As someone who was traumatized, I really want to respond to this because, for the longest time, kinda had this idea, and it was in letting go of being responsible for my trauma that I was able to start healing from it, and start setting healthy boundaries, something I had never been good at.

It was the recognition that the things that happened to me were abusive, were harmful, allowed me to recognize that my experiences of pain and trauma were a predictable outcome of the things that I went through that I could stop taking responsibility for things for which I was not responsible. This was a necessary prerequisite for me to make peace with the things that happened and to heal from the effects they had on me. One of the things that may have caused me to be traumatized by what I went through was an increased susceptibility to that sort of trauma due to the way my brain is wired or my previous lived experiences. Here's the thing: those are both outside of my control.

I guess what I'm saying is that doing the opposite of what you said helped me a lot.

Expand full comment

Exactly, and I think this is the healthiest and most effective approach to take. Most actual traumatized people usually blame themselves from the outset. (And I'm talking about real traumatization here, not the borderline theatrics you see on Twitter.)

Expand full comment

Scott is a very wise person who has lots of good ideas. I think this is one of them. Thank you.

Expand full comment

> Here's the thing: those are both outside of my control.

Maybe they were outside of your control, but no longer are after these realizations.

Think of it like physical fitness: someone living a comfortable sedentary lifestyle wouldn't be prepared for a sudden, physically demanding task, like running from a tiger. More than likely they will injure themselves just in the attempt. However, they can build their resilience to tolerate such demands once they do the right things to ensure they recover from injury.

Expand full comment

Perhaps what you went through was nearly universally traumatizing. Surely some types of assault may reach this level, but not all do. It's a stress-diathesis matter in many cases. Accepting that our trauma may be partially or completely the result of our beliefs is also empowering.

Expand full comment

Mainstream psychiatry has been saying for years that not every potentially-traumatic experience results in PTSD symptoms. But ordinary people who talk about trauma (and talking about trauma is more and more common) seem to be pulling away from this definition. The common belief now is that trauma = bad experience, so that we can call a bad thing "traumatizing" even with zero evidence that anyone actually experienced PTSD after the bad thing.

I guess the steel man of this is that if you say "X is traumatizing" it's a way of saying "X increases the chance that someone will experience post-traumatic symptoms." But it certainly is different from the classical, mainstream view, according to which it would make no sense to call something a trauma prospectively; it can only be identified as a trauma if it shown to have caused post-traumatic symptoms.

And of course the mainstream view also has it that only a small category of bad things qualify as traumas that can trigger PTSD. Versus the popular view that any bad thing (such as, in a memorable Reddit post I saw, having to wear a swimsuit while fat) is definitionally traumatizing.

Expand full comment

It's a fair point to try and clear up the definitions of "trauma", "traumatized" and "traumatizing", as all seem to be stretched a lot farther these days than in the past. As you point out with the swimsuit thing, it is hard to imagine that outcome being traumatizing in the same way that, say, putting your hand into a pile of goo that was once your best friend's face would be.

It does seem valuable to categorize some sorts of things as "probably" or "potentially" traumatizing, based on long term studies and basically experience with "These sorts of things traumatize people." We kind of have a rough idea of what those are just handed down through human lore.

The reason that seems particularly valuable is that we could avoid a lot of trauma that way. Otherwise, we are stuck in the situation of only identifying a snake as poisonous after it bites someone and kills them. Sure, maybe this other snake that looks like the other snake isn't poisonous, and maybe this guy won't die if he is bitten but... maybe just avoid the snake? Or at least be really careful with it, knowing that it is dangerous.

Expand full comment

I see your point, but do we need to label things as (universally) traumatizing in order to avoid them? I would still want to avoid being the victim of a crime, serious accident, or natural disaster even if I wasn't worried about PTSD. Those things are bad in themselves, as well as having potentially bad psychological sequelae.

Expand full comment

Well, it seems wise to label things as "likely to cause trauma" if they are, in fact. Particularly if other aspects of them seem pretty good, or do not have other obviously bad side effects.

Take smoking. It causes lung cancer, but not much. (I don't have the stats at my finger tips, but it is something like 10-15% of smokers get lung cancer as I recall.) Should we not warn people (e.g. our kids) that smoking causes lung cancer because only something like 1 in 10 will get it? Well, yea, probably. It's a pretty big downside, and completely ignoring the issue gives a false sense of security. To properly make the right trade off one has to know all the good and bad things that happen.

So, I agree that it is easy to recommend avoiding getting in knife fights in bars on the basis of the obvious physical results without adding "Oh, and you stand a good chance of being emotionally traumatized." For many less obviously bad and potentially traumatizing situations, however, it is good to keep in mind all the reasons why we avoid them. Chesterton's Fence would do a lot more good if it had a little sign saying "Hi! This fence is here because...."

Expand full comment

You're certainly correct that trauma as a concept is abused in the popular usage. One of the deleterious effects of this is that it encourages emotional fragility. There's a degree to which being obsessively open to "trauma" probably does make one more likely to be actually traumatized by having to where a swimsuit while fat, for instance.

That said there's no question that certain events are far more likely to produce actual trauma - watching a child being eaten by a rabid hyena, being sexually abused by the neighbor and his five gay besties, etc. As you say below many of the things in this category come with negative effects that make them worth avoiding even if one really is able to experience them without being traumatized. On the other hand, there are also experiences (sexual abuse comes to mind) which can be entirely without physical danger, leave no mark whatsoever, but are still almost certain to mess someone up very badly.

Expand full comment

y’all are everywhere

Expand full comment

We're like kudzu, only we're cute.

Expand full comment

I would stick to a middle ground between the "victim" and the "agent" narrative. I do believe that many, if not most, trauma sufferers (here defining trauma as the DSM does, "actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence") are, at least initially, victims.

You did not choose to be raped, otherwise it would be consensual sex. Likewise, you did not necessarily choose to develop PTSD: of course beliefs might make people more or less susceptible to it, but so does environment and genetics. Most people will experience nightmares and anxiety after a traumatic event, so I don't believe the person is to blame if it continues for more than 6 months, thus becoming PTSD (according to the DSM, again) instead of a normal reaction.

However, once the disorder is settled in, it's a responsibility of the affected individual to heal. It doesn't mean he or she is guilty. I like the definition of responsibility given by Steven Hayes (though I hate his writings in general): response + ability. Only the affected individual can respond. This response might involve medication, therapy, or none of those. This response might involve realising that he or she was partially to blame for what happened. This response might involve realising that he or she was powerless against what happened, and that it doesn't mean that they are bad or broken. However, no matter what this response might entail, it is one that nobody else but the traumatized can give.

Expand full comment

To the author, this reminds me of the Stoic view of psychological harm: "People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them." -- Epictetus

“Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been.” -- Marcus Aurelius

This even applies to physical harm, but to a lesser extent (see the parable of the second arrow).

Expand full comment

Didn't realise it was controversial to essentially things that SOME people find traumatic are not necessarily traumatic for ALL people.

My ex-girlfriend, for instance, had been raped once and got really sick after visiting the hospital one time. She felt nothing about the rape, yet she had an extreme aversion to going near a hospital again because of "germs". Like Aella, she was often reluctant to express her (lack of) feelings about her sexual assault as she would constantly just get feedback that she IS traumatised, she just processes it differently.

I think this is condescending, and also just plain ignorant of individual differences.

Also, subjectively, I feel like certain forms of therapy encourage you to retroactively traumatise yourself.

To give an example, my father would beat the shit out of me as a kid as a form of "discipline". Now, after being in a particularly bad spot in my life a few years back where I received some bad grades and my girlfriend broke up with me, I went to see a shrink.

The lady saw all my problems as relating to unprocessed trauma from being beaten, and as I assumed she was more qualified then me to make that assessment, I believed her.

Then things started to get weird. I spoke to three other people going through therapy for depression, and their therapists told them the same thing. After thinking about my own experience, I realised that up to my depressive episode I had never really thought about how my father treated me as a kid, and was struggling to rationalize the means by which it was somehow unconsciously causing my current depression. Yet, the therapist had led me into believing this bad thing I hadn't thought about for nearly a decade was the underlying cause of all my woes.

I guess what I'm trying to say is three things:

1. Objectively horrible things do not necessarily cause trauma.

2. Some objectively trivial bad things can cause trauma in some people.

3. It is very easy to retroactively traumatise yourself, especially through therapy. It's probably good to watch out for this.

Expand full comment

I think the one area this could be expanded upon is that a persons perceptions are not static. Most of us have at some point experienced waking up one day to find that we no longer liked a favorite thing we used to. That favorite food, just didn't taste the same. That hobby stopped sparking joy. That friendly conversation reached a natural stopping point and there was nothing else to say. Yesterday it mattered. Today it doesn't.

This change does not negate the positivity of the time they were once a favorite thing. Nor does it preclude them from being favorites again.

The same is true of negative things. What once felt fine may become viewed as a trauma through a change in perception. What once felt like trauma may become banal and uninteresting. Again, such shifts in perception should not negate past perceptions or preclude future ones.

And I feel like this is where a lot of conversations about trauma break down. Person A perceives that Person B was traumatized. Person B does not hold that same perception. For whatever reason, both double down on their positions. Ironically, in an effort to prove themselves right, Person A attempts to convince Person B they should feel traumatized. Person B, reacts by doubling down to prove they should not. In most instances, neither seems to realize or acknowledge that the mere act of engaging in that discussion alters their respective perceptions of the event in question. Because of the fickleness of memory, it can even result in an alteration in the recollection of the underlying facts surrounding the event.

I do not think this resulting behavior is necessarily malicious at the outset, but it can turn that way depending on how entrenched people get in their positions. Never underestimate the emotional drive some people have to avoid the injury to their egos by being mistaken.

For these discussions to be productive, no matter what crazy nonsense comes out of our mouths, we have to learn to be generous with letting people walk back their positions and humble in abandoning ours. And I will destroy anyone who says otherwise.

Expand full comment

Great post!

I just want to note that the ChatGPT paragraph isn't nearly as well written as the rest of the post. That bodes well for Substack writers in at least the short term.

Expand full comment

Jay, so you are telling someone how they have to feel about something? That's coercive. There is no universal psychological reaction that all humans have in regards to complex and varied incidents like those being discussed. The whole point of the article, is that this is NOT like simple physics.

Expand full comment

I think there is a much less benevolent explanation, which is that this trauma authoritarianism is motivated to serve and protect a person's very clear interests -- which they often will not admit and may not even be aware of.

I've experienced this plenty of times, as I have not been traumatized or even phased by sexual things that other people think I should be (and get very upset that I am not). My husband was an active duty combat military guy who served years overseas and has killed people and had people trying to kill him and has seen his friends blown up. He does not have PTSD but people really seem to want him to, and don't believe he doesn't have it (he doesn't).

But here's the thing:

1. People in the military get actual money for being traumatized. They get paid higher pensions. It's in their benefit for everyone else to believe they have PTSD -- they get paid for it. The number of veterans who are technically diagnosed with PTSD -- and getting a higher monthly pension payment because of it -- has expanded by several multiples over the past few decades. Even though a tiny portion ever even see combat.

2. It is in women's benefit for everyone to believe they are sexually traumatized by basically everything. Do I really need to list out the many reasons this is true? People will make excuses for them, feel sorry for them, give them things they want, protect them, sometimes even pay them money...there are many benefits. It's a handy excuse for declining other sexual activities or explaining away unpleasant behavior, and is generally useful in many obvious ways to be able to generate immediate and unquestioning sympathy on this.

3. It is ABSOLUTELY in the interests of men and every women who is not 15-35 and hot to believe that sex work is inherently damaging and immoral and to try to pound that into the heads of every hot young woman. I'm not going to bother explaining why because Aella, you should understand this perfectly well. It's in everyone else's interests to try to convince young hot women that the extremely valuable asset they have is not monetizable or that engaging in monetization is traumatizing, to try to suppress the availability and price of that asset. This is such a hard-wired aversion for most that you will never convince them otherwise because it goes against primal instincts.

4. Insurance will not pay and you can't get treatment unless everyone believes a problem is a really terrible and sympathetic problem. Social workers and psychiatrists won't get paid if insurance doesn't pony up, and patients won't get treatment. It's in their benefit to exaggerate how bad things are.

For all of these reasons, it is very important for people to insist that certain things are always traumatizing, and to an extreme level. If people doubt that, their interests are at risk. Like, real material interests. And people get very upset when their interests are threatened and react very badly.

This is not at all to say that no one is ever traumatized by anything. Of course they are. But there are lots of other reasons that people have for wanting to insist on a trauma narrative.

FWIW, I was far more traumatized by the movie Jaws and the leech scene in Stand By Me than I was by the few incidents in my life that other people would consider sexual assault but did not particularly phase me (none violent).

Expand full comment
Feb 2, 2023·edited Feb 2, 2023

If I push Humpty Dumpty off his wall, I am the cause of his injuries. Had the victim been Harry Hardboiled instead, he could have walked away with a few bruises. Having a weak shell is not Humpty's fault. It's not under his control. Still, being seen as "weak" is a source of shame to people.

It's even more complex when the question of agency is involved. Victims of child sexual abuse vary greatly in their reactions. Many feel that they were somehow complicit: they didn't resist enough, they somehow seduced the abuser, and/or they had some kind of sexual feeling that makes them feel like an active participant. (Often being assured by the abuser that they are an active participant.) Some neglected children indeed were looking for affection, which doesn't mean they signed up for sex. And some with prolonged abuse came to enjoy it, often to their shame. I think this "moral injury" aspect of child sexual abuse is a great barrier to healing. When you say "physics," or, typically, "it couldn't have been your fault, you were little," you are bypassing these issues with easy reassurance.

Expand full comment

People who subscribe to the trauma physics model in a defensive way also seem to not separate the notions of "location", "responsibility", "being able to control", and even "blame".

Just because trauma happens at the collision of external event and internal context doesn't mean that we necessarily could (have) processed the event differently. There's this idea that internal states and responses of the mind are (or should be) under our volitional control. Whole branches of therapy are dedicated to teaching people that we cannot control emotions or thoughts (even if we CAN choose to handle them in various ways).

I also have a comment on specifically the 3xoetince you had with not finding sexual assault particularly traumatising. I had exactly the same experience, and in fact at least one person (on Fet, in a long, wordy and increasingly insistent manner) tried to subtly and then not so subtly persuade me that I did, but repressed it.

I think tho this one is not just about the models people subscribe to but because there's the belief (not always explicitly expressed) that we NEED this idea of "fate worse than death" and traumatic consequences following sexual assault to successfully argue that it's a Bad Thing. And I get it. I felt that by saying I wasn't particularly bothered by my experience I was giving rapists arguments, he'll, maybe even encouraging someone, diminishing the wrong.

Expand full comment

Very good observation, as long as we don't conflate the fact that it also depends on you, with you having an actual choice about it.

From what I've read, trauma is a failure of normal processing of an event which is felt as so strongly distressing, that it never gets integrated into normal narrative memory, so that trying to remembering instead makes you relive it. This is entirely automatic - whatever brain regions are involved are surely far away from those that make up the rational you who has a choice in how to take things.

Expand full comment

>I suspect some of this comes out of a discomfort in owning your own authority? Like, maybe people who believe in trauma physics need it in order to feel confident in their own experience. They’re looking for social agreement - everyone can see the monster outside the door, I’m not crazy [...] Being a victim is safety; it’s the message that you are okay, that nothing about you is at fault.

Yes, all of these things (of course, people try to have their cake and eat it too by pointedly using words like "survivor" instead of "victim" to proclaim that they have agency). But I think this analysis is missing another possible reason: because we (rightly!) want to reduce the occurrences of the traumatic thing, and a narrative that it's universally traumatic seems ideally convenient and helpful to that narrative. For instance, there has been a ton of rhetoric over the past decade implying that sexually assault is universally traumatic, even one of the most traumatic things that could ever happen to someone, clearly as part of a campaign to reduce sexual assault by getting across the message that it's unacceptable and a major societal ill.

Expand full comment

There's a theory (which I am neither endorsing or rejecting here) that "being traumatized after being sexually assaulted" is an evolved response that's similar to survivor's guilt, in that it helps the person's genes by making it less likely for that person to be blamed for the thing that happened. "If I was the kind of person who betrayed friends / cheated on lovers, why am I so upset about what happened?"

The theory also suggests that people who have "more to lose" from being caught having an affair will tend to have stronger trauma responses to sexual assault than those that don't.

Expand full comment

The comments seem to have degraded into a slugfest between someone who feels very strongly that sex is a sin against their creator, and someone who feels strongly that being mean to people is the worst sin.

Story of the world we live in today.

Expand full comment

Such a clear-minded way of describing this phenomenon, great post.

Expand full comment