We all create a way in which we make sense of our lives by creating “stories” or “narratives” about different life events, memories, experiences, who we are or who we are not, what make sense to us, and an infinite number of themes. Our mind is constantly active because that what minds do, they’re constantly generating all types of thoughts, images, hypothesis, cause-effect relationships, judgments, etc. So far, so good.
Here is the caveat: every time we face a challenging moment, we generate stories to tell ourselves as an explanation of what happened. When people experience a trauma or a traumatic event, it’s natural that, once again, their mind is going to come up with a narrative, most likely a self-defeating one; and just to be on the same page, we understand “trauma” as any range of distressing experience beyond the daily norm, which triggers a stress and fear response above that of daily experiences (Ahmadian et al., 2015). These trauma-based stories are accompanied by a plethora of emotions such as grief, anger, guilt, shame, or feelings of inability to manage uncomfortable emotions. They continue morphing throughout their life by filtering different life experiences, proving the narrative is truth, making decisions based on them, and when triggered these stories push them to take action in different situations, repeat behavioral patterns over and over, even though those responses are very painful, problematic, and distressing in the long term.
For example, Mariah, who was abuse as a child, developed the story of “it’s my fault, if I wasn’t wearing a short, and introduced myself to my mom’s boyfriend, this wouldn’t have happened. I’m worthless.” When Mariah meets a potential romantic partner, and encounter different types of problems, as it happens naturally in any relationship, she quickly assumes it’s her fault and tries to quickly remove herself from the conflict, emotionally and physically, without leaving any room for her to learn to handle interpersonal conflict and growing from it. As you can see, Mariah’s self-defeating narrative allows her to remain in her comfort zone, where she doesn’t have to face the pain of holding the narrative, remains unchallenged, even though it’s making her romantic life an unfulfilling one.
What’s the alternative?
To “unpack” these trauma-based stories in therapy. In therapy, we can begin to examine “narratives,” how they got created, what triggers them, what behaviors come along with them, but fundamentally looking at whether those behaviors are helpful or not in a given moment. Not an easy job, but not impossible either.
If you’re struggling with trauma-based narrative keep in mind that no change will happen unless you learn to look at that narrative for what it is, instead of living your life based on it. Change is possible.