You can perform well even with a traumatic background
Most of us have a preconceived idea of what trauma is and a preconceived idea of what someone with a history of trauma might look like. But because these preconceived notions tend to be limiting and somewhat useless if you step outside their scope, I want to dispel the “myth” of what trauma is and what someone with trauma can look like. history of trauma.
The best definition I have found for trauma is:
Trauma is the unique individual experience of an enduring event or condition in which the individual’s ability to integrate their emotional experience is overwhelmed and the individual experiences (objectively or subjectively) a threat to their life, bodily integrity or that of a caregiver or family. (Saakvitne, K. et al, 2000).
There are two parts of this definition that I want to emphasize. First, “trauma is the unique individual experience.” Psychological trauma is subjective and relative: what makes something traumatic for one person may not be for another, depending on their relative ability to cope. The key, however, through subjective experiences, is that it goes beyond the individual’s ability to cope with it. That’s what makes something traumatic.
The other part of this definition that I want to draw attention to is the “sustainable conditions”. Typically and historically, trauma has been viewed as an isolated, discrete event or events: a car accident, a bombing, a rape, military service. Certainly, all of these are examples of what could be traumatic for someone. But trauma therapist and author Karen Saakvitne also qualifies the fact that trauma can be a complex and protracted set of conditions, meaning it happens multiple times over time.
For children who are helpless and literally dependent on their caregivers to preserve their life, examples of long-lasting traumatic conditions could be:
- Abandonment or threat of abandonment
- Negligent treatment or conditions
- Outright verbal, emotional or physical abuse
- Witnessing domestic violence or frightened or frightening behavior by one or both parents
So, in what context could these traumatic enduring conditions occur? Often, unfortunately, these events can occur if one was raised by a parent or parent figure with a personality, mood or addiction disorder. Being raised by a narcissistic mother or an alcoholic father, to name just two examples, can certainly set the stage for lasting traumatic conditions. And, sadly, being raised by parents who struggle like that is an all-too-common experience for many, including some top professionals.
So what does a person with a history of trauma look like? There is a misconception that the person must be a military veteran or someone who has experienced a major and terrible external event. Or, sometimes, a person with a history of trauma is believed to function poorly or be severely impaired in their daily life. But you absolutely can be very successful professionally and financially and have a history of trauma and symptoms of trauma.
You can be a corporate lawyer, a CEO, a start-up founder, a family doctor, a brilliant graduate student. You can own your own condo in San Francisco, be married, have kids, manage employees, and have multiple Ivy-League degrees. You may have traveled the world, pitched venture capital funds, been a member of elite social clubs, and on paper have “everything together”.
And you can still have a history of trauma and impact you in multiple ways.
Being highly functional and needing trauma recovery work are not mutually exclusive. It’s just that sometimes recognition of one’s own traumatic history (based on what someone else believes to be considered “traumatic”) is missed, and the symptoms of the traumatic history are either managed adaptively or maladaptive, or compensated, until these coping mechanisms stop. works very well.
When we define trauma and who someone with a history of trauma looks like so narrowly, people can fail to see the truth about their personal story, leading them to ignore the seriousness of what they have been through and the significant impact of their symptoms, adding to their resistance to seeking help.
To find a therapist, visit Psychology Today’s Directory of Therapies.