Trauma is a formidable foe: Its effects harm us at will and show up unbidden even when we have tried hard to swallow our trauma down. Trauma can grip our hearts with cold and steely fingers, seep into every cell in our bodies and sit on our shoulder like a demon waiting to jump into our consciousness at a moment’s notice. Trauma can affect our sense of self, our interpersonal relationships, physical health, joy in life, and more.
Last year, I read the excellent book about trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Throughout his book, van der Kolk includes case examples about people’s lived experience of trauma; again and again, these stories reveal the deep and profound connection between trauma and conflict. Trauma impacts brain, mind, and body – yes – and as it does, it also tears open rifts in the relationships in our lives, whether at home, in the community, or at work.
Past traumas weave their way into present-day conflicts. Sometimes we are aware of how our past is influencing us today; sometimes we cannot see the impact our past trauma is having on us (even when those around us can); and still, at other times, we know that a past trauma is seeping into how we interact with others yet we seem unable to stop the power this trauma has over us. When past trauma reaches into our present we may find ourselves becoming triggered, defensive, withdrawn, agitated, angry, and even retraumatized. Trauma reactions do not tell time; in a single moment, the past can become our present even when surrounded by different people and in different places. When trauma results in behaviours that cause pain, those around us may be confused or they themselves may become traumatized.
Of course, not all conflict produces trauma; nor does all trauma produce conflict with others. Nonetheless, it is critical that we see the link between trauma and conflict – both for situations where we are the ones carrying the trauma and for those encounters when we are relating to someone experiencing conflict impacted by historical traumas (including intergenerational trauma and collective cultural trauma). And, while we know trauma can have a significant impact on conflict, other forms of mental health distress can also impact conflict.
Many years ago, a woman asked to talk with me about a traumatic encounter she had with an acquaintance some years earlier. She wanted to mediate with this individual – she felt her mental health depended on this conversation. She could see how her trauma was impacting the health of her current relationships. In short, she offered that she was having unnecessary conflicts with her loved ones because the specter of this trauma kept reappearing in her life. While mediation with her acquaintance was not possible (he had died), the woman was clear that she still needed to heal in order to be well in her relationships today.
More recently, a leader called asking for help. He kept being triggered at work during interactions with colleagues. He blamed many of them for his discontent. When truly honest with himself, however, he knew that the problem was not so much his colleagues as it was his own therapeutic needs related to his past that thus far, he had left unaddressed. He didn’t know where to turn: He needed a therapist, but he also needed a conflict specialist to help him understand both his past and his current conflict reality.
What do these two stories have in common? Our interior condition matters. Our mental health has an impact not only on us but also on those around us, impacting how we show up at work, how we relate to friends and family, and even how we talk to strangers at the grocery store. More pointedly, our mental health and our trauma stories can have a significant impact on the conflicts in our lives.
What do we do when we are hurt deep in our beings – and when that hurt is either caused by the trauma in our lives or is helping to create new conflicts) in our lives? What do we do when our old hurts are creating new conflicts and traumas in the lives of those around us?
At Credence, we offer several ways to support those dealing with conflict: (a) Some individuals find what they need in a learning environment. Workshop participants regularly tell us that our workshops have helped them make sense of their conflicts in a new way, helping them bring some perspective to the breakdowns they have experienced at work or at home. (b) Conflict coaching has helped numerous individuals think through the conflicts in their workplaces in a 1:1 conversational environment. While a coach is not a psychotherapist and cannot explore past traumas, a conflict coach can help people understand their present-day conflicts alongside strategies for addressing these conflicts. (c) Alongside coaching, some relationships benefit from the support of a mediator, bringing two or more parties together for a meaningful conversation about the challenges that have divided them.
While strategies to support those experiencing conflict are helpful, there are some who want and need deeper support, something of a more therapeutic nature. This is especially true for those experiencing the impact of trauma – whether from a past or current experience. Credence is pleased to announce that we now offer conflict- and trauma-focused psychotherapy. Like coaching, psychotherapy creates a 1:1 conversational environment to address issues of concern. Unlike coaching, however, psychotherapy engages concerns at a deeper and therapeutic level, as necessary drawing family systems, life histories, and trauma into the conversation.
We do not need to bear our burdens alone. Nor are we meant to. The human soul is wired for connection and most often, needs meaningful and caring conversation partners to find healing. While some traumas need medical interventions, it is good and necessary to find conversation partners to walk alongside us as we sort through the pain stories in our lives. Joy is possible. Healthy relationships at work and at home are possible as well.