If trauma can become a gift, first understanding it is imperative.

Left on her own, with no one to look after her, Annie wonders what she’s done wrong. Why don’t her parents care enough about her to check in? She stares at the empty floors lined with barren walls, symbolizing the vast space inside of her tiny heart. Trying to make sense of her predicament, Annie reasons that she must have been a bad girl. For if she were different, she’d be loved. In her book, The Unexpected Gift of Trauma, Dr. Edith Shiro argues, “The trauma itself comes not from the event, but from how we interpret the event, the resources we have to deal with it, and the way we process it. Our response is connected to the meaning we make of the experience we have, but it’s not necessarily proportional to the intensity of that experience.”

And many of my clients struggle with the type of reasoning, and ensuing shame, I present with Annie. On the one hand, a sense of control, and the belief that they can change; on the other, paralysis from the ignorance of how to start. What Annie doesn’t know, like so many abandoned children, is that she didn’t cause her parents to do anything, at least not in any meaningful way. She doesn’t understand their patterns, nor the complex relationship of cause and effect.

We learn about that relationship as children, both verbally and experientially. If I move the cup too far, it falls off of the table. If I touch the stove, my hand is burned. The world begins to makes sense in this respect. I do X and Y happens. Or I don’t do X and Y happens. Thus, personalization, or taking too much responsibility for some result, becomes a natural manifestation of this process. Children tend to see the world in dyads – relationships consisting of two people. In this bubble, it’s easy to believe that if someone hurt me, I must have deserved it. Blame is assigned in a moralistic and simplistic manner, wherein the life circumstances and interpersonal patterns of the harmer aren’t, and can’t be, considered. Annie only knows what exists between her and her parents. And as she ages, she may, also, begin comparing her relationships to those of the other kids, reinforcing her belief of being a bad daughter. If the other children’s parents are nice to them, they must deserve their kindness.

So, Annie becomes stuck in trying to resolve her shame. What could she have done? Why was she so bad? In my own relationship with my biological father, I always wondered why he left, knowing very little of him. I wondered if I wasn’t attractive enough or smart enough, or had enough potential. How could it have been anything else, anything but me? Learning about his life, and his unwillingness to grow up, I became better able to paint an internal picture of his life and relationships. Womanizing was one part. Drinking was another. It’s a fact of life that he left me, but, peering into his social world, I realized that he would’ve left any other child (which he actually did do). Arguably, his narcissism stemmed, at least in part, from his own trying relationship with his domineering mother. Thus, freedom was always going to be his main priority. But, younger me would have, and could have, never known that. My father left because he was afraid, and felt suffocated, because he wanted freedom, and because I was a burden. But, he didn’t leave because of anything related to my essence, who I was fundamentally. In reality, I’m sure he didn’t even care enough to consider it. He just wanted out.

So, my predicament was certainly, to some extent, attributable to me. Yet, in many ways, it wasn’t. As a child, I didn’t understand that effects, in reality, have multiple causes. I didn’t get that being abandoned by a caregiver was only sort of about me. I was the star of my own show, and suffering from my solipsism.

Psychoanalyst Nancy McWilliams argues, “Everyone behaves masochistically under certain circumstances, often to good effect. Children learn on their own that one way to get attention from their caregivers is to get themselves in trouble.” And that was I did. I acted out. I became obnoxious. And I was difficult to deal with. I punished everyone but my dad. But, again, since I didn’t cause him to leave, I could do little to effectively call him home. So, at the expense of my own well-being and self-esteem, my mind blamed me for its own anguish; the alternative – the potential chaos ensuing from my feeble choices – felt too intolerable.

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Yet, as I write about my dad, and publicly acknowledge my pain, I’m freed from the burden of having to be better. Because better doesn’t exist. There’s no stone left unturned and no deformed rock to chisel. Who I am and what I was never mattered, at least not there. To me and for me, this is at least one gift of trauma. I learned to take almost nothing personally. And if that’s merely a rationalization, an intellectual barricade from my pain, then I can just thank my mind, and be grateful that it works.

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