Skip to main content

“We support young women of color with achieving their goals,” said the program director. (So far, so good, I thought. I’m on board with that – this new client might be a fit!) “Since most women in our program have experienced poverty or incarceration, we need coaches like you who can help them with their trauma.”

Hold on. Back up, rewind! Once again, I’d bumped up against common misconceptions about trauma-informed coaching. Time to do some educating.

Misunderstandings about trauma-informed coaching are common because both trauma and coaching are often misunderstood. I’ve written about the reasons trauma-informed coaching is better coaching for all clients.  I’ve spoken at dozens of organizations and ICF chapters on the same topic. I’ve explained how trauma-informed coaching isn’t about coaching trauma, and the qualities I believe are necessary in a trauma-informed coach.

But in chatting with this client, I saw it would be useful to break down the common myths more clearly.

Myth #1: Trauma-informed coaching is about helping clients with their trauma.

False! I define trauma-informed coaching as “High-quality coaching that brings (a) an additional lens to clients’ emotions and behaviors, (b) a deeper focus on safety, equity and choice, and (c) a coach commitment to self-regulation.” It’s excellent coaching aligned with the CDC/SAMHSA Six Guiding Principles to a Trauma-Informed Approach.

In trauma-informed coaching, trauma and chronic stress may – or may not – be the focus of the coaching engagement, or any one session. However, growth and healing around trauma or chronic stress may occur as a byproduct or sidebar of coaching.

In contrast, “trauma coaching”, or “trauma recovery coaching”, is coaching designed and provided specifically to facilitate growth or healing in survivors of acute trauma. Trauma is the focus of “trauma coaching”.

Myth #2: Only traumatized clients benefit from trauma-informed coaching.

Not true! First, remember, trauma-informed coaching is just better coaching. It serves all clients like a handicap ramp serves almost everyone – not just those in wheelchairs. Handicap ramps make access and movement easier for people using crutches, pushing strollers, riding bikes and scooters, nursing a leg or foot injury, carting a roller bag, or experiencing exhaustion. Similarly, a trauma-informed approach creates a more respectful, equitable, healing coaching environment for all clients.

In fact, even though I’m a certified trauma-informed somatic practitioner, I neither market myself as a trauma coach, nor do I do much “trauma coaching”! I’m primarily a leadership coach who helps unicorns, oddballs, and “onlys” find more clarity, confidence, direction, and purpose. Most of my clients are middle managers, entrepreneurs and high potential employees seeking more successful, satisfying lives and careers. However, my trauma-informed approach has proved invaluable to their progress.

Second, most people carry some level of trauma! Trauma occurs on a spectrum rather than a binary. It’s less a question of whether someone has experienced trauma, but how much. Why? Trauma isn’t just “acute trauma”—one horrible incident that happened in the past (although more of us experience these than we realize). Trauma is also chronic stress – the accumulated effect of minor stressors, anxieties and hurts that build up over time. Growing up in a dysfunctional family, working in a toxic organization, experiencing chronic overwhelm, living with pandemics and economic uncertainty, or navigating the world in black or brown body – these also create trauma responses in our systems.  Not only that, our bodies register acute trauma and chronic stress roughly the same. Chronic stress is not less damaging or easier to overcome than acute trauma – in fact, depending on its nature and duration, the opposite can be true.

Myth #3: Oppression (racism, sexism, homophobia) is marginal or irrelevant to trauma-informed coaching.

Wrong! These realities are integral to understanding trauma and being trauma-informed. First, the bodies we inhabit, and our lifelong experiences of oppression and discrimination, create trauma responses in our bodies which show up in both work and life. These trauma responses are also intergenerational – encoded in both group behaviors and DNA (epigenetics) – and don’t always come solely from our direct experience!

Understanding the source, nature, and significance of trauma responses rooted in personal and intergenerational oppression is critical to building trust with clients with marginalized identities. It’s also essential to understanding the ecology (full context) of their experience and co-designing effective strategies for change.

Second, acknowledging, addressing, and incorporating “cultural, historical, and gender issues” is one of the CDC/SAHMSA Six Guiding Principles to a Trauma-Informed Approach. The original 2014 guidelines include moving past stereotypes and biases, being responsive to culture and gender and “leverag[ing] the healing value of traditional cultural connections.” In fact, the guidelines cite an expert who said, “one does not have to be a therapist to be therapeutic.” This echoes my own experience that a trauma-informed coach can facilitate healing and growth better than a non-trauma-informed therapist.

Myth #4: Trauma can only be healed through individual effort and change.

Nope! Are you surprised? If so, you’re not alone. In Western culture, and the United States in particular, we place exaggerated focus on the individual. Such focus can be empowering for a person, and support their sense of ownership, responsibility, and creative possibility. However, this individualistic view is limited at best, and harmful at worst.

Human beings are a highly social mammalian species whose perception, thinking, and behavior are driven far more by our physical and social environment than we like to believe. The factors which stress us (and support us!) are multiple.  Some we can control, such as individual choice and aspects of our relationships. Most we cannot control, such as our genetics, family and generational history, the zip code where we grew up, the social and economic policies of our nation, and the quality of the environment.

Framing trauma solely as an individual’s problem is both inaccurate and dishonest. Trauma and stress don’t occur in a vacuum; they occur in a complex ecological system of geography, history, culture, institutions, policies, norms, beliefs, and values. As such, neither the source nor the solution to trauma reside solely in the individual. The individual should receive neither all the blame for the harm, nor all the responsibility for relief. Trauma occurs in relationship, so healing must occur in relationship too.

What I love about my training in The Resilience Toolkit is that it’s not only scientifically robust and highly practical, but also social justice oriented. The practices and framework are designed to support collective liberation, not just individual well-being. To paraphrase Nkem Ndefo, creator of The Toolkit, we can’t talk or “self-help” our way out of racism, sexism, oppressive workplace policies, or a lack of a social safety net. However, trauma-informed practices like The Toolkit equip people to not only live better individual lives, but to develop capacity to transform the oppressive systems causing much of our stress and trauma!

Myth #5: The most important way a coach can be trauma-informed is by recognizing and addressing signs of trauma in their clients.

Incorrect! The #1 skill or quality of a trauma-informed coach is their ability to self-regulate. “Self- regulation” has become a more well-known term, but increasingly a misused one. “Well-regulated” does not mean “always calm”. All our human nervous system states are adaptive and beneficial – from calm to activated (fight/flight), and appeasing to shut down (freeze). None of them are “bad”, and they all exist to serve us.

However, like all species, we’re meant to move in and out of these states as the situation dictates. We’re not meant to get stuck in any one state for hours, days, weeks, or months. A well-regulated nervous system is a flexible one. Its responses “match the moment”. Being “zen” all the time is neither ideal nor possible, and those who seem that way are likely (unconsciously) pretending, or suppressing.

To be trauma-informed, a coach must become skilled at settling their systems when the situation dictates a response other than the one they’ve having. This requires tremendous self-awareness while also being present to the client. It also requires concrete tools for settling in the moment and metabolizing the experience later on.

A well-regulated nervous system can’t be faked – even across Zoom, humans can usually sense dysregulation in others. Sufficient regulation is integral to connection, compassion, curiosity, and access to the brain’s full range of insight and creativity. The deep work that enables meaningful shifts in the coaching relationship is impossible without this foundation.


I gave my new client a lot to think about. In fact, once I dispelled the myths about trauma-informed coaching, they were excited about the expanded possibilities for both individuals and communities. I hope you, too, are clearer and more excited about what’s possible not only for your own life, but for a world that works better for more of us.

Hey! Want to learn more? Drop me a line, or Book a call!

Leave a Reply