Every field of study attracts some scoffing, and when it comes to psychology, the common joke is that we counselors make way too much of a fuss over what happened in the past. Some people feel that counselors intentionally set out to get their clients to blame all of their problems on their parents and their childhood experiences. Well, maybe some counselors take that approach because they don’t know any better. But to counsel correctly, a counselor must keep an open mind and not make hasty assumptions. While many adult struggles do begin in the childhood years, this isn’t always the case. And while parent figures can have a profoundly negative impact on mental health, many parents don’t. You simply don’t need parental involvement to develop serious problems as a child. In many cases, children go through very upsetting experiences without their parents being aware of what happened. Since they are humans and not gods, parents aren’t all-knowing, nor are they able to keep an eye on their kids 24/7. Even if they could watch their kids around the clock, they still wouldn’t be able to always tell when their kids were interpreting something in a negative way.
Trauma is caused by your mind interpreting an experience that you have in a way that greatly upsets you. In many cases, children keep these interpretations to themselves, never letting anyone else know what kinds of beliefs they are struggling with. Among those who do try to get help, many children find that their available helpers simply aren’t equipped to give them solutions, and so they soldier on as best they can while their psychological condition grows steadily worse.
To say that all trauma begins in childhood is an exaggeration. What’s more accurate is to say that if you are traumatized today, then you got that way due to something you experienced in the past. It might be the very recent past, or the distant past. The key point is that you are a very logical being whose reactions and behaviors are very purposeful.
Many adults who are struggling with anxious, obsessive behaviors have never considered the possibility that those things are symptoms of an underlying problem that can be corrected. Instead, people commonly mistake symptoms of psychological or spiritual distress for personality quirks that they were born with. “I’m just a very detailed person,” says the woman who becomes extremely upset if she is prevented from controlling every aspect of her environment. “I just have high standards when it comes to cleanliness,” says the man who takes five showers a day and is frequently disinfecting the surfaces of his home. It is a lack of education that causes us to mistake trauma symptoms for natural personality traits. But is this really such a big deal? Well, how successful do you want to be in your relationships with other humans?
Owning Your Baggage
Personal maturity is one of the greatest goals you can pursue in life. One of the aspects of becoming more mature is to gain a deeper understanding of who you are and why you behave the way that you do.
Now suppose you have a rock in your shoe. It doesn’t bother you as long as you are sitting down watching TV. But then your friend pushes you to come on a walk with her. Walking causes the small rock in your shoe to stab your foot at random moments. But suppose you don’t acknowledge that there is a rock in your shoe. You feel the pain that the rock is causing you, but instead of assuming that the problem lies within your own shoe, you blame your friend and her stupid walk for making you miserable. You get snappy and rude and insulting. You move super slow with an exaggerated limp. Finally your friend is so frustrated and hurt by your cutting words that she calls the walk off and storms home. You limp home, feeling entirely sorry for yourself and viewing your friend as the problem. Is this fair? No, and if you keep going like this, you’re going to ruin all of the relationships you have.
No human enjoys being blamed for something that they didn’t do, and yet traumatized people frequently lash out at others, seeing them as the cause of their own internal distress. This destructive behavior is a natural side effect of trauma due to how trauma affects the mind. Often traumatized people genuinely believe that others are too blame for issues that really lie within themselves. And naturally other people become very defensive when they are frequently being accused of having malicious intentions that they really don’t have.
Trauma always amplifies our fear, and humans naturally cloak fear in anger. The more fearful someone is, the more irritable and angry they become.
Trauma often causes us to believe that whatever terrible thing happened to us in the past is extremely likely to happen to us again very soon. So we become paranoid, guarded, hostile, aggressive, and closed. You simply can’t maintain a healthy, functional relationship when you are behaving this way.
Now let’s go back to the rock metaphor. When you were blaming your friend for your problems, you caused division and hurt. But what happens if you acknowledge the rock in your shoe? Your friend will find it easy to sympathize with your problem, because we all know how uncomfortable pokey things in our shoes are. Suppose you can’t get the rock out for some reason. Your friend will likely be patient with you as you slow down to a limping gait. The point is that by correctly identifying the cause of the problem, you change the way other people respond to you.
Trauma has a profound impact on human behavior. The more severely you are traumatized, and the longer that trauma goes unrecognized, the more it will effect your personality, mannerisms, physical health, thought patterns, and social behaviors. Until you recognize the root cause of your issues, you will be very quick to take offense, unreasonable in your expectations, and prone to blaming everyone else for problems that really lie within you.
It’s reasonable for a man to forget to hang a towel up on a particular rack that his wife has designated. Such forgetting is even more reasonable when the man has decades of practice in tossing towels wherever. It is not reasonable for the wife to respond as if one misplaced towel is an epic crisis. But a traumatized woman could easily respond this way if her mind has fixated on towel location as a symbol of danger. Traumatized minds make associations that seem bizarre and unpredictable to other people, and this can easily make relating to a traumatized person feel like trying to pick your way through a dangerous minefield. It’s tedious, exhausting work, and after a while, you will probably decide it’s just not worth it because you’re tired of being punished for crimes you didn’t commit.
The better you understand yourself, the more you will be able to see the full impact your past has had on you. Once you make these important connections, you can communicate them to the people who you are trying to build relationships with. Instead of screaming at your son and calling him a bunch of nasty names, you can go to your wife and say, “I’m having flashbacks of my abusive father right now and it’s making me so upset. I can’t deal with our son’s attitude right now. I’m seconds away from losing it.” When you explain things like this, your wife will find it much easier to sympathize with your distress and she’ll find it less frustrating to step in and handle the parenting challenge. But when you don’t own your own baggage and you just go ballistic on your son, all of your family members end up feeling afraid of you. They will then express that fear as anger and emotional distancing and you will find yourself isolated and rejected instead of understood and supported.
Other humans can’t read your mind or feel what you’re feeling. Fear is a very common emotion for traumatized people, and intense fear often strikes out of nowhere. If you don’t have enough self-understanding to recognize when you’re overreacting today because of past experiences that are still weighing on you, you will handle your fear in destructive ways.
Doing the work to identify the root causes of your own behavior results in major benefits and greatly increases your ability to form functional relationships. Even if you are struggling with many problems, simply being aware of how the past is controlling your behavior today will help you not leap to damaging assumptions about those you love. The fact that your previous husband cheated on you doesn’t mean your current husband is going to as well. When you can see your fears as a sign that you have not finished processing what happened to you in the past, it can help you not read too much into them.
The fact that your first pregnancy failed doesn’t mean your current one will as well. When you understand that your anxiety is a sign that you haven’t finished healing from the past, you can focus on continuing that healing process instead of treating your current anxiety attacks as signs that you are doomed to have more heartache in the near future.
Identifying root causes not only helps you heal, it makes it much easier for other people to support you and relate to you. Compassion is fueled by understanding, which is why a counselor like me finds it so easy to have compassion on folks who are up to all kinds of horrifying and destructive behaviors. I know how to recognize root causes, and once you can do that, sympathy and compassion stop becoming such a struggle. When you are able to identify your own root causes, you become better at having compassion on yourself, and compassion is a critical part of healing. You also become aware that many of the traits you assumed you were born with are actually symptoms of underlying stress. Should that stress become resolved, your behaviors and thought processes would change in some surprising ways.
For more about healing from trauma, see Practical Steps for Correcting Traumatic Beliefs.
This post was written in response to a request.
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