Trauma is not everything

Bear with me, all those of you who are still fighting like crazy to have trauma recognised as important, relevant, meaningful to people’s experiences and struggles. I know that for you the idea that trauma can be overstated or misapplied may seem ridiculous because in so many areas it’s still fundamentally so ignored! But the fields are not flat – in some areas trauma is the focus in a huge way, and sometimes this is unbalanced and makes life harder for people.

I was discussing this issue once with a sexual therapist who was being driven to distraction by the assumption that trauma underlies all challenges people have. People were being presumed to have been sexually abused merely on the basis of having some issue they would like to seek support from a professional like her. The gender and sexuality diverse community has laboured under this myth for many years! I still hear from friends that some doctors and psychiatrists believe that being queer in any way is a sign of sexual abuse in childhood, or means they have unresolved issues with a parent. (Who the hell doesn’t have an unresolved issue of some kind with a parent??)

Trauma being a central focus can also cause problems because of people’s natural desire to arrange things in some kind of order. People often create a hierarchy to trauma experiences and feel humiliated and mystified when their trauma history isn’t ‘bad enough’ to justify their current struggles. Context – so dull and yet so key to the story of post trauma stress – is so often forgotten. Friends, connections, and meaning play such a huge role in our response to trauma. It’s not all what happened to you, it’s also how people treated you afterwards. Some of the most undramatic stories in our lives, loneliness and loss, leave the deepest wounds. Resources that focus on trauma either exclude those needing the same support but due to anxiety or other kinds of distress, or they broaden the definition to the point where all people are traumatised and the answer to every question and result of every equation is trauma.

It’s easy to look at a misfit like me and see trauma, and trauma is a big part of my story! But it is not the only part. I was a creative oddball long before school bullies and self harm. Claiming and understanding my trauma history and how it has shaped me has been essential to understanding myself, but I also find that at times I have to reclaim myself from the overwhelming trauma narratives. My life includes these things but does not revolve around them. I am more than what has happened to me. I am more than a sad story of harm or a triumphant story of recovery. I am also a life, a human life, with all the sorrow and pain, and the confusion, and the sublime. My story is not more or less meaningful, my pain not more or less real, my joy nor more or less extraordinary. I am human, and trauma narratives can take that away from me and put me in some other box of people who are different, lesser, or special. I am not other. I am human.

I remember going to Melbourne to see the Tim Burton exhibition and reading about his childhood and early life as an artist, expecting to see a trauma story given his proclivity for the gothic misfit. There wasn’t one. He was a creative oddball who didn’t fit well – his portrayal of the blandness of suburban life are now legendary! (think Edward Scissorhands for example) Trauma is part of the story of many artists lives, but for many it’s not, and we misunderstand something about the nature of creativity and restlessness when we forget this. When we don’t recall that many artists don’t ‘fit’ at first, we turn that ‘not fitting feeling’ into something about trauma. Being an outsider is always a strange, challenging, and blessed experience whether you’re super smart, disabled, or vaguely mad. Trauma may be a result if you’re isolated or bullied, but it’s not always a cause. 

I find myself wanting to talk about how harm can happen when all our dominant narratives become about trauma. When friends struggle through extremely poorly delivered child abuse awareness training where they are told definitively that people who are sexually abused as children are damaged for the rest of their lives and never recover normal relationships or sexual intimacy, I’m so angry. And when those friends try to speak up and say – hey, that was me, and yes, it’s the most horrible thing – but don’t write off our lives! We DO have lives! And are instead told their personal experience is clouding their judgement so they are failing to appreciate the catastrophic impact, I think something is wrong.

I’ve read ‘trauma informed care’ documents that make victims of trauma sound like helpless children, or that insist that healing only happens in therapy and close connections to a traumatised person should never be attempted by someone not ‘suitably trained’. You can almost hear the void around the hurting person as everyone steps back and waits for an expert to come along. In other contexts, we call this ‘the bystander effect’. It’s not a good thing. Friendships and relationships have a language of their own that should be respected! Communities have been finding ways through trauma – well and badly, for thousands of years before we invented therapy. Therapy is one of many tools, and it does not ever replace community and a sense of belonging. (many trauma therapists know this, of course!)

I’ve sat in talks about multiplicity that were so concerned to let us know we may be triggered, we were welcome to leave partway, caring staff were on hand if we needed to talk to someone etc etc that I seriously wondered if they’d considered that I manage pap smears, nightmares, losing people I care about to death and suicide – on top of the various traumas in my more distant past. The focus on my vulnerability left me extremely angry and unseen –  my strength, my coping, my competency were all invisible in a space that marked me as a trauma survivor and permitted me to leave the room where the important educated people were discussing the difficult topics of the life and recovery of people like me.

There’s a fantastic looking conference happening later this year I would love to attend and speak at. It’s being held by the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation. Unfortunately it’s happening the month after I’m due to deliver our baby, so I’m not going to put an abstract in. But reading the front page of info really made me want to, because its called Broken Structures, Broken Selves, and describes “The very structures given the responsibility to protect these children, broke down their basic trust in the world, and therefore their very essence – Self – so necessary for their future development.” And I so want to go there and talk about the harm we do when we constantly refer to people as broken! The number of times terms like fractured, broken, fragmented, and developmental failure turn up in books and articles about multiplicity is absurd. People are harmed when we constantly describe them this way! People are harmed when there is no concept of healthy multiplicity, non-trauma-origin multiplicity, or healthy dissociation. I KNOW there is a profound need for awareness and sensitivity to the impact of trauma, to normalise and support people especially when their only other framework is “I’m crazy!” People are harmed by trauma, yes! But when inbuilt defense mechanisms like dissociation act exactly as they are supposed to, I would argue they are a very long way from broken. It is those who harm people who are broken. That is the inhuman behaviour.

I can’t go along this time and say any of that, I’m hoping that someone will anyway, there’s a diverse group of people interested in this field and I don’t but heads with all of them! Some of us have fought so long and hard to have trauma recognised as important, we need to be careful of what happens when it does gain that recognition and becomes the dominant framework. It can be inconceivable that something so fundamentally respectful of people, something so essential and good could be misused or harm people. But such is the risk when any perspective becomes dominant. There’s more to us, to our stories, our lives, and our selves than trauma. Part of what it is to be human is to feel broken, to be aware of our own incapabilities and limits, to mourn what we could be. That story isn’t just about trauma, it doesn’t cut us off from those who lived blessed lives. We don’t have to sit on our side of the fence hating them, watching them live in the sunshine while we drag our mangled hearts through the darkness. There’s pain in all of us, loneliness, brokenness, and hope. This is the human story. It seems so deeply important to me to place trauma in that context, to – if you will – integrate it with our stories of what it is to live and love and be a breathing living collection of fears and dreams all wrapped in skin.

9 thoughts on “Trauma is not everything

  1. This is really great, as usual. I 100% support and love and want to help trauma survivors in any way possible. But I also want them to move beyond their views of themselves, which I think partially (or even more than partially) come from these damaging perspectives that they are permanently broken. Even in FB groups when there are countless posts (of which sometimes I have contributed) of pain and darkness and struggle, sometimes I want to start a thread along the lines of “who are you outside of this context?” partially out of curiosity but partially because I want people to see themselves outside of that context as well. The book I’ve been reading – Healing Developmental Trauma” speaks of the physiology that ties into the emotional effects, and mentions how the brain can get “trapped” in “distress states” and the neurology of this is very poignant and observable especially in places like social media where all you have are the words that someone is expressing at the time. I hope to dig into it a little deeper in the future. Maybe something useful will come from it and i can write about it. 🙂 Great post.


    • That sounds great Jade, I’ve seen the dynamics you describe in social media. I think they can pay off trauma therapy at times too, eg trying to system map and asking a ‘new’ part questions about trauma history, their role in the system, what was going on when they were formed etc. I get it but I think the focus can kind of skew things. I prefer to ask them what their favourite food is, that kind of thing. There’s a subtle power to seeing them as more than a trauma symptom. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “I’ve read ‘trauma informed care’ documents that make victims of trauma sound like helpless children, or that insist that healing only happens in therapy and close connections to a traumatised person should never be attempted by someone not ‘suitably trained’. You can almost hear the void around the hurting person as everyone steps back and waits for an expert to come along.”

    This. Exactly this. This is precisely why I am in this weird purgatory between therapists where I “need a specialist” yet absolutely do not want one because I AM NOT MY TRAUMA. Great post!


    • It’s a tricky one! I hope you find what you need. Sometimes you have to come at it sideways, I did a lot of trauma healing in a hearing voices group that was simply kind and accepting, and some too in sexual health counselling which I didn’t expect at all.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. So true!
    It’s sad when something in the right camp can be so blind and obnoxiously self-righteous. I hope it doesn’t have to be that way though, but I often feel like I’m running into human limits, not conceptual ones.
    Thanks Sarah.

    I’m happy to see the ISSTD conference too, and that theyre in Australia, woop woop, we exist over here! 😛


    • Sorry, it looks like I misread the paragraph in my brain-funk! (and cant edit). I thought the points that you make later in the paragraph about needing to stop describing people as broken, was consistent with ISSTD. Whereas you’re actually saying that it shouldn’t be introduced as broken and failing in the first place.
      I misunderstood cos much of their work does draw on the strengths. So it’s not a lost cause and you defo won’t be alone in advocating for the strengths of dissociation (or multiplicity). But perhaps it is an overemphasis. Sorry for the confusion tho ^^”


      • No worries! This one didn’t get as many layers of editing as I usually do so I might not have been very clear. Oh I agree, there’s a massive amount of common ground for me and the ISSTD, and a lot of good folks in it, having said that because I work as peer worker in community settings rather than a shrink or professional, I do come at things from a different perspective at times. My own experiences in the disability community sometimes inform my mental health advocacy work too and that can be a different approach at times. 🙂


  4. Bravo, as usual – Sarah for your elaborations. What resonates with me is this: The pure orientation on trauma is you argue against it, is a kind of regression to either Freudian outlook or poor me, not emphasising the resources in the person.
    Also, the creativity (and the oddball) bet side-tracked by the trauma and ned to find their path again.
    As I explained to a client once (diagnosed with PD, previous alcoholic and ex-offender): If as a plant (tender chld), you grow through tarmac (hostile environment), you come out slightly misshapen, initially.


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