A few months before the pandemic started, I was fired from a job I had been very successful in for several years. The reason was not performance related — my work was highly regarded throughout the company — it was political. I definitely made mistakes, but thought I had recovered, so it came as a shock.
I did a good job rebounding. I got a career coach and tried independent consulting, including a six-month contract job with a top company. Several of my clients wanted me to join their companies full time. During the Great Resignation, my then-boyfriend and I both took breaks from full-time work. I worked on a novel, we got married, and I focused on things other than my career. When I decided to go back to work, I landed a good job at a reputable company in my field relatively quickly. So it’s been a bit of a shock to find I’m having serious issues with fear and insecurity at my current job related to getting fired almost three years ago.
I feel afraid when meeting with more senior people and worried about saying or doing something wrong every time I interact with a colleague. I feel intimidated by every task that comes my way. I am not reassured by positive feedback from my boss and colleagues. I find very little pleasure in this job, and I have to really force myself to do the work, which makes me feel entitled and silly. I know some of this is the return-to-work adjustment, but I used to enjoy what I do and feel confident doing it, for the most part. Now I keep reliving the feeling in my gut of having the rug pulled out from under me.
How do I get past this? I thought I already had! I did all the right things — career coach, therapy, time off, try new things, get another job. But the fear and insecurity seem to have taken up permanent residence in me. Help!
Still on Fire
What you are feeling is not unusual after experiencing such a traumatic event in the workplace. Getting fired is rarely something you can plan for, and to add insult to injury, you were fired a week before Christmas. I cannot reiterate enough that what you are feeling is normal.
Previously on my podcast, I had a conversation with Tara Paton about “corporate PTSD.” PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, is generally used to speak about military personnel, combat veterans, and victims of assault. But PTSD affects people who have encountered trauma in many other settings, including the workplace. Joyce Marter, a licensed psychotherapist, has said corporate or workplace PTSD is the “different emotional, cognitive, and physical challenges people experience when they have difficulty coping with negative, abusive, or traumatic aspects of their jobs.” Getting fired unexpectedly 100 percent falls into this category.
During my time in corporate America, I had an experience in which I was yelled at on a call with over 100 of my peers. A very senior leader asked me to take on a new project I was not on board with. I knew the results they desired were not possible to achieve with the approach the leader wanted me to take. But they wouldn’t take no for an answer and required that I complete the project as requested and “see what happens.” What happened was exactly what I expected: The results of the project were terrible, and I had to present the dismal findings on a global call. After I was done presenting, the leader yelled at me for the lack of results while all my colleagues listened. I attempted to interject, but the leader was too upset.
I turned my camera off so no one would see my reaction. I was angry, embarrassed, and frustrated. Most of all, I felt deeply disrespected. Other leaders on the call didn’t agree with how the situation was handled and immediately stepped in, but the damage was done. Even after the leader apologized and we built a much better rapport — and I ultimately left the company — I still found myself feeling anxious around senior leaders when presenting. Years later, my mind conjures up images of being yelled at and embarrassed when someone doesn’t like my ideas. Now I run my own business, and there aren’t any other leaders to step in if I’m overwhelmed or anxious! I had to work on my mind-set.
You’ve done all the right things by hiring a career coach, going to therapy, taking time off, and getting another job. However, it can take years of consistent effort to banish the negative thoughts you’re experiencing and overcome a traumatic experience. It’s going to be very difficult to enjoy the work you used to love if you’re in constant fear of being terminated again.
One of the exercises I ask my clients to complete is a “workplace win” list to reiterate the successes they have had in their career. I’m confident you’ve had some remarkable wins in each job that reinforce your impact and the skills you’ve built throughout your career. When you’re second-guessing yourself, reflect upon this list of accomplishments to remember what you’re capable of! I made sure my wins were someplace I could physically view them throughout the day and would set reminders to review them before important meetings with stakeholders or my peers that induced anxiety.
Additionally, if you’ve stopped going to therapy, I recommend going back, if you’re able. Often we go to therapy when the trauma happens, and we decide to move on the moment we are feeling better. You’ve successfully reentered the workplace, but now you’re being tested by scenarios that may trigger you, and having a regular cadence of therapy during this time may be helpful.
Every stakeholder meeting, unscheduled one to one with your manager, or feedback on your work may feel like an opportunity for you to be fired again. Each time you overcome one of these anxiety-inducing situations is an opportunity to remind yourself you’re capable of doing the work. Reframing your mind-set around the workplace is going to take some time, but it’s possible! Give yourself some additional space to adjust, and remember to focus on the facts of the current situation you’re in — don’t allow your mind to make up scenarios that haven’t occurred in this new workplace.
Career and leadership development expert Kimberly Brown helps readers make sure their next move is the best move, here, every other Wednesday. Have a question for her? Email email@example.com (and read our submission terms here.) Listen to the Your Next Move Podcast here.