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The painful truth about professional scar tissue.

As with any relationship, when something painful happens at work, it can stay with us.

Most of us spend more time interacting at work in a given week than we do at home. For many, work is the primary source of our relationships and social interactions. And it’s just a fact that while we reap the benefits of these interactions, we experience the pain, too.

In my time as a coach, facilitator and researcher, I hear many stories about workplace horrors. Bad bosses, restructuring and reorganizing, layoff, gossiping colleagues, projects that fall apart, the list goes on. Whatever the cause, the effect is that we suffer. We feel rejected, insecure, dismissed, uncertain, mistreated and just plain hurt.

You’re not exaggerating when you feel hurt by work. Research shows that our brains interpret social pain with the same circuitry and signals as physical pain. As a result, our brains experience social injuries (feeling isolated, that we’re treated unfairly, etc.) in the same way they experience physical injuries.

Recently, I worked with a woman who had been downsized during a restructure earlier in the year. Three months into a new role at a different company, she was struggling. “I can’t relax into the work, I’m holding back, and I know it and my boss knows it; I’m just not giving them my best, and I have to figure out what’s going on.” Over time, we explored the residual impact of her layoff on her confidence, trust in herself and her boldness in a job that demanded all of these things. She was experiencing the ‘professional scar tissue’ of a painful work experience.

It’s tough enough when experiences at work cause distress, discomfort or pain, but it’s even worse when we carry those wounds with us into our next role and organization. It’s common for past experiences to prevent us from engaging fully in our new environment, building productive relationships and doing our best work. Instead, we’re distracted by the running narrative in our minds:

What if I get discarded or overlooked again? 

What if they find out I was someone who could be ignored or removed – will they see me that way? 

How can I trust a manager when my last one let me down so profoundly?

The good news is there are steps we can take to heal the injuries and feel fully ourselves again at work:

·       Talk about it. One of the most prevalent experiences of all the people I meet who are laid off, restructured, underemployed, or overlooked at work is a common sense of shame and isolation. It’s deeply comforting and healing to know you’re not alone. A trusted friend or advisor, a support group or a trained professional can provide partnership as you learn to talk about the pain you experienced at work.   

·       Reflect on your learning from the experience. Even during circumstances larger than us (a reorganization, for example), we can learn from a painful experience. Maybe you became aware of skills needed to stay current and desirable in your field, or that you can be more attentive to market trends, or should be networking more proactively in the future. Maybe you can advocate for your work differently, take on strategic projects outside your comfort zone. Maybe by observing leadership behavior around you during change, you’ve developed opinions about what you do and don’t want to emulate. One of the ways we turn pain into something positive is by learning from what’s happened. This takes time and attention; don’t skip this step.

·       Do something you love. My research on professionals who experience layoff suggests that one of the ways people heal from the hardship is reinvesting time in things they love to do. Hobbies and interests–related or even unrelated to your career–remind you that there are lots of things that make you tick and bring you joy, and that you have talents and contributions to make outside of work. Sports, the arts, volunteering, physical fitness, something to round out the full picture of how you spend your time.

Hurt by work and ready to start feeling like your strong, creative, resourceful self again?