Feeling our way through change

Throughout my time working in Wales, I’ve seen the growth in understanding of, and commitment to, trauma informed approaches and wider system change. We have all gone through changes as we grapple with our role both as agitators for action – but also as stewards of old ways of working.

ACEs and empathy

I remember when Public Health Wales first published their ACEs research – six years ago, now! Many people across Wales (and more widely) were keen to explore what this meant for young people and families, quite rightly. Other people though were curious: what did this mean for the adults those children would become? People noticed that there can be a sudden loss of empathy the moment “children” become “adults”. If you’re a child and you’re struggling, our society can at least attempt understanding. If you’re an adult and you’re struggling, it can all too often become a blame game.

ACEs, and the corresponding movement towards more trauma informed ways of being, are not “new”. They have been known across the world in caring professions for a long time. But the ACEs research and the growing trauma informed movement provided a focus for sectors across the UK, but particularly here in Wales.

It can help us take forward conversations and develop policy and practice that could challenge traditional, bureaucratic and at times, traumatising structures and ways of working.

Shields of shame

The conversations and challenge that shifting to trauma informed ways of being raises, can be hard. It is hard to understand and accept that we are complicit in old power structures, in controlling methods of care or support, in systems that prize results and efficiency over human connection. Even as we move towards different ways of being, supported by developments such as the Trauma Informed Wales Framework, we will all come up against resistance. There are many different models for system change, and almost all have some words or definition for the resistors to change. In one model, the “Two Loop Learning Model”, individuals can be described as “stewards” – people who take comfort in, or benefit from, the current dominant system. Whilst helpful to an extent, this model doesn’t allow for a complex understanding of people’s own trauma both as individuals but also as people delivering a sometimes harmful, traumatising service. In this example, I increasingly like to draw on the concept of the “shield of shame”, with thanks for alerting me to it, to our resident clinical community psychologist, Jen Daffin.

Most often used in psychological work with children and young people, there is still a lot we can learn from it in services. Considering for example, that with young people the shield of shame, or guilt, can trigger when they are told off, or otherwise confronted, it sets the parameters very well for how we could work with each other in the sector.

I’ve been guilty (there’s that word again) of blaming. Sometimes I look at our system as it is, and the people it harms, and I get angry.

I consider the barriers that get in the way and I want to make changes now – or better than that, yesterday. But that form of challenge will only trigger other people’s shields of shame.

What does that look like? Well, it can involve denial. It can involve blame. Minimisation. Or even rage.

Have we seen this in our work, as we try to make changes? Denial: “No, there is no problem with the way this service works, look how many referrals we process and look at the outcomes.” Blame: “Well, we aren’t at fault, it is all the commissioners’ problem, they do it all wrong. Nothing to do with us.” Minimisation: “Yes, we think these things are harmful, but in the scheme of things its better than the alternative, and does it make that much impact at all?” Rage: “Well, if that’s the case, why are you even wanting to deliver services here, if we’re so bad.”

They are all examples of conversations I have heard over my professional career.

The ways to work through, or alongside, someone’s shield of shame, is through connection – establishing a trusted relationship and understanding of people.

Brené Brown talks about “shame resilience”, which she categorises in four ways: recognising shame (what it feels like); practicing critical awareness (why is this happening, how it works, etc); reaching out, telling our story (connecting to others), and speaking shame (removing the secrecy, ending the silence).


I have been on a significant learning journey during my time at Platfform, I am coming to understand more how our feelings about our work, and changes to it, can impact on how we act. It is why I am particularly proud of the Wisdoms work that we did alongside Caredig housing association.

Caredig have been working hard to move towards a trauma informed way of being – with both tenants and staff. Recognising that the move towards this can be difficult, and can throw up different feelings, we offered through the New System Alliance to explore staff and tenant experiences and feelings of their attempt to change their system. In this example, going back to Brené Brown, Caredig sought to practice critical awareness (trying to understand why and what they were working towards), whilst reaching out to hear from people they are working with, and they are now sharing those findings publicly through Platfform, by publishing a report.

It is one of the first steps we are taking in Wales, through the New System Alliance, to overcome the “shield of shame”, as we look towards a whole new way of being.

In building new connections, we need to start somewhere.

Oliver Townsend is Head of Partnerships and Practice at Platfform, and leads the New System Alliance within Wales. The full report is being launched at an online event on the 14th September.