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Podcast: Career Practitioner Conversations with NCDA – Identifying Career Trauma—Featuring Amanda Chenkin and Rae Stout

In this episode, NCDA Past President Dr. Sharon Givens hosts Amanda Chenkin and Rae Stout for a conversation about career trauma. Amanda and Rae share definitions and insights related to identifying career trauma in the context of career development. They encourage you to explore your own experiences and hold space for others’ career traumas, sharing and modeling examples of the language that can be used and reflecting what you are seeing and hearing in ways that integrate the brain, body, and heart.




Narrator: Welcome to Career Practitioner Conversations. This podcast is presented by the National Career Development Association.

Sharon Gibbons: Hello, I’m Sharon Gibbons, and I’m the past president of NCDA, a licensed psychotherapist and a career counselor.

I’m so excited to be moderating this session today on such an important topic, career trauma. I know trauma has happened in a lot of different spaces, but I think it’s important to make individuals aware that people certainly are traumatized in their workplaces every single day.

And I have two really competent people who’ve done this work for quite some time that’s going to share their expertise on career trauma.

The first person that I’d like to introduce is Amanda Chenkin. She’s a licensed professional counselor in Colorado and Maryland, and she’s also a certified career counselor through NCDA. She’s in private practice. She has over 15 years working in career development in human service, non-profits, and post-secondary education.

She also has eight years working at the intersection of career development and mental health. She works with clients who are finding space to heal wounds and move from coping day to day to live unapologetically.

My next guest is Rae Stout. She’s a licensed professional counselor and also a certified career counselor. She has over 10 years of experience in identity formation, career counseling, and trauma, particularly in the field of career trauma.

She works with clients to explore who they are as they untangle their authentic parts of self, from internalized shame and societal pressure. She does this in order to encourage people to step into their own self-authored story, whether that is career or in life.

She’s an active member of the National Career Development Association and the American Counseling Association. She’s an adjunct professor of counseling at the University of Colorado and serves as the director of HR and clinical operations at IAM Clinic, a premier counseling practice centered around serving the needs of the LGBT population.

Welcome, Amanda and Rae. What do you have to talk about today?

Rae Stout: All right, thanks for having us.

Amanda Chenkin: Yeah, thank you for having us. We want to just note real quick that this episode… while we’re covering career trauma, we are targeting career practitioners. So we’re talking about when clients come into your space, what things might show up, what things are, and potentially went to… when referring might be a good idea. So the stories we share do not contain identifying information because we are protecting confidentiality. And this is a two-parter. So this first part will really focus on definitions, symptoms, and things like that. And then the second part is, what can you do as a practitioner as this might show up in your spaces with clients.

Rae Stout: Yeah, thank you, Amanda, for sharing that. As Amanda just said, career practitioners… we see this as relevant to folks who are not mental health practitioners or LPCs, or licensed professional counselors. This is for anyone who does career work. So whether they’re in human services, whether they’re a career coach. Today, this is a two-parter today… I think of as covering those areas of just how do we identify and talk about this. And so that’s where we wanted to just even get started.

You’re talking about our definition of career trauma. What does this mean? People are familiar with the word trauma but might not think about this from this career space. And I like to come back to think about, you know, we’re experiencing a season right now where there’s a lot of uncertainty around work with the economy. And that’s a form of career trauma. When people experience layoffs or jobs fluctuate or change because economic trends change. I got my start and passion in this in the 2012 recession, 2007 to 2012. I was working with displaced homemakers and actually a lot of construction and civil engineering because in Colorado, that industry completely went away for a long time.

And so how we define career trauma… is essentially just that there’s an impact on an individual, but it’s one singular event or a series of events. And the result is a lasting emotional response. So, like, what I often call the bodies activated. So we might just feel that… like we can’t let something go… or weepy, or teary when someone says something that maybe it wouldn’t normally elicit that response from us. That we are kind of actively living or holding this distressing event in our mind space or body. So you know, maybe your boss made a comment, and you can’t let that comment go. Whereas maybe if that had been said at a different point in time, it would move through us. We’d be able to let it go.

The difference between… maybe this definition of career trauma over overall trauma is that it’s unique to the workplace so that either… It’s happening at work. So this might be like workplace bullying or harassment or vicarious trauma from the work we’re doing. So for first responders… or I’ve worked actually with a lot of educators right now who are processing what COVID has done. I mean, how has it impacted them as educators? And also, living in Colorado, I’ve worked with folks who have lived through mass shooting events in the workplace and how that has been for them to process “my work no longer feels safe to me.”

I want to talk about… We’ll kind of talk more about these different types of career trauma, but that’s our working definition here. So it could be a singular event or series of events. And so again, whether that’s bullying or, you know, something that happens that causes us to hold this space where we can’t allow the body to settle.

Amanda Chenkin: And I’ll just add Rae, like as we use the T, like the T word, right, trauma. That career trauma we’re recognizing… career trauma is one of lots of different types of trauma. We may have experienced financial trauma or trauma around illness, right? Like there’s medical trauma, sexual trauma. There’s all different types of trauma that exist. For career, as Rae mentioned, right, It’s in and around the workplace.

The financial piece is often connected because if somebody comes in, “I haven’t been able to find a job for a year.” That’s financial insecurity, potentially. Or “I’ve been working at a job that pays me $15 an hour, and I was previously making $30 an hour.” So, underemployment and having that be a chronic issue being underpaid.

So I see, I saw this a lot, or see this a lot in, well, education, nonprofit sectors, public sectors where people have very advanced degrees and are earning barely a living wage. And that can be a constant source of trauma for people because that all could mean it’s financial insecurity. So there’s lots of, I think, more subtle spaces and places where trauma happens. And we just don’t call it that because we’re not really supposed to in society. So that’s where we’re going with this.

Rae Stout: Yeah, I think that it’s… So… And one of the reasons why I, maybe about four, four, or five years ago, really started using this label of career trauma, and differentiating this is… Maybe just then calling it trauma… Because these are traumatic events. But I think of it because how much power career holds in our life is a way we fulfill purpose and meaning outside of self. It’s also a way we get our basic needs met.

Unless we’re independently wealthy, work provides our shelter, our food, our water. As adults, it provides most of our adult interactions and connections outside of whether maybe we have like clubs or hobbies or so, you know, religious spaces. Work is where we spend the majority of our life. And so when we experience these events at work, a lot of us are a lot more willing to put up with different things.

You know, maybe if you’re in a relationship, and a partner says things like, “I mean, you’re not really that good at that.” Like, “try something different.” And then you notice they keep doing it. They keep cutting us down. We might say, like, “Hey, whoa, that’s not cool. We got to talk about this. We’re going to go to counseling,” or, like, “You need to stop talking to me that way.” At work, though, many of us couldn’t fathom talking to a boss that way. We are our co-workers.

And so what I have found is, I work with a lot of clients that have had some compounded trauma because they didn’t feel that they could speak up or voice, or if they did, they were going to experience a different type of trauma, again, like financial insecurity. And so I think that’s why labeling this as career trauma… And I often point to and recognize many of us think of veterans when we think about, you know, holding trauma. And as a career-based trauma, they elected to do a job. They signed up for a job where we train them to do things that, outside of that working world, we wouldn’t consider appropriate. And, in fact, we might be considered criminal if we’re talking about going to active… an active war. If they’re getting deployed and they’re on the front lines. And so they’ve got to come home then… and process that, but they’ve seen what they’ve held. They’ve got to process that there are many folks in the military that don’t have a lot of space around their own schedule, whether that’s where they live, when they get deployed, how they get to see their families.

And again, it’s tied to the workplace and veterans, you know, our special population where there’s some unique ways we talk and process that. And so I think of… That’s what kind of, I think, started helping me see this pathway of “how do we talk about career trauma and other environments where people are experiencing this?”

So I’m just going to talk about that and think about, you know, how career trauma might come up in the work you’re doing with clients and with clients that you’re seeing. And so we’ve mentioned a few… That we’ve… We categorize or call career trauma. Amanda mentioned chronic underemployment or underpay in certain industries. We know that’s really prevalent. There’s also certain industries that might have a culture of essentially, for lack of a better word, like taking advantage of their employees. Whether that’s in how they schedule them… In how they treat their employees, like entertainment industries. There’s this idea of like… You should be thankful that you have this job. And so, as a result, we can treat you how they’d like to treat you.

Amanda Chenkin: And I’ll say the same, like that idea of like, you know, you’re thankful to have this job, or this is your passion. Like, this is the job that, like, you were meant to do in the helping fields, typically overreaching boundaries, right? So you should be thankful to have this job. Great. You have to check email 24/7. You don’t get PTO, but not really that kind of thing. So sorry, Rae, I just wanted to…

Rae Stout: No…

Amanda Chenkin: And then I was like, Oh, yeah, we talked about this a lot.

Rae Stout: Yeah, like, or this idea of, like, and I’m, like, kind of same vein of, how many times do we ask people in the arts to give their work for free or low cost? We undervalue the work because, oh, this will get your name out there. And yes, we can talk about that sometimes that makes sense. However, there’s these certain pockets and places where that’s just like the cultural norm of how we talk about it. I’m not even bringing in something I actually would have loved. I should have started with it like, we’re not even talking about the layers of inequity that exist in the work world. The entire working world is really designed to uphold and feel safe and comfortable for often college-educated white men or trade-educated white men. So you don’t identify in those categories. How do we go into spaces that are inherently inequitable for folks that don’t hold those identities? I mean, that could be even an act of trauma for some folks.

This is where we experience microaggressions. The idea of how professional dresses or hair or attire. And so I think of how we hold and talk about trauma is, also helps us think about how we might decolonize approaching career work with our clients. And that’s something that’s really important that I think of when I do this work. How do we even name and feel comfortable acknowledging inequity and trauma and the impact that holds on an individual?

Sharon Gibbons: You know, you’re really like, in a sense pulling the veil back. I’m covering a lot of really important concepts because when I think about my work in terms of trauma of client, for example, and I think you mentioned this about working with someone who’s in an abusive relationship. And they’re in that space consistently and consistently, and repetitively, I would say, being traumatized. I don’t know if we connect that to the workplace. Like you said, every day, we have to go to work, and what if we’re experiencing those microaggressions; that really, career trauma can be consistent, therefore, extremely impactful on that worker. And the other thing that’s really important, we have to make a living. And so we tend to feel trapped in those spaces. And therefore, we continue to be traumatized. So this is really important for people to be aware of as employers and as employees.

Rae Stout: Yes, exactly. This is, I always like this is such my passion. My students hear a lot of this. I teach career development, and I teach counseling techniques. And I talk often about this because, you know, therapeutically, we would talk about not… we would hold the values of our client if there is an abusive relationship. Sometimes when we hear about this and work, though, we might say like, “Oh, well, can’t you just find a new job?” And it’s like, Oh, that’s… there’s layers here. And also, if there’s unprocessed trauma on this work… gosh, the amount of work that it takes to find a new job might not be accessible for us and where we’re at. We just might not feel that emotional and mental bandwidth to a lot of what gets us jobs, and being successful in jobs is confidence and the ability to sell ourselves. And if we’ve gone through a season of trauma… I don’t know about you, but I cannot do those things. I want to curl up with a cup of coffee and read my book and avoid the world, right? And that’s my own privilege that I can do sometimes when I’ve gone through a traumatic event. So we want to just talk about… and talk about a little bit of a framework that we think of when we first start addressing this.

And in part two, we’ll go more in-depth with tangible interactions, interventions, and ways to navigate this with the client. But we thought we’d start with the first part of, like, how do we identify a name: career trauma? How do we see it? And so part of that’s also just like being aware of our own career trauma and our own stories because that might impact how we show up in our spaces with our clients.

So, Amanda, I’d love to hear from you as you think about… I know we’ve talked a lot about this.

Amanda Chenkin: We have because this is something we share passionately. And if you’ve noticed, like, I bring in a lot of the helping professions and education and like what, like those environments and those systems… because my own career traumas have been in those environments. And there were times where I wasn’t able to just go get another job because I needed whatever it was from, from where I, I wasn’t; I didn’t even maybe realize at the time what was happening. That was like, well, “I work at a nonprofit, and our job is to help people. And so, like my boss wouldn’t take my ideas and give them to the board of directors as his own. Like, that’s not what we do. We’re counselors.” In fact, that’s what happened, right? And then the events that happened after that really impacted me.

And in my space of passion for career trauma, I do tend to focus on the helping professions and education because I have found that those systems and those environments really have a very big impact on folks. Because we’re supposed to do this because we love it. And that’s our reward. Well, I have to pay bills too. And so understanding and being able to name those.

So part of my passion for this came from my own experiences. And I think living in the world that we live, we do need to be able to have a lot of clients and people that we work with to have find their voice and being seen in this space specifically that, like, there isn’t really probably anything wrong with you, that you’re managing and surviving within systems that may not have been built for you. Rae?

Rae Stout: Yeah, that was such a beautiful segue of just recognizing and acknowledging that so many of these systems are not built for the people who are actively participating in them. Whether that’s as workers and employers and how employers can uphold, again, an equity and trauma-based or abusive, sorry, systems. I think often of Sheryl Sandberg, who did a lot of research on women in leadership. You know, she got Lean In as a Woman in Leadership. And there was a really powerful article around the Lean In time when that book came out. I think it was by the Harvard Business Review journal. And it addressed that, women, managers, like when women get reviews, female-identified bodies get reviews, that their reviews almost always hold critiques around their character.

So we’re not even talking about professional, constructive feedback of, “Hey, if you had done X Project this way, I wonder if it would have been tightened up a little bit better,” or “It would have been helpful if you had to deliver this deliverable earlier,” right? Constructive feedback that we can then go act on. Now they found 97% of women’s feedback. It contained character, essentially character attacks. You know, if you were less, one I have heard, if you were less loud.

Amanda Chenkin: Oh man, same.

Rae Stout: The amount of times I get to be less loud. I’m gonna be loud if I need to be loud. You know, I got tasked in workplace environment that… oh, you’re the funny one. And sometimes I was told that I derail from meetings with my humor. And I do use humor as a weapon sometimes and brandish it. Stuff I get to work out of my own therapeutic journeys of how I use it as a defense mechanism. But I got told that in a feedback of like, “Hey, you don’t, you know, not always appropriate.” And then, about a week later, I got tasked. They came in and said, “Hey, we’re doing, we’re doing a training for our staff, and you’re the funny one. You always make everyone just want to feel like they, like you break the ice.” And I was like, wow, so I get to be funny when you can use it to your benefit. Cool.

And so… and, I had managers that were attempting and hoping to break inequitable systems, you know, and they just didn’t even see how they’re actively participating in this because that’s how pervasive this can be. And so I think to first start and approaching this work is for us to do deep dives into ourself.

You haven’t recently, you know, filling out an identity wheel, naming your identities. Think about how do you talk about identities in counseling? I start, or I say, counseling offerings. It’s the work I do, but if your coach as well, if you’re a career advisor, how do you talk about identities? And most of my first sessions of the client, I will name my identities that are salient to the conversation. You know, you won’t be able to see me in her recording but I identify as white and female. I use she/her pronouns. Identify as queer. And I, I share those with my client and invite them if they would like to share any of their identities back that they can. But I talk about how some of those identities get held by the majority in how I approach work, and some of those are minority identities in the workplace. And I have been told everything of not to present queer in an interview to own your full self in an interview. Those are the advice I could get. And wow, both of those can cost me something, and recognizing that. And queerness is something that I can, I do have a privilege of passing. I can; you might not know that in a job interview from me.

Whereas I work with a lot of clients where I got started and passionate about this is, I worked with a lot of clients on deferred action for childhood arrivals or DACA. So undocumented individuals. How do we talk about status in an interview? Do we talk about status? And I worked with a lot of folks with various, I worked with a lot of women in engineering. And I worked with a lot of students of color and people of color in engineering and intersection in identities. And how do we show up in that work world that is really, again, predominantly held by white men in the engineering field, so to speak. And I was lucky to do this as a grant. So that… I learned there were ways I was continuing to uphold my own microaggressions. And I still was, all day, every day, learning. We can work on becoming anti-racist and anti-inequitable system-building.

And so I think it’s how do you start there? Start by first assessing; Hey, what are some of my own experiences of career traumas that I might have had? Can I know them and name them? How have you worked for them? How have you not? And where do you hold that in your body? And we’ll talk a little bit more about how you might see these from clients in a minute, but I think first start with ourself. Start with your identities and start with your experiences. This is going to want to help you be a more ethical practitioner. You’re going to show up and know what’s yours and what’s your clients. And two, maybe you do have some of your own career trauma to process through. And if so, who might be able to support you in your journey? So you can continue to do this work with your clients.

Amanda Chenkin: We are all in our own therapeutic journey, right? And so we have to; it is our professional responsibility, as Rae just mentioned, ethics. Big ethics fans in this room, even in our notes, since we’re audio recording, have the specific sections of the ethics code that understanding oneself aligns with our ethics code, right? There’s most in Section C, right? Professional responsibility, boundaries of confidence, continuing education, impairment. So you know, that’s a big part of understanding our own selves because we all have spots in ourselves that we can’t see, and if we’re really not paying attention to that, we can be impaired. We can, like, harm ourselves and also our clients.

Sharon Gibbons: The two of you have done an excellent job of really defining career trauma and giving us a great picture of what that looks like. But tell me just a little bit more in terms of the specific clients and how that shows up. So that… I think it’ll be really important that practitioners can identify that. And then I know we’re going to talk later about some specific techniques to help the clients. But what does that look like?

Amanda Chenkin: Yeah, so, when we talk about holding space for naming and acknowledging career traumas, this is where working on our own stuff is really important… so that we can hold space and… using… reflecting back like the client’s own words. And then also having space to say… to maybe provide options for how they might want to label it because oftentimes, right, we don’t necessarily have the language. Like we’re trying to say what we mean or what we’ve experienced, but we may not have the language for that. So how can we share some of that language and have the person that we’re working with choose which language best suits them for naming and acknowledging what has happened to them.

I guess I can give a quick example. I have a client who identifies as female and white-bodied, and she is a civil engineer. And she left her job. Career trauma. We’ll just leave it at that. And, like, she’s coming in a session, like, I am so tired. I can’t do anything, I am so tired, and it’s like, “Your body is processing the last 14 years that you’ve been in survival mode.” And so hearing me say to her that it’s okay to be tired, like that your body is trying to process what’s been happening, like her physical body language over the screen kind of relaxed because somebody saw what was happening. So if we can reflect some of that back and provide some of that language and acknowledging. Just holding the space. And Rae and I work a lot, and Sharon, probably does, too, in integrating brain-body-heart. Cognitively, you know, we might know something isn’t right, or we can compartmentalize and say, “Oh, you know what, like well, that’s just work, it’s like not really affecting me.”

We are often very disconnected from our hurts in our bodies, and there’s lots of new data and research coming out showing that maybe they’re not so disconnected, right, and that we hold a lot in our bodies. We might find ways to work with folks to start integrating brain-body-heart. Identifying like windows of tolerance, which, Rae, you have the best way to describe it. So, please…

Rae Stout: Yeah. We’ll talk more about this in our part two. So shameless teaser for that. But I always think of, I talk about, a window of tolerance. A window of tolerance is what we can hold, right? So like, when we’ve had a lot of stressful events over the course of the day, and then we come home, and we stub our toe, and we like just start crying and screaming or, I don’t know, I usually go to anger and yelling if I’ve had a really long day and I come home and just like the littlest thing happens. I might be like, “ahh”, and my wife will just be like, “Okay, you had a long day, didn’t she?” “I don’t know, yes I did”. That’s… we’re outside of our window of tolerance. We have taken too many hits that day, right? So it’s a very small scale. When we’ve experienced traumatic events, especially chronic, whether it’s microaggressions or little things, those start to stack, and our window of tolerance becomes really, really shrunk.

So I often will tell clients – think of a marshmallow, right? If you have a marshmallow in your hand, a, you know, big fluffy marshmallow, and you squeeze it and then, like, let go, the marshmallow will eventually come back to its shape, right? It needs time, but it’s going to come right back because marshmallows are pillowy and soft and can do that. That’s kind of our own resiliency. We can do that if we have enough time, and space, and access. Our own body will bring itself back into its window of tolerance. There’s a lot of signs behind it, but essentially, it’s going to self-regulate back into that spot if it can. But when we experience that stacking of traumatic events or essentially adverse life events, that marshmallow is like… continually squeezing that marshmallow. And then that marshmallow is then… needs way more time to come back.

I sometimes say like, I’ll tell clients, you know, they’ll, they’ll share some of their parts of their story and be like, wow, it is like someone gave your marshmallow to a two-year-old and they beat that marshmallow up. And it needs, it needs some, some maybe some interventions to get that marshmallow back to its resilience, robustness – that it’s going to come back and be pillowy and soft.

And so we’ll talk more about how do we help clients find that window of tolerance. But if you’re thinking about working with career trauma, again, as any type of practitioner, we’ll talk about ethically, how do we refer out to mental health and when we should? But I think if you can help… if you can start noticing a client not being willing to dip into their body. Or maybe they’re experiencing extreme anxiety when they talk about applying for a job, or going for an interview, and you’re seeing it manifest. So like, maybe they’re getting really jittery or they are… I think of a really common one is, I’ll have clients that will start losing their words when we start talking about maybe doing a mock interview. They get… their voice will get constricted, and they’ll get really quiet, and I’ll experience them very differently than how I experience them when we’re talking about something different. And so that’s usually when we might start to say, okay, body’s telling us something here that, again, that cognitively they might think they can push through… they can go that interview, but body’s saying something else. So if you start seeing those, those are, those are probably signs your client might be experiencing some career trauma. It needs to be processed or named if you haven’t already.

So I think with that, we want to; what we planned to do in our second podcast coming out in a few weeks is to just acknowledge – How do we work with this? When do we refer out? When does this, you know, the purview of maybe a mental health counselor apart from a career counselor? What does that look like? So that’s really going to be some of the next part. We wanted to just really spend a lot of time establishing what is career trauma and how do we identify it. So hopefully, if this was useful to you, we get to see y’all again and share a little bit more of some tangible takeaways and techniques next time.

Sharon Gibbons: Thank you ladies. This has been outstanding. I’m looking forward to part two, where we can get those practical strategies for practitioners, whether you’re a counselor or not. So great job.

Rae Stout: Thanks for having us.

Amanda Chenkin: Yeah, thank you for having us.