Before I write this, I want to acknowledge that I have not done extensive research on this particular subject and I do not consider myself an expert. What this is, however, is something I have considered and observed with many clients. These are my musings and my theories.
Lately, I have found myself discussing trauma with a number of clients and exploring why the trauma matters so much. My clients have experienced everything from sexual abuse to domestic violence to emotional neglect to physical abuse and beyond. Certainly there are some traumatic experiences that appear obvious: hurricanes, wartime experiences, random acts of violence, rape, etc. Others are less easily identified: emotional neglect, emotional abuse, acquaintance/marital rape, and psychological abuse to identify a few.
What ties all of these experiences together? My belief is that it is the message we receive about ourselves as a result. This is particularly true about relational trauma (trauma that happens between people in some form of relationship rather than an act of a stranger or of nature), but also true about other forms of trauma as well. Trauma tells us something about who we are and what our value is as well as what we can expect from the world.
The example that I have been pondering with my clients is this:
Suppose I tripped and accidentally knocked my son down the stairs and he broke his arm. How would this affect him differently than if I had pushed him on purpose and he broke his arm? (I wouldn't, incidentally, but I wanted to set up an example. I hope you know me better than that by now.)
The response I get from my clients is generally, "intent." I think this is true from my perspective, but I am not sure that my son could consider intent. My guess is that the difference would be what the action told him about himself. If it is an accident and I come and tend to him, hug him, snuggle him, and do what I can to find him help and healing, that gives a much different experience than if I just leave him at the base of the stairs crying or if I yell at him to stop being such a baby and get over it. The first says, "I love you, I value you, and you are worth more than what just happened to you." Furthermore, I would take responsibility for the action, and this would continue to reinforce that message. The second says, "You are worthless, disposable, not good enough, and only useful for me to take out my anger on." Those are much different experiences. My son emotionally would recover much faster and more easily from the former than the latter.
One instance of abuse is bad enough, but when abuse and neglect are repeated, the negative beliefs about self are reinforced, potentially to the point of creating a strong negative sense of self. We all search for meaning and understanding in our lives, and, particularly in the case of trauma, we are not comfortable with not having a cause and effect relationship. So, in absence of a better answer, we often blame ourselves. This is equally true for physical, sexual, and emotional abuse as well as physical and emotional neglect.
Sex in itself is not a bad thing and does not have to be hurtful. Accidents happen. Sometimes we struggle to get our physical needs met. In each of these cases, emotional support and comforting can help to ameliorate the impact. When emotional support is not given or is actively taken away, the impact is intensified.
One of my big beliefs in working with trauma is "you can't compare pain." What has happened to each person affects them, and there is no comparison. I find, though, that it is particularly difficult for those whose abuse was largely verbal or psychological to accept their experiences as being as valid as those who suffered physically or sexually. In my belief, it is the emotional impact that matters, and this is what I tend to focus on.
Trauma recovery is not just about learning how to manage and store one's experiences but also about challenging and changing the beliefs that we develop about ourselves as a result of what has happened. My goal as a therapist is to help my clients develop a more balanced view of themselves and to reconnect with themselves as wonderful, valuable human beings.
If you have been hurt in any of the above ways, I hope you can find someone to help you navigate these experiences and rebuild your sense of self. What happens to you does not define who you are but what you have to deal with. If you need someone to talk to, I hope you will find me. I would love to help you find your way back to yourself. Whoever you are, you matter.
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