Check out this excerpt from Ashley’s upcoming book on toxic workplaces, and learn how compassion is crucial to protect yourself from other’s trauma responses.
Today, we’re going to talk about something that can be difficult, but is ever pervasive: Trauma.
Sometimes people shy away from the word trauma because it implies something large and life-threatening. In reality, trauma is any experience that overwhelms our systems. Trauma is how something is stored in the brain and body, not the event itself.
Chronic stress has been shown to have similar effects on our brains, bodies, and nervous systems as trauma. Toxic workplaces are, without a doubt, a source of chronic stress. And, they can be life-threatening, even if it’s not overt like a war, tornado, or car accident.
Not only do workplaces cause trauma, people bring their outside trauma to work. When we experience trauma, it starts to rewire our brains and nervous systems to be hyper-aware of potential threats, which can result in certain situations, sensations, people, places, emotions, and objects becoming “triggering.” Being triggered means losing access to your internal resources – it’s harder to think clearly and logically, remember and use skills, maintain connection with others, form long-term memories, and act in a non-selfish manner. Your brain lights up just like when the trauma initially happened, re-experiencing the assault on your system. Your neurology mirrors the original event. That means if you had a trauma happen when you were five years old, and you are now 40, but that trauma is triggered, all of a sudden you have the brain of a five year old again until you are able to re-regulate your system.
To really illustrate this point, we want to take a moment to invite you to remember a time when afterwards you were left saying, “What just happened? Why was I acting like that? That’s so unlike me.” While it was unlike adult you, may it have been a lot like little you?
Even if you have processed the trauma, or spent time in therapy, it is common for memories or body responses to reactivate from time to time. Sometimes we are able to pinpoint exact triggers and sometimes we are not.
For example, let’s say your boss grew up in poverty, regularly going hungry, and fending off bullies. As a result of those experiences, they were imbued with shame and a fierce need to protect their status and resources by any means necessary. As a result, when you offer well-intended feedback about a recent memo they sent out, they perceive it as a threat to their job and well-being. They lash out and get defensive in response. While you are confused and hurt in the moment, they are fighting their old battles with bullies and poverty inside.
When you suspect someone might be in one of these trauma responses, we invite you to consider accessing your compassion. Having compassion for someone does not mean that you agree with or condone what they are doing, or even that their behavior is okay. Having compassion allows you to stay grounded and realize their reactions and behaviors are not about you, they are about their pain.
So, for example, let’s say the boss in the above situation says something like, “You need to be a better team player. You’re always nitpicking everyone, trying to look smart.” The initial response most people would have is to get defensive, maybe try to correct the boss, or go and tell everyone they can find about the ridiculous situation they just experienced, and get reassurance they’re actually a good coworker. Maybe you start telling yourself, “This is so unfair…that’s not what I meant…I’m a good person.”
If instead, you can raise, what we like to call, your “compassion shield,” you can deflect all of those negative comments and see the situation for what it actually is – your boss, as a tiny child, swinging their arms in the air, trying to fend off the bullies.
Compassion is a defense to internalization. If you’re able to see your boss is in a trauma response, you don’t have to absorb what they are saying and let it lead to you doubting yourself, your values, or your abilities. It’s not about you, it’s about them. It allows to you stop feeling victimized by their behavior, and instead allows you to be in a position of wisdom and insight. You’re no longer giving your power away to them to ruin your day or your mood, take away your self-respect, or cause you distress. You’re saying, “I see clearly what’s going on here,” instead of getting caught up and swept away by a pain cycle.
Like most things, it’s going to be hard when you first start practicing this stance. It’s a radical shift in perception, and it’s going to take time to build up your internal ability to trust and validate yourself. Keep going, and notice how it gets easier and easier the more you do it.
What’s your Compassion Shield? Here’s a free worksheet to figure it out and practice!
Stay tuned for Ashley’s upcoming book on toxic workplaces, and check out the rest of the blog for other helpful tips and resources.
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