Courage : Telling your story with all of your heart by Alice Ho Tan
We were just signing off our session, confirming the date and time for the next session when my client - CC - made an offhand remark - “Wow - I never knew that what I had was trauma”.
With CC’s permission, I am sharing a bit of her context. CC came to me because she felt completely unmotivated, seemingly unable to feel joy, at the age of 40-something - feels only beholden to care-giving duties and nothing else. However, she is faced with a life-changing decision regarding her marriage - and she needed to make a decision.
CC’s family of origin is a tightly-knitted and financially comfortable Asian family. She comes from a family where her parents are loving and her relationship with her siblings are strong. She does not fit into the profile of someone who has a traumatic childhood. Yet her lack of motivation for joy or action suggests that she had experienced unresolved small “t”s - small traumas in her life that have caused a cumulative effect of helplessness, which she emotionally felt as apathy and joylessness.
When CC presented her issues to me - the first thing that popped into my head in terms of her psycho-neurological state is “she’s frozen”. Her autonomic nervous system had suffered a shock somewhere along her life story and her “fight/flight/freeze” mode is activated to the “freeze” function. It suggested to me that her default way of coping with negative emotions was to suppress them or to rationalise them away. For CC, her emotional brain remembers the effects of the small traumas but had no way of making meaning out of them and therefore whenever she feels triggered, her emotional brain switches to survival mode of freezing - without learning to effectively process, adapt and master the negative emotions.
CC is not alone. So many of us carry the unaware, but felt, negative emotions of small traumas. These accumulated emotional stress are sometimes felt in our physiological systems as gastrointestinal distress, headaches, migraines, body aches and other autoimmune dysfunction. Emotionally - we find ourselves easily triggered without an understanding of why we had reacted to what in hindsight - did not seem to merit such a reaction.
I have found relief when I was training to be an EMDR practitioner, and Dr Laurel Parnell started our training with helping us understand the differences between Big Traumas and Small Traumas.
Big Ts and Small Ts - Big Traumas, Small Traumas
One of the best explanation for easy reading, I have found for Small “Ts” and Big “Ts” is taken from Psychology Today’s website: https://www.psychologytoday.com/sg/blog/trauma-and-hope/201703/different-types-trauma-small-t-versus-large-t
I’ll quote the salient points from the article :
“Small ‘t’ traumas are events that exceed our capacity to cope and cause a disruption in emotional functioning. Small ‘t’ traumas tend to be overlooked by the individual who has experienced the difficulty…
This is sometimes due to the tendency to rationalize the experience as common and therefore cognitively shame oneself for any reaction that could be construed as an overreaction or being “dramatic.”...
...One of the most overlooked aspects of small ‘t’ traumas is their accumulated effect. While one small ‘t’ trauma may not lead to significant distress, multiple compounded small ‘t’ traumas, particularly in a short span of time, are more likely to lead to an increase in distress and trouble with emotional functioning.
Large-T trauma is distinguished as an extraordinary and significant event that leaves the individual feeling powerless and possessing little control in their environment...Large ‘T’ traumas are more readily identified by the experiencer, as well as those who have any familiarity with their plight.
The good news I have found for myself and my clients is that when we engage in creating and devoting space to our psychological health - we empower ourselves with self-knowledge and self-agency.
My clients inspire hope and respect in me. It takes courage to go on this journey of self-discovery. The Latin root for “Courage” is “Cor” which means “heart”. I would like to think that my clients can find in our time together a safe therapeutic space, to tell their stories with all of their hearts - and in so doing - honour their strengths and offer compassion to their weaknesses.
I’ll end with a quote from Brene Brown:
“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen...Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
By ALICE HO TAN