Understanding "Trauma Mastery"
Why are we drawn back to the sites of our traumas?
Posted Aug 24, 2018
Note: This is an excerpt from my essay “The Body Remembers” in my book Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins (San Francisco: University of California Medical Humanities Press, 2018).
Early in my career as a nurse, I worked for a year in a “safe house” emergency shelter for women who were escaping intimate partner violence. Before my work there, I did not understand the concept of trauma mastery and how this plays out in the lives of women caught up in the cycle of abuse. I sided with the common misperception that the reason so many women return to their abusive partners is because the women are psychologically damaged and weak.
I learned that there is the not-insignificant role of addiction to the thrill of trauma and danger—to the effects of the very activating yet numbing fight-or-flight neurochemicals—which can bring at least temporary relief to the bouts of fatiguing depression that often accompany trauma. And there are also unconscious attempts to return to the previous trauma to “get it right this time”—to do what we wish we could have done the first time, to master our trauma.
Seattle social worker Laura van Dernoot Lipsky points out that these unconscious attempts to master our traumas often backfire and simply reinforce our old traumas. She says that many of us in health care and other helping professions are often using our work as a form of trauma mastery, and that by doing so, we may set expectations for ourselves and others that are “untenable and destructive.” (1) She advocates ongoing efforts aimed at self-discovery and self-empathy, and points to the many positive examples of “people who have been effective in repairing the world while still in the process of repairing their own hearts.” (2) Eve Ensler, with the combination of personal work and “world repair” work that she describes in her powerful book In the Body of the World, is one of my favorite examples of this sort of balanced approach. (3)
1 and 2, Laura van Dernoot Lipsky with Connie Burk, Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009), page 159.
3, Eve Ensler, In the Body of the World (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013).