Growing up is an interesting experience. Not only do you grow to understand yourself better, you start to see the world with new eyes because you are exposed to the experiences of others.
It is with great heartache that I tell you that part of my growing up experience has meant that I have heard stories of some of the worst sides of society. I have been amazed at the sorts of burdens that people have carried in their hearts and minds while gong about their day-to-day.
Each time I have heard someone’s story, I have been moved by the bravery that it has taken for them to share the story. I have been amazed by people’s ability to persevere in he face of some of the worst adversity imaginable, dealing with the trauma in their own ways in order to go on.
What I have learned from these stories is that there is no ‘right’ way to handle trauma the real or potential impacts it can have on one’s life. Importantly, there isn’t really a ‘wrong’ way to do it either – there is just the way that you cope within yourself.
Interestingly, those who carry terrible experiences have shared very similar feelings – and I want to share them with you now too as I see it. I hope that, if you are carrying a burden or supporting someone carrying a burying a burden, you will be comforted by the fact that others have felt a similar way – and if not, that you are comforted by the expanse of human reactions to things. For those who haven’t experienced trauma, maybe it can give you some insight into the feelings of those who have.
Many people who have suffered from trauma feel guilty about the situation. For some, it is guilt that they suffered through the situation and came out on the other end when someone else that they love didn’t. For others, it is guilt that they were unable to save themselves or someone else. It could be guilt that the person or people who caused the trauma are now paying for their crimes. It could be guilt that you didn’t get away from the situation fast enough, or ever.
Ultimately, the feeling of guilt is a normal one because it is the way that human minds process information in a new light. It is so important to know that at the time, you made the best decision that you could with the information that was available. Sure, there may have been other ways to handle the situation. However, that isn’t relevant when looking at the past – only the future. Know that the next time you are faced with a similar situation, you will be better equipped to handle it.
Embarrassment and shame
For some, this guilt is wrapped up in an air of embarrassment that is really messy. It is embarrassment about the fact that you were subjected to this trauma in the first place, as if you are the one to blame. It’s embarrassment that you even had to deal with the situation and were unable to get away/out/resolve it as quickly as you would have liked. Often this is a feeling that is directly related to our opinions of ourselves. ‘I shouldn’t have reacted in X way because I am X person.’
As mentioned before, it is important to know that you did the best that you could at the time. It does not take away from your capacity or abilities as a person, nor does it prevent you from continuing to grow and achieve all the things you have wanted to. This experience cannot own you or the other actions you have taken and will take.
We hear about the different stages of dealing with grief. Anger seems to a feeling that we all accept as normal and likely. What we don’t think is normal is blind range that one can feel towards someone who has wronged them. I’ve heard stories of people thinking about the perpetrator and wanting to kill them; set them on fire or take their eyes out. There can be anger towards the people who didn’t help. There can be anger at the world at large. Personally, I’ve known many people who feel this sort of anger – and they are always terrified of it. It is sad that someone can hold that much anger, but it’s not an unreasonable feeling, so long as one never actually gets violence.
The only negative about feeling this anger is that it takes far too much effort and energy. It takes away from your ability to just be happy.
Fear of not being believed
I recently went through an experience which highlighted to me how irrational and all-consuming fear can be, especially when it’s a fear that you and your character are going to be tarnished if people don’t believe you. It’s the sort of fear that comes from the very centre of your being and digs itself into every facet of who you are. It makes you think about everything you have done in your life and whether it will be enough to prove to people that you’re not lying. It makes you think that regardless of how honest and noble you’ve been, this new person/group has no idea about who you are so if there is no evidence of the trauma happening, you will be proven to be a liar. It was the type of fear that made me want to turn around and run the other way.
What I’m learning is that just because there is no evidence that something happened, it doesn’t mean it didn’t. Outcomes of investigations into traumatic events which lead to ‘no finding of the event taking place’ don’t mean that the investigator doesn’t believe you – it just means that there is no evidence that it happened. There is only a very nuanced difference here but it’s important. Regardless of whether the ‘system’ believes you or not, those in your life who matter will believe you. If they don’t – and as hard as it is to actually do this – then expunge those people from your life. You don’t need them.
Fear of being rejected
In a similar vein to the fear of not being believed is the fear of being rejected. It is an awful feeling that can occur, even if you know that you are, or will be, believed. It is a mammoth feeling that likes to cross over with embarrassment and guilt also, leading to a feeling of complete and utter isolation. When you are scared that people will reject you, you are more likely to to keep your heartache to yourself.
It doesn’t end there. It can also mean that your personality will change and you will start behaving in a way that just isn’t you. For some, this is a coping mechanism where one is overcompensating so that the people around them will like them and keep them in their lives. For others, the fear of rejection means that they will act out so that the rejection can hurry up and happen sooner. In either case, it has the potential to result in one being isolated from the rest of the world. I am such a huge believer of relying on every good person and experience in your life to recover (you can read about that here). Having others carry a burden with you can be reassuring. This doesn’t mean that the people around you have to know what is happening or what has happened – it just means giving them the opportunity to treat you with the kindness and love you deserve, instead of wondering what is going on.
On the flip side, this change of behaviour is such an important sign that something is not, or has not been, going right in someone’s life. If you start to notice your friend or child or colleague is behaving differently, check in with them and see if they are okay.
Difficulty in knowing how to tell people
For some people, carrying and learning from trauma can bring about a form of empowerment, whereby sharing these experiences legitimises them and makes them manageable. It can also empower the trauma survivor by giving the assistance to someone else in a way that they wish they had been helped. In doing this, the cycle of hurt, isolation and suffering ends.
Sometimes, this can be difficult to do because our memories of the trauma can be patchy at best and completely confused at worst. We can start to question whether our memories are correct or if we’ve made them up, especially if we weren’t believed in the first place. The thing to remember is that it doesn’t actually matter how you share your story, if that’s what you want to do. Telling it exactly how you remember and how you feel comfortable is the best way to do it. These experiences are never perfect or rational, so there’s no point in rationalising it to ourselves and to others.
Difficulty in knowing whether to tell people at all
Of course, for some people, telling other people about their traumatic experiences is something that they may hesitate to do. In fact, it may even be something that they don’t want to do at all. There can be so many reasons for this: not wanting to share personal things, not wanting to be the victim, not wanting to remember.
Just know that this is perfectly okay as well. You don’t have to share. And if you think someone you love is holding some trauma that they don’t want to share; that’s okay too. It’s not an affront to you or what you mean to them. It’s just the way it is. You can support and care for them without knowing the details.
Our individual experiences can be so varied, but there can be some comfort in knowing that what we’re feeling is normal. That’s why it’s so important that we treat each other with kindness – you never know what someone is dealing with.