Categories of distressing experience

wrecked plane fuselage

Trauma is another word for “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience”. Trauma can be anything. Hearing about a loved one experiencing severe trauma can be traumatic. In fact, if you remove the “deeply” then we can say that any distressing or disturbing experience is at least a mini-trauma. Maybe it’s the case that much of life itself is a string of distressing and disturbing experiences, to some greater or lesser extent.

In general, I think trauma, small or large, can be subdivided along two axes. First, there is whether the trauma is personal or impersonal. That is, was the distressing experience inflicted on you by another person? Second, there is intentional versus unintentional. Did someone intentionally set out to do what it was they did that gave you the distressing or disturbing experience?

four categories of distressunintentionalintentional
unintentional (1)
intentional (2)
unintentional (4)
intentional (3)
A quadrant of distress (clockwise)

1. Impersonal and unintentional

wrecked plane fuselage

Natural disasters, your house burning down due to a lightning strike (does that really happen?), illnesses that struck for no apparent reason, those kinds of things fall into this category. These are distressing events that were not inflicted on you by another person and you weren’t targeted. It just happened. Of course, whatever happens in the aftermath of the event can fall into any of the next categories. Whether other people help you, for example. But that’s not the type of distress I’m talking about.

If you were walking across a bridge and the bridge gave away, plunging you down a ravine where emergency services had to pick you up with a trauma helicopter and you were in great pain, I’d say that this is an impersonal trauma. I think in many cases, what is traumatic here is the loss of safety in the world. The body is not infallible. Things once thought safe (bridges) are not safe. Your house can burn down and there’s not much you can do to prevent such a tragedy.

Our reptile brain has detected a potential danger and the warning signals may keep coming, in an effort to keep you safe. In fact, it’s how we learn. You learn that running with scissors can be a dangerous thing and that you shouldn’t do that.

2. Impersonal and intentional

I find this one difficult to categorize. Logically, it must be investigated, because I’ve defined two axes.

How can a disturbing experience be impersonal and yet also intentional? I think from the perspective of someone experiencing the trauma, there’s no way intentional can be impersonal. It happened to you, and things that happen to you are personal. That’s what our entire sense of self is based on: Once we develop a sense of self, everything that happens around us, happens to us.

Perhaps from the point of view of the one inflicting the trauma, it is very well possible that it’s impersonal. After all, humans have the capacity to treat other humans as objects. The one inflicting harm can say ‘it’s nothing personal’. Perhaps burglary or a robbery is something like this. To the burglar or robber, the crime is impersonal. They are out to steal money, material things. They have no interest in who lives in that house, they just want the stuff. There is no prior relationship between the two people involved. Of course, to the person being robbed, their relationship with other people, especially their neighborhood which they once thought safe, can be harmed for a long time after. As for the crime itself, maybe you can say that this trauma is impersonal, yet intentional. I’m not sure. I’ve heard once about a family who were on holiday, whose house was robbed. The neighbors, who were looking after the house for this family, found a shattered picture frame somewhere outside, in the garden. No robber would shatter a picture frame unless they were aware that they were hurting another human being. Therefore, the crime is almost always personal. Perhaps ramming of an ATM can be considered impersonal and intentional… But then it’s not a trauma to anyone, is it? Maybe robbing a jeweler is impersonal and intentional. Someone possesses something of high material value. The jeweler himself doesn’t matter to the robbers. But then the fact that the jeweler doesn’t matter as a person to them, is something that makes it highly personal to the jeweler.

Something else that Joep mentioned was vandalism. Someone throws broken glass in the streets, perhaps in an act of youthful wantonness, or perhaps so that someone else will drive over it and puncture a tire. Either way, no specific person is targeted. Unless they’re 2 metres behind them… Basically, for the distressing act to be truly impersonal, you do something for personal gain or to cause damage without considering the person themselves.

Let’s make a huge leap into the unspeakable. Could you say the same of genocide? After all, people are then treated as objects, dehumanized. Is it therefore an impersonal yet intentionally inflicted trauma? Or could you say that any harm inflicted on a person or group of people because they have certain characteristics is always a personal matter? I think that if the one who inflicts harm has considered who they shall harm and why, we move into ‘personal and intentional’ territory.

I therefore think this box, ‘impersonal and intentional’ doesn’t contain many trauma’s. Intentional implies personal, most probably from the point of view of the ‘perpetrator’ (for lack of a better word) and almost certainly from the point of view of the ‘victim’. This box is nearly empty. This is important later.

3. Personal and intentional

Personal and intentional. It seems like such an easy category to describe. Crimes against humanity. Rape. Murder. All the horrific stuff that evil people do to other people. This is the trauma of actions performed against another person because the person was deemed inferior.

And yet I feel there is another layer there. The first response is to think about this category as ‘only evil people live here’. Just as in the ‘impersonal and intentional’ category. Is that true? If someone intentionally does something that gives you (and specifically you) a deeply distressing or disturbing experience, must that logically be an evil person? It does hinge on how you interpret ‘intentional’. Are we talking about “taking a deliberate action that is traumatic for another person” or are we talking about “taking a deliberate action because it is traumatic for another person”?

Think of a person cheating on their spouse. They know they are in a monogamous, committed relationship and yet they went to bed with another. Is this personal and intentionally inflicted trauma? Did the person set out to give their spouse a disturbing, distressing experience? Did they cheat, in order to rub it in their spouse’s face? Or were they ‘merely’ self-absorbed? Did they not foresee that the other person would be harmed by their actions? If the latter is the case, does this warrant placing the act in the last category: personal and unintentional? Does it make the cheater evil?

Was it just an unintended side-effect of their action, did they never mean to harm their spouse? Or did they foresee and deem their own gratification more important?

The sentence “I was thinking of you the whole time”, is apparently commonly used in an attempt to make the other person’s shock and disgust go away. It never works, of course, it only makes it worse. Why is the sentence used anyway? I think it’s because the perpetrator tries to move themselves from the “intentional” to “unintentional” box. They never meant to hurt you, they love you as much as before and so you shouldn’t feel hurt. (Or, please don’t feel hurt.)

This does nothing to clarify where on the intentional-unintentional axis you are. Saying “I only though of you” does nothing to move the perpetrator from intentional to unintentional. In fact, because they chose to try to move along that axis, it implies the perpetrator does not seem it likely that the other axis will move: it is an admission by omission that the act was indeed personal.

People who do not want to take responsibility for their actions, will try to move boxes some other way. If they realize they can’t go from intentional to unintentional, they will try to move from personal to impersonal. There are the people who, when making a derogatory statement about you, will laugh and say it was a joke. By saying it was a joke, they try to move the inflicted trauma (because being belittled is very disturbing) from personal to impersonal.

As we’ve seen above, impersonal actions hardly ever combine with unintentional, there’s not much in that box. Therefore, moving from personal to impersonal, also exerts some pull along the other axis: It very nearly forces a move from to unintentional as well. You’re the one who’s being overly sensitive. It was just a joke/remark/fluke/fling. I didn’t mean it that way and I didn’t mean anything by it. I think gaslighting and bullying works off this principle, by moving along the wrong axis (personal → impersonal) and then pulling the other axis with it as well (intentional→ unintentional). Gaslighting is in fact a way to intensify the suffering, by assigning the trauma the wrong category. It’s a way to unfairly acquit the perpetrator. Moving along the wrong axis will make the traumatized person feel more traumatized.

On the other hand, moving along the appropriate axis, can affect the level of suffering in a positive way. A way to heal the relationship, is by apologizing. A sincere apology, that is genuinely given, appropriate and empathetic, can rewrite history. It changes the past from”I intended to do you harm” to “I didn’t intend to do you harm, it was an awful lapse of judgement and I am terribly sorry”. Only if the person who made the misstep acknowledges it and never does it again and does everything in their power to atone for their actions, is there a possibility for healing. In other words, the level of suffering that is evoked is different, depending on the intention of the one who inflicted it. Healthy relationships depend on how you navigate these two axes together.

Note however, that someone who seriously means you harm (present tense), will inflict more harm if they manage to move you out of the zone where they should rightfully be. They will avoid responsibility for the personal and intentionally disturbing experiences. Very few people are so malicious and cunning that they can do this without the other person noticing that it happens. The process is often started in many small ways. With slow jabs the other is made more submissive. This move between zones will be made often enough in many large and small ways to eventually make you doubt yourself. Then there’s no holds barred. You will feel overly sensitive. You’ll feel broken and wrong inside, for being so easily triggered. Everything is forcibly pulled towards the ‘impersonal and unintentional’ zone. You’re making a fuss about nothing and you will start gaslighting yourself, once the difference between personal and intentional is eroded.

4. Personal and unintended

Personal and unintended trauma’s are the true tragedies of life. A well-meaning person does something that is deeply disturbing and distressing to another person. The traumatic part is not that it happens, because things like these happen all the time in life. We bump into each other and jostle each other all the time and sometimes a few toes get bruised. It’s not a big deal to bump into someone in the street. Someone can shortchange you. A loved one says something about your fuzzy eyebrows and it hurts your feelings, but you had never told them that you were self-conscious about your eyebrows. Once you tell them you didn’t like that, they know and will take it into account. Then, it diminishes. So, none of these things are traumatic or, if they are traumatic, can be resolved in this manner. Remorse, apology and atonement. A healthy relationship can withstand some large and small lapses in judgement.

What makes the fourth category traumatic then? The traumatic part is when the perpetrator is unable to acknowledge that they hurt you. There is nothing so infuriating as someone who denies that they ever said something hurtful. Note that they don’t deny it because they are malicious, that would put them firmly in the ‘personal and intentional’ zone. Instead, they deny it because they truly don’t remember. People forgetting or not seeing how they possibly could have hurt you, is one of the most painful trauma’s there are. Someone who does not see how they hurt you, will inevitably make you feel as if you don’t matter to them. You will seek a way to get them to understand how they hurt you so that they would finally say they are sorry, so that it may be resolved. But because they don’t understand that something hurt you, the pain will intensify: Every time they interact with you, you are reminded of how they didn’t acknowledge how they hurt you. Because if they would have acknowledged it, it wouldn’t have been disturbing to you. The longer this situation lasts, the more traumatic it is.

If this happens to you often and does not diminish, you will paradoxically stop telling people that they are hurting you. People will then bump into you more and more, because you don’t indicate your boundaries. The paradox is not a paradox at all: You’ve been hurt and have experienced that the denial of your pain hurts you even more. So now, whenever you are hurt, you are reminded that speaking up about pain will give you more pain. Instead of speaking up, you will bear it silently, resentfully. If this happens to you often enough, you’ll become bitter and perhaps misanthropic. Also, your ability to express yourself takes a hit. Our capacity to express ourselves to a person undergoes an upwards or downwards spiral in direct relation to how well they understand us. If someone does not understand you no matter what you say, you will become more erratic in your communication with them. If you are understood well by them, you will hesitate less and less.

The most difficult part here is that traumas of the personal and unintentional kind that are structural and are recurring as a theme in the relationship are inflicted not by evil people: they are inflicted by people who mean well. These are people we cannot vilify. These people may actually get very upset at the suggestion that they did harm. When you indicate that they upset you, some retort that that has upset them. How could you interpret their well-intended things the wrong way? Sadly this attitude, the reflex of being offended that someone is hurt by your actions, will cause the relationship to go downhill slowly and steadily.

Of course, since trauma is subjective, anything can hurt you. You’re extremely fragile and sensitive, did you know that? One of the ways to deal with unintentional disturbing experiences is to claim that it is intentionally inflicted. (And therefore personal, because the other box doesn’t contain much, again.) It’s something that the brain does very quickly. Someone who makes a lot of mistakes on accident time after time again, you may start thinking that they’re doing it on purpose. For the brain, it’s easier to think that someone is purposefully being forgetful, not-understanding, clumsy, rude. It’s a self-protection mechanism that comes into action when the one who steps on your toes cannot acknowledge that they did it: You’ll try to reinterpret their actions as intentionally out to hurt you. But you find that you can’t, because you know that it wasn’t on purpose. And yet.. where does that leave you? Your foot still hurts. Are you not allowed to be angry? Where can you go? Frankly, you need the person who stepped on your foot to say sorry. It’s a normal thing. You need the balance to be righted again. In some cases, that will never happen. Although your foot stopped hurting a long time ago, you still remember that the balance was never restored.

Personal and unintentional trauma’s are by definition those that the perpetrator is unable to see. They are traumatic because the balance has not been restored.

Wrong categorization hurts

I alluded to it in the previous sections already. The victim can assign the perpetrator the wrong box by taking the offence as personal or intentional when it was not. This makes a second victim in an already tragically unsuccessful human interaction…

Another option is the perpetrator tries to move boxes by saying (either truthfully or falsely) that it was unintentional or that it was nothing personal.

There are more options. There is denial (“That didn’t happen”) and it’s friends attack (“You deserved it”) and reversing victim and offender (“You offended me!”).

All of the above create more pain.

A common thread

The kinds of trauma I’m talking about are mostly interpersonal trauma’s. However, at the start of this blog post I mentioned natural disasters. Looking at it now, I can see some categories of trauma: natural disasters, interpersonal trauma’s and the war veteran’s PTSD. How are they related? What is the common thread? Because there has to be one. Even though emotions can’t be expressed in cold hard numbers like the natural sciences are, there are certain rules governing our experiences.

Why do we use the word trauma for so many different things? The description of “a deeply disturbing or distressing event” does not really explain anything, it’s just a synonym. What makes it disturbing or distressing? If we choose the same word, we must feel there is a connection.

I realize how a stressful experience has an effect on the body and nervous system that leave impressions that stay with us for a very long time. But this post is not about the impact on the body per se. Because nonphysical events are also part of these categories. In those cases, like a spouse saying he cheated, the stress response comes after something happened. Something shatters and then we take fright. So what’s the common thread that binds all trauma?

I think a traumatic event causes a shock because an assumption about the world has just fallen to pieces under our eyes. A car accident breaks our sense of safety. An illness evaporates the illusion of invincibility or eternal health. A spouse causing you pain by accident hurts the assumption that they will always be a hundred percent reliable. A spouse hurting you on purpose, well, that destroys more than I can list here.

I think an event that is seriously traumatic is traumatic because it is a betrayal by the universe of some sort. Some foundational stepping stone in your map of the universe, something you had taken as true and infallible, probably even without explicitly realizing it, has crumbled. The behavior of you or others or events that happened violated the mental map you had and your world is shaking. I think the most traumatic is the breaking of assumptions you didn’t consciously know you had made. Perhaps it feels much heavier than an assumption. I think it feels like an unspoken promise that was broken.

It feels as if the universe has broken its promise to be a safe place. It feels as if you didn’t keep a promise you had made to yourself. I think most difficult feelings stem from discovering that your mental map is unreliable or even plain wrong…

These are things we don’t consciously think about. Some certainties we just take for granted. We assume the world makes sense and that our idea of the world is correct. And it’s a good thing because a sense of safety makes it possible for us to have a good night’s sleep and enables us to get out of bed in the morning and face the world. It allows our bodies to relax and settle down. All is well.

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