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Episode 110: Addressing Past Work Trauma to Start and Build Your Consulting Business—with Deb Zahn

Deb Zahn: Hi, I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. So this week, I want to talk about something that is very personal and kind of intense, but I think it's so important—because I've been hearing so much from other consultants about their experiences—that I want to make sure that I address it, and we can talk about how to deal with it so that it doesn't get in your way of being a successful consultant.

What I'm talking about are folks who are still struggling with the aftereffects of the last job they were in, particularly if that job was toxic and abusive. I know from experience that that can definitely make the transition into can make growing your consulting business more challenging because often it's easy to continue to carry those things with you and deal with the aftereffects of it.

The reality is if you're like most of us—and this is definitely true of me—it's not easy to just instantly shake that off and any of the effects that it might've had on you, particularly if you were there a while or, particularly, if it was particularly egregious. So it's been coming up a whole bunch recently, and I want to make sure that I can talk to you about the things that I have applied to get past it, so it doesn't get in my way of ultimately having the business I want to have and having the life that I want to have.

So let me start with one thing, and this is absolutely essential for me to say at the beginning. You are not on the planet to have someone abuse you. You are not on the planet to have someone treat you poorly. So if somebody was doing that, they were wrong. It is them. It is not your fault. Difficulties are a completely different thing. If it's toxic and abusive, it is always wrong every time. Part of the problem I think is that it can take so many different forms, and it can keep showing up in different ways. That's certainly what I experienced. So it could be yelling, belittling. It could be name-calling, nasty comments and behavior, and cultures and structures that accept that.

It could also be, in addition to that or by itself, a culture where racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are accepted, and that there are policies and structures that actually back up those behaviors. All of that is abusive, and none of it is OK, and none of it is your fault. So it's important to start there because if we don't start there, it's going to be difficult to talk about ways that you can actually get past what you need to get past, in order to serve your goals of having a successful consulting business and also having the life that you want.

Now I also recognize that for many people—including myself, who've experienced trauma outside of the workforce—it can be even more challenging. I'm going to talk about the job piece today, but for anybody who's experienced trauma in their personal life, there is healing to be had. I will tell you that from experience. So please go in the direction of love and healing, and if your job was part of it, or your job was the cause of it, that's what I'm going to talk about here today.

The other thing I want to say is that it doesn't matter if there were people around you, or in your life, who were excusing it, ignoring it, or justifying what was happening to you, period. It's still abuse, it's still wrong, and they're wrong for doing any of those things. The other thing is, in many cases, and this was true in my own case, I was not in a financial position where I could get up and just leave immediately. I'm going to talk about my experience in a little more depth in a moment.
And if, for whatever reason, you weren't able to leave immediately, that's OK. Trust that you did the best that you could possibly do. You're out now, and now what you don't want to do is sort of pile on shame to yourself of not only did you experience it, but now you're going to be hard on yourself for not taking the actions that it's easy to think about when you're in hindsight, or that somebody else is telling you that you should have taken. If there are folks who are like, "Oh, well you should have done this, and you should have done that,"...if they haven't experienced it—if they don't know you, they don't know your situation—then their opinion doesn't really matter that much.

What matters is that you know what the truth is, and you know what you have in front of you to deal with and to address so that you can, again, have the life that you want, and that includes having the business that you want. So I know that it can also be really challenging, as I said, to transition into consulting or build your business if you're still carrying some of that with you, or like I felt when I became a consultant: where you feel so beat down that it's hard to have the confidence that you need to have to make some of the choices that you need to make as a consultant.

So I'm going to be honest with you. Yes, it absolutely can be more challenging. There will be more things that you have to address or things that you have to address more often. None of that will get in your way of being a successful consultant. You 100% can be a successful consultant. You just are going to have to address some additional things, or address some of those things more often, until you get to a place where you don't have to think about it again, or you don't have to worry about it again.

So there're a lot of things that you can address and have ways to look at it. I'm certainly not going to speak to all of those—because I've never experienced racism; I've never experienced transphobia—but there are some things, coming out of a toxic and abusive relationship that I can share with you, that I particularly found helpful. But let me tell you a little bit about my experience because I'm going to be really open about it. I've no interest in protecting either the person that was abusive or his enablers, but I went through this.

The job that I had before I became a consultant was an extraordinarily toxic environment. There was a lot of belittling. There was yelling. Reality wasn't reality. There were lots of nasty comments. There was certainly a culture that accepted racism and sexism. There were definitely structures that completely backed that up. And to give you a taste of what I'm talking about...the person who was the head of the organization—I was on a New York City subway, so it was a very crowded subway, a whole lot of people—and he had a tendency to like to yell at women. He did it, particularly, with women and liked to do it publicly, as a way to humiliate them.

So we're on a subway. We just left a meeting. He starts yelling at me at the top of his lungs, telling me that I am a colossal failure. I still remember it to this day because, of course, the whole subway turns around and looks. He thinks that this behavior is perfectly acceptable. He also thinks that he's going to get away with it because I'm not going to make a scene. Now I, personally, am fine with scenes, so I did make a scene. He did not get away with it. It's not something that he was able to get away with, with me, because again, I just happened to be a person that doesn't mind public scenes.

But even if I hadn't handled it the way I wanted to, it's not OK that he does that behavior, and this is something he routinely did. He beat on a desk next to a woman, screaming and yelling and telling her that she was an idiot. The whole thing was tremendously awful and abusive, and people who did really good, wonderful work there either tried to stay hidden or they ended up leaving. And then there were obviously people, around that person, who enabled that behavior. There were a lot of folks who, essentially, would just say, "Oh, he does mean well,” or “Oh, he's really sorry. He actually called me into his office once to tell me he loved me."

The whole thing was bizarre. I don't need to get into it too deep, but it was not just abusive, it was completely bizarre. Again, reality wasn't reality, which is very common in toxic environments and very common in abusive environments. Now I knew what was happening. I knew that he was wrong. I knew that the culture was wrong, and I was not in a financial position where I could immediately leave. I was actually there two and a half years, which is a really long time. And in order to cope, I did things that I would not typically do, that are typical of me. Like, I would call in sick a lot because I just couldn't handle it.

And what happened is, by the end of those two years, I did not really recognize the person—the feisty gal that I've always known—that I am. I didn't really recognize her anymore. My confidence was down, and it was really difficult for me to not, at least, take on even aspects of what that situation was and his point of view, even though I knew it was nonsense, even though I knew it had nothing to do with me and that it really it was all about him and the people that were enabling it. So really easy to do that.

So I suddenly become a consultant, and I'm carrying a bunch of that stuff with me. I suddenly have to reach out to people and try and get business, and you want to appear confident doing that. All of my choices had been questioned the entire time that I was there. So now I had a bit of trauma around making choices because I felt like somebody was going to rush in and undo them, which was part of the pattern of behavior there.

So all of that, I was carrying with me. So not only did I have to deal with the common mindset issues that arise when you first become a consultant, but I had those extra layers on top of it, and I had to address it. The first thing that I had to do is I had to recognize, like, this is normal. It's completely normal. You're not going to be in a toxic or abusive environment for that long and not have it have an effect on you, or even if it's a short period of time. It's common that that's going to have an effect on you, and it's common that your confidence is going to take a hit.

So the first thing I did was tried to normalize my response to it because it would have been really easy to just pile on the shame and, essentially, either take on the abuser's point of view or to basically say, "Oh my gosh, I am really bad. Oh my gosh, I don't know what I'm doing." So I had to recognize that what I was feeling was useful, or that it was normal, and that it probably helped me cope. That's probably how I got by for two and a half years, and now it's not useful.

Now I have to actually set it aside—and I have to be willing to interrupt and interrogate the stories that I'm telling myself—because they might not be mine. They might belong in that situation, but they're not real on the outside. But I had to be gentle and kind with myself, understand that it's normal, understand that I made choices, and look at some of the choices I made. So for example, one of the reasons I didn't leave is I had decided (based on no evidence), but I had decided that if a job appears on my resume—so everybody knew that I went to this job because it was very public—and if I left or if a job appeared on my resume and it wasn't for a long period of time, I'm going to look like one of those flakes. I was worried about the perception of me in my market. The reality is that none of that mattered, but I didn't know it at the time. So that was one of the things that I was using, in addition to my financial situation, that got me stuck. I had to forgive myself that I thought that and that was one of the ways that I stayed in this situation. I had to recognize that, yes, financially, I couldn't just haul off and leave and that that was OK, and I can forgive myself for that; I can recognize all of the different ways that I employed strategies to help myself get through my days, deal with it, and not be completely destroyed.

And some of those ways, some of those coping mechanisms, are no longer useful. Today, they might be harmful once you're out of that situation, but I had to recognize, "You know what? That happens, and now I'm going to look forward and think about what I want to do." What I found is that things kept popping up. I thought I dealt with something, and then suddenly, it's almost like a voice arose in my head. It sounded like my voice, but it was saying things that only made sense in that crazy-making environment that I had been in. So I had to stop. I had to interrupt those narratives, those stories I was telling myself, and interrogate them and ask myself, "Is that really true? Is that actually me? Is that my voice or is someone basically being a ventriloquist in my head?" And more often than not, that's what was actually true, is that I was still not completely done cleansing some of that out of me.

And again, when you first start consulting, it's not like everybody you meet with is going to be absolutely wonderful, so I would also get triggered, and I had to recognize and deal with those triggers as I encountered them. One of the most helpful things that I did, and I always encourage other people to do, is to find supportive people who aren't going to diminish your experience. It's particularly helpful if they have also experienced what you have, have recognized it, and done loving work for themselves related to it.

Understand the contexts in which these things happen and find those people who are actually going to be supportive to you. Understand that they're going to be there to support you when you start to have some of those toxic stories arise or as you're seeking new opportunities. What’s important as you're trying to make choices about your consulting business is to have the people who get it, who get you, and who are going to support you.

The other thing I would say is, you also have to think about it when you start to seek clients. This is actually one of the reasons that defining who your ideal client is is so important because it's not just who's in your market and niche and who do you ultimately want to work with. You also want to define the type of person that you want to work with. So I personally will never ever work with anybody who's abusive. I won't do it. I will say no to the money, even if there are consequences to that. Now I'm in a position where I can do that, not everybody is. And so if you're not in a position where you can do that, then do the best you can with what you have. Try and get support, so you don't have to. But no matter what, just recognize who you actually are, relative to who they are.

If you can say no to a client, say no because the reality is there are many good people out there. There are many people who will treat you with respect and hire you because they adore and respect what you can do for them, and they're going to treat you well. In all the years that I've been a consultant, I have certainly experienced things. I've experienced sexism. I've experienced bad behavior...all kinds of things from the client-side.

It's been rarer because I know the type of people that I want to work with, and I have deliberately sought them out. So the clients that I work with all the time are some of the best people that I know. That's a deliberate choice that I've made because I don't want to re-experience those again, and I recognize that I can't see it all the time. I generally trust myself if I think I see it, and I know that part of my calculation for who I'm seeking as a client has to include that.

So if I see something, I have to trust myself and trust that that has to be in my calculation. Now I have been in situations, as I said, where I missed it, or I said yes when I knew I should have said no, and that still doesn't make their behavior my fault. So there's no blame in the victim here. There's nothing about the choices that I made that made it OK to experience the behavior that I experienced or the behavior that I've seen other folks experience as consultants. And then you make choices again, and if you can leave, you leave. If there has to be some period of time where you don't, you do the best you can, and you get the support you need to be able to weather it. But if you can leave, leave.

The last thing that I want to say is—and this is a really interesting one because I didn't know this until probably about two years in—that I also needed to make sure that I was going to be the best boss of myself. I didn't want to replicate some of what I had actually experienced. And so I had to deliberately think through, “What am I doing that is going to, yes, support my livelihood, yes, deliver great results for my client, but that also is about being kind and loving to myself...and to not repeat some of the things that I experienced.”

So I had to recognize my accomplishments. I had to know that it's OK when everything doesn't go perfectly, and even though I was in an environment where it was not OK to make mistakes—or things that were praised one day, two days later were called mistakes—that I didn't want to do that to myself. So I had to very deliberately think, “What kind of boss do I actually want to be,” and then, “What behaviors am I exhibiting to myself that show that I'm going to be the best boss?”

And then once I started to work with others and have a team, that became even more important because I did truly want to be the best colleague, the best boss, and the best partner that I could possibly be so that I could contribute to the goodness, kindness, loving, and justice in the world and not replicate things that I have seen before, just because I wasn't paying attention to it. So all of those things are things that I have used. This is not an exhaustive list. They’re going to be so many more things that other folks can talk about and suggest that are helpful to them.

I know one other thing that's really important to me is that if I see something, I say something. So if I see somebody else is going through something like that or similar, or they're in a toxic, abusive environment, I say something. I say something to them. If it's appropriate for me to say something to the folks who are actually exhibiting the abusive behavior, I do. I make sure that I don't do anything that puts the person who's being abused in harm's way, and I have to be careful of that, but I don't sit back and just let it go by. That is part of creating the better world that I want to be part of, but it's also honoring myself and honoring the experience that I had and knowing that I am not going to be contributing to anything like that, even if it's by the default of ignoring it and not saying anything.

So that's what I wanted to share with you today. I know it's a really intense topic. That's why I wanted to get personal with it. This is not an academic exercise. These are people's lives. This is your life. This is my life. We deserve to have the good lives that we want to have, and we deserve to have the businesses we want to have. So hopefully this is going to be helpful for you if you've experienced this. If you've never experienced it, that's fantastic, but lots of folks have. So if this speaks to you, definitely let me know, and let's support each other the best that we can to make sure nobody has to go through this ever again.

Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. I want to ask you to do, actually, three things. If you enjoy this episode, or you've enjoyed any of my other ones, hit subscribe. I’ve got a lot of other great guests that are coming up and a lot of other great content, and I don't want you to miss anything. But the other two things that I'm going to ask you to do is, one is, if you have any comments—so if you have any suggestions or any kind of feedback that will help make this podcast more helpful to more listeners—please include those.

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