Trauma is an adverse external experience that happens for no fault of an individual and beyond any control of their own, and is neurobiologically processed as a threat to survival or a basic human need.
Getting to this seemingly simple definition took me seven years of interviews, therapy sessions with abuse survivors, literature reviews, and contextualizing my own lived experience. Remarkably, although the word trauma was widely used throughout both mental health literature and general culture, I couldn’t find semantic consistency – that is, a transparent definition that could embrace, and stand the test of, factual stories of trauma I heard from people.
The grounded theory approach, which has been my predominant qualitative methodology, implies that we don’t start with a hypothesis – be it a definition or a concept – but rather allow it to emerge from our data. The above definition of trauma did exactly that.
Importantly, the methodology means that any definition developed this way is only as good as its ability to withstand new data being aggregated and alternative definitions being suggested. In this regard, my definition of trauma has also so far remained.
The good thing about it was that, for all its apparent simplicity, it had very concrete (and complex) practical implications.
- Trauma is not nearly the same as grief, distress, depression, or disappointment — the things it's commonly confused with in the general culture. Trauma is not an emotion or a mental disorder. It's an objective, external situation that causes a very specific internal condition of the human brain. Its effects may be emotional and cognitive, but what underlies it is a neurochemical process tightly related to other physiological changes in the body.
So before you rush to tell a refugee or a domestic violence survivor, Oh, I can identify with your trauma! Everybody experiences trauma!, please think twice and look around. Particularly, look back where your privilege knapsack might reside, without your awareness. No, not everybody experiences trauma. And it’s exceedingly possible that if you’re one of those lucky people who, for no merit and no fault of your own, have never experienced it, you don’t understand shit about what it is and what it feels like.
Does it mean you cannot understand it? By no means. Of course you can, and it’s awesome if you commit to curiosity, critical thinking, self-awareness, perspective-taking, and staying out of judgment when people honor you with reaching out about their trauma (and make no mistake: that honor is to be earned). If you don’t get what their existential threat was, or why this person couldn’t control it, ask them to say more. Stop nodding with a sad smile and pretending that you’re connected when you aren’t. Fake empathy benefits no one. There’s no expectation that you will get empathy right out of the gate. It’s especially difficult around trauma – and the bigger the privilege gap between you and the other person is, the more attempts it’s likely going to take.
- Trauma cannot be objectively qualified, because its experience is dependent on circumstantial and identity-related factors. See, the seemingly same experience can be processed differently by the brains of two different people — or even by the brain of the same person at different points in their life. For example, does losing a job qualify as trauma? Well, it depends. Are you a college professor in the West or a working-class person in Russia? If you live in a prosperous Western democracy with developed social support systems, like Austria or Sweden, it's far less likely that you will feel like your existential needs will be threatened. You may temporarily lose some benefits, but not basic security. However, if you're in a third-world country, whose economy is stagnating as a result of corruption and spending on unwarranted military ventures, whose social systems are all but dead — then losing a job might actually amount to losing the roof over your head and not having the money to make your food budget next month.
The same difference can be at work in relation to identity. As a white guy with European cultural background, if I see a girl flirting with me from the neighboring table in a cafe, I will not be offended. But a girl having grown up in a Muslim country, while receiving the same flirtatious communication from a white guy, might actually feel like she’s being sexually harassed – and her brain will then switch into the trauma mode.
It’s not that my or that girl’s experience is more valid than the other – they both are equally valid.
The implication is that we have to believe people's stories and lived experiences exactly as those are being told to us, without running those through our lenses and then imagining how we would feel in the same situation — particularly, when we have privilege in the dimension of inequality directly related to their trauma experience.
There’s often a legitimate objection to this: what if we unconditionally believe people, but they abuse our empathy? What if they lie and manipulate our practice of empathy and perspective-taking to get help from us?
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to this. The abuse of empathy, just like the abuse of all good things, can happen.
But the common antidotes to abuse, also relevant in the context of trauma and empathy, are boundaries, accountability, and aggregation. Boundaries mean that while connecting to another’s experience, you still clearly see where they end and you begin. Accountability means that when abuse is revealed, there should be consequences. And aggregation means that by actively seeking out opportunities to listen to trauma survivors and then following up on their stories, you grow the ability to tell those telling the truth from those who’re here for manipulation.
- Trauma cannot be ranked, and empathy around it cannot be rationed according to the ranking.
Comparative suffering is a pervasive paradigm in our culture.
You shouldn’t complain about your life. Just think about starving children in Africa – they have it worse than you.
Do you think you’re being unfairly treated at work? Listen to how we were employed back in the 1960s / the times of the Great Depression / the Soviet Union era.
Stop telling everybody about being harassed by your misogynist boss. This woman X two blocks away is black, trans, and HIV-positive – her trauma is bigger than yours.
Research is clear around this: our cultural propensity to rank trauma and ration empathy, deciding who’s more worthy and who’s less worthy of it, is premised on the same fallacies as patriarchy, white supremacy, heterosexism, and all models of power-over: zero-sum thinking, scarcity, and meritocracy. When we think that our empathy is like a pizza that only has a finite number of slices, then it makes sense for us to hoard it. Often, we would reserve it for people whose trauma particulars exactly match ours – because we know how few those people are. As a result, we can opt out of the vulnerability required to practice empathy where it needs to be practiced. We self-protect and invalidate another person’s lived experience, wasting the opportunity to connect to their humanity – and, importantly, our own.
Interestingly, people who tend to rank suffering and ration empathy to others also deny empathy to themselves and instead engage in a lot of self-judgment when they find themselves in struggle. There’s also a strong correlation between finite paradigms of empathy and perfectionism, cynicism, and burnout.
But there’s no evidence anywhere that empathy is indeed finite. There’s no evidence that by empathizing with a neighbor going through a traumatic divorce, we have less empathy left for the refugee we will meet the next day or a terminal cancer patient who will come to our medical practice in a month. Empathy is a skillset, and when practiced the right way, it doesn’t take away anything from us but gives back tenfold.
- Any kind of identity-based discrimination — racism, sexism, homophobia, nativism, classism, ableism and etc. is experienced as chronic trauma by people being targeted. This directly follows from our social nature as a species — the need to belong, be fairly treated and seen as equal by our fellow human beings is a basic neurobiological need. Whenever cultural narratives and systems make some people feel that they're less worthy than others because of who they are, trauma happens, whether we're aware of it or not. Moreover, these narratives then enable society to dehumanize, marginalize, and inflict violence against those portrayed as less than.
Secondary trauma also happens to people from oppressed groups because oppression, among many other things, involves systemic denials of opportunity – educational and economic. The genetic distribution of talent is largely random among people from all countries, races, genders, orientations, classes etc., but because of structural inequality oppressed people have far smaller chances to both actualize their gifts and obtain economic security. The trauma of unused talent then exacerbates the trauma of basic dignity and freedoms having been stripped.
- The greatest casualty of trauma is vulnerability, i.e. our capacity to practice relational risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure.
Everything that involves vulnerability — creativity, courage, self-worth, authenticity, speaking up, falling in love, practicing hope, giving others benefit of the doubt, and, last but not least, extending empathy towards them, gets increasingly difficult for people in the aftermath of trauma.
I first found this pattern empirically working with patients, but then a clear neurobiological underpinning emerged from research. In fact, the vast majority of traumatic experiences involve practicing vulnerability first – and most often, we practice it naturally, without being aware of it, because vulnerability is indeed natural.It’s the consequence of us being social species. When a baby is hungry, he or she cries because their brain is programmed to call the attention of the caregiver to provide food. Their brain isn’t by default wired to believe that their caregiver is a narcissistic psychopath, therefore it’s dangerous to reach out to them in need.
But then, when an abusive outcome follows, the conditioning loop closes around a core idea – should I get vulnerable, I will get hurt. This pattern is then embedded into newly formed neural networks. As vulnerability is a core emotion, the brain by default doesn’t take nuance with it. It doesn’t create complex, contextual algorithms like Vulnerability is fatal with the person X, but it’s okay with other people, or Vulnerability is worth it unless the following red flags emerge or Based on the multiple factor analysis of this person’s behavioral traits, there’s a 78.2% chance they will treat my vulnerability appropriately. Nope. Vulnerability starts being perceived as tantamount to a threat to survival. The brain starts avoiding it anywhere, with anybody, at all costs.
The costs are enormous and eventually self-defeating. The build-up of armor, especially trauma-induced armor, stops us from showing up as we are, recognizing and actualizing our biggest talents, finding and connecting with people who belong in our lives, and ultimately reclaiming our worth. This leads me to answer one of the most common (and difficult) questions I heard from patients over the years:
Can the capacity to be vulnerable, previously lost to trauma, be fully regained?
The honest answer is: yes and no. Yes, because trauma conditioning, like any negative operant conditioning, is reversible. In simple terms, it means that if a person still dares to practice vulnerability again and now it gets treated appropriately by another, then the positive reinforcement gradually undoes the effect of trauma. The tough news is that the magnitude of this effect is directly proportional the magnitude of vulnerability. You cannot expect traumatized people to practice vulnerability in a big way, the way they would do it naturally, before the traumatic experience happened. So recovery takes small vulnerability steps, followed by consistently positive responses. If the responses aren’t consistent, it all collapses into smithereens in a heartbeat.
Another piece of tough news is that although we can successfully work to recover vulnerability on the cognitive and behavioral level, its recovery on the emotional level can only happen in the same relational context where it got broken. For example, if you suffered narcissistic abuse, ghosting, or betrayal from the person you were in love with, and in the aftermath, you’re left with the idea of being unlovable, then no matter how much empathy and reality-checks I will extend towards you as therapist, a friend, or a family member, on the emotional level you will continue to question your lovability until you meet a romantic partner with whom a healthy, functional relationship will develop.
The deal here is that in order for you to meet that person, you have to process the trauma, dust yourself off, and go dating again. You have to consciously act against the powerful emotional patterns that your brain employs to make you stay at home, cloaked in your misery, shame, and loneliness. That’s where cognitive-behavioral interventions do help.
- Because of common cultural misconceptions, telling people about your trauma involves the risk of having them believe that you're defined by it — i.e. that your behavior, thoughts, and feelings in every situation can be ascribed to the consequences of past trauma. That's a disastrous experience that crushes the remains of your vulnerability — because telling your trauma story to someone you believe earned the right to hear it was an act of vulnerability in and of itself. It was an ask for empathy, and a bid for connection.
And that leads me to the last part.
I coined it by analogy with metaemotion, an emotion we experience over another emotion, (like shame over anger) and metacognition, which is thinking about one’s own thought processes.
As we are social species, having our fellow humans connect to our feelings is indeed a basic, natural, hardwired neurobiological need. When we reach out for empathy, especially around a traumatic experience, we’re trying to have this need met.
Metatrauma is the new trauma, layered over one that's previously existed, as a result of empathic failure: stereotyping, sympathy, trivialization, giving advice, rationalization, or empathy diversion.
All forms of empathic failure represent the other person’s self-protection against the vulnerability that practicing empathy involves.
Stereotyping is when instead of listening and trying to emotionally connect, they think they already know everything about your experience because they’ve “met people who’ve gone through this” or because they heard about your trauma context, like a refugee crisis, on TV.
Sympathy is when they feel sorry for you but at the same time feel nothing with you. It’s like them looking over at you and saying, I see where you’re at, and it doesn’t look pretty. I don’t understand what it feels, and quite honestly I don’t want to try – it’s just too uncomfortable. So let’s make it clear: I’m over here, and you’re over there.
Trivialization is when they resist understanding the nuance and context of your experience, instead reducing it to generic cultural narratives or, the worst case scenario, the context of their experience, which on the surface resembles yours.
Empathy diversion is when they take advantage of your bid for connection and instead of listening to your story, bulldoze over it with theirs. How often do we hear, Oh, I can relate! I’ve a had this experience back then…? And then instead of listening and empathizing, they shift the focus to themselves.
It’s also a form of self-protection – telling their story is still far less vulnerable than staying open and receptive to yours. Because they know their story – how it began and how it ended, all the while listening to yours is full of uncertainty.
Giving advice is them telling you what you should and shouldn’t do, or even worse, how you should and shouldn’t feel, instead of being unconditionally and non-judgmentally present to your experience. It’s about imparting an illusion of control, i.e. the idea that if you do this or that, you’ll no longer feel the way you feel. It’s related to the typically American, fast-food-psychology-backed, meritocratic ideas about “us being 100% responsible for our lives” and “life being about 10% what happens to us and 90% how we react to it”.
In terms of existing trauma of identity oppression, like that caused by racism, sexism, classism, homophobia etc., giving advice is especially shaming and traumatic because it implicitly individualizes your struggle instead of contextualizing it. It denies you the recognition of structural inequality as the root cause underpinning your experience, as well as the experience of thousands of other people, and instead makes you feel alone, disconnected, and the one to blame for your situation.
Last but not least, rationalization is in my experience the most malignant and the most culturally normalized form of empathic failure and concomitant metatrauma.
It’s commonly served on a spiritual platter – except that in fact, it has nothing to do with real spirituality and everything to do with spiritual bypass. It may assume a broad variety of verbal framings: everything happens for a reason (Oprah’s fans’ favorite); the Universe always has your back; no hay mal que por bien no venga (hello my fellow Hispanics); no pain — no gain; this is only supposed to make you stronger, all pain happens for a good purpose – you just have to believe (in God, Providence, whatever).
Most often, this horseshit is thrown at you across privilege gaps – this person rationalizing your trauma has never, and will never, experience what you’re experiencing. But by virtue of the third function of privilege, they can successfully gaslight you, and they know they’ll get away with it.
As seemingly logical, and culturally validated, as the rationalization rhetoric might get, the emotional dynamic that underpins it is still the same: armoring up against vulnerability. When we believe in a just world, where a higher force called God, the Universe, the Karma etc. “sends” people experiences according to their faults/sins and their merits/virtues, then we cognitively opt out of recognizing the great randomness of life, which can – and often does – put us through trauma that has no meaning and doesn’t serve any purpose at all.
Denying the reality of that randomness, and replacing it with narratives about inherently good higher forces, allows us to stay emotionally comfortable. It licenses us to create emotionally underpinned but rationally coated narratives, as devoid of evidence as they are, about why we have it better than others or why the same thing has never happened to us.
At the very least, it allows us to put a silver lining around other people’s trauma and delude ourselves into believing that even though they suffered wanton, major injustice, there’s this higher force that “has a plan for everyone”, so their story will anyway receive a happy ending.
This way of thinking, despite the short-term comfort it provides, has massive detrimental effects in long term -- both for our relationships with others, and for our relationships with ourselves.
Towards others, e.g. trauma survivors who reach out to us for empathy, it means opting out of reckoning with our privilege, owning the systems of structural inequality that we’ve benefitted from, and never using our power to contribute to dismantling them. Instead, we find a cognitive bypass to shirk this responsibility and delegate it to the hypothetical God, Universe, or Karma. Sticking to the belief that the world is designed in an inherently just way, we miss out on the real opportunity to create justice with our own hands that we often get through being exposed to someone else’s trauma.
Towards ourselves, rationalization means reinforcing twisted ways of cognition that will misguide us when/if trauma one day hits our life (and even if we’re privileged up to our eyeballs, this chance still exists). When rationalization has become our default thinking pattern around pain and suffering, then instead of speaking up, reaching out, asking for help, and working to fix the consequences, we will sit there gaslighting ourselves about our lived experience, doing nothing, drowning in pain, and waiting for the imaginary higher power to send us a compensation.
If there’s no compensation arriving, we’ll then go one level up on the self-gaslighting spiral and think that God is probably testing our faith, or that God probably punishes us for some grave sins we haven’t yet repented or even remembered. If we don’t have such thoughts ourselves, there will be an army of others telling us that we must’ve had it coming. The Biblical Job’s story will become a reality in our lives. Along its lines, one can always argue that the ways of God are unfathomable, so we should just surrender to His higher will and stop trying to make sense of what’s going on.
Rationalization in trauma works like the opioid drug in a metastatic cancer patient – it may serve as a short-term palliation, but becomes increasingly ineffective as the condition progresses because it never addresses the root cause. The root cause behind anyone’s trauma might be systemic, like the structural reality of corruption, sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, ableism etc., or it might be individual, like having a highly unlikely, random traumatic incident happen to you or your loved one. But any of it has nothing to do with a higher reason or a higher consciousness.
The stories of trauma are excruciatingly difficult to empathize with – and when you’re the person living one, they’re equally difficult to own.
But what’s the alternative? As my academic mentor Brené Brown often says, you either own the story, or the story owns you. It couldn’t be more accurate around trauma. It comes to define our life, our thinking, and our behavior when we turn away from it, instead of facing it straight on, exploring it in its entirety, critically working our way through rationalization and other bullshit, learning what can be learned, and then leveraging the learnings to empower ourselves and other people – and, when applicable, to dismantle systemic injustices that caused our trauma in the first place.
Practicing resilience to shame, cultivating a critical perspective, and growing awareness about empathy are key in this work. Debunking cultural myths about trauma – in family, in school, in the workplace, and at the level of governments – is one of the ways we make this world a braver and fairer place.