Before you read this blog, we also want to add a disclaimer here: trauma is extremely difficult and can be challenging to work through. We hope to offer a concept to lessen the immediate impact of trauma. However, it may or may not be beneficial for you in the stage of healing you are in. If you feel triggered and/or begin reliving a traumatic experience and do not yet have the tools to calm your body and emotions, and/or stop reliving the experience, please discontinue reading at any point. In those cases, if you aren’t already in the care of a mental health clinician, we highly recommend establishing with someone to support and guide you through beginning to safely address your body’s responses to the trauma(s) you have experienced. Proceed with reading onward gently, should you decide to, and remember that you know what’s best for you–despite trauma often trying to convince us otherwise.
You Are Not Your Trauma
Trauma is an experience that happens to you. But you are not your trauma. It may feel like trauma defines you as a person as you may be living with constant reminders of the experience. You deserve to feel separate from this experience, free from shame and empowered to work towards healing. Trauma will be defined, along with sharing additional thoughts from one of the go-to trauma experts in the mental health field. We’ll also introduce you to the concept of “externalization,” that’s used in Narrative Therapy, to help individuals reclaim power over their identity after a traumatic experience. To wrap up, we’ll offer an idea of how you can try to implement externalization as one (of many) entry point(s) for your healing work around trauma. Should you be interested in learning more about trauma, its impact, and how to engage in healing, we will also share some additional resources for how to continue to see trauma as separate from your good enough self.
Let’s get on the same page by defining trauma. Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. is a clinician, researcher and teacher who has been active in the study of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) since the 1970s. He describes trauma as “an experience that leaves people stuck in a state of helplessness and terror. Your mind and brain become overwhelmed, resulting in a change over how you perceive danger, and what you consider relevant and irrelevant to your survival.” Sometimes it is hard to move on after a traumatic event because our brains can change after the experience. As a result, our brains can often tend to interpret what would usually be considered a minor event as a threat to survival.
It can feel as if the impact of trauma is taking over our daily experiences. Ideally, the hope is to support our brain in recognizing the signs in our body (e.g., feeling significantly startled, increased heart rate, quick and shallow breathing, etc.) that we are reacting to a non-dangerous threat (e.g., loud noise at a construction site) almost as we would react to the danger within the root traumatic experience(s). Once able to recognize our body’s reactions, and that the “danger” is, indeed, non-threatening, we can start to slow down to ground ourselves into the current moment away from perceived threats. Putting some space between you and how trauma has impacted your brain can allow your body more opportunities to calm itself down, and eventually re-engage your ‘thinking’ brain.
Once in the thinking brain, we can define trauma as an experience that happens to us versus being part of us. It’s unlikely many, if any, choose to endure a traumatic event, yet all have to learn how to cope after it happens. Seeing ourselves as unique spirits, separate from our brains, allow space to empower ourselves with the resources to heal from trauma’s impact. To help us understand how to begin separating ourselves from the impact of trauma, we’ll introduce Narrative Therapy and the Narrative technique of externalization.
Narrative therapy is an approach many therapists use to help clients understand the leading storylines that fuel how they experience their life. For example, someone who had many experiences where their needs were not met may grow up with the main storyline of “I don’t matter. If I mattered, my needs would be met.” If someone has experienced trauma there could be the main storyline of “It was my fault this happened to me” “I deserved for this to happen to me” “I’m not good enough to move past this traumatic experience” or “I am unable to move past this because I am damaged.” These storylines are often how we perceive and attempt to make sense of our life experiences, rather than being true. These storylines can fuel one’s story day to day and can result in someone feeling the emotions of helplessness, defeat, despair, sadness, shame, irritability, anxiety, depression, etc. It can feel as if the challenges experienced in life are due to personal challenges and/or personal limitations. However, narrative therapy allows therapists to help clients identify their “problem” storylines and work together to shift towards creating the client’s preferred storyline. One technique used in making the shift toward the preferred storyline is the technique of externalization. Externalization establishes the problem as its own entity, entirely separate from the person. To put it simply: you are not the problem, the problem is the problem. Let’s go back to those storylines shared previously to see how we can consider externalization with this one example:
Storyline: “I am not able to move past this because I am damaged.”
- Problem separate from person: Trauma has had a significant impact on me, my body, and my functioning. The brutal impact of trauma often leaves me feeling damaged. The impact of trauma has held me from moving past things.
This sample storyline can help us see how traumatic experiences that happen to us can cause us to create meanings about ourselves that are merged with the terrifying experience. Externalization can help us see that: You are not the problem. Trauma is the problem. In this case, by externalizing trauma–or creating trauma as its own separate entity–it’s easier to begin seeing that it’s not that I’mdamaged, it’s that trauma has worked its way in so deeply that trauma’s impact has made me feel damaged.
One way to consider your experience through the lens of externalization is by being curious about your own storylines. Take some time to write down the first major thoughts/feelings you have about yourself. These storylines may take time and thought to uncover and that’s ok. Just begin to be curious if any of the storylines are true or if they were created in reaction to something you experienced. This curiosity can help us see the situation a bit differently as you can begin to see that these storylines aren’t fixed and new experiences (through externalization or otherwise) can help us rewrite storylines to help us thrive versus merely survive.
If we can define trauma as being separate from ourselves, it can begin to feel more possible to take action to treat the trauma. Externalization is one technique used in Narrative Therapy that can begin to help us separate ourselves away from the problem. Remember: you are not the problem. Trauma is the problem. The impact trauma has on your mind and body, is the problem. We’ve shared a few books below we recommend to help you further gain insight into trauma and its impacts. We’re also here to help you find a therapist who specializes in working with trauma and may offer additional courses and/or resources to help you take hold of your healing process. In the meantime we send you off with the final reminder: You are not your trauma. Trauma is trauma.
In the event you’d like tips on what to do when past experiences are impacting your emotional and/or physical experience visit the following link to our blog: Triggers to Grounding.
- The Body Keeps The Score – By Bessel van der Kolk
- The Body Remembers – By Babette Rothschild
- Trauma and the Soul: A psycho-spiritual approach to human development and its interruption – Donald Kalsched