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.