The Stigmatization of Trauma
Survivors deserve more than the myths we believe about them.
Posted Oct 21, 2019
Interpersonal trauma or traumatic events that are inflicted by others (e.g., sexual assault, childhood abuse, interpersonal violence, etc.) often lead to a serious number of negative physiological, psychological, relational, spiritual, and emotional effects for survivors. If survivors of interpersonal trauma don't already endure enough, an additional difficulty that survivors face comes in the form of the stigmatization of trauma—also known as misconceptions or trauma myths.
To make matters worse, these misconceptions are often veiled in widespread acceptance by cultures and individuals. These beliefs are deeply entrenched in the culture, rigid, and can be covert, which further intensifies their potency. Research suggests that as survivors try to recover from experiencing trauma, encountering negative beliefs and attitudes can lead to re-traumatization (Suarez & Gadalla, 2010; Bateman & Wathen, 2015). There is no surprise here that the stigmatization of trauma is of great concern.
To further describe the issue, some common challenges that many survivors struggle with after traumatic experiences are lowered self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness. When survivors are flooded by messages that further attack them, blame them, and take their control, it can lead to increased feelings of helplessness, confusion, and worthlessness. These messages quickly can become internalized and become a part of the survivor's self-narrative.
This vicious cycle can easily isolate survivors in feeling that they are alone in their struggles. As survivors are navigating through recovery and trying to process their traumatic experience, it is imperative that they are not further traumatized by the negative attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of those around them.
One of the best tools we have in eliminating the insidious stigmatization of trauma is awareness. As the misconceptions are named for what they are, they can then be overtly challenged within individuals, systems, and cultures, and survivors can be better supported (by both themselves and others).
To promote this awareness, below you will find a number of common myths surrounding the experiencing of interpersonal trauma. Although there are several misconceptions or myths that exist (and the specific types of trauma can have their own lists as well), there are some beliefs that appear to be quite “popular” regardless of the type of interpersonal trauma. Some examples of these include:
(Note: Some uncomfortable and potentially triggering phrases are listed below.)
- It was the survivor’s fault.
- If the survivor _______, they asked for it (e.g., drank, didn’t fight back, dressed inappropriately, argued back with their partner, flirted, was disrespectful to their parents, continued to stay in the relationship, etc.).
- The survivor must have “deserved” it.
- The survivor should be able to just get over it.
- The survivor made it up/is lying.
- It wasn’t “that” bad.
- Men can't be survivors.
The list can go on and on. To make matters even more complex, although some misconceptions are cross-cultural, others may be culture-specific.
In reading this, you may be a survivor who is aware of these misconceptions. You may be a loved one to a survivor (in fact, I would argue that statistically, most of us are survivors ourselves, or have loved ones who are). You might have stumbled across this blog simply wanting to understand more about trauma and the effects of trauma.
Regardless of why you read this article, now that you have this information, what will you do with it? Will you turn a blind eye and allow the stigmatization of trauma to be perpetuated? Or will you work towards the eradication of these destructive beliefs so that survivors will not stand alone in their battle towards recovery?
Bateman, J. L., & Wathen, C. (2015). Understanding rape myths: A guide for counselors working with male survivors of sexual violence. VISTAS Online.
Suarez, Eliana, & Gadalla, Tahany M. (2010). Stop blaming the victim: A meta-analysis on rape myths. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 25(11), 2010-2035.