What to do when your boss reminds you of your abuser.

As a trauma recovery career coach, one of the common challenges I hear from survivors is that they are triggered by their boss, or their boss reminds them of their abuser.

This is an extremely common scenario for trauma survivors in the workplace. This article will explore the drivers behind this experience and what we can do about it.

The Drivers Behind the Triggers

When you have experienced trauma at the hands of an authority figure (caretaker, adults, etc.), it is understandable how someone in authority would trigger an emotional flashback. In the workplace, there are several scenarios that would trigger someone with trauma. Here are a few:

Power-Over Situations. For those who were terrorized and dominated as children by a power-hungry authoritarian, any power-over situation can trigger those same emotions. I have a friend who experiences this when he goes through the interviewing process. His traumatized brain tells him that the recruiters and other interviewees have power over his life and whether he gets the job. This makes sense in the context of his trauma.

Loud, Boisterous, Yelling Managers. Managers who yell, scream, or have a loud voice can trigger a trauma survivor into feeling like a young child who experienced this in their family growing up.

Overcontrolling. Managers who feel they have no control often revert to trying to control everyone and everything their employees do. I recently had this experience with my previous manager when she told me I had to account for all my time. As a tenured SVP with almost 22 years at this company, I was never asked to do that. I felt like I was in Kindergarten. I was highly insulted by the insinuation that I could not manage my time and finish my work. Thankfully, she is no longer my manager.

Perfectionism. There is nothing that can trigger me faster than perfectionism. Feeling like I can’t do anything right, no matter how hard I try, takes me right back to my childhood. One year, I worked on a project where I had a boss who was a perfectionist…even on a rough draft. Not feeling like you can make a mistake or that your job will be threatened if you mess up one more time does nothing to improve performance. I would go home and cry every day. I was so glad when that project ended, and I got on a different project with a different leader.

Favoritism. Many trauma survivors continue to utilize the fawning coping strategy from their childhood with their boss or those in authority. We think if we give them what they want, they will be pleased with us and treat us well. Often, however, there are instances of favoritism in the workplace, where there is one “golden child” who can do no wrong in the manager’s eyes. Everyone else gets the blame when things go wrong except the golden child.

Do as I say, not as I do. Oh man, this is a hot-button for me. This was one of my father’s common sayings, along with “My sh*t don’t stink.” I would be held to a higher standard than even he could model.

Neglectful or Absent Managers. This is a really tricky one for me because of my avoidant attachment style. Most of the time, I am absolutely content to have an absent manager and do my own thing, but there are times when I need some guidance or protection, and my trauma brain continually tells me, “No one will be there for you. You need to handle it on your own.”

I am sure there are many other ways managers can trigger us in the workplace– you can let me know in the comments — but you get the idea. So, what are we supposed to do about these triggers?

How to Manage Boss Triggers

Get your mind right. If I am going to manage anything, I have to be in a management mindset. That means that I am regulated, grounded in the present, and feel empowered to do the analysis and make the necessary decisions that will benefit me. We need our frontal cortex (the decision-making part of the brain) to be online for this kind of activity. Learn to manage triggers by incorporating coping strategies to help you get regulated.

Recognize the truth about triggers. I am not trying to minimize the impact that triggers have on us as trauma survivors, but I think sometimes we develop severe anxiety over being triggered that paralyzes us and holds us hostage from being able to move forward in our healing journey. One way to look at triggers is like a button on a jukebox (I know I am dating myself now).

Photo by Gabriel Miklós on Unsplash

We push a few buttons on the jukebox, and a pre-recorded song plays. Triggers are like pushing the buttons on a jukebox; whether we want that pre-recorded response or not, it plays. I think the troubling thing is that our buttons are often pressed by unrelated people, in this case, our boss, and we feel like we have no control over the situation. Here is something that will blow your mind: You own your jukebox. I own my jukebox, and if there is a song/response I don’t like or experience too often, I can do some work (in therapy) to modify the selection.

The songs/responses that are triggered are memories related to our trauma; the more times we play that memory, the louder/more intense it gets. The critical thing to remember is that those songs/responses have been previously recorded. They are not live music. They are not happening at the moment. Staying present helps us to discern between something that happened in the past and what is happening in the present.

Use the tools. I created a FREE Trigger Tracker Worksheet to help you track your triggers in the workplace. For this particular trigger (boss’s action), you may need to dig deep to determine the way in which the behavior of your boss keeps triggering you. Survey the songs in your jukebox to see what keeps getting played and why. Perhaps there are several things. Identifying the similarities your boss has in the present to past memories brings an awareness that helps us turn off our alarm system. I’ve used this analogy before, but hearing my dog bark at the neighbor does not elicit the heightened response that it used to. In the same way, if our boss reminds us of our abuser because of certain characteristics (whatever they are) but he or she is not actually abusing us, we can start turning off or dismissing the alarm. The more we turn off the alarm, the less we are triggered by it.

Step into your power. On the other hand, if your boss is a tyrant or outright abusive, you have many choices at your disposal for managing the situation. We are no longer the trapped, powerless children we once were. I am not going to lie; this step can feel daunting to a trauma survivor, especially if you’ve never felt empowered before. All those little parts of us may not truly believe that we do have the power to act and do something to protect ourselves. YOU are your own champion and protector. You determine what is acceptable and unacceptable for you. Those are called boundaries. You have choices now that you didn’t have as a child.

You CAN Do It

Some trauma survivors habitually run away from all triggers in the workplace and leave a trail of missed opportunities in their wake. While leaving a job because your boss triggers you is still an option, you have many more options now than you did as a child.

If the problem is coming from within you, leaving will not solve it because you will take it with you wherever you go. I invite you to consider whether this is a “you” problem or a “them” problem. The good news is that if the problem is on your side of the fence, you can do something about it. We can’t change other people, but we can change how we respond to them.

Learning to work through our triggers is indeed work, but the benefits to us far outweigh the costs. I want to challenge you to invest in yourself…in your success…by doing the work. Learning to manage our triggers in the workplace can set us free to pursue the fulfilling and satisfying career of our dreams. You’ve got this.

Quote from Anna Runkle, The Crappy Childhood Fairy

As always, you do not have to face this journey alone.

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