The Personalization of Trauma
By Allie F. Miller, M.A., L.M.F.T.
One of the thornier problems in recovery from a traumatic event is that the person who has experienced the trauma often personalizes what has happened to him/her. In other words, they often believe that they are to blame for it or are somehow culpable. This is usually not the case, and is almost always false when dealing with people who experienced trauma as children. In fact, the erroneous belief that one is to blame for the trauma is usually one of the symptoms of the trauma that must be addressed in treatment, and can also in many cases be very stubborn to eliminate.
In working with survivors of childhood sexual abuse, I often hear clients say something like, “Why didn’t I stop it?” or “Why didn’t I know better?” These statements are usually uttered from the perspective of their adult-self, who could stop it and who would know better, but as a child they were almost always powerless to prevent it. Most survivors forget that when the abuse occurred there was most often a very large age gap and power differential between them and their perpetrators. They also usually forget that their perps may have spent significant time and effort “grooming” them prior to the abuse, often giving them gifts or heaping praise and attention on them. Most children are very eager to please and become very trusting of an adult who has seemingly bonded with and become emotionally invested in them.
One of the ways that often helps to begin to break up this erroneous belief of being at fault for the abuse is to ask the client if they know of or are around any children who are currently the age that s/he was when the abuse occurred. Perhaps they can identify a nephew or niece or maybe even one of their own children or grandchildren. If so, I ask the client to reflect on and assess that child’s ability (i.e., the niece’s or nephew’s ability, say) to ward off the advances of an adult. I also ask them if they would hold that child responsible should they learn that a similar abuse (God forbid!) had happened to that niece or nephew. After some time and thought, clients often begin to soften towards themselves and begin to de-personalize the trauma.
Allie F. Miller, M.A., L.M.F.T.