CPTSD and Your Work Life: Set Yourself Free to Succeed

If you were hurt by trauma when you were a kid, you’re already painfully aware of how the old hurts, and fears, and triggers come back to haunt you, right when you’re trying to take a big step up on your career. And it’s not that you’re not smart enough or capable enough. 

It’s the trauma injury inside. It can rise up sometimes and make you say the wrong thing, or lose your focus, or get overwhelmed and take yourself out of the running for an opportunity you really wanted. 

Has this ever happened to you? It’s a terrible waste of your talent, and I want to show you some strategies so that — even though you have PTSD from Childhood — you can show up, be strong, and do great things in your work life.

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I don’t talk about money enough in my posts. But as a person who grew up poor, I can tell you that lack of money and fear around money can make you vulnerable to *more*  trauma in your life, because it can pressure you to take jobs that are miserable for you, and to cling to bad relationships only because you can’t afford to leave. Our careers bring security and choices into our lives — both very important when you’re setting your life up for healing from the past. 

Your career is also one of the ways you express yourself — what you are, who you are, what you bring to this world and to the people around you. And when this goes well, it is, in itself healing for the wounds of your past trauma. 

You need  to develop and express your gifts, and when that is blocked — and that’s exactly what PTSD can do — it’s miserable. It’s not just that you have all these symptoms — it’s that you can’t do what you’re meant to do. That’s where you get the feeling that life is passing you by — when time is passing, but you’re stuck outside the life and the happiness of which you know you’re capable.

So that’s a big part of healing from past trauma — getting your life back, becoming who you’re meant to be and doing work that serves the world and that’s fulfilling to you. Doesn’t that sound good?  

Healing trauma isn’t about trying to be someone else — it’s about becoming more yourself. Yes you are someone who was traumatized and you have great things to bring to this world anyway! 

This is your chance to not let the past limit everything about your future. What happened in the past is real, but what you do with your life today is even more real. 

In this post I’m going to show you how to spot where your PTSD is getting you stuck, and teach you some strategies to free yourself and go farther in your career than you thought possible. 

Why? Because the world needs you.

So let’s talk for a moment about the ways old trauma shows up in your work life. In my experience, there are four main trouble spots:

Your ability to work with other people has some gaps in it – some spots where you get triggered, especially around teams and your sense of belonging in them. Also,  around bosses and either their authority over you, or their approval of you. 

If you grew up with abuse or neglect, these ordinary aspects of working with other people can be fraught and confusing, and that can lead you to avoid people and challenges that are important to get where you’re trying to go. Or they can lead you to sleepwalk into work situations that repeat the abuse and neglect that hurt you in the first place — bosses and co-workers who are bullies, manipulators, excluders, or people like the Mean Girls in high school. 

If you grew up with this kind of treatment, you might know you need to get out of there, but you’re paralyzed. You start to doubt yourself.  It’s not rational but that’s what trauma can do. OK, so that’s the people you work with. 

You have a tendency to get dysregulated around unpleasant people — or just around any kind stress including deadline pressure and self-doubt — which everybody has at work sometimes. 

You’ve probably heard me talk about dysregulation — it’s a brain state that’s common for people with Childhood PTSD. Any kind of stress can make you feel spaced out, discombobulated, overwhelmed — or over-emotional, with feelings like panic, rage, or just getting upset until you cry (which is never fun at work I happen to know). 

But it’s especially painful when you’re confused about whether the thing that’s upsetting you is even real — or you know it’s not reasonable but you can’t stop. If this has happened to you, you know there’s a lot of shame wrapped up in it, and that shame all by itself can stop you from being who you are, and going for work you really love. 

Your trauma suppresses your brilliance. That chronic, ongoing stress and intensity of having CPTSD in your brain — when you don’t have a way to calm it down —  robs you of your ability to focus, drains your productivity and your enthusiasm, and makes you feel like a dumbed-down version of yourself. Have you experienced that?

CPTSD symptoms also create a negative cycle around money. I grew up poor, for example. My mother had grown up middle class and had a great education, but the chaos in our family because of alcoholism caused us to live on-and-off welfare for several years. 

When I was very little we were hungry sometimes. My mother would go out for a while — for more than a couple days sometimes —  and my older brother and I would have to find something to eat and get ourselves to school. My clothes would be dirty, and I’d have no jacket — that kind of thing.

Poverty can cause trauma, and trauma can cause poverty. You can break that cycle, but if you haven’t done it yet,  trauma can keep getting into your life. Trauma begets more trauma sometimes, and if you’re reading this, you likely know the phenomenon all too well.

Maybe your trauma symptoms cause you to lose a job or drop out of school, or you never go for anything challenging or well paid because of that big, trauma-shaped hole in your self-confidence. 

Or you gravitate to cruddy jobs just because you won’t have to deal with people (kind a short cut to avoid dysregulation, right?)

But it cuts you off from learning to work with other people and deal with them, which is a big part of being successful in life and in work. 

And the thing is, when you’re broke or struggling financially, you’re extra vulnerable to re-traumatizing yourself through the choices you have to make — staying in a bad relationship or a miserable job because you can’t (or you FEEL you can’t) make that leap to something better. 

So what can you do to stop the negative cycle and start taking positive steps to do the important and meaningful work that you know is inside you? I call it Breaking the Wheel! The wheel is that hurricane of bad thoughts, feelings, actions and outcomes that can go round and round and is hard to escape.  

Don’t even try to climb out — just break that thing! Just take a big stick and jam it in there, wherever it lands! Do the thing that’s right in front of you. Make the change that’s doable for you. 

Is it taking a class? Go sign up. Is it quitting a crap job? Maybe it’s time! Is it changing where you live so you can pay down debts and start building up savings again? Yes! Living economically feels GOOD! Start where you are and change the thing in front of you.

When you’re healing, work can be an opportunity to grow, heal and evolve, if — and that’s a big IF —  you’re engaged in healing your past trauma. 

For this, a few things are important: 

Learn a way to discharge “PTSD thinking” before it spills out of your mouth and into your work life. Those urgent CPTSD feelings that would make you lash out at other people or sabotage yourself can always wait a day (assuming you’re not in physical danger, that is). 

If you need techniques to get those thoughts and feelings out safely, I invite you to try my free course, The Daily Practice. It’ll teach you how to calm the symptoms so you can take smart action from a calm and clear place. 

Set yourself up with real support for healing trauma. Maybe this is a therapist, maybe it’s a trusted friend or group who can be your sounding board when you don’t know if you’re being abused or just running through an old emotional loop (it goes both ways, right?) To learn discernment, it helps to have gentle feedback.

Practice recognizing when CPTSD symptoms are happening, so you can take measures to come back into regulated state before you try to communicate or solve anything.You’ll find more course links and resources in just after the end of this post.

It helps to be very practical about your work life. What happens with complex trauma sometimes is that unmet needs from childhood leak into everything else. We can go through our work day hurting that we didn’t get enough acknowledgment or appreciation from a boss or co-workers. Not getting that appreciation can turn anyone’s job into a burnout. But for those of us who didn’t get it as kids, the pain around it can get kind of oversized. So this is something to try to stay grounded about — to keep expectations right-sized. 

One thing I didn’t learn until well into my career (and that made a bigger impact on my success than anything else I’d learned up to that point) is that when you take a job, you are paid to make the organization and the other people who run it successful. I was once one of those workers who worried more about what the job was giving me than what I was able to contribute. What I got from jobs was, of course, important. But it needed to be balanced with what I contributed. 

I’m telling you — when this was explained to me by a mentor (not a work mentor — I’ve never had one of those) I shifted my focus accordingly and my career finally took off, out of dumbed-down work and on to a series of new opportunities that ultimately led me right here, to be with you! (And even in this work, I’m trying to help you be successful). 

You can consider orienting yourself toward service like this in a similar way. See what happens. You succeed by serving; I’ve found this to be a reliable path to integrity and success in the conventional sense. It requires a lot of continuous learning, but you’ll see how the old sense of disappointment and hurt gets swept away by a sense of self-worth and dignity. 

When you bring the best of yourself to work — not being a doormat, and not a Klingon who stays in bad situations – what is gradually revealed is even more of the goodness that’s coded into you. 

You were meant for better things than a life limited by trauma. You are designed to heal, and to grow, and to bring good things into the world through everything you do, including the work you do to make a living. 


Ready to heal your childhood trauma? This online course is a good place to start: HEALING CHILDHOOD PTSD

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FREE COURSE: The Daily Practice