“Micro-traumas” Can Undermine Our Emotional Health

Subtly hurtful patterns of interaction often diminish self-worth and well being

Posted Jun 20, 2015

Permission to use by Routledge
Source: Permission to use by Routledge

By Margaret Crastnopol, Ph.D.

Why do so many people feel chronically unhappy, frustrated, anxious, and depressed, even when there’s no “smoking gun” to account for such distress? Why do many seemingly ordinary interactions with others leave us feeling disheartened or deflated?  It’s because many of the slings and arrows that wound us emotionally are not obvious to the naked eye—they are what I call “micro-traumas.”  These are subtly hurtful patterns of engaging with one another that can seem innocuous and therefore go unnoticed.  But should this mistreatment build up over time, it can diminish our sense of self-worth, raise our anxieties, and compromise our capacity for healthy relationships.

 You’ve had a micro-traumatic moment when you’re given the cold shoulder (which I call “Unkind Cutting Back”) or when someone acts a little too close and confidential toward you in a way that’s inappropriate (“Uneasy Intimacy”). Another instance is when someone insults you offhandedly, while denying any negative intent (a “Little Murder”).

An accumulation of micro-traumas can occur during childhood or adulthood, and may happen in a family context, at school, or in the workplace. Since these injurious moments are often embedded in relationships important to us, we may be motivated to ignore them so as not to rock the relational boat.  But we do so at our peril, as they may seriously undermine our constructive functioning.

In my book, Micro-trauma: A Psychoanalytic Understanding of Cumulative Psychic Injury, I lay out seven patterns of micro-trauma in detail.  Each type is comprised of a particular patterning of negative emotions like anger, envy, indifference, anxiety, and shame. In each, the party inflicting the hurt often presents him- or herself as neutral, or even well intentioned. Sometimes perpetrators are conscious of what they are doing, but just as often they are unaware of the hurtfulness of their behavior.

An Example

“Oh, sweetheart,” an elderly woman crooned to her late adolescent grandson, “That jacket of your father’s looks marvelous on you—so much better than it ever did on him!”  Caught up short by the last phrase—“better than it ever did on him”—the young man puffed up internally and cringed at the same time.  He couldn’t help but note both the compliment and the oblique swipe at his father, who was in the next room and easily could have overheard his grandmother’s words.

Exploring his reactions in a psychotherapy session the next day, this young man realized he’d felt proud to have his masculinity admired, pleased by this minor triumph over his father, and guilty over being praised at his father’s expense and enjoying it.  But then he had an additional thought: if his grandmother could cast aspersions on her own son’s appearance behind his back, what might she be saying about him, her grandson, when he was out of earshot?   How much love was actually there underneath her familiar doting tone? 

The toxicity in flattery like this grandmother’s could easily be dismissed or go undetected entirely.  And if it happens only occasionally, it might not cause any problem. But the accumulation of these kinds of comments from the grandmother or other family members could build up to undermine the son’s enthusiasm for coming into manhood.  They might cause guilty concern that his maturing would come at the expense of generating disharmony within the family. 

The Cycle of Micro-trauma

When we are injured by someone else’s subtly harmful behavior, we rarely  register its full impact consciously. And we often don’t protect ourselves beforehand, or take reparative steps afterward that might ease the injury or guard against reoccurrences. When we ourselves are the ones doing the bruising, we are often quite blind to its deleterious effect.  Because much is happening out of awareness and does not get addressed directly, the result may be a toxic cycle in which the person being injured by us hurts us back in turn, prompting our retribution, and so on ad infinitum.

Examining Micro-traumatic Tendencies

Once a person comes to recognize that she or he is being treated--or treating someone else--micro-traumatically, there is an opportunity to think about the possible unconscious motives underlying that behavior.  As the perpetrator, am I using that harmful strategy because I am too anxious about behaving in a more direct, and therefore, vulnerable way? Or because I am harboring anger or envy toward the other?  As the victim, am I unconsciously colluding with the other’s mistreatment of me? Is it possible for me to cry “foul” and bring the unconstructive interplay to an end?  It can be very useful to try and examine one’s own behavior and feelings. A sensitive psychotherapist can offer support and guidance with respect to addressing whatever unhealthy tendencies are at play.  Understanding micro-traumatic patterns can help reduce a person’s troubled feelings and greatly boost his or her emotional growth.

Margaret Crastnopol (Peggy), Ph.D., is on the faculty of the Seattle Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. She is also supervisor of psychotherapy and faculty at the William Alanson White Institute,  an Associate Editor of Psychoanalytic Dialogues, and on the editorial board of Contemporary Psychoanalysis. She is the author of Micro-trauma:  A Psychoanalytic Understanding of Cumulative Psychic Trauma,(click on link and use discount code IRK71), published by Routledge in 2015.  Dr. Crastnopol works with individuals and couples in her private practice in Seattle, WA.