When daily life’s ‘bad habits’ light the way to healing your pain from early experiences
“Fire can warm or consume, water can quench or drown, wind can caress or cut. And so it is with human relationships: we can both create and destroy, nurture and terrorize, traumatize and heal each other.” – Bruce Perry
A much loved and widely shared quote of Bruce Perry shows how relationships can be both detrimental and beneficial to the health of the individual. The nurturing and healing ones are the ones that support health, while the traumatizing ones can consume and destroy the individual.
Bruce Perry is a renowned psychiatrist who has observed thousands of individuals, especially children, suffering the effects of severe trauma. He has written books and conducted research on these effects. Not so long ago, we shared a post on his book ‘What happened to you?’, where we discussed the parts that we found most enlightening.
In this blog post, we will focus on the wisdom part of trauma and to discuss not just the effects of severe trauma but also those of ’minor’ trauma. Many people are reluctant to categorise the adverse experiences they went through as trauma, yet constantly dripping water can also hollow out the stone in the end.
Trauma is a Greek word (τραύμα) which means ‘wound’. A wound can be big, but given a proper treatment, it may heal and never cause any discomfort again. It can also be small and, if treated without care, get infected and increase in size and severity, and thus trouble the individual for a long time or even cause irreparable damage. (Think, for example, of gangrenous injuries.) The same can be said about trauma. Trauma can be big and it can be seemingly ‘small’, causing severe symptoms straight away or only minor difficulties in everyday life at first. The seriousness of either form of damage may only show up much later. As many trauma professionals explain it: trauma falls on a spectrum.
Because of our understanding of trauma within the academic literature, as a clinical term and in our societies, sometimes we are left without the proper words to discuss ‘minor’ trauma and its effects on everyday life.
Some professionals working in trauma awareness and trauma healing, have suggested an interesting new paradigm to view trauma as a learning experience instead of a gloomy destiny. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can teach children that the world is a scary place and that their caregivers cannot be relied upon to meet their needs. This can lead to the fight-flight-freeze-fawn responses that we discussed in earlier blog posts, becoming deeply ingrained in them. These are all both instinctive reactions to threat, as well as learned behaviors if repeated often.
Some symptoms of ‘minor’ trauma could be seen through that lens of learned behaviors. They can be quirks we have, annoying habits we may have tried to quit, but that we somehow could not get rid of. They stayed with us and can even be traits that make us who we are and constitute the way others describe us.
– being loud, energetic and cheerful;
– making jokes in every situation;
– being empathetic;
– having the habit of procrastinating;
– wanting to be in control of every little detail.
The list goes on and on…
Some of these traits might be characteristic of how you and others perceive you, especially if you never looked at them through the lens of trauma. They can, however, be symptoms of coping mechanisms you created to help protect yourself against the effects of toxic stress and trauma. You may have learned them through the course of your life, especially during the early formative years. While you experienced stress, toxic stress or trauma, these mechanisms were there to help you cope, which is a sign of the wisdom of nature in case of serious threats. The mechanisms have stayed with you, however, despite the circumstances being completely different now. They were adaptive and beneficial at first, given the tough circumstances, but may now have become maladaptive and a stumbling block on your path.
Another reason why it’s difficult to discuss these traits is because they are sometimes helpful so you probably wouldn’t want to give them up.
Let’s go back to that previous list and discuss them a bit more analytically (and yes, a bit bluntly, but bear with us, for simplicity’s sake):
Being cheerful, loud, and energetic can:
– help you have many positive interactions every day and enthuse others (good)
– drain you emotionally or physically or make you become a ‘pleaser’ (bad).
Making jokes can:
– make you a good comedian, a person people want to be around because you make them laugh (good)
– make it more difficult to connect with others on a deeper level and give them the impression you do not take them seriously (bad).
Being empathetic can:
– help you be a great therapist or teacher, someone people want to talk to because they feel they will be heard (good)
– drain you emotionally and, if you don’t look well after yourself, cause you compassion fatigue (bad).
As you can see, all of these characteristics are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’. They can simultaneously be both, or be one or the other depending on the circumstances. You might want to closely observe and then work on them to help you set healthy boundaries, find your true self, or minimise the burden they cause in some areas of your life. Or, now that you are aware of what they are, you might feel that this is a wisdom you carry with you after having experienced trauma. This is why we feel that certain experiences that can be ‘Adverse’ without buffering protection, can also be ‘Awesome’ and positively formative if well taken care of by sensitive adults around the child. Thus, toxic stress and trauma can be reduced or prevented. If your brain learned a coping mechanism at some point to mitigate the effects of toxic stress and trauma, then it can perhaps be trained to use these in a positive way. This can help you to not just survive, but thrive in life. This paradigm offers a lot more hope for the future for the adults who have already experienced ACEs.
And if you lacked that buffering protection then, but have managed to build a caring social environment in the present, your trauma may turn out to be a source of great wisdom for you and those around you!