You’re an adult founder (or side hustler looking to convert).

Why does affirming past traumatic experiences even matter? Especially for you, an entrepreneurial leader?

Because if you don’t know something is fixable and within your control, you won’t try.

We know that other people and their responses aren’t fixable. Feel anxious during public speaking? We try self-development tools—Toastmasters, exposure therapy, etc.—to address or “fix” that anxiety. We don’t try to fix the audience.

Similarly, we know past events aren’t fixable. If we flubbed a public speech, there’s no going back.

The problem comes when we hold similar views about trauma.

Trauma is something that’s “fixable,” or rather, resolvable.

We just have to know how to—and why it’s important. But before we can learn how to resolve trauma, we must first understand what it really is.

The Many Definitions of Psychological “Trauma”: Which is Right?

What is “trauma”? Ask 10 different people and you may get 10 different answers. Is there a “right” way to define it?

First, to clarify: I refer to psychological trauma in my work (i.e., mental/emotional pain from neglect, abuse, etc.), not physical trauma (i.e. a broken bone).

Knowing what “trauma” is and means empowers us with the knowledge to “fix” it. (Or rather, to resolve or process it.)

Here’s what (psychological) trauma isn’t—and it’s important.

The word “trauma” is often used to describe situations that cause great emotional distress. Merriam Webster defines trauma as “a very difficult or unpleasant experience.”

However, behavioral health professionals recognize that the experience is a causative factor—the stressor. And the actual “trauma,” as the APA defines it, is “the emotional response to a terrible event.”

I’ll say that again:

The “trauma” is our body’s response to what happened, not what happened itself.

That’s super important.

Because if we think of trauma as “the thing that happened to us” (like past emotional neglect) … we can’t fix that; the past is already gone.

But one thing we can control—to a degree—is our response.

What’s disturbing enough to cause “trauma”?

We know trauma is a person’s emotional response to a terrible event… but “terrible” is subjective. Each one of us can respond quite differently to the same event.

In the late ‘90s, the CDC and Kaiser Permanente did a study to measure the impacts of Adverse Childhood Experiences (traumatic experiences) on long-term life and health outcomes. They measured child traumatic stress in three main categories:

1. physical abuse (being “spanked” with hard items, “spanked” until you had marks, being slapped, pushed, etc.) or neglect (not having enough to eat, having to wear dirty clothes).

2. emotional abuse (being insulted, put down, cursed at, threatened, etc.) or neglect (feeling unsupported, unloved, unwanted, not being paid attention to, etc.), and

3. household dysfunction (parental divorce or separation, incarceration, substance dependency, psychological illness, etc.).

Those are often the most common categories and experiences we think of when discussing trauma. But there are numerous other traumatic happenings that fall outside (or are even more nuanced than) those. They might include:

  • being involved in an auto accident
  • being bullied
  • being gaslit
  • having surgery
  • breaking a bone
  • leaving a long-term relationship
  • experiencing blatant discrimination
  • the passing of a loved one
  • being betrayed
  • etc.

Note, although a few examples above cause physical trauma, I still refer only to the psychological trauma: the emotional response to those physical experiences.

When does trauma become something to “heal” from?

You might be wondering why, if trauma is an emotional response, it doesn’t resolve at some point after the experience.

To put that into perspective, consider someone who’s lost a beloved pet. That’s traumatic for most people. The resulting feelings don’t spontaneously dissolve; they just get easier to deal with over time.

This “emotional response” the APA calls “trauma” is, like most, a very complex physiological process. But basically, a terrible event happens, we feel very distressed, and this all activates our body’s security alarm and defense system.

It’s important to note that this terrible event gets stored in our nervous system as a sensory memory. This is a memory that’s strongly associated with sight, hearing, smell, touch, or taste.

To protect us from danger, our body is constantly using our senses to scan the environment for perceived threats. But now, we have this old trauma “recorded” in our nervous system (to help protect us from it happening again).

This is important because, in situations that have similar sensory qualities, our body is reminded of the original traumatic experience, activating our defense system—or stress response—again.

If we don’t do something to heal or soothe the effects of this experience, its impacts can become more intense, spilling over into other areas of our lives—affecting how we manage and market our businesses.

So how does resolving past trauma help founders grow faster?

We’re back full circle.

Unresolved trauma can manifest as unwanted habits and behaviors that stifle progress.

Especially for solo founders, the health of the human running the business can be considered THE most important factor to sustain growth.

Science proves that Adverse Childhood Experiences—a.k.a. childhood trauma, a.k.a. past traumatic stress, a.k.a. developmental trauma—change our brain, body, and behavior. As adults.

Here’s a real-world example:

Let’s say the fictional Siobhan frequently experienced childhood emotional and verbal abuse:

  • Her parents said belittling things to her whenever she said more than a few words.
  • When they asked her questions, they’d interrupt and tell her her ideas were “stupid.”
  • They were often bored, impatient, or exasperated whenever she spoke, frequently not even making eye contact.
  • Oftentimes, they’d continue with their life tasks, only seeming to half pay attention.
  • And if they were engaged, it was often by teasing Siobhan for stumbling over her words as she rushed to justify her thoughts before further ribbing.

Even though Siobhan no longer talks with her parents much, or they’ve repaired their relationship, Siobhan now has a crippling fear of speaking in public.

Every time her business partner asks her to address the team at company parties, she instantly starts sweating. Her knees and voice start shaking. She feels nervous, her stomach drops, and her heart pounds (stress response).

But she also has this reaction when talking with “authority figures,” like her mentor, her attorney, or her accountant.

When she hears people start to question something she said, Siobhan rushes to justify and explain herself, often stumbling over her words. And when people yawn or seem bored, she’ll turn on the charm or tell a joke to try to make sure they’re “entertained.”

Because Siobhan had all of these sensory experiences as a child, she immediately becomes highly activated when even remotely similar things happen again. The interesting thing is that Siobhan communicates this way with everyone, even her loving, supportive spouse who always loves to hear what she has to say.

Remember, trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event.

In these cases, our body is responding to the perception (or possibility) of danger. So when Siobhan experiences even remotely similar triggers in the present, she feels terror and anxiety, however unwarranted.

This example shows how we can tell there may be past trauma to heal.

And again, unless we intentionally and strategically seek to heal it, our emotional response becomes more and more intense, causing more and more business hurdles over time.

The Red Pill

Many types of experiences can feel traumatic to each of us, and to varying degrees. The fact is that every person’s perception of what feels traumatic is different.

Understanding that trauma is our own response to an experience empowers us toward change.

Instead of debating the right/wrong way to use “trauma” in a sentence, let’s validate each others’ experiences, respect our differing perspectives… and most importantly, seek to release childhood trauma so it doesn’t stifle our professional growth.