What is trauma (II)

As I’ve mentioned in my previous post, I want to take a bit more time to explore the manifestations of trauma. But first I want to clarify how this relates to the core interest of my blog – storytelling and the role of stories in how we see ourselves, see each other, and behave.


The stories we tell ourselves are like boats on the open ocean. We have the impression that it’s our effort, our rowing, that pushes them forward. That is not completely false. But it’s mainly the movement of the ocean, the waves and the underground currents that make a difference. Our stories reveal the underground currents of our past experiences and the way they shaped us. Trauma is a big part of that, because it continuously brings the past into the present in a way that is largely outside our control.

There is a lot to be gained simply by understanding why we tell ourselves this or that particular story. Why the self-loathing. Why the denial and avoidance. Why the guilt and the shame.

Understanding makes compassion possible. Compassion makes acceptance possible. Acceptance is a way of reconnecting with the present.

Understanding also undermines the power of toxic narratives by slowly chipping away at the illusion that they represent the only possible stories. It exposes them for what they are. It opens up the possibility of alternative narratives.

The disconnect

At the heart of trauma there is a disconnect from the present and from our own body and emotions. The disconnect stems from experiences, many of them from early childhood, that were perceived back then as threatening and overwhelming. These experiences do not necessarily need to involve physical abuse or any sort of direct, obvious harm. Feeling constantly neglected or being denied affection can be equally traumatic.

Faced with a danger, our body reverts to the primal fight, flight, or freeze reactions as a way of protecting itself. In some cases, these reactions get coded in an emotional and behavioral script that tends to repeat itself whenever the perception of threat resurfaces. It becomes the default reaction.

Initially, that reaction served a good purpose: it was the only protection that the body could mount against an overwhelming threat, given its resources and capacities at that moment. It’s important to recall that, no matter how dysfunctional that reaction may seem now, its original aim was to protect ourselves.

Imagine yourself faced with a threatening situation. What do you do?

Well, you could try to run away. You could stand your ground, ready to fight. Or maybe you could ask for help.

Now, imagine that none of these options is available. You cannot get out of it, cannot defend yourself, and there is no help available. Imagine yourself being too little and unprepared to protect yourself. Imagine not having around those who are supposed to support you. What do you do then?

Most probably, you dissociate. You disconnect from your emotions, which are too painful to face. You disconnect from your body, which is held captive in an unbearable situation. You become estranged from your sense of self.

Stuck in the past

However, trauma is neither the traumatic event nor the initial reaction to it. Trauma occurs when we cannot find a way out of the horror and overwhelm of that situation, when we cannot take emotional distance from what happened. Trauma is getting stuck in that visceral reaction and repeating it every time we feel like the initial traumatic event – or something close to it – happens again. Trauma is the body continuing to feel threatened and overwhelmed in a context that is no longer threatening.

Traumatic reactions are dealing with the present by responding to the past. This is why people’s response to relatively minor events seem so inadequate and extreme sometimes. We see the trigger, but we do not see the whole traumatic burden. We see the knee-jerk reaction, but we do not see the emotional build-up behind it.

The dysfunction comes from the fact what was once a sensible response to difficult circumstances (e.g., dissociating from emotions that are too difficult to face) is now standing in the way. What was then real helplessness becomes scripted as the default coping mechanism and ends up blocking healthy reactions. Although the circumstances are not the same and we are not the same, we can still feel like that scared child hiding in the closet while his parents have a violent dispute.

Condemning vs understanding

It’s a sad irony that trauma is misunderstood or ignored not only by those who observe traumatic reactions in others, but sometimes also by those living with trauma. “She’s simply too sensitive.” “He needs to man the hell up and get his shit together.” “She’s just an attention seeker.” “Don’t be such a crybaby.” How many times have you heard something similar? How many times have you told yourself something similar?

What all these formulations have in common is a profound ignorance of the basic mechanisms of suffering and coping. “Sensitive,” “weak,” or “attention seeker” are not explaining anything. They are labels used to condemn rather than understand. By condemning, we dehumanize the others. We deny them the right to be seen, witnessed as whole human beings with complicated pasts and reasons for doing what they do. Often, this condemnation is turned towards ourselves, especially when trauma is involved. We can be more ruthless and unforgiving towards ourselves than anyone else could ever be.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

We can look at the boat on the open ocean as if we were seeing it from above rather than being stuck on the boat. Like in a final movie shot, with the camera slowly moving away from the scene to gain perspective, we can see our little boat rocking on the waves of the ocean. We can also see other boats around us. Other people struggling with the burden of their own stories. Then, compassion will be possible.

5 thoughts on “What is trauma (II)

  1. Pingback: What is trauma?

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