I was too afraid to tell my boss 'no.' My burnout was so bad that one day I left the office on a stretcher.

  • When I was a VP at my company, I was too afraid to speak up or tell my boss "no."

  • I reached burnout and collapsed during a meeting, forcing me to leave the office on a stretcher.

  • Once I explored my childhood trauma in therapy, I was able to set boundaries at work.

"Teresa, you can plan the office party, right?"

My stomach tightened, and I felt lightheaded at the question. I went through a mental checklist of everything I was asked to lead. I tried to repeat the boundary script I read in a Forbes article the previous day.

Instead, these words come out of my mouth: "My workload is already full, is there any chance you can maybe find someone else to cover? If not, I will try my best to make a plan."

My boss stared blankly at me before telling me I should just plan the party.

I had recently been promoted to VP of Human Resources. I was already stretched thin with developing new training programs, improving our hiring pipeline, and onboarding new hires. I was nearing burnout — and fast.

I was too anxious in the office to set boundaries

I knew what boundaries were, intellectually. Yet, on the few attempts that I tried to "set a boundary," my body took over. I froze in terror, and my throat closed up.

After being promoted to the executive suite, I became the only woman in the room. My heart raced whenever I contributed to a meeting. When I left the room, I obsessed over everything I said, questioning whether I sounded stupid or not. Soon, I lost my appetite, stopped sleeping through the night, and drastically lost weight.

It all came to a head one day in a meeting. I remember my heart rate quickening. I felt my heart skip a beat. I tried to excuse myself, but after just two steps, my body swayed, and if it weren't for a nearby chair, I would have fallen.

"Teresa, should we call the ambulance?"

I blinked, and — in blurry, distortedness — I saw the faces of the CEO and CMO of my company staring at me. Soon, I was lying on a stretcher and being wheeled out to the lobby. The elevator doors opened and closed. The whole office was staring at me — jaws agape. I felt so small and mortified.

I thought it was a heart problem, but at the hospital, they did a lot of tests that came out clear. The doctor diagnosed me with burnout and anxiety.

I found the solution to my troubles when I started trauma therapy

Before all of this, I met one of my best friends for coffee at Starbucks. She was talking about her dad. At the end of the conversation, she said something that stuck with me: "I'm just curious, T. You never talk about your mom and dad. Why is that?"

I evaded the topic of my childhood around friends and in the therapy room. Perhaps part of me hoped that journaling and the mindfulness work I was doing would be enough.

But my friend's question kept playing over in my brain.

That's when my psychologist guided me through Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, a practice where I embodied myself at different ages. I remember — during a session — embodying 9-year-old Teresa. My dad was screaming at me because my running shoes were not organized in a straight line at the door. As I described the scene to my therapist, he responded, "None of this was your fault."Tears fell down my cheek. It felt like my therapist was talking directly to 9-year-old Teresa — not to 45-year-old Teresa.

Even though both childhood trauma and burnout symptoms often overlap, the solution differs. Most traditional burnout recovery approaches overfocus on external solutions — like physical exercise or an adequate rest and sleep schedule. While these are healthy and self-care-promoting, for someone who has experienced childhood trauma, true relief comes from addressing your deeper needs, I learned.

I implemented what I learned into my work life

I realized that I was responding to male authority figures like I was a child, and that's why I couldn't tell my bosses "no," and that led to my burnout.

Having the awareness that this was happening changed everything. If I feel triggered at work, I quietly tell myself that freezing or complying helped younger Teresa survive scary events. And then I tell myself that things are different for older Teresa. I am not in physical danger, and the responses that served me when I was younger no longer serve me. Doing this means that I allow the fear or anxiety to pass through me. From here, I can assert my boundaries from a regulated state.

This isn't a one-and-done solution. I look at boundary work and trauma-based work as a lifelong practice. It's a constant journey of understanding the patterns.

Every time I manage to successfully navigate a difficult conversation that would have triggered me in the past, it reaffirms that I am, in fact, capable of asserting myself and setting boundaries — especially in the workplace.

Read the original article on Business Insider