We hear the concept of trauma being talked about in nearly every field of social discourse. From health professionals, educators and politicians to social media influencers, family and friends we are continually prompted with calls to explore how our past moments of pain influence our present experiences. The following series of short articles will explore how trauma can impact one of the most important pillars to well-being – relationships. When we struggle in our relationship to ourselves or others, many areas of life that provide meaning, purpose, and pleasure diminish. To embark on this exploration, I want to introduce some key ideas, beginning with a fundamental question – what is trauma?
Judith Herman, a professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Harvard University describes trauma as something that “destroys the social systems of care, protection and meaning” and strips a person of their sense of safety and control in their life (Herman, 2002). It is an event in which a person’s sense of trust, well-being, and dignity are threatened or wounded. This description shows how trauma is inherently destructive, not only to individuals but also to the collective. When we are burdened with memories of being unsafe or seen as unworthy, we may begin to respond to these memories as if they were objective truths about something occurring in the present.
It is a well-documented finding that even the events society typically views as traumatic are minimized, erased, or denied. Physical, sexual and emotional child abuse, interpersonal violence, and surviving natural or man-made disasters are commonly identified as traumatic events; however, people who share their stories with these experiences are often silenced or met with inaction. For those with experiences who fall outside these commonly recognized examples, their stories of suffering are even less likely to be recognized as trauma.
Trauma also includes the effects of being raised in poverty and coping with the uncertainty of how one’s basic needs will be met. It includes the impact of walking into the workplace and being uncertain if one will be viewed as an equal or as a stereotype. It includes the moments when a child is bullied and denied protection from friends or adults. Trauma happens when people require protection from a system of power and instead are met with deafening silence. When someone or something we rely on significantly violates our sense of trust or well-being, we are often in the land of trauma.
There are many events that will fit this view of trauma. This is not to say that every painful moment in our lives is a traumatic event. All humans will experience suffering and pain; it is when these experiences make us question our dignity as human beings or when they make us believe there is no place where we can be safe or accepted as we truly are that we might explore whether the word trauma fits our experience. When an experience of pain is repeated and hard to avoid, it is more likely to be traumatic. When an event involves significant betrayal from a trusted person, that painful experience is more likely to be traumatic. When we reach out for support from our community after being wounded and that support is absent, that can be trauma too.
As we move forward in our exploration of the impact of trauma on relationships, I want to encourage readers to step aside from the desire to definitely label an experience as “trauma” or not. Instead, allow yourself to consider what was the impact of this experience on your functioning and the way you move in the world. Consider in what ways do these relational challenges fit my experience and in what ways do they differ. It can be easy to step into a comparative mindset, where we are triaging who has the worst trauma and whose experiences are barely worth considering. Healing comes when we honor our personal stories of suffering and when we make space to honor others’ stories. By sharing our stories and listening wholeheartedly to the stories of other people, we restore the social connections that allow humans to thrive.
Herman, J. L. (2002). Recovery from psychological trauma. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 52(1), 98-103. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1440-1819.1998.0520s5S145.x
Hicks, D. (2011). Dignity The Essential Role it Plays in Resolving Conflict. Yale University Press.