Sarah was mortified. Recently promoted, she had spent weeks thoroughly preparing for her first major presentation to the Executive Team and she botched it. Five days had passed and she still woke up in the middle of the night with such bad anxiety that she had trouble getting back to sleep. She kept seeing the faces of her boss (the CMO) and the rest of the C-levels in her mind as they exchanged glances telling her all she needed to know – she wasn’t up for the job and she shouldn’t be there in the first place.
While this isn’t based on any one client (confidentiality!), it is illustrative of stories I have been told countless times over the years from talented, hard-working, conscientious professionals. The workplace is full of trials and tribulations to navigate alongside our own internal thought processes, limiting beliefs and learned behaviours that trip us up. Not only that, we also have to manage the behaviours, beliefs and emotions of the people around us that can also create challenging (and sometimes traumatising) situations.
In the mid-1990s, two psychologists Richard Tedeschi, Ph.D. and Lawrence Calhoun Ph.D., observed that some people, after a trauma or highly challenging situation, exhibited positive psychological changes as a result. That is, they became stronger, more appreciative, better at managing relationships, more aware of possibilities and more expansive and wise in their mindset because of the trauma they experienced. This too can be your experience with the challenges you face at work, especially if you’re aware of the following key elements that can promote growth after a distressing situation.
Self Awareness & Regulation
It’s important to note that Post-Traumatic Growth is experienced along side Post-Traumatic Stress. That is, after a highly challenging situation you will naturally experience negative emotions and thought patterns while you work to accept and grow from the experience. The people who are able to recognise their emotions and thought patterns and actively manage, process and shift them, are the ones who are setting up the foundation to rise above the experience.
In the example above, Sarah felt embarrassed, ashamed, anxious, insecure and despondent. She was able to create distance from these feelings and thoughts during the day when she focused on her tasks and meetings. However at night, she had to consistently practise techniques like breathwork, recalling previous successes, repeating positive affirmations and reducing catastrophic thinking to regulate her emotions and shift her thought patterns.
Gaining a Holistic Perspective
Where there is darkness there is light and vice versa. One doesn’t exist without the other. When we experience trauma we are reminded of this in a jolting, abrupt manner that can be painful and frightening. It’s important after a difficult experience to reflect on the situation as objectively and holistically as possible to understand the truth and learn from it. This starts with questioning your own assumptions so you can begin to separate the experience from your identity and derive meaning from it.
To go back to our example, Sarah first spent time reflecting on her disastrous presentation on her own and by talking it through with her partner. She was able to compose herself to then have a 1:1 with her boss and ask him questions about the experience to gain an understanding of what the Executives were really thinking without being clouded by her assumptions. She was able to receive helpful but quite harsh feedback from him and also the knowledge that her job wasn’t in jeopardy as long as she worked on her areas of improvement. She also organised to meet with the CEO to hear what she had to say about the experience. While her perspective was a little different to the CMO’s there were some shared core messages that allowed her understand the experience more completely. This holistic perspective not only helped her focus on what she needed to do to improve but it also reduced her rumination and anxiety.
Support to Gain Acceptance
Whilst Sarah was doing a good job managing the experience through her self regulation techniques and her ability to maintain a holistic perspective, she was still finding it hard to accept the event and move on. She continued to have moments of recalling her feelings of shame and upset and they often had the power to shift her mood and mindset for the rest of the day.
Getting ongoing support to disclose and shed light on an event is a powerful element of growing from a challenging experience. The more Sarah was able to talk openly and honestly about what had happened the more sense she could make from it and the more closure she gained. She then felt encouraged to not just speak about her experience privately with trusted sources but more publicly with her direct reports and peers. This vulnerability expanded her perspective again and humanised the experience for her.
Showing Up For Others
An important finding from the scientific research on Post-Traumatic Growth is that people do better in the aftermath of trauma if they find work that benefits others. For Sarah, this was as simple as being receptive when anyone on her team was showing signs of anxiety or insecurity and making it a priority to meet with them privately to talk it through. Furthermore, she noticed that her ability to talk openly about her own experience was directly helping others to understand how they too could work through hardships in the workplace.
Tedeschi, the pioneering psychologist behind Post Traumatic Growth, talks about how crucial timing is when it comes to growing from traumatic experiences. If these key elements aren’t resonating with you or as Tedeschi puts it: ‘if you’re thinking this is all too optimistic or naive’, you may still be too close to the event to work through it. Always lead with self awareness and allow that to guide you on when to start taking steps towards healing and growth.