Trauma: The Key to Evolution

Image by MTMcPhearson | Canva

The following is a condensed excerpt from “The Ultimate Guide to Becoming a Successful Soul Professional,” where human performance expert and former NFL running back, Femi Ayanbadejo pens his chapter, “Trauma: The Key to Evolution.”


 “People don’t cry because they’re weak.
They cry because they have been trying to be too strong for too long.” (unknown)


Before I turned ten years old, I was sexually assaulted twice. The first was by a boy in my neighborhood. I was about six, and the boy was 12 or 13. The second was by a trusted adult. I also saw my mom abused by lesser men. I was a prepubescent child trying to protect my mother from grown men. It didn’t go well.


By the time I turned 16, I was bigger than most men. I made sure any man who disrespected me, my mother, or my family, felt my pain and power after years of powerlessness. I don’t condone violence or taking out past grievances on another for transgressions they didn’t commit. The truth is, I had already been through years of sordid events I was incapable of processing.


It’s my belief that understanding trauma on a deeper level can help us develop healthier relationships with ourselves and everyone around us. My trauma can be another’s salvation.


My observations and analysis of my trauma have made things very clear to me. I’m a badass motherfucker. And you can be a badass, too. This isn’t a story about broken things. This is a story of triumph and self-discovery. I’m not badass because I’m tough and static, but because I’m agile and dynamic—perpetually searching for the lesson and critique in every survival event I encounter. Each survival event is a chance to evolve or potentially self-destruct. I see each event as an opportunity; there is no such thing as insignificant trauma.


The most impactful traumatic events in my early life weren’t the sexual assaults. It was the drowning of my half-brother, Tope, at a public swimming pool in Lagos, Nigeria, when I was three. While taking me to the bathroom, he slipped and fell into the pool’s deep end. No one knows how he ended up at the bottom of that pool. For years, I’ve wondered if the loss of his life spared mine.


We moved to Nigeria when I was a toddler. Living with a white mother, an absent father, and basic amenities often lacking, my early life was challenging. After my brother’s death, my mother, fearing for her safety, smuggled us out of the country with aid from British foreign nationals and the US embassy. We eventually settled in a housing project called Lathrop Homes on the north side of Chicago. Here, violence, drugs, and stray gunfire was a common occurrence.


At 11, we moved to Santa Cruz, California, shifting from one extreme environment to another in a four-day journey. Adapting was a struggle, as I felt like an outsider and missed the familiar, albeit violent, life back in Chicago. However, the move likely saved my life, and with time, I began to appreciate Santa Cruz and the opportunities and safety it provided.


Despite the safety and security that comes with growing up in Santa Cruz, trauma exposure can be reduced but never eliminated, whether it be the Loma Prieta earthquake or harassment by the police. I learned to perceive these “big T” and “little t” traumatic events as part of my survival journey, using them as fuel to evolve and build resilience.


Despite not receiving an athletic scholarship after my time at Santa Cruz High, I still believed in my ability. I was 16 years old for most of my senior year. A gap year made sense. I worked at a retirement home and lived in the gym for a year. Post my gap year, I enrolled at Cabrillo community college, eventually earning a football scholarship to San Diego State University (SDSU). I managed to parlay my scholarship into a psychology degree, an 11-year NFL career, a Super Bowl championship, and a venture into entrepreneurship. This was the foundation of my human performance coaching expertise and aspirations.


After five years as a co-founder of a fitness business and human performance expert, I chose to put my ambition and kids on equal footing. No more parenting from a distance or quarterly visits. In retrospect, those five years were necessary for me to work on myself after over a decade in the NFL and the trauma that comes with that. I sold everything I owned, including my equity stake in the fitness business and my house in San Diego. I once again found myself making a 4-day cross-country drive; this time, it was back to a familiar city, Baltimore. I enrolled at Johns Hopkins University as a graduate student. Two years later, I completed my MBA, coached my kids’ flag football teams, and experienced all the memorable moments. Meanwhile, I continued developing my health-tech startup and methodology around resilience. A former professor from Hopkins introduced me to NASA’s technology transfer program. I was the first athlete in history to sign such an agreement.


Reflecting on my journey, past trauma became a force for good, helping me evolve personally and professionally. My life is marked by traumatic episodes and adaptation. As I became better at analyzing my trauma and developing coping strategies that worked, I knew I could help others better understand their own trauma and how to begin resolving it.


It’s important to differentiate between magnitudes of trauma and categorical differences in trauma. Those differences are subjective and aren’t to be judged. Trauma should be seen through the eyes of the survivor. We’re all in different places, with unique origin stories, coping mechanisms, and experiences. Our genetics, environments, external support, and a myriad of other factors can lead to different responses when comparing similar survival events and circumstances. I believe it’s a mistake to compare one person’s trauma to another. The goal is to create an environment where we can all share our experiences and learnings without comparing magnitude or direct results.


This process can be two steps forward and one step back; effectively managing trauma can elicit short-term trauma for those close to us. A key realization in the self-discovery process is acknowledging the trauma I have intentionally and unintentionally caused others. At times we see trauma from a perspective that is self-serving. It is self-preservation we seek. We do not see the trauma we create when we are suffering. This is a key concept in my trauma rubric. It’s my hope that the trauma I cause for others is not destructive but leads to long-term resilience, evolution, and enlightenment for me and them. If we look at trauma on a telescopic and microscopic level, we can see it’s the story of evolution. This holds true when looking at the development of the universe, galaxies, our solar system, planet, and birth. Trauma is rooted in us genetically, chemically, and atomically.


My relationship with trauma is rooted in some constants. I’m comfortable being uncomfortable. I don’t enjoy trauma or seek out discomfort. I also do not run or hide from it. It has taught me to embrace confrontation and accept that things break along the way, only to be rebuilt more resilient than the previous iteration. Trauma can stir up many emotions. None of those emotions are wrong. What we do with those emotions is what matters. Not all the emotions we experience from trauma are negative. Discomfort around trauma will keep many from facing it, which can be worse than the trauma itself; traumatic experiences can be closed-looped and are bound to resurface when left unchecked. If you’re willing to be open-minded and accept the emotions that come with assessing one’s trauma, truths are illuminated. Within the trauma experience exists malleable mental, emotional, and physical armor. This armor grows as you grow and can be called upon at any time when we create a disciplined and empathetic relationship with trauma.




Part 1: Evolution is Rooted in Survival, Assessment, Learning, Deployment, and Sharing

Survive: No matter the seriousness or magnitude, survive the event. Under more subtle circumstances involving verbal attacks, character assassination, or confrontation, do not succumb to impulse.

Assess: How, what, and why? What was your role in said event? Could you have done anything differently? Is this a recurring survival event? One can reflect for hours, days, weeks, or years.

Learn: After assessing the survival event and the results, what did you learn? What skills do you need to acquire or work toward to avoid similar events and outcomes?

Deploy: Have a response plan in place to minimize future trauma. Making the jump from learning to deployment can be difficult. It takes self-control and self-awareness to not respond impulsively when we find ourselves in repeat survival situations or under attack.

Share: It can be cathartic to speak about our survival events and trauma. Sharing saves lives or at the least unnecessary trauma. You don’t need to hit your head against the wall to know it hurts.


Part 2: Trauma Types (PROOOF)

Positive: Positive trauma comes from people we trust—coaches, mentors, and family members. It forces us to listen to things we may not be ready to hear and process and must if we hope to continue to evolve. Short-term pain for long-term gain.

Random: Some survival events are random and not the result of ill intent. Life happens. I mentioned the Loma Prieta earthquake. Through the assessment process I could choose to not live in earthquake zones but the event itself was a random event.

Occupational: Trauma is mental, physical, and emotional. Many have jobs that put us at risk of all three simultaneously. We must set aside time to understand the survival events and trauma that come with our lines of work. Suppressed trauma can be a ticking time bomb. Occupational trauma is not something you can manage alone in some lines of work. Talk to someone.

Ourselves: We can be the source of our own trauma. Making decisions that do not serve ourselves and cause internal as well as external friction. Do not hit snooze when your internal alarm goes off. Life has enough obstacles without getting in your own way.

Others: We must recognize the trauma we cause others. We must then ask ourselves why. “I’m sorry” are two of the most powerful words in our language. What it communicates is responsibility, accountability, and awareness.

Family/Friends: This is the inverse of the point above. Sometimes we need to cut people loose or at least temporarily avoid them if they’re knowingly and purposely causing us unnecessary trauma. We must frequently ask ourselves what type of impact the people we surround ourselves with have on our lives. Is it positive, negative, and necessary?


I do not expect anyone to navigate this process with perfection or to come away with false notions around living with trauma. In fitness we call exercises that lead to muscle building ‘hypertrophy training.’ You cause trauma to the muscle and the body responds by increasing the size and the strength of the damaged muscle as it heals. This is hypertrophy training for your soul and mind.


Femi is a human performance expert, certified nutritionist, speaker, entrepreneur, consultant and health technologist. He is the founder and CEO of HealthReel Inc. and has created his own methodology on health optimization entitled “The Five Rings of Resilience.” Femi completed his MBA at Johns Hopkins University and is also a NASA technology transfer partner.  He has remained close to both NASA and Johns Hopkins in consulting and collaboration roles.

Femi also has experience at the corporate executive level. He was VP of business development and strategic planning at a Baltimore based organization prior to going all in on entrepreneurship and human performance. Femi played 11 years in the NFL as a running back and special teamer. He was part of the Baltimore Ravens 2000 Super Bowl XXXV championship team. Femi played college football at San Diego State University and has a degree in psychology from SDSU.


If you’d like to collaborate with Femi or have him as a guest speaker you can email him directly or reach him on social sites at the following locations.
  • [email protected]
  • Instagram @Obafemi30
  • Twitter @Obafemi30

We welcome for consideration all submissions that adhere to three rules: nothing defamatory, no snark, and no talking points. It’s perfectly acceptable if your view leans Left or Right, just not predictably so. Come write for us.

Share With Your Connections
Share With Your Connections
More Exclusive Content
The Latest News from in Your Inbox

Join our community of over 100k independent minds

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

We will NEVER SELL YOUR DATA. By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Aweber

The Latest News from in Your Inbox

Join our community of over 100k independent minds

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

We will NEVER SELL YOUR DATA. By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Aweber

Write for

Thank you for your interest in contributing to Please note that we are currently not accepting submissions for Exclusive Content; we appreciate your understanding.