In the quest for personal growth and goal-setting, we don’t talk about trauma enough: how it impacts us, how to recognize it in ourselves, and how to heal from it. We tend to think of it applying only to people who’ve been victims of crime, major natural disasters, wars, or the violent loss of loved ones.
But trauma can happen from less dramatic events, too. It can happen when someone we trust shames our body. It can happen when we think that the person we’ve been closest to for many years is the most honest person we know, and then they lie about something important or don’t keep their word. Trauma can happen from losing a job unexpectedly. It happens from bullying. Parental ambivalence or neglect can take a lifetime to fully recover from.
In his book The Trauma of Everyday Life, Mark Epstein, M.D. talks about how surprised he was to realize that patients coming to him with rather everyday problems sounded traumatized, not unlike people he’s treated who have suffered profound traumas. The Amazon intro blurb says,
Trauma does not just happen to a few unlucky people; it is the bedrock of our psychology. Death and illness touch us all, but even the everyday sufferings of loneliness and fear are traumatic. In The Trauma of Everyday Life renowned psychiatrist and author of Thoughts Without a Thinker Mark Epstein uncovers the transformational potential of trauma, revealing how it can be used for the mind’s own development.
Western psychology teaches that if we understand the cause of trauma, we might move past it while many drawn to Eastern practices see meditation as a means of rising above, or distancing themselves from, their most difficult emotions. Both, Epstein argues, fail to recognize that trauma is an indivisible part of life and can be used as a lever for growth and an ever deeper understanding of change. When we regard trauma with this perspective, understanding that suffering is universal and without logic, our pain connects us to the world on a more fundamental level. The way out of pain is through it.
I’ve discovered for myself this truth. I believe that healing even everyday trauma must precede success in life because until we heal our traumas, normal life struggles required to meet our goals will feel like trauma. Let me repeat that:
Yet the topic of trauma is almost entirely ignored by personal development gurus and coaches and I think it’s because most of them are men or beautiful white women who have not suffered the same kinds of constant societal trauma experienced by visible and non-visible minorities.
We can’t just ignore pain that we have. Even when we do work to heal trauma, it never entirely goes away, even getting passed on through our DNA. (Great news!) If we don’t do the work, it’s like carrying a 20 lbs kettleball around inside our chests.
Perhaps the most important step to heal from trauma is validation. If no one is willing to validate your pain by holding space for you and telling you that the degree of your hurt makes sense and is normal, this can create feelings of anger, despair, and profound isolation, even in a crowd. People can become mentally ill.
Because society is just made up of people, it behaves similarly. When social groups are constantly in a state of trauma from microaggressions, racism, homophobia, fear for their lives, and other forms of oppression, and when these experiences and pains are invalidated by the rest of society, that rejection and lack of empathy creates the same problems of anger, despair, loneliness and mental illness, only we see them in a whole group of people. When that anger and hurt isn’t acknowledged and when reconciliation doesn’t happen, the pain has to go somewhere. It’s either internalized or externalized, showing up in drug and alcohol addiction, crime, rioting, and suicides.
We need each other. Whether you get help from family, friends, or a therapist, your pain needs to be validated, held safe, and loved out of you with compassion, or you will not fully heal. Perhaps talking to “God” is enough for some people. (I believe that when “God” answers with messages of love and peace and validation, that it’s really our purest selves talking to us, telling us what we need to hear and sometimes do not realize that we know. We’re constantly, even when sleeping, taking in information subconsciously. If we can get really quiet in a place where we can suspend self-shaming, our own love for ourselves and our survival mechanisms kick in and tell us what we need to hear. Some people need a mechanism like a belief in God to be able to suspend self-shame. Only in imagining a perfectly loving being who can love anyone are they able to believe that they are lovable and even then some people don’t believe they are lovable.) Some people are able to use their own logic and their compassion for other people on themselves, validating their pain themselves. But this is hard to do consistently and it just doesn’t feel as good as the kind of care and love we can get from someone else.
If it feels safe to do so, think about a time when you felt traumatized. Perhaps someone close to you died, or a pet died. Your parents divorced or someone broke up with you. Now, think about goals that you had for yourself at the time, even goals you take for granted, like keeping a tidy home or finishing a book you were reading. What happened to your goals at the time? They were abandoned, right? You had no energy leftover for anything but your feelings of shock, fear, devastation, sadness, confusion, betrayal, etc, did you?
When I was breastfeeding my second child, we got thrush. It’s a yeast infection in the breast that makes a woman’s nipples red, itchy and sometimes in a lot of pain, and it leaves white patches in the baby’s mouth. It’s notoriously difficult to get rid of and I just could not, for a year. Occasionally, if I ate a lot of sugar it would flare up even more because yeast feeds on sugar.
When we do not get validation or resolution for our traumas, we walk around with low-grade infections of hurt indefinitely. That infection can flare up at any time with the right ingredients, like a triggering event.
This is why trigger warnings exist. So many famous comedians and even some universities have come out in ignorant criticism of trigger warnings, claiming that they protect people from hearing contrary, world-view challenging ideas. Wrong. Trigger warnings give people who have been victims of trauma the choice to be exposed to images and stories that remind them of their own trauma. Someone who has been in a bank robbery might have a lot of fear and anxiety related to guns, for example. Let’s say they decide to take an art class at university. And in that class, the professor shows a piece of video art where someone is shot with a gun. That could potentially trigger the original trauma for that student. They might have an anxiety attack or not be able to think in their next class. They might start having nightmares again about the bank robbery and the lack of sleep can keep them from getting good grades and they lose their scholarship. People who haven’t experienced trauma like this might find it easy to dismiss as simply one individual being too weak. But even if that is true—which it is not—what is so taxing about announcing in the beginning of a university class that the content that day will include gun violence, or a story of a rape, or racial stereotyping, or whatever the case may be? What is wrong with giving hurt people the option to consent to being re-hurt? Or giving them the preparation they need to brace themselves and expose themselves to the content? It is such an easy way to show kindness and to take care of each other.
It’s also to our collective benefit to have healthy, healed people around us, right? After all, hurt people hurt people.
So, how do you know that you are traumatized? I know I’m still traumatized by an event when I can’t stop talking about it. The more I tell my story, the more the shock dissipates. I can then accept it and move on to the next step of how to cope with it. I also get angry, sometimes disproportionately, if something that would justify an angry response, like racial injustice, happens and something about it reminds me of my own life’s experiences of injustice.
Some people go numb. Some people cry and don’t know why they are crying. Some people are full of rage and they don’t know why. Some people act out of character, start behaving recklessly suddenly and can’t stop.
What is traumatic for one person might be a blip for someone else, so you can’t assume that you aren’t traumatized because you think you shouldn’t be. You can’t compare yourself to your friend who escaped the Congo barefoot (I know someone who did this) and think that you, therefore, should not be traumatized that you lost your job. We build up resilience by dealing with hard experiences. A person who has had a pretty happy and easy childhood who then suddenly has to deal with being fired could have a harder time dealing with that than someone else who was fired and who also lost her mom as a teenager. Being fired could be a small thing for someone who lost their mom, in comparison. Or, it could trigger the loss of her mother if, say, she was in the same line of work her mother was in, or if she really liked her boss or a coworker who reminded her of her mom. Every circumstance is so unique and it depends how we process it. Sometimes we don’t understand why we feel so traumatized by something because we haven’t realized what it reminds us of. A small thing could be a trigger for a big painful experience in childhood.
There is no point in comparing ourselves to others. Our lives are so unique and complicated that it’s impossible to accurately compare people. We always make sense. We may not always understand how we do but there is always a reason. People are not much different than computers. We are just a set of if/then statements. Trust that if you could just somehow put your entire life’s events and memories and interpretations of events and emotional processing—basically your brain’s entire experience throughout your whole life—into a computer and have it analyzed, the print-out would show that, given how things went in your life and given the things that people said to you that you maybe don’t even remember, and given the associations you’ve made, and your fears, that you make perfect sense. We always make sense. Talking it out with a therapist or a smart friend can help to find all the puzzle pieces and when they fit together, it brings so much peace. Knowing how events and feelings are related helps to come up with other strategies for responding next time you’re triggered.
I went for a run one day when I had just started my period. It felt like I weighed double my weight. I returned home after only running around the block, and shamed myself to my partner. “I must be so out of shape. I don’t know why this run was so hard. It felt like my ankles were carrying sandbags. Maybe I’m just not made to be a runner.” “You’re kidding, right?” she said. “You just started your period. You’re always super tired when you get your period.” I forgot that was a thing for me, and forgot that my period had even started because my cramps hadn’t kicked in yet.
Sometimes we just want so badly to be healthy and to work on our goals, that we forget what we’re working with and we expect too much. It’s helpful to remember that trauma will amplify the pain we feel when we struggle with everyday things. If we share our stories with trusted friends or a therapist, they can connect the dots for us and remind us why we might be struggling to achieve something, after which we can show ourselves some kindness.
I recommend Mark Epstein’s book, The Trauma of Everyday Life, and if you are looking for a trusted therapist but don’t have more than $120/month to spend I highly recommend TalkSpace. If you click on that link and sign up from there, I believe your next month is only $50. You can write endless messages to a qualified therapist who will respond thoughtfully with whatever you need.