Recognizing Hurt, Addressing Harm and Preventing Abuse
DISCLAIMER: I am not a medical professional nor am I a licensed trauma therapist. All information in this article is based solely on my own research on trauma, sexuality and transformative justice and how being “trauma-informed” manifests itself in my work.
CONTENT WARNING: Metaphorical use of language surrounding cuts, wounds and scarring. Use of the word abuse, abusers and mention of generational and systemic trauma.
See the end of the article for a list of resources on trauma and trauma-informed care.
by Mx. Chelsey Morgan
I’m not interested in buzzwords or anecdotes at the moment so forget the introduction. The reality is, we all have trauma. We all have memories that have caused us pain, that have altered our world view, or that have ignited our instinct to survive. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event. However, trauma experts have recognized that trauma is much more than a singular response to a singular moment. It’s what happens when our fight, flight, freeze or fawn instincts fail and the events that happen to us start to rewire our bodyminds, overwhelming our ability to cope and over-activating our biological stress responses.
Trauma manifests itself differently in everyone and what is traumatic to some may not be traumatic to others. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) separates trauma into 15 distinct types, from childhood bullying to intimate partner violence to generational and community violence. However, there is no definitive list that can categorically encompass the omnipresent nature of trauma and how it’s held in our body, our mind and our spirit. On top of that, despite its existence in every space, the most common manifestation of trauma is still shame; shame that is placed on us by an anti-black, cissexist, and ableist society that teaches us that to be traumatized is to be “broken”. So, it is no wonder that we live in a society where people lash out in pain, turn inside themselves or find self-destructive distractions to cope with their hurt.
I’m a logical person. When I have a problem, I look for viable, established steps to solving that problem. But when it comes to hurt, there’s no 3 step plan. There’s no measurable and timely goal to achieve that will send you on your way. There’s just wounds that are constantly brushed and people who seem to never mean to brush them.
That’s the worst part. It hurts when you’re reminded of your trauma wounds. It hurts more and more each time someone says “you’re pretty… for a black girl”, simultaneously revealing the scars of systemic trauma, gender dysphoria and racial ambiguity. But, it’s at the recognition of that hurt where we find ourselves at a loss. Because sure, in the end it’s impact over intention. And, as the person receiving the microaggression, I could reasonably attack and call them out for their role in white supremacy culture. Or I could call them in, take the time and the emotional labour to educate them about why what they said was hurtful, risking re-traumatization in the process. Or hell, I could call on them to go out and educate themselves. But in the end, it’s white supremacy culture that harmed me.
The first step to solving a problem is identifying that you have a problem. I am hurt. Who is responsible for my hurt? Yes, they brushed my scars, but who made the first cut? In recognizing our hurt, we can hold others accountable for activating our trauma. We can call them out and ask for change, call them in and show them the impact of their actions, or call on them to work on curating change for themselves. However, understanding the source of your hurt, identifying where and when the harm was done, and finding accountability in those people, systems or in yourself… that’s step one.
“Okay sure, but they brushed my wounds on purpose.”
What does it mean to harm someone? In simplest terms, it means to create or to take part in the creation of a new trauma wound. It’s to overwhelm a person’s biological ability to cope and it’s something we’re all more than capable of doing. More specifically, according to Spring Up, harm is the actions of a person or system that create unmet needs or obligations. Harm is the racism that creates inequity. Harm is the ableism that creates disability. It’s the cissexism and homomisia that creates sexual shame. But it’s also childhood bullies. It’s love bombing. And yes… it’s brushing your wounds until they reopen or create new ones. In that way, harm is deliberate. Regardless of conscious intention or whether they were certain of the existence of the wound, harm is action that creates trauma that creates need.
When we are the survivors of harm, through guidance, we can come to understand our options. Whether we elicit the call out, call in or call on approaches, find another way toward accountability, or choose to do nothing at all, we are often met with sympathy and understanding in our search for a way to address the root of our trauma. But what happens when you are the person who has caused the harm? How do we hold ourselves accountable so as to not create a pattern? What happens when, despite even our best efforts, a pattern begins to form?
Abuse is a pattern of behavior that reinforces the actions of the harm (Spring Up). Abuse is the white supremacy culture that reinforces the racism. It is the anti-blackness and the eugenics that reinforces the ableism. It is the misguided religiosity that reinforces the cissesim and the homomisia. But abuse is also the outpouring of love after a night of pain. It’s the epic highs met with the epic lows, night after night, continuing a pattern of love and care followed by the repeated harm and the reopening of old wounds (BCRW). To prevent abuse is to understand the pattern.
We are all capable of abuse.
When we harm others, whether that be through the inadvertent and yet repetitive activation of hurt or through deliberate actions toward them, we open ourselves up to the opportunity to abuse. Our choice in that moment is to either take accountability for that harm, understanding our impact and opening ourselves up to self work, or to ignore it. We can choose to put a bandaid on the harm, giving a performative apology that appeases our ego or our reputation and to continue while the systems and actions that led to that harm are not addressed. But once we decide, we must keep choosing. If today we choose to let our ego overwhelm us, tomorrow we must choose to set it aside. Breaking the pattern, much like breaking a habit or battling an addiction, is a commitment to self work. It’s a commitment to self-accountability, to create a ritual of considering whether our choices align with our values and to find others willing to call on us when they do not. We all do harm, but once we understand the pattern of abuse, we have the tools to prevent it.
And to the survivors, accountability does not mean reconciliation with your abuser. Self-accountability is not just a tool of prevention, it’s a tool of healing. It’s recognizing the conscious choices you made in the course of surviving, accepting that you made the best decision with the information you had available at the time, and empowering you to stand tall. Our society teaches us that to be traumatized is to be “broken”, that we should be ashamed of the actions we took in the course of surviving. Self-accountability says that we should be proud. We should have pride in how far we’ve come. Pride in our ability to recover. Pride in our ability to survive.
To Be Trauma – Informed
We all have trauma. We all have memories that have caused us pain, that have altered our world view, or that have ignited our instinct to survive.
We are all survivors of harm. We are all doers of harm. We all carry hurt. Recognize your ability to hurt, harm or abuse others. Recognize the moments where your impact outweighs your best intentions. Create a plan for accountability. Move with the intention of repairing relationships, rather than repairing your ego. Act with intention, with compassion and with grace.
The weight of our trauma is not equal. Recognize that trauma is inherent to blackness, to queerness, to disability, to femininity, to poverty and to all marginalized genders and identities harmed by white supremacy culture. Understand your privilege. Understand the harm you may inherently cause to others. I’m calling on you in this moment. Educate yourself.
Any and all reaction to trauma is “normal”. Trauma overwhelms our conscious abilities to self-regulate. In some, it creates feelings of helplessness, diminishes our sense of self or shutters our ability to feel a full range of emotions and experiences. In others, it creates anger or resentment. It causes us to lash out and blinds us to the impact of our actions. We are all survivors, and we should not feel ashamed for the actions we took in the course of surviving.
People who do harm are not monsters. Acknowledge the humanity in others. Hold space for the ways in which their trauma may manifest through their actions. By no means does this mean that you must forgive or encounter your abuser for the purpose of reconciliation. You do not need to accept their apology.
You are not a monster. It is okay if you loved your abuser. It’s okay to have compassion for the humanity within us all. Take space for your own emotional processing. Make space for your mental, physical, emotional, professional and energetic boundaries and allow yourself the room to breathe.