What If the Survivor You Need to Believe Is ... You?

What If the Survivor You Need to Believe Is ... You?


Disbelieving ourselves only sustains our suffering.

Electrifying the national news and social media lately has been the topic of trauma — and those who undergo it, survive it, remember it, reveal it, exist with its aftereffects and/or are believed.

The trouble with trauma in this pics-or-it-didn't-happen, everything's-recorded era is the paucity of "proof." Potentially traumatic incidents tend to happen in secret, mainly because traumatizers want no witnesses.

Sure, some traumas are public: Earthquakes. Wars. Smaller in scale but still entailing audiences: being verbally abused by coaches or teachers in packed classrooms or locker rooms. Such experiences can be searing. But finding supporters — and believers — after suffering more or less public pain is relatively easy.

Most trauma occurs behind closed doors. One-on-one, enforcing a steep power inequity in which victims feel helpless, hopeless, worthless — hating themselves for "letting this happen to me," which is just what traumatizers want.

This dynamic applies not only to sexual trauma but also to other kinds — as we who were humiliated, cussed at, spanked or worse for mildly misbehaving, talking back, or not cleaning our rooms well know.

In such cases, maybe our traumatizers thought they had the best intentions, believed they were teaching us important lessons, hurting us only for our "own good" — just as certain demented rapists actually think that no means yes.

Trauma cannot be measured with sophisticated instruments, detected with some high-tech dye, or retro-filmed for all to see via some as-yet-uninvented time-traveling camera that records past events, even in the dark.

Whether our traumas happened in bedrooms or barns or big-box stores, they scarred us. While writing a book about low self-esteem, I came to see the close connection between it and trauma, especially childhood trauma that occurred before its victims had solid senses of self.

Being systematically terrified by those with power over us, particularly those we loved and trusted, made us believe that whatever happened to us was our fault, that we had asked for it, that we were bad. This belief crystallized in our still-growing hearts and minds.

That's why, years later, rather than say that we were traumatized, rather than say we have survived, we tend to instead blame ourselves for "faults" and "flaws" that are aftereffects of trauma — which we refuse to call trauma, because it happened to us.

Whether or not to believe others who say they were traumatized is now political. But to believe ourselves? We are our own snarkiest skeptics, harshest critics and deadliest enemies. Some of us would more likely believe bank robbers who proclaimed I'm innocent! while wearing masks and clasping sacks of cash in hands stained red by dye-packs before we believed ourselves proclaiming almost anything.

This is especially true if we haven't yet traced our self-hatred to its source: if we haven't yet realized how much of our adult lives is shaped by long-ago terrors we believed we might not survive.

Self-hatred trumps self-compassion, so we deny, dismiss and minimize our trauma by saying:

Other people have experienced worse things. Of course they have. But life is not a competition in which human sufferings are ranked in order of validity. If you hurt, you hurt — whether because of a harsh word or a hurricane.

I asked for it. We tell ourselves: I ignored warnings. Disobeyed. I was, thus am, nasty or dumb or whatever they said I was. This is how traumatizers want victims to think. We never asked to suffer. Pain was inflicted on us.

I should be over it by now. We tell ourselves that still being tormented by long-ago traumas proves that we are weak. No: We're survivors. But the same years others spent learning to be strong we spent learning to be scared.

Who would believe me, anyway? It was so long ago. Many would say they knew and loved my parents/priest/coach/classmate/ex. How dare I accuse those fine souls of harming me? Maybe our traumatizers meant well. Maybe not. But we know who did and said what to whom.

And we must start believing our own memories.

To disbelieve ourselves, to call our trauma anything but trauma, keeps unsolved the mystery of why we often feel fake, frozen, incomplete.

Disbelieving ourselves only sustains our suffering.

Every time we debate our inner critics over whether we were traumatized, then decide no despite glaring evidence otherwise, retraumatizes us. Even if no one else would believe us, we must.

Join Us on the Journey

Sign Up

Enjoying this content?

Get this article and many more delivered straight to your inbox weekly.