Years ago, when I was first dipping my toe into the world of professional speaking, I was encouraged to create a signature story.
This is the term used to describe a speaker’s journey from where they were, to where they are. It usually involves a life-changing event that breaks you so completely that you have no choice but to become a better version of yourself.
Honestly, that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever been asked to do. It didn’t matter how hard I thought, I couldn’t recall any traumatic events that had helped shape me. I’d never been abused, suffered from a life-threatening illness, or been affected by a tragic death.
For a very brief time, I experienced trauma envy. I wanted a story to share that made every eye in the audience tear up. Why hadn’t my life provided me with one? Fortunately, it didn’t take me long to realize just how messed up that thinking was.
Trauma’s a funny thing. Most people experience it on some level during in their lifetime, but unless your trauma is the type that starts with a capital T, it’s easy to dismiss it as unworthy of the label.
It’s a little like the time I was in an audience that was asked to stand up if they’d ever had cancer. I slunk out of my seat feeling like a fraud. I had a melanoma that was caught in its very early stages. I still go for regular checks, but a minor surgery is all I had to deal with. Because of that, I feel my cancer is less worthy than the illnesses suffered by so many others with the same affliction.
This week, I experienced something that was unexpected and left me feeling emotionally unsettled. It disturbed my sleep and eating patterns. Was I traumatized?
Trauma is an emotional response to an unexpected and disturbing event like an accident, violent attack or natural disaster. The experience often involves a threat to life or safety.
I was back to the same place I’d been when admitting I was a cancer survivor. Was my experience worthy of being defined as trauma? My life hadn’t been threatened, and I wasn’t sure I felt unsafe.
With the help of the internet, I discovered there is a distinction between big “T” and little “t” trauma.
Don’t let the terms big and little fool you. One type isn’t more or less important than the other. These definitions are simply a way to distinguish between the two different forms. Small “t” trauma tends to be more personal. While not life-threatening, it still results in many of the same emotional reactions as big “T” events. Losing your job, getting a divorce or having a boss who bullies you are just a few examples of potential occurrences that can cause small “t” trauma.
No one, least of all you, should judge your experiences by comparing them to those of others. This isn’t a contest, nor is there a minimum prerequisite of suffering required in order for something to be considered traumatic. Rather than looking to the specific event for answers, focus on your reaction to what happened. Did it leave you feeling out of control and upset? Did it disturb your regular patterns and behaviours?
As I started to think about what had happened to me, I found myself dismissing my experience as though it wasn’t major enough to be classified as trauma. I later recognized that this was partially due to feeling embarrassed about telling anybody what had happened. I was feeling shame. That, in itself, is a red flag.
In order to heal from any sort of trauma, you need to validate it. While you’re in the middle of the situation, it can be hard to think clearly. By voicing your thoughts, the significance of what occurred and how you’re feeling often reveals itself. Start by talking with a friend, therapist or writing in a journal about your experience. This will help you process the event. Once you’ve done this, prioritize your mental health and focus on self-care.
Don’t be too quick to write this off as an ineffective luxury. Not taking care of yourself can have dire ramifications on your physical and mental wellness. If your body is already stressed, fatigued or not being looked after, the event may have a much bigger impact.
Build some non-negotiable time into your calendar for resilience building. Resilience is your capacity to adapt in moments of adversity. It increases your ability to cope with little “t” events. Building and strengthening relationships, taking care of your body and your brain through sleep, nutritious food, exercise and maintaining a positive attitude are all ways to build resilience.
Probably the greatest advice I received after my small “t” trauma was to give myself grace and to be patient. It’s a process. Reminding myself I was not a victim, but a survivor was also extremely helpful. It put me back into a place of empowerment.
You may not be able to control everything that happens to you but you can choose how you want to move forward. Today, I’m taking time to remind myself of that.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.