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Read this next: 33 Signs of Hidden Childhood Trauma.
And if you’re going through some rough stuff recently: You Deserve a Giver. You Deserve to Heal.
Losing my son halfway through my pregnancy left me with a host of psychological difficulties that I am still struggling to navigate.
Even after seeking mental health care immediately following, I kept running into therapists who relied heavily on traditional, toxic, positive tropes, assuring me to be faithful and to focus on an elusive “rainbow baby.”
None of these approaches worked, and they left me feeling more isolated, abandoned, and alone than before. The whole experience of therapist after therapist was traumatic—pun intended.
Then, I found a trauma-informed therapist: someone who specialized in trauma and how to deal with it. Wow. What a game changer! Learning about and processing my own trauma with a safe, experienced professional shifted my outlook on my life and allowed me to start healing in a healthy way.
Many of us assume that trauma is only applicable to specific events: war, abuse, or a severe accident. But, the truth is trauma is any event that is deeply distressing or disturbing; it is an emotional shock following an event or injury.
We all have trauma of some kind.
If you, like I did, do not believe that you do, work on giving yourself permission to name things as trauma; too often, we believe that whatever has happened to us is insignificant. We write it off by using phrases like, “Eh, but so-and-so had it so much harder.”
Have you ever spoken with another person and held back what you wanted to say, only to later reflect with regret on all the things you could or should have said? Before this summer, I certainly believed this was a quality of an introverted personality—it is not.
In order to speak up in a situation with another person, we must first feel safe and connected. When we do not, our autonomic nervous system (ANS) takes over. The ANS is designed, literally, to protect us. Our inability to speak might be based on a previous experience in which we were criticized, degraded, or punished in some way for speaking up. Our ANS is only reacting to this conditioning and, in turn, a freeze response happens (the others are fight, flight, or fawn).
This summer, I started hiking again to clear my head. My military husband had to spend an unexpected few months away. Instead of tackling all the hikes we planned together, I did them alone. Hours and hours I spent alone on trails in parks with only my phone and audiobooks. I spent nearly the entire summer in solitude hiking, writing, going to trauma therapy, and reading trauma books—it was all about me, the woods, and my feelings.
I found myself in a second identity crisis; things I had once believed were just strange personality quirks have turned out to be trauma responses.
These are the top five trauma responses often mistaken for personality traits or qualities:
1. Photographic Memory
Being able to recall specific details of an event, sometimes referred to as photographic memory.
I used to believe that I could do this because I often joked, “I am an elephant and elephants never forget!” A hilarious joke because elephants do not have great eyesight, which in turn has allowed them to evolve their other senses—same, girl, same.
The truth is, when we can recall specific and exact details of an event, it’s because our nervous system was put into overdrive during said event. In turn, the event has imprinted deeply in the hippocampus of our brain.
Known more commonly as replaying an event repeatedly. Have you ever had an experience you just couldn’t let go of? I believed that doing this was how I worked through things; I needed to be able to chew on it like a soft piece of gum, except I needed to chew on it for so long that it became a gross, sticky, nearly disintegrated piece of gum.
Turns out, this is a trauma response of both the brain and the nervous system. We replay memories because our brain believes that doing so will help us understand better and/or produce a different outcome—our nervous system is desperately searching for ways in which it can feel calmed or regulated.
3. Seeing Ourselves as Weak
Oof! My INFJ, non-hugging self cannot stand to feel this. Instead, I have a hard exterior shell and rarely let anyone in, more layers than a field of onions you could say. This one is particularly difficult to overcome because we reinforce the importance of being “strong” in many ways. We enforce toxic positivity with phrases like, “You are so strong! You’ll get through it!”
This is a common reaction to trauma. If we have ever felt this way and then fell down the rabbit hole of feeling shame, guilt, or anxiety, let me reassure that it is not “just how we are wired.” Our brains process certain events as “danger,” regardless of the reality; when we react to a situation intensely (because our nervous system’s danger alarms go off), what can develop afterward is feeling that we are not a strong person and/or that something is inherently flawed with us.
4. Excessive feelings of shame, self-doubt, or self-blame
If we experience a traumatic event and then fixate on it, replaying memories over and over, focusing on what we should have done, then we are left feeling weak. This is followed by feelings of guilt, shame, self-doubt, or self-blame for our nervous system’s reactions.
This trauma response can sometimes serve to keep us in unhealthy situations or relationships because we believe we are flawed or incorrect. We might be told we are overreactive or dramatic, and over time, we internalize this to mean we are at fault for every sideways situation.
For me, and for every other “loss mom” I have ever met, this is the bane of our existence; it does not only apply to pregnancy and infant loss, though.
5. Preferring to be alone
The crux of my introverted existence. While it is true that introverts prefer to be alone and require periods of aloneness to recharge, there is a big difference between preferring alone time versus self-isolating.
If we isolate ourselves or only feel comfortable communicating with one or two people, we may be exhibiting an extremely common trauma response that is often mistaken for a personality trait. We may have been described with phrases like, “You are so difficult” or “You are hard to get along with.”
Isolating is common with folks who have experienced extreme amounts of trauma and, interestingly, are the eldest child of a family.
When the stupor of shock, intense grief, and the antidepressants finally started to wear off for me sometime in mid-spring, I became committed to healing in every way I could possibly fathom: hours and hours of trauma therapy and books and podcasts. I am not a “loss mom” who fashioned herself on believing that something “great” had to come from the loss of my son. I didn’t need to start a nonprofit or anything to honor his legacy. For me, his legacy is simply this: a commitment to myself, my most important relationships, and to my son to be the best version of myself I can be.
I could not achieve this by packing around a lifetime’s worth of trauma, especially not in today’s world where resources are easily accessible and (mostly) free.
I will not pretend that this has been easy—that is far from the truth. But, it has been worth the journey.
Do you have any of these common trauma responses that you or others have mistaken as personality traits?
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