Dealing with trauma, whether formally or informally, is layered with challenge upon challenge. One of the biggest challenges I have been facing in the early days of trauma therapy is captured in this relatable quote I recently came across online:
“The first rule of the trauma club: we dismiss our traumas because someone else has it worse.”
Without fail, a large bulk of my recent trauma therapy sessions have become wrapped up in the above. We then end up spending so long challenging my self-judgments, the minimising, the comparing and the dismissing, that a lot of the deeper work gets sidelined. In fact, my therapist and I have realised that by me getting caught up in these cognitive distortions about the validity of what I have or have not been through, it is just another way of my brain deflecting from feelings and pain.
Every time my thoughts go down the avenue of “it wasn’t that bad”, “it doesn’t really count”, “so-and-so had it worse”, “it isn’t real trauma”, I end up moving further away from the true impact of what I’ve been through. As long as I’m stuck in a cycle of invalidating what’s happened to me, I can’t fully experience the pain that is associated with it.
I think, for a lot of us, a vital part of trauma work has to be around tackling this obstacle. Whether that’s by blocking the cognitive distortions when they come up, or challenging the self-judgments and invalidation directly, there is something important about noticing what function the thoughts serve in order to move forward in spite of them.
I am supposed to try and remind myself when I notice the invalidating thoughts come up that “this is where my brain goes” to try and create a little distance. Thoughts are not facts, as they say in DBT. Pausing and saying to myself, “Wait, this is one of my brain’s clever ways of deflecting from what’s really going on” allows me to make a choice about whether I continue to go with that trail or not. I can either choose to perpetuate the self-berating, self-judging and self-invalidating. Or, I can try something else. I can encourage myself to notice the actual feelings that are there, the ones I try so hard to avoid, and let myself fully experience them. I can try and penetrate the smokescreen.
My brain has learnt 101 ways to disconnect from my experiences, because it’s so much easier to avoid them. But when avoidance seeps into every aspect of my life – including in trauma therapy where the whole point is to work towards reassociating and processing all the cut-off past experiences that I have avoided for so many years – it clearly isn’t serving me any more.
So the challenge these days is to really notice where my brain is going, watching my thoughts from a distance and deciding what train I’m going to go with. The “my trauma isn’t really trauma” train might be an easier ride, but it isn’t going to get me very far. The alternative train, on the other hand, whilst terrifying and jerky and unfamiliar, might actually get me places.
I guess it all goes back to what an old therapist onces told me. As painful as it might be, in order to heal, we have to feel.