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May 2013

TRAUMATIC EVENT OR TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCE:

Implications for Understanding Normal Development

by Carl H. Shubs, Ph.D.

 

Traumatic Event Or Traumatic Experience?

We usually think of trauma as referring to the terrible things that happen to us. This may be things like being raped, molested, assaulted, or shot. It can also include being in a dreadful car accident or having our home destroyed because of a natural disaster. The recent bombing at the Boston Marathon was a traumatic incident for many people, not only those who were physically injured but also those who were nearby, had friends or family who were hurt, were directly touched by what happened because they were empathically connected to the runners or to the people of Boston, or felt strongly connected to it because of some aspect of their own lives in some way.

What makes such occurrences traumatic for some people but not for others? It’s always about the experience and never about the incident itself. Two people could be watching the race and standing side by side when the bomb blew up and each of them would have different reactions to it. One might be shocked, horrified, frightened, think of it as a terrible thing that happened, and have strong feelings about it, but their life might not be severely disrupted by it. In contrast, the other might be traumatized by it. It is typical to finds these very different responses to the same occurrence.

What this demonstrates is that trauma is never about the thing that happened. It’s always about how the person experienced that thing, both physically and emotionally, and the personal meaning and impact it had on them.

Sometimes these effects can be physical, such as having a head injury, losing a leg, or having a broken arm. Sometimes the greater impact may be more psychological, concerning one’s feelings, thoughts, and interpretations about what any aspect of the incident meant to them on a personal level. These conclusions may pertain to the person’s understanding about who they are or are not, who they can be or cannot be, what value or importance they have, who they are in relation to other people, how it will affect other important people in their lives, and what are the rules of existence and of relationship.

It is these latter factors that are the real domain of trauma. The thing that happened is just an incident. What makes it traumatic is when the thing that happens creates such an effect on a person’s life that it significantly alters their internally held understandings and beliefs about who they are and what are the rules of the people and universe around them. If my image of myself is hyperfocused and rigidly held, and now that image is shattered, that is traumatic. If my image of you is fixed, idealized or demonized, and unrealistic, and I experience you as not fulfilling that image when I severely need you to, that can be traumatic, not merely disappointing, sad, or tragic. When my view of the world around me is that things are fair and just, it can be traumatic for me to find that bad things happen to good people, the world is not necessarily a safe place, and people may actually be untrustworthy and wanting to hurt me.

When I have lived my life relying on my intelligence, charm, good looks, strength, reasoning, self-reliance, reliance on others, or generally good judgment and decision-making abilities, and yet terrible things happen to me, that can be traumatic, devastating. The abilities, competencies, functions, and strengths I have learned to accept as being essential factors in who I am and on which I rely have now let me down and didn’t protect me from the great harm that has happened to me because of the incident. They have betrayed my trust, and now I don’t know what’s true and what’s not, what to rely on or believe in and on what basis I can or should make good decisions in any area of my life. This is the trauma!

It’s not about the thing that happened externally. It’s all about what happens internally, within us. When that internal effect moves beyond disruption and breaks the fabric of our self organization, which includes all of our understandings of the world around us, that is the traumatic event.

Normal Development

We have learned much about how this happens through the course of a person’s life when bad things happen, and we can readily identify such incidents as occurring with such things as wartime events, acts of violence, death, hostile and contentious divorce, and other similar instances of accident, illness, school failures, job loss, and severe financial setbacks. We have been able to draw on these lessons to validate that experience, understand its foundations, and help us deal with the impacts on our lives. What has not been well recognized is when such things happen in the normal course of growth and development, especially in the earliest and most formative parts of infancy, and especially when it happens in the best of homes, with loving and well-meaning parents who are doing their best, having the best of intentions, being reasonable and responsible, and even doing the best that can possibly and humanly be expected.

In other words, we have all been traumatized, because we do not live in a perfect world, have perfect parents, or can get all of our needs met when and how we need them to be. It is those subjectively traumatic experiences of childhood and attachment that serve as our foundations of learning and the templates on which we base future interactions, encounters, and understandings.

What we must understand is that the experience of trauma is a personal and subjective one, meaning that it rests entirely on the point of view of the individual who has felt injured in some way. This has been invaluable for me to have learned as I have been working with people, as they are striving to remake their lives.

This is the stuff I deal with every day as people sit in my office and work through the various pains, challenges, and struggles of their life. It is also the subject of the book that I am writing, Traumatic Experiences Of Normal Development. I look forward to being able to share it with you soon.

_____________________

Carl H. Shubs, Ph.D., is a psychologist in independent practice in Beverly Hills. He is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network. You can contact Dr. Shubs at (310) 772-0520 or DrShubs@DrCarlShubs.com. His website is www.DrCarlShubs.com.

Copyright 2013 by Carl H. Shubs, Ph. D.

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