How do I Know if I Have “Enough Trauma”?
Updated: Dec 7, 2022
One day, I was speaking to a friend about that awkward phase of being in grades 5-8. We laughed at how our braces looked. We had perms. I personally had a perm with bangs, so I will let you do the math on that one. My friend casually commented at how she was regularly chased down the street by two older girls who screamed at her, threatening to beat her up and called her ugly, among many other cruel names. As she briefly recounted the story, I saw a look of pain flash across her eyes. Internally, I winced, thinking about how painful that must have been.
“Woah”, I stopped, “that is awful- that you were bullied so badly for so long- that must have been traumatic”. My friend paused, considering this, and promptly burst into tears. She had never reconciled the fact that being bullied in front of her peers for an entire year had been traumatizing. Despite trying to normalize and forget about these experiences (she had never told her parents that this was happening almost daily) she had suffered the consequences of this long into adulthood. We spoke about the impact this had on her, and while she had not understood this to be trauma, there it was, hanging between us.
As a therapist, I am used to listening closely to the stories people tell about the experiences that they have lived through. It’s very rare to get through life without having experienced trauma in some way, but so many people just don’t know if they have experienced “true trauma” or “enough trauma to go to therapy”.
What does “trauma” mean?
Let’s unthread this for a minute. First, what is trauma? Simply put, trauma is the lasting emotional challenges of living through a distressing event. (Trauma can be tricky to define absolutely, because people experience events differently. However, if something rocked your world, altered your perception of yourself and/or others, and caused you to feel overwhelmed and powerless, you might have very well experienced a traumatic event.
I have met with countless individuals in therapy who have shared with me experienced highly distressing events where they felt like there was a “before” and an “after”, where life had changed forever. I have met with other folks who have never had an “after”- it’s been a series of distressing and overwhelming events (like being abused in childhood). These situations can both be traumatic. Sometimes, like in the case of my friend, we don’t even understand the magnitude of what has happened or how it has shaped aspects of ourselves until we have the space to speak openly about it.
Why are we confused about our own trauma?
Can I just tell you something? Every single person that I have ever worked with, at some stage or another, has said something like: “I feel kind of silly being so upset about this, I know that others have it much worse”. As a therapist, I am bound to confidentiality so I can’t get into any nuts and bolts, but let me just say that I have worked with people who have truly lived through the unimaginable. Even they have doubted if their trauma was “enough”. So, what gives? Why do we feel confused about our own trauma?
I think there are a lot of layers to this. First, even though mental health is becoming destigmatized and it seems like lots of us are being open about our struggles, there was a time when having problems was not cool. In generations past, the mentality was to get a hold of yourself and move on. Strength was seen as not asking for help, figuring things out on your own and not letting things get to you. This means that so many of us have learned, incorrectly, that things shouldn’t be a big deal. So herein lies a deep disconnect between how we truly feel and how we think we should feel. In a culture that has taught us to invalidate our own experiences, no wonder we have been confused.
Another reason why you might feel confusion about if you have “enough” trauma is that in people sharing their painful experiences, it can become easier to compare- and you might find that you’re coming up short when you think about how you’d feel it X,Y or Z happened like it did to your neighbour. Here is the thing- we can not ever compare our trauma. There are things that people might experience that have completely destabilized them, and for you, it might not have felt that way. The reverse is true. And, just because you didn’t experience whatever event that someone else did, it doesn’t make what happened to you any less difficult.
How can therapy help?
Therapy offers many gifts, one of which is that it provides a space where you are free to examine the events of your life and, if it’s important to you, to determine there has been trauma. Working with a skilled therapist can help you to navigate the narrative of your life and see how events have impacted you. Many people who have lived through traumatic events have had to push through, ignoring their pain and managing in ways that can sometimes be counterproductive to a life that feels good. If you’ve been raised to “tighten your bootstraps and carry on”, you might understand the coping methods of minimization, denial and suppression very well.
Trauma therapy can help you understand your life and manage your triggers and reactions, so that you can cope better and enjoy your life. Your therapist is there to help validate your experiences and guide you in finding ease, joy and happiness. There is no “right amount” of trauma in order to come to therapy- you are valid, your life matters and we can help.