When Paul Conti’s brother, Jonathan, killed himself with the handgun that his father had been issued in the Korean War, his life changed. It wasn’t simply that he experienced the loss of his brother, but it also caused his desire to focus on understanding trauma and why he couldn’t see the struggles his brother was facing. In Trauma: The Invisible Epidemic: How Trauma Works and How We Can Heal From It, Conti tries to expose the internals of how we process trauma so that we can learn to see it and process it.
One of the often overlooked aspects of trauma is that it has a ripple effect that expresses itself across generations. In Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky shares not only the research from the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) study but also the work on fetal onset of adult disease (FOAD). To clarify, the stress of the mother can have a negative impact on the health of the fetus. More broadly, we’ve begun to learn that it’s more than genetics that leads to health outcomes, it’s epigenetics.
That is, our genes are activated and deactivated by our environments. While two identical twins start out with an identical set of genes and gene expression, through different experiences, they can end up with different gene expressions – and therefore different outcomes.
The implications of this are that a traumatic event or set of traumatic events can send ripples across time into future generations.
Marshmallows of the Future
In the person themselves, trauma changes things. It makes the world a bit less stable. It causes us to believe that our dreams and aspirations aren’t possible. They’re not real. Irrespective of the facts, we insist on staying in the here and now so that we aren’t disappointed when the future disappears. This has a negative impact on our ability to hope. (See The Psychology of Hope.)
When Walter Mischel tested preschoolers to see how they could handle delayed gratification, he didn’t realize what he was measuring. (See The Marshmallow Test for a full explanation.) Ultimately, the test was about whether children would sit with a sweet in front of them for a short time without eating it, with the promise of more if they did wait. (It wasn’t always a marshmallow that Mischel used.) Retrospectively, it seemed that those who could delay longer did better in life. However, what’s more interesting are the strategies that the preschoolers used. Some could clearly see the value despite the future, discounting what Daniel Kahneman explains in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Other research, including Paul Tough’s in The Years that Matter Most, leads us to understand that those who have the most trauma have the hardest time trusting in future gains.
More tragically, trauma can leave us questioning our self-worth and our gifts. We begin to consider life in terms of some sort of grand karma. If we’re really good and worthy, then trauma wouldn’t happen to us. Of course, that’s not fair, but it doesn’t stop the evaluation. As The Halo Effect explains, life is probabilistic, not deterministic. Bad things do, in fact, happen to good people. While Thomas Gilovich explains in How We Know What Isn’t So that we have a bias towards believing better of ourselves than we should, trauma can reverse that wiring, so we believe we’re not as good as we are.
If you speak with an abused child before they’re removed from the abusive situation, you’ll often hear that they believe the abuse they receive is their fault. They believe that if they’re just a better child, their mommy or daddy won’t hurt them. This illogical conclusion is the one that their minds are forced into, because the alternative is more painful and tragic than believing that they can, with their behavior, prevent the abuse.
If the abuse has nothing to do with how good or bad they are (or their behavior at all), then it’s unpredictable and unstoppable. They must believe that the abuse and pain will continue forever – and that’s not something they’re prepared to do.
We all do this throughout our lives, not just in childhood. We try to take control of the situation, so that we don’t have to fear it. (See Compelled to Control for more.)
One way that we see this same dynamic in adults is when they believe that the trauma they experienced is their fault. From the automobile accident that they blame themselves for to the cancer that couldn’t have been prevented, people believe that it’s their fault. The result is shame – “I am bad” – driving the sense that they need to punish themselves. Somehow in the punishment, they’ll equal out the scales of justice. There are two key problems with this. First, the sources of the traumas are almost universally external to the person. Second, no amount of self-flagellation will even the scales.
Brene Brown calls it “enough.” (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t).) It is the feeling that we’re not “good enough.” We’re not “doing enough.” We’re not worthy of what we have or even of being on the planet. It’s the less extreme form of impostor syndrome that too many people routinely feel. While inadequacy can be a powerful drive to cause people to strive to do more and be more, it comes at a cost. The cost is both the happiness of the person and, sometimes, their life. In Perfectionism, we learned the psychic toll that perfectionism – or inadequacy – brings. When we believe we’re not enough, we can never get a break from ourselves.
The Costs of Survival
We celebrate the survivors of trauma of all kinds. We admire their strength and their courage. However, we never ask ourselves what it took to get there. We celebrate the war hero who walked his team out of the firefight, and we don’t ask what he had to do. We don’t want to know about the prisoner or little kid he had to kill to survive. We don’t want to know how deep that trauma goes. We fail to notice when we try to celebrate them, and they squirm away. It’s more than being shy. It’s a deep sense that if people knew what they had to do, they wouldn’t celebrate their return home in the same way.
Computers and Chainsaws
Both computers and chainsaws are tools with immense positive potential. They’re also tools through which someone can inflict suffering. With both, if we learn how to operate them safely, we can prevent trauma. The unfortunate reality is that anonymous forums lead to mob-like or gang-like behavior where people become worse than they’d be on their own. (See Going to Extremes and Delinquent Boys for more.)
Protecting people from unsafe spaces is, in part, requiring that individuals be held accountable for their comments – or, at the very least, having their name attached to them.
Whenever there’s a negative outcome, it’s appropriate to ask to what degree your behaviors influenced the outcome. What could you have done differently? What should you do next time? These are healthy questions that can take an unhealthy turn we if decide that we need to not only own our own dysfunction in the situation but the dysfunction of others as well. A wise friend once explained that “that’s not my shit.” She explained that sometimes you’re not responsible for the negative outcome – or certainly not responsible for all of it.
It’s important to take responsibility for your part – but equally important that you not take responsibility that’s not yours.
Facts and Fallout
The law is concerned (ostensibly) with the facts. They want to assign guilt and blame. They are not equipped to help trauma victims cope with the fallout. The penalties that are assigned to criminals are used as a deterrent to prevent their own and others perpetrating the crime in the future. There as some crimes – like murder – for which there is no compensation. Criminal trials aren’t concerned with that. Civil trials are, but only a small fraction of trauma-inflicting events are the subject of a civil suit.
Criminal trials are themselves sometimes more trauma-inflicting than healing. It can be hard to confront the person who injured you and hard to defend yourself against the questions and implications of their attorney.
Pre- and Post-Trauma
When people have a single, defining trauma, there seems to be a bright line between the before and the after. The trauma created a change in the person (that may still be evolving). That change can be seen in the pre- and post-worlds. Sometimes, people speak of recovering or returning to the place before the trauma, but the place no longer exists. We must build a new place with new awareness – and that isn’t always easy.
Given that it’s estimated that 90% of us will experience trauma in our lives, it makes Trauma: The Invisible Epidemic.