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Trauma and Personal Narratives: The World

Posted on May 6, 2016

Thus far, we have examined the impact of trauma on the client’s story of self and relationships. The final step in fully appreciating the impact of trauma on an individual is to understand how that trauma impacts their story of the world. To build upon the previous posts in this series, the client feels like they are unworthy, unsafe, and lack the volition to change their situations. Relationships often become dominated by the need to survive and, due to past trauma at the hands of others, the client is often left feeling intensely fearful or victimized in their relationships with other people.

This narrative plays out in a world that is filled with darkness and pain, a world where there is little hope for the client to escape this reality. Survival becomes the main activity and motivator in this world where so many things threaten to destroy the client. The high levels of stress and the constant threat of experiencing yet another trauma can become a life filed with hardships, letdowns, and pain. Seen in this light (or darkness), even the best program, most empathetic helpers, or most positive new opportunity can seem like a danger and just another chance for failure and disappointment.

In my trainings, I have come to describe this reality as an abyss. Joseph Campbell saw the abyss in mythology as spiritual and emotional death. To me, spiritual death is a disconnection from spirit. This can be the “Higher Power” in 12 step groups, the inability to feel anything deeper than the basic need to survive, or the disconnection from spiritual meaning that one draws from religion or other spiritual practices.

Emotional death to me is disconnection from one’s self. The lack of volition or power to control one’s own behavior or life can make the client feel like they have “lost their mind.” If mind is the ability to strategically and mindfully react to challenges, this statement might be perfectly on target. We know that trauma damages the part of the brain that allows one to control reactions and make different choices from those made in the past. A world without the ability to control self or circumstance is a world of darkness and trauma.

Google Dictionary adds two further definitions of the abyss. First is: “The region of hell conceived as a bottomless pit.” I see this as a perfect description of the countless struggles and failures experienced by clients in their attempts to find some success in their lives. As failures add up – from struggles in school to difficulty holding employment, from being kicked out of programs to being labeled as a “problem” in their communities – this bombards the client with never ending reminders that they are falling short of the life they want to live and the security they so desperately need.

I also find the second Google Dictionary definition of the abyss very meaningful to this topic: “A wide or profound difference between people.” Most clients, consciously or unconsciously, know they need to connect with other people in a different way in order to change their lives and situations. But, as mentioned in previous posts about trauma’s impact on relationships, their past experiences with others make their attempts to connect incredibly stressful, if not retraumatizing. This “wide and profound difference” isolates the client, disconnecting them even further from the people they need to help them heal and access the resources that they need in order to live the life they want to live.

Unfortunately, the narrative of the world is hard to change, especially if clients continue to feel stigmatized and put down in the communities in which they live. Several times in my life, I have had my worldview rocked and crumble. Science challenged the religious teachings of my youth, existentialism was destroyed by the realization that people I was serving were not in existential crises, they were just trying to survive, and quantum physics destroyed pretty much every conceptualization of how the world works. I was successfully able to make these shifts because I had so many positive people and opportunities in my life.

For those who have to survive the world, changing a worldview can feel incredibly threatening. This worldview has allowed them to survive to this point. Starting to see themselves, others, and the world in a new more positive light takes away what has worked (at least to keep them alive) in the past. Changing the client’s narrative is critical for transformation to occur.

In the next few weeks, we’ll examine approaches that can provide opportunities for clients to tell their stories and how we can help them change the story of self, relationships, and the world. To introduce this shift from suffering to healing, I would love to hear any efforts you are implementing to help people regain and rewrite narratives.

20 responses to “Trauma and Personal Narratives: The World”

  1. Thank you for such thoughtful mumblings! I appreciate the format and content. Learning a lot!

  2. Thank you for such thoughtful mumblings! I appreciate the format and content. Learning a lot!

  3. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    Many scientists, in considering the relationship of science and religion, find concurrence with the two; that is to say, the wonder of the world, of creation, agrees with accounts of the Holy Scriptures, to speak of them. Judeo-Christian writings encourage Reason with Faith; skeptics promote untenable theories supported by propaganda. The power of love is evident. Jesus, after claiming to be the light of the world, said that His disciples were the light of the world. Humans share the divine. Each person possesses some if Its characteristics, and the abyss can thus be transformed–even from the depths.

  4. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    Many scientists, in considering the relationship of science and religion, find concurrence with the two; that is to say, the wonder of the world, of creation, agrees with accounts of the Holy Scriptures, to speak of them. Judeo-Christian writings encourage Reason with Faith; skeptics promote untenable theories supported by propaganda. The power of love is evident. Jesus, after claiming to be the light of the world, said that His disciples were the light of the world. Humans share the divine. Each person possesses some if Its characteristics, and the abyss can thus be transformed–even from the depths.

  5. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    For some, there may be examples and experiences of Good. Focusing on these ease a transition to recovery. We learn that “love covers a multitude of sins,” an encouragement for change and action. We learn that “love casts out fear,” a preferable alternative and image to count on and rely on for direction. Looking for the “light of the world” in others may also be helpful and more healthy than looking for the “hell” in others, to recall Sartre’s “l’enfer c’est l’autre.” (“Hell is the other.”)

  6. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    For some, there may be examples and experiences of Good. Focusing on these ease a transition to recovery. We learn that “love covers a multitude of sins,” an encouragement for change and action. We learn that “love casts out fear,” a preferable alternative and image to count on and rely on for direction. Looking for the “light of the world” in others may also be helpful and more healthy than looking for the “hell” in others, to recall Sartre’s “l’enfer c’est l’autre.” (“Hell is the other.”)

  7. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    The apostle Paul wrote of “the renewing of our minds.” Learning and transformation, therefore, are welcome and sought and expected and possible. New words and new experiences may help bring on recovery, hope, joy, fulfillment and power.

  8. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    The apostle Paul wrote of “the renewing of our minds.” Learning and transformation, therefore, are welcome and sought and expected and possible. New words and new experiences may help bring on recovery, hope, joy, fulfillment and power.

  9. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    In history, the French priest of the Enlightenment, Nicolas de Malebranche, should be given credit for promoting Faith with Reason. He was one of the eminent figures of that period, during which many thinkers sought to degrade religious belief.

  10. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    In history, the French priest of the Enlightenment, Nicolas de Malebranche, should be given credit for promoting Faith with Reason. He was one of the eminent figures of that period, during which many thinkers sought to degrade religious belief.

  11. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    Writing a book has been helpful to me, and hopefully will help others develop another Weltanschaung, one that is more bright in an age of shadow.

  12. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    Writing a book has been helpful to me, and hopefully will help others develop another Weltanschaung, one that is more bright in an age of shadow.

  13. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    My book project is to uncover the impediments in my own situation (homelessnes and poverty), and it may help othes. Malebranche is one of my discoveries on the way out of the abyss. He, too, was impeded, as I am. He was censored by the Church, which he butressed with his reasoning; so, the Church was, as probably today, infiltrated by its own enemies. The priest wrote of liberty in an age of slavery and the mercantile trade; of the equality of the sexes; of the divine quality of the Word. He criticized some important philosophers for their errors. The Bible reads: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The degradation of language–even in the reputable media outlets–is meant to erase the Divine. So, I feel impelled to join Malebranche in the search for truth, to which he was dedicated. Right words bring healing and change.

  14. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    My book project is to uncover the impediments in my own situation (homelessnes and poverty), and it may help othes. Malebranche is one of my discoveries on the way out of the abyss. He, too, was impeded, as I am. He was censored by the Church, which he butressed with his reasoning; so, the Church was, as probably today, infiltrated by its own enemies. The priest wrote of liberty in an age of slavery and the mercantile trade; of the equality of the sexes; of the divine quality of the Word. He criticized some important philosophers for their errors. The Bible reads: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The degradation of language–even in the reputable media outlets–is meant to erase the Divine. So, I feel impelled to join Malebranche in the search for truth, to which he was dedicated. Right words bring healing and change.

  15. Randy Hylton says:

    Great stuff, as always, Matt. One practice I’ve come into contact with – and have begun to support – is the utilization of poetry, or storytelling, by traumatized youth. In our community we have a gifted teacher who is working with adolescents in schools, the juvenile justice system and other venues and empowering them to work through their own narratives and then to express them in a creative way. As they move through the program, they are ultimately encouraged to present their stories publicly. At a recent trauma training, I invited the group to come in and present and the stories were as impacting as any I have heard. These kids expressed – through remarkable inventiveness and courage – their own experience with rape, molestation, racism, interpersonal violence and suicide attempts. Powerful, sobering stuff that I believe is transformative for them.

    • Matt says:

      Thanks so much Randy. You really saw where I was going on this topic. I have seen the power when you give people a structure and artistic medium to express themselves. The power and wisdom that results blows me away. Thanks my friend, Matt

  16. Randy Hylton says:

    Great stuff, as always, Matt. One practice I’ve come into contact with – and have begun to support – is the utilization of poetry, or storytelling, by traumatized youth. In our community we have a gifted teacher who is working with adolescents in schools, the juvenile justice system and other venues and empowering them to work through their own narratives and then to express them in a creative way. As they move through the program, they are ultimately encouraged to present their stories publicly. At a recent trauma training, I invited the group to come in and present and the stories were as impacting as any I have heard. These kids expressed – through remarkable inventiveness and courage – their own experience with rape, molestation, racism, interpersonal violence and suicide attempts. Powerful, sobering stuff that I believe is transformative for them.

    • Matt says:

      Thanks so much Randy. You really saw where I was going on this topic. I have seen the power when you give people a structure and artistic medium to express themselves. The power and wisdom that results blows me away. Thanks my friend, Matt

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