Trauma: True Acknowledgement is Necessary for Healing to Begin

Simply put, when it comes to traumatic experiences, there is no hierarchy of pain. Many survivors believe—or want to believe—that trauma is scalable and therefore more or less extreme than that of someone else. While this belief is understandable and does offer some benefits, it is ultimately more flawed than accurate.

For many life events as well as emotions, it is possible to create a hierarchy and use it to determine if event/emotion A is more or less than event/emotion B. One can look at happiness and stress to see how this scaling occurs. For example many would agree that receiving the perfect gift on your birthday falls below the happiness you feel on your wedding day, while the stress you go through on your wedding day exceeds the stress you have on your birthday. This scalability can add perspective, meaning, and depth to happenings that are within the realm of ordinary, expected, and standard.

Yet trauma lies at the utmost extreme of human experience; for the individual, there is nothing ordinary, expected, or standard about it. The severity of trauma, the danger, horror, and fear involved cannot be compared—regardless of what the content of the traumatic occurrence was. Regardless of how much or how little was endured, all traumatic experiences lie within the category of utmost extreme. Therefore, creating a hierarchy of traumas is not possible, since every trauma is an extreme life event. Once something is extreme, ranking its extremeness is a futile exercise.

Phrased another way, trauma is trauma; how you sustained a traumatic event does not alter the fact of the trauma. Imagine for a moment, a gorgeous glass vase, which becomes shattered; how this vase shattered—by wind gusting through an open window, a child bumping the table the vase sat on, or you dropping it while changing out the flowers—is of no import to the shattered vase.

Many survivors of traumatic life experience(s) find comfort and protection in maintaining the belief that because he or she did or did not experience certain components in the traumatic event(s), then the trauma is less than someone else’s. And, if it is less, it is a minor, even inconsequential moment in time that does not need to be acknowledged, let alone healed through. Despite the apparent protection that this belief brings, sustaining it prevents you from engaging in your healing, and healing is the only means by which to detoxify trauma.

In addition to blocking your healing journey, this belief robs you of self-compassion. The reason this belief precludes compassion, is that compassion requires reckoning. This belief prevents you from truly acknowledging and owning your hurt, pain, and suffering. It is only after acknowledgment has arisen that the second component of compassion can come forth: turning toward distress. This turning toward allows you to potentially alleviate your pain. Self-compassion not only validates your wounds, but it also opens a deep reservoir of gentleness. Holding and extending gentleness toward yourself, as well as regarding yourself through a compassionate lens, provides you with unshakeable stamina to engage in as well as endure your development into a thriving post-trauma individual.

Believing in a hierarchy of human suffering and pain seems to grant you peace as well as protection, but in the end it shortchanges you out of the health and wellbeing you have an inherent right to. Feel free to slowly begin letting go of this belief and replacing it with a more accurate acknowledgment of your past, and while you do this, aim to grow compassion as well as gentleness within yourself. If you want or need a compassionate guide to help you through, know that there are many qualified professionals who believe in your inherent right to compassion, gentleness, healing, and growth who can and will assist in this undertaking.

© Copyright 2011 by Susanne M. Dillmann, PsyD, therapist in Escondido, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • dan

    dan

    May 12th, 2011 at 7:03 PM

    completely agree with your view on trauma.it’s like pain has levels but trauma is beyond a line and all that exists beyond that line is darkness.so it’s of no use trying to see how far beyond the line it has gone.rather the same energy could be utilized to try and overcome the trauma!

  • Nik

    Nik

    May 13th, 2011 at 4:24 AM

    It is easy to see that no matter how a trauma in your life occurs, there is still a traumatic event that has been experienced and healing has to take place. You might be shattered, you may be injured but healing can occur.

  • sandy

    sandy

    May 13th, 2011 at 6:58 AM

    this sense of ‘levels’ also comes from those around the trauma victim trying to console the person…they say things hoping that it would make the person feel better but things like “hey,this is not too bad, at least that didn’t happen to you” can really make the person feel like nobody gives a damn and thinks that their problems are insignificant.this can be more stressful than something of a good thing,you know!

  • Alexander Goss

    Alexander Goss

    May 20th, 2011 at 11:06 AM

    Suffering and pain is directly related to an individual’s tightly honed perspective on it imho. For example, if the Pope was to drop dead from a heart attack in public tomorrow, countless Roman Catholics worldwide would be devastated by the event and those who witnessed it would be even more traumatized.

    If those same people heard that Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister of Singapore died suddenly of a heart-attack, most would say “Who?” and not feel anything one way or another. Whereas in Singapore, there would be an outpouring of grief. Pain is not an absolute.

  • H.L.H

    H.L.H

    May 21st, 2011 at 2:40 PM

    That was a great read, Susanne.

    If you are traumatized, no-one can tell you your suffering is any less (or more for that matter) important than another’s. But why would you tell yourself that?

    My mother was a victim of a violent husband all her life and yet she thinks she should count herself lucky that it wasn’t as bad as what some other women go through. She actually said that to me once. As if trivializing what he did made it acceptable.

    She never had a broken bone, although she had plenty of bruises. She thinks that makes her a winner.

    He passed away years ago but I remember the domestic violence happening and I get angry inside that she minimizes what he did to her. As a woman, I would never tolerate that situation for myself or my daughters or ever consider it “not that bad.”

  • Walt J.

    Walt J.

    May 21st, 2011 at 3:13 PM

    Some women fake pain and trauma for attention though.

    Unless you’re a doctor, you’ll have a hard time telling apart those who have suffered genuine pain and trauma and those who are just pretending they did.

    It makes it difficult to know when to be sympathetic. I’ve been burned before like that by a liar I gave my heart to and felt like an old fool when I found out.

  • Gale Mooney

    Gale Mooney

    May 21st, 2011 at 8:44 PM

    If a man or woman is debilitated by pain, emotional or physical, it’s -that- bad. Whether their pain is better or worse than the next person is immaterial. As you said, trauma is trauma is trauma.

    Thanks Susanne for an excellent piece there.

  • Nina G.

    Nina G.

    May 22nd, 2011 at 7:03 PM

    @Walt J. : Don’t worry, Walt. Karma will get her in the end I bet. If she really suffers some nasty incident, no-one will believe her. What goes around, comes around.

    I wish you better luck in love. A nice guy like you deserves that. :)

  • kevin b.

    kevin b.

    May 22nd, 2011 at 9:50 PM

    I once saw a man get hit by a car when I was young and I didn’t think anything much about it after a day or two.

    But when my pet dog died from cancer, I was completely devastated and locked myself in my house for a week and didn’t answer the door or phone.

    It all depends on the person how trauma affects them individually.

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