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Trauma Is Not an Excuse

It may be an explanation. But it's not a free pass to harm others.

Key points

  • The vast majority of individuals meeting the diagnostic criteria for trauma-related stress disorders do not actively harm others.
  • No amount of trauma exempts a traumatized person from being held accountable for hurting others.
  • To utilize trauma as an excuse for harmful behavior avoids responsibility for one’s actions and forestalls healing and growth.

Trauma is any experience that overwhelms our ability to cope and undermines our sense of safety. Trauma can inspire powerlessness and hopelessness relative to our capacity to defend ourselves. It can rob us of the belief in our ability to heal, trust, live, and love as we once did, before a traumatic experience occurred.

Experiences of trauma can lead to trauma-related disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Trauma can be collective (experienced by a group of persons) or individual (experienced by one). It can be episodic (happening every so often), isolated (happening once), or chronic (unabating). It can even be vicarious (e.g., by empathically engaging with the trauma of others).

But not everyone who has experienced trauma goes on to experience a trauma-related disorder. In fact, some research suggests that over half of all individuals who experience trauma go on to positively adapt and grow in the wake of their adversity—a phenomenon called post-traumatic growth (or PTG).

What’s more, many studies estimate that the vast majority of us (over 70 percent, according to a survey of nearly 70,000 people in 24 countries) are exposed to at least one major trauma (think: witnessing death or serious injury, unexpectedly losing a loved one, being mugged, being in a life-threatening automobile accident, or experiencing a life-threatening illness or injury) in our lifetime. And yet the global prevalence of PTSD is only a fraction of that—at most, 20 percent of people, according to some research; though some studies suggest it's less than 4 percent. As psychologist George Bonanno has argued, the most common response to trauma is actually resilience.

Trauma is not, therefore, an excuse for perpetuating harm and suffering, nor a get-out-of-jail-free card for causing emotional or physical pain to others. Trauma may help explain why someone is primed to think, feel, behave, or react in certain manners or in certain contexts. But having experienced trauma is by no means a justification for harmful behavior—and no amount of trauma exempts a traumatized person from being held accountable if and when they hurt others.

Consider the following examples of individuals “using” their trauma in such a way:

  • An adult woman tries to shirk blame for cheating on her devastated partner by stating she was sexually assaulted in college, and that this causes her to not want to get close to any one person.
  • An adult man argues he cannot possibly be held responsible for emotionally abusing and manipulating women because the abuse he incurred in childhood has trained him to treat women in such a heinous manner.
  • A person caught in a web of their own lies tries to distract from the betrayal and harm their lies have caused by portraying themselves as irreparably broken by trauma and therefore innocently unable to predict the negative outcomes of their lies.
  • A person accused of wrongdoing claims to feel triggered by past traumas anytime they are confronted with their actions, so as to avoid accepting responsibility for what they’ve done.

All of these individuals may indeed have been historically wronged—many to the point of feeling destroyed by whatever was done to them. But this does not justify their own destruction, betrayal, use of unwarranted physical force, taking advantage of, or emotional terrorization of others.

To utilize trauma as an excuse for harmful behavior is not only to avoid responsibility for one’s actions but also to forestall healing and growth from trauma by clinging to an identity of victimhood.

What's more, having been traumatized does not automatically predispose someone towards traumatizing others. Among individuals diagnosed with PTSD, the prevalence of violence ranges from 5 percent to roughly 12 percent—higher ( about 35 percent) if substance misuse is a factor. The vast majority of individuals meeting the diagnostic criteria for trauma-related stress disorders do not actively harm others, even when grappling with alcohol or drug dependence. It is therefore safe to assume that the majority of individuals who have experienced trauma but do not develop a trauma-related stress disorder are at equally low (if not even lower) risks of causing harm.

None of this is to say that healing from trauma is an easy and simple process for everyone. Nor is it to negate the very real and damaging effects trauma can have on our ability to modulate our emotions, accurately appraise situations, relate to and become close with others, or maintain positive beliefs about the world, ourselves, and the inherent goodness of humanity.

But we need to hold people accountable for their actions, and not excuse damaging behavior on the basis that a guilty party has experienced past trauma. Those of us who have experienced trauma owe it to ourselves and each other to take ownership of our behavior. Only in this way can we become a place where the suffering we have experienced at the hands of others ceases to proliferate and mutate.

We can have compassion for ourselves, for what we have been through, and also exhibit the self-control necessary to refrain from perpetuating whatever pain we ourselves have been filled with by others. We can do this by self-regulation strategies—from deep breathing and meditation to intense exercise, talking it out with a trusted friend or therapist, expressive writing or art-making, removing ourselves from a triggering situation, moderating our intake of mind-altering substances, and making it a priority to get better sleep.

We can also do this by engaging in therapies proven to promote recovery from trauma. Think: Eye movement desensitization therapy (EMDR), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), prolonged exposure (PE) and cognitive processing therapy (CPT), somatic experiencing (SE), and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).

But we cannot move forward and heal if we continue to hide behind the shield of our victimhood—or, in the worst of cases, use that victimhood as a weapon to hurt others as bad or worse than we ourselves have been hurt.

More from Katherine Cullen MFA, LMSW
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