You can’t be Trauma-Informed if you can’t see the Trauma

You can’t be Trauma-Informed if you can’t see the Trauma
May 10, 2018 Echo

Trauma-informed care should be like universal precautions – in the same way you wouldn’t clean up a blood spill without wearing gloves, you should always assume that someone has experienced trauma and treat them accordingly.

Only it doesn’t happen that way. Once our indignation or any other parts of our wounded selves come into play, that usually goes out of the window unless you have been conditioned to wear a trauma-informed lens. And even then, there will be times we fail.

Let me give you an illustration. A domestic violence shelter resident who was attending our parenting classes called me and wanted help.  She wanted help, but how she actually went about it was to embark on a long rant, full of cussing and accusations, which almost burnt my ear off. Fortunately, I have been teaching about trauma for a long time and have learned to populate the theory with the faces of my nearest and dearest. “Ah, I know you, you’re [name of good friend]!” I said to myself. You get big to get what you want because that’s what you learned from your abusive parent. You were terrified half to death as a child, but when you are under stress, that is the pattern of communication that resurfaces.

I managed to calm the mother down and empathize with her situation. She was in danger of losing her housing and she and her 10-year-old boy would be back on the street. I pointed out her strength in being able to advocate for herself and even managed to help her see that she would lose the battle if she went into a meeting with the shelter director and lost her cool. She asked me to give the shelter director a call on her behalf and I agreed.

Me: She’s really afraid she’s going to lose her housing.

Shelter Director: But she’s loud and rude and gets in your face and she upsets the other residents!

Me (to self): Have you never actually met a trauma survivor?!

I don’t know this shelter director but I imagine the mother activated him in all kinds of ways. Maybe the story in his head is that she should be grateful and show that by being meek and compliant. Maybe he imagined helping defenseless women when he took this job and a potty-mouthed street fighter did not fit that image. Maybe he was offended because he had been brought up to believe that angry outbursts were unacceptable and should be punished. Maybe he came from a family where he was never allowed to show his anger.

I will never know his story but I do know that a lot was going on for him, so much so that all his training about the triune brain, Adverse Childhood Experiences, the resiliency zone and all the other staples of trauma training did not get applied. You have to recognize trauma in order to be able to apply trauma-informed care.

That is why a large part of Echo’s trauma trainings is dedicated to ‘how trauma shows up.’ We have so many labels, biases, and reactions stemming from our own trauma histories, that we slap on other people’s behavior and miss the trauma. Passive aggressive? Control freak? Trauma. Lack of hygiene? Emotional manipulation? Trauma. Defensiveness? Punitive? Trauma.

When we don’t recognize the underlying trauma we tend to punish people who offend against our sense of what is ‘right’ or we stigmatize and exclude them. The mother was in danger of being ‘exited’ from the shelter. Fortunately, she used all the resources available to her and showed up at the meeting with professionals (school teachers, her son’s therapist) to help her. My kind of girl! But so easy to dismiss as a ranting, abusive, hysterical woman.

I would be feeling really good about my role in all this if it weren’t for the fact that yesterday I had a phone call with someone who pushed all my buttons. It was only later than I was able to find my compassion for her because I realized [name of that very useful friend] would probably have approached the conversation the same way. I mourned my caller’s lack of skills and my lack of skills in responding. I had compassion for myself that in the thick of it, it is really hard to remember those darned trauma-informed lenses.


Here are some questions we’ve developed to help you (and me) learn from these activating situations:

  1. Without judgment, what was my reaction (physical, emotional, mental) and how did I then respond?
  2. Did the behavior offend against my personal values?
  3. Did it offend against my learned social values?
  4. Was it triggering my trauma?
  5. Was I witnessing a trauma response in the other person?
  6. Am I able to find compassion for myself and the other person?
  7. Did I respond by punishing, shaming, shunning or badgering?


You’ll notice that only one of those questions relates to the other person. Our ability to tune into someone else’s needs or trauma relies on how well we are able to regulate our own emotions. I failed miserably yesterday and my attempt to make a repair (okay, half-hearted and still indignant attempt) was not well received. But I get to brush myself off and try on those trauma-informed lenses again. With a big mirror and my portrait gallery of friends and family, how can I not succeed!