When people hear the word trauma they often think of physical acts of violence. The idea of workplace trauma, to some, means a violent act that occurs at work.
But that’s not the kind of trauma that I’m referring to. I mean the events, interactions, relationships, and environments that exist in some work places to create a toxic and traumatic experience. This goes beyond a bad day at work, or even a bad month. I’m talking about a working situation that eats at your core and leaves you feeling broken and worthless.
I remember my first traumatic work experience. I was fresh out of college, excited to have my first professional job, and eager to learn. I didn’t last a full year. As the daughter of an immigrant and school teacher I was taught that I had to work twice as hard as my White counterparts but that I could succeed. What I learned was that there are some environments where I cannot succeed, even when I work twice as hard. The racism and discrimination that occurred blind-sided me. I foolishly thought that a female-run establishment would not be part of a system of oppression. How naive was I?!
After several agonizing months, feeling like a failure at my first professional job, I left determined to succeed elsewhere. Just as some people do in relationships, I jumped from one toxic work environment to another. It took me a long time to realize that the latest job was also eating away at my sense of self. This time it wasn’t necessarily racism that was the offender as much as a culture that was developed and cultivated within the company.
I recently had dinner with some of my former colleagues and we joked about not being able to publicly speak to each other during our tenure at the company, simply because our bosses disliked each other. That was the tip of the iceberg. Frankly, what happened didn’t matter as much as how it affected me. I thought that there was something that I needed to do differently in order to succeed at the company. I bent, twisted, and tried to transform myself in every way that I could image in order to be successful. It didn’t matter what I did or tried to do, I could never achieve success. It is only in hindsight that I understood that I could never be successful because the company was not interested in me succeeding. More accurately, the company was not interested in me. Not as a human being with goals and desires.
As is often true when you’re in a toxic environment, it’s hard to see outside the cloud of muck. It was hard to imagine that I could ever work someplace where I could thrive and enjoy myself. At the time, those weren’t even my goals because I didn’t know that to be in the realm of possibility. I just wanted to survive. I wanted to get to through the next day and then I would figure out the following day. I was truly trying to survive the trauma of work but had no thoughts or even dreams of what it would be like to do more than survive.
When I finally left that job I promised myself that I would never work in another environment like that again. I would never deal with work trauma again. This isn’t to say that I haven’t had challenging work environments or bosses since then. I have. And I have continued to deal with racism within companies and from supervisors. The difference is that I didn’t let them get inside of me the way the other two experiences did. I didn’t let them change how I thought of myself as a person or as a professional.
It took me years, years, to drive near the companies I worked for without feeling sweaty and having my heart race. I left the companies and tried hard not to think about them. I felt bitterness towards them and a deep wound that I let surface as anger. Today I was talking to a colleague about work trauma and how we survive it but don’t necessarily process it. We’re so eager to move away from it and relieved that we found an escape (another job) that we don’t give it due time and energy to process and heal from it.
We all know that hindsight is 20/20. And with that 20/20 vision I am so aware that those horrific experiences that had me doubting myself, surviving (and not thriving), and feeling deep despair truly prepared me for the journey of creating The Ladipo Group. The light and warmth that I put into our clients and therapists is linked to the darkness that I experienced in my early career. I don’t think that I would be so focused and insistent on ensuring that our clients feel cared for if I hadn’t worked in places where clients didn’t seem cared for.
I love coming to work each day. I love seeing my clients and the therapists I work with. I love talking with new clients about what we do and who we are. I know the darkness of dreading work on a daily basis. I recall wishing that I would be fired so I could collect unemployment and be free (this was during a much different economy!). Because I was so deeply entrenched in the toxic environment that I couldn’t imagine freeing myself.
Having dinner with my former colleagues was so informative for me because I saw that after many, many years I am finally free. I have work that I love, I’m creating an environment for others to love working in, and I’m no longer beholden to the past work traumas. They inform what I do but I am no longer bitter, angry, or hurt. I have truly moved from surviving at work to thriving.
Have you ever experienced work traumas or a toxic work environment? How did you deal with it?