4 Things You Should Know about Trauma
Lots of people are in pain, and as a result lots of people are trying to help them. I often catch myself trying to come up with a solution to issues I don’t personally experience, and in that process I always wonder how bad of a job I’m doing. It’s not that I doubt my ability to think critically and creatively, I’m just not naive enough to think I know what it’s like if I haven’t been through it myself.
So here are a few not-so-intuitive things you should know about people who’ve been through a rough patch and still carry the scars.
1. Bad habits stick around.
I grew up in an irregular family, which I’ll only mention in passing this time since you’ve probably heard the story before: Dad was absent, mom got resentful and couldn’t raise healthy kids by herself — it’s the same old narrative. Believe it or not, little things like this don’t actually matter in the long run. Even when you lived it for 18 years. Because the mind is a powerful thing, and it can recover from much worse given enough time.
Recovery, or “healing”, isn’t the problem. The challenge is healing correctly.
There’s many ways to cheat survival because the definition of survival is fairly broad. In many cases, if you’re not aware of what exactly your mind is doing, you can “move on” by building destructive habits. Think of it like a broken bone: If you don’t set it right before leaving it to heal, it won’t regain its original structure and function. The pain will be gone, but things won’t quite be the same.
That’s the great joke of emotional trauma that hardly anyone gets: It’s called “trauma” because it sticks around.
It’d be cool to say I learned this the hard way, but I really didn’t. I was forced to develop a heightened sense of self awareness to diagnose and fix problems my whole life, so I caught myself making most mistakes before they happened. But few will be as lucky, especially those of you who haven’t been through this shit yourselves.
The fact is people often heal in twisted ways, and it’s impossible to predict how or where the irregularity is. This doesn’t always have to manifest in obviously negative traits — even confidence, determination, and compassion can come from emotional knots that didn’t quite get resolved.
2. Study their lowest points, not their highest.
We tend to want to be optimistic and focus on the positive qualities people exhibit, ignoring the negative ones because 1) they’re hard to deal with, 2) we don’t know what to do about them, and 3) they make the good traits feel nice magical, just a little. Believe me, I’m the greatest optimist you’ll meet, but this is a mistake.
You can learn a lot about someone by studying how they fall and how they get back up. This is where you’ll find their limits, and that’s what you’ll need to pay attention to. Those are the weak points that will crumble first when trouble comes knocking. For example, one of my biggest failures to date was losing my relationship with my biological mother. It wasn’t just my fault and it wasn’t just hers, but as the years dragged on that bridge just burned and it’s stayed that way since. Consequently, I’ve been desperate to form a bond with a strong female figure ever since, and I find myself getting overly attached to almost anyone who matches the profile because I crave it so much. I regularly overlook typical social boundaries because this desire is so strong, which always ends badly. This is something I always have to pay attention to.
Failure points in the past point to current weaknesses, so they should be studied in detail.
3. Leave people alone.
I’ve noticed a positive correlation between facing hardship and wanting to be alone. It seems that the more shit you’ve been through, the more you’ll want to be alone. I mention this explicitly because I think the desire for isolation can be a little offensive or confusing to people on the outside. Wanting to be alone can be seen as a negative sign, when in reality there’s really nothing wrong with it from an objective standpoint.
To give you a personal example, I’m an extremely selective extrovert who’s often mistaken for (at best) an introvert or (at worst) antisocial. In reality, I’m just super picky about who I spend time with, but people often assume I don’t want to spend time with people or don’t know how. Such an assumption ignores the fundamental reason behind my isolation: I care about people far too easily and quickly, so being around so many people is exhausting. If I were to actively expand my social circle and hang out with people like I’m “supposed to”, I’d just be overwhelmed. So most of the time, I’d rather spend a Friday night skateboarding the lonely streets by myself, thinking about the few people I care about rather than actually spend time with them. It’s weird, but that’s just the way I am. This alone time isn’t unhealthy, it’s just what I do.
In general, we should respect each other’s desire to be alone more. But this is especially true for people who have a lot to deal with.
4. Trauma isn’t an arbitrary defect.
We tend to perpetuate a certain fact when it comes to certain mental conditions: We say the ailment is just caused by a random chemical imbalance in the brain. Besides being untrue most of the time, this also devalues the experiences a person is having. Imagine feeling super sad and then hearing that your sadness is arbitrary, a random imbalance that had no purpose or reason. It would make you feel like all your feelings are worthless, that they don’t actually mean anything.
The first thing many of us need to do in order to help with trauma is recognize that it’s real and has a real cause. Most of the time, even reassuring people that their pain is actually there is enough to calm them down.
When you recognize that pain has a cause, that cause can be treated.
More importantly, when you recognize that pain has a cause, that cause can be treated. You can uproot something when you know where it comes from, but if you believe it just appears out of nowhere at random, then you’ll be left just clutching at thin air.
I’m not an expert at working with people in pain. Like many of you, I’m just a hurting person who wishes people in general would understand some basic facts. This was a dark hole to jump into in an attempt to shed some light on some rarely-explored topics, but hopefully you gained some insight on something you might find yourself wishing you knew better in the future.