Others don’t need to agree that your experience is valid, for your experience to be valid.
A great deal of my social media feed today is preoccupied with a story that had been publicized about a celebrity’s behavior while on a date. I saw post after post opining on whether the celebrity’s behavior on the date was merely “boorish,” or whether his behavior rose to the standard of “sexual assault.”
More than a few of the posts passed judgment on “how bad” this celebrity’s behavior was, how “guilty” or “not guilty” he was (and of what “charge”), and whether the woman with whom he’d gone out on the date “should” have publicized her painful experience with this man.
We’re a culture that loves to judge how “valid” others’ experiences— particularly their painful experiences— are.
We love to apply our own standards of “how bad” an experience has to be before it’s considered to be “valid” as a painful, damaging thing.
If an experience doesn’t rise to our standard for “bad enough” to be considered painful or damaging, we often instinctively retreat into a position of, “they should just suck it up. They shouldn’t be THAT damaged by that experience.”
The thing is…nobody gets to tell us how damaged we “should” be by an experience.
Nobody gets to tell us whether an experience is or isn’t a legitimately “damaging” experience.
This is what drives me crazy when people mock others’ “triggers” (or even the word “trigger” itself); it drives me crazy when people are dismissive of others’ painful experiences as “not that bad;” it drives me crazy when people pass judgment on whether others’ experiences aren’t “bad enough” to be considered traumatizing or damaging.
Unless it’s your experience, you don’t get to decide that.
An experience is exactly as damaging as it is. The ex post facto judgment of the culture or other people doesn’t change how damaging an experience is.
I’m not talking about a legal standard, here. I’m not a lawyer. Matters of criminal charges and consequences are outside of my realm of expertise. I’m not making the argument that people should be held criminally or civilly accountable for behavior based solely on its impact— the truth is, I have no idea what those standards “should” be, and I’m glad I don’t have to think about it professionally,
I’m talking about acknowledging and healing the psychological and emotional impact of traumatic events.
When it comes to healing, we don’t do ourselves any favors by dismissing the impact of events simply because other people may or may not agree on how badly it “should” have impacted us.
We cannot heal something the impact of which we do not fully acknowledge.
It’d be like trying to repair a hole in your roof, but refusing to measure the size of the whole because the branch that fell on the roof couldn’t POSSIBLY have left a hole THAT big.
Do you have any idea how many people I’ve worked with who have been hampered in their recovery work because they can’t bring themselves to acknowledge the full magnitude of their woundedness…mostly because they’ve been convinced by the culture or the people around them that their experience “shouldn’t” be that bad?
Why do people feel it necessary to pass judgment on how profoundly experiences “should” impact people, or whether or not people’s behavior was “that bad” or not? Why did the story about the celebrity’s bad date consume so much mileage on my Facebook feed the other day?
Part of it is our old friend: denial.
There is an extent to which we truly believe we can avoid the impact of something if we just simply deny that it hurt us.
It’s well-known that the most reliable way to tell if you’ve hurt someone is if they instinctively respond, “THAT DIDN’T HURT!”
Denial is a tempting defense mechanism. I get it. It’s kind of the ultimate in magical thinking— as if we could affect tangible reality, change things that have already happened, merely by playing make believe.
The phenomenon whereby we gang up to collectively judge whether a particular event “should” or “shouldn’t” be considered “that bad” is kind of an exercise in collective denial. It’s as if, if we can get enough people to wish hard enough that certain events aren’t “that bad,” then those events will, in fact, be not “that bad” if and when they ever happen to us.
It’s a cute, fanciful theory.
But it’s not true.
Experiences are exactly as bad as they are.
They have exactly the impact they have.
Acknowledging this, with eyes wide open, is an absolutely necessary precondition to healing.
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