Little “t”  Traumas

Karen Veintimilla, LMHC April 25, 2022

Seemingly small experiences can still have a big impact on who we are. We shouldn’t be ashamed to recognize how they’ve shaped us.

Often, when we think about trauma, we think of big events: car crashes, natural disasters, war, famine, violence, and abuse. When I ask my clients during intake if they have experienced trauma, they often report no because they have never endured the above. However, if we reflect upon our lives, what has shaped us, and what has impacted our personality, “little traumas” can crop up throughout our psychic landscape. 

Often, when we think about trauma, we think of big events: car crashes, natural disasters, war, famine, violence, and abuse. When I ask my clients during intake if they have experienced trauma, they often report no because they have never endured the above. However, if we reflect upon our lives, what has shaped us, and what has impacted our personality, “little traumas” can crop up throughout our psychic landscape. 

What is trauma and what is a little “t” one?

As a clinician, we often view trauma through the lens of the DSM-5 definition, which states that trauma occurs when a person has “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violation” in the aftermath of specific and enduring symptoms. Yet there are so many events in our lives that impact us, shape us, make us into who we are, and determine how we look at the world. 

The assumption is often that if we lived in a safe environment, our caregivers were good to us, and we had food and clothing, then we did not (or should not) experience trauma. But what about those events that haunt us? The ones that show up in bad dreams and cold sweats? Have we ever taken a moment to wonder what about the other events that may affect us? Being bullied, witnessing parents divorcing, experiencing ruptures in friendships—even something as seemingly mundane as a passing cruel comment can be traumatic, as it may affect our emotional wellbeing for years to come. Little “t” traumas are events that, like big traumas, can impact our capacity to cope and disrupt our emotional functioning. Although these events are not life-threatening, they can trigger feelings of helplessness throughout our lives. 

With this understanding, then, why aren’t we all going to therapy and being diagnosed with PTSD? There are a few reasons for this tied up in genetics, history, and personal resilience. Resilience is our innate ability to recover quickly from difficulties or a perceived “toughness.” The ability to cultivate resilience does not mean that we are somehow better than others; we may merely have more resources and tools at our disposal to draw upon. 

Another factor is how these traumas have been culturally normalized or rationalized. There’s a prevailing perception that certain childhood experiences, such as bullying or dysfunctional relationships, are a “normal” part of society and that they are incomparable to distress on the scale of poverty and war. Being negatively affected by these things can get one labeled “soft,” “oversensitive,” or “weak”—but these events are still REAL and happened to us at a formative age. As a result, they have a lasting impact on how we see ourselves. They are important and should be treated as such. 

Can we heal from these little “t” trauma? 

Before we heal, we need to acknowledge the importance of these “t’s” as equally as we acknowledge the big traumas. We need to see the importance of them in shaping how we became who we are. Healing requires acknowledgment. Let yourself take time to feel, process, and increase your awareness of how these traumas can impact your life. As with all traumas, you first need to be in a safe place to process. With time—and remember, everyone’s timeline is different—our traumas can then be fully understood. Then, we can work through what these “little ts” mean to us and what they say about us, our lives, and how they have shaped who we are. Even if we cannot change the past, we can change how we think about it. 

Sources:

Different Types of Trauma: Small 't' versus Large ‘T’ | Psychology Today

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