Trauma and Truth-telling


It’s always so fascinating to be wrong. As we say in so much humanities research, “This thing is so much more complicated than we previously thought.”

In one post, I wrote that I used to talk about my painful post-PhD experience (which I now view as the trauma of personal and professional identity loss) as “X thing happened to me. It was awful.” A the time, I believed that telling my story in that way created a victim narrative around my failure to get an academic job.

After a lot of thought, I’ve decided that I was wrong about this. I’ve come to the conclusion that talking about emotional pain doesn’t make us victims; it makes us people who had something bad happen to us.

People can and do create victim narratives out of their experiences of trauma and emotional pain. (oh hi are you me?) Victim narratives come from a place of powerlessness and helplessness. Because the bad thing that happened to us left us feeling so powerless and helpless, we often direct blame towards the nearest possible target. Blame, as Brene Brown argues, is just a way to discharge pain and discomfort. And we’ve got a lot of it.

I blamed a lot of people and things in my immediate post-PhD life. I blamed neoliberalism, higher education, the university, my graduate program, and most damaging, of all, myself. I felt broken; I wanted someone else to take responsibility for my emotional pain and fix it.

Talking about my post-PhD story as one of “X thing happened to me. It was awful.” didn’t create a victim narrative. What created a victim narrative out of my pain story was that I didn’t want to take emotional responsibility for what had happened. I didn’t think I should have to. After all, it wasn’t my fault. 

Terrible things happen to people all the time in all kinds of ways. When wronged, we want other people to take responsibility for what happened to us. We want closure. We want healing. However, one of the truly shitty things about trauma and emotional pain is that although we want the person, group, or entity that caused our feelings to take responsibility and do the work of repair, we very rarely get our wishes. They don’t/can’t/won’t take responsibility. We get no closure. We don’t get the healing when we want. And then we’re still stuck with our awful feelings of brokenness and powerlessness and blame other people for not fixing our emotions.

Blame, however, doesn’t get us very far.

Reclaiming trauma stories and telling those stories as our personal truths is different from creating victim narratives. They might sound similar, but victim narratives almost always involve blame, either explicit or implicit. Reclaiming your pain and trauma story means standing tall in your truth, no matter how much it hurts. This means acknowledging what happened to you and talking about how you feel about it. Talking about how much trauma sucks isn’t creating a victim narrative. It’s truth-telling. As we keep telling our stories and standing in truth, we start to own them. Taking responsibility for our stories is where we start healing. I ain’t saying that when you can tell your trauma story, isn’t still going to hurt like fuck. It might hurt forever. We might talk about being in pain forever. And that’s okay.

Your emotional pain story might sound like this: X happened to me. And here’s how I feel about it.

Nevertheless, talking about pain sometimes makes other people uncomfortable. Sometimes people confuse truth telling with creating victim narratives when we refuse to be quiet about what hurts us. When people feel uncomfortable with our stories of emotional pain, sometimes they’ll try to discharge that pain by engaging in actual victim blaming. 

When we’re worried about how people will receive our stories, we swallow our trauma and pain because it makes people uncomfortable. Faking feelings to make other people feel okay isn’t congruent with our own personal emotional truths.

Here’s another one of my emotional pain stories: I’m adopted.

When people find out that I’m adopted, people make a lot of assumptions about how I feel about it. Usually, people assume that I’ll start gushing about unicorns and rainbows. When I tell people that relinquishment left me with a soul wound that still hurts, people get uncomfortable. Sometimes people get very very uncomfortable. Sometimes people are so uncomfortable that they make it clear that they really wish I’d never talk about my feelings again and are sorry they brought the whole mess up. As an added bonus, sometimes people will do me the great favor of telling me how I should feel so that they feel more comfortable. What I’ve finally realized is that people uncomfortable with my emotional pain are actually blaming me (in that victim-blamey way) for still hurting and having the audacity to not suck it up and shut up.

Being adopted isn’t something I brought on myself. I see it as the result of culture, social norms, patriarchy, poverty, a system that converts children into commodities, and a lot of other things. I’ve got plenty of blame to go around.

But here’s the thing. Even though my trauma isn’t my fault, I’m still responsible for fixing my own emotional wounds to the extent that I am able. And I’m working on it. I’m working on telling my personal pain story without softening the rough edges to make other people more comfortable. I’m trying to make a conscious choices about taking responsibility for my feelings and deciding how I want to act on them. As long as I’m still blaming other people for my traumas, I can’t get to the point where our story turns into, “…but then despite X thing that happened, I chose to do Y.”

I’m exceedingly skeptical of those people who claim that trauma is “healed” when we’ve come to some “acceptance” about it. I’m always going to feel angry about injustices. But I think that the trick is not to get to some mythical state of zen “acceptance,” but rather to get to the point where I taking back your power and turning it into a narrative that empowers you.

I’ve also been thinking about what to tell people who can’t receive a story of emotional pain without feeling uncomfortable. If you didn’t know, I used to work as a crime victim advocate. I’ve learned some things about how to hold people’s stories of pain and trauma. Here’s what I’ve learned.

First and foremost, other people’s pain stories aren’t about you or your feelings. 

If someone trusts you enough to tell you their trauma story, your first job is to listen without absolutely any judgment. You might try not saying anything. When you do say something, try not to fuck up. When someone tells you their trauma story, you’re entering into sacred space with them. It’s easy to say something that’s truly unhelpful. [”I’m sorry you feel that way…I know someone who experienced something similar and they don’t feel that way about it…” Or possibly even worse: “At least…” Nope.] Fortunately, it’s also easy to say something validating instead. Try this: “I’m sorry that happened to you. What happened to you was traumatic and it wasn’t your fault. Your feelings about what happened to you are real and valid.” Practice in a mirror if you need to until you can receive and validate other people’s experiences without making it about you and your personal levels of discomfort.

Not easy, but not difficult.

Now here’s the tricky part. Suppose you (we) are complicit in causing someone’s trauma. None of us want to think of ourselves as complicit in causing trauma to other people. (Well, most decent people anyways. I acknowledge that some people do actually do want to cause harm to others. I’m not talking about those people. I’m talking about people who consider themselves decent folk. You. Me. Us.) For example, you (me, we) might be complicit in creating trauma for adopted people if you believe (subconsciously or otherwise) that “those people” shouldn’t have children and see little wrong with placing those children with “better,” more affluent parents. (I’m working on a piece right now about the eugenic aspects of adoption. It’s left me profoundly disturbed about our assumptions about poor parents in the U.S. and other places.)

If you feel defensive when someone tells you their pain and trauma story, it might be because you’re complicit in it. Thinking about yourself as an agent of oppression is INCREDIBLY UNCOMFORTABLE. And it probably should be.

This is why some adoptive parents (and some birth parents) don’t want to hear adopted people talking about adoption as trauma. (And why some white people have such a hard time listening to stories about racism. And why some men struggle to hear about women’s experiences. And on and on.) I No one wants to think about themselves as part of a system that hurts children. We would prefer to think of ourselves as people who help children. And yet despite the fact that a lot of adopted people have spoken at length about the fact that they feel like adoption caused trauma in their lives, people don’t want to listen because they feel very uncomfortable with the idea of being complicit in systems that leave children with soul wounds. It’s easier to get defensive and blame adopted people for telling their pain stories than it is to admit complicity.

I hope that someday we can collectively admit to our complicity, but I am not holding my breath.

If you feel uncomfortable listening to my story, you might consider for a few moments how my story feels to me. (Or how a story of emotional pain and trauma feels to the story teller.) When you’re ready to receive my story with the kind of sacred empathy described above, then we can talk again.

So here’s one of my stories now: I’m adopted. That experience was traumatic and left me with soul wounds. But I decided to take that experience and teach people about how storytelling creates space for healing. And I’m now telling my pain story from a place of power.

(Special thanks to Anne Heffron, whose post on Facebook inspired this one.)