Success in career development relies on a strong sense of self and the ability to see one’s identity change through the process. Career development assumes that there is a starting place in a person’s identity from which they can engage in decision-making and action-taking.
For survivors of trauma who are embarking on career development, some of the cornerstones of the process are missing – a secure sense of identity, a capacity to make decisions, a clear sense of agency in decision-making and action-taking, and the ability to reliably follow through on planning without getting triggered and set off down the path of symptoms.
My own experience with trauma and recovery has informed my work as a career practitioner from very early in my career. When I completed training as a trauma therapist, I began to see ways in which this training could add to the work I was doing in career development.
Living and working with trauma
My first experience of working in the career development sector was as a summer jobs program supervisor for a youth program. I was hired on a Friday to manage the project and the supervising professor’s summer break began on Monday. I was young and didn’t have a clue about how to run a summer jobs program.
Around the third week of the project, my symptoms started to show up: night terrors, lost time during the day, hypervigilance and rigidity in decision-making. I am sure the students who worked on the project thought of me as Jekyll and Hyde. One day I would be calm and diligently working on the project. The next day I would be sharp and rigid and need the space to be reorganized to suit my ever-changing needs for safety. The pressure of running the program was more than my nervous system could handle.
Rigidity, reactivity, inconsistency and shifting between competency and overwhelm are among the well-recognized symptoms of PTSD. At the time of the summer jobs program, I was unaware of my mental illness and did not know how to recognize or manage my symptoms. I now know that I have complex PTSD.
That the project succeeded in its mission and the professor returned with his library in place was nothing short of a small miracle. This was my first experience running an employment program and it was also my first real lesson in working while living consciously with the symptoms of complex PTSD.
Integrating trauma training into career development
Over the past 35 years, I have built a successful practice in career development while managing the ebb and flow of symptoms of complex PTSD. After a while, I started to wonder about the clients who came to my practice exhibiting signs of mental illness.
Twenty years ago, I began a 10-year journey to train as a trauma therapist in a body-centred method of therapy. This training was the opposite of my career development experience. The method of trauma therapy I am trained in is an intensive system of learning to be more aware of the body and this began to help me heal the trauma in my body. My training in career development had been to largely ignore the body and to focus on creating employment results.
“I began to see an important gap in the training of career practitioners that needed to be filled.”
At the same time, I began training career practitioners. I found myself, many times in those overlapping years, questioning how I was training career practitioners, as I knew they were facing clients just like me every day and had little or no training to deal with the cluster of symptoms clients with a history of trauma bring into career development settings.
I began to get very curious about how we design career development services and the kind of expectations we have of clients. Generally, we expect our clients to have a sense of what to do when they are asked a question, how to make a plan, how to follow through on their decisions and to remember the decisions they have made. I knew these expectations were difficult to meet for many clients living with trauma and other moderate-to-severe mental illnesses.
Working to bridge the gap
To begin to figure out how to bridge these two ways of working, I chose to work directly with clients with multiple barriers to employment. I worked with clients living with mental illness, substance misuse disorders and other challenging life circumstances. I learned how to be effective while working with these clients in part because I understood some of the challenges they were facing, not just in their lives, but in navigating the services we were offering.
Over those years I learned some important strategies to help people who couldn’t track their own decision-making to make plans that would be realistic; to help people who had been disconnected from the self-sustaining experience of earning a living; and, to help those who were caught in cycles of programs and services and employment that would spiral out of control when they got triggered in their job search or on the job.
I learned a lot about what career development requires for those of us who live with mental illness. When coupled with my Trauma Therapy training, I began to see an important gap in the training of career practitioners that needed to be filled. Career practitioners are eager to see their clients succeed and are thirsty for resources to help them work with those clients who are having the most difficult time navigating the world of job search and work.
Trauma Informed Career Development Practice training is the marriage of my over thirty years of experience in Career Development and over ten years of training as Trauma Therapist. I bring to this training also the lived experience of mental illness and career success.
I am eager to share what I know with practitioners working with clients with histories of trauma.