My clients aren’t running around town wearing “I’m a trauma survivor” t-shirts.
Of course they aren’t. Who wants to announce that bad things happened to them? No one!
And yet, unfortunately, many live with the aftereffects of trauma every day and don’t know it.
Trauma is what happens to your nervous system after you’ve felt unsafe and scared, and powerless to escape or protect yourself.
If a person can’t eventually resolve that sense of danger, that person’s nervous system is likely to change. There’s some part that always remains on alert and afraid.
You may not even be aware that part of you is always striving to protect you. But this altered state can impact every choice you make and even how you look at the world and show up in everyday life and relationships.
Most trauma survivors struggle or don’t want to admit or own this identity, let alone wear it proudly.
But let’s explore what healing could be possible if more people impacted by trauma did identify with this term.
The power of recognizing trauma for trauma survivors
Many trauma survivors feel low self-worth. They can be harshly self-critical, and short on self-compassion. They’re quick to believe there is something wrong with them, or that they have done something wrong to make life hard, and make terrible things happen in their world. They may think they’re defective. They don’t usually see that the problems started with what happened to them.
So right now, telling yourself “I’m a trauma survivor” may seem too hard to handle. Who wants to believe that horrific time happened at all, let alone that it still impacts you – and that everyday life is still so difficult?
As hard as it may seem, owning what happened to you can actually be healing. Learning what it means to survive trauma can become an empowering moment in your life.
What if you could believe that whatever behaviors you do to cope are a result of what happened to you?
What do you think about the words “trauma survivor”? How do they make you feel?
Why people don’t like to acknowledge trauma
You might be thinking, “Sure, life has been hard, but I’m not a trauma survivor.”
Most people don’t want to believe they’re a trauma survivor.
But trauma happens. It’s very common. About 70% of US adults have lived through at least 1 traumatic experience (Source: National Council for Behavioral Health), and that is only what is reported!
Some children who experienced abuse at the hands of their caregivers repeatedly in childhood, were taught to keep secrets and not to name their feelings. These are survivors of complex developmental or relational trauma.
No one wants to know that they experienced abuse or neglect at the hands of their caregivers! No one wants to believe they are different from others—not in this way!
If you’ve experienced trauma, you may have figured out how to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and be “strong and tough.” Seeing yourself as a trauma survivor may feel like something to be ashamed of – a weakness or a sign you’re living in the past.
Likewise, most people don’t like the word, “victim.” They believe there’s very little power in it. Often, sexual assault survivors are referred to as victims of sexual assault.
If you are a trauma survivor, you were, in fact, victimized—and the behavior that followed was key to your survival.
Victims become survivors. Yet victims of trauma often don’t realize or acknowledge something bad happened to them. Victims of sexual assault didn’t choose it – they were victimized by their perpetrator.
Can we see terms like victim and survivor as a reflection of how much a person had to overcome?
Trauma survivors have had to overcome a lot. They have to learn how to survive or escape hard life circumstances and figure out how to move on and live with all the fear, overwhelm and sense of danger inside, and then grow from there.
I think the confusion and negative stigma around these terms come from the idea that you did something wrong to make this bad thing happen to you. You did NOT!
What if your survival was something to celebrate?
Rethinking what surviving trauma means
Let’s challenge negative ideas about trauma for a second…
Trauma is what happened TO you. Whether you were a child living with your perpetrator—whether it was a parent, family member, member of clergy, drunk friend, babysitter or manipulative person – anyone—how could their actions possibly be your fault?
Maybe you were told to keep it a secret. Maybe someone told you nobody would believe you. Maybe you were told your feelings were wrong. Maybe you were told it was your fault. But it wasn’t. It can be hard to see the truth—that it wasn’t your fault—so let me ask you this:
If your best friend told you this story—as if what happened to you had happened to them—how would you respond?
Would you say, “Yes, that was all your fault!” Or would you be able to see that they were victims in the situation? Would you be able to have compassion for them? Of course you would!
Whatever term we use, being a victim of trauma is never your fault!
Trauma is not what’s wrong with you. It’s what happened to you. Therefore, the current behaviors that you use to help you cope with life make sense given your history. This is the foundation of trauma-informed care.
It’s okay to refuse a label
“Fine, but I still don’t have to call myself a trauma survivor.”
You absolutely don’t.
I wonder, where does the unwillingness come from? Does it come from the part of you that doesn’t want to rock the boat? The part of you that somehow still believes it was your fault? (It wasn’t!)
Pushback against this term might come from the protective parts of yourself that don’t want to believe that your childhood wasn’t picture-perfect.
Your experience can be traumatic even if someone more powerful didn’t mean to inflict trauma on you. Just because someone was trying to do better, or also had some redeeming qualities, doesn’t mean their actions didn’t hurt or neglect your needs.
Remember, all trauma is trauma
You might not think you are a trauma survivor because you didn’t experience physical abuse. But emotional trauma is as impactful as physical trauma. Neglect and attachment trauma are trauma too! (This is why using terms like Big T and Little T can be a mistake.) All trauma is trauma.
A trauma-informed definition of trauma survivor
You are a trauma SURVIVOR.
If you have survived trauma (in any form), you are literally a survivor of trauma. It’s not all you are, but it’s a part of you. Like a cancer survivor, I believe it’s something to be PROUD of! You made it through something hard and awful!
My clients who are trauma survivors are strong, amazing and brilliant. They learned incredibly creative tools (like dissociation) and other coping mechanisms to keep themselves alive and safe. And beyond that, they are in therapy doing hard work to create fulfilling lives for themselves! They are warriors. And if you’re here reading this, you are a warrior too.
It takes courage to own trauma!
I recently read an astounding and inspiring memoir, I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope, by Chessy Prout and Jen Abelson. It’s Chessy Prout’s account of surviving sexual assault in high school.
Being a survivor doesn’t come easily. Prout had to work hard. As did you. In the same way you’d practice and work hard to run a marathon, you had to practice and work hard to be a trauma survivor.
Running a marathon doesn’t come easily, just like healing from trauma doesn’t come easily. And like a marathon, healing from trauma takes time. (It’s a marathon, not a sprint, after all.)
No matter how far along you are on the journey—you survived trauma. And as a trauma survivor, you may work every day to thrive. This is formidable, honorable work.
Knowing you’re a trauma survivor is a salute to your healing.
It makes you a graduate of trauma.
So wouldn’t it be amazing if you could own “trauma survivor” loud and proud? The same way you’d say, “I ran a marathon!”
It takes courage and vulnerability to own the term trauma survivor. And, you are strong enough to be vulnerable!
Trauma survivors: There is hope and healing
You don’t have to wear a t-shirt or shout it from the rooftops, but when you can own that you’re a survivor—a trauma survivor, even to yourself—then you can own your present and your future.
This authenticity and vulnerability will help you to embrace all that you have overcome. It can allow you to be present for the healthy relationships you have now. It can help you continue to deepen connections and heal.
I encourage you to reconsider the term “trauma survivor” and try it on for size. Because there is a lot of power in it.
A trauma-informed therapist can help. If you’re a potential new client, please contact/email me for care.
- How to Build Resilience as a Trauma Survivor
- You Can Reduce the Stress You’re Feeling Right Now!
- Feelings: The Other F-Word for Trauma Survivors
- Uncomfortable with Compliments? Why Being Able to Take In Kind Words Is So Important
- How People Heal From Trauma, Thanks to Helpers
- Why You Need a Trauma-Informed Therapist, Even if You Don’t Think You Have TRAUMA
- 9 Signs You Need Better Self-Care and May Be a Trauma Survivor
- Dissociation: How People Cope with Trauma They Want to Forget
- What Is Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, from the CPTSD Foundation
- What Is CPTSD? from BeautyAfterBruises.org
- Dr. Jonice Webb
- CPTSD Foundation: https://cptsdfoundation.org/
- Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors by Janina Fisher (book)