Nancy Colier
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Trauma is Not A Bad Date or Discontinued Starbucks Drink

teenager recently told me she experienced “trauma” because a friend gave her a dirty look. I’ve heard other young people use the word “trauma” to describe not being invited to a party or a parent yelling at them for playing hooky or being asked to redo a school assignment. A demanding boss, a bad date, a discontinued Starbucks drink, getting caught in the rain, a Soul Cycle teacher switching studios—I’ve heard it all described as “trauma.”

As a mom, I talk to a lot of young people: middle schoolers, teens, and 20-somethings. As a psychotherapist, I also speak with a lot of adults. These conversations make it clear to me that the term “trauma” has entered the cultural conversation and made its way into everyday speech. It’s now part of our mindset, a way of describing and thinking about our lives. The frequency and casualness with which we now claim to have experienced “trauma” is disturbing.

According to the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), trauma is defined as occurring when a person is exposed “to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence” (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013). Although, in truth, psychological trauma can occur in any highly stressful, frightening, or distressing event or series of events—a situation in which the distress, fear, or shock associated with what’s happening overwhelms the person’s capacity to digest or process it emotionally.

Real trauma is a devastating, painful, and life-changing experience. There’s nothing light or desirable about trauma, and the fact that we’re talking about, acknowledging, and addressing the epidemic of trauma that exists in our society, awarding it with the seriousness it deserves, and developing new treatments is a remarkably positive step in our evolution.

Some might argue that any attention to the topic is a good thing. And yet, there’s also a shadow side to the term “trauma” going viral and a danger to the way we’re applying the idea of trauma to our lives.

At the most basic level, the popularization of the term “trauma” undermines and invalidates the suffering of those who have experienced real trauma. Placing our discomfort and daily life irritations on the same playing field with the suffering of someone who’s lived through terrifying, violating, or life-threatening events is absurd, disrespectful, and even unkind.

So, too, when we name an experience “trauma,” we’re saying that it shouldn’t be happening to us, which breeds an attitude of entitlement. When reality shows up in its uncomfortable forms, we feel personally punished. Trauma, as a pop-culture term, encourages an attitude of poor me and its underlying belief that “I should only have to experience the parts of life I like.”

But why shouldn’t disagreeable things happen to us? Are we too special, too fragile, or too whatever to have to experience life as it is?

Opening the floodgates for what’s considered “trauma” perpetuates a delusional perspective, the belief that a good life ought not to contain difficulty and should always be to our liking and, of course, Instagram-ready. Life’s irritations framed as “traumas” suggest that reality should always be pleasant if we’re doing it right and getting what we deserve. Consequently, when we experience life’s undesirable parts, we’re less willing to work with them, to use them as opportunities to become more resilient. We stay stuck in victim mode, clinging to our conviction that our experience shouldn’t be this. And yet it is.

Instead of stamping our feet like toddlers, demanding that life be what we want, insisting that we’re always entitled to be comfortable, we’re better off simply offering ourselves compassion for life’s unavoidable disagreeableness and supporting ourselves through the whole miracle and catastrophe that is a normal life. Seeing and claiming “trauma” everywhere we look won’t bring us relief. Relief, paradoxically, arrives when we give up our fight with reality and relax with life on life’s terms (which doesn’t mean we always enjoy it).

Then, we can turn our attention to making use of life’s “life-ness” to grow stronger, wiser, and, ultimately, happier.

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