Does my trauma count? I hear this question a lot when I’m working with folks in therapy and when I describe to people what I do for a living. When people hear the word “trauma,” they immediately think of the kind of traumatic events that we hear about in the news. However, I think of trauma much broadly than the kind of stuff we hear about on television.
Experiences that are traumatic are less about the “what” and more about the “how” of the experience. It’s those times that keep replaying and replaying in your head: the ones that impact the way you see the world, your sense of safety. Trauma usually involves your sense of control or power being taken away in the moment. When this happens, it is difficult to reconcile the world with the way it was before the event (or series of events) happened and the way it is now.
Sometimes it helps to think about trauma in terms of big T trauma and little t trauma. Both types overwhelm your ability to cope but to varying degrees. And what you define as little t, I might define as big T trauma. That’s okay. The thing about trauma is that you don’t need to take out a measuring stick and determine if what happened counts as a traumatic event or not. Plenty of things can fall into the small t type of trauma category and still lead to feelings that I described above.
It can also be confusing because what is traumatic for one person might not be traumatic for another person. You might be thinking “Wait a minute Courtney, doesn’t this mean that everyone has experienced trauma? Why doesn’t everyone need therapy for it, then?” Again, it’s less about what they experienced and more about how they perceive their world after the experience. If you are feeling anxious, upset, or worried in ways that are difficult to control, seeing a therapist can be a great step to finding a resolution. It’s often difficult to muddle through these experiences on your own without ending up in those same feelings of overwhelm that you felt in the moment. By working with a therapist, you can find a safe space to work through your experience in a way that feels more tolerable-no matter what that experience was.
You may also find yourself comparing your suffering to someone else’s suffering and thinking “Well, at least what happened to me wasn’t as bad as what happened to this other person.” or “Who am I to say I’m suffering when there are people in war-torn countries whose experiences are worse than what I went through.” It’s true that there are a lot of people experiencing big T trauma in the world right now, but minimizing your experience probably won’t lead to feeling much better about it. We all experience suffering, to different degrees, but you can choose to find ways to suffer less (even when your privilege maybe affords you less suffering than other people). I mean who wouldn’t want to suffer less? I’m pretty sure those folks in war-torn countries wouldn’t want you to continue suffering if you could do something about it.
All reasons are okay reasons to seek help. If you need permission to let yourself admit that whatever happened, big or small, is enough to seek help, I’m here to say it’s okay to seek help. It’s also okay if the word “trauma” still doesn’t resonate with you. We can find another way to describe your experience.
Worrying about whether your trauma “counts” can get in the way of seeking help. It takes courage to decide to call a therapist, and it can feel pretty vulnerable. Vulnerability is hard! It can be scary because you don’t know how the other person will react. However, taking this risk can also lead to great growth. When you find a safe, compassionate space to revisit what happened without that feeling overwhelmed, you might notice that it’s easier to make sense of what happened. It’s my hope that by letting your trauma count that you are able to be a little bit more compassionate with yourself and that leads to you finding a greater sense of well-being in your life.