It was a wakeup call when Joseph said, “Shabnam, you are reliving your childhood traumas of war.” It had been a few months into my new job that I noticed I was crying every day.
I knew I feared war and its disturbing news; I had grown up with them. It makes sense that I am against war but to be realistic, if the last resort is fighting to defend or protect ourselves, I accept that as a distressing event. So, my self-reflection on everyday crying was that I was assigned to the wrong projects at work. Defense projects on weapons are necessary (perhaps) but I am not the right person to work on them. I thought I was fighting with my moral values and guilty feelings.
That day in June 2021, I was sobbing in the therapy session. Joseph waited for me for a few seconds and then calmly said, “Shabnam, you are reliving your childhood traumas of war.”
I brought my head up and unhide it from my hands. Tears streaming, I started listening to him carefully. Joseph continued, “The powerful emotions you are feeling at the moment, are all the emotions you felt during childhood but little of them had come out. This strong reaction you have to your job now is to release the suppressed emotions. You are experiencing a trauma reaction.”
There were a few moments of silence. My mind felt blank, overloaded by the awareness. I had thought it was an inner conflict between my job and my values. Little did I know, the powerful trigger of working on a bomber project caused reliving the trauma of being bombed. I had worked on a similar project before, and my strong guilty feelings pushed me to change that job within a few months. It was my ignorance on not re-thinking the path I had chosen in my career. Or better yet, I had blindly jumped to the next job opportunity that was in front of me, allowing the randomness of the opportunities to build a career path for me. I wish I had a mentor or a career coach back then who had asked me about my values and ethics of working. I was a naive, young, immigrant woman.
Joseph asked me if I could talk to my manager and ask to be transferred. I talked to the management. Accepting my situation with empathy, they promised to move me as soon as they hire a replacement for me.
On top of my problem with the nature of the products I was working on, the team who I was working with was matter of fact and serious and worked under the threat of losing their jobs that rippled from the top management. So, the strict hierarchy, demanding for work to be done in a strong authoritarian style with no mercy took me back to the dictator government I had lived under in Iran. That was the right recipe for disaster for a person with such childhood experience.
Earlier in September we hired a young professional who needed training. I was in charge of his training but already slipping on the path of depression yet accepting the management decision. I blamed myself for not being strong enough. I told myself that I needed to wait and cooperate with the team. It was only fair that way. I could do it. I needed to be stronger.
Mid-September, on a Friday afternoon, I felt so much anger and fear at work that I emailed a co-worker and said I needed to turn off my laptop before I sent a disrespectful email to the project manager I worked with due to her uncooperative behavior. I was shaking and needed to lay down. I crumpled in my bed under my blanket and began sobbing. I was sick over the weekend. It was a powerful anxiety attack and a new experience to me. I had experienced feeling depressed before, but I had denied the power of anxiety and depression and got through it without stopping. This time, I wasn’t able to function, and I asked for a week of sick leave. I received a warm email from my manager accepting that but on Wednesday he called me and asked me to get involved with the new hire and get back to work and I did it. I was stoic fighting to overcome my guilty feelings of the anxiety attack.
It took another month and half until I was completely removed from those projects but by then I was feeling sick and had to call out many days due to the weakness I felt in my body. It was perhaps difficult for my manager to understand the power of my trauma reaction. He never directly talked to me about the matter in our calls, we only talked about the logistics of the programs. I had talked to our Human Resources about my emotions and never to my manager directly. On one of my sick days, he sent me a text, “Are you working today, Shabnam?” I answered that I had emailed him for the day, and I wasn’t feeling well. He texted me back, “Can you send me the x document?”
I knew that document was not due for another two months. I had been slowly working on it but not much. I wasn’t able to perform well. I thought he wanted to see the progress of my work and fire me for low performance. I was so tired of the situation that I sent him the document and my resignation letter in one email.
I resigned that November feeling ashamed of not being able to get through the stressful time and depression. I was in a dark place not even mentioning my concerns for my financial commitments. I had started my anti-depression medication a couple of months before, but the depth of the sadness needed more help than medication. I needed self-acceptance. A type of self-acceptance that was a product of self-compassion. But all I could hear in my head was criticism for not being good enough, not being strong enough. Although, physically I could do nothing but lay down most of the hours, I felt guilty for not doing anything.
I didn’t think about my capacity, my emotional arousal, my constant dark mood, my lack of motivation to do my job, the morning gagging, and tears as soon as I woke up, and the weakness in my body, feeling constantly nauseous. My body was telling me to stop but I had no self-acceptance of my capacity. I wanted to be strong, to be grateful of the opportunities of upcoming changes, and to be accepted by the management team. My body finally collapsed.
Despite all the support and hugs I received from my husband, my daughter, my close friends, and my counselor thoughts were ruminating in my head,
• Am I really this weak or am I being lazy?
• Am I so sensitive that I wasn’t able to have adult communication with my manager on how I felt? But he never allowed me to talk about anything other than the work projects.
• What if I can never go back to work, who will pay my bills?
• I hate corporate culture. It is very limiting. It is all wrong.
• Am I really depressed? Am I exaggerating my feelings?
• I notice shallow breathing all the time, like I can’t fill up my lungs. Am I dying maybe? That’s not a bad thing. It is liberating. Life is so difficult.
• Am I worthy of all this support I am receiving from family and friends? They will get tired of me.
• I don’t want to talk to anyone, and I don’t need any advice. I want everyone to leave me alone. But without my friend S and my therapist support, I would not start the medication.
At the same time, I was going through a one-year program to become a certified life coach, my dream job. It started in April of 2021. In December, I had a four-day session with my coaching school. The philosophy of my coaching school, New Ventures West, is to promote self-development for us as coach students in order to be equipped and educated to be able to help others in an authentic way. It was great to be held in that container with my classmates and teachers for four days. I felt loved, calmer, safer, and a little less depressed. I had the opportunity to contemplate on the concept of self-acceptance.
After the session was over, I started listening to Tara Brach’s book, The Radical Acceptance. As weakness took over and I laid down many hours per day, I listened to each chapter of this book over and over. I self-reflected and listened to it again.
Another couple of weeks needed to pass for me to feel better about my mornings when I woke up. We were approaching the end of the year Holiday time. I felt the urge to contact friends and have zoom calls with a few. The connections felt great and energized me. From once a week, I increased my connections to a couple of even three per week and started to go out with friends who felt comfortable with the pandemic situation.
Week by week I felt better and by March I started a new job. I accepted a part-time job to make sure I have time to rest and focus on my coaching projects and clients. I had cultivated a great sense of self-acceptance including my imperfections and weaknesses. Through self-compassion, I learned I should be careful about triggers and early signs of depression in my daily activities to be able to regulate my emotions before they go crazy. I began daily check ins, practices to ground myself, and studying more on self-compassion. The ruminating thoughts and doubts had lost their power and I was in a fairly stable emotional state, grateful for all the support in my life to getting out of the depression episode I experienced. My thoughts had transformed to
• Oh, how depressed I was. That was too much emotional pain.
• I am grateful to wake up and have the capability to like my life.
• Silence is great.
• Nature is beautiful and calming.
• I need to rest now.
• How do I feel now? How can I bring harmony to my emotions?
• I need a massage.
• I enjoy my conversations with my loved ones.
• Life is much bigger than my problems. I need to look at my challenges objectively. How can I do that?
• How do I solve this hiccup today?
• What can I offer to life?
The last session of coaching training was at the end of April of 2022. The cohort gathered for another four days over the zoom. I was the second one in the line to receive my final words on my development and whether I would be certified or not. I didn’t feel anxious before the class started. I thought I was a good student. I enjoyed my projects and assignments throughout the year. They kept me going despite the depression and work pressure. They were my refuge. I loved my coaching clients and to be a coach. There was no reason for anxiety.
To my surprise, receiving my development feedback for the one year of my hard work, every question from my teacher felt like an attack and I became more and more defensive in explaining, clarifying, and defending my projects. Her serious face (was concentrating only) became scary to me. She noticed I was nervous. I agreed with her. I was panicking. She tried to sooth me. When the half an hour discussion was over, I was confident I wasn’t receiving my certification and I started hysterically crying.
Well, that was authentically me. The Shabnam who in her head turned a developmental conversation with her teacher to an exam and freaked out. With the first question on a mistake I had made, my empire crashed. In my head I was supposed to be the good student in this class and with one mistake, my thoughts turned catastrophically towards becoming the bad student I always was in my youth.
The reaction was so fast in my body that I slipped down in trance instantly. I was not able to do anything except reacting dramatically. However, it took me a few minutes to realize that I was trauma-responding. Through talking to my classmates, deep breathing, and applying the awareness of my recent trauma reaction experience at work, I was able to ground myself and become present quickly. When I went to the faculty breakout room to hear about the results, I explained that I was aware of my trauma-reaction, and I was grateful to realize it quickly.
Although the panic had already taken away the joy out of me, I felt grateful when they announced that I was certified. They reminded me that their evaluation was from over one year of my work and not about one mistake. They read beautiful feedback from my clients and reminded me of their observations of my deep connections with my clients.
I accepted myself with my trauma reactions and felt deep self-compassion. I felt grateful to have developed the skill to catch my trauma-response and to accept it. It took another two days to be completely out of the pain of the trauma reaction, but I was able to function and be present during those days. I was aware of the emotional pain and allowed it to be there hanging out with me. It was part of the process of integrating an unaccepted piece of me – the bad student – and accepting my past. And, to realize there is no good and bad. It is all about our perception!
I am positive the more I integrate different versions of myself, the more acceptance and trust I build towards life including myself. It is a life-long process.
On the last day, the faculty’s last advice to us was “Be you and become more you”.
Let’s practice self-acceptance together!
Photo by Polina Kovaleva on Pexels.com
Edited by Mike Curtis