9 Reasons NOT To Talk about “What Happened” when Healing from Trauma
- Re-traumatization by Going Too Fast. Having things happen too fast is a characteristic of trauma itself. Pushing yourself to tell your story, overriding any part of yourself that feels unsure or unready, constitutes another trauma because it’s just another case of too much too soon.
- Re-traumatization by Breaking the Protective Barriers in the Brain. The brain encapsulates traumatic memories away from us for a very good reason. It’s not healthy to try to just break apart these protective structures. This could cause a lot of problems. If impatient, you could begin making up the story because you don’t understand why you can’t actually remember it. You could numb out so much you can’t speak with any coherency. You could become so disorganized all the pieces of the story come out like shattered glass, all in the wrong order. This could cause you to feel insane and embarrassed, and like a liar. You may not realize the brain has cut you off from the memories for a number of very good reasons and it’s trying to help you heal, not be a source of embarrassment and confusion for you. It’s much better to honor the brain’s wisdom in putting the walls up. Breaking them is destructive. Healing should be gentle and constructive. There are many ways to heal traumatic memories without breaking anything.
- Re-traumatization by Reliving It. Telling could re-traumatize a person by forcing them to relive the trauma. Because of this forced re-living of the horror, just the idea of telling What Happened can be utterly terrifying. It can be totally, completely overwhelming. It’s not going to have any therapeutic value if it’s bringing about utter terror. Reliving past trauma is itself another trauma. If you are pushing yourself through terror, this is not about your own healing anymore, it’s about some part of you that is being forceful and hurtful with yourself, or trying to please another person.
- Re-traumatization by Being Too Vulnerable. Telling one’s story could traumatize a person by making them too open and vulnerable than what is healthy. Some trauma victims are used to being too vulnerable and do not know how to protect themselves yet. Even if nobody ends up criticizing what they have to say, just the act of opening up about what happened could constitute a reliving of the experience of being overly vulnerable and too open to being abused. This could re-create the unhealthy pattern of others forcing too much vulnerability on them. It reinforces habits from being abused in the past.
- Traumatization by Being Attacked. Telling one’s story can open oneself up to people saying it’s not true, questioning it, criticizing it, picking it apart, trolling, abusing. Having details of your story attacked, your character belittled in some way or being outright not believed, when you are actually telling the truth – these kinds of things constitute an additional set of traumatic events to deal with.
- Telling of one’s story could traumatize other people. This is something I had not thought about at all until my therapist pointed it out. If we care not only about our own psychological health and well-being but that of others, we would exercise some caution when putting things into the world that might end up traumatizing other people. I may think carefully about the context I am putting it in and really make sure it’s what people are expecting to read about in that context. Of course, a trigger warning is important to help people understand that it may have difficult content and then they actually take responsibility for reading it. I think it’s very important and healing to engage in creative or other forms of self-expression around trauma, but it does make sense to at least spend a little time considering the context and the impact a story of trauma could have on others before sharing it and make sure it comes with a warning. If the telling of the story has therapeutic value for others who have been through the same thing, then you can weigh the therapeutic value with the potential traumatic impact and then think about whether the traumatic parts are absolutely necessary in order to achieve the results you want (they could be crucial – every case is a unique case).(Note that this is in reference to the public, friends and family – you don’t need to be cautious when you tell your therapist because they are trained to listen to every detail of whatever you need to express to them and regulate themselves if they need to.)
- If you were not believed in the past, you could also be terrified due to the trauma of not being believed. If your story is quite unusual, or if you were (for all reasons listed so far) unable to make it make any sense to others, you may have experienced the very real trauma of not being believed. Perhaps you revealed something to someone you thought you could trust and that someone broke your trust. Not being believed is an additional trauma. It would make sense to focus some time on healing the emotions related to this trauma of not being believed before you get into the trauma story itself because whenever you think about telling your story, this additional trauma will rear it’s ugly head and stand in your way.
- If your trauma involves something socially negated, a social stigma, your risk is higher. If your story involves something taboo, not socially acceptable, something people don’t generally understand or condone, something generally rejected or ridiculed, this can make it take longer to feel safe and find a safe person to talk to. You actually do have a higher risk of being condemned or misunderstood in this case.
- If your story is incredibly long, spanning many years, you may be unable to tell it. In my case my story is very long. Having a very long story is another reason it can be hard to tell one’s story because it’s technically a book (or several). It’s not “a trauma” but a giant landscape of thousands of traumas. I know I’m telling a bit of my story here – but it feels relatively safe to me since I’m leaving out any details so there is nothing gory or graphic; rather it is a brief, surface, intellectual telling which focuses primarily on the math. I have to make peace with the fact that I won’t be understood from this brief telling. But I do want to explain how the length of a trauma story can make it almost impossible to tell. Anyway, in my case, my body was being destroyed for approximately two months (one in 07 and one in 08). The body has hundreds of systems, each system has hundreds of components that can be broken and fail. During the first one and a half years or so, every hour of every day was different. One 24 hour period could take up to 20 pages to describe accurately in terms of both the complexities of what happened physiologically and the psychological impact. I was rehabilitating for 3 years (technically I still am but systems are stabilized now). Say it takes an average of 5 pages to describe each day, over 3 years – that comes to 5,475 pages to give an accurate description of what happened – and this is only for the two medical accidents/injuries/incidents. Then if you add on top of that 18 years of childhood trauma issues, and sexual/relationship related trauma, it’s like – a very long document. 10,000 pages? What is that – like 5 books?
I can imagine this is the case for many people whose trauma spans months or years. How can you explain all of that accurately and truthfully when it covers so much time? How can you make sure that your truth will be heard, when, in order for your truth to be heard, you would need 10,000 pages because with any fewer pages you would be leaving out something that you feel would be crucial to make sure you won’t be misunderstood? So there is this problem — my story requires 10,000 pages for me to tell it right, but I’m trying to tell it in a few paragraphs? Or in one hour? This will not work out at all. There is an inner knowing that – I WILL not be understood because I CANNOT tell this story entirely within the space and time allotted, and this adds another level of terror – the terror of not being understood. The terror related to forcing yourself to enter into a situation in which you know people will not be able to understand you. Then on top if it there are all the other problems, such as the brain trying to stop you from remembering things. With all this, getting the story communicated clearly will be pretty much impossible.
So if the telling of one’s story can be a sacred, healing, therapeutic act, but there are so many reasons not to tell it – what do we do? Well, from my perspective at this time I see two roads. The first is to slowly become stronger and talk about tiny pieces of what happened in a therapeutic context. (I focus on SE therapy because that’s what I know, but there are probably additional therapeutic modalities that I am not familiar with that have ways of ensuring safety and integration while leading a person back to the traumatic events). The second way is to engage in some kind of creative expression in relation to small parts of the traumas, when ready.
Inner Resources. In terms of getting stronger, we can focus on building ourselves up so that we have so many inner resources we can handle more and more pieces of the story. We need to build the felt sense of what “safe” is, within our bodies, and never allow something to happen that violates that feeling – even if it’s with a therapist. We need to build up inside ourselves a bodily experience of “titration” and never ever violate that again by running headlong into something “too much, too fast, too soon.” We need to allow the brain to find it’s natural states of organization, almost a re-forming of the brain from scratch, through making the sincere effort to frequently self-regulate. After all this we can begin taking little bites out of our trauma story. Over many years perhaps, all the tiny bites eventually end up impacting the whole cake.