December 16, 2021

What You Don’t Know CAN Hurt You… And Others

By Laura Beck, The Eden Alternative

Years ago, while volunteering each week at a local organization, I met a nice guy, Jim, who always wore the same hat… day in, day out.  The rest of us benignly speculated about the ever-present hat… did he ever take it off?  Did he sleep with it on? We had a laugh or two about that hat and what the story behind it might be.  And one day, feeling jovial with Jim, we came clean.  We asked him what it would take for that hat to come off.

We weren’t at all prepared for what happened next. Jim’s face went ashen, and he raced from the room.  We learned later that Jim had endured something deeply traumatic years ago that left his head horribly and visibly scarred.  The hat had not only concealed the physical scars, but it had hidden the emotional ones he continued to carry with him.  In a single moment, our cajoling brought up all of his pain all over again.

We were crushed.  Moments like this hit you right between the eyes… you just don’t know.  You don’t know what people carry from their past that may drive how they express themselves in the present.

What speaks to me about the movement to create trauma-informed culture is that it highlights yet another essential layer of what it means to know someone deeply. Being trauma-informed gives us the opportunity to step up our game.  This is the work we do, as advocates for and practitioners of person-directed care.  Our job is to focus, like a laser, on those things that make someone who they are.  Personhood is multi-layered and complex.  And when we devote ourselves to the art of knowing someone well through gentleness and sensitivity, we have the capacity to support their sense of security in a world that may not feel so safe.  Becoming trauma-informed gives us another opportunity to be worldmakers.  Every time we help just one person feel seen, or feel safer, or feel unconditionally accepted – no matter what their wounds may be – we help create a kinder, more inclusive world.

Creating a trauma-informed culture isn’t only about the people we serve, but it’s about our colleagues too.  It's important to teach staff to stop “eating their young.”  The ripple effects are vast.  Not only does a lack of awareness impact the relationships at the core of your organization’s culture, but it can have a profound impact on staff retention as well.  And when we can’t retain employees, we can’t maintain the consistent assignment of staff that is foundational to understanding someone’s needs.

The case for trauma-informed care reaches well beyond the quest for compliance. What steps are you taking to create a trauma-informed culture?  Let us know by sharing your story below.