Trauma Imposter Syndrome
When it comes to trauma, it is not uncommon for a lot of survivors to experience what is known as trauma imposter syndrome. This is when a survivor invalidates themselves by saying something like “my trauma isn’t so bad, other people have it worse than me.”
There are a few reasons why this occurs, including but not limited to:
Avoiding Feelings About the Trauma
If a survivor believes that someone else has it worse than them, this may allow them to deny their feelings about what they went through. It may also allow them to focus on someone else’s pain instead of their own. Denial is something that a lot of survivors experience because trying to deal with the feelings of trauma may be overwhelming, terrifying and overall hard to cope with.
Survivors may also cope by trying to be thankful it wasn’t worse. Thinking that they were “lucky” on some level may help them to see the situation in a different light, or it may make it easier to bury the feelings they aren’t ready to feel. Trying to frame their trauma in a positive light may make it easier for them to deal with.
(For a lot of survivors, this is a step in the healing process. Everyone heals differently. If a survivor is using trauma imposter syndrome to cope, it is not up to anyone (except perhaps a therapist they are working with) to try and tell a survivor how they should be reacting to their trauma.)
Avoiding Seeing Their Abuser in a Bad Light
If a survivor loves the person that caused the trauma, it may allow them to rationalize that person “not being that bad”. Having an abuser who you care about can be complicated and confusing. This does not mean they have not done something wrong. And it definitely does not mean you can’t love someone while still being hurt by them and holding them responsible for their actions.
A survivor may believe their trauma isn’t valid because of things they have heard from their abuser or others (even people trying to genuinely be helpful). They may be pressured and conditioned to believe their feelings about the experience are wrong and they are not entitled to those feelings. They may be told that it should only be for people who went through “real” trauma. They may be pushed by other people to “look on the bright side” and otherwise minimize what they went through. This type of conditioning can make it harder for a survivor to accept their trauma and heal from it.
Trauma imposter syndrome can cause issues outside of invalidating a survivor. One of these issues being that just because a survivor is saying their trauma “wasn’t that bad,” it doesn’t mean that they will still not experience symptoms related to their trauma. This could mean that they think something is “wrong with them” and they may seek out the wrong type of treatment to handle the symptoms or even no treatment at all.
It’s important to note that there is no magic scale that trauma falls on. What makes trauma traumatizing is not the “severity” of the event but the emotions that we experience as a result of it. A traumatic event is one that causes harm, whether that be physical, mental, emotional, spiritual or any other kind of harm. Two people can go through very similar traumas and react in very different ways (or not react at all), and each of their responses are valid. One of the things that makes trauma so complex to talk about is that there are no universal responses to trauma - every person’s reaction is different.
When it comes to trying to find the validity in your trauma and challenging trauma imposter syndrome, I recommend trying to imagine your trauma happening to someone else. If they told you about it, it seems unlikely that you would say, “Oh, that doesn’t sound like a big deal,” or, “Well, other people have it worse, so you shouldn’t feel so bad.”
To use a similar example: Let’s say you have your house robbed, and a week beforehand, a friend of yours had their house burn to the ground. It would be normal and reasonable to think, “Well, at least I didn’t lose as much as they did.” It is also still reasonable to feel upset that you were robbed.
Someone else’s experiences do not negate nor invalidate your own. You can acknowledge other people’s experiences while still remembering that what happened to you should not have happened to you, and your feelings about it are still valid.
Your trauma is valid.