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Toxic Positivity and the Lie of Complicity in Trauma

Your recovery doesn't need someone's poor assessment of why it happened to you.

I have heard extremely smart—though not emotionally intelligent—people say that it is important to understand one’s complicity in the abuse that happened to them.

This is beyond confusing. It's also wrong.

People who have endured sexual abuse, physical violence, and emotional torment are often told this both directly and implicitly (in the media, for example). Perhaps it has happened to you.

No, you were not complicit. But people say it. I’ve heard it. Then they follow up with something like: “Your thoughts create your reality.” Or, “Your unconscious mind brought on the abuse.” And, "What about the 'law of attraction?'"

If they say that, or something like it, step back and know this:

Your recovery does not include someone else’s poor assessment of why it happened to you.

But it can help to understand what they don’t.

First of all, they don’t understand how the unconscious mind works. Yours or theirs. The unconscious mind is vast and deep and, to put it as simply as possible, does not work in a linear or cause-and-effect way.

In fact, it might be the opposite of what they say—that your unconscious mind actually protected you from something even worse happening. Remember that even when they "sound" logical. Or seem so self-assured. Remind yourself if you begin to blame yourself for what happened.

Understanding self-blame and shame

Self-blame often happens after trauma, and many people victimized by sexual, physical, or psychological trauma feel it. But that kind of self-blame is an act of self-preservation. Finding fault in this space is how we try to garner some control. This is the self's survival system kicking in. It is a trauma response. Rather than shame, we can stand in awe at how our deepest self has looked out for us. Pretty incredible, to say the least.

During a traumatic event and immediately afterward, the person victimized may assume responsibility for what happened to them. Again, this is a common and natural trauma response, a form of active self-preservation that allows the individual to get through the trauma.

Once the traumatic event is over, residue from that natural trauma response can (and usually does) carry over. The self-blame can continue as the memories get embedded in the unconscious and, as mentioned above, the unconscious does not work in a linear format.

Part of trauma-informed care is detangling from that initial self-blame and seeing its purpose, necessary at the time. We can thank our instincts for getting us through. Doing so allows us to integrate the experience and grow from it. It has nothing to do with being at fault.

Dealing with the judgy ones—and toxic positivity

When you feel a bit shaky about all this processing, it is easy to be lured in when someone sounds either commanding or judgy; or, conversely, new agey or “empowerment-focused.”

People use positive-only statements when they are reacting to your pain. They try to “fix” by throwing “fixes” that don’t work. On one level, this is a means of trying to not fathom that abuse happens to those who are altogether innocent and, by proxy, might happen to them or someone they love.

If you’ve found yourself in this situation, don’t despair. Rather, become aware of what it might sound like:

  • “Your thoughts must have been to blame.”
  • “Do you think you attracted the abuse inadvertently?”
  • “You need to take responsibility for the abuse you endured when you were a child" (what?).
  • “You need to see your complicity” (again, what?—and why would you say this to someone who is suffering?).

In fact, people who are trying to make sense of their trauma even say these things to themselves.

I’ve heard people say they were trying to see how they were complicit in their own abuse. To that, I’ve said, gently, firmly, that, "no, you weren’t." If you’ve ever detoured down this road, please remind yourself of the same. Instead:

  • Find the ways and the words and actions that speak to your soul.
  • Discover the language your soul uses to speak you and listen.
  • Be curious about how to give love and compassion and a quiet “listening” to yourself.
  • Work with a licensed, trauma-informed therapist.
  • Remember that like anything meaningful, this is a process, and you are on the path.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

More from Meredith Gordon Resnick L.C.S.W.
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