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If "Everything" Is Trauma....(Part One)

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

I see so many snide remarks about the concept of trauma being over-extended.


I find it helpful to reflect: what does this mean and why might it matter? What motivates this complaint and what impact might such a focus have on survivors of "real" trauma? Is the discussion surrounding the issue typically motivated by compassion, care and a desire for inclusion OR derision, contempt and a supposed need for exclusion? Which perspective involves listening to survivors and believing them about what has harmed them and which involves speaking down to them and dictating what trauma must mean for them?


I believe this sort of trauma gate-keeping has the potential to cause immense harm, both by (1) excluding survivors of types of traumas that are poorly recognized or not yet recognized and (2) drawing on dynamics that have the potential to harm all survivors (including survivors of "real" aka recognized trauma).


First, one thing we know from the history of trauma discourse and the evolution of trauma-related diagnoses is that psychology, psychiatry and society in general have a long history of being inexcusably, sometimes shockingly, invalidating, demeaning and shaming about forms of trauma that we now know to be real and severe (e.g., intimate partner violence; sexual assault and sexual abuse). It took a lot of effort to get those forms of trauma recognized and there are still many who don't get it and continue to perpetuate those historically entrenched prejudices, myths and stereotypes about those forms of trauma and those who have survived them. (I highly recommend reading the opening part of Judith Herman's Trauma and Recovery to get an overview of some of this not-so-distant history).


It's really strange to me then that anyone could be so sneeringly confident that we now have it right, and I find it especially disturbing to witness professionals being so possessive of a gatekeeping role that has long been exercised in narrow, misogynistic, racist, ableist, homophobic (etc.) ways.


One would think that substantial humility and a radical openness to learning from survivors about what in fact traumatizes them and how it affects them would now govern so as to avoid repeating the harms of the past.


To me, it has a feeling of "this far but no further," of pulling the ladder away after using it to help some escape from the invalidation and neglect of previously unrecognized, uncared for trauma. Almost like a desperate attempt by professionals to reinforce their own credibility and authority by refusing to go out on a limb by being associated in any way with those whose claims might get even less popular support. "Not to worry-we've identified all possible trauma. You needn't fear that we will expand the definition even more and make you uncomfortable."


Second, many survivors, even of severe life-altering trauma, have often lived with a fear that what happened to them wasn't serious enough to warrant the profound impact on their lives (#askmehowiknow). Many have dealt with the sting of invalidating comments from those who don't understand the impact the trauma they experienced can have and don't wish to learn by believing survivors. When people who claim to be compassionate and knowledgable about trauma loudly complain about those who are (supposedly) milking the concept of trauma for attention or status or some other frivolous "perk," it can rub salt in those wounds. By suggesting that trauma is something people are inclined to invoke frivolously for the supposed "benefits" ("attention" or "clout"), they (wrongly) validate some of the most harmful myths about survivors--suggesting there's some big gain involved in identifying as a survivor that might motivate us to falsely or exaggeratedly claim or cling to such an identity, wrongly perceiving survivors as enjoying benefits and perks from what we've experienced that are so special that many others would have a strong motive to fabricate traumas just to get what we get (even as many survivors describe the ways in which the attention we get from speaking of our trauma can often re-traumatize us and cause further harm/deprivation, since we do not live in a society that is especially kind, inclusive, empowering or understanding to survivors).


For these reasons (and more), I find this kind of rhetoric incredibly hurtful and offensive, even though I now know that my own trauma would be validated by such professionals.


I can't speak for all but many survivors of severe trauma that I know have a profound sense of solidarity with others who suffer and no desire to exclude and demean others the way many of us have been excluded and demeaned. It can really hurt to have our traumas used to mock and exclude others. It's like a nightmare of being conscripted to be used as a weapon for the side that harmed and invalidated us for so long: the side that refuses to believe survivors when they share what has harmed them; the side that says "no, that's not enough; that doesn't count. You're just selfishly looking for attention, sympathy and clout."


Of course, I'm referring to people who sincerely feel traumatized rather than those who throw the word about casually. Of course, people who use the term trauma without actually experiencing a sense of being traumatized are mis-using the word by definition since they don't really mean it and even they don't believe it applies. But we don't need gate-keeping of the concept itself to appreciate this. And the ability to infer which is which will not come from a professionally-dictated exhaustive definition of which events can "count." Moreover, what someone has experienced in the past can influence what might be genuinely traumatizing to them (or not) in the future. Some things that don't seem like they could have the potential to be traumatic to those who've lived relatively safe lives may indeed be (re)traumatizing to someone who has been repeatedly traumatized and rendered unsafe before. Similarly, someone who is vulnerable because of marginalization and oppression may be traumatized by experiences that aren't traumatic to those who move through our society with a stronger baseline sense of safety.


I'll note how often the mockery of trauma "concept creep" tends to invoke the supposedly exaggerated distress and "victim identities" of young women and teenage girls. I'll also note how often young women and teenage girls in fact experience profound trauma and victimization (intimate partner violence, sexual assault and abuse) that they very often don't feel safe to speak openly about. With that in mind, I wonder what we gain by policing their ability to express their feelings about trauma, even if only playfully. What do we gain by teaching them that they'd better not say they're traumatized unless they really are sure it "counts" and that they'll be mocked and derided and cast as attention-seekers if they dare do it in a way that doesn't meet established definitions? What will this mean for their ability to reach out for help when they've been through something horrific but are grappling with that all-too-common fear so many survivors have that they don't deserve help for it? Speaking for myself, anything that helps girls, women, those with marginalized gender identities, and anyone who has been or may be traumatized (including boys and men), feel safer using that language, even if only casually, is okay by me, and possibly a very good thing. I remember how hard it was to say I was traumatized when I really needed to, how I therefore suffered in silence and isolation for so long. It felt like such a profound and scary thing to invoke in a society that mostly demands silence of survivors. Sometimes instead of being able to say it about the thing I really needed to express, it helped to be able to say it more lightly about something more socially acceptable to speak out loud. I'm not sorry for doing so. We have no clue what traumas someone may be grappling with. IMO, we therefore need to give people space to explore using this language in ways that feel safe to them.


So is it useful to have conversations about the meaning and scope of a concept like this? Of course, but in a way that includes and validates rather than shames, excludes and mocks. In a way that's radically open to other possibilities, to learning from those who've been silenced, invalidated, shamed and excluded by the conversations of the past.


We can have a reasonably tentative and open understanding of trauma while continuing to add to the concrete body of knowledge of the ways we happen to know many survivors have been affected by particular types of traumas we happen to already recognize. We lose nothing by allowing the concept to be a bit fuzzy, inviting, trusting, and compassionate along the edges. We can allow for rich detail and diversity in what we know, while remaining open and humble so no one's experience is excluded, with special attention to those whose perspectives and experiences have tended to be excluded or who may feel less safe sharing even when invited (those who have been marginalized, multiply traumatized, etc).


(I called this "Part One" because there is so much more I could say, but if I make perfection the rule, I'll never set this to publish and my particular contribution matters less than the conversation itself)



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