It is not the degree of violence or physicality that makes an event traumatic, although those elements play a role in the psyche’s ability to process experience. Duration, likewise, plays a part, but isn’t the primary cause.
An event is traumatic when it confronts, threatens, and/or shatters a person’s assumptive world. The assumptive world is the “interconnected system of core beliefs that you hold about yourself, the world you live in, the people around you, your past, and your future” (Tedeschi and Moore, The Posttraumatic Growth Workbook). Psychologists coined the term because it “reflects what you assume to be true about everyday life.”
Thus, an event is traumatic when it alters your beliefs about the world, humanity, and your personal existence within the frame of worldly experience.
When my seventeen year old boyfriend fingered me against my will (I was only sixteen), I invalidated the impact of this experience on my own psyche because it was not overtly violent and it did not include his phallus. Nevertheless, the event incontrovertibly altered me.
I remember walking around in a heady fog, performing academic duties and interacting with friends at school, but feeling disembodied–affected. Of course, my perpetrator had pretty well brainwashed me into believing this distance I felt from the world (from myself) was a signpost of true love.
This seemingly minor event, which marred me permanently, paled in comparison to future assaults by the same young assailant. Nevertheless, it left an abiding mark for this reason:
It confronted my core beliefs.
Prior to this experience, the world was easily divided into good and evil. Sure of my own morality, I was a good girl because I was chaste, pure, and responsible–a guardian of personal virtue. The assault forced me to confront ambiguity.
This was the first time I questioned my worldview.
To accept its authority, without question, would be to resign myself to a state of moral turpitude. To question would offer myself (and others) some leniency–a gray-scale margin of error.
I found myself reflecting, through the fog, on the reputations of my peers–those young women who’d long since been labeled sluts or whores. I began to wonder, in light of my own experience, whether they’d chosen their fate or whether promiscuity was forced upon them by the will of some other.
Nevertheless, the faith of the father can often prove unyielding.
With a desire to please my family of origin, I tried to conform my experience to my original core beliefs, and this is the reason why I remained in the relationship for two years after the initial assault.
My core beliefs indicted me; I was deficient, unable to guard my virtue. Thus, I was damned to commit to an abusive relationship, for the sake of my soul’s redemption.
The deconstruction halted, and it would not again surface for decades. My recovery met stalemate, in kind.
I’ve a lot of friends in the #exvangelical online community, and something I’ve discovered is that faith deconstruction and trauma recovery are soulmates. I’m not sure the latter can effectively occur without the initiation of the former.
Trauma confronts beliefs. Recovery requires one to re-evaluate. The failure to do so results in stagnation.
If you would like to read The Posttraumatic Growth Workbook, you can purchase from the link below and a portion of the proceeds will help me stop the dumb shit cycle!