Trauma is an interesting phenomenon because, while most individuals have lived through life-impacting negative experiences, many who seek psychotherapy services–and perhaps even more who don’t–either believe they have never experienced trauma, or the trauma(s) they did experience are so ancient they can’t possibly be relevant today.
So how can it be, that while most people are to some degree impacted by trauma, most people deny or minimize they even have trauma? Well, most folks have an incomplete understanding of what constitutes trauma. For many, drastic scenarios such as rape, physical abuse, wartime experiences, near-death encounters, and natural disasters tend to come to mind. So, if these types of catastrophic events have not occurred in an individual’s life, they quite naturally–albeit erroneously–deduce that they have not suffered trauma.
The error lies in thinking that trauma is only trauma when overt, sudden, and severe. While the aforementioned is certainly one dimension of trauma, it is actually incredibly common for trauma to occur in insidious ways, too. It is these covert, and sometimes chronic, forms of wounding that often inadvertently wreak havoc in an individual’s life. And it is these subtler traumas that most folks fail to own as legitimate, until they have been helped by a trained professional to see the ways in which they have been puppeteered by the pain of these invisible wounds.
Perhaps by now you’re wondering how these invisible wounds manifest. Well, it’s the incessant, unnerving bickering and tension between mom and dad that you witnessed growing up. It’s the umpteen times you were told “little boys don’t cry,” “little girls should be seen and not heard,” or “what’s wrong with you?!” when you expressed very real, very valid feelings. It’s being emotionally engulfed by a needy parent, and no one ever saying to you, “how are you? What do you need? Are you okay?” It’s the way mom made you the “man of the house” because dad got a second job, and you were suddenly burdened by very grown-up responsibilities when you were still just a kid. It’s the time you fell out of the inner tube while boating, and you watched the boat drive away as you and your life-jacket-clad self bobbed up and down with fear and the new thought that “They’re leaving me. I must not matter.” It’s the time you were so sure of your correct answer, but were proven wrong, and your family laughed and teased you to the point that you shamefully concluded, “I’m so stupid. I can’t trust myself.”
The invisible wounds set in when the “too much” experiences you had were not able to be adequately processed–cognitively, emotionally, and/or even somatically–with the help of loving, supportive others. Essentially, you didn’t get what you needed when you needed it, so the wounds were left gaping, untreated. As your life went on–open, invisible wounds now with you–they began to fester, as untreated wounds do, impacting the wellness of you and so the systemic wellness of your life.
Whether overt or covert, visible or invisible, man or woman, black or white, religious or atheist, gay or straight, the wounding each of us experiences shapes, at least to some degree, our beliefs about the world, about others, and about ourselves. Maybe it’s the belief that “my feelings don’t matter,” or that “I’m all alone in this world,” or that “the world is a dangerous place, so I just need to white-knuckle my way through it,” or that “I am a awful/worthless/crazy/hopeless/eternally flawed person.” Whatever the beliefs are, correlated feelings and actions follow, and when we unwittingly puppeteer ourselves from this place of fear, pain, and hopelessness, our lives feel miserable, overwhelming, and perhaps eventually unmanageable.
It is at this point–which for some is a true breaking point–that individuals often seek treatment for their invisible wounds, for they know that something is very wrong but they can’t quite get to the bottom of both what and why. We see it time and time again at Psychological Counseling Services (PCS), in both our intensive program and with our individual, local clients. Individuals of all kinds come to us looking for relief, answers, and hope that things are going to get better, and what they are met with are profound opportunities to begin the gradual tending to, and healing of, wounds both visible and invisible.
— Article by Erin Buggy
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