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It’s important to recognize trauma – but we shouldn’t let it become our entire identity | Gill Straker and Jacqui Winship

The way we shape our identity plays a crucial role in determining our well-being. This formation, often unconscious, can stimulate our personal growth, but can sometimes also unintentionally limit it.

As social awareness grows about the traumatic impact of issues such as racism, domestic violence, prejudice, discrimination and poverty, there is increasing attention to trauma-informed therapy. This approach recognizes the impact of trauma on well-being and moves away from historically blaming victims for their circumstances.

Victimhood is multi-layered and often requires both social and therapeutic intervention. But there is a danger that individuals affected by trauma may unintentionally adopt an overarching “trauma identity.” This exclusive identification as a victim can overshadow more positive aspects of one’s identity, limiting one’s autonomy, pleasure, and creativity.

Meet Alex*, a 28-year-old man who is unknowingly entangled in his victimhood. Having experienced significant trauma in the past, Alex developed a subtle but powerful habit of weaving these traumas into his daily interactions because he wanted to elicit sympathy and support from others. Unaware of this unconscious pattern, he experienced and portrayed himself as an eternal victim, despite his current circumstances being quite favorable.

Alex’s partner Sarah bonded with him over this trauma and initially felt honored that he confided in her. But as time went on, she began to feel exhausted by his preoccupation with past trauma and the difficulty he had coping with other aspects of his identity. She also became aware that she was not the only recipient of his story. Sarah began to withdraw her support and validation because she felt like her own needs and feelings were not being taken into account, which Alex dismissed as relatively trivial. When she pulled away, Alex’s need for validation escalated, culminating in resentment and resentment. He became increasingly hostile as Sarah took on the role of persecutor in his mind.

Thus began a very familiar dynamic, captured in what is called the Karpman drama triangle of victim/persecutor/rescuer, in which participants continually switch roles. For Alex and Sarah, the triangle played out as usual.

A victim will often call in a counselor to help him. However, they may also unconsciously look for a persecutor to confirm their sense of themselves as victims.

Stuck in the victim position, Alex began to see not only that Sarah (the rescuer) was unwilling to acknowledge and accommodate his trauma, but that he was also turning against him (the persecutor). This led to Alex becoming hostile towards her with passive aggression and emotional attacks. While Alex continued to experience himself as a victim in the relationship, he actually became a persecutor.

The Karpman Triangle recognizes that attacks from the victim position are common and can be pernicious and confusing because the person is indeed still a victim. So while Sarah felt very hurt and hurt by Alex’s attacks, she was also painfully aware of his true victim status and confused by this switch. But the hostility made it difficult not to retaliate, and by retaliating she confirmed Alex’s perception that she was persecuting him. Alex, in turn, felt abandoned and retraumatized, believing that his search for support and validation was further legitimized by Sarah’s retaliation.

At this point, Alex sought therapy to get the support he was no longer receiving in the relationship. During the first few sessions, he wanted to present Sarah as the only problem in the relationship and describe his difficult and traumatic childhood history. The therapist obviously understood his plight, but also quickly noticed how the Karpman dynamic was playing out.

Although the therapist acknowledged Alex’s real trauma and victimhood, he wanted to show how a consistent focus on injustice and hardship can lead to a sense of hopelessness and despair. It can also be disempowering because the focus is on what is being done to someone, rather than on what he or she can do for themselves.

This identity can become a defense mechanism against accountability or taking personal responsibility – and at worst, it can be used to justify attacks on others. The therapist helped Alex process past trauma while empowering himself to make changes in the present. She drew his attention to the fact that in the therapy relationship he often tried to get her to focus only on his grievances and hardships, appearing reluctant to move on even after these had been processed and validated. She also highlighted their moment-to-moment interactions to give Alex insight into how he tended to become angry when she disobeyed, and suggested that he might be able to gain more control over his current circumstances.

Once Alex had some understanding of this unconscious coping style, the therapist encouraged him to explore what resources he might have that he was not mobilizing—that is, how he could mobilize his own internal savior.

This mantra, attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr and used in many therapy programs, proved fruitful: “Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to to know the difference.’

The therapist also helped Alex see that while there were advantages to being a victim, including gaining support and reducing the expectations of others, there were also major disadvantages, such as stagnation and the disruptions in the relationship that caused him led them to seek therapy. first place.

In a final step, Alex was shown how his victim identity not only predisposed him to instigating his own persecution, as had happened to Sarah, but also alarmingly pushed him to become a persecutor himself.

As Alex became less invested in a victim’s identity, he was able to interact more spontaneously and freely with Sarah and see her needs more clearly. Sarah also recognized her own role in the drama triangle and saw the tension that Alex brought to therapy diminish. Although Alex remains a victim of trauma, this is no longer the only constellation on which his identity is based, allowing him to experience greater well-being and a healthier relationship.

*Alex is a fictional amalgam used to illustrate similar cases. The therapist is a fictional amalgam of both authors.

Prof Gill Straker and Dr Jacqui Winship are co-authors of The talking cure. Gill also appears on the podcast Three Association in which relational psychotherapists explore their blind spots.