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The Most Massive Characters: Big T, Little t, and Complex Trauma

I am a childhood trauma survivor. It took me 25 years to recognize that and 30 years to fully acknowledge and embrace that I too am a trauma survivor. It was not until I was 25 years old and in my first year of my Master of Counseling program that I learned about trauma. Up until then, I always assumed it was normal that I could not recall anything prior to the age of 10. I recall feeling confused and thinking during class, “Does everyone not forget all their childhood birthdays, school events, and holidays too or does everyone not “check out” when stuff gets too much?”  It was also in my first psychopathology class where I learned about the complexity and depths of trauma and recognized that my stress responses were a means to help me survive the unthinkable—just as they are for many survivors. 

When most people think about trauma, they often tend to associate the word trauma with combat, war, natural disasters, and experiencing/witnessing abuse (i.e., physical, sexual, emotional). That assumption is partially correct as those are commonly known as Big “T” traumas which are life threatening events that impact daily functioning, causes one to engage in avoidance, and where one internalizes a sense of powerlessness and lack of control.  However, Little “t” traumas, such as microaggressions, emotional neglect from caregivers, infidelity, and abrupt life changes (i.e., relocation, divorce) are equally important and impactful. Although, one Little “t” is not enough to cause impairment in functioning, an accumulation of Little “t’s” can impact one’s ability to cope, threaten one’s sense of self, and increase their overall level of distress. Individuals can also have both Big ‘T’ and Little ‘t’ traumas and when such traumas occur during childhood development, they are known as complex trauma. Complex trauma is chronic and long-term exposure to trauma that usually occurs early in life, such as human trafficking, profound abuse, or living in a war zone. 

Due to the nature and type of trauma, survivors often encounter difficulties with safety, trust, avoidance, guilt, and shame. For some survivors, therapy may be the first place they can ever feel a sense of safety and trust. Therefore, when working with fellow trauma survivors, creating a sense of safety by using transparency, education, and modeling boundaries and consent when assessing or discussing details of the traumatic events are crucial. Similarly important is validation, normalizing their feelings and stress responses, and sitting with them when avoidance creeps in and makes them want to give up or angrily ask, “why do we have to keep talking about this stuff?” I find that it is imperative to remind them how far they have come and what they are ultimately fighting for (i.e., be a better parent, decrease anxiety, and feel safe in one’s body). The most difficult part for many survivors is the shame and guilt they feel from traumatic events. Shame tells one that they are inherently bad whereas guilt tells one they did something bad. The truth is that shame and guilt will never dissipate as they are adaptive human emotions that help us survive in relationships. However, it is important that survivors greet their shame and guilt and begin soothing it so other positive emotions (i.e., joy, love, belonging) can lead. 

Surviving trauma, whether big, small, or complex, is not easy, nor is healing from it. However, healing can make surviving a lot easier. As Kahlil Gibran writes: “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls, the most massive characters are seared with scars.” To my Big T’s, Little t’s, and complex trauma survivors, may you keep surviving, thriving, and emerging in new ways.

Dr. Jacqueline Salazar, PsyD

Post-Doctoral Fellow

CORE - Center of Relational Empowerment, PC

[email protected] 

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