How to Return to a Place of Trauma When the Place May be Your Job

My role in education has been deeply rooted in my self-worth for as long as I can remember. When my parents divorced, I was very young, and that was the beginning of the seeds sprouting into a false sense of value. As my world changed around me, I looked to my teachers and to school to help me feel like I mattered to someone or for something. I didn’t know any better as an 8–9-year-old, so I went with it. Achievement and people-pleasing reassured me that someone valued me, and I could also see the pride it brought my parents. To me, those things equated to love. I had to excel in school to feel like I mattered and to be loved.

Before I knew it, the lie I told myself turned into a teaching position so that even as an adult, I could continue proving my worth to a team of administrators, school communities, families, students, and again to my parents. I stayed late after school, took my work home, and did whatever I could to be the best teacher I could be. When I didn’t feel like I was doing enough, I enrolled in a graduate program that focused on improving instruction and overall classroom management. When I stepped into the role of a student once again, my desire to excel in school shot through the roof. This degree launched the beginning of an obsession to learn and grow, and luckily, allowed me to start breaking free from what was holding me back from living into my potential (although I didn’t know it at the time).

Fast forward to the year of teacher burnout. I started the year off strong, excited to implement a new learner-centered philosophy and approach to teaching art. My energy and anticipation to guide students towards changing how they saw themselves as artists vs. students in an art class had me over the moon happy. This was the calm before the storm. I’ve written more about this here. My light slowly diminished as I attempted to manage circumstances beyond my control between school and home. Our school schedule had been uprooted and completely changed, more unstructured study hall time (the bane of my professional life) was placed into my schedule, and overall staff morale began plummeting.

I found myself scrambling to find where my value disappeared because I felt like I was failing in my job – the place that held my self-worth and value. I handled this situation by spinning out of control. Anxiety skyrocketed. Panic attacks met me during my school day. I coped with alcohol and chocolate. I felt like I didn’t matter at school, so did I even matter to anyone? Again, the lies I told myself were harsh.

Luckily, all of this led to a transformative experience in yet another graduate degree and a healing relationship with a therapist who helped me relearn where my self-worth actually came from – it all starts with me.

After that year, I knew that I needed to escape that place whereon some level, I thought my teaching position gave me a traumatic experience. In reality, I associated my deeper childhood trauma (you can find more on that in my previous blog posts) with my role in education, both as a student and teacher. My escape plan involved transferring to a different position. Instead of teaching middle and high school, I accepted a position at the elementary and middle school levels, visiting 3 schools, guiding younger artists who loved art as much I as did. Yes, I know, you can probably see that my escape plan was just that – an escape. I ran from one place to another to find my self-worth. It was a band-aid of sorts, but I didn’t know it at the time. I was still in the early stages of my therapy relationship, and a change of scenery was what I knew I needed to help me feel like I mattered once again, and my therapist agreed.

Photo by Yan Krukov on Pexels.com

Transferring to a different teaching position was just what the doctor ordered. I felt refreshed and recharged. Despite teaching art during a pandemic and from a cart instead of a beloved classroom art studio, I loved it. I had a better attitude, and it flowed into my personal life, too. I was a better wife and mom at home because I thought I rediscovered my self-worth as an elementary art teacher. I even started drinking less and chocolate was no longer a go-to for an instant boost of the feel-goods.

I lived that high most of the year until I finished my Capstone Research and acknowledged my inner truth. Leading up to this moment, I had been doing some self-discovery, inner work, and growing through my graduate studies. I never experienced such a transformative journey through academic learning as I had during my tenure as an AEOU student. Through my experience, I grew my confidence, I discovered I enjoyed writing as much as creating artwork, I learned how much I wanted to work with adults, and I recognized that my growth was breaking the limits of the four classroom walls I had defined for myself since elementary school. My lightbulb moment revealed that my self-worth came from within, not from any experience I could ever have as a student or as a teacher. It stopped me in my tracks.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I faced the questions: What do I do now? Where do I go from here? What can an art teacher do outside of a teaching career? I want to work with adults, but how? Am I qualified for anything other than teaching?

I literally sat at my computer one day and typed these kinds of questions. Guess what? I found answers. Guidance and support appeared, and I started my teacher transition journey. It was a bit rocky at first. I even made it to the final rounds of interviewing in one position I wanted so badly when I realized that I had bigger dreams for myself than that position was able to offer for my future. I retracted my candidacy and felt at peace with myself. Finding clarity, gaining skills, interviewing for positions I thought that I “fit into” all happened in order for me to learn exactly what I am meant to do in life.

All of the dots were there, I just had to connect them.

Months later, as I started a new course of study in a Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) Life Coaching Program, my next traumatic experiences put a halt to life. Covid-19 reared its ugliness in our home, and as soon as I left my quarantine, my mother passed away. The first day back to school from quarantine, my morning of teaching art was interrupted by urgent messages and phone calls from my family. The place where I found resolve from my feelings of disconnect, the space where I recharged from feeling inadequate, and where I started rediscovering joy in my teaching quickly became an association of a traumatic event. I continue to relive these events in my mind, and sometimes it is as raw as when I first experienced it.  

I am thankful that I had just begun my journey with my NLP Life Coach at the exact time of my mother’s passing. It was as if a door closed on unresolved pain and another opened to a life of light and healing. I am still on that journey.

What’s it like to return to a place that you associate with trauma or a traumatic event?

Hard. It’s beyond hard. I burned most of my sick time to grieve the loss of my mother. Her loss brought a lot more than the death of someone I loved. I am fortunate that both of my principals were exactly what I needed the moments and days following my loss. There were times when I questioned whether or not I could return to my teaching position. I spoke with members of my healthcare team as well as the HR department to learn more about options for a leave of absence. In the end, I had to choose what was best for me, and that meant returning to my work, despite knowing the painful triggers that awaited me.

Before I tell you how I’m dealing with my trauma association, I have to say this: everyone has their own level of trauma. Stuff happens to people and depending on their life experiences and emotional state, we have to acknowledge that what is traumatic to someone may not be traumatic to someone else. There are often times I try to dismiss my trauma and convince myself that someone else has it worse than I do. Yes. There are people out there who are dealing with a lot of pain that is beyond what I have experienced. In the end, in my own life, what I experienced was traumatic to me. I must own that and meet myself in the place I need to heal in order to move forward. What I do works for me, and it may or may not work for you. We all have to explore avenues of healing that align with our own lives.

Here are 5 things I’m doing to help ease the pressure of my job triggers:

  1. Be present. There are so many treasures that happen during my day in an art room – now, but also in any of the grade levels I’ve had the pleasure of teaching. These moments keep me grounded and present in the moment. Taking time to feel the joy of a young artist telling me about the meaning of their artwork is powerful. Feeling gratitude when an artist gives me a gift of a drawing just for me or a letter that expresses their appreciation for my work in their life – these things can’t be taken for granted. These moments are like little miracles that are sprinkled throughout my day. What little miracles do you experience in your daily life?
  2. Breathwork. I was first introduced to breathwork from my pastor years ago when I told him how my mind went into overdrive as soon as my head hit the pillow at night. Focusing on my breath back then established an entry point for me to quiet my mind when I needed to sleep. Years later, I continue to use deep breathing combined with other forms of meditation, such as visualizations (like daydreaming), walking in nature, listening to music or singing, writing, or just being still with myself. Meditation has become a helpful tool in my toolbox when I need to reach for those feel-good feelings.
  3. Set an anchor. Before my anxiety ramped up over returning to my job where I first experienced panic attacks during my year of burnout and then learned of my mother’s passing and immediately felt regret, I was safe and I was okay. Many mornings I place my hand on my heart and quietly say to myself I am safe. I am okay. Sometimes I do this in my reaview mirror or as I look at myself in the staff bathroom mirror. It can happen during my workday when I am feeling grief or when a memory is triggered about the two events mentioned.
  4. Journal my feelings. Writing has become my go-to strategy to externalize all of the icky stuff I am feeling. I’ve always journaled in my life, but not on such a regular basis as I am doing now. I’ve even gone one step further and am publishing my writing because it holds me accountable for doing the hard work. Being transparent with my readers has taken an extreme amount of courage for someone who once kept everything tucked inside for nobody to see. Sometimes, before I hit the publish button, fear creeps into my mind trying to prevent me from exposing my inner thoughts and inviting vulnerability into my life. Luckily my courage and confidence always win that battle.
  5. Work with a professional. The year I experienced burnout from teaching, I hit rock bottom. There came a point where I knew that if I didn’t seek professional help, things could get even worse than what they already were – was that even possible? My state of mind was in a really bad place. Seeking out professional help from someone who could objectively see what I didn’t see was the best thing I could do for my spiritual healing and growth. While my relationship with my therapist is coming to a close, I have turned the page. My NLP Life Coach has also helped me break through limiting beliefs that were still holding me back from ultimate emotional freedom. What’s the most exciting is that I will do the same for others in the near future when my NLP Life Coaching business launches. I can’t wait to pay it forward.

It has been important for me to slow down and understand that for me, there are a lot of underlying reasons why I associate “school” as a place where I have experienced trauma. From an early age, I truly believed that was where my self-worth came from, an external place. Until a few years ago, that statement was a conditioned belief that I held as my truth. It made sense for me that when I started realizing that school wasn’t where my value lives, that it also became the place where I began to crumble from the lies I told myself.

When I learned of my mom’s passing, I was in school. School had been my stability for years, and just like that, it once again became unstable for me. I can’t tell you how many times I have wanted to call off of work or have entertained the thought of walking away from my position so that I wouldn’t have to experience the triggers that make me feel emotionally uncomfortable. Avoiding the inner work and healing only makes the uncomfortable more uncomfortable.

Some days I have to work harder than others to get me through my day. I know that my grief and anxiety are lessening. I recognize that I have obligations I must fulfill. I lean on my support system when I am feeling like I can’t do it. I appreciate the gift of emotional strength and well-being that I have been given as a result of experiencing circumstances in my life that I now know how to navigate.

How do you respond to returning to a place associated with a traumatic event?

Who do you lean on when you need support?

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