Trauma

When Not Talking About Past Trauma Is Wise

Ways to deal with your tale of woe.

Posted Jan 27, 2015

(“There is no tale of woe,” is a quote from the formerly abused Jane in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.)

When is it better not to tell your tale of woe? Here is a clinical story that illustrates this question.

My client Jamie’s 6-year-old daughter Sasha held a pillow over another girl’s face in play at school and caused her to gasp. The child was unharmed but all were alarmed. After being informed of the dangerousness of her action, Sasha, a normally happy-go-lucky and helpful kid who was sad to miss school when sick, now cried daily when her mother dropped her at the kindergarten door.  She told her mother she was afraid she might say or do something wrong.  She worried that she might hurt someone. The teacher, trying to be helpful began greeting Sasha with, “Are you OK today? Let me give you a hug.” This did not reassure but rather created a cascade of tears in Sasha and a clinging to Mom. After three or four days of this, Jamie said, “Thanks so much, but I think it is better for Sasha to just go play with her friends.” She had observed that if Sasha bypassed emotional processing and delved into an activity, her anxiety lifted.

“I know my daughter," she told me.

It is often assumed that the way to get past something is to face/feel/process. Talk, write, see a therapist and re-visit the trauma.

  • Yes, self-expression and insight foster healing.
  • True, understanding who was who, what was what and why it all happened undoes despair.
  • Granted, sharing builds faith and kills shame because people step up, emotionally speaking.
  • Correct, opening up decreases pessimism, increases optimism and combats anxiety and depression.  
  • We know that talking cures.

Sometimes, but not always. 

For some people “going back there,” is not useful and can even exacerbate the problem. Steering clear of a treacherous emotional place may be therapeutic. If one survives but still feels damaged, different or deeply changed, maybe the matter was too much or too negative to handle. In some cases, the choice to avoid re-exposure is a healthy instinct. Choosing to focus on the life-affirming action instead of the undermining thought can be a deeply sound decision.

Going for a run, picking up a paintbrush or playing with peers rather than pondering the problem may be just the right medicine. It may be the most effective path for the restoration of one’s happier self. Activities that conjure can-do and do-good may help one get over the hump.

A compelling article by a veteran, journalist and PTSD survivor David J. Morris suggests that for some people, re-exposure to the trauma via Prolonged Exposure Therapy makes things worse. Instead of gaining mastery over the event, they deteriorate. On the other hand, moving away from the memory makes things better. Morris found that Cognitive Processing Therapy—expressing thoughts and feelings without re-immersing in the trauma, helped. While the event cannot be undone, it can be rendered far less important and overshadowed by other things if thoughts are re-directed.  

One might:  

  • Distract with movies or music
  • Immerse in a compelling task
  • Repeat comforting verses
  • Connect to others in meaningful ways  
  • Do something physical.
  • Create. Tend. Make.

These activities can set the mind on a different path.  At any rate, talking about the problem does not always change things for the better. And for the record, problems can get better in treatment without ever being discussed.

As for Jane, it seems her choice to not tell her tale of woe during a job interview was a matter of good boundaries, common sense, and the urge to secure a better future. When her prospective employer says, “Every governess has a tale of woe, what is yours?” her response, “No tale of woe,” is probably a wise move.

If you have not read the book I will spoil it for you and tell you that they get married and live happily ever after, sort of. They still have to contend with his blindness from a raging fire set of by his psychotic first wife and her scars from deprivation and abuse. Not that these things are discussed. They remain underground as new and better opportunities emerge.

As for Sasha, my guess is that she will be fine. Jamie’s on-target instincts, astute observations and capacity to “push back” are protective. Faith in her child, trust in Sasha’s “goodness,” and the knowledge that “This too shall pass,” help too. Jamie’s inner sense of Sasha, communicated both with words and without, holds them both in good stead.