Speaking psychologically, trauma is a word that is often used both too
broadly and too narrowly. From the German, trauma literally means “wound.” Medically, your child’s knee scrape from skateboarding is a trauma. But psychologically, a knee scrape may have nothing to do with trauma. Or it might be profoundly connected to trauma. For example:
Whenever Meg hurt herself as a child, no matter how badly or how bloody, her mother reminded her of what their religion taught: “man is the perfect, spiritual reflection of God. Matter, sin, disease, and death do not exist. You are spirit, blissful, eternal.” For Meg, her mother’s preaching felt emotionally detached, a knee jerk rather than a compassionate response. It left Meg feeling like her pain did not matter to anyone. And Meg grew up driven in two opposing directions. One was to think of herself as invincible and to behave accordingly, like a superhero everyone could always count on. The other was to secretly believe that no matter how much pain she was in, how lonely and in need of someone to depend on, no one would ever care or help. No one’s love - not her husband’s, her therapist’s, her friends’ – was real enough to her to make a difference. Meg’s trauma was cumulative, and had set up a lifelong pattern of ambivalence about dependency in which she repeatedly found herself stuck.
Psychological trauma was first fully recognized in WWI, when it was called shell-shock. Mental health practitioners today understand that trauma can be both discrete - that is, limited to a specific incident that took place in a moment of time, like a bombing, a rape, or a tsunami; but also cumulative, not simply discrete. Cumulative trauma is also called relational trauma, or developmental trauma. The terms describe an ongoing traumatic, or wounding, experience, usually going on during development from infant to young adult. For example, cumulative traumatic situations could include growing up with a depressed, alcoholic, self-centered and neglectful parent; or with a step parent who clearly would prefer not to have you, his step child, in the picture. These are wounding situations for a child to grow up in, and as resilient as kids may be, and as complex as families can be, these situations are likely to have a traumatic impact that gets played out in repetitive problems later in life.
To give another example: Joe and Karen came to see me because Karen was fed up with Joe’s almost constant irritability and his frequent outbursts of stringent, belittling anger. Joe didn’t deny it; it pained him to confront this aspect of himself, and the ways he saw himself harming his marriage, his wife and his children, all of whom he loved. Working individually with Joe, we were able to quickly get past his reluctance to really think about his childhood family situation. We soon got to the traumatic situation he grew up with: his irritable, anxious father, always screaming at his mother about money, screaming at him and his 7 brothers and sisters because nothing was ever good enough. More often than he cared to fully remember, Joe and his siblings were beaten, as was his mother. The beatings went on until Joe was old enough to get between his mother and father and threaten to kill his father if he touched his mother. Dad stopped hitting, but there was never an apology for his abusive behavior.
Joe’s wounds were deep, and it stunned and pained him to realize that as wounded as he was, he was behaving like his father just the same. Joe’s cumulative trauma of being exposed to a father who could not take responsibility for his anger, who insisted that he was only angry because people made him so, had led Joe to be disgusted by his father’s behavior - and yet to repeat his father’s behavior without somehow knowing what he was doing.
Joe was a very intelligent, hard working man. He put his mind to changing and did so, very successfully. But not all cumulative trauma is as clear as Joe’s. The more subtle the traumatization, the harder it can be to understand and recognize its impact. It’s good to remember that we all have wounding – no one escapes some amount of wounding as we become adults. When we notice ourselves stuck in self-defeating, repetitive patterns of behavior in relationships, or in work, it can be tremendously helpful to recognize the underlying cumulative trauma or traumatic situation that might have influenced our character, our defenses, our expectations. Knowledge of our own psychological make-up is power.