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. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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