I was involved in an online discussion that ended up trying to define what trauma is and isn’t. It’s clear that some traumas are obviously more life threatening and immediately dangerous than others. But a lot depends on the contexts, the person’s situation, their personal sensitivities and perceived harm. Another aspect though, is how others perceive trauma. How culturally accepted a thing is is important. In this discussion one person started saying that the examples given weren’t really trauma because they were ordinary parts of life. The rest of this piece is an adaptation of my response and thoughts based on that person’s stance that events that most people might experience can’t be traumatic:
When we start talking about the differences between big “T” and little “t” traumas, it raises a slightly different point that is easy to trivialize. Namely, who or what defines what is a relatively harmless unmet need and “normal life experiences” and what is traumatic? Our cultural constructs and beliefs are just that- we believe certain situations to be “normal” when -maybe- they actually are traumatizing.
To be clear, I wholeheartedly subscribe to the Adlerian ideas about “good enough” attachments and parenting and childhoods, and I don’t believe that every mistake by a parent is going to be gravely debilitating. But all of these big and little “t” traumas are happening within cultural norms that may themselves be more traumatizing than any of us really want to acknowledge.
Part of my conflict with psychology as a stand alone solution/science is that it so often forgets how deeply we are molded by our cultures. And our cultural constructs are often themselves trauma responses on a collective level.
We are products of our cultures, and the fact that we frame history in terms of war, disasters, epidemics and oppression is proof that we live in a world that produces trauma for everyone- some more than others depending on your skin color, gender, socio economic background, sexual orientation and other factors.
The modern world is rife with “normal” experiences that are absolutely traumatizing.
Sending kids off to learn how to kill other humans under the guise of patriotism is -to me- an easy example of how messed up our thoughts are about what some might think of as a “normal” rite of passage.
We are subject to all kinds of utter crap that warps and damages our spirits and minds and harms us emotionally: The examples are varied: The unbelievable amount of violence in our “entertainment” industries, children learning that we continue to use gasoline which destroys the planet instead of electricity or solar energy for most cars, the corruption stories that constitute “news”, the casual disregard for human life when we watch a a video of a beheading or a video of 30 people being swept away by a flooding river, and then cut to a commercial for chewing gum. These are all currently thought of as “sad parts of life” or at best, as little t traumas, but they harm us.
Then there are the beliefs in the righteousness of an economic system that promulgates a scarcity mentality which breeds fear and insecurity for millions. This insecurity and fear is so pervasive, that millions of people work entirely too many hours for most of their lives at soul deadening jobs more or less “willingly”. (as stated elsewhere about 67% of US workers are disengaged from their work)
The current economic systems produce brutal levels of (needless) competition- yet sucking it up and working one of these jobs is a “normal life experience”. The first experience might be a crummy job at McDonald’s with a loser boss. And it’s a “normal “ experience, a jolt of “reality”, but it’s also traumatizing in small t and sometimes big T ways. That lousy job primes young adults on what to expect- it’s a gateway: These kids go on to find millions of “real jobs” that people work at that deaden the human spirit to what really does often become traumatizing levels if were we to be completely honest about it.
These very different examples are also very much “normal” experiences in that they are pervasive and accepted as just part of life. So there’s this cultural level of experiences that can be and sometimes -are- traumatizing, but we aren’t even aware of them as such. My point: Cultural norms matter and they can be very hard to see if you are living within them. They can be especially hard to see if you are not personally harmed by them, such as a white person not understanding how common and sometimes terrifying it can be for a POC to be pulled over by police.
Castration as Normal Part of Life?
Not buying it, yet? If we lived in a culture where the great majority of men were castrated. Would that then reduce the act of castration to a “normal life experience” for the person experiencing it?
The scary part is it might reduce it to “a normal part of life” or a little “t” trauma experience, -if- the cultural norms were strong enough.
The example is not hyperbole. Million of women have experienced the equivalent. Is that a normal life event? Seriously, the people who endorsed genital mutilation no doubt were able to righteously bemoan how damned overly sensitive these women were who objected to it and made such a fuss about it.
So, if little boys were told they would be castrated as a rite of manhood, or told they HAD to have small feet or they would have to have them bound, would those things be “normal parts of life”?
How about the millions of little boys who actually saw their sisters’ and mothers’ real pain- could distress from the cultural norms perpetrated upon them actually be traumatic events, or are they just “normal life events”?
My point is maybe it is the “overly sensitive” person’s response that is, in reality, actually a more humane, compassionate and aware one.
I also think these cultural realities can easily produce a learned helplessness in the people who live with them. If the world has some brutal norms, and you have to deaden yourself to that in order to conform to gender expectations, (for examples), then you’re already only half living.
Fully 70% of US workers are disengaged from heir work. Anyone who has ever worked a job they did not like knows that it does change their quality of life. And yes that is little t trauma compared to growing up with the knowledge that you will be castrated because it’s just a custom that’s done. I mean, can you even imagine what would that do to your soul? So living in a culture where stultifying work environments are common is relatively less traumatic, for sure, but it’s still a harm done to your enjoyment of life. Maybe, even though it is a “pervasive part of life” it can still be traumatizing.
Back to the learned helplessness: I believe that limping along half living makes it much harder for the majority of people to fully take responsibility for their lives.
Overly Sensitive or Appropriately Compassionate?
So what about that experience of learning about war? Is it a normal life experience? Obviously, yes. Is it possible that it traumatizes kids to learn about it? Unfortunately, every small child learns that people -systematically- kill each other due to greed or differences in beliefs. Telling kids about the widespread use of state sanctioned violence that has killed and harmed millions of people…is what exactly? Just a “so sad, too bad” part of life? Is it a little t trauma, or is it actually a fairly traumatic thing for a kid? What exactly is the realization/reaction for small kids (young and innocent enough that they still believe in Santa Claus)?
40-80 million people killed in World War II- just a small little t when we learn about it… or is it actually healthier to have a lot of existential worry and depression about it?
I think it’s clear which way I’m leaning, but on the other hand “adaptation” to environmental realities is also a survival strategy.
So, Perhaps some “normal life experiences” are pretty traumatizing if we were to really think about it.
But what happens to a person’s psyche because they see no options but to accept these traumatizing realities as “normal life experiences”.
Can you even remember how young you were when you first learned about war? Probably too young to really think it through. Some of us just accepted it as part of our reality, and came to believe it’s part of “human nature”.
My point is that millions of people live within cultural norms that can and do produce trauma, yet they are seen merely as “part of life”, or maybe “the not so fun parts of life” because they are so pervasive.
I didn’t have the option of just accepting the facts of war. As a sensitive kid I experienced what I currently call little t traumas (as a white, protestant female child) learning about war, slavery, the Holocaust, the genocide of Native Americans, etc.
I distinctly remember being horrified to learn that there are “humanitarian” ways to wage war. I honestly couldn’t believe there were rules for war, a.k.a. The Geneva Conventions. I couldn’t believe people would bother to come up with rules of how to kill and maim each other instead of just figuring out how to not have a war. The sickness is very easy to see if we apply these concepts to individual situations: “The new and improved Domestic Violence Conventions: You can only harm your partner in these certain ways.”
But I imagined* that I was seen as overly sensitive, and unrealistic because I was not happy learning that things like the Geneva Conventions existed. I wonder if most kids are in actuality horrified at learning these things, but then very quickly learn to bury it because others do not appear horrified by it. After all, our free will only goes so far as children.
I know as a kid I felt very alone, alienated, horrified and so on when adults (and yes, they were usually males) told me things like war were inevitable in matter of fact ways. But because of how I needed to live in the cultural context that produced the realities of these tragedies, I needed to relegate those incredibly disturbing realities to sad small parts of normal every day life.
But what if we lived in a world where hearing about those things -was- seen as at least truly disturbing if not traumatizing? How much kinder and gentler would that be? I wonder what the rate of vegetarianism is among kids who are told where meat comes from and then are given the choice to freely determine for themselves how they feel about it. What if they are allowed to see the slaughter of animals any way they choose rather than just routine? How many would become vegetarian?
My main point is that because we are products of our cultural norms, we don’t necessarily have -objective- ways of determining what customs are perhaps quite damaging and what are “normal”. We know what are the norms for our time and place. But those change. Obviously some of what was acceptable 100 years ago is not acceptable now. It’s because we became aware of the shortcomings of the norms and customs. And usually compassion is the catalyst.