Are We Becoming Trauma Arrogant?
As I have observed and interacted with many people who are students of trauma, even some who are considered experts in the science of trauma, I have noticed a phenomenon that seems to sometimes occur when people begin to have clarity about the key principles of trauma. The more trauma is a kind of a buzzword and a popular topic of interest, the more there will be some people who become what I call trauma-arrogant, meaning they develop a sort of inflated self-confidence about the subject, believing that they fully know and deeply understand the nature of trauma and what the trauma-impacted person needs.
I encourage anyone who is in the process of learning about trauma to appreciate the potential that exists for any of us to become trauma-arrogant as we gain in knowledge and understanding about the nature of trauma. As one gains more knowledge and understanding, it can be easy to fall into a trap of thinking there is complete clarity about what trauma involves, how it is impacting a person, and what that person needs to recover and heal.
Believing one can fully understand another person’s trauma and how it has impacted them and continues to haunt them disrespects the complexity, power and invasive nature of trauma. It disrespects how insidious trauma can be and how complex it typically is. No one, not even the person who has experienced trauma, can fully understand every aspect of it or know exactly what is needed to help with processes of recovery and healing.
While we certainly can grow in confidence about enhancing our understanding and appreciation for the nature of trauma and its impact, we need to simultaneously remain humble about how it can uniquely impact a person without their self-awareness, self-understanding or ability to somehow avoid trauma-related symptoms, sensations and feelings. Appreciating trauma’s complexities and the unique nature of trauma for each individual is a kind of moral responsibility we all should share.
A True Story of a Student’s Overconfidence
In the late 1980s and early 1990s there was a resurgence of interest in the diagnosis of Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), now called Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), a disorder almost always the result of severe trauma occurring in early childhood. At a conference one of the leaders in the field (who was actively doing researching on MPD and had many patients in his caseload diagnosed by him as having multiple personalities) shared that he felt extremely confident in his abilities to recognize and diagnose people suffering from this disorder.
In order to impress the audience with how important it is to remain humble, he described a patient with whom he had worked for seven years on anxiety and depression issues who one day came into his office, sat down, and said, “I decided you can meet me. I’ve been coming here for seven years with [the name of the patient and the doctor had been treating] and only now feel like I’m ready to talk with you.” This MPD expert said the little hairs on the back of his neck stood up as he realized that for all these years this patient had multiple personalities and he completely missed it. He admonished all of us to appreciate that even experts do not know it all and can miss opportunities to better understand someone if arrogance gets in the way.
Invitation to Reflect
- Notice what people say about trauma. How often do they seem cavalier and arrogant as far as thinking they fully understand trauma and/or believe there are a few simple approaches that magically heal trauma?
- Notice your own attitudes and beliefs about trauma. Consider expanding those to deepen your appreciation for the unique nature of each individual’s traumatic experiences and the unique nature of the impact of those experiences on that individual. Work to be comfortable with an appreciation that there are no quick fixes and simple ways to achieve healing when there has been significant trauma in someone’s life. Whenever possible, be an advocate for this deeper appreciation for the complex nature of trauma and the fact that responding in healthy ways when someone has unresolved trauma involves deep and long processes to potentially result in some degree of healing.