Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner


Originally posted on July 4, 2015

This has become a bit of a catch-word: It catches you. It says, “This was really painful for the client.” But I confess that I rather wince with the term, as if all psychopathology was due to trauma and no one’s responsible for anything. I’m vulnerable in speaking up because of course some people are really badly traumatized, and that’s the right word. Saying less would be to minimize the nature of their condition.

Indeed, bringing some people away from their denial and amputation of their own feelings, away from “alexithymia” or inability to read their own emotions, and to recognizing how scared or hurt they were is a component in some therapies. However, there’s a grey area. Some folks are really traumatized by what to most would be aggravation; but the opposite is true: Many people are simply bothered by the same thing.

The word “trauma” does have the virtue of alleviating the paralyzing force of shame and guilt, but on the other hand, there is the danger of creating a culture of victimhood, as if the person might think, “I can’t help it, I was traumatized.”

Then what about those who can’t point to a trauma. In fact, some of them have been traumatized, too, and they’ve repressed it, or taken the bad feelings on as their own “fault.” Well, everyone’s got some trauma. I can find some in my background, maybe. Or maybe it’s just stress.

The word “trauma,” though, is a manipulation of the audience, as if to say, “Look at this poor, poor fellow, he’s been truamatized. Awwww.” To which there may be a spectrum of responses, ranging from “Haven’t we all; get over it” to “Awww, poor baby, now don’t worry your little head, Momma’s gonna take care of it,” and all gradients in-between.

I think I object to the psycho-babble word, “trauma.” It’s gotten so very popular in both victim and some professional circles. I darkly suspect that this is a way of puffing up one’s status. You just do therapy, nyah nyah; I deal with “trauma,” so I have more value than you. Not that any of this is conscious, it’s more a contemplation about how certain words “catch on” as memes.

But the idea of trauma is absorbed by patients who unconsciously seek protection, as if they hope that therapists would say “Oooh, she’s been ‘traumatized,’ so you’d better treat with kid gloves.” Of course I think all clients should be treated gently rather than harshly. Harsh “confrontation” seems tough and realistic. But there’s a middle ground to be sought that doesn’t reinforce victim-hood as a stance. How much tiptoeing around is needed? It’s hard to be in-between.

So let’s close this meditation on the semantics of trauma by saying that the word often evokes in me a sense of wanting to rescue mixed with feeling manipulated. Is in fact this person “traumatized” and if he is, isn’t just about everybody. Or is it that the patient, his advocate, or his therapist is using the trauma word, unaware of the semantic resonances involved.

One Response to ““Trauma””

  • David B. says:

    I appreciate your final comment, that your concern is about your own reactions to the word, rather than some implicit meaning in the word, and that the key is in everyone (patient and therapist) becoming aware of how they’re using the word.

    However, I think another way to approach it is to recognize that everyone has been traumatized in one way or another, and that there is value in finding the moments that were traumatic for each individual. Just as one person will find a joke funny and it will be offensive to someone else, one experience will be traumatic for some and irrelevant for someone else.

    If everyone has experienced trauma (didn’t Freud say something about ego being built on a series of little deaths or something?) then it’s no longer a question of one person being a victim and another person not. Rather it’s “wow, we’re all victims in different ways, and let’s find out what your particular thing is and how to heal it.”

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