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Trauma for Skeptics

How to think about trauma without thinking about “trauma.”

Pamela J. Hobart
Pamela J. Hobart
3 min read
Trauma for Skeptics

This post is specifically for people who, like me, have noticed the recent ascendance of "trauma"-centric discourse and concepts.

This post is also about trauma as a problematic experience extended in time, not the discrete kinds of traumatic event that lead more or less straightforwardly to PTSD (such as one-time witnessing of interpersonal violence or natural disaster)

Perpetual disclaimer: I am not a psychologist, I am a philosopher and generally curious person. I'm exploring this topic out in public, not trying to disrupt the trauma-intellectual industry or anything like that

The "trauma" label feels heavy. It has a rather dramatic connotation, and seems like perhaps it should be reserved for the very most extreme possible cases (e.g. Vietnam vets, incest survivors.)

Moreover, "trauma" seems inherently subjective. Why do some types of experiences render person A "traumatized," even for life, while person B bounces right back?

These factors - trauma's weight and subjectivity - may encourage trauma-havers on the margins to round themselves down out of the class of traumatized persons. This probably has some upside in terms of personal identity preservation, but it also "protects" them from exploring areas that could turn out to matter.

As I've begun to dip a toe into trauma-related reading, with more to come, these are my (provisional) guiding questions. These questions do not depend on first figuring out what counts as "trauma" or who counts as "traumatized."

  1. Did the person in question learn something that no longer serves them well (if it ever did)?
  2. Has this person reached their developmental potential?

Think of the first question as being about a kind of "vestigial lesson" - one that has been rendered useless or worse with the changing of circumstances and passing of time. And these trauma-induced vestigial lessons can be of any type: cognitive, emotional, behavioral, etc.

Same for "developmental potential," which can mean a lot of things here. Due to trauma, a person may not be operating towards the far limits of her attentional and executive capacities, her ability to maintain emotional control in a sustainable manner, etc. Let's call this the "thwarted potential" harm of trauma.

Reflecting on what "trauma" means - imparting vestigial lessons while thwarting potential - we begin to see why some experiences end up effecting "trauma" and other do not.

Most people have learned inappropriate or incorrect lessons at one time or another. But garden-variety lessons are discrete and rationally revisable in a way that the deep-seated, amorphous, and even visceral vestigial lessons of trauma tend not to be.

Similarly, most people do seem to have some potential going untapped. But this is more ordinarily due to minor-not-systematic reasons of willpower, chance, and choice. When life pulls someone strongly away from their innate willingness and ability to thrive, that's trauma.

All of this is adding up to a kind of folk theory of human development: in the absence of the stuff that can be reasonably referred to as "traumatic," people tend to learn useful things (including revising beliefs as necessary), and they move asymptotically towards attaining their potential (in a very broad sense).

Learning and improvement are not what stand in need of explanation - but stunted learning and conspicuously absent improvement do.

On a more practical level: If you find yourself feeling weird wondering whether you've been "traumatized" or not, I suggest consider reframing your inquiry in terms like these:

  • What reason do I have to think that I am living up to my potential (or not)?
  • What could I try in order to figure out if potential is laying fallow?
  • What is the most plausible explanation for the problems/mistakes I struggle with repeatedly? (personality trait, emotional dysregulation, implicit false belief, something else)
  • To what extent can my problems be tackled in a strictly future-oriented way? How is my past relevant (or not) to making this change?

There is simply no need to soak up (or aggressively reject) "traumatized" as a cornerstone of your identity in order to consider how you got where you are - and how to go somewhere else.

Pamela J. Hobart Twitter

Philosophical Life Coaching in Austin, TX. Also mother of 3, Miata driver, and DIY manicure aficionado.