The Pros and Cons of Using Binaries and Spectrums in Discussing Childhood Trauma

by Chaya Grossberg


To voice experiences of oppression or inequality, there is sometimes an apparent need to speak in binaries or spectrums that might not be entirely fair or ultimately honest. Yet these binaries such as white/black, rich/poor, and male/female have cultural relevance and reality. My purpose in naming and discussing a binary isn’t to divide people further, but rather to bring them closer together in understanding, and to validate the experiences of the ones on the lower end of that particular pole. Everyone has been on the top and bottom of some kind of social polarity in life. Using the knowledge of how each one feels, we can, I hope, topple the structures that tell us we need to be quiet when we are on the bottom, or that we need to put others down to pull ourselves up, or that we need to do things that aren’t in alignment with who we are to “get ahead” or dominate others.

I suppose it is part of the human condition to think about the privileges we didn’t have, and while we hear a lot about gender, race and class privilege, there are invisible types of privilege that are just as weighty, and one is the privilege of having grown up in a family where you felt safe. In American culture and my generation I know several dozen people who were raised by parents who stayed happily together, weren’t violent, didn’t yell much and basically treated them with respect most of the time. These folks didn’t have to take care of either of their parents, so they got the irreplaceable experience of being kids when they were kids. They got to be immature, bratty and out of control without severe repercussions. Their parents basically got along and supported each other, and when they didn’t, they still were not violent with one another or their children.

This is really the bare minimum of what kids need to feel safe, yet few kids actually get it. Still, the ones that do often grow up with a better ability to handle stress, more capacity for complexities in intimate relationships and greater propensity for health and stability (see Adverse Childhood Experience studies). 

Of course there are many factors that play into our wellbeing as adults and even the best possible family life won’t shield us from other challenges in life. Sometimes people with a simple and safe home life go looking for danger elsewhere to fit in with the rest of us, or to experience the adrenaline that many of us didn’t need to search for. I know a number of people who had relatively ideal home lives and quickly found adventure by becoming addicted to hard drugs, alcohol or other adrenaline creating behaviors. They did things to their bodies that I’d never consider doing to mine (I have enough trauma induced health challenges, thank you) and often came out strong bodied and healthy nonetheless.

I do a lot for my health and still have quite a few major health challenges that are tied into emotions and trauma from my early life and not easy to untangle. Those who had less childhood trauma usually have a psychological advantage over those with more. (Like all things, this is a spectrum.) Without the knee jerk need to protect themselves from violence or manipulation, they tend to have a certain sophistication in relationships that I dream of- a sense of safety I’ve practiced many disciplines to attain, and still rarely have for long.

The reason I bring this up is because it goes unspoken too often, without any language for it. And, of course, like all forms of inequality and oppression, when it is named, those whose privilege is recognized may be quick to speak of their experiences and the challenges they did have. They might even become angry or deny this type of privilege exists. 

One friend shared this:
Personally, I see I have privilege on this spectrum (non divorced parents who didn’t hate each other and weren’t alcoholics, for instance) AND the ways that the intense trauma I experienced and carried from my parents still is so hard for me to speak of/still believe myself (despite all the ways I do and have) because the worst parts happened pre-verbally (and then got echoed and energetically repeated during my whole childhood).  It  has taken years to unravel and still I have trouble “explaining.” And there is also the factor of being a highly empathic soul who was thus affected in a particular way (in a society that doesn’t value empaths or empathy). There are certain kind of skills or safety that comes from having one’s needs attended to/responded to that my family didn’t offer in certain ways.  Yet I also see my privilege in other ways and this made me think of other people in my life who had less stability/safety than I did in certain ways. 

And basically all of us have a had a childhood that was more traumatic than some and less traumatic than others. I was not severely abused physically or sexually but experienced severe emotional abuse, guilt tripping and manipulation and witnessed regular physical violence and yelling in my home. 

Many people who come from low trauma families attribute their personal and professional successes to therapy, spiritual growth or their own hard work. While these things likely play a part worth mentioning, it’s necessary to acknowledge how hard or even impossible it is to trust a therapist or spiritual community when coming from extreme trauma in the formative years. The ability to work hard at anything can also be compromised when there was little ease in childhood. Many who had to work so hard as children to take care of our parents and siblings (AND had that experience denied/invalidated) feel resentful and go through life secretly feeling like life owes us a break and the care and freedom we didn’t get as kids.

My hope is that awareness will shine on this matter and humility will grow in those who had some form of this “functional family” privilege. Just as some whites, men and those of higher socioeconomic standing are learning to be humble and listen to people of other races, women, and those who live or have lived in poverty, I hope people with relatively low childhood trauma will make space to hear, acknowledge and graciously support those who grew up in much inescapable violence and panic.

The purpose in naming this is equally to bring comfort to those who feel unseen and unheard in how childhood trauma continues to affect them, and how they feel when looking on at others who don’t have that particular challenge. 

In naming a binary or spectrum, there is always the risk it will create a competitive conversation; one in which no one wants to identify as the privileged class and everyone instead fights to outdo one another with trauma stories.  In some ways it’s useful to have a reverse competition, only because it gets people speaking about their secret suffering and “competing” to have the worst trauma story, rather than competing to have things the most “together” as we seem to be doing in society now.  And that competition to be the most “functional” seems to be creating a  huge shadow of earthly destruction. Maybe if, instead, we were all competing to share our darkest and saddest trauma stories, we’d bee unearthing a whole lot of shame and secrecy to be healed, loved, and understood with open hearts.

A friend who experienced childhood trauma shared this hopeful conclusion:
Being a sensitive child growing up in a dysfunctional or abusive household just drives that wound and the challenges it makes even deeper.  I have been given so many gifts lately to heal my wounds, and I’m so full of gratitude for the whole journey. It isn’t about claiming you pulled yourself up by your own self-helping bootstraps with therapy, spirituality or hard work. It’s just about showing up for the journey, and then receiving grace. 

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