Julia Vaughan Smith

5 common myths coaches have about trauma

When talking about trauma with coaches over several years we have identified 5 common myths:

  1. ‘Successful people’, such as senior executives, are rarely traumatised
  2. Trauma only affects those who have had a horrific experience like a terrorist attack or serious car accident
  3. Trauma is an event that is remembered with mental images
  4. You can recognise people with trauma because they get a mental health diagnosis such as Post Traumatic Stress
  5. Trauma has nothing to do with coaching; and shouldn’t as it is dangerous.

Let me unpick these.

Successful people, like senior executives, are rarely traumatised.

‘Successful’ people are as likely to be traumatised as anyone else. Just because they have built a career or business doesn’t mean they may not carry trauma.  In fact, the way they have survived and defended against the vulnerability brought by trauma, may have significantly contributed to their ‘success’. As long as their relationships with work, partners, others are giving them meaning, vitality and are not damaging their health they are unlikely to want to change anything about their life. If they carry trauma, it is not playing out negatively for them, at the moment. However, if they are affected by work-addiction, other addictions (including exercise, alcohol and recreational drugs), pending burnout, imposter syndrome, accusations of bullying others, feeling victimised, stress and anxiety or relational problems then these are signs of trauma survival strategies or survival self.

Trauma only affects those who have had a horrific experience like a terrorist attack or serious car accident and who continue to have problems

Trauma more commonly results from our earliest experience from conception onwards. It arises from any severe stress the mother might be experiencing in pregnancy and from the relationship with our earliest and closest care giver(s). All forms of insecure attachment are examples of trauma survival.

Those who have had a horrific experience are likely to be traumatised, as are those who return from armed conflict with a diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder.  However, this is a very small proportion of the population who are traumatised.  Some recognise that sexual abuse as a child is traumatising, but I have also met those who deny the lasting impact, “I’ve dealt with it. It’s in the past’, whereas it leaves a lasting impact unless we do deep therapeutic work.  The sexual and physical abuse of children is, unfortunately, much more widespread than we might want to believe. Some who grew up in a household where there was violence or anger similarly deny its lasting impact, as do those who went to boarding school at an early age.

Trauma is an event that is remembered cognitively

Trauma is the lasting impact on our neuro-physiology. It is a body-held response to a life threatening experience. It is not an event, but the impact of an event(s). The sense of our life being threatened is not a thought process but a response from those parts of our brain that stimulate the flight/fight/freeze responses that generate the trauma.  The memory of the trauma experience is held in the implicit memory, that is without cognitive recall. It is a body-based memory, held there through our lives. It doesn’t go away over time. In fact, it might become more intense over time through being ignored or denied.  We can have had traumatising experiences without having a explicit memory of it, there is no ‘video’ or ‘audio’ recall.

People who are traumatised are visible through their mental health diagnoses such as PTSD

Post-traumatic stress is a symptom of trauma.  The majority of mental health diagnoses requiring treatment are also the result of trauma.  However, more often trauma is not so visible; it is held very deeply in our awareness so as not to retraumatise us repeatedly. From there it gives rise to a range of survival strategies and personalities which are designed to keep the trauma hidden from view. The adaptive survival strategies and personalities, developed to keep us safe, become harmful or unhelpful as we get older.  It is these that we meet in the coaching room, in the client and in ourselves. In this way the ‘there and then’ is living through the ‘here and now’.

Trauma has nothing to do with coaching; and shouldn’t as it is dangerous

Trauma does have something to do with coaching. Working with the trauma experiences is the province of therapy, not coaching; similarly working with Post Traumatic Stress.   However, as we so regularly meet the survival strategies and personalities in coaching, coaches and supervisors need to have a trauma awareness to understand what they are meeting and why coaching these survival parts doesn’t work. Coaches need to recognise how their own survival strategies are getting in the way as well, we can’t coach from our survival parts. Unless we are trauma-aware, we will miss the information the client is giving us about their ‘there and then’ and be unable to facilitate them making links with the ‘here and now’. We will also fail to focus the work on their healthy, non-traumatised resources, which are able to challenge the survival narratives they have developed and the survival behaviour, which is what they say they want to change. If coaches work outside their field of competence, and coaching boundaries, they are failing to provide a safe environment for the client.  This can be retraumatising for a client. However, this is also an argument for becoming trauma-informed, so you know where the boundaries are and don’t breach them unknowingly.

Find out more, and read the case examples, in my book ‘Coaching and Trauma: From surviving to thriving‘, available from online book sellers.

Come to our Masterclass on ‘Trauma-informed Coaching’ in London on 25th June 2020,

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