November 15, 2021

Is Career Trauma Holding You Back?

What if career trauma is holding you back from reaching your goals?

Let’s start with a story.

Dinah walked into the conference room wearing the new power suit she’d bought for the occasion. Today was the day the board was going to announce they were naming her CEO. She settled into her seat and tried to calm her excited nerves while she waited for the meeting to begin. The c-suite staff and board directors walked into the room together. That’s strange, Dinah thought. Were they all coming from another meeting?

The Chairperson called the meeting to order and got straight to the point. 

“Today we will vote on the new CEO.”

“All in favor of naming Hudson French as CEO?”

“What?” Dinah said out loud. 

“I’m sorry, Dinah, we’re going in a different direction.”

Dinah sat in disbelief. After the short meeting, the staff and directors left the meeting without saying a word to her. It was like she was invisible. Later that day, the new CEO called to tell her that her current position had been eliminated. 

Fast forward two years and Dinah is in a job that is unchallenging and unsatisfying—not because she hasn’t been offered more enticing positions but because she is ashamed of being betrayed and belittled by her peers.

 She hasn’t told anyone the whole story of what happened or how hurtful it was to lose her work community and identity in a flash. This unprocessed career trauma is holding her back


Yes, career trauma is a thing. 

Career trauma can be one big event (being publicly fired) or a series of small events (microaggressions in the workplace). It might look like:

  •  Being let go from a job
  • Quitting a job that you wanted desperately to love
  • Being in a hostile or contentious workplace
  • Going through a “work divorce” from a once-beloved colleague
  • Being rejected over and over again in a job search

Trauma is complex but in general it is caused by anything that overwhelms the nervous system’s ability to cope. 

Most people don’t shut down completely, as in Dinah’s case. She was still able to work after her public humiliation and betrayal, but her fear of something like that happening again kept her from taking any risk.


Trauma symptoms come in waves, more complex symptoms often developing overtime when trauma is not processed. Some common career trauma symptoms include:

Hyperarousal: Someone who has been continuously rejected in a job search may experience symptoms like excessive sweating, shallow breathing, increased heart rate during job interviews making it hard to focus on the interview at hand.

Hypervigilance: For example, someone whose work or ideas was stolen by a colleague may see a potential “thief” in everyone and be unwilling to share information with his team. 

Shame and lack of self worth: For example, someone who leaves a job that she desperately wanted to love may be embarrassed that she couldn’t make it work and make up stories about why it didn’t work out. 

Denial: For example, someone who experiences microaggressions on a daily basis convincing herself that she’s overreacting. 

Reduced ability to deal with stress: For example, someone who had a falling out with a trusted colleague may find they are less able to handle difficult conversations without becoming extremely irritable and angry. 


Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.

This is the most powerful statement I can offer you to help you recover from career trauma.

Find an empathetic witness in a therapist, coach, friend or clergy person. Ask them to listen and then tell them your story. If, like Dinah, you keep it inside, the impact of what happened will continue to grow. 


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