In my work as a therapist, I have come to believe that everyone I have encountered has experienced trauma in their lives. I believe also that most people in the world have experienced at least one trauma in their lives. Trauma can be anything that affects someone in a negative way that then causes them to form beliefs and responses as a result. All trauma is personal and what some might view as a minimal experience the person experiencing it can view it as something much greater – to them.
Trauma responses which are formed as protection, or assumed protection against further trauma, then become what people view as their “personality traits” for individuals and as “family traits” for families. However, they are in fact, responses to trauma which continue with each passing day that the trauma is unprocessed. These responses lead people to react and interact with others in a variety of ways depending on what their trauma assumed as protection.
The four main responses to trauma are fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. These responses then lend themselves to a broader list of other protective responses that get incorporated into our lives and relationships.
In the unhealthy or unprocessed trauma version of fight, the assumed protection responses can be anger, aggressiveness, need for control, perfectionism, bullying others to get what is wanted, narcissism, taking energy and time from others without considering how they feel about it. The underlying response will usually be driven by a need to control situations and people to feel safe or to push them away with anger and aggressive behavior to again feel safe.
In unhealthy or unprocessed versions of flight, the assumed protection responses can be escaping or avoiding, seeking avoidance in substances such as alcohol and drugs, avoiding responsibilities, avoiding being out of your comfort zone, escaping or avoiding relationships that are uncomfortable, moving from relationship to relationship. The underlying response will usually be driven by a need to escape situations and people to feel safe.
In the unhealthy or unprocessed version of freeze, the assumed protection responses can be numbing our feelings and needs, being stuck, dissociation, detaching from everything around us, shutting down, not attaching emotionally to others, isolating, suppressing our feelings. The underlying response will usually be driven by a need to not feel or think about how we feel.
In the unhealthy or unprocessed version of fawn, the assumed protection responses can be putting all our needs aside and focusing on the needs of others, co-dependent relationships, people pleasing, trying to fix others, having no boundaries, not saying no, being used by others. The underlying response will usually be driven by a need to please others.
If we can identify the responses we have assumed to protect ourselves from further trauma, we can acknowledge it, name it, and understand why we are continuing these repetitive patterns of behavior. In this process, however, we must start with the root of these responses which began where our trauma began. This will likely require an investment in individual therapy to process and move through the trauma so that we can reorient our responses and change them along with changing ourselves.
I have written about boundaries many times over the years. I believe that the inability to hold boundaries in all aspects of life is the main reason people with trauma continue to suffer.
The inability to say no to people and things brings repeated suffering and increased trauma responses. Every time a client tells me they cannot say no, they always include all the reasons for justifying this inability. Every one of these reasons stems from past trauma. Every single time.
Someone cannot say no to a toxic family relationship. Something that causes them great anxiety, frustration, and even anger they cannot say no. They continue to participate in it even if it is just peripherally, they are still letting it affect their lives. They can rant and vent at length about how this affects them, but when asked why they do not eliminate this from their lives the excuses pour forth.
A family member will be angry with them and ask why they do not care about the family. A family member will be sad that they are not including themselves in the family. A family member will threaten not to speak to them again if they put up a boundary. A family member will feel they do not love them if they do not engage. And on and on and on it goes.
Justification to continue suffering. Justification to continue reliving trauma. Justification for accepting they will be anxious, sad, angry every day because it.
All because they cannot say no more.
Someone cannot extricate themselves from a toxic romantic relationship. Something that makes them feel unvalued and worthless. Something that makes them blame themselves and resort to codependence to keep the relationship going. Something that allows them to never have their emotional needs met. They tell the same stories constantly about how they are treated and how badly it makes them feel, but they cannot say no.
The excuses are always the same. I am afraid to be alone. I have children with this person. I share finances with this person. What will I do if they are out of my life? And the trauma response, the way they treat me is my fault. I am causing the issues. And on and on and on.
All of this is developed out of past trauma and ongoing trauma. And of course fear is at the root of all inability to say no. They continue to be traumatized and internalize all the negative things they care conditioned to believe.
All the unresolved trauma blends with all the newly inflicted trauma until there is nothing but negative thinking and fear left. The inability to say no is a prison.
The only way to be free of suffering in all aspects of life is to start saying no.
Start with one thing. Say no more and stand firm. It will be difficult, very difficult. There will be backlash, always. Other people do not like being told no. Especially if you have not said no before. They expect that you will always say yes. When you say no, a tantrum will ensue based on THEIR feelings not what you have done. Their response is NEVER about you. It is about them.
Let them throw their fit and move on. If they truly care for you they will get past their feelings and have a relationship with you. If they do not truly care for you, they will not. They will make you feel guilty, make you feel scared, and make you feel sad. They will try every manipulative button they have ever used on you to get you to continue to say yes to try and break you down and make you give up your boundaries.
Those people do not love you. They will never love you. They will never value you. They will never respect any decision you make. Ever.
Conquer your fear. Talk back to your negative conditioned beliefs. Recognize your worth for yourself. Start saying no.
Freedom is not the ability to say yes. It is ability to say no.
In the years that I have been a clinical counselor, I have come to believe based on observations of the clients I have seen and people that I know personally, that well over 90% of the American population has had some sort of trauma in their lives.
Some trauma is fairly self explanatory and easy to recognize such as physical or sexual abuse. Some trauma is not so easily defined, such as verbal or emotional abuse. But they can all inflict traumatic memories and negative beliefs on those who receive them.
When I start seeing clients I will often times give them an assessment to briefly assess their traumas. It doesn’t cover everything, but it gives a good idea of a starting place for therapy.
This assessment is called the ACES test or Adverse Childhood Experiences. This assessment does not assess stressors outside the household such as violence, poverty, isolation, etc.). Something I feel that was left off of the ACES is death or loss of loved ones. This can be a huge trauma for children. It does not take into account any protective factors and it does not differentiate meaning not all people with high ACES scores will have a poor outcome and not all people who have zero ACES will have a positive outcome. It is an indication of greater risk of a poorer outcome and trauma responses.
The following is the ACES assessment:
Prior to your 18th birthday:
Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? or Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Push, grab, slap, or throw something at you? or Ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever… Touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? or Attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Did you often or very often feel that … No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? or Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Did you often or very often feel that … You didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? or Your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Were your parents ever separated or divorced? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Was your mother or stepmother: Often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her? or Sometimes, often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard? or Ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic, or who used street drugs? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Did a household member go to prison? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Now add up your “Yes” answers: _ This is your ACE Score. A higher score in multiple studies has shown links to increased negative mental and physical outcomes as well as increased negative social outcomes. The website Got Your ACE Score? has multiple links to studies and many charts that lay out the possible effects of a higher ACES score.
Resilience on the other hand may help those with higher ACES scores combat negative outcomes. A secure early childhood is helpful for future living but not always absolutely necessary if one has a higher resilience. Again, this is very individual dependent and definitely not true for everyone.
1. I believe that my mother loved me when I was little.
Definitely true Probably true Not sure Probably Not True Definitely Not True
2. I believe that my father loved me when I was little.Definitely true Probably true Not sure Probably Not True Definitely Not True
3. When I was little, other people helped my mother and father take care of me and they seemed to love me.Definitely true Probably true Not sure Probably Not True Definitely Not True
4. I’ve heard that when I was an infant someone in my family enjoyed playing with me, and I enjoyed it, too.Definitely true Probably true Not sure Probably Not True Definitely Not True
5. When I was a child, there were relatives in my family who made me feel better if I was sad or worried.Definitely true Probably true Not sure Probably Not True Definitely Not True
6. When I was a child, neighbors or my friends’ parents seemed to like me.Definitely true Probably true Not sure Probably Not True Definitely Not True
7. When I was a child, teachers, coaches, youth leaders or ministers were there to help me.Definitely true Probably true Not sure Probably Not True Definitely Not True
8. Someone in my family cared about how I was doing in school.Definitely true Probably true Not sure Probably Not True Definitely Not True
9. My family, neighbors and friends talked often about making our lives better.Definitely true Probably true Not sure Probably Not True Definitely Not True
10. We had rules in our house and were expected to keep them.Definitely true Probably true Not sure Probably Not True Definitely Not True
11. When I felt really bad, I could almost always find someone I trusted to talk to.Definitely true Probably true Not sure Probably Not True Definitely Not True
12. As a youth, people noticed that I was capable and could get things done.Definitely true Probably true Not sure Probably Not True Definitely Not True
13. I was independent and a go-getter.Definitely true Probably true Not sure Probably Not True Definitely Not True
14. I believed that life is what you make it.Definitely true Probably true Not sure Probably Not True Definitely Not True
How many of these 14 protective factors did I have as a child and youth? (How many of the 14 were circled “Definitely True” or “Probably True”?) _______Of these circled, how many are still true for me? _______
Many people have had at least one trauma in their lives and many more have had traumas that are not listed on this assessment. As stated, this is just an early assessment that can offer a lot of information about how someone has experienced trauma and if they also had any resilient factors in their lives.
Trauma, unprocessed, continues to affect us on a daily basis whether we know it or not. It affects how we think, feel, and respond in every situation of our lives because it has instilled beliefs in us about ourselves that are almost always negative. It affects how we live, love, and work. Trauma doesn’t go away because we think we ignore it. It doesn’t go away because we get older and more distance from it. We carry it around in our brains because the brain records everything and then it flings it out at us again and again.
If you have unprocessed trauma, I highly encourage you to find a counselor to talk about it and process through it. Doing so could make all the difference in your life.