• Our unresolved trauma history and patterns will likely be triggered in our work life.
  • The content our work life mirrors back to us is excellent "grist for the mill," so to speak.
  • Trauma is a subjective experience and there are multiple categories of experiences that can lead to trauma.

As a trauma clinician and entrepreneur who has built a 22-employee, multi-state professional therapy corporation in the last few years, talking about trauma and work are two of my favorite subjects.

Lately, I’ve been talking more openly with other female entrepreneurs I know and other professionals at the top of their field (doctors, surgeons, lawyers, co-founders, etc.) about both of these subjects deeply.


In these conversations (not to mention through my own personal experience), I’ve realized how vividly our work life can mirror our unresolved trauma patterns and, if we approach it consciously, provide one of the strongest vehicles for resolving these maladaptive patterns.

If you’re curious to know more about whether or not you’re re-creating your own personal trauma history in your work life—no matter what your profession is—and, more importantly, if you’re interested in knowing how not to re-create your own personal trauma history at work, I hope you’ll find value from my four-part series here on Psychology Today on this topic.


Our work life as the ultimate mirror

All content areas are portals into our psychological patterns. What do I mean by this? Effectively, how we do one thing is generally how we do everything regarding our primary psychological patterning.

For instance, how you eat, how you vacation and travel, how you approach money—all of it can be a window into your primary patterning (examples: a “never enough” pattern, an “I can’t trust anyone” pattern, a “catastrophic thinking, and relentless activity to avoid feeling your painful feelings” pattern, an “I trust the world and others” pattern, a “struggle to say no because of fear of rejection” pattern, among countless other patterns).


In most cases, how you do one thing is generally how you do most things.

In therapy, we could look at any content area to gain greater insight into our dominant psychological patterns (whether these are adaptive or maladaptive patterns), but certainly, our work life will often be more stark and vivid, a mirror for us to do some self-inquiry.


Why is this? Because of the disproportionate amount of time spent on it, the growth inherent to most work-life situations, and the higher stakes generally associated with it.

Let’s break this down further. When it comes to time, in general, for most of us, our work-life demands lots of attention and time in a way that few other things do. Yes, the way I vacation is a portal into my patterns, but I do that 20 days a year (maybe). Personally, I do my business and work nearly 250 days a year.


Clearly, at least for me, there is a disproportionate amount of time spent on work, which means there is a commensurate and disproportionate opportunity to be made aware of my issues, growth edges, and patterns as my work life mirrors them back to me in a way that other content areas (vacationing, for example) don’t allow as much.


The other reason our work lives can serve as stark mirrors and powerful portals is that most of our work lives, particularly if you’re a professional and/or business owner, inherently involves some level of growth and advancement over the years—obtaining that advanced degree or professional license, going after the promotion, taking on managerial responsibilities, etc.

And this—growth and advancement, inherent to our work life—usually invites a certain degree of discomfort for most of us.

For example, taking on increasing responsibilities or being tasked with greater levels of risk and reward in your work life can often feel uncomfortable as you assume these new weighty tasks and realities.


Perhaps, of course, this increased growth normalizes over time, but when it’s new and we’re often putting ourselves in a position of attempting to grow and advance in our careers, there will likely be a certain amount of discomfort. And in this discomfort, we usually see our own adaptive or maladaptive beliefs and behaviors when we cope with this discomfort.

And finally, another reason our work lives can provide a stark mirror into our primary psychological patterning in a way that few other things will is that our work life often feels high-stakes for most of us.

For most of us, our work lives are how we earn money in the world, feed our families, pay the mortgage, and attempt to feel a certain amount of logistical security. For many of us, our work lives are interwoven to some extent with our sense of identity, our personal reputation, our meaning and purpose. All of which can make work feel higher stakes than, let’s say, a vacation or our relationship with hobbies, etc.


I outline the reasons that our work lives can provide a stark mirror into your psychological patterning not to overwhelm you, but because I want to reframe that instead of this acuity feeling and being “bad,” it’s actually truly excellent “grist for the personal growth mill," so to speak.

Your work life is excellent “grist for the personal growth mill"

Your work life is excellent “grist for the personal growth mill." What do I mean by this? It can provide excellent material, insight, and knowledge for your personal growth and development if you approach it consciously.

For example, whatever your personal issues are, whatever the unresolved impacts of your relational trauma history are—the beliefs you have about money, yourself, your self-worth, your ability to set boundaries, your ability to have healthy assertive conversations and tolerate conflict and being disliked, etc.—all of it is going to show up (particularly as you advance in your career), providing you with an opportunity to be curious and conscious about whether or not those beliefs, behaviors, and patterns are working quite so well for you.


But to use our work life as “grist for the personal growth mill” and an opportunity to heal our unresolved trauma impacts, we first need to understand what exactly trauma is, what trauma impacts can look like, and how this might show up in our work life (practically speaking).

What exactly is trauma?

Contrary to popular belief, trauma isn’t relegated to a discrete set of experiences or incidents (like a car crash or wartime conflict). Instead, trauma has a much more expansive definition.


Trauma can be an event, series of events, or prolonged circumstances subjectively experienced by the individual who goes through it as physically, mentally, and emotionally harmful and/or life-threatening that overwhelms this individual’s ability to effectively cope with what they went through.

What kind of events and circumstances might lead to trauma? There are an endless number of events and circumstances that might lead to trauma but it might be helpful to think about them in four discrete categories with some attendant examples to help think through how this has, perhaps, shown up in your own life.

  1. Acute Trauma: Acute trauma refers to a single-incident, one-time event such as experiencing a wildfire, car crash, school shooting, terrorist event, or house fire.
  2. Chronic Trauma: Chronic trauma is a set of experiences that are repeated and take place over time, such as enduring vicarious trauma on the job, middle school bullying, poverty, exposure to violence in the community, or long-term medical challenges.
  3. Complex Trauma: Complex trauma, often called developmental or relational trauma, is the kind of trauma that takes place over time in the context of a caretaking relationship (usually between a parent and child) that fails to adequately support the child’s biopsychosocial development such as when ongoing neglect, sexual abuse, physical punishment, witnessing domestic violence, or being raised by a personality- or mood-disordered parent takes place.
  4. Historical/Racial Trauma: Historical and racial trauma refers to the experiences of racially-driven oppression, targeting, harassment, and discrimination that groups of individuals have experienced over time and that generations after them still suffer the effects of.

All of these categories of trauma and the attendant examples in them might overwhelm someone’s subject ability to cope with what they endured.

In the next of this multi-part series on Psychology Today, we'll explore what the impacts of trauma are, how this might show up at work, and share an example of someone re-creating her unresolved trauma in her work life.