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The Gifts Of Coming From A Trauma Background.

The Gifts Of Coming From A Trauma Background. | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

The other Saturday morning, in a 15-minute window between my coffee kicking in and my daughter waking up, I wrote a quick little post on my business Facebook page, mostly to personally process what I went to bed thinking about and what I woke up reflecting on.

This little post – the content of which I’ll share later in the PS of this blog – went a bit viral. 

It attracted over 1.7K likes and over 700 shares quite quickly. 

It generated nearly 400 comments. 

The Gifts Of Coming From A Trauma Background. | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

The Gifts Of Coming From A Trauma Background.

It struck a nerve. It resonated. 

The topic? 

On the surface, it’s about why I don’t feel particularly panicked about COVID-19.

If you read on, if you read between the lines, the reason why, the Trojan Horse message is this: it’s about how we, as trauma survivors, have gifts, treasures inside of us. 

Hard- and well-earned from our many trying experiences and how sometimes, these gifts serve us incredibly well. 

Like helping us keep calm in the midst of a global storm.

I realized over the week as I watched the post get more and more traction, that this – speaking to and highlighting the positive, the potentiality of our often negatively and sometimes tragically viewed trauma histories – is uncommon. 

But it’s incredibly important to talk about.

Today, I want to explore this more with you. 

I want to go inside the proverbial cave and unearth the gifts, the treasures, that coming from a trauma background may hold. 

I want to explore spaces and parts of this experience that often don’t get the attention that they deserve. 

I want to paint a richer, more complex picture of what it might mean to come from a trauma background.

Coming from a trauma background is both/and, not either/or.

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.  – Leonard Cohen

Like with so many things in life, coming from a trauma background is not either/or, it’s both/and.

What do I mean by this?

Much has, very importantly, been written about the consequences of coming from a trauma background. 

We know through decades of studies and rigorous clinical work that coming from a trauma background, particularly a childhood trauma background, can adversely affect an individual on physiological and psychological levels.

I’ve written extensively about the adverse effects and impact of trauma – particularly complex relational trauma – before on my blog archive category: Healing Childhood Trauma.

My life’s work is oriented towards helping people overcome these adverse impacts of coming from a trauma background so in no way do I want to underestimate, minimize, or make light of the far-reaching effects that coming from a trauma history can have.

But at the same time, I do want to acknowledge that, hand in hand alongside these trauma-informed challenges, there may also be gifts. 

I deeply believe that when and if we turn towards, face, process, grieve, heal, and make sense of our trauma, what may have felt like a lifelong muddy heavy burden can sometimes or often look like and feel like glittering, golden treasure.

The very things that made us susceptible to trauma, or the very things that trauma caused within us and to us, may, instead of becoming our Achilles heels, become our greatest advantages and gifts. 

Our secret weapons. 

Our superpowers.

In my Facebook post of the other morning (the full text of which you can find in the PS of this post), I spoke to some of the gifts I’m witnessing in myself as COVID-19 unfolds across the world: a sense of emotional and mental preparedness for such times, a nervous system familiar and comfortable with the level of chaos and uncertainty unfolding in the world, an absence of panic (not to be interpreted as an absence of appropriate gravity and concern), and a toolbox elaborate and rigorous enough to not only support myself but also to support others in very trying times.

My own trauma history historically endowed me with, to name a few things, anxiety, hypervigilance, a predisposition towards catastrophic thinking, and an increased need for psychological and physiological coping mechanisms, a tendency to prepare and consciously cultivated and frequently employed tools to stay connected and to tolerate being alone. 

Having done my own healing work now for almost two decades, I now no longer live with these trauma impacts being my default.

I have choice around them. I can regulate them. 

Because I’ve done my own healing work, the trauma impacts I live with don’t rule me. 

But the imprint of them is there, and I can call upon these ways of being and harness them when I need to. 

The impacts of my background, which caused so much distress for me earlier in life, make me now feel more equipped to deal with and face the scary and uncertain reality that COVID-19 brings.

My trauma impacts are not just bad and unproductive. They can be good and helpful, too. 

In this way, they are not either/or. They are both/and

This – this under-discussed topic of how our trauma backgrounds might actually have gifts for us (particularly in such challenging times as these!) is, I think, important to acknowledge.

So often, when we come from trauma backgrounds, we self-describe and others describe us with a kind of pitying, victim lens. 

Seeing only the downsides of what we went through and how it impacted us without acknowledging any possible strengths and gifts that also came from that experience.

Of course, it doesn’t feel good to be seen (by self or others) as a victim only endowed with weaknesses. 

It’s also not the full, true picture. 

Any of us who come from a background of trauma can claim both challenges and gifts from the impacts of this.

The next part of this post will help you find out what your gifts are, too. 

Getting to know your own gifts.

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.” – Mary Oliver

Let’s imagine you walk into a deep, sea-level cave, much like the one that’s featured as the photo of this post.

Let’s imagine that as you enter the cave and journey towards the back of the sloping rock walls, you see a wooden chest, strapped with brass, cracked open just a bit, something glimmering from within.

Step closer to the chest and lift the lid. 

Inside you see a pile of golden coins. Doubloons. Florins. Guineas. Ducs.

This pile of ancient golden coins is the treasure from your trauma background.

Each side of each coin contains both a challenge and a gift.

One proverbial coin may, on one side contain hypervigilance and a hyperaroused nervous system. 

The other side of the coin may contain preparedness, readiness.

Every attribute of your trauma impact has a twin characteristic that can be viewed as a positive, as a gift. 

It’s up to you to identify what your unique gifts, your treasures from your personal experience might look like. 

But make no mistake: they are there.

Here’s a sampling to catalyze your thinking, organized into one side of a proverbial coin and then the other, to help you better understand the possible coins in your proverbial treasure box:

  • Hypersensitivity: Emotional attunement to self and others, heightened intuition.
  • Anxiety/depression: Familiarity with and aptitude for these states and what we need in them. 
  • Emotional lability: A great capacity for feeling, for empathy.
  • Hypervigilance: Readiness, preparedness, a nervous system ready to counter what arrives.
  • A greater-than-average need for supports: Likely already adept at cultivating a robust toolbox of coping skills.
  • Hardship: Familiarity with and possible acclimation to living through difficult situations.
  • Relational distrust: An ability to tolerate withdrawal from relationships for safety and sanity.
  • Rigid routines: A greater understanding of yourself and what you need on a daily basis to cope.
  • Early pain and suffering: Awareness of and experience with what it is to be fully human.
  • Chaos: Adeptness with this state inside and out, an ability to find calm in the eye of the storm.
  • Catastrophic thinking: An ability to imagine into, to prepare for, to plan around.
  • Adversity: Resiliency.
  • Survival: Persevering.
  • Early loneliness: A learned ability to be without contact.
  • Neglect/abuse by caregivers: Not likely to be surprised when those in power let you down.
  • A history of instability: An increased ability to live in this state.
  • Ambiguous grief: Comfort and familiarity with abstract losses within us and outside of us.
  • Dysfunction and abuse: Appreciation and gratitude for normalcy and regular “small” things.
  • Coming from little: Resourcefulness.
  • Exposed to pain early on: More recognition of and capacity for confronting existential issues.

This list is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what kinds of treasures and gifts our histories may contain. 

I want you to think through a few questions to help you even better understand how your past, while painful, may have served you and be continuing to serve you well now:

  • What did your background equip you with that peers and friends of yours who came from more “normal”, non-traumatic backgrounds may not possess? 
  • When crisis and emergencies hit, how do you respond and what qualities of yours are called forth? Are these gifts from your trauma background?
  • What aspects of you, that once caused you pain, suffering or even derision, are sources of strength, power and even income generation for you now?
  • What comes so naturally to you that you don’t even think about it consciously, that you may not even recognize as an impact of your trauma history?
  • How have the gifts of your trauma background served you in the past? And how are the gifts of your trauma background serving you now in the time of COVID-19?

Take some time, imagine into the possibility that the very things you wish hadn’t happened, the very impacts of these things that did happen, are now serving you well.

What are the gifts from your own trauma background? 

What treasures did your past experiences endow you with?

I want to acknowledge that it might feel like a stretch for you to do this, to see what happened to you and the impacts it had on you as anything but negative. 

So if this exercise truly doesn’t feel supportive or possible, don’t push yourself. 

You are where you are, and that’s okay.

But if this imaginal exercise does feel helpful, fruitful, productive and empowering in any small way, lean into it. 

And please, let me know in the comments below, what you take away from this post. What your own personal gifts, your golden treasure coins from your own past experiences are. I’d love to hear from you.

Until the next post, stay well, stay healthy, and take such good care of yourself.

Warmly, Annie

 

PS: That Facebook Post:

I want to share something: I don’t feel panicked about COVID-19.

Now, this is not because I don’t grasp the gravity of the human life or the economic tolls.

It’s not because I’ve got my head in the sand, ignoring news and science.

It’s not because I’m existing in magical thinking, imaging all will be back to normal by Easter…

It’s because I had a chaotic and dysfunctional childhood.

For me, like so many of us raised in dysfunction, there may be a sense of familiarity right now.

When you grow up being unable to visualize a positive future for yourself, when you grow up used to and expecting the adults at the helm to fail you, when you grow up hypervigilant and possibly needing to guard against catastrophe and threat to your body and soul, this time in our history, this experience of COVID-19, may feel normative in some way.

So like I said, I don’t feel panicked by COVID-19.

I do feel appropriately concerned, but I also feel in a way, as Simon and Garfunkel presciently sang, “Hello Darkness my old friend…”

I feel like I’m in familiar territory.

Can you relate?

Does this experience feel at all vaguely, weirdly familiar to you?

You know, in a bizarre way, in a way I wouldn’t have wished on myself or on any other child-turned-adult, I feel particularly equipped for these times (especially since I’ve done decades of my own healing work to re-write what normal is and what my nervous system can expect).

I feel like a kind of a guide in a foreign country to a bunch of new visitors who have never been to my strange land.

“Hello friends, welcome. I know this is overwhelming and scary. Here are safe places to rest, here are things we locals do, here’s what you can expect, try not to stray down this path but if you do, here’s how to get back onto the main road. I’m here to help answer any questions you have.”

My writings, which are normally geared towards adult survivors of childhood abuse and adverse early beginnings, include psychoeducation on childhood trauma, yes, but also essays on self-soothing, pep talks for hard times, coping with depression and anxiety, fundamental self-care supports.

Google analytics with all its magic and mystery is telling me that these articles are being shared and read more widely than ever before.

Which, to me, says, that there’s a surge of tourism to my land.

So if you, like so many of my regular blog readers, are someone who comes from a background of child abuse, chaos, neglect, dysfunction and adversity, know that we locals now have many new visitors to our land then ever before.

Many, many people are feeling collectively traumatized and upended.

Millions are now feeling lost, at the mercy of, scared, and unsure.

They may experience, for the first time, what we grew up experiencing and what parts of us – deep down parts of us – still remember.

I’m saying this, not to celebrate how we might be particularly well-equipped (I think what’s also true is that trauma survivors can be particularly triggered right now – more on that in tomorrow’s blog post!) but rather to help normalize your experience if you, like me, haven’t been as panicked as you would imagine you would be.

If you – if any part of you – have felt a strange sense of calm and familiarity as COVID-19 has unfolded, if you’ve felt surprised by your response when you see so many different responses around you, please consider the possibility that the chaos and surreal gravity of what’s unfolding right now may be reminiscent of your childhood.

Don’t shame yourself for how you’re feeling.

Recognize that it makes sense you would be feeling this way given where you come from.

You and I have inhabited this land for a long time, and now there’s a surge in tourism.

We wouldn’t have wished it on anyone and yet here we are.

So what is there to do?

As ever, be kind to yourself. Be kind to others.

And please seek out those proverbial tour guides if you and they need extra support in your travels right now.

Medical Disclaimer

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  1. Amy Kane on  

    As a therapist and a human, I work and live in all of this. Thank you for your beautiful, eloquent words of truth.

    Quick story:
    My first day of my graduate program. I walk into the next first class, and I immediately notice that a woman is choking. There are probably 25 other people in the room, but it is still probably five minutes until the class begins, and they are all talking excitedly and huddled in small groups, and the woman who is choking is choking very quietly. I drop my belongings on the floor and hurry over to her. “Are you ok?” I ask. She shakes her head no. “Do you need me to get help?” I don’t know the heimlich , and am hating myself for this. She shakes her head no. “Can I get you a glass of water?” She nods yes and i race back to my backpack and grab my water bottle. I sit next to her, stroking her back while she takes small sips. Eventually, the choking calms and she is ok. I pick up my stuff and go sit down.
    Almost immediately, the professor walks over to me (did I mention that this was a Psychology program?) and leans over the table toward me. I assume she is going to. I don’t know, thank me? Congratulate me? Tell me it is against the law for a student to help another student who is choking without being a licensed chokologist?
    Instead, what she says, very quietly and very gently,is this:
    “ Have a little trauma in our background do we ?”

    This amazing woman (who died quite suddenly only a few months later), changed my life in many ways, but it began in this moment.
    It was the first time that I ever considered that my trauma had perhaps given me something that not a single other person in that room possessed. That my hypervigilance was also my Superpower.

    • Annie on  

      Amy, I got full-body goosebumps reading what you wrote. Your hypervigilance IS your superpower. And that day it sounds like you acted like a superhero helping that woman.

      Your story is a beautiful reframe of the benefits, the gifts, of hypervigilance, not only for ourselves but for others.

      Thank you so much for sharing. Warmly, Annie

  2. Sarah on  

    WOW! This article is SO VALIDATING!! You put into words what I have been feeling the past few weeks.
    Now I know I’m not alone and nothing is wrong with me for feeling calm during this worldwide pandemic. And nothing. is wrong with me for feeling calm when everyone else is struggling and needs inspiration.
    You also gave me the insight to to judge the ‘regular’ people of the world who are struggling.
    I have lots to think about after reading you blog and wold be happy to share (my journaling) while I process this more.

    Thank you Annie!

    • Annie on  

      Sarah, I would love to hear more about what you discovered through journaling! I’m so glad my words could feel even a little bit validating and normalizing. I truly hope that you and those you love are staying well and healthy right now. Warmly, Annie

  3. KS on  

    Thank you Annie. I too have felt strangely calm during this global pandemic. Amidst financial fears of my own and for many of my company’s employees. Fear for the healthy of my family. Adjusting to a completely new way of day to day living. And I keep thinking, “why am I not panicked like everyone else?” The truth is I am. But inside my body feels like “ok, we’ve been here before. We know we can take it.” The racing heart. The catastrophizing. The taking each day one at a time and expecting the worst and subconsciously preparing for it without fully even realizing it.

    I read an instagram post similar to this a few weeks ago and it was so validating. I felt guilty at first that I “should” be more panicked, more afraid, acting more like others I see hoarding food and toilet paper, posting hysteria on social media, complaining how depressed and lonely I am at home so much more. But I wasn’t. And I couldn’t make myself. And I felt guilty about that. Heartless even. And then that IG post reminded me this is just familiar territory for my nervous system. I’m built in some ways for a crisis. Every crisis a loved one experienced in my life, I’m always first in line to respond, help, soothe, roll up my sleeves and fix it somehow when everyone else is running around wondering what to do.

    It’s not something I love necessarily. But I can love it a little more when I recognize why. It is a powerful gift to offer to myself and others when we need someone to lean on in a time of upheaval. Thank you for acknowledging this for myself and others like us. We need this reminder when the ind believes we aren’t responding how we’re supposed to.

    • Annie on  

      KS, your post was so beautiful and really touched me. I’m so glad you could feel some validation from my words. I do think that some of our nervous systems are indeed, as you say, built for this, because they were forged and formed in our earlier adverse experiences. It doesn’t mean we can’t feel concerned and worried, but it can co-exist alongside a nervous system that’s still mostly regulated. It IS a gift to be able to offer up yourself/ourselves to friends who may be experiencing something different and I truly hope that you’re able to tend to yourself, too, in whatever way that looks like. Again, I was touched by the beauty of your words. Thank you for taking the time to post. Warmly, Annie

  4. Carol on  

    Thank you and an excellent, excellent clear explanation of what I couldn’t quite get in touch with until I read this today.
    I feel as if I can take a deep cleansing breath and trust my thoughts and feelings and continue on. Keep up the clarity I read today.

    • Annie on  

      Carol, I’m so glad this post spoke to you! I hope that, in the time since you read this piece, you’re continuing to trust your thoughts and feelings. And I truly hope that you and those you love are staying well and healthy in these times. Warmly, Annie

  5. Mary on  

    Thank you for another incredibly beautiful post, Annie. It resonated so deeply with me that I looked back in a folder where I keep “doodles,” things I have drawn/written at times that I am not sitting down to journal but feel something rising up that needs to be acknowledged.

    A Lifetime of Morsels

    Cons:
    parentified
    lack of comfort, nurturing, safety
    exhaustion
    conditioned to be strong
    attachment issues
    hypervigilance
    pro-active
    periods where forced to depend on myself

    Pros:
    Strength
    Keen intuition
    Trust in self
    Confidence
    Competence
    Independent
    Rich inner life
    Astute problem identification/planning/solving
    Authentic relationships
    Depth
    Humility
    Simplicity: not chasing happiness but content with simple things, ie creativity

    The pros have come after decades of learning and growing in a variety of different ways and continue even in my mid 60’s. Reading your words felt deeply validating and brought me the meaning of morsels that I have not previously realized. The gift of those early morsels have given me the gifts that make this anxious but quiet time one of prayer, simple pleasures and hope for our world. You connected the two for me.
    Once again, thank you so much, Annie…
    Blessings to you and your loved ones…

    • Annie on  

      Mary,

      I was so touched by your post!

      I love how you detailed out the “morsels” you received and am so glad that my words could feel even a little validating and bring you added meaning.

      It says so much about you that you have done the work to cultivate so many morsels and that you can reflect on it all with wisdom and groundedness.

      I’m wishing you and your loved ones all my very best and hope that you’re healthy and well.

      Warmly, Annie

    • Annie on  

      I’m so glad this post resonated with you, Amanda, and that you’re likewise talking about this issue.

      Warmly, Annie

  6. Jessi on  

    Oof. I’ve never heard anyone use the term ‘ambiguous grief’, so THANK YOU. Coincidentally (or not), I recently thought of how someone I love once told me, “You don’t have to be in love with sadness like you are.” (He knew how to push all the cruel buttons because he was also hurt to the core in childhood.)

    I’m occasionally irritated that I even have these gifts- that perhaps I’d rather not have endured the trauma and train wreck that came after in exchange for the silver linings. But it’s a passing ‘this sucks’, because life is what it is and you can’t go back. So I’m proud of what I know now, of who I am, all the gifts I chose to pull out of that darkness, and those I can help with them. You spelled so many of these gifts out in the shiny-side-of-the-coin-list above in more detail that I could have.

    Thank you for putting our sometimes abstract thoughts and feelings into words, helping us connect the dots and understand in a more concise way.

  7. Karly Sevinsky on  

    To make a very long story short, my childhood was a level of dysfunction some people only see in movies. Gang activity, drug trafficking through our house, emotional and verbal abuse, fear for our physical safety and untreated mental illnesses. I wish I could say that when I was old enough, that I had any opportunity to pause, take a breath and seek help for unlearning everything I was taught but that wasn’t the truth. Soon enough, I was given a life lesson on how life can blindside you by a random, violent sexual assault by a complete stranger. I was forced to take this persons life to save my own. I attempted to put the pieces of my life back together with the support of my kind husband. Less than 2 months later, my husband died in a car accident. I have permanent central nervous system dysfunction now(tachycardia, unregulated blood pressure, inability to control my body temperature) well as an auto immune disease that is causing my spine and joints to fuse together. I cannot carry children. I’m in bed for days and days at a time. Fighting physical pain while your processing emotional trauma is beyond overwhelming. Im now in the process of grieving the overdose death of my lifelong best friend because she gave up on ever getting adequate care and treatment for mental illness. I’m 38 now and spent a really long time searching for the “lesson” or meaning for all of these obstacles.
    My point is this, you’re absolutely correct. I have learned empathy, compassion and love never openly given to me. That is definitely a gift. Due to my physical disabilities I’m not able to have a regular job to contribute to society like I want to. So I do what I have control over. I actively go looking for anyone online that needs a little bit (or a lot) of support. A glimmer of hope, that someone can hear them. You don’t have to be a mental health professional to make another human feel less rejected. This is how I contribute to society.

    The fact I have compassion and empathy for humans when I wasn’t taught it at all is a gift I’m grateful for. My empathetic abilities are off the charts….I often have to take breaks from social media to recharge myself, BUT I broke the cycle of hate going on in my family for generations. It ended with me. They lost.
    This level of understanding human suffering is soul crushing, but once you get past being angry, you see the gifts you’ve been left with…nothing can break you anymore, there’s fierce strength in kindness and empathy. You’re winning this fight because you’re learning and evolving as a human being when the odds of achieving that weren’t in your favor.

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