Towards a trauma-informed coaching model
The first time I heard the American phrase “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” I registered it's meaning, but didn’t connect with it much. I heard it a few times over the years, and each time I became a little more skeptical of it. But I wasn’t quite sure why.
It was after the birth of our son, when I had had an emergency C-section and a man remarked “Well, healthy baby, that’s the important thing,” that I started to have a glimpse into what bothered me about this phrase. Yes, the C-section was necessary. Yes, it meant we had a healthy baby. But no, that didn’t mean I still didn’t have some pretty strong emotions about having had a C-section. Well intentioned through the man’s comments were, implicit in them was that my experience, my suffering, my feelings didn’t really matter. I had now become a mother - and therefore secondary. It was the baby that counted. “But what about me?” my insides screamed as I smiled kindly at the man.
After everything fell apart at work in 2017, and I collapsed entirely from the re-triggering of my PTSD, I tried out a few coaches. One of them asked me to make a list of reasons why what was happening could be a good thing. Now, one of the axioms in coaching is that "in life there are no challenges or problems, there are only opportunities". Intellectually I can get that. But emotionally - and especially when dealing with trauma and traumatic events - that philosophy can be not only decidedly unhelpful, it can be downright dangerous.
What I have learned from my own healing, research, and practice is that it is imperative that a person’s pain and suffering is acknowledge and validated FIRST. Yes, eventually - it may take hours, days, weeks or months, depending on the degree of pain, suffering or trauma - they will be at a place to start asking the question “how could I turn this awful experience into an opportunity”. But to ask that question of them too soon is to essentially dismiss their emotions and in so doing add to their suffering.
And that is why you will never hear me use the phrase “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. Or similar. A trauma-informed approach to coaching is based on recognizing that overwhelming psychological experiences rob us of our ability to access our rational brains. We HAVE to feel emotionally safe first before we can begin to do any of the other processing and healing. Emotional safety is the exact thing that traumatic experiences steal from us.
When, during coach training, I pushed back against the concept that “in life there are no problems, or challenges, there are only opportunities”, explaining my reasoning, the trainer thought for a while then posed “a lemon is a lemon, it’s nature is to be sour, it’s not the lemon’s fault, right?”.
Sorta. But not quite.
This gets closer towards acknowledging and validating that the pain just is - it’s the inherent consequence of experiencing traumatic events. But it’s still not quite validating that one of the worst aspects of trauma is that the victim so often feels that they were in someway responsible for it. “If only they had…," they can't stop themselves from wondering.
In my case, a very large part of my workplace trauma was I was being directly told, in the most cold-hearted way imaginable, that I was solely and directly responsible for EVERYTHING. If the team was having challenges, it was me. If there was negative reaction, it was me. If people were feeling overwhelmed, it was me. If people disagreed on the best strategy, it was me. Rationally, of course it couldn't possible be all me. But in trauma there was no way I could access that thought. I was a failure, I was cursed, I could not do anything right.
This is what I call the secondary trauma. And in some cases it is worse than the primary trauma. If I had been emotionally resilient going in, that feedback would still have been intensely painful and quite possibly devastating. But precisely because what we were working on was a big innovative project that was pushing everyone’s comfort levels and the stress was building, my emotional resilience was way down. So I fully bought in - for a while - that it was all me. That I was the problem. That I had to “fix me”. And that compounded the traumatic nature of the experience.
“I had brought this on myself”, was the story I was telling myself.
Yes, no and maybe.
Certainly I had some degree of responsibility. Was it 100%? No, no and no. But it took me weeks and some very intensive therapy to get that point emotionally. And I emphasize the emotional part because it is the emotional part of the brain that drives trauma. Our rational brain is literally “off-line” during traumatic experiences. Our older, reptilian brain takes over during times of threat and danger - it has too, it is what it is designed to do - to keep us safe. And while my life was not in physical danger, the brain doesn’t actually distinguish between threats to one’s physical self and threats to one’s sense of self. To the brain they are one and the same thing. And so until I could start to feel emotionally safe again, with people who truly cared for me, and who were trained in trauma and were gentle and compassionate and moving very very slowly and gently with me, there was simply no way I could start to do any of the work of parsing out what I was responsible for and what I was not responsible for.
Once I got there, it was crystal clear that in no way was I 100% responsible. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of people I worked with had nothing BUT positive things to say about me! So then I was left with the incredibly hard, devastating and painful fact that for reasons I couldn’t fully understand, I was being deliberately targeted because somewhere, somehow, a few people didn’t feel safe with me. Was that solely my fault? Or did they have a role to play too? Of course they did! But what I’ve learned since then is that people will do just about anything to discharge their emotional pain onto others, to blame or shame others as a way to deal with their own issues, rather than accept responsibility for their own feelings.
And so that is why that request from a potential coach to “Imagine there's a panel of angels (or whatevers) who custom-made the perfect spiritual challenge for you to support you in developing whatever muscles most need it. How is this situation perfect?” came at the wrong time.
Yes, a year and a half later, now I can see this whole experience as a gift. It was most definitely a gift I didn’t want, or ask for. It was a very very painful, devastating and hurtful gift at the time. But by doing the work with an amazing, supportive team who really understood trauma, I do now see it as a gift - the full measure of which I am continuing to discover every day.
And so that is why I will never say to someone “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. I will never ask you to just to accept that it is the nature of a lemon to be sour and bitter. And I will never ask you to question if it is indeed, a lemon at all. Because when you get to the point - with me, or with someone else - of feeling emotionally safe because your pain and hurt is totally acknowledged and validated - then and only then will you be ready to ask the question yourself. I won’t need to. YOU will be the one to ask it.
And then slowly, safely, and in a very gentle and compassionate way, I can support you on the journey of writing your own story about how you are going to define for yourself the meaning of what has happened. Meaning that empowers you. Meaning that gives you great confidence and a deep, sure sense of your value and self-worth.
Sue Mann - Coach
Reflections on how we reclaim and sustain our worthiness in the face of falls and challenges.