Navigating trauma in coaching

By Martin Vogel

The practice of coaching deals with more darkness than is often acknowledged. From my earliest days as a coach, I have encountered people who are navigating significant difficulty in life. Trauma is a subject not easily broached in coaching. Clients and coaches often assume this is the terrain of therapy and are fearful of going there.

But trauma is widely prevalent. For many of us, our traumas may well be be reactivated by some of the questions currently playing out in society – the climate crisis, coronavirus, Brexit, to name a few. Coaches and clients alike are affected by these developments and their learned adaptations to trauma may well influence not just how they respond to things from day to day but also how the coaching relationship plays out. The question is not whether to consider trauma in coaching but how.

Our reticence is not helped by confusion about what trauma is. Popular conceptions of trauma are not what professionals and experts mean by it. Julia Vaughan Smith has written a helpful book that demystifies trauma and charts how it might be approached pragmatically in coaching.

Drawing on the ideas of Franz Ruppert, she explains that trauma does not refer to a specific event but to the consequence of disturbing experience. It is a wound that is encoded in our emotional and physiological processes and has lasting consequences. It’s not the same thing as stress nor is it the same thing as normal but painful emotional experiences such as grief:

“Trauma results from experiences that are – or feel – life-threatening, and when there is no escape. The stress is such that the normal fight or flight response of the stress system ‘overheats’ and is thus unable to function. Instead, a freeze and numbing response takes over.”

Trauma normally arises from our early life experiences, when our sense of safety totally depends on our caregivers. We can be vulnerable to our parents’ trauma, even before birth. But trauma can also arise from other scenarios like violence, abuse, poverty and becoming a refugee. Trauma affects us all. While some people will have deeply traumatic experiences, at some level we all carry trauma in that not all our infant needs for safety are likely to feel met.

This gives rise to a fragmented psyche: a trauma self (whereby traumatic memories are buried in the unconscious); a survival self (which comprises the strategies we employ to keep our trauma feelings buried); and a healthy self (that part of us that remains grounded and resourceful).

This is Franz Ruppert’s model. It is beautiful in its simplicity and elegantly underlines that whatever adversity we have experienced, it does not overwhelm us completely. The proportions between the three parts of the self may vary from one individual to the next. But each of us has a healthy self which can be cultivated to guide us.

This is the opening for coaching. One of the difficulties with understanding trauma is that it is not easily remembered since our survival responses are intended to suppress it. And, when it arises in early life, it occurs before the development of language and so the memories are not available for recall through rational thought.

This isn’t necessarily a problem for our purposes since what shows up for coaching is very often the survival self: when someone is working very long hours and is unable to put boundaries around their work; when they feel unable to leave an organisation or role that is unhealthy for them; when they neglecting their own wellbeing; when they engage in highly political behaviour; when they make unreasonable demands of the people they manage. We shouldn’t disrespect the survival since it is often what has helped someone get to where they are today. But we can’t coach it. It’s very raison d’être is to resist change and keep things as they are, the better to keep the trauma self at bay.

What coaching can do is encourage the healthy self to step up. This sounds simple. But very often, when a client is stuck in the survival self, this activates the survival self of the coach. This is when the coach might get excessively focussed on searching for a solution or may become irritated with a client. When two people are engaging with each other from their survival selves, the relationship is said to be entangled. Entangled relationships are often what coaches take (or need to take) to supervision.

For coaching to help, the coach needs to access their healthy self and help the coachee to do so. There is a modelling going on – within the session, the coachee finds the space to exercise the healthy self so that they might draw on it more fluently in their life beyond. But what does this healthy self feel like? Julia Vaughan Smith’s description is worth quoting at length:

“Within the healthy self we can respond to and process our experience in the ‘here and now’, including our embodied felt experience, without activating historic pathways associated with repressing the trauma feelings. The body, mind and emotions are working in harmony; nothing is cut off from our awareness. As a result, we know what is healthy for ourselves. This includes knowing if a relationship, role, or setting is unhealthy and acting to remove ourselves from it. We have the information flows we need to enact our own agency, so extricate ourselves from the re-traumatising context.

“We have compassion and empathy, so do not attack ourselves. We know we are better at some things than others; if we make a mistake or misjudge something, we learn from it without self-recrimination. We know the difference between a project failing and being a failure ourselves. Or the difference between survival and healthy attachment, or pity masquerading as compassion, or indifference masquerading as equanimity.

“We are mentally alert, able to be curious about ourselves, to reflect and learn from that reflection. We can feel joy, love and creative energy. There is a positive engagement with life.”

Coaches need to be aware of their survival strategies and practised at attuning to themselves as they work with coachee – and helping the client do the same. Coach and client can explore together the meaning of things that happen in the here and now. If irritation arises, for example, is that a healthy response to the present context or a triggering of a reaction linked to the there and then of either coach or coachee? If entanglement arises, rather than get stuck in it, coach and client can explore its significance together. Much of this is familiar to those whose orientation is relational coaching.

The book is especially helpful for how it unpicks toxicity in organisations. Julia Vaughan Smith presents a framework for understanding toxic dynamics as a triangle between perpetrator, victim and rescuer. The point about these positions is that we shift between them. It is well established that victims of perpetration are at risk of becoming perpetrators themselves. So leaders need the kind of self-exploration that coaching offers in order to mitigate the risk of their creating traumatising environments:

“If leaders wish to become good leaders, in the widest sense, they need to dig deep into their inner psychology and unpick elements of the survival self and do work with their trauma feelings, so they do not pass on their trauma to others.”

Rescuing can be a form of perpetration, in that it denies the agency of the person being rescued, and it puts the rescuer at risk of becoming victim – either through putting their own needs aside or through eliciting persecution directed at them. Coaches (and clients) should understand that coaches are vulnerable to rescuing but it is no part of their role. As Julia Vaughan Smith puts it:

“Whenever tempted to rescue, other than saving a life, don’t. If you feel guilty, sit with the guilt and wonder what that is about.”

One of the important implications of this book is that coaches need to be more comfortable and skilled at enquiring into their clients’ early life experience than many coaches consider appropriate. The aim is not the same as a therapeutic enquiry into childhood. It is to raise awareness of a client’s formation and to create understanding of how their ‘there and then’ might be playing out in the ‘here and now’. The kinds of things we might explore include birth order, the expectations their parents had of them (always being told they were “clever” or ”messy”, etc.), cultural influences and role models. Another area of interest is how closely a client identifies with roles they have come to adopt (I still consider myself to be a journalist, a role to which I aspired from childhood but which ceased to be my main occupation many years ago).

Coaching and Trauma is a slim volume full of rich insight. It took me a while to read because each chapter prompted reflections that I needed to unpack. Its core message is that coaches need not be afraid of the baggage that clients bring from their backstories. As long as we work with good attunement and trusting our coaching skills, we can ground ourselves in our healthy autonomy, helping our clients to do the same.

Coaching and Trauma by Julia Vaughan Smith. Available from Amazon.

Detail from Munch’s ‘The Scream’ courtesy National Gallery of Norway.

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