Nobody Has Trauma
Many reading this will no doubt have heard me say at some point that nobody has trauma. However, given that all of us are at some point or another affected by the phenomenon that we call “trauma,” it’s worth examining to see what sense we can make of it.
When I say that nobody has trauma, I’m taking the phrase at the letter. To think of trauma as something which one could “have” implies that trauma is a thing in the first place. Trauma isn’t something that we have or hold on to. It isn’t something that needs to be released. Strictly speaking, trauma isn’t a “thing” at all.
While some may see this as hair-splitting, you’ll see later on that the way we speak about trauma influences the way we think about trauma, which in turn influences the way we work with trauma as individuals and clinicians.
When we speak and think of trauma in terms of “things,” we set ourselves up for confusion, frustration, and paradoxical situations that keep us swinging on an emotional pendulum.
Throughout this piece I’ll be referring to trauma not as substance but as form, not as thing but as process. If I could, I would banish nouns altogether, but that would make it difficult for me to get this already-difficult point across to you.
Let’s consider the fact that trauma has no substance.
It is utterly immaterial.
If it were a thing, we’d expect it to occupy space in a tangible way, to have length, width, and height. However, try as you might you won’t find trauma under a microscope or in a cadaver study. Nor will you find chemical traces of trauma in a blood panel.
This is what makes trauma so difficult to understand.
We’re conditioned to see the world as made up of discrete things, reified objects which could be taken apart and studied independently of the myriad other things. We have a hard time wrapping our heads around things that aren’t things.
Love baffles us.
As does faith.
As does, I propose, trauma.
This brings us into the territory of one of the oldest debates of Western thought, dating back over 2,000 years. The pendulum of thought has swung back and forth across centuries as to whether the fundamental nature of the world as we know it is that of substance or that of form.
The dominant trend in Western thinking has been that the world is fundamentally material, the substance of which is the most important characteristic. This leads us to examine the world from a natural sciences lens, looking for causes and effects. We find ourselves in danger of myopic reduction, not seeing the forest for the trees, explaining away human experience to a few blips of neurological activity and hormonal secretions.
Culturally we’re obsessed with substance.
We’re utterly blind to form, aesthetic and composition.
We ignore the fact that things only exist by virtue of relationships.
I’ll argue throughout this piece that we’re better served thinking of trauma as form rather than as substance. Speaking of it as a thing only perpetuates the centuries-old idea of the body as object, creating conditions for greater and greater suffering.
Map Is Not Territory
As we begin, in order to avoid confusion we’d do well to recall a fact so obvious it is rarely considered, namely the idea that the map is not the territory and the name is not the thing named.
Longtime readers will be more familiar with the concept than most.
When we involve ourselves in maps and names, we involve ourselves in a process of classification or categorization. It’s important to keep in mind that any process of mapping, naming, or classifying inevitably involves distortion of the phenomenon in question. Thankfully the GPS in my car isn’t the size of the United States. The map is a distorted version of the territory, which strips away much of the “truth” of the thing in question. This is convenient in many cases, but when we forget we’re looking at a map rather than the territory itself, we run into problems.
For example, you may have heard me mention before that while I could pet any member of the category of cats, I am forever unable to pet the word “cats.”
This seems particularly important when working with trauma — or rather, when working with those affected by trauma.
It seems to me that what we call trauma is not a particular behavior or perception, rather it is a category of behaviors and perceptions (and a very narrow and rigid one at that). As such we cannot expect to treat it the same way that we could treat any of its members.
You can pet a cat, but you cannot pet cat.
This may seem trivial to some at first glance, but it is far from inconsequential.
Words are how we make ourselves known, and as we’ll see moving forward in this piece they can be particularly problematic at times. Words are false but not at fault. They simply map phenomena more or less accurately.
As such it’s of particular importance that we use them carefully if we’re to use them at all.
What Do We Mean By Trauma?
If we can agree that the word “trauma” is a map of sorts, just what is the territory that is mapped?
According to Merriam-Webster, trauma has three primary definitions:
a: an injury (such as a wound) to living tissue caused by an extrinsic agent
b: a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury
c: an emotional upset
These definitions offer a fine starting point, but I’d like to go farther into the territory.
What’s clear is that whatever we mean by trauma, we’re describing a particular psychopathology. However, by using the word psychopathology I do not intend to convey some stale, abstract concept. After all its common definition is the scientific study of mental disorders.
When I use the word, I mean something rather more connected to the roots of the word itself.
Psychopathology derives from three Greek words:
- Psyche, meaning soul
- Pathos, meaning suffering, experience, or emotion
- Logos, meaning word, reason, or meaning
Taken together, we might interpret the word to mean something like “the speech of the suffering soul.”
Pause for a moment.
Does that convey something different?
What are we invited to consider if we think of trauma as one of the many utterances of the suffering soul? How does mending the definition of the word itself change our relationship with the phenomenon?
This certainly seems more in line with the experience of those who feel the effects of trauma on their lives, and it becomes a much more compelling definition as a result. It seems to humanize the experience, to wrestle it out of the too-tight clutches of a reductionist scientific approach.
We see it as something beyond a mere misfiring of neurons. We see it as more than a brokenness of being. In thinking of trauma as speech of the suffering soul, we begin to see it in its context, namely that of communication and — as we’ll see — of information.
Why Do We Speak?
If we interpret trauma as speech of the suffering soul, we’re able to make headway by asking the question, “Why do we speak?”
What precisely is speech for?
And in what contexts does speech occur?
We speak in order to be heard, to express ourselves, and to make something known. When we speak, we’re primarily in the business of transmitting information. When we get right down to it, the bulk of our experience of the world is informational — from our genetic material in our earliest development to our social interactions in adulthood.
This is an important consideration for us.
Communication, like trauma, isn’t a thing. It’s nature is that of form par excellence.
As such, communication doesn’t rely on cause and effect the way that material sciences do. As a brief example: in the material sciences something must happen in order for something else to happen. A billiard ball must hit another billiard ball in order to get the second billiard ball moving. Energy must be transmitted. In the material world nothing comes from nothing.
However, in the world of communication something can — and often does — come from nothing.
The no-thing is as important as the thing.
In the world of communication nothing happening is a source of information in and of itself. If you’d like to test this, simply don’t show up for work (or skip out on paying your taxes). The nothing happening in this case leads to quite a bit of happening within your clients, staff, or supervisor (or the IRS).
What this hopefully indicates is that when dealing with communication situations, we’re dealing with a very different experience of cause and effect. If we consider trauma as speech of the suffering soul, we have to keep in mind that trauma is as much a matter of “information” as it is of “stuff” — if not more so.
With this in mind we’re invited to ask…
What Is Being Communicated?
This is where the heavy lifting of a therapeutic approach must occur. The task we’re faced with is one of deciphering the coded messages of the body and of speech.
We must keep our ears and eyes perked for signs like trackers on the trail of we-know-not-what.
Rarely is the message able to get across directly; no, if it were possible, then trauma as such would likely cease to exist. Rather the message is communicated through indirect means. The experience of trauma is one which is characterized by a discontinuity, a rupture in the flow of one’s lived experience. The unassimilable experience cannot by its very nature be communicated directly. It can only be hinted at and pointed towards. Our task is to piece together the clues.
We must consider two key things when undertaking the task…
First, that speech constitutes digital information. Words mean things. Now, we can’t be sure that one person means the same thing by a particular word, but we can be sure that they mean something in particular when using it.
Second, that gesture constitutes analog information. Body language doesn’t speak with precision of meaning. Rather it indicates patterns of relationship. The wink, smirk or grimace communicates as much — if not more than — the words uttered.
The challenge we face is reconciling these two often contradictory means of communication. When one thing is spoken and another is indicated through the body, what are we to make of it?
This is something I’d like to unpack with you more in coming months. No easy answers just yet. Truth be told there will never be easy answers for something like this…
Originally published on The Ecosomatics Institute Blog