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Part 3: What Is Psychological Trauma? When Trauma Shatters Our Basic Assumptions
By Caterina Spinaris
Published: 08/01/2016

Distraught man
The following has been reprinted with permission from the July 2016 Correctional Oasis, Volume 13, Issue 7.

A prior version of this article was published in the Correctional Oasis, November-December 2005 issue. This topic of basic assumptions being shattered when people are victimized by traumatic experiences was first addressed and studied in a systematic way by Ronnie Janoff-Bulman in 1989.

When CO Smith was caught in his first “large group disturbance” (aka a riot) in the chow hall, he dissociated and froze. Surrounded by 200 offenders who were throwing around food, plates, kicks, and punches, he remained transfixed. The last conscious thought that flashed through his mind before he “checked out” was that this was the end of the road for him. When he came to himself, partly due to the ear-piercing din in the room, and partly due to staff surrounding him and asking him if he was okay, he couldn’t believe that he had just stood there. Deep shame about not responding as trained washed over him. “I never expected to just freeze!” was all he could think. How could he explain to anyone (including himself), what happened, and why he let his partner across the room down by not taking action as he should have? CO Smith felt so defeated, he started to question his courage and his ability to do his job. The taunts and biting comments of his coworkers in reaction to his freezing did not help any. His view of himself as a warrior lay shattered in the depths of his mind. In its place now stood the specter of a coward.

Exposure to a traumatic stressor can shake us to the core, rattling us emotionally and causing an earthquake in the do-main of cherished core beliefs about ourselves and about life.

When trauma tears our “safety bubble” apart—our expectation that we or our loved ones will be protected from harm—it can also decimate our expectation that we will rise to the occasion and deal effectively with whatever life dishes out to us, or that what happens to us will be fair, or that life events 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 re-placed with opposites regarding our beliefs about our efficacy and our invulnerability, our beliefs about other people’s trustworthiness or benevolence, and our beliefs about the meaningfulness of life in general.

Here are some core beliefs and expectations which can be negatively and extremely distorted by trauma.

Expectations of personal invincibility and immortality. Assumptions such as, “I can handle whatever comes my way,” or “Nothing bad will happen to me,” may be replaced with “I was overwhelmed,” or “I almost died.”

Expectations of justice and fairness. Assumptions such as “Justice always wins in the end,” or “If you do the right thing you’ll be rewarded,” may be replaced with “It makes no difference how decent of a human being you try to be; you’ll still get railroaded,” or “The crooks end up getting away with murder.”

Expectations of predictability. Assumptions such as, “My life is unfolding as planned,” or “I know what’s coming next,” may be replaced with “Life is chaotic, totally out of control,” or “My life is in shambles—all that matters to me is gone.”

Expectations that people will be “good.” Assumptions such as, “People are basically good /decent /honest,” may be replaced with “People are con artists /thugs /evil.”

Expectations that life events will make sense. Assumptions such as, “If you're a good guy bad things won't happen to you,” or “If you never smoke, you won’t get lung cancer,” may be replaced with “Bad things will hit you out of the blue, whether you've been good or bad,” or “It doesn’t matter how healthy you try to live, you can still get sick.”

The shattering of these basic assumptions about safety, predictability, justice and meaningfulness of life can leave trauma survivors in a state of bewilderment. It is as if they find themselves in a game where the rules have changed, but they can’t make sense of these new rules, and there’s no one available to explain the changes to them.

The journey of healing after trauma involves (among other components) the ability to repair these shattered core beliefs by moderating the extreme pendulum swing caused by trauma. Traumatized people who get better learn to view their crushing experiences through the lens of a more balanced and accurate assessment than the all-or-nothing perspective of traumatic stress. They pull back from overgeneralizations and, instead, learn to moderate their thinking. They understand—and accept—that there may be a degree of randomness in life, but that there is also a degree of predictability, justice, and order. They accept that “bad” circumstances that happen to them may also be incubators of opportunities and new beginnings. Sometimes, instead of “Why me?” they learn to say, “Why NOT me?” And they choose to trust again that there is still goodness in this world, and that it is “better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

Suggested further reading:
  1. Janoff-Bulman, R. (1989). Assumptive Worlds and the Stress of Traumatic Events: Applications of the Schema Construct. Social Cognition, 7, Special Issue: Stress, Coping, and Social Cognition, 113-136.
  2. Janoff-Bulman, R. (2010). Shattered assumptions. Simon and Schuster.

Editor's note: Caterina Spinaris is the Executive Director at Desert Waters Correctional Outreach and a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Colorado. She continues to contribute to the field of corrections staff well-being individually and organizationally, in particularly regarding issues of traumatic stress due to exposure to violence, injury, death on the job, and also issues of organizational climate improvement.

Visit the Caterina Spinaris page

Other articles by Spinaris:


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