What trauma-informed leaders know: practice makes permanent, not perfect

I know, I know… there’s a lot to unpack here because you’ve been told your whole life if you just need to practice more, try harder, do it again – you’ll “get it”. This is true, and untrue – and it’s not going to be a surprise to you that if we look at practice through a trauma-informed leadership lens, we need to consider the nervous system and what has happened to us in the past.

One of the key principles in trauma-informed leadership is curiosity. Instead of judgement, shame, or blame, as trauma-informed leaders we are approaching chronic problems and toxic workplace relationships with honesty, transparency, and respectful questions. In trauma-informed leadership we never approach a person with the question, “What is WRONG with you?”. Instead we start with the question, “What’s happened to you and how is it impacting you and I now?”

Take a moment to feel the distinct energy in these questions and let it change your mindset today and forever:

  • What’s WRONG with you? (Dysregulating question)
  • What has happened to you and how is it impacting you and I now? (Co-regulating question)

Trauma-informed ideas are counterculture. These principles go against what usually happens to us at work or in the community. Systems and organizations have been built to perpetuate power/control trauma-based tactics to keep people in line. But it’s not working. We need something new.

Trauma-informed care is not a set of rules with hard and fast outcomes. Trauma-informed care and leadership is a practice. We all know that when we are practicing something new, we can make a lot of mistakes, fall down seven times and get up eight, and there will be times we mess it up. Trauma is messy, and so is the practice of being curious, open, and walking the journey of post-traumatic recovery.

A practice is not a habit, it’s not an addiction, and it’s not rigid. Think about the Window of Tolerance graphic and if we are stuck in rigidity or chaos, we are not in our flow. With habits and addictions, we feel we have no choice. When I finally got to the place where I wanted desperately to kick my cigarette addiction, I hated smoking. I didn’t want to do it, I knew it was killing me, people around me thought it was gross – and yet – I still picked up cigarettes. I didn’t want to – but I did. Again, and again. I have successfully and long-term given up smoking – but it took a lot of time, practice, and some medical intervention to support the physical cravings. Smoking is an addiction and a habit – it feels choiceless, even at the end when the smoker hates it.

A habit or addiction traps you. It also negatively impacts you and others around you.

It is a prison.

On the other hand, a practice is always a choice. A practice liberates us and gives us something intrinsically rewarding. I think of my yoga practice. I must choose to roll out my mat every single time – and I do choose it, almost always gladly. When I am tired, grumpy, or unbalanced I struggle, I whine, I procrastinate, and I don’t feel good. When I choose my practice (even while whining) it always benefits me mentally and physically. My yoga practice has been one the most liberating experiences of my life. It heals me every time I show up.

A practice is not a prison. A practice is freedom.

A practice also insinuates that it does not have to be perfect. Think about how we use this word: a doctor, naturopath or veterinarian “practices” medicine and healing (they don’t always get it “right”), many people around the world have spiritual “practices” that they perform to unite with higher powers. We can’t get prayer or meditation “right” either. A therapist has a “practice” where they see clients and test out support strategies with them. It can be noted that without intention and curiosity practices most definitely can become habits. It’s all about awareness.

As we dedicate ourselves to the principles of trauma-informed leadership we approach it as a practice. We absolutely must practice self and co-regulation because we don’t always get it rolling smoothly on the first try. We must stay connected, self-aware, and vigilant to others’ states (flow, rigidity, or chaotic) to experience the moments of growth and connection. This isn’t about rules and it’s not about getting it “right”.

When we do things over and over our brains create a pathway. As we practice things this pathway becomes smoothed out and easy to access and use in the brain. Easy example: my mom taught me how to swim and I practiced a lot in our backyard pool. I have a good smooth pathway in my brain so that if I fall over into water my brain and body can react completely smoothly and I will swim to the top.

Now, let’s imagine that my mom taught me to swim in the backyard pool, but she taught me only to use one leg while kicking. My brain creates a pathway that allows me to swim using one leg only while the other one just dangles there. I practice one-legged swimming my whole childhood, I am good at it and my body can still respond and swim to the top if I fall over into the water.

But then I go get a job as a lifeguard at the local pool and everyone’s upset. I have practiced and “perfected” one legged swimming. But lo and behold, this is not the best way to swim. It’s slower, harder, and one leg is now really strong and the other is not.

Practice did not make me a perfect swimmer, but the amount of time I swam with only one leg made it a permanent swimming action for me.

Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent.

Let the sentence change how you think. And don’t stress – in this case – permanent doesn’t actually mean permanent unless we want it to. We still have a choice to change.

We can apply these principles to emotional brain pathways. If you have a co-worker who has spent their whole life being angry because of something that happened to them (not because there is something wrong with them) and their brain has been “practicing” anger for decades, it’s become a permanent way of being for them.

Enter neuroplasticity, the balancing antidote to “practice makes permanent”.

When we see a practice, habit or addiction becoming permanent in the brain we can shift – not always easily, and quite often as humans we need support in shifting.

Neuro or brain plasticity is best described like this: “the ability of the nervous system to change its activity in response to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing its structure, functions, or connections” (MateosAparicio & Rodríguez-Moreno 2019).

Notice here that neuro/brain plasticity has just as much to do with the nervous system as it does with the brain. Good news! This means we can use the body as a vehicle to shift our brain pathways.

The greatest way we do this is though connection, empathy, and respectful curiosity. By recognizing our own states, habits and addictions, and cultivating new practices we will strengthen our trauma-informed leadership skills and the way we manage and supervise at work. We start to see how environments can change with small actions to reduce nervous system dysregulation and be more productive.

Our practices this week are this:

  • Slowing down and considering people’s states (including our own)
  • Asking respectfully curious questions
  • Practicing asking, “What happened to you?” instead of “What’s wrong with you?”

I’m here to tell you that this will never be perfect. Take that word out of your mindsight – there is no expectation of perfection here. Just practice.

Remember: practice liberates us.

We are all practicing this together on the journey towards regulation and expanding our edges. I’m so glad we can walk together.