I have a job that is engaging and meaningful but that can also be stressful. I love the work and want it to be useful and excellent–but the conditions we work in (multiple complex research projects at the same time, with different teams, overlapping deadlines, unpredictable clients, an ever-changing policy landscape, and a constant need to write proposals for future work  while we are trying to do a good job on our current work) can make it hard to do the work the way I know it should be done. Not to mention the colleagues who don’t deliver their piece of the work on time or on budget.

So lots of people have this kind of stress in their work lives, I know. We all have too much work to do in too short a time.

What’s been happening to me, I realize, is that I have been connecting the feeling overwhelmed and frustrated at work to feeling overwhelmed (and many other things) as a child and teen. Those unresolved traumatic experiences still carry a lot of the childish thinking that goes with trauma: I am bad, it’s my fault, no one will ever love me, I am broken, I am ashamed, I am dirty. So it’s possible to go from “this client wants their report two weeks early” to feeling waves of unexplained self-loathing. It happens faster and easier when I am working too much for a long period of time and see no end in sight, as happened to me last summer. I was so exhausted and so depressed that I took a three-month leave of absence in the fall.

So I’ve been back at work for nearly three months now, and I’ve worked every weekend this month, and many 12 hour days, on an enormous proposal we’ll be submitting in early April. I’m pretty worn out. And in recent weeks, I’ve had an upsurge in the “I’m so bad, I’m so disgusting” thinking.

And then something clicked. It started with realizing that the internal response I need to the “I’m so disgusting” thoughts is not “oh no, you aren’t, you are fine, you did this good thing, remember? You aren’t so bad.” I’ve tried that before but it doesn’t bring any relief.

The helpful response is actually, “Wow, you are really upset right now!”

This turned out to be an important aha moment for me. It led me to see that the negative thoughts (and accompanying feelings of self-loathing) came from I time when I was upset AND felt disgusting or dirty or used. Those feelings and thoughts became tightly entangled for me, so tightly that when I’m upset about anything, it all comes back mixed in together. The feelings of “dirty” and “disgusting” are really remnants of another time that have little to do with my current stress. And maybe (?) I can get just enough distance to ask myself, is this upset about something from the past that I need to address? Or maybe it has another meaning entirely?

To my surprise, since I had this aha on Tuesday, I have felt better. That’s held even though the big proposal is still a mess and my colleague is making it harder to do a good job. Writing this proposal is time-consuming and stressful. But it’s not traumatic. I’m a professional adult (who is not fundamentally broken or disgusting) working in a stressful situation, and that’s worlds away from being a traumatized child.