Defining trauma as a highly individual experience
When we think about trauma, experiences like sexual assault or surviving a war often come to mind. These experiences are undoubtedly highly traumatic and can lead to severe PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). How do you define trauma? A traumatic event is an event which threatens an individual’s sense of emotional or physical safety and security. How do you define and delimitate objectively what that sense of threat is and should feel like? How do you measure an individual’s feelings? What’s the threshold to define an event as traumatic? Pretty hard to define this clearly and objectively, in absolute terms.
This is because trauma is not defined by an event itself but by an individual’s experience of that event.
Trauma is indeed a highly subjective and individual experience.
… Which is impacted by people’s multi faceted identity (intersectionality baby!)
There is a tendency for some people to think their experience is not as ‘severe’ and ‘traumatic’ as what others have lived through. In order to go beyond that thought, it is important to remember that people, depending on their backgrounds, environment and identities, will experience the world differently. Their experience of trauma will therefore be different.
In other words, we are not all equal in the face of trauma.
Many factors will influence the way an individual will experience a potentially traumatic event. Down the line, these same factors will also partly define an individual’s ability to cope. The word ‘partly’ here is it essential. Important caveat! – Whilst acknowledging the impact of certain factors, it is also imporant to remember that an individual should never only be defined by their circumstances, nobody is doomed. Events do not happen in a vaccum, they take place in a certain context.
What are these factors? Race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, disability, sex are but a few. I personally think trauma should be seen through an intersectional lens.
The different elements which make a person’s identity (ie. race, religion, sexual orientation, sex, gender, physical appearance, disability etc) can overlap to create different levels of systemic discriminations, therefore creating very distinct experiences of the world for individuals.
Marginalised people and their experience of trauma
Trauma is therefore going to be experienced differently and often more acutely by people with marginalised identities.
As explained above, a traumatic event is an experience which threatens an individual’s sense of physical or emotional safety/security. It makes sense then to think of a person’s sense of belonging and connectedness as a part of the antidote to trauma. We are social animals after all. Being part of the group, and feeling a sense of belonging and connectedness to the group increases an individual’s sense of safety.
Systemic discrimination adds to the trauma load, and is an additional hurdle which prevents people with marginalised identities from feeling a sense of belonging, which is an essential coping and healing tool when dealing with trauma.
It is harder for people with marginalised identity (for example, trans, disabled, POC or Black people) to reach that sense of belonging and connectedness, simply because systemic discrimitations isolate people. So why is belonging such an issue for marginalised identities?
As Lindo Bacon explains it in her book , Radical Belonging, “the first place we are not allowed to belong is in our bodies“. People with marginalised identities “who don’t fit into the mythical norm” (ie. THE cis het non disabled thin white male) “are coerced and conditioned to work on their bodies to accomodate this mythical norm”. Because of their marginalised identities, some people are also made to feel like they don’t belong in the public space. Not being able to belong fully in the public space hinders marginalised people’s ability to come together and nurture their sense of belonging.
Beyond this issue of belonging, it is also important to remember that people with marginalised identities face the additional burden of systemic discriminations on a daily basis, for example through micro agressions but also things like access to healthcare, education, equal pay and work opportunity, police violence, racial stereotypes, to name a few.
As Lindo puts it, this makes of mental health “a deeply political issue”.
Source: Radical Belonging, How to Thrive And Survive in an Unjust World (2020), Lindo Bacon (@lindobacon – Instagram)
Highly recommend this book if your would like to learn more on the subject (ie. trauma and intersectional mental health)