“That’s a self-limiting belief!” my coach said, firmly yet kindly. “I think you’re more capable than you realize. I believe you can push past that belief and take action anyway!”
I froze. One part of me instantly went into Red Danger Alert: “Oh HELL no! That is NOT true and we are NOT going there!” Another part of me went into a shame spiral: “She’s right! You’re being a wuss, a coward! What’s wrong with you?! Why don’t you just go for it! She’s your mentor and an experienced coach, she must be right!” Yet another part of me went into grief: “She doesn’t see or hear you. She doesn’t understand. She’s not as skilled a coach as you thought.”
Seven years later, I don’t remember the exact words my coach said. I don’t even remember what issue we were working on when she responded this way. I do remember how I felt when she said it. I do remember that was the moment I lost my trust in her.
I also remember I didn’t book another session after that.
At the time, neither my coach nor I were aware that I’m a trauma survivor. If I’d known then what I know now about what trauma really is, and how it affects the nervous system, I might have been better able to process this interaction and advocate for myself. If my coach had been trauma-informed, she might not have taken such a bold stand about my “self-limiting belief”, and our relationship might have remained intact.
I’ve been a coach myself now for about 12 years – certified for seven years and ICF credentialed for five. For two years, I’ve practiced The Resilience Toolkit, a trauma-informed, body-focused stress management modality, and I’ve been a Certified Facilitator of the Toolkit for a year. Along the way, I’ve come to understand that I’m a survivor of developmental and attachment trauma from my early childhood, with an ACEs score of 3 (which is high). In adulthood, I’ve also experienced repeated relational trauma from mistreatment and abuse by other humans in both my personal and professional lives.
On my journey as a coach, stress management practitioner, trauma survivor, and DEI expert, I’ve become convinced that trauma-informed coaching is better coaching for everyone. Here are the four reasons.
- Trauma isn’t just acute trauma – a single horrible incident that happened in the past, like a physical assault or serious bodily injury. Trauma also occurs through neglect, inappropriate boundaries, lack of emotional or psychological safety, betrayal, abandonment and chronic unmet needs. Trauma also takes the form of high “allostatic load” – the “death by a thousand cuts” of ongoing stress. Trauma accumulates in the body from ongoing stressful experiences like navigating the world in a black, brown, female-presenting or queer body; enduring constant overwork and exhaustion; suffering chronic low wages or income insecurity; residing in a nation lacking a social safety net for serious illness or elderhood; or living through a pandemic.
A trauma-informed coach understands how trauma might contribute to a coachee’s challenges and superpowers, how trauma can show up in a coachee’s behavior, and what the root cause of those behaviors might be.
- Nearly everyone has a trauma history. My favorite definition of trauma is simply “too much, too fast.” Given that trauma includes more than just acute trauma, it’s more a question of how much, rather than whether, a person has experienced trauma. Many organizational leaders and corporate employees shrink from the notion that they might be trauma survivors, but that very response is a trauma response. Some of the most traumatized people I’ve worked with over the last few years are middle managers in toxic organizations operating under inhumane expectations in crumbling industries. Their denial of their trauma is what allows them to continue to (sort of) function in those environments.
A trauma-informed coach understands and normalizes the coachee’s experience as common, and as a healthy response to unhealthy or threatening circumstances.
- We can’t think or talk our way out of trauma, because trauma lives in the nervous system outside the brain. Like all other species’ bodies, our human bodies are brilliantly designed to keep us safe in a variety of life-threatening scenarios. Our bodies detect and respond to perceived threats constantly, even outside of our conscious awareness and permission! The only way to “downregulate” and settle our bodies, once the threat response has been activated, is to discharge the energy through the body. This is true even if the threat passed decades earlier, or wasn’t entirely “real” to begin with.
A trauma-informed coach possesses an advanced ability to co-create safety and trust with a coachee, the superior ability to navigate their own trauma responses, and the skill to avoid triggering a destructive trauma response in a coachee.
- A trauma-informed lens is necessary to engage in any DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) work, whether one-on-one coaching, team development or broader organizational change. In addition to the above-listed sources of trauma, there’s not a human in the “modern” world that doesn’t also carry trauma from our common history of conquest, colonialization, slavery, genocide, war, rape and dehumanization based on the bodies we inhabit or the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Also, as one of the most social species on Earth, human teams exhibit behaviors that are often misunderstood or mishandled without an understanding of how humans respond to threat in groups – especially threats coming from those with greater power.
A trauma-informed coach applies their knowledge of the ethological, historical and socio-ecological context of trauma to support the well-being of coachees and groups – especially those with black, brown, female, queer, young , and other underrepresented identities.
Trauma-informed coaching is better coaching – especially now. A trauma-informed coach is better equipped to meet a coachee where they are, in the fullness of that person’s experience and context. A trauma-informed coach possesses an additional lens through which to perceive a coachee’s behavior, and a more developed skillset with which to help the client (and themselves) navigate trauma history, and the reality of the various worlds they inhabit.
If my coach, on that day seven years ago, had been trauma-informed, she would have known to respect my boundaries and not push me too far, too fast. Instead, she might have gotten curious about the Loyal Soldiers guarding my wounded inner child, or invited gentle exploration of the Managers keeping my Exiles at bay. Our relationship might have remained intact, and our trust might have catalyzed deeper breakthroughs and quicker growth. I might have been able to be more flexible and more open to her wisdom and skills. She might have also learned and grown from her work with me.
If my coach had been trauma-informed, who knows what breakthroughs might have been possible – for both of us! Let’s enable more breakthroughs, healing, and growth to occur for more people, by advocating for a trauma-informed approach to coaching.
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Image credit: Maria Voronovich / Getty Images