Chapter 4.Self: Self-Knowledge


Trauma and How to Overcome It

Psychological trauma can be defined as a negative event so overwhelming that we cannot properly understand, process or move on from it – but, and this is the devilish aspect to it, nor can we properly remember it or reflect upon its nature and its effects on us. It is lodged within us but remains hidden from us, making its presence known only via symptoms and pains, altering our sense of reality without alerting us to its devilish subterranean operations.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of psychological trauma happens in childhood. Children are especially vulnerable to being traumatised, because they are congenitally unable to understand themselves or the world very well – and have to rely to an uncommon degree on parents who are frequently less than mature, patient or balanced. A child may, for example, be traumatised by a parent who – through no particular fault of their own – becomes heavily depressed shortly after childbirth. Or a child may be traumatised through exposure to a parent’s titanic rage or violence. Or, because the widest category of psychological trauma is also the most innocuous, a child may be traumatised by what psychologists term ‘neglect’, which might mean that, at a critical age (between 0 and 5, and especially in the first 18 months), it was not properly cherished, soothed, comforted and, to use a large but valuable word, loved.

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The leading symptom of having been traumatised is fear. Traumatised people are, above anything else, scared. They are scared of getting close to others, of being abandoned, of being humiliated and disgraced, of falling ill, probably of sex, of travelling, of their bodies, of parties, of key bits of their mind and – in the broad sense – of the world. The legacy of having been traumatised is dread, an unnameable, forgotten, unconscious memory of terror and fear projected outwards into a future. As the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott observed: ‘The catastrophe the traumatised fear will happen has already happened’. That is why, in order to find out the gist of what might have occurred to us long ago, we should ask ourselves not so much about the past (we won’t directly be able to remember), but about what are we afraid will happen to us going forward. Our apprehension holds the best clues as to our history.

Crucially, and surprisingly, it can take a very long while before traumatised people even realise they are such a thing. A leading consequence of trauma is to have no active memory of what was traumatic – and therefore no sense of how distorted one’s picture of reality actually now is. Traumatised people don’t go around thinking that they are unnaturally scared: they just think that everything is terrifying. They don’t notice their appallingly low sense of self-worth: they just assume that others are likely to mock and dislike them. They don’t realise how uncomfortable intimacy is: they merely report not being happy in this or that relationship. In other words, trauma colours our view of reality but at the same time, prevents us from noticing the extent to which we are peering at life through a highly distorted lense.

Only with a lot of time, luck, self-reflection and perhaps the odd breakdown do traumatised people come to a position where they start to notice that the way they think of the world isn’t necessarily the way it actually is. It is a vast step towards mental well-being to be able to be usefully suspicious of one’s first impulses and to begin to observe how much suspicion, fear and self-hatred one is bringing to situations that truly don’t warrant them.

Working through trauma usually works best when we can hook up our own malfunctioning and distorted brain to another more clear-sighted one – and can test our readings of reality against those of a wise friend or therapist. We stand to recognise that – to our great surprise – we are not perhaps inherently disgusting; maybe not everyone hates us; perhaps everything isn’t headed for complete disaster; maybe we are not in line for a horrific punishment. And crucially, if we do suffer reversals, maybe we could find our way out of them, because we are (and this can come as a true revelation) now adults, not the nine month old infant whose trauma altered our mind.

Overcoming trauma is the work of years – but the beginning of the end starts with a very small step: coming to realise that we might actually be traumatised and that the world may not be the dark, fearful, overwhelming and dread-filled place we had always assumed it had to be.

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