Trauma Can Be Your Superpower – Nicole Lewis-Keeber on entrepreneurship and mental health



Hi there, my name is Nicole Lewis-Keeber. I have a master’s degree in social work. I’m a licensed clinical social worker. For 18 years, I was in clinical practice in my own private practice, or working for a group practice, [addressing] any number of types of [issues]: mental health, substance abuse, EAP [employee assistance programs]… You name it, I’ve done it. I’ve been around for quite a while doing a lot of work in a lot of different clinical settings.


I am from North Carolina, but I currently live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I’m a business therapist for small business owners, entrepreneurs, and leaders.


My area of expertise is that I study the impact of childhood trauma on business. I work with clients, entrepreneurs, and leaders to identify how childhood trauma could have been the catalyst for their business, or their entrepreneurship or their leadership, and how it may be impacting how they show up for themselves and in their business so that they can then be trauma conscious entrepreneurs, leaders, and business owners.



Why does mental health matter to me?


My whole career has been based on exploring mental wellness and working in the mental health field. From as far back as I can remember, it was something I was curious about because I struggled with my own challenges.


I have struggled with my own challenges


What I now know at 50 years old is that I probably could have been diagnosed with ADHD [and] neurodivergence. From a very, very young age, I was pretty obviously different. My ability to regulate my nervous system was not that great.


So, as you can imagine, growing up in a household where there’s a lot of chaos, and there’s a lot of trauma, being the loud, colicky crying one set me up to have a relationship with my mother where we were not very bonded. I ended up experiencing abuse in our household, and usually, I was a target for that.


That trauma, and also the fact that I had a learning difference in school, created a lot of anxiety for me. Anxiety and nervous system dysregulation was part of the DNA of my life. I always internalized it as being a personal issue.


As I’ve grown and learned, I know that it was part of how my nervous system was set up. I probably inherited it genetically. [I have also learned] that my anxiety wasn’t an entity within itself, that it was a trauma response. And so I was very curious about why people do the way things that they do, how it impacts us.


My own mental health journey led to my career.


The first real diagnosis that I had was when I went away to college, and I was unable to function. I had a clinical depression, the first year of college to the point where I did not leave my apartment. I failed all of my classes because I could not show up for them. It took quite a while for me to get diagnosed and get on medication. I’ve been vacillating between depression and anxiety most of my adult life. It’s impacted everything: my health, my weight, my mental health, my relationships, my jobs


Being where I’m at now, at 50, [I’m] doing this work with business owners, and really working at destigmatizing the word trauma and its impact on us and where it comes from and how it shows up.


Having mental health diagnoses is really important to me [as well] because we can destigmatize it. We can talk about the systems that create a lot of the trauma that we get steeped in. [Talking about this] changes the language and it changes the conversation about mental wellness.


How do I define mental health for myself?


For me, mental health means that you are in awareness of who you are and your unique blueprint–where it’s unique and where it’s human and supposed to be that way–so that you can begin to determine, you know, what is a nervous system mechanism? What is a personality? What is a preference? What is a thought? What is a mindset change that’s available?


mental health means that you are in awareness of who you are and your unique blueprint


Having an understanding of that and language for it and really knowing that about yourself allows you to be in a relationship with yourself and your mental health that creates a focus on wellness as opposed to focusing on that pathology of being sick.


The most useful tip from my journey


One of the most useful tips that I have found in this journey is understanding that there are internal voices that we have–[for example] like that inner critic,–that [were] created by a lot of things. First of all, it’s a biological imperative to keep us safe. I never knew that until I studied more. And also, I have a belief that that voice is not only here to keep us protected, but I believe that it’s also the protector of the younger, previous versions of ourselves that were involved in those experiences where we felt unsafe, unseen and loved and cared for.


As soon as I stopped trying to shut down that inner critic, and squash it, shut it, slay it, and started listening, taking a pause and listening for some wisdom or some tip about the trigger I was having, I could then attend to what was underneath that critic. That changed everything for me. From a depression standpoint, anxiety standpoint, I think it’s really important for us to understand that that voice is not necessarily ours. It was curated as a biological imperative because it’s part of our brain. We don’t have to believe it, but we also don’t have to obliterate it because there is wisdom there.



The one thing I want women entrepreneurs to know


The one thing I want women entrepreneurs to know is that the systems around us have been set up to minimize our experience, to control our bodies or narrative, to expect more from us, with less compensation, less support, less autonomy. Those systems around us that diminish our experience don’t stop when you start a business. All of the strengths and tools that [were] created out of that pressure also come with us.


All of your experiences come with you into your business–good and bad.


What you need to understand about your business journey and your entrepreneurship journey is that we don’t drop our baggage at the door. When we start a business, we bring all of who we are in all of our brilliance, all of our resilience, all of our tools [as well as] all of the ways that we have been disempowered and that we have seen ourselves in a light where we are not worthy.


Worth comes up a lot in entrepreneurship. You can be the best person, you can be the top salesperson on the team working for someone else, then when you take that leap to start your own business, it’s a completely different story when we put a value on what we do. It can be a real gap in building a business.


I want you to know, doesn’t have to be that way. The system has been set up to make you feel less than, not [to] support you. Because of those systems not supporting you and diminishing your experience, sometimes it’s hard for us to say what we need. We’ve also been put in really impossible situations where we have still thrived outside of survival.


You have everything it takes to become an entrepreneur [or] small business owner when you can understand that your trauma could be [having] an impact on how you set up your business, whether you are able to be successful long term or not. [The impact of trauma] is not good or bad, it’s just a factor in [your business]. When you can begin to explore that, it’ll be a superpower you have that other people don’t have.


Trauma can be a superpower


When you are trauma conscious as an entrepreneur, and learn to do no harm for yourself and to the people that you work with, in my opinion, it is a superpower and it’s what sets you apart. It makes you that disrupter, trailblazer spirit that I love to work with.


If I can get on my soapbox for a minute, I really believe that many of these diagnoses that we are given depression, anxiety, ADHD, that many, many of those, then I really feel that they’re not diagnoses within themselves, that almost all of the diagnoses in the DSM-V [diagnostic and statistical manual, 5th edition] could say depressive symptoms due to trauma response… anxiety due to trauma response… They all come back to that trauma, so let’s call a thing a thing. ]


Let’s call a thing a thing when it comes to mental wellness.


Naming things is super helpful. [It helps you] you know you’re not a depressed person, you’re having depressive symptoms in response to trauma. It’s not about you. It is about the experience that you had and how your body has moved through that experience. So, let’s name it. Let’s destigmatize it. Let’s call out the systems around us that perpetuate it. And let’s help each other. Let’s support each other in building mental wellness into our businesses and into the systems that we occupy.


Nicole Lewis-Keeber, MSW, RSW

Business Therapist

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ig | @nicole.lewiskeeber

About the author 

Shulamit Berlevtov  -  Shulamit (she/her) is the Entrepreneurs' Therapist. She is working passionately to mitigate the entrepreneurial mental health crisis through keynote speaking and educational workshops and by supporting women entrepreneurs 1:1 to care for their mental and emotional wellbeing and their money psychology in an era of relentless stressors that can make you want to lose your crap on the daily.

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