How Subtle Trauma Can Secretly Rule Our Lives

Woman looking depressed

Even the smallest childhood traumas can strongly influence our adult lives. We tend to think of early trauma as violence, sexual abuse, neglect and loss, or as something caused by major catastrophes, crimes or accidents. There are many different levels of overt trauma, but there is also a kind of trauma that is so subtle we barely know it exists. 

Subtle trauma can come in the form of being ignored as a child, overlooked or overshadowed by a sibling, and from countless situations where basic emotional and psychological needs weren’t met. It often goes unrecognized because the scars are not obvious or we accept it as “the way things are.” However, trauma is something that occurs when normal needs, such as love, acceptance, affection, food on the table, or having a parent around, are not met. These less dramatic events can cause cumulative trauma from repeated exposure.

Because we don’t usually see those buried parts of childhood as “traumatic” they come out sideways in adulthood — as eating disorders, addictions, affairs, compulsive gambling and other maladaptive behaviors.

The Anatomy of Subtle Trauma

  1. It begins with an experience. Subtle trauma occurs when we expect something to go a certain way, and have good reason to assume it will, yet it falls outside of our realistic expectations or how we perceived things should be. It may be: Dad didn’t pay enough attention to me or mom didn’t have time for me. Even if that wasn’t really the case, if that was the perception it becomes real to a child.
  2. We try to make sense of it. Alongside the trauma comes the meaning we make of it. We all want to make sense of what happens so we create story lines. Sometimes these are not only negative, but they can be false and not based on reality. Instead, they’re based on a misperception or a misunderstanding.

For example, if a child expects dad to be there and give them his full attention, and their experience goes outside what they expect, it can become a traumatic event. If that happens enough in a child’s life, they may start creating story lines for why dad doesn’t have enough time for them. Maybe I’m not worth it. Maybe I’m not loved. Maybe there’s something wrong with me.

  1. Cognitive dissonance takes over. As children, we don’t know the real story behind parents’ actions so we fill in the blanks. If something was wrong with me, then it would make sense my Dad wouldn’t have time for me.
  2. Our stories become self-fulfilling prophecies. If we dig down deep into childhood trauma we can often see what has led to our addictions and other destructive behaviors. Running like tickertape beneath the surface, these story lines from childhood formulate who we are in the world and what we believe we are worth.

Uncovering the Truth About Trauma

Unrecognized and untreated trauma can manifest as depression and anxiety. But it can also drive us to adapted behaviors and coping skills. For example, if a child can only get their father’s attention by studying hard, then they may excel at school, pursue higher education and become a successful professional. The person might build their life in response to what they learned early on about what makes them valuable.

We don’t even realize the full extent of how our adult lives are influenced by the traumas of childhood, but we know it’s important to identify trauma and how it has played a role. Here are a few ways to begin developing this awareness:

  • Recognize you have trauma. Although you may not have experienced a large-scale traumatic event, subtle trauma has an impact. Most people have experienced a traumatic event that was very hurtful and still plays an important part in their lives.
  • Gently look at the possible impact. There’s something about what we do and who we are that is wedded to that experience as a child. Explore how experiences of early life may be manifesting in adult life, in both adaptive and maladaptive ways.
  • Name it. It helps to name it and call it out under the light. We can’t deal with trauma if we don’t acknowledge that it’s there. Part of healing is recognizing that you did experience trauma, even if it seems insignificant.
  • Work toward forgiveness. The people who brought subtle traumas to our lives did the best they could with the tools they had at the time, which might not have been adequate. And they were bumping up against their own subtle (or not-so-subtle) trauma. They likely didn’t intend to hurt us. But even if they did, we are no longer victims and can react differently today and make different choices.

Because we bury subtle traumas deep down, it may take some work to bring them to the surface. Once we do, we can often identify ways in which we’ve designed our lives around our trauma. Knowing this puts the power back in our hands and enhances our ability to move beyond the past and build a better future.

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