We tend to attribute the concept of ‘trauma’ typically to calamitous events. These events can cause lasting physical or psychological trauma, or both. Events such as natural disasters, wars, catastrophic accidents, undergoing traumatic medical treatment, being a first responder or a member of the Australian Defence Forces, and experiencing sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse are usually what we relate to as traumatic experiences. This kind of trauma is ‘overt’ trauma, and can give rise to reactions such as depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
But what happens when a person has experienced covert trauma? This kind of trauma may go unrecognised by the recipient and therefore, unacknowledged by the person experiencing it and their close ties. As this relational trauma feels ‘normal’, it is hidden from our consciousness and goes on unchecked. Covert trauma can also be a cause of mental illness such as anxiety, depression and complex PTSD.
So what is covert trauma? This is when you can’t quite put your finger on what is wrong and it is difficult to name how the words and actions experienced from others have been detrimental to you. There are many examples of what covert trauma looks like, situations such as:
Being labelled in your family of origin. Labels such as bad, unwanted, ugly, stupid, of no consequence, or being bodily shamed gives the recipient this particular core belief which they carry with them into adulthood, and informs their adult relationships.
Receiving conditional love. Having conditions put on how you are given love turns the recipient into a people pleaser, which again affects how they act in their intimate relationships. Examples of this would be that a child complaining about brussel sprouts for dinner receives the cold shoulder from their mother for a day or so and subsequently feels guilty. The next time they are served sprouts they choke them down. In their adult relationships they may be afraid to challenge the status quo with their partner, for fear of rejection and disapproval.
Subtle disapproval for contravening a tacit family rule. Years ago in another life, our unspoken rule was that I shouldn’t spend any money on myself. I had pledged to go to the UK to visit my mother for her 80th birthday and the trip would be expensive. As I had never made this trip, it felt reasonable that I went. I was not told I could not or should not go. Instead, I heard remarks like, “Do you have to go now?” This sent the message that it was ‘inconvenient’ for me to go, when the unspoken message was that I was not worth the money. I went, and much later, so did our marriage.
When an interaction with another person has left you feeling ‘bad’ and you can’t put your finger on why, you could have a think about the implications of what has just been said, or the possible motivations behind the other person’s actions. If you feel like exploring what has just occurred, you could gently ask something like this… “I’m not sure I understand fully what you just said (or just did). What happened there?” This gives them an opportunity to express themselves in more detail or explain their actions. This approach may reduce any hurt feelings and pave the way for clearer adult communication. If it is apparent that their intentions were malign, you can then think about how your future involvement with this person includes emotional safety for you, because you are worth this.