I was seven, or maybe eight, hiding in my favorite hiding spot behind the dryer in a small laundry room. This was the only place in the house where they couldn’t seem to find me, where I felt safe. It was best if the dryer was running. The dryer’s warm air provided comfort, and its loud banging masked any sounds from my movement—meaning I wouldn’t be discovered.
One day, while I was hiding there, I folded my hands as I had seen some adults do, then bent my head downward and whispered: “If you let me get to be a grown-up I promise to come back and help all the other girls like me.” It would be nearly 30 years before I would understand the beauty and power that prayer represented.
From the age of three up until my early twenties, my life was layered with sexual, emotional and physical abuse, incest, sibling death, rape, teen pregnancy and suicide attempts. Growing up, I had zero examples of women who shared experiences in their childhoods like mine and grown positively into adults. As a teen, my options looked like poverty, addiction, suicide and mental health issues or jail. There was no post-traumatic growth option, no example of resilience—never mind any awareness of the possibility that someone could transform trauma into a force for greater good.
There were certainly no women of any age that I could point to and say: “Look at this woman or girl who has been through all of these kinds of things like me and now she is this powerful leader for good in the world!” I needed these imaginary women to come forward and show themselves so I could find my way—and they never came. Without them, I knew myself as nothing more than damaged and unlovable. I believed that no adult could really be trusted or relied upon. I believed that people who should love and protect me would hurt me. I believed that I was alone. And I believed that if anyone ever knew the truth about my past, they would be so disgusted that they would wish death upon me.
Not sharing my past with anyone was a double-edged sword: I felt safer and more in control, but in my silence I also never wholly connected to anyone. I felt a perpetual disconnection, albeit one that still that felt safer for me than the alternative. The truth is that I still don’t really want to share any of this with anyone. In fact, the idea of saying any of this publicly is terrifying—but then, so is my silence.
Abuse is one kind of trauma. Being silent about it is another. Of this I am now certain: My silence will not come to the grave with me. I wonder: Will you be taking yours with you?
Of course, it would be much easier to tell and read the story that bears the headline “Complex Trauma Turned Into Entrepreneurial Success.” We’re more comfortable with this, and we’ve heard it before. It’s the story where it all ended okay. But as soon as I go to tell it I am back in that laundry room, behind that dryer, hiding for my safety, and I think about us—the millions of women and girls that share my experiences. They are living in violent, abusive, traumatic environments right now, and they are silent and slowly assuming an identity that limits them from their true potential. What I wanted to know back then and know to be true now is that our experiences are not just ours. We are never alone. The silence makes it hard for us to see or find one another.
I very privately engaged in deeply personal work around my past for years. My effort to conceal everything became an addiction to overworking. It turned out that I found another great hiding spot in my work in the beauty industry. I was able to look a certain way that allowed me to fit in—and since no one was looking for much depth in me, it was easy to hide it from them. Over the years, I opened several businesses, and on the outside it looked like a success story. In some ways it was, but really I was avoiding myself. It took years for me to begin to share what I had experienced throughout my childhood, and even then I was only able to draw it. There were no words available, only images and feelings. I had all of the memories and none of the voice. I worried about the implications of sharing my story, even if I only drew pictures; I thought sharing would harm my family and my career. I reconciled that I would need to heal privately and that that would have to be enough—but it wasn’t.
During this time it dawned on me that given the statistics around the world related to abuse, violence and trauma, what must also be true in all of this is that some women have transformed their traumatic experiences into forces for good. But where are all of these stories? I imagine the stories that I needed to hear—not a re-telling of the painful memory, but an illumination of what someone else did in the face of her traumatic experiences. These stories, the stories I so desperately needed all of those years, are out there—and I am committed to finding and sharing them.
Traumatic, abusive and violent life experiences have the power to inspire action, build leadership and create change. Our adverse life experiences must not be used as reinforcement for silence and the perpetuation of myths around shame-based trauma. What thrives in our silence? What is at stake if it doesn’t change?
There is an Afrikan proverb that says: “You cannot heal what you conceal.” For more than 30 years I participated in silence, though I didn’t know it as such at the time. I just wanted to be normal—and “normal people” didn’t seem to talk about child abuse, incest and rape. I now understand that there is both individual and collective denial underneath silence—stories that are hard to hear and much harder to live through.
People seem to do better with traumatic natural events. Natural disasters get airtime, and people might even rally around the victims and their families to offer support. Natural disasters: Okay to talk about. Gang rape or molestation? Handled in private.
The very way we, as a collective society, respond to traumatic events tells the victim how they should or can act. It’s like there’s some kind of unspoken rule about what you can claim publicly and what you can talk about—and if it’s any of this “other stuff” you’ll be asked to keep that to yourself. We are all gatekeepers in some way—some more than others—dictating who gets to talk about what or not, and how.
Wendy Mills is another woman exploring the intersections of trauma and leadership. After years of research—and finding very little on the subject—I came across her 2010 dissertation Survivor Leaders, where she examines the relationship between survivors of abuse and trauma and leadership specific to the field of education. “While most research about childhood trauma focuses on the damage it causes, my study aimed to study how childhood trauma shapes leadership,” Mills told Ms. “Not all children who have been exposed to adverse condition develop pathologies as adults, [and] there is no bona fide evidence that certain events, event horrific events are inevitably linked to enduring negative psychological outcomes.”
I was moved by Mills’ relationship to her experiences—that she, too, saw trauma as something to build upon and use for positive contributions in the world. “We can’t let this be for nothing,” she told me. “Rather than view these experiences as a life destined for disaster, I favor viewing it in terms of potential, people that can grow a mighty heart for helping others.”
But not everyone sees the intersection of trauma and leadership as potential for pro-social leadership development. In fact, the notion of re-relating to abuse and trauma as potential brings out the skeptics. I have been challenged by people who uphold a damage model, people who subscribe to limiting beliefs about what is really possible for victims and survivors of certain life events, people that believe that trauma, abuse and violence should be kept private, that there are dangers in speaking out and sharing our stories.
I think the benefits far outweigh the risk. With careful attention to ethics for sure, this work of connecting trauma to pro-social leadership development needs to see the light of day, and most people directly affected seem to agree.
“I do not see potential harm or danger in these questions,” Cathy Lounsbury, a licensed clinical counselor and Chair in the Applied Psychology Department at Antioch University, told me when I asked about the potential harm in focusing on transforming trauma into leadership. “When someone experiences trauma, they have a profound loss of agency or control. In many cases, they question their worth—was the harm somehow their fault or because of something they did? Providing opportunities and training in leadership addresses these needs—empowering women to regain control and agency in their lives will help them to feel implicitly worthy…. from helpless to capable. By empowering women to engage in leadership roles, there is a shift from danger-oriented behavior to empowerment, connection and meaning. These are natural antidotes to the trauma experience.” Lounsbury’s work focuses on the neurophysiological impact of trauma and strength-based approaches to mitigating the effects of trauma.
Earlier this year I had the opportunity to co-facilitate a workshop in east Africa, and one night I was party to what I was later told to be an honor: a Rwandan woman shared her personal experience of the genocide with me. It was a beautiful story, despite the tragedy. As I listened to her, I heard the ferocious courage and strength of a young girl who chose to be brave in the face of death and immense fear. By the end of her story, I felt overwhelmed with honor for what she lived through and her courage—but even more profound was when she explained how her work now is driven, in large part, by her experience during and after the genocide. I asked her if she talks about this story with others. “We must talk about it,” she said, “so we remind everyone to never let it happen again.”
“We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired,” Audre Lorde wrote in her essay The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action. “For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us. The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.” Amen.
I believe that the greatest source of transformation lies in the process of engaging our adverse experiences—the antithesis of living in silence. Unexamined, my experiences with trauma, abuse and silence meant no I had choice and no control. Exploring, questioning and re-relating to these experiences created enough of a crack for some light to come through. I know there just aren’t a lot of options out there that show us how to transform trauma into pro-social action and leadership, but I know they’re coming.
The inner places and spaces that we often experience as strain, worry, stress and uncertainty actually offer us a way into our greatest potential—if we choose to see that as the place where possibility lives. It is in this space that I think we can find out greatest potential for growth. It is where the transformation of trauma lives, where oppression can become opportunity, where silence morphs into vast possibility and positive contribution for the greatest good.
I hope we find each other there.