Question

My question is about my recent inability to keep a job. I have over 20 years’ experience in corporate management. I was with a great company for 9 years but lost my job when the company was sold. To this day, I have glowing references from the owners and other managers. Since I was laid off a few years ago, I have been fired from 6 different jobs and I can’t understand why. They never give me reasons and when I ask, they make excuses.

firedI was also diagnosed with PTSD and have been in treatment for that, but I know my job inside and out and perform well. The one thing I have noticed is that I feel fearful when I’m being confronted in an unfriendly or angry manner. I seem to have the fight, flight, or freeze response and my brain shuts down — I freeze. I don’t always have the words I need, so I often request a follow-up meeting so I have time to gather my thoughts.

I really need some help with this situation, as well as how to craft my resume. I can’t put 6 different jobs for the past 5 years. I am a dedicated, loyal employee. I always make sure deadlines are met and, with all my experience, I run my department like a well-oiled machine and deliver results in a timely way. I hope this is something you can help me with. Thank you kindly for any help you may be able to provide.

Nick’s Reply

Am I going out on a limb if I guess that you didn’t always have these problems during your long, otherwise successful  career? Perhaps you just never needed to learn how to defend yourself effectively. But business has changed – and not always for the better. Now you need new tools for dealing with complex emotions.

Job search obstacles, or emotional challenges?

Lots of people are running kind of scared – probably including some of the employers who fired you. Many managers resort to aggressiveness and to blaming others. Couple this with a new employment system that features non-stop advertising telling employers they have instant access to thousands of resumes and job applicants – so employers see no need to treat employees with respect. Just fire them and get another one! It’s a bad situation all around.

I specialize in helping people overcome obstacles in the job search. And even though I have an advanced degree in Psychology, it’s not in clinical – it’s in cognition. I don’t pretend I’m qualified to help people who have problems like yours.

Fight, flight or freeze – that’s a set of emotional issues, and many people face them. It seems clear to me you’re good at your work and good at working with others when they behave properly. Dealing with jerks is another story altogether!

Fired and ready for CBT?

Although an honest self-assessment can be healthy, I think your challenge is learning how to cope with difficult people and situations. Behaving professionally is a lost skill because, well, workers are fungible. Bad behavior is now the norm. Just look at our politics.

We all face difficult bosses at some time or other. It seems some of your recent bosses have triggered your stress response.

Have you talked with your PTSD therapist about this? I’m a fan of cognitive behavioral therapies (CBT) for dealing with many problems at work. Learning to change and control our behaviors can lead to wonderful changes in how we see the world and ourselves. Please consider and perhaps explore CBT. Interview some good practitioners and see if it’s a good fit for you.

Fired: Time to get personal

The only advice I’d offer you is, don’t rely on job postings and impersonal job applications. Please read some of my recent Q&A columns. I think the best way for you to find your next job is by cultivating and using good personal contacts – people who can explain to a hiring manager your strengths and abilities, and also put the manager’s mind at rest about your recent frequent moves. Opportunities where this doesn’t work are probably not for you. You need a good employer who will let you do your job, not abuse you. Good employers respond well to referrals from trusted personal contacts. It’s up to you to cultivate such contacts and use them to get in the door.

As for how to handle being fired, please check these two articles and the excellent comments posted by readers.

How much should I say about getting fired?

Can they find out I was fired from my last job?

Keep an untroubled spirit and get help

I’d be glad to schedule an hour of Talk to Nick for you – we’d probably come up with some things you could do to make a material difference in your job search. But I think it’s more important for you to get help with how to deal with jerks. A good CBT therapist could help you cope better. I’ll recommend an oldie-but-goody book by Richard Farson: Management of The Absurd. It’s a quick, illuminating read.

I hope something I’ve said is helpful. Please check the comments and suggestions from other readers that will likely appear below this column. I’m betting lots of other readers have faced challenges like yours.

I’ll leave you with a favorite quote from Marcus Aurelius: “The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.“

It seems you face your problems and know what they are. But as you tackle them, learn to apply the first rule more often. I know the business world makes that difficult. Getting some good help to learn how to deal with the stress is essential. I wish you the best!

: :

Have you faced emotional crises at work? Have you been abused to the point where you’ve lost your confidence? There’s big abuse, there’s small abuse, but it all makes for a difficult work life. Sometimes we all need help. What kind of help has worked for you? What advice would you offer this reader?

20 Comments
  1. First of all, Friend, I’m so sorry for your pain and struggles. Yuck! I second Nick’s sentiment that “business has changed – and not always for the better”. I’ve been in the workforce for 37 years and indeed what you’re facing might not entirely be your fault. I’ve personally experienced, and seen in my clients, increasingly shocking workplace behaviors and treatment of employees over the past 10 years or so.

    I also second Nick’s encouragement to continue to seek therapeutic support. However, CBT is probably not the modality you need. First, I want to *celebrate* your nervous system’s healthy, brilliant strategy of fight, flight and freeze to keep you safe from further harm! It sounds like you’ve experienced betrayal and traumas, and so these responses are normal and adaptive. Work place trauma isn’t (yet) discussed as much as family or relationships trauma but it’s just as damaging.

    I’d encourage you to seek out body-focused therapies like somatic experiencing (SE) which are more effective than CBT or other talk therapies for trauma. EMDR is also evidence-based and effective for situational traumas like what you’ve experienced. These can help you reset your body’s stress responses so your system doesn’t unwittingly contribute to your ongoing alienation and further trauma. CBT, DBT or some other modality can help with maintenance and ongoing stressors. Of course, none of this changes anyone else’s behaviors, or any toxic environment that’s adding to your system’s ongoing stress load, but it can give you back a sense of agency and resourcing.

    I’m a therapeutic professional coach with training in somatics and I’ve worked with clients and leaders who’ve experienced injury like yours. If I can be helpful with referrals or additional brainstorming, feel free to reach out (pro bono, not trying to sell you ;) ).

    Thanks for the courage to post your question and story, and for normalizing what many of us experience!

    • Hi Susana,

      Thank you so much for your encouraging comments. I appreciate them very much and will look you up online.

  2. I have no thoughts at all about your emotional state (other than to recommend following Nick’s advice about getting help). But regarding your job searching and career development:

    1) You’ve successfully changed jobs 6 times in the past 5 years, so you should have no trouble getting your next job (seriously, with the generally overall shortening of tenure in today’s workplace, and your previous successes, you’ve apparently figured out how to make that happen, so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it … unless you’ve been outright lying to each successive employer, in which case I’d recommend finding a better way, but that’s your decision to make).

    2) Apparently you have what employers need (or people wouldn’t keep hiring you). You may already be doing this, but have you considered marketing yourself as a fractional contributor, where you purposefully go into your roles with the understanding that once the organization hires the “permanent person” you’re gone?

    3) Have you considered marketing yourself as a consultant, so that instead of being fired, your assignments are simply ending and you’re moving on to the next problem that needs solved?

    4) Not enough info here to offer any specific advice, but regarding your actual job searching, if it ain’t broke (and if it’s not based on lying), don’t fix it.

    PS: Have you considered going back to your original employer?

    • Hi Chris,

      Thank you so much for your comments. I appreciate your uplifting words!

    • I think your advice is spot on: Letter Writer seems to have no problem getting employment if they had 6 jobs in 5 years – they likely have the right combo of (but not limited to) location, experience, education, skills, interviewing well and luck. Many people would love to be in that position.

      I think your advice for consulting/contract work is key for the short term. OP can work on their mental health and get some successful employment under their belt which would build confidence and references.

      • Thank you so much for your comments. I appreciate the time you took and your uplifting words. I am learning to refocus on the positive – such as the fact that I have been hired 6 times.
        Thank you for pointing that out.

  3. Test

  4. Nick, you handled this very personal and difficult query with all of your usual insight, brilliance and sensitivity.

    Whenever I get your emails, I know I will have to stop what I am doing and read the latest Ask The Headhunter. I will always come away impressed by the quality of the exchange between you and someone with a question about job seeking; I will also go back to whatever I was doing before, with knowledge I did not have prior.

    Thank you for being such a reliable and generous poster of superb content!

    –Neil Hrab, Toronto

  5. Something everyone needs to understand is that PTSD, for any reason, is an imbalanced brain chemistry. Trauma, even low level, can do that to you.

    Imperative to get all amino acid levels checked (epinephrine, norepinephrine, GABA, dopamine, serotonin, etc).

    Get cortisol levels checked re: fight or flight response.

    All hormones checked.

    All vitamin & mineral panels done.

    The body needs to be balanced, just talking to a therapist won’t get the whole job done.

    A naturopath doctor may be the best bet, they are MDs with additional training. Regular docs won’t usually do these tests, unless you have a smart sports doctor that gets it.

    Good luck!!

  6. Hi DBeee!

    Thanks so much for your comments. I appreciate them and will follow up on your suggestions.

  7. [Edited to remove promotional link and advertising]

    If you had coworkers you got along with at any of those places, one of them might tell you what they heard afterwards.

    As a person committed to helping customers and making process improvements who doesn't suffer fools gladly, I can tell you that, sadly, many managers are managers because they enjoy power and abusing people, not making the business run better. Good managers are rare.

    Also, because people stay at great workplaces and leave crummy ones, there's always more openings at terrible workplaces.

    Find a great workplace and figure out how you can help them succeed!

    • ” I can tell you that, sadly, many managers are managers because they enjoy power and abusing people, not making the business run better. Good managers are rare.”

      It’s not just that, it seems like many managers are simply in the position because they did the job(s) of people under them and were the last ones standing and didn’t/haven’t burned the place down [yet]. In other words, they were not necessarily hired [and/or provided training and other support] because of their leadership and “people skills.”

    • Great Point!! Thank you. I hadn’t thought of that but it makes perfect sense that there are more crummy jobs at crummy companies. I do make a practice of asking them about their employee tenure.

      Thanks so much!

  8. More links-

    https://wapo.st/3OmuUSo
    The best PTSD treatment you’ve never heard of

    https://www.gocomics.com/doonesbury/2023/08/13

  9. Good on you for recognizing your personal challenges, seeking help, and creating a good coping skill — “I often request a follow-up meeting so I have time to gather my thoughts.” That takes a huge amount of courage! I think it would be only to your benefit to continue using that to your advantage. Seek out companies and networking contacts that actively support DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion). Remember, DEI includes neurodiversity in all its forms, too! Those companies and people are the ones who will be easier to work with because they understand the challenges.

    Talk to your PTSD counselor about whether your situation is classified as a disability — employers must make accommodations even during interviews if you tell them, and granted, that’s a very personal decision. Network with others and ask them, what companies do they know that are more supportive of their employees? Good luck on your journey!

    • Thank you so much for your kind reply. I’ve been so down on myself and it’s so nice to receive such positive feedback from so many nice people on this forum.

  10. My work anxiety came to a head about two years ago. I had to deal with it because I did not want to feel defeated, anxious, fearful, unsure of myself any longer. Along the lines of Nick’s great advice, I would recommend thought work. I had never heard the term before, and I can’t remember how I stumbled into the resources I found, but it has really helped me. I joined an online coaching group that I participated in for about eight months. To boil it down, the training helps you reframe your thoughts. My mantra is “Is it possible it’s not true?” when I am confronted with something that my brain is reacting to. I attribute my anxiety to a previous toxic work environment, the pandemic, menopause, family stress – all of the things life was throwing at me. I feel less depressed, I have joy in my life again, I have more confidence. And I have to work at it every day. Good luck to you.

    • Thank you so much for your reply and for sharing your experience. It’s so easy to feel alone and isolated. I appreciate your comments so much.

    • How did you find your coaching group?

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