Trauma survivors aren’t heroes in the same sense that a first responder is. We see the first responder at the scene of an accident, like a house fire, and see how their actions are protecting all of us. We don’t get to see the hard work that trauma survivors do, because their work is internal. That’s why the title Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal makes so much sense. The work is invisible on the outside – until the trauma victim reemerges transformed by the trauma. (See Transformed by Trauma for examples.)
Too frequently after a trauma, a person blames themselves. They think that they somehow – often magically – should have avoided the situation. Of course, in many cases, there is no way to see or avoid the situation. It’s one of the random things that happen in life. Even in those cases where we could have made different choices – and likely will in the future – there’s little reason to ruminate over the choices that were made.
This need for a sense of control – innate to all humans – drives us to take too much accountability for the things that have happened and how we might have made things turn out differently if only we had done something differently. We fail to accept that we may not have done anything wrong or incorrectly. We believe we had to have done something wrong, so that we can maintain our belief that the world isn’t random and that we’re able to predict it.
The degree to which we believe we can predict the situation influences the degree to which we feel peaceful.
One of the challenges with the unnecessary attribution of blame to ourselves from the randomness of life is that we can take on ourselves a sense of unworthiness. That is, we believe that not only did we make a mistake (guilt) but that we’re unable to do the right things (shame). We start with shame, but eventually we start self-punishing and self-isolating, perhaps progressing even to a place where we believe we’re irredeemable. There’s nothing that can happen to make us worthy of interacting with other mortals.
Sometimes, this thinking style becomes so pervasive because of continued trauma and abuse that the idea of returning to what others would consider normal is uncomfortable. It can feel weird and uncomfortable for people to treat you as a fellow human instead of someone beneath them.
The truth is that no one is irredeemable. Everyone deserves to be treated as a human – even if that’s not their norm.
Substantial traumas often create a division in a person’s lifeline. There’s a time before the trauma and a time after the trauma. Often, traumas cause a major change of course. One of the ways you can recognize that someone acknowledges their experience was one of trauma is that they’re able to acknowledge their life is different – in more than a tactical and mechanical kind of way.
With smaller traumas, or traumas that persist over a longer time, it’s harder to see this demarcation point, but it’s rare that trauma doesn’t cause us to change in some way or another.
Something that Happened to Me
With time, in the post-trauma space, it’s possible to recount the trauma without reexperiencing it. Until we can establish an explicit memory of the trauma and come to some terms with what it does – and does not – mean, many victims reexperience the event while retelling the story. With new traumas, it’s important to not push them to recount the events, because doing so may accidentally amplify and anchor the trauma in their mind. Rather, we should let people share at the speed, detail, and level that they’re able to. If we can create a safe space for them to process the trauma, they can move it to something that happened in the past.
It is even better when we can recognize that one trauma or even multiple traumas don’t define us. Yes, there is that demarcation line where things changed, but it’s not the entirety of who we are.
Work is Hard and Necessary
I’ve never found anyone who would dare to say that overcoming and moving past trauma is easy. Even those who are grateful for where they are today would neither recommend their trauma nor relish the work they had to get to their place of healing. Victor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning explains his time at a concentration camp. While he exposes some of the things that helped him and others survive, he doesn’t recommend it.
There’s a delicate balance of experiencing the event while replaying it at a level that’s safe enough but vulnerable and raw enough that it’s possible to make sense of the event. Sometimes, the only sense of control you can get in a trauma is the extent to which you allow yourself to experience it and your insistence that it won’t define you.
Mastering the Waves
Trauma survivors will tell you that you’ll always experience triggers that connect you to the traumatic experience, but they change. It can be likened to riding an emotional wave on a surfboard. You are still moved by it, and you’ll likely end up in the water at some point. In the meantime, you can stay above it, using the energy to propel you forward. Surfers, even professional surfers, fall off their board, but until they do, they’re able to do some amazing things.
One way to make trauma better is to learn the skills that allow you to spend more time above the wave and less time being pummeled by it.
Internal Perception of Danger
One step is recognizing that, often, the danger and fear associated with the event are in the past. It’s quite likely that the fear of that moment doesn’t continue into the current moment – or shouldn’t. What we come to realize is that it’s our internal perception of danger that matters more than the objective measure of risk.
We can use a set of well-known techniques to shift our perception away from momentary and current danger to a sense of relative safety. Some of those techniques are below.
Play Acting a Different Ending
It’s magical thinking. It’s the domain of the two-year-old – but it works. For Victor Frankl, it was imagining his wife. He knew she might be dead, but hearing her speak to him transcended that actuality. He was able to create a scene in his mind that he knew to be reassuring but also false.
One way that we can reduce the suffering associated with trauma is to replay the event in our mind with different endings. We can know they’re not real but at the same time be comforted with alternate endings.
An Army of Heroes
One alternate ending that can be valuable is to call in for a hero you can trust – real or imaginary. These heroes can stand with us in our mind’s eye of the moment. For some, they have a single hero who can stand with them. For others, it’s a cadre of heroes, each with their own special skills and protections to offer.
This stands in the fantasy land of the child and at the same time offers us healing. The real heroes aren’t the Invisible Heroes of our imagination but are those who fight their way out of the wake of trauma.