The more I learn about trauma, the more I realize how complex healing is. In October, people are encouraged to reflect and be grateful. And while this is a great message in general – I’ve struggled with this message both personally and professionally.
There are plenty of books and articles written on how gratitude is a tool for healing and happiness. This article by Harvard Health gives some great examples, and for those interested in more extensive reading, Robert Emmons’s book Gratitude Works! or Tal Ben-Shahar book Happier offer good examples of mainstream literature on the topic.
However, people who have experienced trauma, may feel that the ‘gratitude’ messages misses the mark. After all, it can hurt to be told to be grateful when you are trying to heal from your trauma. It can be invalidating or shaming to be told to focus on the good things when you are wanting to scream about all the bad. It can feel that there is nothing to be grateful for, and that feeling is valid.
Therefore, we need to be careful with our messaging. We need to be cognizant of perpetuating the idea that the good and the bad need equal airtime in the healing process. We need to be cognizant of perpetuating a system that makes speaking up about the bad things difficult. We need to be cognizant of perpetuating the idea that people can think their way to healing via happy thoughts and gratitude.
Individuals might minimize and push their suffering aside because they feel continuing to struggle is being ungrateful. Individuals may hear the message that their trauma or suffering is not worthy enough to have a voice. Implicitly, individuals may absorb a message that if they aren’t happy or they aren’t grateful enough, they are doing something wrong or they are weak.
From what I’ve learned about trauma – this is far from the truth.
Trauma makes people masters of survival. Their methods represent the powerful ways the brain and nervous system protects the person. A pessimistic outlook may be someone’s way of being on guard, looking out of trouble, avoiding pain, or staying away from danger. Trauma survivors are often the strongest people, because they may not be grateful, they may not feel happy, they don’t see the silver lining of their trauma – BUT they keep going.
This season, if you are struggling to find gratitude, cut yourself some slack. You are strong and amazing for getting up and living. Your pain and trauma are real – You are doing okay.