- Many people benefit from talking about past trauma, and several cultures and professions encourage such sharing.
- Some people choose not to discuss trauma. Instead, they focus on other people's issues or more pleasant topics, keeping traumas hidden.
- Some think it is defensive not to talk about trauma. In some cases, however, making new, good memories can help dilute bad ones.
A teen was shot to death by his girlfriend. His father reacted by, the next week, starting a support group for other parents whose kids had been killed. He said, “The best thing for me was to channel my grief by helping others.”
A man was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. He chose to not talk about it but rather to focus on fun and on work. “I wouldn’t let them poison me with chemo and I’m not going to poison my remaining days by talking about my cancer.”
A student had worked hard to get into Yale...and then got kicked out. He was understandably sad. What pulled him out of it: getting a puppy.
A woman has chronic rapidly progressing arthritis. She used to talk about it to friends, assuming that "getting it off my chest would be good." But she found that lasted only briefly, and the more she talked about it, the more she was conscious of her pain. Plus, she felt she was making people feel uncomfortable. So she decided to keep it to herself and talk about pleasanter things, and she feels good about having done that.
A group of veterans with PTSD from the Afghan war met weekly for bowling. One said, “It’s more helpful to focus on bowling than on bloodshed.”
As I've often written here, my dad, a Holocaust survivor, healed by not talking about it: He said, "The Nazis took five years from my life. I won't give them one minute more. Never look back. Always take the next step forward."
When opening up about trauma isn't helpful
My colleague, Mark Goulston, says that sometimes, detailed exploration of trauma is necessary, especially if it might yield a fresh solution, but other times, as in the aforementioned situations, “The bad memories get diluted by making good new memories.”
Many people benefit from sharing their current and past traumas. It can feel good to get it off their chest and get support from friends and counselors, and a way forward may emerge. Indeed, some cultures, families of origin, and professions encourage such sharing. For example, no surprise, psychotherapists are more likely to encourage not just their clients but their friends to open up.
But other people have chosen to keep their traumas hidden, which is made easier because they talk about pleasant things or other people's issues. That is encouraged in some cultures, families of origin, and professions. For example, surgeons and the military tend to venerate a stiff upper lip and pressing on: “No bellyaching.” I had lunch recently with an Iraq War vet who said something like, “It feels good to unload in that moment, but I’m finding that the more I do that, the worse I feel overall. I think I’m better off just pushing forward—like when I was in the infantry.”
Some analytically oriented people may think it shallow or defensive to not discuss traumas. But as usual, one size doesn’t fit all. Think about your current and past traumas. Would you be better off talking more about them? If so, with whom? Or might you be wiser to take the “shallow" approach and not reveal much?
I read this aloud on YouTube.
Details have been changed to protect anonymity.