Trauma and the stories we tell ourselves

17th July by George Warren

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After the release of their 1997 album, ‘OK Computer’, Radiohead had made it. They had broken through into the American market, achieving Grammys, critical acclaim and sell-out shows. Achieving the fame and success that so many bands crave when they start out.

The band’s front man, Thom Yorke, experienced a mental breakdown and anxiety, becoming ‘completely unhinged….very, very, very unwell’. Before a particularly large show in Ireland, Yorke would experience nightmares about floating down Dublin’s river Liffey pursued by a giant tidal wave.

At other major headline concerts, including Glastonbury, the band experienced technical malfunctions contributing to anxiety attacks. Stuck into a year of touring around the world, the band, including Yorke experienced burnout, depression and writer’s block.

What came next conveys the sentiment I wanted to share with you today and the relevance in this story for all of us. As opposed to a similar record, enhancing and propagating the sound and style that had brought them great success, the band produced Kid A. It is an album bereft of an electrical guitar. It is beautifully strange, with clicks and whirrs, electronic drum loops.

It contains the beautiful song, ‘How to Disappear Completely’. A touching example of someone desperately finding ways to escape and withdraw from traumatic events. To close oneself off from the barrages, over-stimulation and pain of modern life.

This song teaches us the lesson that we already know: that some of our most painful experiences, most embarrassing moments, our lowest lows can also be the part of a wider story of growth, strength or understanding. We can try to keep those moments stifled, but we can also transform them into beautiful art.

You can hear ‘How to Disappear Completely’ here - and keep an ear out for the lyrics: ‘I walk through walls // I float down the Liffey’ and ‘Strobe lights, And blown speakers’.

What is trauma?

It seemed to me that the 2020’s have become a time when therapy and trauma have become much more acceptable terms. Growing up, culturally here in the UK, it felt like therapy was a dirty word, linked to weakness, brokenness. Trauma only happened to victims of abuse and soldiers.

A more helpful idea I’ve heard discussed is that growing up, we all experienced trauma. Certainly on a continuum, ranging from, for example, physical or emotional abuse to, for example, our parent not collecting us from school or a dog biting us.

One example has been the mainstream crossover of ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ by psychiatrist and neuroscientist, Bessel van der Kolk. One of his key learnings, and one of the most valuable points of my understanding is this:

‘the trauma is not the event that happens to you, the trauma is how you respond to it’

His book makes tough reading at moments but I have recommended it so many times. The other profound learning from his work is that trauma, from the Greek noun ‘wound, or hurt’, isn’t just experienced or held in up in the brain - but held physically too. And how physical movement techniques, including yoga and eye movement desensitising, can be hugely effective in the healing process.

Trauma sensitive leadership?

I heard recently that one of the needs of the coaching industry is to stay slightly ahead of the business and societal trends in that we, coaches, might be a source of guidance, inspiration and resource to our clients.

This certainly feels true in how some coaches are talking about, for example, systems change, anti-racism and the emotional impact of climate change. This also feels true in how some coaches are educating themselves about trauma and bringing ‘trauma sensitivity’ into their practice.

In a conversation to air soon, one guest on my podcast will discuss with me how an understanding and sensitivity around trauma is the key skill for the future for coaches. Not to diagnose or to cure, but to help provide that space where clients can better understand their response to it and see how it is affecting their everyday lives and how it might be manifesting in some of their unhelpful behaviours or thought patterns at work. To evoke new and deeper awareness of it, which leads to some objectivity and which creates choice.

Perhaps, in the next decade, we’ll be talking about trauma sensitive parenting. And I wonder what the working world would be like if leadership training involved some basic understanding on how to support someone at work with their trauma.

Collective trauma

As I chart my own course of learning and understanding, I’ll also be challenging the individualistic tendency to just look at this through the lens of one person.

The idea of collective trauma has been around since the 1970s, and it is a fascinating and valuable concept to explore how events or experiences affect whole societies, whole cultures.

With what has happened in the past - my mind goes to the Holocaust, to slavery, to the dropping of the atomic bomb. With what is happening right now, and with unfolding environmental and geopolitical horrors still to come, I can’t shake the feeling that a basic understanding of collective trauma will be a sound investment for so many of us.

However you do it - through art, storytelling or, as I would recommend, working with a qualified therapist, it can be that some of your most painful experiences so far in your life can be woven into the beautiful, rich tapestry of who you are.

If we hold the theory that the key issue is the judgements that you’re making about them, and the story that is attached to them, then there is an opportunity to change the narrative, to move towards healing - and, as in the case of Thom Yorke and Radiohead and many others, to create something beautiful.

And perhaps, as with Radiohead, the process will give you the confidence to chart a course more closely aligned to your values, your dreams. To take a bold step away from the logical and the expectations and pressures of others. To be part of a process of self-actualising and living a life more closely aligned to your ideal self, and, perhaps, who you really are.

Photo credit: Jan Canty on Unsplash

Our sincere thanks to coach and AoEC Faculty - George Warren. You can check out his latest reflections and articles which are shared via the Edge of Coaching and Slowing Down newsletters and tune into his informative and engaging podcast series - the Edge of Coaching here.