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What is the difference between re-telling your trauma story and healing from your trauma?

Updated: Jul 12, 2023

Effective therapy with people who have experienced trauma, particularly relational trauma, is not about having people retell their trauma over and over. Not only does that not result in real and lasting change for someone, but it can actually re-traumatize someone. This method could be considered similar to the idea of exposure therapy, in that if you are repeatedly exposed to the trauma you will eventually become desensitized to it.

The problem with this is twofold. If someone retells their trauma story without being connected to the original experience, that is similar to being in a dissociated state. In fact, when someone talks about their horrific experience with the same level of emotion that they talk about going to the grocery store, or some other mundane task, it is a clear sign of dissociation. Another sign is that someone feels compelled to continuously tell their trauma story to anyone who will listen, but this often leaves people feeling more disconnected from themselves and others because it does not result in a corrective emotional experience.

The other, more destructive problem with the retelling of a trauma story is if someone is connected to the original experience while retelling the story, it may feel like they are reliving the original trauma. This is incredibly harmful and can cause someone to return to extreme patterns of adaptation in order to protect themselves. Although seemingly counterintuitive and counterproductive, these adaptations are almost always harmful in some way to self or others (forms of numbing or lashing out – cutting, drug and alcohol abuse, abusing others, etc).

So the question then becomes, how do we reprocess trauma in a helpful, healing way without causing more harm?

I believe the answer exists in the space between the therapist and the client, the I - Thou relationship described by Philosopher Martin Buber, which is characterized by intense presence, and a “prolonged dwelling with the other” ( Wood, p. 40.). This is not to say that just being in the presence of another person, or a therapist will, in and of itself, heal the trauma. This is to say that the therapeutic relationship creates the conduit for healing to occur.

Retelling a traumatic experience is not retraumatizing when a safe, secure relationship exists between the client and therapist, the therapist continuously makes it known that they are with the client as they connect to the original trauma, and they help the client have a new embodied experience of safety, empowerment, compassion, companionship as the trauma is processed through. Does it change the original experience of the lived trauma? No. Does it brainwash someone or desensitize them to the original trauma? No. What this process does is to help someone have a new somatic, visceral, embodied experience to replace the old lived experience of feeling powerless, helpless, victimized, unloved, alone.

- Lexi Ellis, MA, LPC

Wood, Robert E. Martin Buber's Ontology. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1969.

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