Understanding and recognising trauma

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Written by Salma Shah on 20 November 2020

Julia Vaughan Smith’s book, Coaching and Trauma [1], a must read for all coaches, provides a very clear way of understanding how internal processes affect all aspects of our physical and mental wellbeing.

Clearly a coach shouldn’t diagnose trauma yet can listen out for life events that may have caused a lasting impact. Using curiosity to hold a question about whether something ‘there and then’ has a connection with the ‘here and now’ of a client’s situation.

At some point during a coaching session our client’s stuckness or a trigger will feel beyond the frameworks and tools coaches are taught in formal coach training. Coaching is about the future and not the past.

Yet the issue the client is facing and may or may not be openly acknowledging are embedded in the past. Prejudice, not belonging, feeling excluded, grief, bullying, burn out, imposter syndrome, low self-esteem or a lack of confidence – could all have their origins in a past trauma.

There are clear guidelines about appropriate boundaries and when to signpost a client towards therapy. However not all clients need therapy and a skilled coach (with supervision) can support a client’s personal development. What all coaches do need is to understand and recognise trauma.

Coaches need to be mindful that if a client does get distressed during coaching they don’t jump in and rescue or close the emotion down. Instead make the process safe enough to share the distress. Otherwise the coaching is superficial in nature.

Even more complex, what if the client is being triggered by a systemic or ancestral trauma of loss, human rights, refugee, racism, migration, slavery by an event such as George Floyd’s at the hands of the police on 25 May, 2020. What now?

Drawing on the work of Professor Franz Ruppert [2] coaches can cultivate their own self-awareness and understand the theory through self-reflective practice and support effective coaching. According to Ruppert we create a ‘split in the psyche’ to keep trauma feelings separate from our conscious awareness.

The three elements of our split are: the trauma self, the survival self and healthy self. The size of these selves will vary according to personal biographies. The proportions can also change in response to the adult’s environment.

Coaches need to be mindful that if a client does get distressed during coaching they don’t jump in and rescue or close the emotion down

Coaches don’t often come across the ‘trauma self’ and mostly find themselves coaching the ‘survival self’ and the ‘healthy self’. The survival self can be activated when a client is contemplating change but despite what can feel like an initial breakthrough, nothing changes.

The ‘survival self’ curtails the flow of information needed to access and process the felt experience and therefore provides a defense against inner change. Part of the ‘survival self’ is the ‘survival identity’ and ‘survival strategies’.

By helping a client to make connections with the ‘here and now’ and the ‘there and then’ and with the feelings that underlie their survival responses. Coaches can support clients to access the resources in their ‘healthy self’.

The main message of the book is that coaches don’t need new tools to work with trauma. What they do need to do is their own development work to stay fully present, grounded and attuned to the client.

Coaching and Trauma by Julia Vaughan-Smith is more relevant than ever as issues around emotional well-being, stress, belonging, inclusion are all front of mind.

[1] Vaughan Smith, J. 2019. Coaching and Trauma: from surviving to thriving. Open University McGraw-Hill Publishing


About the author

Salma Shah is an executive coach championing diversity and inclusion.

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