This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Personality Isn't Permanent" by Benjamin Hardy. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What exactly is trauma? How does trauma work, and what is its purpose?
According to psychologist Benjamin Hardy, trauma is, in essence, a narrative you form in your head about a painful experience. The traumatic narrative serves a defensive purpose: to prevent you from feeling similar types of pain in the future by encouraging you to avoid similar situations.
Keep reading to learn about the psychology of trauma, according to Benjamin Hardy.
How Trauma Works
How does trauma work? Psychologist Benjamin Hardy claims that when an event is frightening or emotionally painful enough, sometimes a person unconsciously develops a deeply entrenched, unhealthy narrative about it. For instance, if you asked someone out as a kid, and they laughed at you, you might develop a deep belief that you’re an unappealing person to date.
According to Hardy, traumatic narratives serve a purpose: If you develop negative beliefs about yourself after an emotionally painful experience, you’ll be more likely to avoid similar kinds of experiences that could make you feel the same type of emotional pain. Building on the last example, if you believe you’re unappealing to date, you’re much less likely to try expressing romantic interest to anybody and risk further rejection.
(Shortform note: Scientists believe that trauma evolved to help human beings survive. This is largely because of fear avoidance. Most of the fear our ancestors experienced was the result of facing genuine danger. By developing extremely uncomfortable feelings associated with the memory of scary events, humans were more likely to avoid placing themselves in situations that reminded them of these events and were generally also dangerous.)
While these negative narratives and beliefs help you avoid short-term discomfort, they lead you to see yourself as less capable and ashamed of yourself. Unresolved traumas—or events that you still carry unhealthy narratives about—make you feel defined by your past and incapable of changing your personality.
According to Hardy, unresolved trauma can also prevent you from doing things necessary for meeting your primary goal. For instance, if your primary goal is to become a CEO, but you have a traumatic memory that makes you doubt your competence as a leader, you might avoid putting yourself in leadership positions. Additionally, negative attitudes toward yourself from unresolved trauma lower your self-esteem and confidence in general, both of which are necessary ingredients for feeling empowered and motivated enough to complete your primary goal.
(Shortform note: The shame caused by traumatic narratives can get in the way of meeting your goals in more ways than Hardy mentions. In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown says that shame activates your body’s fight or flight response, preventing you from thinking critically. Additionally, she argues, shame makes you afraid to take risks. These can both get in the way of helping you meet your goal by making you see yourself as incapable of overcoming obstacles—since you can’t think as rationally—and by making you afraid to try—since facing obstacles involves risking failure.
|The Consequences of Expanding the Definition of Trauma|
Some might argue that Hardy’s broad use of the word “trauma” is irresponsible. This broadening of the definition of “trauma” is part of a phenomenon called “concept creep,” and it comes with some negative consequences. Concept creep is where a word that denotes a form of harm—such as “bullying” or “neglect”—has its definition expanded to include other, less harmful things. For instance, people used to see bullying just as intentional harassment, but the term has expanded to include unintentional meanness and inconsiderate behavior.
Concept creep makes people take some overlooked forms of harm more seriously by placing them in the same category as more serious things, which legitimizes them. By expanding the definition of “bullying” to encompass more than just blatant aggressive behavior, people start calling other kinds of mistreatment “bullying,” leading them to see these lesser forms of mistreatment as more problematic and harmful than they did before.
While this is helpful in some cases, it carries negative consequences. When we use the same words for both significantly and mildly harmful things, we equate them—meaning we experience them the same way. Thinking of an embarrassing moment in your past as a trauma, rather than just an upsetting memory, can actually make this event have more power over you—making you feel more disempowered and ashamed about it than you otherwise would.
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- How personality is not fixed, but fluid and changeable
- How the narratives you tell yourself dictate what you’re capable of
- How to change your personality to become your optimal self