“little t” traumas
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a client sitting in my office tell me some version of “nothing terrible happened to me in my childhood, my family was fine. No one beat me, I was fed and clothed. I didn’t have any traumas.”
Yet in their adult lives, these clients are struggling with their careers, romantic relationships, and most importantly, their self-esteem. Yet they don’t know why.
By now, most of us have heard of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is a syndrome that occurs as a result of trauma. Symptoms can include: feeling on edge, difficulty sleeping, panic sensations, feeling easily startled, and hypervigilance. When we hear the term PTSD, most of us think of what we call Big T traumas like being in active military combat, having a terrible car accident, or living through a natural disaster. Life-threatening situations.
Some of us realize that these terrifying experiences are not the only ways that people experience trauma. Other somewhat obvious traumatic situations from childhood can include divorce, abuse or neglect, or the loss of a parent. Though not usually life-threatening, these types of traumas certainly can cause PTSD symptoms.
But there are other, more subtle ways of experiencing trauma in childhood. These are now referred to as little t traumas. What if you were a child who grew up with a parent who was depressed and your needs had to be suppressed on a daily basis? Or you had a sibling who aggressively stole most of the attention and your parents weren’t effective in managing the situation? Or you happened to be born when your father’s career took off and he was rarely there for your milestones?
On the surface, things might look pretty good. But all of these are examples of relational traumas. While not by any means life threatening, these ongoing, daily situations may leave a child feeling alone, invisible, or worthless. This can affect self-esteem and can cause later relationship problems in the life of the adult.
If we each were to delve into our family histories, we’d find some version of a less than optimal relationship, no matter how well meaning our families were. That doesn’t mean that everyone on the planet will end up with emotional problems and low self-esteem. People can be very resilient and adaptive. But if you happen to be someone dissatisfied with your relationships or your work and you don’t know why, there might be some underlying reasons for the patterns in your life.
Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living. Whether you believe this to be true or not, we each can improve ourselves with some introspection. Counseling can be one avenue on the journey of personal growth.
© 2012 Valerie Simon, LCSW, CP