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What Is Trauma?

“Trauma isn't just the bad things that happened, it’s also the good things that should have happened – but didn’t.”

~ paraphrased from Dr. Gabor Maté.

When I first heard trauma specialist Gabor Maté say this, it rocked my world. The idea that trauma isn’t just an earthquake, tsunami, plane crash, etc., changed my lens on pain and suffering. And the idea that trauma could result from being deprived of good things changed how I saw my life.

As a “model minority” Chinese-Canadian woman, I spent my life keeping myself lower than everyone else. The generation and family I grew up in taught me that:

  • You earn your “just rewards” through hard work and suffering.

  • People who fail just didn’t work hard enough (they’re lazy), or they’re not skilled enough (they’re incompetent).

  • Mediocrity is failure (you may not be the top student, but at least be on the honour roll).

  • Shame is the best motivation for success (“Why did you miss 1%?” vs. “Congrats on getting 99%!”).

  • Be grateful you’re not worse off (you can’t feel bad because other people are suffering worse than you).

Any of that sound familiar to you?

I heard those messages my whole life from both Chinese and Western cultures, which conditioned me to believe that:

  • Dissatisfaction and suffering are the norm;

  • Happiness = achievement, and is earned through effort; and

  • Severe pain (trauma) is either the sufferer’s own fault (laziness or stupidity), or due to extreme circumstances beyond their control (war, disease, or natural disaster).

I continued to believe this until last year when I began learning what trauma really is. The process of becoming a Certified Trauma Recovery Coach was not only educational, but it also helped heal my physiological and mental pain. This is why I’ve made it my mission to spread healing and understanding through knowledge sharing as well as coaching. And because I wear intersectional lenses as an Asian diaspora immigrant cis-het woman with 20 years of corporate experience, I focus on exposing the hidden traumas from racism, misogyny, and work.

But before we get into all of that, we need a basic understanding of what trauma is.

Picture of a woman with her hand on her face looking grief-stricken.

My definition of trauma is based on two key principles from Dr. Gabor Maté and Dr. Bessel van der Kolk:

  1. Trauma isn’t what happens to you, it’s what happens inside you; and

  2. Trauma isn’t just the bad things that happened, it’s also the good things that should have happened – but didn’t.

In other words:

  1. Trauma is the injury, not the event.

  2. Deprivation is traumatic too.

Let’s explore these key principles a bit further.

[Trigger warning: mention of car accident, broken arm, sexual assault below.]

Trauma is Mental Injury, not Mental Illness. ~ Linda Thai

Picture of an arm in a cast.

To understand the mental, emotional, and spiritual injuries of trauma, it may help to compare these to trauma from physical injuries. For example, let’s say you’re in a car accident and your arm gets broken. Physically, you’ll be in pain, and you’ll need to go to the hospital so a doctor can put your arm in a cast. If you get the proper medical treatment within the right timeframe, your bones heal, and you would regain the full function of your arm. But what if you didn’t get medical treatment? What if you never went to a hospital or got a cast? Your arm may heal, but your bones would be misaligned, and for the rest of your life your arm would be messed up. (As you can probably tell, I’m not a doctor 🙂.) You may still be able to use your arm, but it won’t be fully functional, and you can’t do all the things you did before. The slightest brush against your “old” injury can make you scream, while the same touch isn’t even detectable to a “normal” person. Your arm is different from the people around you whose arms were never broken (or were broken, but healed properly).

Trauma is like having a broken arm, except it’s invisible so it’s a lot harder to identify and treat. If your trauma is never healed, you may be able to get by, but it’s not the same as it was before – things feel harder and take more effort. Conversations and activities which used to be easy and fun now feel unbearable. You may be limited in your capacity for how long you can handle stressors before exploding in anger or collapsing in depression. Certain people or situations can make you want to run and hide, or burn it all down.

To the world, these behaviours are inexplicable if there’s no “car accident” to explain them. That’s because it doesn’t take an obvious, visible event to cause trauma. Your arm can be broken in a million different ways; the car accident is the event, the trauma is the broken arm.

Yes, some traumas are caused by obvious events – the car accident itself can lead to mental and emotional trauma, as can earthquakes, tornados, being sexually assaulted, etc. These moment-in-time events are sometimes called “acute trauma”. People can also be traumatized by ongoing long-term events, like child abuse or serving in a war zone – these are sometimes called “chronic trauma”. A helpful principle to keep in mind is that trauma can result when you experience things:

  1. Too much, too soon (e.g. an earthquake);

  2. Too much for too long (e.g. soldiers in combat);

  3. Too little for too long (e.g. child neglect).

Events like earthquakes, war, and child abuse are what I call “apparent” or “overt” trauma, because they are generally visible and socially accepted as traumatic. In contrast, “ambiguous” or “covert” trauma can be just as damaging but are not generally accepted, partly because they’re less visible or acknowledged. Personally, I’ve experienced covert trauma from workplace stress, racism and discrimination, and Chinese culture/parenting style.

Have you experienced too many bad things (or the absence of good things) for too long? Or experienced too much of a bad thing all at once? What examples of covert trauma can you identify in your life?

Picture of a woman with most of her face in the shadows except her eyes.

Without knowing you, I can say with confidence that you almost certainly have. Not that all events are traumatizing to all people; as I’ll explain in future articles, whether or how traumatizing an event is varies depending on the individual. And what is covert to some, is obvious to others.

For now, I want to reassure you that you are not alone. Based on the new-ish medical research and understanding of trauma, everyone has experienced trauma of some kind. And there are ways to heal and recover that are not widely known or shared in the current medical community.

Please stay tuned, there is much more to come, and I’m here to support you on your healing journey!

In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts, stories, and questions. You can message me on LinkedIn or email me to share your thoughts.


The content in this article is not intended as a replacement for, nor should it be construed as, counselling, therapy, psychiatric interventions, treatment for mental illness, or professional medical advice. It is shared for your consideration and informational purposes only, please read with judgment and discernment. If you need help in an emergency or are currently in crisis, please: 1) visit your local emergency department or call 911; or 2) contact a distress center near you.

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