The rest of the steps will take care of themselves.

Don’t Be Afraid to Course Correct. Sometimes when you set long-term plans, you learn things like, “I don’t really like doing this,” which may change your plans…and THAT’S OK. This is your journey. You get to decide what you want to do and what you don’t want to do. You get to determine how you want to show up and how you don’t want to show up. Everything you learn along the way should inform how you move forward. Work really hard to be flexible and not rigid in your planning.

A Final Reminder

I know I’ve already said this a time or two in this article, but you don’t have to do this alone. We are all on the healing trail together, and it helps to have company along the way for a season. It makes the journey less tedious when you have someone to share it with, to share the burdens with, and to help us up when we fall down.

I’m here for you. You can find me at www.cyndibennettconsulting.com. Schedule your complimentary discovery call today.