How Understanding Micro-Traumas Can Improve Your Mental Health
In our day-to-day lives as humans, we know we’re going to have good days and bad days. We might even have ups and downs on the same day. This is totally normal and part of everyone’s experience of life. Sometimes we feel happy, other times we are sad. A wide variety of emotions fill our days and paint every event in our memory. Happy moments are wonderful, and can even make us feel joy in remembering them for years afterward. But what happens with those sad moments we experience? What effect does it have on us? Sometimes those little hurtful moments build up over time and bruise our psyche in an emotional phenomenon known as micro-trauma.
Trauma with a big “T” is usually associated with monumental events in our lives – things like war, abuse, death of a loved one, or living through a natural disaster. Micro-trauma, however, is much more subtle, and builds up over a period of time. Margaret Crastnopol, Ph.D., a psychologist and psychoanalyst who has studied micro-trauma in depth, defines it as “seemingly insignificant experiences that are emotionally injurious to oneself or another. Because they seem so minor, they can be easily ignored, denied, or otherwise swept under the psychic rug.” Eventually, these minor experiences can do harm to how you view your worth, feelings of security, and your well-being.
When we view a micro-trauma event on its own, it can be easily shrugged off without causing harmful effects. However, when a series of micro-traumas are strung together, they can begin to create a tapestry of emotional wounds.
So, what can be considered a micro-trauma? In her book Micro-trauma: A Psychoanalytic Understanding of Cumulative Psychic Injury, Crastnopol identifies seven types of micro-traumatic patterns that can be harmful to one’s well-being.
- Small slights and insults
This is a prolific type of micro-trauma, and one Crastnopol calls ‘little murders.’ She says this type includes “off-hand insults, slights, mockery, back-biting, discounting, damning with faint praise, and back-handed compliments.”
If you feel as if someone is always putting you down or insulting you, it may make you feel like you need to be hyper-vigilant to protect your sense of worth. Over time, many people who experience this build an impenetrable wall, protecting themselves from those around them to avoid getting hurt.
- Being suddenly abandoned
When a friend or loved one suddenly cuts off all contact, it can be extremely painful. Modern-speak calls this being ‘ghosted.’ When you trust someone and care about them, and then without warning, they withdraw from you, it can leave you uncertain about your own judgment. You might begin second-guessing all your relationships, thinking maybe you feel too strongly or you don’t know how to correctly perceive others’ feelings and actions.
Crastnopol calls this “unkind cutting back.” She says, “It’s an unexpected, unilateral bid to attenuate a relationship in a way that creates hurt, confusion, and frustration. The decision to reduce contact occurs summarily without a convincing explanation. By shortening or postponing contact, spreading it out, or minimizing its original importance, the one stepping back from contact inflicts micro-trauma by undercutting the other person psychologically.”
- Chronic entrenchment
Do you know someone who is stuck? Someone who is resigned to his or her bad luck, or lot in life? They stubbornly won’t take the necessary steps to move forward or out of their situation? This is called chronic entrenchment, and the ones who actually experience the micro-trauma from this are the people around that stuck person.
Crastnopol says, “Much of the person’s energy goes into proving that trying to grow would not only be folly but psychologically disastrous. When they make efforts to try to do things differently, they abandon them before they could possibly yield fruit.”
Their entrenchment in being stuck can be harmful to family and friends who are there for them and get tangled up in their stagnation.
- Chronic Indignation
It’s important for people to feel genuinely accepted. When we expose our true selves to partners, peers, family, and society, we have a need to feel like we belong and fit in. When that feeling of belonging isn’t met sufficiently, that resulting feeling of indignation can develop into trauma.
Feeling indignation can often lead one to act out self-righteously in anger, damaging relationships. “The expression of unbridled indignation in personal relationships is often directly detrimental to whomever may be the object of the sentiment. Self-righteous anger can stimulate reprisal and retribution rather than correction,” Crastnopol says.
- Airbrushing and excessive niceness
Can excessive niceness really be a bad thing? Crastnopol seems to think so. She says that psychological airbrushing is when someone responds to the other as if “any flaws or failings they possess are insignificant or immaterial. … It may leave others unable to grapple with areas of friction effectively.”
Basically, engaging in this type of behavior leads to an inability to see things as they really are. You end up not being able to honestly communicate, or show that you see so-called negative attributes of someone but accept them anyway. Or, if someone is ‘airbrushing’ you, it may lead you to strive to only have desirable attitudes, repressing emotions that are healthy and normal to express like fear and anxiety.
- Uneasy Intimacy
Uneasy intimacy most commonly occurs during the early stages of a relationship when feelings are intense. In this type of micro-trauma, you feel so connected to someone that you overlook your differences to keep the feelings strong. This can even mean ignoring your own values and ideologies to remain with them. It’s a slippery slope that can lead to losing your individuality. Crastnopol says, “Uneasy intimacy is the problematic stepchild of intimacy, a kind of insecure closeness that can feel thrillingly engaging but also unsettling. This form of intimacy is an alluring but confusing bond that ends up thwarting you more than helping you, undermining your belief in your own judgment and weakening your trust in others.”
- Connoisseurship gone awry
This type of micro-trauma occurs when a mentor or teacher uses too much influence over someone, debilitating their sense of self and peace of mind. Crastnopol explains that a connoisseur might exert influence to “induct another person into the intricacies of a given subject matter, field of endeavor, or a way of being.”
When too much belief rests on one teacher or institution, it can cloud your judgment and result in a loss of autonomy and free thought. This loss of connection with your own personal thought and way of thinking can become a form of micro-trauma.
Understanding types of micro-traumas and how they can occur in your life can help you reduce instances in which these might happen to you. If you know how a situation can be damaging to your psyche and way of being, you can process them before they build up and create a more significant problem for you. Identify patterns in your life that upset you or cause feelings of disquiet. Do they fall into one of the above categories? If so, it can be extremely helpful to process these small traumas. Talking with someone, meditating, or journaling are amazing self-healing practices that can be used in dealing with micro-traumas.
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