The workplace can be a re-traumatizing place for trauma survivors. Toxic work environments, unrealistic expectations, demanding bosses, multiple competing priorities, not to mention the ever-present trauma triggers lurking at every turn. For those of us trying to manage the long-term effects of childhood trauma, it is not unusual for us to use “tried and true” methods to ensure our safety in the workplace; however, using those coping methods comes with a cost. As we engage in this courageous journey called healing, we need to determine whether those “tried and true” methods are really serving us or whether they are holding us back from achieving our career goals.
We will explore methods we use to keep ourselves safe in the workplace, the costs associated with those methods, and some replacement options that will support our healing journey. Healing from trauma is a slow process that requires courage, persistence, and intentionality. The first step towards change is awareness. No matter where you are in your healing journey, safety is always a priority.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow identified safety as one of our basic human needs. The need for safety is found on the second tier of his hierarchy of needs, preceded only by physiological needs (air, water, food, shelter, sleep, clothing, reproduction). Safety needs include personal security, employment, resources, health, and property.
Our discussion will focus on three types of safety needs: physical, psychological, and emotional. I see these as the trinity of safety needs: body, mind, and spirit.
Types of Safety Needs
Physical Safety Needs. Physical safety is fundamentally about removing the hazards and risks from the work environment that can cause a negative outcome. An example of this might be companies sending employees home during COVID-19 or asking them to wear masks if they had to be in the office at the height of the pandemic.
Psychological Safety Needs. According to Amy Edmondson, who coined the term in her 1999 journal article, “Psychological safety means an absence of interpersonal fear. When psychological safety is present, people are able to speak up with work-relevant content.” In the workplace, this means there is a belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for asking questions, speaking up with ideas, sharing concerns, or making mistakes.
Emotional Safety Needs. “Emotional safety can be defined as perceived freedom from psychological harm that can be measured on a continuum from feeling threatened to feeling safe. An individual’s position on the continuum at any given moment is dependent on the amount of trust he/she has in himself/herself and in the group members.” (Vincent) In the workplace, this has to do with feeling comfortable expressing emotions (even intense ones) and being able to show up as your authentic self.
Coping Strategies We Use To Ensure Safety
Armoring. “Armoring is a defense mechanism used to protect oneself by blocking one’s experience and expression of life-affirming emotions (sadness, joy, anger, grief, and fear)” In trauma, there is a phenomenon called muscle armoring which is related to hypervigilance and perpetually being in a state of high alert, causing muscle tightness, body imbalances, fibromyalgia, and breathing problems. Ultimately, armoring is a way to keep threatening things away from us, whether they are people, emotions, or situations.
Avoidance. Absenteeism, presenteeism, dissociation, and procrastination are typical signs of avoidance in the workplace. Additionally, I see people who are in denial that their childhood trauma is impacting them. They say, “It’s over. I survived it, and I just want to put it in the past and move on”, but they aren’t moving on.
Over-functioning. This includes people pleasing and workaholism. We think if we work really hard to make our managers, peers, or customers happy, everything will be good and we will stay safe. I also see this in people who are always busy; they never stop, even when they are on vacation. Brene Brown calls this “hustling for your own worthiness”.
These are just a sample of coping mechanisms that we use to protect ourselves in the work environment, but this list is in no way exhaustive. As children, we learned to be resilient to survive, and that resilience taught us to be creative in coming up with coping strategies. The list is endless. The question is, “if these coping strategies helped me to survive my childhood, why are they such a bad thing?”
The Cost of Using Maladaptive Coping Strategy
First, let’s discuss the difference between maladaptive and adaptive coping strategies. The way I look at it is whether the coping strategy is appropriate for the situation. When we were children, we had very few options available to us to ensure our safety. We couldn’t fight or flee because we were children. Instead, we adapted to our traumatic environment by either freezing or fawning. We used what we had to survive, and we did.
What makes those strategies inappropriate or maladaptive as adults is that we have other options now that we didn’t have then. These strategies might not be the best strategy for the situation. We have choices. We have different tools in our toolbelt. These are well-worn neural networks that we have practiced for decades, and they have become a habit for us, but they come with a cost.
I have personal experience with the three coping strategies mentioned above, so let me share what using them costs me. The first coping strategy, armoring, I used a lot. When I went to work, I pictured myself having titanium armor, which worked great to keep all the bad things out, but it also kept all the good stuff out. Having impenetrable armor kept me lonely and isolated. I couldn’t connect with family members or co-workers, and I had no true friends because I never let anyone in.
I believe this also cost me career advancement, and here’s what it looks like. Have you ever been to church and seen a lady sitting in the back row by herself with a permanent scowl on her face, daring you to talk to her? I was that person at work. I had a virtual “Do Not Enter” sign around my neck that warned coaches, leaders, or advocates to stay away. I was not approachable. I was not open to teaching. I saw my co-workers have mentors and advocates that helped them develop and advance in their careers, but I did not have that, so I struggled.
The cost of avoidance is the building stress, pressure, and anxiety that takes place when we don’t address difficult situations and emotions. They don’t go away on their own. Postponing a deadline only adds more pressure because you already “failed” to meet the first deadline. My coping strategy of choice was/is dissociation. When things got too difficult or emotional, I would go somewhere else in my mind. As a result, I struggled to stay present and to let my true capabilities shine forth. In many companies, the unwillingness to face into hard things is frowned upon. Companies want leaders that are not afraid to tackle difficult situations.
Over-functioning has been a thorn in my side for a long time. I see it when I get a new job or a new manager. It is a constant sense that I have to “prove” myself or make them believe that I am worthy of the new role or promotion. When I am over-functioning, it results in disturbed sleep, emotional dysregulation, brain fog, and heightened anxiety. It triggered a sense of not being good enough.
Adaptive Coping Strategy Options
Connection. Connection can be very difficult for trauma survivors because it means we must step outside of our armor’s safety and allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We have to draw upon our courage and risk potential pain. As Brene Brown says, “we are hardwired for connection.” We are born with the innate desire to connect, first to our mothers, then to family, and finally to our community. Whether we experienced attachment wounds or it was just too painful to connect to significant others, this innate need for connection has been impaired.
As you consider this option, let me encourage you to move slowly and cautiously. Not everyone has earned the right to hear your truth; not everyone is trustworthy. Start with someone that has shared interests. It doesn’t have to be trauma. It could be anything, like triathlons or music or sports or whatever. I tend to watch and listen for a little while before reaching out to connect. There have been times when I related to someone else’s story, and I have felt more comfortable reaching out because our stories were similar. I am not great at connecting, but I am working on it and being intentional about it, and you can too.
Change Management. As I said in the beginning, awareness is the first step toward change. If you have a habit of avoidance, procrastination, or dissociation, as I had, the first step is to notice. Notice when it happens. Notice what your thoughts are. Notice what your body is telling you. Notice your emotions. Write it down in a journal so you can track it. Usually, there is some negative cognition that is driving this behavior. For me, it was, “I can’t handle this,” or “my deliverable is not going to be good enough,” or “I won’t be able to please my boss no matter what I do.” Write down your negative cognitions and challenge them. Is that really true? Most of the time, that is not the truth. Then, apply truth. What is really true? After that, it is a matter of deciding on a course of action and just taking the next right step. This may sound like a straightforward process, but it isn’t. This is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to recovering from the lasting effects of childhood trauma.
Time Out. I mentioned before that over-functioning is something I actively struggle with today. Many different approaches could be recommended, but I will recommend what has worked for me. If you’d like to try one of the other strategies that can be found on Google, that is fine too. When I am over-functioning, my brain spirals and won’t shut off. There is no rest, no stillness, and no peace in my mind. I am getting better at recognizing it. For me, this always comes from a place of inadequacy, unworthiness, and feeling like I have to prove myself. The process is very much like the one above, but it starts with stopping everything that I am over-functioning on. I have to hit the brakes and tell myself, “I am over-functioning…again.” Then it is a process of figuring out what triggered that and reminding myself of the truth.
We have explored several methods we use to keep ourselves safe in the workplace, the costs associated with those methods, and some replacement options to support our healing journey. Overcoming the long-term effects of childhood trauma can be challenging, but it can be done. All the hard work we put in is an investment in ourselves to help us achieve our career goals and continue to advance. The objective is to remove the obstacles from our traumatic childhood that stand in the way of achieving success. We’ve got this! Together we succeed.
1) Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 14–4884. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014.
2) Edmondson A. Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly. 1999;44(2):350–383. doi:10.2307/2666999
3) Vincent, S. (1995). Emotional safety in adventure therapy programmes: can it be defined? Journal of Experiential Education, /8(2), 76–81.