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You Can Be a High Achiever Even with a Trauma Background

Reframing trauma and how it can impact us.

Most of us have a preconceived notion of what trauma is, and a preconceived notion of who someone with a trauma history might look like. But because those preconceived notions tend to be limiting and somewhat unhelpful if you fall outside their scope, I want to dispel the “myth” of what trauma is, and what someone with a trauma history can look like.

The best definition I’ve found for trauma is this:

Trauma is the unique individual experience of an event or enduring conditions in which the individual’s ability to integrate his/her emotional experience is overwhelmed and the individual experiences (either objectively or subjectively) a threat to his/her life, bodily integrity, or that of a caregiver or family. (Saakvitne, K. et al, 2000).

There are two parts of this definition that I want to highlight. First, “trauma is the unique individual experience.” Psychological trauma is subjective and relative: What makes something traumatic for one person may not be traumatic for another, depending on their relative ability to deal with it. The key, though, across subjective experiences, is that it overwhelms the individual’s ability to cope with it. That’s what makes something traumatic.

The other part of this definition I want to draw attention to: is “enduring conditions.” Typically and historically, trauma has been thought of as an isolated and discrete event or events: a car crash, a bombing, a rape, military service. Certainly, all of these are examples of what could be traumatic for someone. But trauma therapist and author Karen Saakvitne also nuances that trauma can be a set of conditions that are complex and protracted, meaning they take place repeatedly over time.

For children who are powerless and depend on their caregivers quite literally to preserve their lives, examples of traumatic enduring conditions could be:

  • Abandonment or threat of abandonment
  • Neglectful treatment or conditions
  • Outright verbal, emotional, or physical abuse
  • Witnessing domestic violence or frightened or frightening behavior from one or both parents

So, in what context might these traumatic enduring conditions occur? Often, unfortunately, these events can happen if one was raised by a personality-disordered, mood-disordered, or addicted parent(s) or parental figure(s). Being raised by a narcissistic mother or alcoholic father, to name just two examples, can certainly set the stage for traumatic enduring conditions. And, unfortunately, being raised by parents who struggle like this is an all-too-common experience for many — including some high-functioning professionals.

So what does someone with a trauma history look like? There’s a misconception that the person has to be a military veteran or someone who’s lived through a major and terrible external event. Or, sometimes, there’s a belief that someone with a trauma history is low functioning or gravely impaired in their everyday life. But you can absolutely be professionally and financially high achieving and have a trauma history—and trauma symptoms.

You can be a corporate lawyer, a CEO, a start-up founder, a family physician, a brilliant graduate student. You can own your own San Francisco condo, be married, have kids, manage employees, and have multiple Ivy-League degrees. You can have traveled the world, pitched VCs for funding, have memberships to elite social clubs, and, on paper, have it “all together.”

And you can still have a trauma history, and have it impact you in myriad ways.

Being outwardly high-functioning and needing trauma recovery work are not mutually exclusive. It’s just that, sometimes, recognition of one’s own trauma history (based on what someone else believes to be considered “traumatic”) gets missed, and trauma-history symptoms either get adaptively or maladaptively managed, or compensated for, until those coping mechanisms stop working quite so well.

When we define trauma and who someone with a trauma history looks like so narrowly, folks may miss out on seeing the truth of their personal history, leading them to dismiss the severity of what they’ve lived through and the significant impact of their symptoms, adding to their resistance to seek out help.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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