Why people can’t just “move on” from trauma:
Lately, we’ve been hearing people in positions of influence tell the victims of the riot at the US Capitol that they should just “move on” from the experience.
We’re also hearing people tell those who’ve recently been discharged from having been hospitalized for Covid to do the same, seeing as how they’ve recovered physically from the disease. The phrase, “move on,” is problematic, however, and it’s packed with meaning — meaning that I’m going to unpack.
I feel uniquely qualified to write about trauma because in my psychiatry practice, I’ve been diagnosing and treating people who suffer from trauma for over twenty years.
What is trauma? It’s an internal response to devastating events that is manifested by emotional, psychological and physiological changes.
These symptoms can include anxiety, depression, poor sleep, nightmares and flashbacks, apathy, low energy and poor motivation; anhedonia, which is the inability to enjoy anything; difficulty connecting with others, poor concentration and focus; being irritable and on edge, and not being able to relax.
These symptoms can take weeks, months, or years to diminish, depending on the type of traumatic event the person experienced and on how old they were when it happened.
When someone tells a sufferer of trauma to “just get over it” or to “move on,” they’re displaying either a profound ignorance as to the nature of trauma or they’re being incredibly insensitive and self-serving.
The experience of trauma is not the same as being upset. We can “move on” relatively easily from being upset. We can’t do the same with trauma. The reason is that by definition, trauma is a profoundly negative experience that is difficult to recover from.
If we were able to “move on” from it, it wouldn’t be trauma.
What causes trauma?
The kinds of experiences that can be traumatizing include any type of childhood abuse or the witnessing of abuse as a child. In adult life, it could include life-threatening experiences like being a combat soldier; living in a war zone; being displaced or being a refugee; being held up at gunpoint; or being physically, emotionally or sexually assaulted.
Trauma could arise from experiences of profound loss, such as the death of a parent or sibling in childhood, or the death of a child or a spouse in adult life. It can come from having a life-threatening illness or from being disfigured.
Trauma affects us so deeply that it can take years to recover from, even with good treatment. Telling someone who has trauma to “move on” reveals the speaker’s lack of understanding about the way trauma lingers in the psyche, despite the best possible care.
Some people have a darker reason for telling a victim of trauma to “move on.” These individuals are invested in silencing the victim so that they or their associates don’t have to take responsibility for their role in causing the trauma.
Sometimes it’s a neglectful parent telling their child to “move on” from the abuse committed by the other parent — abuse that this parent failed to prevent. Sometimes, it’s a politician telling victims of trauma to get over it so that they or their party won’t be held accountable for their wrong-doing.
These individuals will often try to minimize the damage that’s been done, saying that it really wasn’t that bad, but they’re grossly misrepresenting the events with the goal of trying to protect the perpetrators of the trauma rather than supporting the victims.
By definition, a traumatic event is significant and highly damaging.
Blaming the victim:
Sometimes, certain individuals will blame the victims for “holding on” to their trauma, as though it were a choice to continue suffering. That is an insult to all those who suffer from trauma and who want nothing more than to finally have relief from their pain.
The truth is that we can move on from being insulted, from being disappointed or from having our feelings hurt. We can move on from being thwarted or frustrated or irritated. We can even move on from a bad break-up. None of these experiences are inherently damaging or require lengthy periods of recovery.
Trauma, on the other hand, can cause lasting psychological damage and it cannot be gotten over without a lot of effort and most often, the help of a skilled, compassionate professional as well.
It’s galling to hear people today telling the victims of the Capitol building riot to “move on” from their trauma, because their words are implying that the victims are making a choice to wallow in self-pity. That attitude demonstrates a real contempt for the suffering that they, in part, are responsible for.
Most people who have experienced trauma would give anything to stop suffering. To imply that they’ve chosen to stay stuck in their pain is cruel and heartless. Trauma sufferers don’t need to hear that. It’s like adding insult to injury.
Again, the nature of trauma is that it penetrates deeply into the psyche. It takes hold and won’t easily let go. If the affected individual is struggling, long after the events have occurred, that’s one way you know that the person has experienced trauma.
We should be paying closer attention to all those people who are insisting that the victims of trauma should “move on.” Either these people are being willfully ignorant, or they’re trying to absolve themselves and their cronies of any responsibility for their wrong-doing. Either way, they’re revealing some extremely unattractive character traits.
When we hear someone telling people that they should “move on” from their trauma, what we should understand is that it’s possible these individuals are misguided and it’s also possible that they’re telling outright, self-serving lies.
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