Everyone is a trauma survivor

There's a car in my neighborhood that won't be going anywhere anytime soon. It's abandoned but not likely to be stolen. You see, the car was crushed by a fallen tree.  Durham County firefighters at the scene blamed "high winds and a soft ground" as reasons why a "very old" tree fell on top of a small silver sedan. Scary if you live near old trees but likely not traumatic. Unless of course you were in the car. With your pregnant friend.  And neither of you could get out.

The American Psychological Association defines trauma as "an emotional response to a terrible event,". Terrible events can be anything. The person in the car, someone who witnessed the accident, the medical personnel who responded...all could be trauma survivors. You are too.

  • Did you grow up in a family or home environment where there was abuse, neglect, chronic illness or other instability that felt scary or unpredictable?
  • Were you bullied in school?
  • Have you ever been in a house fire?
  • Have you ever been raped or forced into a sexual act?
  • Has anyone ever physically injured you?
  • Was your childbirth experience unexpected, frightening or threatening in some way?
  • Have you ever been in a car accident?
  • Have you survived a natural disaster?

If you can answer "yes" to any of these, you are a trauma survivor. Here's the thing about trauma, you don't need a diagnosis of PTSD or to have experienced "real" trauma like rape to have been affected by a traumatic event and while some populations are more inclined to be trauma survivors than not (people who grow up in violent neighborhoods or communities for example), I believe that everyone is a trauma survivor. I think this because I have yet to meet someone whose either hasn't disclosed trauma or whose behavior hasn't led me to think of them as someone who has experienced trauma. 

That's your new girlfriend's dad, your boss and your favorite barista. But that's also your best friend, sister-in-law and mom. Overwhelming? Maybe. Perhaps, however, it can be liberating. What would it be like, for example, to see the grocery store cashier as a trauma survivor? Can you walk in someone else's shoes for a moment by envisioning them as a trauma survivor instead of someone who doesn't follow directions or makes poor health choices? Imagine what could be possible when we stop blaming people for their "bad behavior" and instead adopt an attitude of curiosity about their experience as a way to serve them better. You can't judge and be curious at the same time; those attitudes don't sync. But here's the real clincher: you can actually get ahead/do better and be more successful when you start to view everyone through the trauma lens. Here's why:

When you assume past trauma about the person in front of you, you are in a better position to meet that person where she is at, instead of where you think she should be. Meet someone where they are and you get a client who:

  • goes along with the plan (usually helping to create it);
  • follows directions;
  • asks questions when they don't understand;
  • works at it (themselves, the challenge, etc.)
  • shows up.

Why all of these things? Because meeting someone where they are returns power to them. Someone who feels powerful is someone who is taking agency of their own life. Someone who feels powerless is not capable of making confident decisions, sticking to an agreement, getting the information they need or even getting to an appointment on time. 

Everyone is a trauma survivor, whether or not they have a diagnosis. Everyone is a trauma survivor, even if they never mention the incident. Everyone is a trauma survivor, even if they are in a role where they help others who have suffered from horrible events. Knowing the prevalence all around us of suffering, now more than ever is the time for compassion.

That wrecked car has got to go.