When Trauma Defines You

How do you define yourself?

That isn’t something many people think about much, but it actually is a crucial question.

First of all, what do I mean by “define yourself?” I am talking about the things that contribute to how you feel about yourself in your baseline state.

Of course, there are lots of things that do this. As I see it, there are two basic categories: things that happen in your life, whether it is something you consciously strive for or something that just happens, and who you are intrinsically. So one is external and the other internal.

There are many neutral or even positive ways one can define oneself by the external factors: you could look at yourself through the defining lens of being married, for instance, or being a parent. You can define yourself through your job or hobby.

Internal factors could include your moral compass, for instance. How your mind works would be another: are you an artist, a scientist, or both? Are you optimistic, or does the glass always seem half empty? How you treat others: do you consider yourself a kind person, for example?

There should be a balance between the two, but people get into trouble when they let what they are or want to be overpower who they are. Cameron Diaz put it beautifully for the film Human when she talks about being famous:

“Fame doesn’t define me. If you are looking for fame to define you, you will never be happy. You will always be searching for happiness. Fulfillment comes within you by being authentic to yourself.”

As the adage says, money doesn’t buy happiness.

Trauma as a Defining Factor

Trauma can affect your self-definition either consciously or unconsciously.

This can be temporary, of course. I remember an old friend who lost her mother, and for a few months it was always one of the first things she’d bring up—that trauma defined her for a time. And that’s completely normal.

What’s not good is if you let the trauma define you over the long term. Affect you, yes—of course, trauma is going to affect you. But, just like the fame or money, it shouldn’t define you.

We all know individuals whose awful life always comes up early in any conversation, even with people they just met. They wear their neuroses on their sleeves, and, in fact, they make their trauma the primary part of their identity. They are usually unhappy.

Consciously is bad enough, but in so many people, trauma defines who they are unconsciously. One common example of this is sexual abuse survivors who never tell anyone. They start to define themselves unconsciously as victims. They allow the anger about that incident to just make them angry, period. Or they become addicted to something to try to assuage the pain, and then being an addict defines their life. If you keep something like sexual abuse in, it defines you whether you want it to or not.

But, as we learned about the vows we take, opening up about our trauma, and, importantly, the attitude we take towards it is a way of defining ourselves positively. Additionally, by doing this we can also pass resiliency to our children.

So just like chasing external things, such as money or fame, causes you to get away from what really defines you, trauma can do the same thing. Good or bad, if you let these things that happen to you become you, you are going to get your emotional self in a big heap of trouble.

What can you do when trauma defines you?

1) Get it out! For defining trauma, most often, you will need professional help to process it so you can get past it. It isn’t going to be easy, because the human mind is always afraid of the unknown, and it could be that you have identified yourself by your trauma for so long it will feel like you are losing yourself, no matter how miserable, by letting go of it. But it will be worth it.

2) Let experiences and feelings wash over and flow through you, but don’t let them take up residence. Awful things can also be rich experiences, and it is sometimes through experiencing things fully—not denying or burying them or the feelings they engender—that allows you to process them so you can let them move on. You will always have memories of them, but you don’t become them. Even just reminding yourself when you are going through a horrific time that your current intense feelings about this are temporary, and you will feel better next week, or next month, can help you get through it. But feel it fully before you let it go.

3) What internal traits would you like to have? Who is your authentic self? Is that who you are now? If not, what do you have to do so you embody more of the characteristics on your list? Even just being conscious of your defining characteristics puts you well on the way towards shaping them into the ones you want. And it goes without saying that if you are successful being authentic to yourself, you will be happy: if you get the right definition of yourself, it will be a positive one.

by Jeff and Miranda Levin