The impact that trauma has on people is something I often witness as a therapist. In many cases, trauma is the result of the actions of another person. Many of us as children felt the effects of developmental trauma. This is where not one particular event that left us traumatised, but an unhealthy environment that was persistent growing up – witnessing parents arguing, emotional or physical neglect, etc.
Trauma changes us. It shapes the way in which we see the world, the way we interact with others and how we make sense of our environment. If you didn’t feel unconditional love as a child, you may have grown up believing you weren’t enough. People carrying this trauma will tend to find themselves in relationships that reflect this belief – you can read my blog about attracting the love we think we deserve here.
From around 2-3 years old we start to get a sense of self. A few years later, around 5-6 we start to really grasp the concept that others have a sense of us too - we become self-conscious and that starts to shape the thoughts we have about ourselves. If we believe we are acceptable to others, we develop a healthy sense of self. However, if we believe we are different in some way, and that difference isn’t acceptable in our environment, we modify ourselves and develop a negative sense of self. An example might be a young boy realising he’s attracted to other boys in a country where homosexuality is illegal.
In both the examples above, a seed gets planted from a very young age. In the first example, it’s a “not enough” seed. In the second it’s an “I’m wrong” seed. As children, we lack the ability to rationalise the messages coming our way - we are powerless to stop these seeds being planted. Consequently, the seeds take root and they become part of our sense of self.
The “not enough” person may be unkind to others, because they desperately want to feel better about themselves – classic bully behaviour. The “I’m wrong” person may seek out ways to punish themselves (self-harming). Then of course, there are those who had both seeds, and many more, planted in their early years. Some of these people struggle to maintain healthy relationships, and in some cases, can develop personality disorders and abusive behaviours.
I always like to remind people that these seeds were never theirs - they came from someone else’s trauma. Why else would a parent abuse a child, if they themselves had a healthy sense of self? Why else would a child exhibit bullying behaviour, if they felt loved and worthy?
Sometimes it isn’t a person directly passing on trauma - it may be part of the culture. I say not directly, because culture is formed by people, and given so many people are traumatised, it stands to reason that we would have traumatised cultures.
When we have been wronged, we must choose forgiveness. Listen to the initial anger and recognise that anger is just your hurt in disguise. Anger is often hurt trying to be heard. Anger is destructive and if directed toward someone (including yourself) the cycle of trauma continues – the seeds continue to spread. Instead, engage with the hurt that sits beneath the anger, because this is where your self-worth is. Feeling your hurt will actually nurture your self-worth and help you begin the repair work.
At this point, often people tell me that the things that happened to them are unforgiveable. I respond with the insight that forgiveness is not about letting that person off the hook. Their punishment is the trauma they themselves carry.
Forgiveness is about your healing and your growth. It’s about making a conscious decision to not put more trauma into the world. When we fail to acknowledge our hurt, we hurt others in our actions. We must firstly acknowledge our deepest hurt, then choose forgiveness so we may heal and not pass on anymore trauma. Our trauma trees must be gently pruned, recognising that the trees themselves are hurting.
Forgiveness does not mean we must allow ourselves to be continually hurt by someone else, or something else. We are all responsible for our own healing, but first we must acknowledge that we are hurting. If someone is walking around traumatised and abusing others, we must protect ourselves. Until that person is ready, willing and able to address their hurt and begin healing, we must have clear boundaries with them. Sometimes that means compassionately letting go of them and knowing that they will be presented with many more opportunities to heal – you letting go being one.
The world is traumatised, as are its leaders. We have a responsibility to ourselves, the people we love, and humanity as a whole to identify where we have been hurt, and to do what it takes to heal ourselves. It is the only way we can stop our trauma spreading. Whatever happened to you was not your fault, but healing from it is entirely within your control and is your responsibility.
Post traumatic growth is a very real thing, and I am deeply honoured to have witnessed many people I’ve worked with flourish when they have committed to their healing. If you would like to begin your own journey but don’t know where to start, I encourage you to reach out to a professional for help. The road won’t be easy, but the rewards are definitely worth it, and having someone you trust by your side can make all the difference.