The “T” Word
If I ever want to stop a conversation dead in its tracks, all I usually have to do is share with a new acquaintance that I’m a therapist who specializes in trauma. My husband jokingly likes to say this is my superpower- almost like entering a loud party, hearing music playing and people laughing, and all of a sudden the music comes to a screeching halt and everyone is silent except for the crickets chirping in the background. I’ve learned through the years that trauma is a topic most people don’t actively seek to engage in for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, silence can exacerbate the deep wounds of trauma.
I know from my work and from research that while the subject may be difficult to tackle, the prevalence of trauma is quite significant and very real. For instance, 27% of women and 16% of men report sexual abuse or assault before the age of 18, and approximately 30% of women are sexually assaulted as adults (Felitti, Anda, Nordenberg, Williamson, Spitz, Edwards, Koss, & Marks, 1998). And while the specific incident or incidents of trauma are often life changing in their own right, there can be a ripple effect in which trauma begets more trauma through impacting trust and safety in relationships, physiology, or beliefs we have about ourselves and the world around us.
Shame and Trauma
One of my greatest hopes and desires as I sit with people and hear their stories is to help shine light into dark areas of their lives; to let them know that they are not alone and that this terrible thing that has been done or happened to them does not define them. This is the beautiful and holy power of connection. However, there are lies that creep in for all of us that are especially prominent for survivors of trauma, which create fear about our very identities. Shame can keep us from connection through deceptively whispering in our ears lies like “You’re worthless/damaged goods,” “You’re not ____________ enough (good/smart/pretty or handsome/thin, etc),” or “Who do you think you are?” Brene¢ Brown, who researches shame and vulnerability extensively, defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging” (2012, p. 69). Unlike guilt, which can propel us and motivate us forward, shame can cut us off at our knees and paralyze us through having us believe we are incapable of change.
If you have experienced trauma or know someone who has, this does not have to be the end of your story; shame does not have to have the last word. Shame would make us believe that we are better off not sharing our story with someone else, but both through research and experience, I know this is yet another lie. Counseling is often an important part in the healing journey, which can foster connection and skills to help rebuild areas of one’s life impacted by trauma. Relationships are also pivotal in which we can share our stories with one or two trusted individuals capable of giving compassion and understanding, because shame can’t co-exist with empathy. And the most important part of this journey is allowing God to define us; reminding us of our identities, and helping us discern truth from lies.
As Lewis Smedes writes, “The surest cure for the feeling of being an unacceptable person is the discovery that we are accepted by the grace of One whose acceptance of us matters most,” (1993, p. 108).
The Courage To Change
I’m keenly aware of how scary hope can be and how daunting the idea of change is, especially in light of trauma and the shame that accompanies it. I recently heard a podcast in which they discussed the intricacies of the transformation process as caterpillars become butterflies. Many of us might picture cute little caterpillars inside a safe and warm chrysalis slowly sprouting wings and becoming a delicate and beautiful butterfly. Interestingly, this is not exactly what happens. Instead of a gradual growth from caterpillar to butterfly, the young caterpillar completely dissolves into a liquid, gooey soup of cells insides the chrysalis that somehow mysteriously morphs into the adult butterfly. After dissecting a caterpillar, a 17th century researcher found that there were some structures within the caterpillar of a future butterfly-its wings, antennae, and legs are actually already formed before pupation. The caterpillar starts to grow tiny adult parts and keeps them hidden, up against the edges of the chrysalis, which doesn’t ever become part of the liquid substance.
This has tremendous implications for the change and transformation that occurs in our lives, especially the changes that I see over time as I work with courageous survivors of trauma. While transformation can be a difficult and sometimes painful experience in which we peel back the layers of shame, lies, and dirt that can suffocate us, we can ultimately discover our true selves-free, worthy, and beautiful. And so I’ll leave you with one question: What of your future self is in you right now?
Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. NY: Gotham Books.
Felitti, V.J., Anda, R.F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D.F., Spitz, A.M., Edwards, V., Koss, M.P., & Marks, J.S. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The adverse childhood experiences (ACE) study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 14, 245–258.
Abumrad, J. & Krulwich, R. (Hosts). (2014, January 17). Black box [Podcast series episode]. In S. Wheeler (Producer), Radiolab, Season 12,Episode 4. New York: WNYC.
Smedes, L. (1993). Shame and grace: Healing the shame we don’t deserve. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers.