Some Thoughts About HOW to Coach Around Trauma

Trauma and Coaching Series Part Three (Click here for Part One and here for Part Two of this series)

Relational trauma tends to create feelings of cognitive dissonance, shame and doubt. Many types of trauma can bypass cognitive functions and lodge in the body, creating implicit memories that are not connected to narrative memory. Even short-term trauma can disrupt memory areas of the brain, creating a sort of protective amnesia where details aren’t remembered or tracked. It’s common for a client to have false self-blaming beliefs and stories about the trauma that they have reinforced by excessive rumination. (It’s interesting to note that when people ruminate and blame themselves it can actually create somewhat of a feeling of control—this happened because I did X, so I won’t ever do X again.) In this post, we’ll look at both what to do and what not to do in coaching.

In general, clients healing from trauma tend to need:

  1. To safely experience their full and complete current emotional state, including body sensations, emotions, thought patterns, etc.

    If the client is stable in their observer mind (see Part Two of this series on WHO to coach), they may find that a trusting coaching relationship is a safe place to explore their current emotional state. Even just talking things through with someone who is fully present and holding space with curiosity can be extremely helpful in the healing/integration process. And because trauma tends to live in the body, using embodiment techniques can help, in the words of embodiment expert Amanda Blake, to “surface the invisibles.” It’s very common for a traumatized client to not know what they don’t know. Their body has been partnering in helping them operate in the world as “fine,” while often still holding their tension, anxiety, anger and fear.

  2. To learn ways to self-regulate their central nervous system as difficult emotions and sensations arise.

    Helping the client exploring sensations within their “window of tolerance” (see Part Two of this series for more on this important concept) is often a good first step in learning to self-regulate. Other techniques such as simple breath work, stress management techniques, and again, embodiment, can also help client become less “at effect” of their emotions and sensations.

  3. To find and reinforce a story that creates an empowering narrative, without doing a “spiritual bypass.”

    Depending on the stage of healing and intensity of trauma, many coaching tools are designed to help clients surface and address limiting or false beliefs and reframe stuck perspectives. The strategy of reframing (sometimes called reappraisal) is one of the most powerful stress reducers we have available, and for clients healing from relational trauma can be a key part of the journey.

  4. And sometimes to explore ways to get their central nervous system more regulated without having to tell the story.

    Sometimes helping clients explore ways to manage stress and discomfort without going into the story is the best strategy for the stage the client is in. A coach can also work with client to explore and move froward in areas of life unrelated to the trauma, gaining confidence and self-esteem in the process.

What NOT to Do

There is a lot we can do in coaching, but perhaps just as importantly, we need to look at what NOT to do:

  1. Push the client outside their window of tolerance during the coaching.
  2. Treat the abuse as a “compatibility” issue, a “bad break-up” or minimize the pathological behavior of the abuser.
  3. Interrupt key features of the healing process by trying to get the survivor to “heal” quickly.
  4. Make the victim responsible for the actions of the abuser.
  5. Mistake the abuser as well-intentioned and communicate this to the survivor.
  6. Refer without being sure referral partner is relational-trauma trained.

Are you caught in a relational pyramid scheme?

In some family systems, there can be a feeling that the children “owe” something to the parents. This manifests not only later in life when parents need advocacy and/or care, but even earlier, when both children and parents feel that the child’s role is to pay attention to, support, comfort or even guide the parents. (We see this very often when the parent has high levels of narcissism or borderline personality, but that’s not necessarily a requirement.)

On an energetic level, I was recently pondering this dynamic (very present in my own life) with a colleague. Both of us were frustrated by the fact that one or both of our parents felt we owed them but hadn’t provided much love, care and attention to us in childhood or later. Where was this “owing” feeling coming from when they really hadn’t done their part as parents? Was it just that they had a personality type that feels the world owes them?

That may be a large part of it, but another idea came to us. Perhaps we were being asked to be the latest layer in what we could think of as a relational pyramid scheme. Maybe the feeling of being owed was similar to the next layer above in Bernie Madoff’s structure. In our own examples, our parents had “paid” their own parents with attention, care, prioritization, etc., even when it was not in alignment with their own soul path, desire, or even mental health.

No wonder—on an energetic level—they feel “owed.” Just like the higher levels in a pyramid scheme, they paid in, expecting a return from the next layer down. One example from my own life happened when I married my first husband. My mother jumped in uninvited to manage many aspects of the wedding. I felt like I was standing in front of a steamroller on a mission, and at the time (I was only 23) like I had little choice in the matter of her opinions and desires. My dysfunctional strategy was to simply let her decide a lot of it and focus on things like my dress, which I bought out of town on my own. I found out later that her own mother (by all accounts a very “difficult” woman) had ruled my mom’s wedding to my dad with an iron fist, leaving my mom little choice about anything. And so, one perspective is that my mom had paid then, and so was owed a wedding. I honestly think she felt that way, although probably not on a conscious level.

But—and we have ample evidence of this in today’s world—pyramid schemes always fail at some point. In terms of finance they are not mathematically sustainable (you have to keep recruiting new investors and at some point you max this out and it falls apart). In terms of a relational pyramid scheme, the risk is that the bottom row wakes up. As many of us in this generation focus more on leading lives where we care both for our families and ourselves, and are no longer willing to do things that feel overly burdensome and/or out of alignment, we may see some of these pyramids breaking apart. This isn’t easy, because it requires saying to your “upline” (your parents) that you aren’t going to spend so much energy devoting yourself to their happiness, but rather, invest more in yourself and your current family. It takes guts to say, no, I don’t owe you.

Awake and aware parents will actually encourage and support this. They know the next generation does not owe them, no matter what they gave to the previous or even, legitimately to their own kids. And these are the parents where love, care and ongoing support and connection feel life-giving, reciprocal, and easy.

But parents who are still caught in their own distorted reality may get very upset and tell you that you are betraying them or the family if you stop giving as much to them. They may label you as selfish, ungrateful, unkind. They may even disown you or cut you off somehow. None of this feels good, but it can also be freeing to realize you no longer have to pay a debt that was never really yours in the first place.

I am reminded of the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran’s famous words on children:

Your children are not your children.
     They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
     They come through you but not from you,
     And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

     You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
     For they have their own thoughts.
     You may house their bodies but not their souls,
     For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
     You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
     For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
     You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
     The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
     Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
     For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

From The Prophet, 1923