One of the Most Harmful Myths About Trauma

No Soy De Aquí nor from there

A series centering on the search for belonging, healing, and fumbling towards liberation!

By Christine Leone 

Send questions about the self, healing from racial trauma, and liberation to [email protected]. Include your name and location, or a request to remain anonymous. Letters may be edited. 

One of the Most Harmful Myths About Trauma

Q. Hi Christine- A friend recently told me that she thinks my experience was traumatic. Maybe? The supervisor at my last company was really abusive, to the point that it affected my health and self-esteem. She was a self-proclaimed “progressive” white woman. Still, she constantly gaslighted me whenever I raised concerns, questioned my intelligence, and exploited my strong work ethic (I’m a Person of Color). My question is about the word “trauma” I think about things like hurricanes and floods and murder as trauma. While my experience was terrible, does it count as trauma? If so, what should I do? 

Answer: First and foremost, the abuse you experienced at work is real. Being a self-proclaimed “progressive” is performative unless you identify and address how you continue to suffer from and uphold colonial values. This includes aspects of capitalism that benefit from squeezing as much knowledge and labor from folks while paying them as little as possible. While the profit-over-people mentality upheld by white supremacy and patriarchy hurts everyone, it hurts Black, Indigenous, and People of Color the most. BIPOC folks tend to put in the longest hours, exert the most effort, and earn the least pay while experiencing abuse – typically delivered with a smile. Black feminists have highlighted this phenomenon since before the suffrage movement, and very little has changed.

In my work experience, white women have been the biggest culprits in upholding white supremacy, patriarchy, exploitation, and abuse. I cannot tell you how often my colleagues of color and I have dreaded or avoided interactions with white liberal administrators because of an inevitable racist comment, overfamiliarity, or privileged obliviousness. 

The more direct behaviors of belittling intelligence, gaslighting, forced martyrdom, forced resignations, and creating a hostile work environment would appear whenever the status quo was questioned. Eventually, the effects of chronic abuse may cause you to doubt your value, negatively impact your mental and physical health, and become internalized as trauma. It sounds like that may have been what you experienced.

That being said, it is crucial to recognize that not everyone will be traumatized by a traumatic experience. For example, being bitten by a dog may be traumatizing for one person. For another, it may just feel like an unfortunate event. 

Traumatic events may be one singular occurrence, several, or ongoing and chronic. There is no perfect definition of what will cause someone trauma. If your self-confidence has taken a dive or your health is suffering, then you may be experiencing trauma from the abuse you are working under. 

One of the most harmful myths is the belief that “my trauma wasn’t that bad or as bad as the trauma of others, so I should get over it.” This is part of self-gaslighting that can occur as a response to the lack of acknowledgment of the pain you are experiencing. Eventually, this can become internalized, as if something is wrong with you rather than your environment. You may even feel isolated and alone, wondering if it is just you or if others are feeling this way. No, you are not alone, and others feel this way. So what can you do?

  1. Learn more about the colonial mindset, which underlies what we know as capitalism and the basis for most work environments. The more you learn about the characteristics of colonialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy, the more you can recognize how it shows up at work and other institutions. This can feel overwhelming and even devastating at first, but the more you see that the abuse you are experiencing is intentional and systematic, the more you can recognize that it’s not you; it is the culture we live in. This new wisdom gives you the knowledge and power to make informed decisions about your life. Decisions that are grounded in truth rather than the narrative pulling yourself up by your bootstraps or there is something inherently wrong with you.  
  2. What you are feeling is normal, and you deserve care. The burnout, chronic stress, sadness, or anger you are feeling is normal because you are being abused; therefore, you must care for yourself. Your insomnia, migraines, isolation, and irritability are your body telling you something is wrong and needs your attention. This may require action that feels counterintuitive to what we have been taught to believe makes us good workers. For example, do you need rest, silence, or a slower pace? Do you need time off? Do you need to quit your job? The more you can tune into your body and provide the care you need, the more equipped you will be to make decisions that are more likely to protect your peace.
  3. Connect with others with similar experiences. One of the ways abuse proliferates is through silence, so if it feels safe enough, talk to your co-workers of color that you feel comfortable with. Ask them about their experiences. Chances are they have experienced similar abuses as you and have devised strategies to cope or resist. If it is unsafe enough to connect with people at work, try connecting with others in your physical or online communities. Talking to others who I trusted and understanding the dynamics of oppression in the workplace were one of the ways I coped when being managed by white women. Sometimes, a knowing glance or a long-awaited coffee with the other Latina/x, Black, Indigenous, or Person of Color who “got it” was enough to get me through the day until I was in a position to leave.  
  4. As with any person who has been abused, you are the only one who gets to decide what to do once you realize you are in an abusive situation. You can stay at your place of employment knowing that YOU are not the problem and engage in small acts of resistance or self-love to hold onto your peace. You can slowly create an exit strategy and then leave in self-preservation when you are ready, or you can simply walk out and never return. Whatever you decide, it is up to you and no one else. Not I nor anyone can tell you how to respond when being abused. You are the expert on your life and get to decide what is best for you.

Suppose you are looking for a clean definition of trauma. In that case, you may find a clinically whitewashed explanation in the DSM-V. Still, it does not even begin to articulate the experience of abuse and completely ignores the dynamics of oppression. This a-historical and a-contextual definition may lead one to minimize trauma if “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence” did not occur. This conceptualization of trauma upholds white supremacy values. It discredits the chronic micro-experiences that consistently question your right to exist. Isn’t that violence? Isn’t the chronic stress of surviving abuse a severe injury that could ultimately lead to an untimely death?

If we continue to depend on the medical field to validate our own experiences, we risk gaslighting ourselves into believing our versions of reality don’t matter. Your experiences are real, and they matter. Your reactions to those experiences require attention, nurturing, connection, and responsiveness. If you are feeling it, it’s real. If you are living it, it’s real. You don’t need me or anyone else to tell you if you are experiencing trauma. You are capable of understanding your present circumstances. You are capable of caring for yourself. You can make informed decisions allowing you to survive and thrive like you were meant to.

Thank you for joining us for the six-part series, No Soy De Aquí nor from there! In case you missed it, check out the full series: 

  1. Introducing No Soy De Aquí nor from there with Christine, a series centering on the search for self, healing, and fumbling towards liberation!
  2. The Matrix and White Supremacy
  3. How Do You Begin to Dismantle White Supremacy? It Starts with You. 
  4. How Can We See Things Clearly When We Are Living in the Matrix? 
  5. Why We Invalidate Ourselves in Toxic Work Environments
  6. One of the Most Harmful Myths About Trauma (this post)
Christine Leone, LCSW, ICDVP

Christine Leone, LCSW, ICDVP

Hi, I'm Christine, and I'm a counselor who helps people explore healing through liberation practices. I currently offer counseling services here at Chicago Compass Counseling and specialize in EMDR, anxiety, and Race-Based Traumatic Stress. If you're interested, you can read more about me on my about page.