For the sake of this conversation, lets define trauma as an experience that is deeply distressing and even potentially disturbing. It’s not just what we judge as the big stuff, like being abused or experiencing a natural disaster or a war or losing a loved one. It’s also what we normalize, like growing up poor enough to not be able to have what we desire or being weaned from the breast before we are ready to participate in that decision or having to be the responsible one in our family system etc.
For so many of us, the trauma that we experience goes without resolve and as such, it keeps repeating. We must heal from our trauma. In fact, a big part of personal growth and expansion is healing from the trauma that every person experiences in their lifetime. Usually, to heal means to experience something different and antidotal (usually the opposite). For example, to heal from loneliness one might need to experience reliable, consistent connection. Or to heal from powerlessness, one might need to experience personal empowerment. To learn more about this, you can watch my video titled: What Is Healing?
But for today’s conversation, it is important to know that even though it is good to simplify complex concepts, the process of simplification can sometimes lead to over simplification and rigid thinking. This is especially true regarding trauma and healing. Because trauma is an unwanted experience, it is tempting to make it wrong. It is also tempting to make anything causally related to the trauma that someone experienced wrong too… Such as a protective adaptation for example. And when we do this, we miss a powerful truth about life itself and we mentally limit ourselves about our healing options.
Something people are slow to accept is that trauma doesn’t only play a role in the dysfunctionality, weakness and problems of people. It also plays a role in the functionality, strengths and advantages of people. Essentially, it causes polarization within a person. For this reason, trauma is often at the root of people’s failures. It is also often at the root of their success.
To explain this, I’m going to give you a couple of examples. Jane had a mother who was very young. In fact, she was only 15 when she had Jane. Jane’s mother was lacking support in a very real way. When Jane was young, because of the very real needs her mother had and her lack of awareness of the implications of doing so, her mother flipped their roles so that Jane was taking care of her every whim. In order to avoid consequences, Jane had to make her entire life about supporting her mother; from being her mother’s shoulder to cry on to rubbing her back, which was always sore. To working with her mother at her house cleaning job even as a small child. To giving her birthday money to her mother for bills etc. Jane was literally custom trained to perfectly support another person’s success, regardless of whether she wanted this or not. This trauma led to Jane having a codependent relational style, not really knowing who she was or what she wanted, being soft-spoken and disempowered. However, it also led to an incredible capacity to perceive the needs of others, a perfectly honed skill set regarding assisting others, the ability to emotionally regulate anyone, the capacity to dedicate herself to another person and to work towards success together and the rare personality trait of taking the back seat and letting someone else shine rather than vying for attention.
Bret grew up in a wealthy household. His parents, most especially his father, was all about public perception. They put a ton of pressure on Brett from a very young age to be excellent, so that his family could use him as a kind of trophy. Bret learned that the only way he could get any approval from his family and the only way to avoid being ostracized, like his sister was, was to step into that family pressure and to dedicate himself to being excellent. He chose golf as his venue for excellence. This trauma caused Bret to feel like he had to justify his value and worth in his family and earn love. It caused him to have a core self-concept of shame. It caused him to obsessively perfect his golf game to the degree that he would stay on a course for hours, sobbing from rotator cuff pain until he got the stroke exactly how he wanted it. However, this trauma also led to an incredible level of discipline, a superhuman capacity to focus, an achievement-oriented personality, the achievement of greatness, incredible financial success a professional golf career that most people could only dream of.
It is tempting when you are limited in your view of trauma and healing to think that you know immediately what the right thing in terms of personal growth and healing is for both Jane and Bret. For Jane, you are probably jumping to the conclusion that she needs to be more selfish and independent, get to know who she is and what she really wants. That she needs to make her life about her own personal success and stop orienting her life around other people. She needs to go for the limelight in her own unique way. But this is only one potential healing option. It may be the case that this is what is genuinely in alignment for Jane. Or, it may in fact not be the case.
For Bret, you are probably jumping to the conclusion that he needs to find someone who really loves him for “him” (whatever that means) and that he needs to quit golf or anything else he may be doing to earn approval. Approval needs to be something he gets, even when he is lounging on the couch. He needs the pressure to perform taken off of him. And he needs to learn how to be gentle with himself and have fun. But this is only one potential healing option. It may be the case that this is what is genuinely in alignment for Bret. Or, it may in fact not be the case.
What if I told you that trauma plays a role in your destiny? In fact, you are perfectly molded for your destiny based off of not only the positive things you experienced in your life, but also by your trauma. This is part of why you choose into a specific life experience at this specific time and in this specific place and in this specific way and around these specific people. When we make trauma wrong and make anything causally related to trauma wrong, we fail to recognize that without the trauma of insignificance and poor reflection in childhood, the best actors in Hollywood are not actors. This means those game changing movies that are absolute works of art and altered the way society thinks, don’t exist. Neither does that great quality entertainment you love so much.
Without the trauma of injustice and middle child syndrome and the guilt and separation of having more resources and opportunities than most other people that looked like him, while at the same time not being allowed to play and connect with kids that didn’t look like him, there is no Martin Luther King Jr. Without your trauma, you would be a very, very different person. In some ways potentially to the positive. But in some ways, potentially to the negative.
Do you see the danger of jumping to the conclusion that if what drives a person to want to act is all this trauma around significance and if acting causes a person to slip in and out of different identities, to heal they must stop acting? Do you see the danger of jumping to the conclusion that if the trauma of feeling invisible and being excluded and being separated and feeling guilty is a big part of what fueled Martin Luther King to step into the public eye and create the movement that ultimately led to his death, that it somehow diminishes the “rightness” or “in alignment-ness” of his career?
The most empowering thing you can do regarding your trauma is to fully become aware of it. Recognize the trauma and recognize what that trauma caused within you and within your life. Become aware of your trauma and how you responded to it on a mental, emotional and physical level. You could consider this the ABC of trauma experience. This awareness process includes seeing both the beneficial and detrimental elements of it. From there, you consider what resolution would look like. What is the antidote? This awareness includes consideration of the beneficial and detrimental consequences of each option you might choose as a healing step. And from that place of awareness, the most empowering thing you can do regarding your trauma is to make a conscious decision with your own free will about what you will ultimately choose to do with it, knowing that the right answer for you may be to experience or be the logical opposite. Or it may be to consciously choose to align with and own something your trauma created in you, rather than to be in a pattern of determinism relative to that thing. You may in fact decide that what is healing is to consciously choose to embrace something that your trauma created in you. And that doing so in a conscious way is what will change the detrimental pattern into a beneficial one. To the outside, this may appear like a person is consciously choosing to align with their trauma.
For example, Jane decided to put serious time and energy into finding out what she really wanted and what her personal truths were. In that regard, to heal was to experience the opposite. But what came out of that process was the realization that she really loved to dedicate her life to the success of another person; that the feeling of putting her energy towards them and the result being that they then achieved tangible results, made her feel like she could impact the world. And that she really hated the pressure of being the center of attention. As a result, the healing choice for her really came as a result of embracing the fact that her mother custom molded her for her destiny of being a personal assistant to a political figure. And that by making the conscious choice to dedicate her life to another person’s success healed the pattern of feeling forced to dedicate her life to another person (her mother) without her free will. It was also more healing and more in alignment with her life purpose and also personal truth than going for the limelight herself and living an independent life and chasing personal success would have been.
Brett decided that to heal was to do all kinds of work on his patterns in relationships, so he didn’t continue to line up with women who simply loved him and put pressure on him to succeed because he was their trophy. He chose a rather passive wife that really loved play and leisure time with him and who didn’t push him to succeed in any particular way. But, on the other hand Brett decided that the most healing thing he could do was to own his achievement drive and embrace his extreme discipline and welcome the pressure intentionally. He made the decision to keep going for greatness regarding his golf career. And as a result of making that conscious choice, he experienced the entire game of golf in a better way.
Trauma can seriously prevent what you really want. But also, seemingly paradoxically, (especially regarding your destiny) it can seriously custom forge you for what you really want. It can bend you for failure and it can bend you for success. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Your trauma took from you, but it also gave to you. Seeing reality means seeing both sides of this full picture. The moral of the story here is that conscious choice is what matters. When it comes to trauma and to resolving and healing your trauma, scrap what isn’t working for you. Scrap what is detrimental or at odds with what you really want. And powerfully own what is working for you. Powerfully own what is beneficial and in alignment with what you really want.