When coaching involves working with trauma

Invariably when an individual feels stuck and experiences repeating patterns of behaviour which are unhelpful, it's a sure indication that a “survival” or trauma self is getting in the way.

This “survival” self developed as a necessary response to trauma at an early age and has become a default response in the present.

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Photo by Vitolda Klein on Unsplash

For example, perfectionism or workaholism are attempts to create safety, since when growing up it was necessary to shut away those parts of the “authentic” self which were unwelcome.

Those strategies served in the past as a way of fitting in, since a child is utterly dependent on his/her primary caregivers for survival. The only conclusion which a child can reach when the care is deficient is that “I am defective in some way”.

Unfortunately, those patterns of behaviour which were necessary as a child become internalised and form default adult responses, particularly under stress.

Since those behaviours were co-created in relationship with others, it takes a relationship with a trusted other to change them. Self-help books and cognitive understanding can only signpost the way forward, since the work required involves facing the trauma which shaped the resultant behavioural patterns – this invariably needs an emotional exploration with a trusted other person.

The impact of the work will be to loosen the grip of the “survival self” by engaging with the “healthy and authentic self” which yearns for expression.

The individual will then be able to fulfil more of their potential in every aspect of their lives by becoming more of who they really are.

This process is beautifully and insightfully describe by a client Halima Snoussi who courageously wrote the following blog (published with her permission) during the work we were doing together as part of her healing:

On the other side of trauma — navigating relationships

So, what is it like being in a relationship when you come from an abusive home?

First, let’s look at this from the individual’s perspective, aside from any relationship.

If you are a trauma survivor, then you probably are aware of the constant battle between your healthy self which is trying to navigate everyday life among society, and your survival or trauma self which finds everyday life a little more challenging. It would rather hide away and avoid reliving anything remotely close to the past trauma and in doing so makes life quite difficult for the healthy self.

Our healthy self likes to take its time and make rational, emotionally intelligent decisions. The healthy self can process information and make decisions according to its present reality. It is not concerned with delusional danger.

On the other hand, our trauma self is generally faster to react and takes the lead in quick decision-making. It is concerned with keeping constant defence against criticism, abandonment, any form of betrayal, no matter how small, and any danger that threatens its survival.

For every person, there is different trauma, different ways of dealing with it, and therefore it manifests in different forms depending on where you are in your journey.

For me, I see the ways in which it lurks in my relationship. Throughout my childhood, I have seen death, physical and emotional abuse, abandonment, neglect, and betrayal of the justice system.

How do these manifest in my relationship?

Let’s start with criticism:

It has taken me many years to work on simply not taking criticism personally. As a child, criticism from my parents meant imminent danger to my life therefore my time was spent trying to be as perfect in their eyes as I could, to avoid angering them. As an adult, this translates to, if you believe I’m not good enough, then you threaten my safety whether being at work or in my personal relationships. My trauma self would manifest in either as my childhood self, scared and helpless which is usually followed by tears or as angry and defensive.

It took me some time to understand that criticism does not endanger my safety. First, because these trauma-based reactions were well hidden within my subconscious but also because they had been programmed within me as an appropriate reaction. It’s not until I was able to see these situations in retrospect from a safe place, that my healthy self was able to bring some clarity into what I was truly feeling in those moments and eventually minimize the fears stemming from long-lost childhood memories.

Fear of abandonment:

This is a part of me that I have come to accept. When I was 5 years old, my mother passed away. Shortly after that, my father left my sister and me behind, in Tunisia, to be looked after by our grandparents. When I turned 18, I ran away from an abusive home, leaving behind everything I knew.

The idea, that everything must come to an end was drilled deeply into my programming from a very young age. Every decision I make is based on this idea. It is the reason why I cannot sit still too long, why I must live every day like it is my last but it is also why I cannot form deep attachments. It is almost impossible for me to understand long-lasting attachment or to picture myself getting old with the same person. The future is always blurry to me. In my relationship today, of course, it manifests, I will always keep a safe distance. But as I learn to understand this trauma part of me, which is the 5-year-old little girl who has just lost her mother, I have also come to accept her fears, to allow space for them without action.

Conditional love:

As a child, growing up in an abusive environment, every interaction was transactional; I behave a certain way - I might receive “affection” in return. I was responsible for the emotions of the people around me. As a result, I learned that love and relationships are conditional to my behaviour, so I did what most children do in this situation; I adapted.

I adapted by pushing away my own authenticity, voice, opinions, and emotions, to keep the peace and preserve my safety.

As an adult, it shows up in my interactions and relationships as wanting to please, not feeling good enough, and not accepting love unless I have behaved in accordance to deserve it that day. So when my partner says “I love you”, my survival self runs a quick scan to either allow this affection or to quietly whispers “we cannot accept, you do not deserve it”.

People pleaser:

Naturally, all the above has created an unconscious people-pleasing personality. Saying yes when I mean to say no, compromising without expecting it in return, lowering my expectations, and most of all an inability to recognize mistreatment.

Unfortunately, when the brain develops, it doesn’t come with a basic preprogrammed understanding of right and wrong. So until I was able to recognize and distinguish my own thoughts vs. the thoughts of others, until I was able to take a step back and ask myself “what doesn’t feel right here?” I was unable to recognize boundaries, to put them up, and to ask for what I wanted without fear of consequence.

Emotional intelligence:

This one is a toughy, especially with the survival self in place ready to pounce at any danger. No matter how much meditation, yoga, and self-awareness I practice, my initial reaction is based on trauma. It takes practice and effort to take a step back, rethink, have a little pep talk, realize that some trauma might have been revisited, and approach a situation from my healthy emotional self.

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Photo by Cody Black on Unsplash


It has taken me many years to find the courage to trust another person and myself in a relationship. And when I did get there, it felt like jumping off a cliff. The decision to be in a long-term committed relationship for me was met with anxiety and panic attacks.

At first, I thought the anxiety was there for obvious reasons, like having to trust in someone else. But it slowly became more and more apparent to me that I couldn’t be any more wrong.

I operated from fear and trauma from such a young age that when peace hit me, it scared the crap out of me.

Instead, I came to the realization as I was going through a panic attack one morning, that what had triggered the anxiety was the stillness, the quiet. I was suddenly safe, calm with no worries. And it hit me that I did not know what being safe was like. I operated from fear and trauma from such a young age that when peace hit me, it scared the crap out of me. What is this stillness? My brain went into red alert! Realizing this was a pivotal moment.

Reparenting, self-work & grieving:

I don’t have to tell you how much work there is to do on yourself as a trauma survivor. It sometimes seems neverending. Self-awareness can only take you so far and there are many surprises along the way, some nice and cathartic others more difficult. At 35 years old I am finally in a loving, trusting, safe relationship. And It’s not until I allowed for it to happen that I could finally find peace.

“On the other side of maximum fear, are all the best things in life” Will Smith

Read more from Halima Snoussi

In coaching terms trauma work can be challenging but deeply rewarding as another human being moves from surviving to thriving.

Nick Harris, ICF Master Certified Coach

Free 45 minute coaching session

If you are considering one-to-one coaching with a professional coach, Nick Harris invites you to get in touch for a free 45 minute coaching session to explore your current situation, future aspirations and discuss next steps.

Call 0800 776 5696 to book your free session