How to Reclaim Your Life and Move Beyond Trauma Centrality
Our trauma can become our identity but it doesn’t have to stay that way
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that when I think of myself, my mind goes back to my childhood abuse. The messages I received in childhood included: doing something I wanted was not good and selfish; I was responsible for my mother’s emotions and life; I couldn’t have my own emotions; if I wanted anything, it would cause a strain on the family budget; taking care of myself by being social and active was not good; unless I was productive, I was lazy and worthless; having boundaries was bad and meant I didn’t actually love others; self-sacrifice and selflessness to the extreme were good and godly; being skinny was the only way to be beautiful; and many others.
I remember being in my room for most of my high school years because I was afraid to die. My mother had told me I was the only reason she was alive and if anything ever happened to me, she would kill herself. As I am now, when I think of how I identify, I identify as that young girl, trapped and responsible for the way the world turns. I identify with fawning and stuffing my feelings and wants down. I identify with inaction and helplessness and victim hood.
Right now, I feel stuck in that drawn-out event. Even though I’ve had several years to make new memories, and I have, I’ve noticed a pattern where I identify with the thing that went wrong in experiences. Like the falling out I had with cohorts in graduate school, or coming back from the study abroad to identify with the culture shock and the loss of my happy self.
Even though I’ve experienced a lot of growth, I still feel trapped in identifying with negative events. This is known as event centrality.
Event Centrality and Autobiographical Narratives
Event centrality is defined as a “critical factor in the autobiographical cognitive processing of stressful, emotional, and traumatic events.” For a clearer definition, event centrality is where an event including traumatic events become integral to the “organization of an individual’s identity and life story.”
These events become part of our autobiographical narrative which are “episodic information that [we] consult in making important decisions about the future.” In order to have an autobiographical narrative, our minds create an autobiographical memory via memory construction which includes
(a) attending to certain features of a to-be-remembered event, (b) storing information about that event according to personally meaningful categories and past experiences, (c)retrieving event information in ways that help solve social problems or meet situational demands, and (d) translating the memory of the event into a coherent story.
Our lives, social circles, and goals influence how we keep this autobiographical information (memory and narrative) and how we recall our memories.
During adolescence, we begin organizing personal event memories into integrative life narratives. These vivid and intense memories give structure to our autobiographical narratives that “inform our sense of self, and act as reference points for our expectations and attributions in everyday life.”
While life stories are a continual accumulation throughout life, research shows that “people tend to have an especially large number of emotionally vivid autobiographical recollections from their late-adolescent and early-adult years — memories of events that took place between the ages of about 15 and 25.”
These narratives can become stories that become parts of our identity in an attempt to give meaning and direction to our lives, serve as a story of how we have come to be who we are, and can become a perceived map of our future.
While event centrality covers traumatic events, trauma centrality refers to the “degree to which a traumatic event is seen as central to one’s identity and sense of self.” For individuals who have autobiographical memories situated in traumatic events, or trauma centrality, the traumatic event(s) become integral to their identity. Since narratives give us outlook and expectation on the future, a person who identifies with traumatic events is likely to hold the expectation that the future will be distressing.
For instance, Dr. Derrecka Boykin who works as a postdoctoral psychology fellow in Houston, Texas, says:
We can tell when an event is highly central because individuals will relate everything about themselves and their lives back to that experience. For example, a survivor of a serious car accident may feel like everything he or she does will fail and view even minor mistakes as a sign of his or her overall incompetence. This is just one example of how someone might react to a trauma with high centrality.
By pinpointing our central events and understanding our autobiographical narratives, we can begin to understand how we perceive the current moment and the idea of the future.
Cognitive flexibility is the ability to think about “multiple concepts simultaneously or to change how one thinks about concepts.”
Since trauma directly affects the brain, some may not be able to have the ability to recall events and memories that are not traumatic, making it difficult to practice cognitive flexibility and view one’s self outside of trauma central events.
In fact, people with C-PTSD or PTSD “often have autobiographical disturbances that inhibit their ability to reorganize previous and future experiences, thus impeding an established stable view of themselves.”
The traumatic events have become so central in our identity, who we are outside of them is largely unknown or nonexistent in our conscious lives. Furthermore, trauma centrality impedes our everyday sense of safety. For example, since traumatic memories are highly accessible, and for some, the majority of memories accessible, a person with trauma centrality may “overestimate the general frequency of such events as well as the likelihood of being traumatized again in the future.” This may look like unnecessary worrying, being overly cautious, avoiding certain situations or events because of risk perception.
The highly accessible traumatic memories and trauma centrality can lead to vivid and/or intrusive memories, leading to the need for distancing oneself from reliving the trauma and its respective emotions.
Trauma becomes too central in a person’s identity and has integrated itself in daily life. The lack of cognitive flexibility directly impacts how we identify ourselves and continues cognitive disruptions.
Cognitive flexibility is important to de-centralize trauma from our identity. Even though the goal is to de-centralize trauma, that does not mean denying that trauma has happened or that we are changed from trauma. Instead, the goal is to see trauma in a different light, from victim of trauma to victor. Instead of post-traumatic distress, the idea is post-traumatic growth.
In my personal upbringing, I never saw cognitive flexibility illustrated. For years after I exited the abuse, I never noticed or innately practiced cognitive flexibility. When I did EMDR therapy was the first time I was even introduced to the idea of looking at my trauma in another light. For me, that looked like seeing my trauma as never about me but always about my abusers. I could see how hurt I was, how demolished my sense of self was, and I could also see how resilient I had to be, how I wanted to hug my little self for going through all that pain. I learned to validate my own suffering and to see that I wasn’t bad inherently, I was just a mirror to them.
Seeing trauma in a different light doesn’t necessarily lessen the pain, but it does lessen the inherent guilt I felt for what I perceived as “being bad.” It lessened the responsibility I used to feel that I might have “deserved it”. Moreover, EMDR gave me the feeling of space between the trauma I experienced and the now. It gave me the space to create new central events that I could adapt to my autobiographical narrative. While I don’t think of myself as a victor and can understand that I was a victim of abuse but am not any longer, I do see myself as someone who’s achieved post-traumatic growth.
Trauma Centrality and (C)-PTSD
Individuals whose identities are engaged with trauma centrality have a higher likelihood of developing PTSD or C-PTSD (one event vs. chronic exposure). Many cognitive models showcase that “traumatic events violate individuals’ core schemas, and these violations, in turn, generate and maintain distress.”
Core beliefs help us make sense of our lives; traumatic events disrupt our core beliefs. Core beliefs are valuable to us because they satisfy psychological needs and research has shown that these beliefs contribute to well-being. If you’re like me and discovered your core beliefs later on in life, you’ll likely be able to look back on your traumatic experiences to see how they violated your discovered core beliefs.
The greater our trauma centrality, the greater our violations, and the greater (C)-PTSD symptoms and development. A lack of coping mechanisms or poor coping mechanisms exacerbates the connection between trauma centrality and (C)-PTSD symptoms.
Studies show that as an individual decentralizes their respective trauma and identifies with it differently as mentioned above, the more likely (C)-PTSD symptoms will improve.
Understanding how we create our autobiographical narratives and what events are central to our identity helps us better understand our trauma and how we deal with it. As we start to see what memories shape our identity, we can see how those memories influence us in the present and are likely to influence us in the future. For those of us with trauma centrality, we can begin to understand how we often react to situations.
And as we further learn about trauma centrality, cognitive flexibility, and (C)-PTSD, we can start considering different routes to take in order to heal our trauma and address it.
As I did this research, I quickly identified my trauma centrality and how it currently affects my life. I can begin to see patterns that I haven’t seen and now understand why I often feel “stuck.” I feel stuck because I’m still identifying with certain traumatic memories that are central to how I perceive and identify myself. In the future, I hope to do EMDR to gain more cognitive flexibility and identify differently with past trauma.
In the meantime, recognizing when my identity comes into play about making a decision helps me feel more autonomous and less dependent on memories of my trauma. I’m challenging myself to create new memories that help shape my identity and noticing when I’m reacting to old traumas. This research has helped me feel like my body is doing just what it’s supposed to. Unfortunately, it’s manipulative now, but I can appreciate that the research shows the normalcy of the loops I find myself in, particularly with misjudging danger in a lot of things.
The more we can understand about how our traumas work, the more active we can be in our healing. Fostering active responses builds confidence over time and teaches us to trust ourselves. Seeing how things connect can help us break our own cycles and reach a better place of functioning.