Why we minimise our feelings and deny our trauma Sarah Woodhouse

Why we minimise our feelings and deny our trauma

So many people pretend to be ok when they’re not. For a while I thought it was a uniquely British thing to do. It’s not. In many communities, this is just how it’s done. In this article I explain why we do it, how it links to our past traumas and why we collectively need to stop the BS.

Why do we do it? Saying I’m fine is a habitual cultural reflex, in the same way that queueing is. It’s just what we do. Interestingly though, not in all cultures. My mother-in-law is Lebanese. Walk around her village with her and you’ll be blown-away by the honesty. In actual fact, it seems a lot like the opposite cultural reflex is expected. When she asks people how they are, we’re still listening two hours later as people download their problems, feelings, grief, loss and trauma. Time-consuming, yes, but also beautiful, honest and empowering. I found myself doing the same, because it was allowed

But in the cultural epicentres of the I’m-fine-reflex we’re expected to be fine, no matter the reality.

We’re expected to keep pretending because that’s just what we do. Can you imagine the look on the school mum’s face if I replied to “good morning Sarah, how are you doing?” with “thanks for asking Jane – I’m not great because my childhood trauma has been triggered, so I’m anxious and currently dissociated.”

It’s a cultural reflex, but it reflects a deeper cultural disownment of uncomfortable feelings and hurt. We don’t want to appear weak, we don’t want to appear imperfect. It’s the original social distancing. It allows us to avoid intimacy and vulnerability. We say we’re fine to allow us to keep up the show. We also do it because we presume that Jane (or Sharon, Elia, Greg, Hannah, Nick…) would feel deeply uncomfortable if we opened-up. There may be some truth in this – perhaps some people would feel uncomfortable. Maybe? But really, who knows. We guess and second-guess what other people need, think and feel and most often we get it wrong. Maybe Jane would be relieved if I was honest, because then she could be honest too. Maybe she’d be relieved that for once (in amongst all the bullshit) someone was raw, open and honest instead of pretending.

A curious oddity of all this is that it doesn’t extend to all negative feelings. We can own feelings that don’t require too much vulnerability. Like being tired, annoyed, frazzled, over-it or irritated. But go a bit deeper – sad, ashamed, fearful – and we’re back in the box.  This neatly brings me round to trauma, because denial of our deeper feelings is something we learned a long time ago.

We all carry trauma, but few of us like to call it that.

In those moments when we were most hurt, many of us stuffed our deeper feelings, put on a show and kept going. We felt we had no choice but to bury it all. To do otherwise felt unsafe. In fairness to us, at the time we didn’t know it was trauma and no one around us called it that. But what about now? You’ve read a lot, you know trauma is common (particularly in childhood), so why do you keep minimising it? Why do you say it was fine, when it wasn’t?

And here we are, back at the same old same old. We don’t call it trauma because it’s too painful to admit that’s what it was. We avoid the deeper feelings and pretend. We don’t call it trauma because if we say it was all fine, then we (and everyone else) gets to keep the show on the road. In that moment a long time ago we stuffed our feelings, and with every dishonest I’m fine today we compound the choice we made when we were young and hurting. Critically, we also prevent healing.

I swear to you, that from now on there will be no more fake I’m fine from me. No bullshit. I’m going to be brave. I’m going to live in a way that reflects what I know to be true. Because by doing this I teach my younger, hurt self that it’s ok to be real and that it’s ok to feel feelings. I teach her that it’s ok to vulnerable. I teach her that experiencing overwhelming feelings doesn’t make her weak – it makes her (me) beautifully human. If everyone in your life – you, your partner, your boss, your cousin, your mother, your neighbour, your daughter, your Jane – all made the same commitment, life would be better for us all. Not only would we grow closer, we would also heal our personal and collective trauma.

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Sarah Woodhouse is a trauma expert, research psychologist and writer who delivers people the knowledge and tools to recognise and overcome self-defeating cycles, to achieve personal freedom and success.

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