Thus far in this series, I have made the case that leadership ineffectiveness is rooted in leaders’ trauma.

In Part 1, I described trauma, not as events that occur to us, but on the effect that stressful situations have on the wiring in our brain. We have all experienced trauma, and it is the effects of trauma that cause us to lead ineffectively.

In Part 2, I communicated the primary negative effects that trauma has on the wiring in our mind, which include disassociation, disintegration, misencoding, and shrinking window of tolerance.

In Part 3, I communicated the secondary negative effects of trauma, which primarily include (1) decreased self-awareness, and (2) decreased other-awareness, which together means a lack of emotional intelligence.

In Part 4, I explored another secondary negative effects of trauma, which is that trauma inhibits our ability from being agile.

Together, effectively, trauma is generally at the root of any lack of emotional intelligence and/or agility and psychological flexibility.

While we could go into greater depth on all of this content, I think it is now time to turn toward the powerful implication associated with this series:

In order to help leaders significantly transform, we need to help them heal from their past trauma


Reviewing the Consequences of Trauma

In Part 2, I explained that when we experience stress that exceeds our body’s capacity to absorb that stress, our body goes to drastic measures to help limit our pain and keep us safe. A chain reaction occurs:

  1. First, disassociation occurs, our mind disconnects from our body. Commonly, we experience numbness.
  2. Second, at a neurological level, this disconnection causes a disintegration in our brain’s wiring such that our reptilian and mammalian brains operate on overdrive (i.e., are very sensitive), and our human brain cannot step in and regulate the reptilian and mammalian brains. With our reptilian and mammalian brains operating on overdrive and our human brain being unable to regulate, two consequences occur:
  3. We commonly misencode our world. We see safe things as being dangerous (e.g., admitting we are wrong), and dangerous things as being safe (e.g., engaging in drug use).
  4. Our window of tolerance shrinks, such that it takes less stress to send us into fight, flight, or freeze mode.

While the effects of this chain reaction are stronger, the closer to the time of trauma, these effect still linger.

Let me give you an example from the Body Keeps the Score.

The Body Keeps the Score Disassociation Commentary

The author, Bessel van der Kolk, relates his amazement to the long-term effects of disassociation. He writes:

“I was amazed to discover how many of my patients told me they could not feel whole areas of their bodies. Sometimes I’d ask them to close their eyes and tell me what I had put into their outstretched hands. Whether it was a car key, or a can opener, they often could not even guess what they were holding—their sensory perceptions simply weren’t working.”


Not only is this problematic, but van der Kolk goes on to write, “When our senses become muffled, we no longer feel fully alive.” Disassociation may keep us safe in the moment by cutting off negative feelings, but the long-term implications is that it also cuts off positive feelings.

The Goals of Trauma Healing

When we understand the harm trauma causes, it become clear to see what the goals of trauma healing are. They are to:

  • Create better association between our mind and body
  • Integrate the mind so that our three brain regions work more effectively together
  • Help us to encode our world more effectively
  • Expand our windows of tolerance

The Two Strategies of Trauma Healing

There are two primary approaches to help people heal from their trauma. They are the top-down approach and the bottom-up approach.

The top-down approach is where you start at the top of your mind, the human brain, and consciously dive down into the mammalian and reptilian brains, and then even further into the body. It is a very cognitive and conscious process. Think of it as an introspective submarine dive to discover what is beneath the surface. As we move our way from the top downward, what occurs is greater association and the facilitation of integration, which promote more accurate encoding and the expansion of our window of tolerance.

The bottom-up approach is where you start with connecting with your body, and then you move upward to explore your feelings that stem from your reptilian and mammalian brains, and then make sense of those feelings with your human mind. Often this approach is taken when people have high self-protective walls that prevent them from doing introspective deep dives.

When people are working on healing from their trauma, they can take either approach or both approaches. The more, the better.

In the next couple of articles in this series will focus on each of these approaches in greater detail.


If you have personally had any productive experiences with specific top-down or bottom-up processes that you think might be helpful to others, I would love to hear about your experience. And, I may include your suggestions in the upcoming articles. Either comment below or shoot me an email.