I Have the Worst Luck: Can Trauma Make Us Feel Unlucky?

Hand holding a four-leaf cloverSaint Patrick’s Day brings a barrage of green, four-leaf clovers, good-luck charms and wishes of good fortune. But many people, especially those who have a trauma background, feel like a dark cloud of misfortune follows them everywhere they go.

I can’t tell you how many times, in my work as a trauma therapist, I’ve heard a person say “I feel like I’m a magnet for bad things happening.” They describe a sense of beginning to get their lips above water when something terrible happens to knock them down again.

In some cases, they may actually be right. There has been some research to suggest that someone who has been traumatized is likely to be victimized again. A number of theories attempt to explain this phenomena, and while I want to explore a few here, I want to make it clear, first and foremost, that the intention of this article is not to blame victims of trauma. If there is abuse or perpetration, the accountability, responsibility, and fault always lies with the perpetrator. No one desires abuse. No one wants to be perpetrated upon. No one asks for it. The intention here is to both validate the experiences of people who have experienced trauma and explore the various explanations why some individuals seem to be unable to get out from under the “dark cloud” of trauma.

The Cycle of Poverty

The first avenue I’d like to explore is the cycle of poverty. For those who struggle with the challenges that often accompany a lack of financial resources, the likelihood of being victimized is high. Living paycheck to paycheck, constantly uncertain of whether we will be able to afford groceries, heat our homes, or pay rent, threatens our sense of safety in the world. When we do not feel safe, when our basic needs are not met, it is extremely difficult to feel emotionally regulated. We may seek to numb emotional pain with substances, sex, gambling or self-harm. These methods of coping may, in turn, make it even more difficult to maintain a typical level of function.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) questionnaire, a longitudinal, comprehensive study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, linked trauma in childhood with a host of problems, such as chronic health issues, addiction issues, relationship issues, and workplace issues (CDC, 2015). There is a strong correlation between poverty and trauma, and it can be difficult to see yourself as lucky or fortunate when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from.

Dissociation

When we experience trauma, we “check out” from the present moment to some degree, though some may check out more than others. Many people describe a feeling of floating above their bodies or watching themselves from far away. Some may experience feelings of fogginess, sleepiness, or even feel as if they’ve been drugged.

Dissociation leads us to another explanation of the “bad luck” many people with trauma backgrounds report (Sar, 2014). Often, people who have experienced trauma may dissociate to a point of not being able to read people’s nonverbal cues. They may not see, for example, the red flags of an abusive relationship until the abuse has already started. It’s often the case that they exist in survival mode, just getting through each moment without being able to see how actions and choices might affect their future. At times, dissociation can also prevent folks from being able to read people’s boundaries, which can result in relationship struggles and conflicts. They may even be less mindful of what they are doing with their bodies or their belongings, frequently leaving things behind or losing them.

The repetition of trauma seems to help our systems create a new and more empowered ending to the story. We do the same thing as adults—we just do it with our bodies. In other words, we may seek out relationships with people that subconsciously mirror our perpetrators to try to work out a happier, more resolved ending.

Those with a trauma background are also more vulnerable to addiction, which can be considered another form of dissociation. In other words, they may be more likely to attempt to numb their pain with substances. The misfortune that accompanies the struggles of addiction are numerous: financial hardship, legal issues, failed relationships—these are all things people might call bad luck. Using substances to numb pain is one factor that can contribute to these struggles. Difficulty being mindful and an inability to organize thoughts and prioritize urgent matters are other factors that may occur with dissociation.

The Compulsion to Repeat the Trauma

A third theory for why people with trauma tend to be re-victimized and end up experiencing even more trauma is based in Bessel Van der Kolk’s theory of the “compulsion to repeat the trauma” (van der Kolk, 1989). (I again want to state here how important it is to avoid blaming the victim.)

Human systems want health. When children experience trauma and have the opportunity to enter play therapy, they are likely to reenact the trauma with dolls or toys. They will reenact the trauma over and over again until Superman comes and rescues the victim or a lion comes and eats the perpetrator. At that point, we consider the trauma processed, at least for that developmental stage (children may experience a resurfacing of symptoms when they hit puberty or adulthood and need to process through the trauma again).

The repetition of the trauma seems to help our systems create a new and more empowered ending to the story. We do the same thing as adults—we just do it with our bodies. In other words, we may seek out relationships with people that subconsciously mirror our perpetrators to try to work out a happier, more resolved ending. The problem is, of course, we usually end up experiencing more abuse, more trauma, more bad fortune.

Our Brains Love a Story

Finally, there is just this simple fact: sometimes bad stuff happens—to everyone. Our brains function on stories. Our brains try to make sense of our world. If the story we tell ourselves is that we are unlucky and cursed, we may filter all of the things that happen to us to refine a narrative that fits that story (Brown, 2017).

For the most part, there is cause and effect in our lives. There are patterns to what we do and the lives we create. The belief that we have “bad luck” might in reality be a lack of understanding of these patterns. In order to address our trauma and dissociation and create lives of abundance, we may need professional support.

But we can also strive to remember that accidents happen. Bad things happen. If we walk around looking for evidence that we are unlucky, we are likely to find it, since our brains can filter the things that happen to us to fit our hypothesis.

I am not saying the previous theories should be discounted, because they do hold water. And again, no one asks to experience trauma or be victimized, and those who do experience traumatic experiences are not to blame for them. But the more we can own the paths we walk and the choices we can make, the more we will likely begin to see our own strength and power. We may, then, begin to realize there is no better way to good fortune than bravery and compassion, both for our paths and for our ability to sit with the whole truth.

References:

  1. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). (2016, April 1). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/index.html
  2. Brown, B. (2017). Rising strong: How the ability to resent transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York, NY: Random House.
  3. Sar, V. (2014). The many faces of dissociation: Opportunities for innovative research in psychiatry. Clinical Psychopharmacology and Neuroscience, 12(3). 171-79. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4293161
  4. van der Kolk, B. (1989). The compulsion to repeat the trauma. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 12(2). 389-411.

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Erica Bonham, LPC, certified EMDR therapist, therapist in Arvada, Colorado

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