Everyone has experienced trauma. Some situation has exceeded our capacity to cope. As professionals, friends, and community members, we’ve encountered others who are overwhelmed by life. Becoming Trauma Informed focuses on helping us respond to those situations better. Instead of pushing back, ignoring, invalidating, or dismissing the trauma the other person is feeling, we can learn to accept, explore, validate, and support people through the trauma.
One of the myths of working with folks who are experiencing or have experienced trauma is that you have to have them name it and explain it. The myth goes that you can’t support them if you’re not aware of what they’ve been through. This is simply not true. As someone who is responsive to another’s trauma, you don’t need to know the details of the rape, suicide attempt, war, or any of the other traumas that may be present in their lives. You don’t even need to agree that it would be trauma for you. You only need to know that, for them, it was trauma. Just like you don’t get to tell someone else what they’re feeling, you cannot tell them what is and is not trauma.
Do you need to understand the feelings that they have as a result of the trauma and the triggers? Yes. But you don’t need to know – and you may not deserve to know – the actual details of the situation. Those are the private domain of the traumatized person that they may or may not be ready to share. When you move to the understanding that they own the trauma experience and they get to choose how and when to share it, you’re in a better position to support them.
I can tell you that some close friends have had trauma that I’ve never directly asked them to relate to me. In some cases, they believe they’ve shared the story, because so many others have requested or demanded the full story. They speak to me as if I know the full story – and I don’t correct them. I don’t have any need to know the whole story to support them.
While it’s convenient to speak about trauma as a one-time thing, it rarely is. Most of the time, trauma is a pattern that people see repeatedly in their life. While some will blame the victim for finding abusive relationships, we thankfully rarely do this with children. Still, the pull to blame the victim for their repeated traumatization is powerful. The problem is that, even without blaming the victim, repeated trauma fragments a person’s identity. They can’t integrate the thoughts of the trauma with the rest of their life. That’s a part of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as was exposed in Transformed by Trauma.
No Bad Parts speaks of our psyche in terms of parts or fragments that are either protectors or exiles. Some parts of our personality develop to protect other parts that we must exile. Much of that work is about returning the exiles to our core personality. It’s about integrating ourselves together again.
Integrating is one challenge. Removing distortions is another. Understanding Beliefs and How We Know What Isn’t So both address distortions of our thinking – and, to some degree, what can be done about it. Neither, however, directly address trauma. The Body Keeps the Score speaks about how our bodies encode trauma in ways that are not immediately apparent. One of these ways may be a distorted identity.
James Pennebaker’s work Opening Up explains that PTSD may be an inability to process a traumatic event. In my review for Transformed by Trauma, I walk through some of the work that makes up what we know on PTSD. These disconnected fragments of memory are sometimes triggered by seemingly unrelated events in the same way that we see a stick on the ground and believe that it’s a snake. The startle response is driven by our amygdala, and it’s recognition of a pattern that may potentially be threatening. (See Paul Ekman’s work for more on the startle response in Nonverbal Messages and Telling Lies.)
Sometimes, people will say that others aren’t motivated. That’s technically incorrect. Everyone is motivated by something. The commenter is really saying that the others aren’t motivated by the same things. (See Who Am I? for Reiss’ excellent framework on motivations.) Miller and Rollnick, in Motivational Interviewing, make the point that the question shouldn’t be “Why isn’t this person motivated?” but rather “For what is this person motivated?” It’s similar to the way that Immunity to Change approaches the question by asking what’s preventing the change that is desired. It can be as simple as the person’s rational aspects knows they should, but their emotions are unable to sustain the effort necessary. (See Switch and The Happiness Hypothesis for the rational-emotional-default/Rider-Elephant-Path model.) It’s also possible that we’ve not developed the willpower necessary to sustain the effort. (See Willpower for more information on the limits of willpower.)
More than the simple cognitive bias that believe we’re better than we really are, a large percentage of the population describe delusional beliefs. (See How We Know What Isn’t So for more on believing that we’re better than we are.) Somewhere between 10 to 25 percent of the general population will hear voices, and up to 70 percent will describe delusional beliefs. Hallucinations in particular are common in the following:
- Sleep Deprivation
- Solitary Confinement
- Hostage Situations
- Sensory Deprivation
Trust and Safety
Trust is critical for those who have been traumatized – that is, all of us. We need to know how we’re going to be able to protect ourselves and who we can trust is a big part of that. My Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited post covers how trust functions in detail.
Tools for Trauma
If we want to become trauma informed, we need to know to interact with others with trauma in ways that allows them to heal. (See Hurt, Hurtful, Hurting for more on the need to heal oneself.)
- Maximize Choices – Always seek to maximize the choices where you can. Some things may need to be done, but in places where there is flexibility, allow it. Collaborate with the person to allow them to define what they want.
- Listen – It seems silly, but we often get so wrapped up in our own worlds and what we have to get done that we don’t always really listen to what the other person is saying.
- Seek to Understand – The impossible goal is to fully understand the other person, but we should endeavor to do our best to understand the other person. This includes:
- Whole Person – Who the person is as a person, not just the reason we’re interacting with them.
- Experiences – The experience they have had from their point of view.
- Context – Their broader context, including what else is going on in their world that we may not be aware of.
- Respect Choices – The more we can respect that the choices others make are theirs, and we can’t control those choices, the better off we’ll both be. (See Compelled to Control for more.)
- Validate Experiences – Where possible, validate that their experiences are theirs and that they do make sense – at least to some degree.
- Encourage Self-Advocacy – Encourage the person to recognize their strengths and their ability to self-advocate.
In the end, we won’t be perfect, but that isn’t our goal. Our goal is Becoming Trauma Informed.