Often we think that big problems come from big incidents: your spouse divorces you and you become depressed, your house burns down and you have nightmares for weeks, you fight in a war and have PTSD.
But trauma doesn’t fit so neatly into a box.
Some people experience severe trauma with very few lasting side-effects; others go through what many would consider a minor trauma and it has a significant, life-changing impact. So what’s going on?
Imagine each person’s life as a house of cards. For some people, their house may be sturdy – their cards are thick and glued together. Other houses are more precarious – the cards are thin, bent, and unstable. The latter house is more quick to collapse when a new card is added to the top; the former can handle many more cards and remain standing; it takes a lot more effort to knock down this house.
Small things can cause great harm.
Many people have a tendency to be very critical of themselves when they are hurt emotionally, especially if they deem the incident that caused them pain to be insignificant. “It wasn’t really that bad,” people say. “Julie/Joe/Bob/Rachel had it worse, and they are doing fine.” The problem is, Julie/Joe/Bob/Rachel may not be doing as well as they appear. And each person’s history – their house of cards – is different.
There is always someone who had it worse. Although people often say things like “it wasn’t that bad,” to comfort themselves or others, what ends up happening is that they deny their own experience, sometimes burying the pain down deep inside.
Denial doesn’t make the pain any less; it simply pushes it aside until it erupts in a different way. Denying one’s own pain is destructive and can have lasting effects on a person’s ability to weather further difficulties in life.
So, while you may compare your difficulty with another person’s and think you shouldn’t feel as strongly as you do, there is a reason you’re reacting in that way. Strong feelings don’t come out of nowhere.
Hurt, depression, anxiety, and suffering are not a contest. There are many reasons why one person may experience trauma and be adversely affected, and another person experience a similar trauma and come out relatively unscathed. Some of this has to do with genetics; some of it’s because a person has been emotionally hurt previously and one more added trauma can bring up a flood of symptoms.
Previous trauma, especially if it hasn’t been dealt with, can accrue over a lifetime. Seemingly small incidents can have a significant impact.
If you feel snubbed at work and begin crying uncontrollably, chances are that the emotional outburst is not just about what is happening in the moment. Most likely the incident triggered an old hurt or trauma from years ago, and tapped into some very powerful feelings. You may feel like you’re overreacting, but in reality, your response is about much more then snubbing.
Most people are their own harshest critics, and the judgement they place on themselves is much more scathing than what others express. Judging yourself because of how you respond emotionally is like rubbing salt in a wound – it hurts a great deal, and does nothing to promote healing.
Accepting your feelings for what they are, and trying to understand where they come from and the reason for their intensity can be the basis for continued growth and restoration.
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