Emotional Wounds can Create Scars for Life

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Death is viewed as the ultimate loss but it's not necessarily the most painful thing. We measure the size of a catastrophe by the number of the people who lost their lives. Survivors are described as "lucky." But, is everyone who survives lucky? Not always. In some cases, perhaps, death would have been more merciful than a life sentence of despair and darkness.

While calculating the loss, our consciousness must rise beyond the physical loss. Emotional wounds can be far more crippling than a physical injury. Victims of violence often suffer life-long consequences, physical as well as emotional. Therefore, to guage the depth of the loss and the human tragedy, we must look farther than the loss of life and limb.

Trauma caused by vicious and violent acts perpetrated by one human being against another is referred to as, "interpersonal trauma." Kosovo is a case in point. A majority of Kosovar victims will surely recover and put their lives together. Some, perhaps, will become even stronger and more resilient, but a minority of them will never recover from this trauma. Their bodies will live but their spirits are killed forever.

We must further develop our sensitivity for loss not visible to the eye. The damage resulting from an interpersonal trauma is like a poisoned arrow that penetrates and lodges deep in the heart of a victim. The trauma caused by natural disaster pales in comparison to the trauma caused by aggression and viciousness of members of one's own species.

Psychologists, researching and treating the victims of interpersonal trauma, have given us valuable insights into the emotional consequences. One such insight is this: How severely a person will suffer from a man-made trauma depends on the meaning that traumatic event holds for that person. Thus, meaning of the event is the most important thing.

Suppose a victim of the Kosovo brutalities (the term "ethnic cleansing" is too nice a label for such horrible deeds), repeated abuse or a brutal rape, now comes to believe that he or she will never be safe anywhere and others can never be trusted. He or she will be tortured, not by death or injury, but, by life itself. What a horrible proposition for living! This victim, perhaps, could spend a life beset with intrusive thoughts, obsessions, flashbacks, nightmares, disability, social withdrawal, isolation, family break-up, and other serious consequences. How many moments of real happiness and peace would this victim have? Not an awful lot.

Trauma impairs a victim's basic beliefs in one's own self and others. It distorts the view of the world, temporarily or permanently. The world is seen as a frightening place where horrible things happen. Trauma stabs in the heart of one or more of the five basic human needs: Safety, trust, control, esteem and intimacy. Deprivation in these five areas has serious consequences for our health and longevity. Their fulfillment provides us our "emotional pillars," the foundation on which our emotional security and existence depends.

Here is how a trauma victim is robbed of the fulfillment of the five basic emotional needs.

Safety: The sense of safety is derived from the belief that "I am safe and my loved ones are safe." Trauma victims constantly worry that something bad will happen to them. That creates a constant state of tension. Likewise, we normally believe that people we love are safe. Trauma victims constantly worry that something bad is going to happen to their loved ones. For example, whenever their spouses or children are late getting back home, they feel sure that something terrible has happened to them.

Trust: Trust is derived from the belief that, "I can rely on myself and people around me." Some trauma victims begin to believe, "I can't trust myself because I can't protect myself." They tend to feel suspicious of others' motives and experience constant anxiety in the presence of other people.

Control: Control is derived from the belief that, "I control what happens in my life and I can influence others' behavior towards me." Some trauma victims begin to believe that they have no control over their lives except to try to survive the injuries others may inflict on them.

Esteem: Esteem is derived from the belief that "I am loveable and others, too, are loveable." Having experienced intense hate by a perpetrator during acts of violence destroys that belief in some trauma victims. Self criticism, self-dislike, and even self-hate result from interpersonal trauma.

Intimacy: Some trauma victims are changed forever insofar as never allowing anyone to come emotionally close to them because they can't trust themselves or others.

Such is the emotional cost some trauma victims pay. Many physical problems and life-long illnesses, not discussed in this article, may also result from interpersonal trauma.

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 


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