Trauma

Trauma is simply the experience of having something happen to us that we can't make sense of.  It is something which results in our being stuck, either physically or emotionally.

Anything that causes our development to get stuck is a form of trauma. Usually we use the term to refer only to big events which would be upsetting or damaging to anyone, but this is a difference of degree, not of type. Anytime we find ourselves stuck, unable to move, whether it be physically or emotionally or cognitively such that we cannot move away from hurt and toward safety and satisfaction, we experience trauma.

Now, I know, this is not the way we normally think of trauma. Usually we limit our understanding of trauma to events that are either hugely disruptive natural disasters or are criminal. We acknowledge that surviving Hurricane Katrina or having loved ones die on 9/11 is traumatic. We know that being sexually abused as a child or battered by a spouse is traumatic. But I am suggesting that we all experience smaller traumas all the time. They are different only by degree and understanding how small traumas affect us can help us better appreciate and know how to respond to the large traumas.

Trauma is simply the experience of having something happen to us that we can't make sense of. We have an experience which doesn't fit on our perceptual map and we can't seem to find a way to make it fit. So we impose a meaning on it that is the best we can do but which is so far from the reality of the situation that we end up with a cognitive distortion which skews how we then act to create what we need.

The sun was bright and the air warm as Jane headed north on the beltway on her way to her afternoon appointment. The winter had been hard on the roads and she dodged potholes and kept a safe distance behind a flatbed truck in front of her. The truck was loaded with large metal parts on the way to a metal recycling facility.

The truck hit a pothole and a 35 lb. cast iron housing bounced off the truck, hit the pavement once and then came through Jane's windshield and embedded itself in the empty passenger seat next to her. She was able to get her car to the shoulder as the truck and rest of the traffic rumbled on. Her windshield was gone and she was littered with tiny pieces of glass, but otherwise she was fine. She dissolved into sobs.

10 minutes later a police officer came to her car to see if she was alright. She was barely able to speak. It was two months before she was able to drive.

Jane was physically fine. But she knew that if she had been driving a foot and a half to the right, she would be dead. Had anyone been riding with her, they would be dead. She thought she was safe. She was wrong. Her map was suddenly very out of date. It took her months to restructure her map so that, even though she was not safe, she could still choose to drive.

In this case at least there was a clear relationship between the triggering event and the emotional wound. The effect of the trauma was clear and there were some tangible markers for how well the healing was progressing. Jane will probably always have trouble on that stretch of highway or may even have a particular fear when driving in early spring, but she understands why those feelings arise. She knows where they come from and what she can do to heal.

Healing the Past through Transformation in the Present

Many traumas are not so discrete or so recent. When something happened long ago and it stretched out over a period of time, the source of the barrier to development which the trauma created can be very hard to discover. Sometimes even very small events, when they happen in the context of a relationship which is with someone we spend a lot of time with, have strong feelings about, and whose decisions powerfully impact us--that is, they are significant to us--can have a huge impact.

Joe has been noticing that he is more and more bothered about the way a couple of his coworkers are sloughing of at work. He knows that they are harming the team and the company and that it harms him in the long run. He has repeatedly tried to talk to them but they just laugh at him for being such a "good boy."

He has decided that he wants to say something to his boss but he is worried that his boss will be upset with him for "ratting on" his coworkers. Even though there is a part of Joe who is worried about what will happen if he speaks up, he is clear that the best thing for him to do is to let his boss know what is going on. Still he can't seem to start the conversation.

Joe remembers the summer he turned seven. This was the first year he played real baseball, or at least, that he was going to play ball. He was a great sports fan and had wanted to play so much. The prior summer he played T-ball but this was to be his debut in the big leagues.

At the third or fourth practice of the season he came up behind his best friend Bobby as Bobby was taking a couple of warm up swings. The bat caught Joe in the shoulder and he felt something snap. He thought he was okay but it hurt really badly. After practice his dad took him to the emergency room and the X-ray confirmed a broken collar bone. He left with a sling for his arm and his baseball season over.

On the way home his dad tried to comfort him. "Oh, Joey, that is some really bad luck. You can't play baseball with your arm in a sling but I bet you can fish one handed. How 'bout you and me goin' fishing next weekend."

As much as his shoulder hurt, Joe managed a smile. He loved to fish with his dad. His dad fished all the time but he rarely got to go. This would be great!

When he woke up the next Saturday morning he quietly got dressed so that he wouldn't wake his brother, Frank. Frank didn't like fishing anyway, but he hadn't said anything to Frank about getting to go because he knew it would start a fight and his dad might change his mind. He didn't want to do anything to spoil this trip.

But when Joe got down to the kitchen he knew something was wrong. Dad's tackle box wasn't in the corner of the kitchen and when he looked out the window he could see that the pickup was gone. Joe was stunned. He went back to bed but he couldn't sleep.

By Tuesday evening at dinner Joe screwed up his courage enough to say something to his dad about the trip. "Uh, Dad? I thought you were going to take me fishing?"

"Huh? Oh, yeah, that's right, I'm sorry, I completely forgot. Well, I can't go this weekend but the following weekend we can go, okay?"

"Sure, that'd be great!" Frank watched the exchange from his place at the table with a detached expression that said, "whatever."

Joe knew that it wasn't this coming weekend but the next one and he counted the days. He didn't say anything to Frank or to his dad but he day dreamed all the time about being out on the water with his dad.

When that Saturday morning arrived, Joe knew as soon as he woke that it happened again. It was light and his dad always wanted to be on the water when the sun came up. He later learned that Dad had gone with one of his buddies. He never brought it up again.

But he couldn't figure out what had happened. What had he done to make his dad decide not to take him? He thought back over the previous week. The only time there had been a problem was the Thursday evening before they were to go fishing. Joe was at the store with his dad when he saw a toy that had just been on TV and he started to plead with his dad to get it for him. "Please, oh please, dad, can I get that?"

"Oh, quit your whinin'," snapped his dad, "You sound just like a girl"

Stung, Joe shut up and never mentioned it again.

If you were to ask Joe now about that summer when he turned seven he remembers how he didn't get to play ball because of his broken collar bone. He remembers how disappointed he was and how much his shoulder hurt. But he doesn't remember that he didn't get to go fishing and he can't figure out why he can't speak up at work.

Joe has a young part of him that developed out of that experience of not going fishing. He struggled to figure out why he wasn't getting his wish, and, like all kids that age, he couldn't let himself believe that the dad he idealized was fallible. He couldn't let the answer be that his dad forgot. So it had to be something he had done.

What he was able to find as a reason was his having asked for what he wanted and been told that he could not have it and that asking made him like a girl and thus not fit for the world of men. If he was to act like a girl, he could not join the world of men on a fishing expedition. If he wants to be acceptable to the male fraternity, he cannot complain.

So now, many years later, he wants to tell his boss that the co-workers are not pulling their weight, but to do so would be to make a girly complaint. He is not consciously aware of this young part, but it shapes his behavior nonetheless.

The impact of this trauma would have been much less if it had happened in the context of a less significant relationship. Had the same thing happened to Frank, it would not have occurred as a trauma. Indeed, Frank didn't want to go fishing so if he had been forgotten it would have been a blessing. But in the interior world of Joe's effort to make meaning and get what he needs, this series of events established a pattern for his meaning making and thus his perceptual map which affects to this day the way Joe acts in the midst of conflict.

There is no one who is free of these wrinkles in our perceptual maps. We all have experienced times when we couldn't make sense of what was happening in our most significant relationships and constructed a way of making meaning which doesn't fully make sense, or at least doesn't accurately portray reality. We all have cognitive distortions.

These distortions affect every aspect of our lives, but they are the most apparent in the relationships which are most important. The context in which we can most easily and clearly discover our own issues is in the relationship we construct with a primary intimate partner. Since we are committed to our own personal transformation by identifying and addressing our own issues we look to our most significant relationships and the conflicts which arise for us there as the most fertile ground for our discovery.

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