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Shattering Basic Assumptions About Trauma

By Imani Byrd, MS, TLLP

Expectations of Invincibility and Immortality

  • “I can handle whatever comes my way.” – “I was overwhelmed.”
  • “Nothing bad will happen to me.” –  “I almost died.”

Expectations of Justice and Fairness

  • “Justice always wins in the end.” – “There is no such thing as ‘justice.’ We all live in a corrupt world.”
  • “If you do the right thing, you will be rewarded.” – “What’s the point? Nothing will happen to ‘em anyway. Being ‘good’ or ‘decent’ doesn’t amount to anything.”

Expectations of Predictability

  • “My life is unfolding as planned.” – “I don’t have any control of my life; it is completely out of my hands and chaotic.”
  • “I know what to expect; I know what’s coming next.” – “My life is in shambles – all that matters to me is gone.”

Expectations That People Will Be “Good”

  • “People are mostly good.” – “I am the only one I can rely on… and sometimes I even question that.”
  • “People, for better or worse, usually try to do the right thing.” – “I assume everyone will hurt me at some point – it’s not a matter of if, but when.”

Expectations That Life Events Will Make Sense

  • “If you’re a good person, bad things won’t happen to you.” – “Evil doesn’t discriminate; bad things can happen to anyone.”
  • “If I eat healthy and do what I’m supposed to do, then I will be okay.” – “You can do all of the ‘right’ things and life will still find a way to screw you over.”

Why Does This Matter?

Exposure to a traumatic stressor can shake one to the core and seriously disturb one’s core beliefs and values about oneself and life in general. A “safety bubble,” defined one way as the expectation that we and/or our loved ones will be protected from harm, is often one of the casualties of trauma. When this “safety bubble” is destroyed, it decimates many factors, such as the expectations that we can handle general life stressors (e.g., having a job, relationship issues); concepts of “justice,” “fairness,” and “safety”; and that life event will follow a logical or comprehensible sequence.

What can happen instead, is that our basic positive assumptions in areas of importance to us are shredded and replaced with contrary assumptions about our vulnerability, other’s trustworthiness and/or benevolence, and meaningfulness of life. The shattering of these basic assumptions about safety, predictability, justice, and meaningfulness of life can leave trauma survivors in a massive state of disorientation and shock. The rules of the game have changed, but you cannot make sense of the new rules and there’s no one available to explain the changes.

The journey of healing after trauma involves the ability to repair these shattered core beliefs by moderating the extreme pendulum swing caused by trauma. One goal for individuals within trauma-focused therapy is to learn how to view their crushing experience(s) through a more balanced and accurate assessment than the all-or-nothing perspective of traumatic stress. Moderation of thinking as opposed to cognitive distortions, such as overgeneralizing and mental filtering. “Bad” circumstances may also present opportunities and new beginnings. “Good” things were still possible in an imperfect world. The world is not simply black and white; nuance is a necessary component of one’s life.

My name is Imani Byrd, and I primarily work at the Ann Arbor-Arlington location in Ann Arbor, MI. I am an outpatient mental health therapist trained in clinical behavioral psychology and applied behavior analysis, albeit most of my experience is with inpatient populations. I offer both in-person and telehealth appointments. I primarily work within the modalities of cognitive-behavioral therapies, particularly Dialectical Behavior Therapy, in order to sufficiently target and challenge one’s thoughts and behaviors. I have experience working with a variety of adult populations in various intense populations such as those with traumatic brain injuries, substance abuse, autism spectrum disorders, survivors of sexual assault and domestic abuse, and people who were currently and/or formerly incarcerated. It is my goal as a therapist to offer comprehensive and culturally competent services to my clients to help them as best I can with their respective issues. I am always eager to take on new challenges and learn new information and am happy to be an employee of Heron Ridge and Associates.