First published on Entrepreneur.com on 12.21.23
Unprocessed experiences become trapped within us as unintegrated information. This unresolved trauma then influences our behaviors and relationships, often without conscious awareness that it’s happening. We only tend to recognize that something is off, wrong, or unsustainable. Understanding common trauma responses allows us to communicate with our colleagues, employees, and clients alike with greater compassion and insight.
Our job is never to diagnose or even try to unpack someone else’s experiences, but the more awareness we can bring to our interactions, the more compassion we can have for each other.
Childhood Trauma Shapes Adult Reactions
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) stem from abuse, neglect, household challenges, discrimination, and other distressing situations. Studies suggest most people have at least one ACE, with much higher averages among the underestimated.
The unresolved pain of early trauma then commandeers our nervous systems in adulthood. We develop patterns of thinking and reacting that echo old survival mechanisms. Though unconscious or subconscious, these habitual responses drive our professional (and personal) relationships.
In certain instances, we may observe that our reaction to a particular event, person, visual, or language used is not congruent with the reality of the situation. Those moments may be markers of unprocessed trauma. Said another way, this is what it looks like when the younger version of us is in the driver’s seat —when they belong in the backseat, seatbelt-buckled, and enjoying their favorite snack. When the regulated, emotionally mature, adult version of us drives, we can respond versus react.
A recent example of this was the Elon Musk interview with Andrew Ross Sorkin at the New York Times DealBook Summit, in which Musk mentions the abuse he endured during childhood. The influence of unintegrated trauma from his upbringing gives us a glimpse into aspects of his behavior that could be categorized as low-conscious leadership.
Four Key Trauma Reactions
Trauma experts identify four common reactions to stress and perceived danger: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn (also called faint). While we each exhibit a primary tendency, these responses occur on a fluid spectrum. Our reactions depend on the situation and the person involved.
Fight reactions show up as aggression or defensiveness. Those with habitual fight reactions often faced belittling or neglect early on. Fighting helps them avoid repeating painful past experiences of unimportance, indifference, and powerlessness.
Flight reactions reflect an ongoing perception of danger. Anxious folks seeking escape through workaholism or perfectionism exhibit flight patterns. Their frantic busyness causes acute stress reactions like increased heart rate and breathing.
Freeze reactions provide time to decide how to respond by stopping the moment. Those prone to freezing often grew up in unpredictable households requiring hypervigilance. Freezing allows the nervous system to pause on high alert before reacting.
Fawn reactions prioritize avoiding conflict through appeasement. However, as children those who fawn adapted to volatile environments by placating others. While fawning colleagues may resent their people-pleasing tendencies, their response provides a sense of control.
In each of these four reactions, there are aspects of people pleasing and people controlling. People pleasers may seem kind on the surface but can lack boundaries and accountability. People controllers, who emerge from childhood powerlessness, micromanage and disempower their teams. Neither style effectively motivates or empowers. Both are on a quest for safety.
Beyond Fight or Flight: Nuanced Communication
Understanding others’ likely trauma responses allows us to communicate with greater dexterity and care. We can identify reactive patterns through curiosity and non-judgment and adapt our language accordingly.
With controlling colleagues, we might focus on maintaining their sense of autonomy and purpose. People-pleasing team members may need reassurance that speaking up won’t jeopardize relationships. Regardless of specifics, leading with empathy fosters safety and collaboration.
My forthcoming book, HEAL to LEAD: Revolutionizing Leadership through Trauma Healing, breaks down the impact of trauma on leaders who exhibit people-controlling and people-pleasing behaviors. It explores the four fundamentals for uncovering the high-conscious leader within — Integrating Trauma, Embodying Vulnerability, Leading with Compassion and Lighting the Way.
Healing Happens in the Body
While talk therapy is certainly an effective gateway (i.e., I am an advocate and have 15 years of first-hand experience), mental health maintenance alone does not work to integrate trauma. Verbal counseling addresses thought patterns but can also keep some stuck in repetitive loops. Somatic methods, on the other hand, directly target the physical manifestations of trauma.
Somatic therapy and mindfulness practices help discharge stuck emotional energy and tension from the body. Practical methods of somatic experiencing can be utilized in real-time, even during the workday—whether you work in the field, at an office, or from home.
Conscious Leadership Through Embodiment
Trauma shapes us, but it need not define us. As leaders, turning compassionately toward our own wounds and those of others allows for mutual understanding. It permits authentic connection and releases us from patterns that no longer serve.
Understanding trauma reactions and releasing trauma from the body together enable more conscious, compassionate communication. Blending somatic practices with this relational awareness empowers the healthiest possible workplaces. With insight into each other’s pain, we stand a greater chance of building trust and mutually fulfilling professional partnerships.
We rise together when we bring a higher consciousness to our shared humanity.