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Life Traumas and Its Impact on Who We Are

-- Provided by Marsha Clark, Author, Coach, and Facilitator of Leadership Development


“After all, when a stone is dropped into a pond,

the water continues quivering even after the stone has sunk to the bottom.”

Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha


I am currently co-facilitating with a competent and compassionate colleague, Mia Mbroh. She has supported others through some of the most extreme traumatic events such as the Oklahoma City bombing, school shootings, and various forms of abuse. In the latter years of her profession, she has chosen to focus time and efforts working with organizations and individuals where varying degrees of trauma are occurring daily. I have learned a great deal from her. This paper is a collaborative effort reflecting our individual and now our collective work. When you couple that with what our world and nation has experienced in the last few years, it can be a bit overwhelming. The following information is offered to help you better understand trauma and ways you can create conditions in your organization and family to recognize, acknowledge and reduce those trauma-inducing conditions.


What is trauma?



The experiences of the last sixteen months have been horrific. We have lost loved ones to a deadly virus amidst a global pandemic. We have witnessed racial strife and political upheaval. At a very personal level, we’ve been confined to our homes, many have lost jobs, feared eviction, and even experienced significant food insecurity. These events have reflected a life experience where our sense of safety and security has most certainly been undermined.


How have we responded in our attempt to reconcile this suffering? As we have experienced, observed, and read about, we’ve responded in a wide range of ways. Mask or no mask? Vaccine or no vaccine? Stay home or travel about? And so many of the heroes and heroines were in the throes of trying to save lives and provide essential care to those in need. Talk about stress and trauma! (See my previous paper entitled “My Reality, My Response” to learn more.) And the services we may have previously taken for granted were a huge challenge – online versus in-person school, grocery shopping, religious services, daycare, graduations, weddings, birthday celebrations, and even funerals and memorial services. In short, our lives were uncertain, unpredictable and we felt ‘out-of-control’.


Recent months have been horrific, and these traumas were often piled on top of the traumas of our lives pre-Covid, pre-2020. And I want to speak specifically to the experience of women, people of color and any marginalized group. As many reading this will know, I’ve spent the last twenty plus years delivering leadership programs targeted specifically to women. It is through that work that the following thoughts are offered. I integrate Mia’s work and insights with my work and insights. Lots of light bulbs went off for me as I made new connections and then declared, “No wonder!” I invite you to consider and apply this information to your own life experience. It is applicable to each of us in myriad ways.


A review of history will show again and again that women have predominately been in a ‘less than’ position. Of course, there are exceptions; research is typically reflected in a bell-shaped curve. Women have been quieted, ridiculed, criticized, disrespected, and diminished. We’re born into this experience around the globe merely by being a female.


As women go through life, we develop our own coping mechanisms. It can be ‘stuffing it’ to repress the awful memories. It might be addictions – drugs, alcohol, food, exercise, even work. Her armor or protection may be a hard surface intended to protect to her, and yet, it also prevents her from letting the good things of life in. What a loss! Our families of origin play such an important role in how we experience and manage trauma. If we grew up in a loving, nurturing, and supportive environment, we tend to be much more resilient. I envision it as being cloaked in love. That love is warm, certain, consistent, and deep. As a result, I can handle trauma in a healthier way. For those who didn’t experience this loving early life in our families of origin, it is a very different result. In this case, I envision a thin veil of protection – a veil that doesn’t protect me well at all. Almost everything can penetrate this thin veil. I am much more vulnerable. As with most things, this is a continuum and there are many kinds of layers of protection. I invite you to think about your own means of protection.


If this is our early experience, how do my behaviors show up in my daily life? When Mia shared this list, it was my “no wonder!” moment.



I have heard so many of these words, phrases, and sentiments from women around the world. Admittedly, I had never made the connection to trauma, specifically a woman’s trauma. Thank you, Mia! Let’s discuss each one.


· Fixing Others – This one screams the “should” language. We tell others what they should or shouldn’t do. And we ‘should’ on ourselves all the time. I should have started on this project earlier. I shouldn’t have eaten that dessert. I should have spoken up. I shouldn’t have said anything. Sound familiar? Someone shared this perspective with me many years ago: “Should is could with shame on it.” I have been very conscious of my use of should ever since. I encourage you – don’t should on yourself or others.


· Co-dependency – This is characterized by excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner. “Foundationally, it is due to poor concept of self and poor boundaries, including an inability to have an opinion or say no,” says Dr. Mark Mayfield, a licensed professional counselor (LPC).


· Needing to Prove MyselfThroughout my life I have heard the adage, “Women have to work twice as hard to get half as far.” And I have seen and heard many stories that reflect this adage. It often takes the form of perfectionism. My dear friend and colleague, Susie Vaughan, gave me a great coaching tip on this: “Strive for grace, not perfection.”


· Pleasing People – Doing everything for everyone else. Afraid to have hard conversations on behalf of yourself for fear of displeasing another person or damaging the relationship. And so many of us have grown up with the good girl rules of do’s and don’ts that suppress or discount our own thoughts and feelings.


· Living on High Alert – This is often diagnosed ADHD. We can’t focus as we have our antenna up to ensure we are ready for the next traumatic event. Another facet of this sign is constantly waiting for the next inevitable bad thing to happen. It often prevents us from enjoying and really taking in the good things.


· Requiring External Validation – How do I look? Do you have any feedback for me? Wouldn’t you agree? This is the language of this sign of unhealed trauma. (I feel like it would be good to mention here about the difference between asking these questions on occasion and asking these questions frequently in order to feel a sense of security in self.)


· Fearing Abandonment – Often a person will sabotage a relationship if it is going well. In other words, I will unconsciously give you a reason to abandon me so I can either create or reinforce the self-fulfilling prophecy or justify the abandonment rather than re-live the trauma of abandonment.


· Deprioritizing My Own Needs – This is probably the lament heard most often from the women in my programs. We would never want to inconvenience others though we have no problem inconveniencing ourselves again and again. We feel that our ‘to do’ lists and everyone and everything else has taken the highest priority – family, work, school, community, friends. Where are you on this list? Nowhere to be found. In my first book, Choose! The role that Choice Plays in Shaping Women’s Lives co-authored with another dear friend and colleague Dottie Gandy, one of our key messages is, “Don’t confuse self with selfishness.” Self-care, refueling, replenishing isn’t selfish. It is smart and necessary if we want to do all the things we want to do for others. It helps us avoid health-related issues, burnout, and damaged relationships. I could go on and on about this; I’ll stop for now.


Do any of these resonate with you? Which ones? How do they show up for you? I encourage you to talk with someone about it. It could be a good friend, a mentor, a coach, or a therapist depending on the severity. Two of my frequent coaching questions are, “How is that working for you?” And, “How is that working against you?” Your very personal situation and answers may help guide you to the kind of person you want to talk to about your unhealed trauma.


How We Respond to Stress – the Four Fs: Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Flock

We have all likely heard about the Fight or Flight response to stress, anxiety, or trauma. This goes all the way back to prehistoric days of fighting or fleeing saber-tooth tigers. Most of the early research on the stress response was done on men. More relatively recent research has added the Freeze response. This is when I can either feel paralyzed because I am so caught off guard and don’t know what to do, or I go completely still and quiet getting ready for my next move. When a recent group of women were discussing the Fight response, it rarely meant literally fighting. It was shared in stories describing fighting for what I believe in, standing up for my values or what I consider to be vital issues, and fighting to finish or get through something no matter how intellectually, emotionally, or physically challenging. This provides a much broader perspective on the Fight response and through a woman’s experience.


As women were included in the research (because we experience stress too!), two new behaviors were developed by Dr. Shelley E. Taylor and her research team at the University of California, Los Angeles and were first published in a ‘Psychological Review’ article published in 2000. She found that the “Tend-and-Befriend” response is a behavior exhibited in response to threat. Tending ranges from protecting our offspring to organizing our desks or consolidating our ‘to do’ lists – both aimed at getting things back to a non-threatening and in control condition. One woman recently shared that when she began to work from home due to the pandemic, the first thing she did was deep clean her house from top to bottom. Other women chimed in with similar stories. This is a clear example of Tending.


Befriending is seeking out your social group for mutual defense. This closely resembles the last F – Flock. Another woman shared that she was recently ‘warned’ that seeking others out for solace or to talk things over wasn’t a good idea. The psychology might suggest otherwise. If you go back to our list of Signs of Unhealed Trauma, only you can answer the question of whether you are seeking others out for the purpose of seeking external validation or mutual defense.


In evolutionary psychology, tend-and-befriend is theorized as having evolved as the typical female response to stress. In my mind, it relates to Dr. Patricia Heim’s research on “invisible rules” around gender. She describes the feminine framework around power as a flat structure where we’re all in this together, or Flocking.


What is your typical default? I’m betting that you have used all of them at one time or another. Begin to take notice of your response and of others’ responses as well. What can you learn about yourself?


Safe Spaces

Psychological safety is the absence of trauma. Read that sentence again. As leaders, the last thing we would want to do is create a traumatic environment. What a true leader wants to do is create spaces that provide psychological safety. Here are some things you can do to create a safe space for your team and your family.



I think about this in relation to my wish for a world that values women and girls equally with men and boys. Creating these kinds of safe spaces where our voices are heard, where what we have to say and contribute is considered and valued. It will go a long way toward changing the almost automatic conditions of girls being born into an environment of trauma just because they are girls. If these views seem extreme, I invite and encourage you to practice safe space behaviors. This embodies, “understanding that just because it’s not your truth doesn’t mean it isn’t someone else’s truth.” This requires compassion. You may not be able to empathize or put yourself into someone else’s shoes. You can have compassion for the pain and trauma of another human being.

When we provide these safe spaces, we can change our thinking, feelings and beliefs. The neuroplasticity of our brains allows us to lay down new neural pathways. The psychological safety must be equal to or greater than the experienced trauma. I now have a new story that I can tell myself and that will now influence my thinking, my responses, my behaviors, and my choices.