Monday, July 27, 2020

A Brief Note on Trauma Work

People doing trauma work in themselves or others often talk about digesting shadow sides to things. I think I have a better understanding of what this means than I did before. I'll explain by way of referencing what I'll call positive and negative trauma. I don't mean positive trauma in the sense of being harmed by what seem on the surface to be pleasant experiences (like seeing tens of thousands of images of hyper-attractive photoshopped people during your formative years), that's a different phenomena for another discussion. I mean positive negative in the logical/legal sense, positive being the presence of something and negative being the absence of something.

It's easier to react and work with what is there. If you had an alcoholic abusive parent, say. There are memories that are charged with unpleasant emotions, and much trauma work revolves around discharging these emotions. But this isn't the shadow. The shadow is about what wasn't present. Because there was abuse in the home, you never felt safe. There was an emotional experience you *didn't* have that also affected you. This can be much harder to see.

These individual experiences cast little shadows, and we run into bigger problems when we get just the right combination of little shadows to add up into a much more stable Big Shadow. Big Shadows are larger scale constructs that inform our basic stances towards self, other, and world. Things like whether other people are basically good intentioned or not. Whether certain activities are harmless fun or loaded with shame. Which aspects of behavior need to be tightly controlled.

There are two things that are so striking to me about this. The first is how it creates the common experience of what is mundane for one person being revelatory to another. "It's safe to feel happy" is a shrug for some people and an hour of sobbing for others (and I'm tearing up a bit writing this because I've sat with such people for the hour). There can be whole categories of experience and needs being met that are just invisible to the people who were burned and thus learned to flinch away from that part of experience. Second is the way that this creates the need for others in the process of healing. While the mind can sometimes infer to a place it has never been, there aren't any guarantees. Much more reliable is seeing the thing happen. So if you didn't see healthy ways of relating growing up, you do have an invisible need that those around you may not have. You need a type of data that you've never seen before and thus aren't oriented towards looking for. You can't see the knife in your back, and if feeling tired all the time from blood loss is your 'normal' you won't think to hold up multiple mirrors to find it. And of course you flinch if someone touches it.

Fortunately there are hints. We all have what we call personality traits. Though we share the same values we have different prioritization over those values, and those priorities are reactions to life. This can be obvious with unpleasant experiences. The person who lived through famine seems preoccupied with their food. Likewise, those big, bright, positive values have shadows. The person who presents to you as caring a lot about honesty may have been burned by liars. The person who always shows up on time may have had an unreliable parent. The person campaigning for justice for someone else may have had no one stand up for them. The way that people express their love is also, quietly, the way they are showing you: "This is how I was not loved."