Here’s how professional scar tissue can show up in new roles — and a few tips for managing it effectively.
“Jena, I think I have PTSD from my last role. It’s impacting how I show up at my new job, and I don’t know what to do about it.”
While this person almost always certainly doesn’t qualify for a PTSD diagnosis, the pain in their statement is real. It’s incredibly common to experience a significant negative event at work such as bullying, harassment, discrimination or job loss. For example, a study by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 19% of workers have experienced workplace bullying, while a study by Zippia found that 83% of U.S. workers suffer from work-related stress.
How professional scar tissue shows up in new roles
The psychological impact of these events can carry forward into a new role in substantial ways. Common ways professional scar tissue carries forward into a new professional chapter include the following:
- Hypervigilance: You are always on the lookout for the shoe to drop. You don’t expect things to go well for you. You are anxious, intense and on edge. This impacts your ability to effectively collaborate with others because you are always expecting the worst.
- People-pleasing: You go above and beyond, have few boundaries and are always saying “yes.” You are afraid of disappointing others because if someone is unhappy with you, you fear losing your job or not getting the recognition you deserve.
- Micromanaging: You are involved in details you don’t need to be involved in. If you know absolutely everything about everything, you have more control over your situation. This causes people to get annoyed at you. You are labeled as being too “in the weeds” and not giving people enough space to do their job.
- Being overly cautious: It’s important to learn from past mistakes. Sometimes we can take it too far and be overly rigid and inflexible because we are afraid the next mistake might be catastrophic (like it perhaps felt in the last job).
- Self-sabotage: If you expect the worst, you are likely to manifest your reality. I often see folks whose fears around failure become all-consuming, and they engage in self-sabotaging behaviors subconsciously. Unfortunately, in these situations, what they fear eventually happens.
- Anger: You fear being taken advantage of and struggle with trusting your colleagues. You carry anger from past experiences that have absolutely nothing to do with your current job and team. Your team feels your wrath and intensity and wonders what they did to deserve this.
How to manage your career baggage and control your healing journey
While career baggage is common, it is your responsibility (not your employer’s) to manage it. I often see people expecting their new team and new manager to tiptoe around their triggers. As a business psychologist who has coached dozens of folks who have these sets of challenges, the best outcomes happen when the person with the baggage takes control over their own healing journey. Ways to do this include the following:
- Recognize your triggers, and plan for them: It is likely that some new teammates’ personalities remind you of people in your past. Get clear on who those new folks are, how they trigger you and how you can better plan to manage your interactions with them.
- Take more breaks: While people are healing from carer baggage, I recommend scheduling more breaks throughout the day. Breaks help to reset the brain. Shake off the energy. Get a healthy snack. Move your body.
- Say “no:” If you overextended yourself in your last job and burnt out, learn from the past. Know your limits, and communicate them.
- Focus on sleep, good nutrition, exercise and hydration: The basics never die. While you are healing, focus on getting your body healthy. This way, your nervous system is prepped and primed to take on the day.
- Focus on building strong relationships: Most career baggage is rooted in trust issues. Developing positive relationships with coworkers and managers can help you build trust and confidence in your new job. Push yourself outside your comfort zone and participate in networking and team-bonding activities.
- Gratitude practice: Your new job is not your old job. One way to train your brain into that new reality and avoid falling into old patterns or old behaviors is by having a consistent gratitude practice. Practice giving thanks for the positive aspects of your new role. This will create more psychological separation from past negative experiences.
Remember that overcoming professional scar tissue is a process that takes time and effort. At the same time, you are responsible for your own healing journey, so take control. While you are on this journey, be patient with yourself and seek help when needed. With the right support and strategies, it is possible to move forward and thrive in your new role.