Working for a difficult boss can color your professional life for years to come. Being scared to take sick days, berated via slack messages, or expected to work late hours, are all frustrating and often humiliating experiences.
In recent years, employees feel comfortable labeling subpar workplace cultures as a trauma.
However, many of the experiences workers describe don’t really qualify as a trauma, says Janina Fisher, a clinical psychologist and author of Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors: Overcoming Self-Alienation. Fisher is a former instructor at Harvard Medical School and an expert who has advanced the trauma treatment field.
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“Being undervalued is a very distressing experience,” Fisher says. “But it’s not traumatic.”
Still, mainstream popularity of books like The Body Keeps the Score has led to the term “trauma” becoming commonplace. And many people invoke it to describe things like a boss who texts you outside work hours or an office that unofficially mandates desk lunches.
Differentiating between being distressed and traumatized is important, Fisher says, and confusing the two can lead to a dilution of the latter.
Trauma vs. distress
There are a few varying definitions of trauma, which adds to its misuse.
In Merriam-Webster, one definition is: "a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury.”
The definition right below it, though, reads: “an emotional upset.”
The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.”
The Trauma-Informed Care Implementation Resource Center says trauma is “pervasive.”
Its definition reads: “It results from exposure to an incident or series of events that are emotionally disturbing or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, and/or spiritual well-being.”
Fisher uses a definition created by clinical psychologist and trauma researcher Karen Saakvitne.
It reads: “Psychological trauma is the unique individual experience of an event or of enduring conditions in which the individual’s ability to integrate his or her emotional experience is overwhelmed (i.e. his or her ability to stay present, understand what is happening, integrate the feelings, and make sense of the experience), or the individual experiences (subjectively) a threat to life, bodily integrity, or sanity.”
All of these describe something quite different from being distressed.
An event that is distressing doesn’t yield the same response as an event that is traumatic, Fisher says.
“Distress is being hurt, humiliated, sad, or angry,” she says. “Trauma leads to being overwhelmed, blacking out, excruciating physical pain, and fear of life or death.”
In the workplace, for example, are you hurt and angered by your boss or are you genuinely frightened of them? The former is a reaction to distress while the latter is a reaction of trauma.
The danger of causally using ‘trauma’
Differentiating between the two might seem pedantic. And part of Fisher’s issue with the excessive use of the word is personal.
“It’s one of my pet peeves that it took us years to convince mental health professionals, and then society as whole, that trauma happened and it didn't happen rarely,” she says. “And now, very sadly, we are diluting it and labeling everything as traumatic. Now, we’ve gone from understanding trauma as an overwhelming, terrifying event to an event that is merely distressing.”
She doesn’t want to minimize just how damaging parents or bosses who are neglectful or rejecting can be. A distressing event, or series of events, can lead to some pretty severe feelings that deserve to be respected. But unless your boss made you fear for your life, they probably were not traumatizing.
And the more the word “trauma" is used, the less meaning it holds, Fisher says.
“We have to be aware that if the trend continues we will dilute the term trauma so that it no longer has meaning,” she says. “And those who have been human trafficked will be put in the same category as those whose parents were cold and critical. That’s my fear.”
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