Trauma and our identity sticky labels
People suffering anxiety and depression often attend clinic with symptoms that can only be described as ‘post traumatic stress disorder’ – or PTSD. Somewhere in their history, an event, or series of events occurred which have traumatised them. These events can have lasting impacts on how people see themselves, and the labels that they absorb.
Victims of trauma often develop views about themselves in the circumstance, which become rigidly fixed as labels. These labels become shorthand ways of explaining their experience, and often can serve to lock them in to ongoing suffering, rather than freeing them from it.
Consider someone who comes to clinic and says “I am a victim”. All of a sudden the label of their experience becomes part of their identity. Although it can be true that they were a victim, they have also been, and still are, so much more than that.
When people use labels as identity statements, they can make their position more rigid, and locks in beliefs, meanings and power positions that simply keep them stuck.
It is true that a person experienced a traumatic event (or series of events). However, by labeling this as being the ‘victim’, we shift from describing a terrible circumstance, to pigeonholing the person.
More than anything, the way to restore hope and begin the process of recovery is to understand that a past event is simply a past event, and not something which creates or changes our inherent identity. We can still be ‘Fred, who experienced….’ Rather than “I am Fred the victim of”. The first one describes something that happened, and the second describes something that still continues.
Whilst it can be only part of the process of gaining resolution, taking the step to separate what happened from your identity is crucial. Otherwise, even though it ended some time ago, the event (or the people responsible for the event) can continue to exert influence over us in the present.
Often, when I suggest to someone that they are still allowing that person or ‘thing’ to reach into their current lives from the past and impact them, clients realise how it might now be time to break these bonds, and stop being powerless to things in the past.
Moving beyond the label is often critical in restoring hope. If we understand that it was not ‘us’ or that we are now stuck as a role player (“Victim”, “Sufferer”), then we can have hope that we can create the future, and our identity, on our terms separate to the event. By realising that we are so much more that the trauma, the label or the experience, we can define many positive aspects of ourselves, and our resources, that we should amplify instead.
Although I am not a ‘fan’ of the term, imagine how someone calling themselves a ‘survivor’ compares to calling themselves a ‘victim’. [I still don’t like the term ‘survivor’, as it suggests a powerlessness which then also attaches to a person’s identity picture].
The labels are always less than the complete person. Whilst they can be useful for some people to normalise their experience (and have a common role with others who experienced similar things), labels and roles are overall a poor reflection on the true capability of the individual.
If you think of a traumatic experience, what labels do you associate with your experience?
• How do they keep you stuck?
• How do they empower you?
It can be useful from an appropriate distance, and with appropriate clinical help, to review the role we believed we played in the event, and what that means to our own identity description. What if, instead of assuming that role is correct, we can see it as something we experienced, coped with, and learned from?Something which does not invite a label, only compassion, understanding and learning?
If we do that we can stand back and see how the best revenge upon terrible experiences in the past is to leave it behind and create a brilliant, different, future.
If you want to discuss how you can move beyond your trauma, and start the process of creating the life you want beyond that, then please drop me a line.