I recently attended an intergroup dialogue symposium on the East Coast. It was an investment in my self-care to go. I've missed the people and space so much since living in Austin, Texas. As many of you know, I've been on a break from providing Trauma therapy to individual clients. A part of this break has also meant being very intentional about what I consume relating to information about trauma, the conversations I have about trauma and with whom.
Interestingly, I've always found the spaces created by those doing social justice education, particularly those invested in intergroup dialogue, to be some of the most trauma-informed spaces I've been in. I was surprised that one theme kept popping up in the conversations at the symposium. You guessed it- trauma! Over the last five years, I've seen the idea of being "trauma-informed" move from clinical therapy spaces to the mainstream. I think the benefit of these ideas going mainstream is that there is less stigma and more conversation around some of the incredibly painful things that happen to so many of us. The downside is that the word trauma itself can lose some of its meaning, becoming more of a buzzword. This can lead to confusion about what being trauma-informed means, especially if you're not a therapist.
So, I am going to attempt to break down some of what I think it means to be trauma-informed for those working with clients, students, etc, but who are not working as therapists.
Trauma is the human response to events that overwhelm our ability to cope, often leaving us feeling helpless and scared. The effects of trauma can touch every corner of our lives, affecting us mentally, physically, and emotionally and influencing how we see the world. We can have "big T trauma," which is a single event like a horrible car accident or a natural disaster. Or "little t trauma;" a series of ongoing events whose accumulation creates a profound lack of safety and fear. We can also have intergenerational trauma- trauma passed down through generations.
If you are working with people in any capacity, there is no doubt that some of the people you work with have experienced big T, little t trauma and/or intergenerational trauma. But what is your responsibility in these contexts if you're not a trauma therapist? Let me segway for a moment in hopes it will partially answer this question.
One of the reasons why the social justice education spaces have always felt like some of the highest standards of being trauma-informed without being therapy is threefold:
1.) There is a container created upfront with expectations/boundaries of how a group will engage with each other. This includes not losing sight of another's humanity when you are in pain or disagree.
2.) There is an emphasis on caring for yourself and asking for what you need. In other words, room for voice and choice.
3.) Because these spaces emphasize identity with a deep respect for how systemic oppression impacts people's lives (little t trauma, big T trauma and intergenerational trauma), there is an invitation to be fully seen. Genuinely seeing our people is THE most essential element of trauma therapy and any trauma-informed practice in non-therapy spaces. People need to feel seen and accepted for all of themselves, which means all of themselves need to be welcomed into the space
I am going to make the case that for most non-therapy and non-clinical settings, trauma-informed care doesn't mean having an in-depth understanding of childhood abuse or the impacts of surviving a car accident. It means creating spaces where every person can be fully seen for who they are and what they've experienced. It means understanding that our lived realities have an impact. They matter. It also means referring out to a professional when necessary. So, what does a facilitator, coach, or teacher do to create those trauma-informed spaces? You might already know from experience that it can be challenging to do. Here are just a few ideas, not an exhaustive list:
Find a mentor, group, or therapist to support you in understanding your feelings and reactions when things happen with the people you're supporting. It is important to understand what's activating for you. When we are activated, touched, or triggered, we lose the ability to hold space for others. Learn about what you need in those moments. Explore how you might continue to take care of yourself and prioritize your healing outside of the spaces you create for others.
Personal Share: When running the affinity groups for white therapists last year, I continuously worked with a mentor/coach and the other affinity group leaders. I had bi-weekly check-ins with both because I knew that 1.) any conversations regarding racism and whiteness can be activating and 2.) There are specific parts of the eight week curriculum that are harder for me than other parts. In order to support my group members' growth and learning, I needed support so I could be in a place to hold space for them.
This is sadly something that is missing even from many therapy spaces. The medical model of psychotherapy heavily emphasizes the individual experience rather than the collective experience and harm caused by racism, sexism, homophobia, religious trauma, ableism, transphobia, and colonization. To create spaces where your people feel genuinely seen, you will need to commit to your own understanding of these systems- how they impact you and your people. If this is not embedded in your program, it is likely that spaces you create do not feel appropriately safe for everyone.
Boundaries and clear expectations add to a felt sense of safety. You can build shared guidelines at the beginning of a group with participants contributing to the list. If you work one-on-one with your people, you can have a conversation in the beginning about expectations and ask them what they need to get the most out of their time with you.
Y'all. I struggle with social media because it is designed to be polarizing and activating. When activated, we lose the ability to connect, hold space, learn, and listen. Unfortunately, people are rewarded for views and engagement, and thus, posts are often deliberately designed to activate people's hurt and pain. This is the opposite of trauma-informed! If you are on social media and your engagement is visible or public to your people, please consider how you show up in these spaces. Are you creating safety? Are you keeping in mind people's shared humanity? Realistically, authentic change comes from investing time and energy in genuine relationships. So consider: if the people you support see your engagement on social media, would they still feel safe showing up as all of themselves with you?
There are a lot of ways to do this. If you're working in a group, make participation optional. If you want to give feedback, have it be consensual. For example, "Would it be okay if I gave you some feedback/made an observation?" or "I have an observation; would you like to hear it?" There are various reasons why someone might be unable to hear feedback at a particular time. Find a good time to revisit. Ask your people how they feel rather than telling them, suggesting, or making leading statements. "I'm curious how you're doing right now?" gives people a voice to share instead of "You're pretty stressed and not having any fun, huh?" Trust that the people you're working with know their inner world better than you do!
Unfortunately, this is so common. This takes a lot of self-reflection, but please consider doing this work. Using words in your marketing like trauma, nervous system regulation, neuroscience of trauma, attachment theory, etc., should be used with caution unless you have specific training to support people with nervous system regulation, attachment, training in neuroscience, etc. When therapy language is used as buzzwords without appropriate training, it can have unintended consequences. First, the people you work with may be harmed because these words can activate old wounds. The second is that this type of advertising or direct client work can turn predatory- using these words and concepts comes with some authority, knowledge, and, as a result, power. Tread with caution.
Personal Share: I am a trauma therapist, and if you look at my website, I rarely use the words trauma and neurobiology, even though I have training in both. But my credentials speak for themselves. Additionally, most of the clinical language I have learned is not that helpful for my clients. I use the concepts of neurobiology in my work as a road map of sorts in my head, but I am not a neurobiologist, so I don't advertise myself as an expert. A year-long training in interpersonal neurobiology taught me that the more you learn, the less you know! At the end of the day, it is the actual practice of being with someone that matters.
They say actions speak louder than words. In this case, it's true. Your efficacy will be limited if you're teaching your people about deep active listening, for example, but are not modeling it. If you're hoping for vulnerability or transparency in those you work with, model it. It bears repeating- it is the actual practice of being with someone that matters!
I hope this has given you some food for thought and a few concrete, actionable steps to practicing your work in a more trauma-informed way. Thank you for caring deeply about the people you work with. At its heart, trauma-informed practices mean creating safe, empathetic, and understanding spaces where all people can be seen and understood for who they are. If you would like more ideas, activities or support on being trauma-informed, reach out. I'd love to hear from you.
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