Trauma center

I think of my professional craft, and my professional interest, as “unlocking human energy.” Over the last decade or so, as the logical continuation of that interest, I’ve become increasingly focused on trauma.

Trauma arrests human energy. It prevents individuals, groups, and societies from flourishing. The traumas I am thinking of include a range—from developmental traumas of neglect and abandonment, to extreme violence, to daily mundane dissatisfactions and thwarted expectations, to giant historical injustices.

Trauma wants our acceptance and understanding. As an intrinsic part of the human experience, it is both the obstacle and the path. Trauma triggers the undifferentiated Self to form an Ego, and that Ego then eventually becomes a trap, a limited way of relating to the world that will eventually prove ineffectual.

Not all traumas are of equal moral, medical, or social concern. But from childbirth on, trauma affects us and surrounds us, and as Jordan Peele depicted in his recent movie, it makes us us.

A scene from Us (2019). All rights reserved.

Mark Epstein in The Trauma of Everyday Life talks about how and why unhealed traumas escape conscious awareness:

“One of the distinguishing qualities of trauma is that it cannot be held in normal memory. Because the feelings associated with it are by definition unendurable, they never make it into the part of the brain that makes sense of emotional experience. Robert Stolorow describes it this way. Developmental traumas, he says, ‘derive their lasting significance from the establishment of invariant and relentless principles of organization that remain beyond the influence of reflective self-awareness or of subsequent experience.’… Stolorow makes an interesting point about the impact of trauma, one that the Buddha’s psychology also supports. Trauma takes us out of time. There is no past or future when one is overtaken by it; it is as if it were happening now. ‘Experiences of trauma become freeze-framed into an eternal present in which one remains forever trapped, or which one is condemned to be perpetually returned through the portkeys supplied by life’s slings and arrows,’ he says. The sense of one’s own continuity, of what he calls the ‘stretching along between past and future,’ is collapsed by trauma. The traumatized individual lives outside time, in his or her own separate reality, unable to relate to the consensual reality of others. The remembering quality of mindfulness counters this tendency. It allows the experiences of trauma to come out of their frozen states and back into the warmth of time.”

Working with Shadow

In my earlier post The Six Centers, I talked about organizational Shadow and how it can pull businesses away from their goals, their customers, and their self-preservation. The Shadow is not sinister… it is simply good intentions and old pain struggling to come back to reality, to re-enter “the warmth of time.”

The Shadow center is trauma.

Most organizations don’t have a line item in their budget for Shadow work, and so most Shadow work tends to be implicit… it comes up while we are working on other things: customer relationships, culture change, goals. Shadow reveals itself, in other words, when we are moving towards and working towards one of the other five centers.

Shadow work is tricky: it can be hard to describe to others, and not everyone is interested in or attuned to it. It brings up intense negative feelings, including fear, anger, and sadness. To normalize these feelings and put them in a bigger context, it helps to have clear tools to explain what Shadow work is all about.

One such tool that I particularly like comes from the book Working With Narrative in Emotion-Focused Therapy by Lynne E. Angus & Leslie S. Greenberg. Angus and Greenberg have identified four types of stories that are indicative of traumas that have yet to be assimilated by the conscious mind. These four types of narrative glitches can be a clue that Shadow dynamics are at work and that useful creative energy is currently trapped:

  1. Same old stories—stories that are repeated too often
  2. Empty stories—stories lacking emotional meaning
  3. Unstoried emotion—upwellings of dysregulated feeling
  4. Broken stories—stories that don’t make sense

Angus and Greenberg write primarily for a professional audience of therapists, and they have many detailed, technical suggestions for how to create a holding environment and interactive zone of play for old fears and stuck ways of being to rise to the surface and dissolve. For instance, the table below is very gritty, but like the book overall, it’s a goldmine for anyone interested in effective, healing conversations:

Client Problem-Markers and End-State Tasks, Angus and Greenberg. All rights reserved.

I am not a therapist, and I keep clear boundaries so that my clients and I don’t slip into therapy-like roles that go beyond my training or scope of work. At the same time, all humans are wired for stories, so where you find humans, you find narratives, and where you find narratives, you find narrative glitches.

The four types of dysfunctional narratives called out by Angus and Greenberg appear not just in therapists’ offices, but in the stories all organizations and individuals tell themselves and use to connect with external stakeholders.


Here are some examples of how the four narrative glitches can show up in how leaders and organizations communicate.

1. Same-old stories

  • A manager is struggling to make the leap to leadership. He repeatedly tells a personal anecdote to justify his lack of progress—e.g., how he learned in the military that “no plan survives first contact” and so as a result, he refuses to plan. He eventually risks being let go for his failure to transcend his same-old story.
  • The founder of a company repeatedly reminds his staff in group meetings that the organization is a testament to a deceased family member and that person’s (presumed) views. Awkward silences ensue. Some strategic issues can never be discussed or challenged because the same-old story is too poignant and defensive to allow in other realities or perspectives.
  • A leader has an idée fixe that he uses continually to justify an unpopular strategic direction. When the leader’s obsessive focus finds no resonance with direct reports, he repeats his story more frequently, more loudly, and with more detail as a misguided way to make others understand.
  • An organization clings to a tagline, mission statement, or story about the world that is deeply comforting internally… even if the story is demonstrably false or does not connect with external stakeholders.

2. Empty stories

  • Pivotal episodes of uproar and pain within a company—e.g., layoffs, important or messy departures, personal tragedies, mistakes, or failures to achieve a goal—are reported by the management team with a flat affect. The organization struggles for a long time to move past these traumas because the grief is never acknowledged or given space.
  • External marketing copy is deadly dull and factual, devoid of any emotional energy or distinctive voice.

3. Unstoried emotion

  • When speaking with a CEO who has notably high energy, a lightning-quick mind, and frequent self-contradictions, a prospective job candidate begin to feel a lot of fear. She slowly recognizes that the CEO has “outsourced” his fears to her because he is terrified of experiencing that fear personally. His persona is, in fact, a defense against fear… a fear of making mistakes and of owning mistakes.
  • A CEO is warm-hearted and passionate about his business, but a reporter speaking with him one-on-one begins to feel instead his “outsourced” anger—a clue that the CEO is hiding frustration and embarrassment that his big-hearted persona (the version of himself that he like best) is not inspiring effective action with his team.
  • Slap-happy, cute, or whimsical marketing messages are experienced by customers or community members as being disturbing, a desperate attempt to control perception and disown responsibility. A major PR campaign backfires.
  • A nonprofit’s marketing messages about empowerment implicitly sell its clients on the idea that they have no power. The organization’s messages are experienced (consciously or not) as condescending and generic.

4. Broken stories

  • The CEO, leadership team of a company, or staff as a whole repeat an explanation of events that is self-evidently inconsistent and false, sometimes spiked with blame, anger, and strange digressions.
  • An important communication asset—e.g., a website, speech, strategic framework, merger announcement, etc.—becomes a “pile-on” of many conflicting points of view, explanations, and details so that no central story emerges.
  • The ad campaign, packaging, product design, in-box instructions, and customer support experience for a consumer hardware product feel like they were created by five different teams (which is in fact the case). The organization’s story to the outside world is completely garbled, while each individual team defends their specific contribution.

Closing thoughts

Trauma is an intrinsic and fractal element of the human experience, and it affects individuals and groups in similar ways. Trauma creates identity, and identity creates narrative: every “I” is a residue of a trauma, and every “I” tells a story to a presumed audience as an attempt to heal that trauma. Trauma, identity, and narrative, in other words, are social phenomena, shared phenomena: there is no “I” without an “us.”

Angus and Greenberg provide instructions to therapists on how to work with traumas directly, but in the workplace and in life in general, people strongly resent unhired therapists. No one likes to be analyzed, and no one wants unsolicited advice. Good managers, coaches, and consultants therefore always ask for permission before doing any Shadow work. They stay absolutely committed to the people they work with, seeing them as “whole against the sky” and not flawed and in need of correction. (A compulsion to understand, fix, rescue, and control other people is itself a sign of trauma.)

Identifying undercurrents of Shadow is useful even if one doesn’t then work with the Shadow material directly. As I mentioned in the Six Centers post, working with one of the other five centers can bring Shadow to the surface, and bringing things to the surface can often be more productive than diving into the depths. Sincere effort towards external or internal organizational objectives in due time brings Shadow out into the open, in resolvable crises.

Similarly, one of the best (if slower) ways to resolve traumas can be to try to live and work as fully and well as you can. Opportunities to heal will present themselves one at a time as steps along the path.

For further reading, see our recommended list of trauma resources.

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