A Developmental Response to Trauma and Trauma Language

In the world of professions, I am a developmental psychologist. But I much prefer to be seen as a developmentalist, because I don’t study from a distance how people develop. Rather, the work I do is to directly support people to develop themselves and their communities. By develop, I mean create new responses to existing situations.

These new responses can be feelings, ways of thinking and understanding, ways of seeing and talking and doing your relationships. Ways of responding to the scariness of the world. Ways of responding to your and others suffering. Ways of navigating uncertainty and unknowability. Ways of living. Ways of creating new forms of life. Cultivating and practicing this kind of development is like creating escape routes from our culturally produced and socially isolating prisons of pain. Without developing, without creating new things, we remain trapped.

Developing (creating the new) isn’t easy. The great majority of the world’s people aren’t even aware that development is possible after childhood— much less that people actually create it together, rather than it being something that happens to us individually. And on top of that, the idea of ​​doing something new can be pretty daunting. It’s so much easier to stay with what we know, even if it’s not working.

I’m convinced that most of the times we’re feeling stuck in our day to day lives, we’re actually deep in what I call a developmental dilemma. How we frame the situation and understand the moves we can make, how we talk about the problem to ourselves and with others are limited and limiting. We really need a way to make something new with what we’ve got, especially when what we’ve got isn’t so hot.

For me and many, many others, writing down what’s bothering us can be extremely helpful. Which is why I recently started a column called The Developmentalist, and invited people to articulate in the written word what’s going on and send me their letters.

Last week I received a letter from a woman who was in a lot of pain dealing with trauma. She felt confused about how to understand and deal with trauma and the language of trauma, given that it’s become a buzz word and, as she wrote, that “we are living in a culture obsessed with trauma.” She said she is “intrigued by the trauma/healing/grief language game” and asked “Is it developmental to use the same language to talk about healing from physical wounds (and Covid) and to heal from emotional wounds? Is there a developmental way to understand trauma?” She signed her letter, “Confused and Traumatized.”

In my response I tried to link her feeling of being traumatized with her confusion over “exactly” what trauma is. The two—our feelings and what we call them and how we understand them—are always inextricably linked.

Here is what I wrote to her.

I am so sorry that you’ve been having such a hard time with so much going one that’s both physically and emotionally painful. It sounds truly awful. It also sounds like you’ve gone through this painful period and are now reflecting on how we speak about and understand such experiences. I’m glad you’re “intrigued by the trauma/healing/grief language game”— exploring it can be a very emotionally developmental activity!

You mention that our culture has become obsessed with trauma, and I agree. Lots of people agree, and some are talking about it, like the writer at Vox. for whom it’s become the “word of the decade” or the NYTimes op-ed writer, who wonders, “If everything is traumatic, is anything?” I, too, wonder.

When a culture becomes obsessed in this way, that is, by the expansion of particular words and concepts—which have been created in particular and narrow contexts—into an ever-widening swath of everyday experiences, we lose so much. We lose ourselves in the swarm of buzz words. We lose what was our ordinary language. We lose our imagination to create our own new expressions. We lose our wholeness. We lose the political, social and cultural world.

But so many people are helped by the language of trauma that I would be remiss if I just left you with all this loss! People say that trauma gives them a new understanding of themselves, clarity, closure, healing, and much more. I certainly acknowledge that and I’m very glad for their relief.

The losses, it seems to me, stem from how today’s trauma has come to frame human experience. Trauma is used so broadly and widely—sometimes as an event, sometimes as its aftermath, sometimes as an explanation—that it can feel at times that trauma is all there is and all that we are. (In a park near my house there is a stone wall with these words from Gertrude Ste etched in it: “I am because my little dog loves me.” Taking great (non-poetic) license with Gertrude, our culture pressures us to say, “I am because I’ve been traumatized.”)

Can we be in pain without having been traumatized? Can we suffer without trauma? I have been known to ponder such questions. You seem ready, Confused and Traumatized, to join me. I hope so.

Another thing about today’s trauma is that it’s seen living inside an individual person, politically and psychologically, which makes a lot of human atrocity hard to see and deal with socially, culturally and psychologically. Murder is an act of violence. Rape is an act of violence. Are they more or less so by virtue of being identified as traumatic? The poverty of the world is indefensible cruelty, whether or not anyone—or everyone—is traumatized by it. I don’t want the horrific things human beings do to one another to take a back seat to trauma. They are horrific enough.

As to your questions, here’s my thinking. “Is it developmental to use the same language to talk about healing from physical wounds (and Covid) as it is to heal from emotional wounds?” Developmental or not, people do do it—a lot! The developmental question is: What is that way of speaking doing with, to and for us? You then ask, “Is there a developmental way to understand trauma?” If it’s done exploratorily, like the conversation you and I are having here, then I think it just might be.

Psychiatry and psychology have so altered our experience of human emotions that it is exceedingly difficult to feel, understand or talk about nearly any aspect of human life outside of the medicalized and illness frameworks we have been socialized to. Understanding life events (and/or our responses to them) as trauma has transformed how we suffer and how we relate to pain—not unlike how addiction transformed how we relate to using/overusing and doing/overdoing so many of the things people do every day (not only taking drugs and drinking alcohol, but also eating, shopping, exercising, playing video games, and lots more).

I asked my letter writer if we can be in pain, if we can suffer, without having been traumatized. I wish I had also asked her if we can live our lives without diagnosing ourselves. These are important questions to pursue (with other people, if you can), because that kind of exploration can go a long way in chipping away at our individualized and medicalized subjectivity and creating a more social path to being whole. It’s time we give it a try.

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

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