What is 'Little T' Trauma?
One afternoon when I was seven our teacher set us a writing project. She must have been feeling stressed that day because she announced tetchily that she was fed-up of telling us where to put our work when we had finished as we "should all know by now". She explained that the next child who asked where the completed work should go would have it pinned to the ceiling. Well, you can guess who that child was! I was so lost in my own dreamy-seven-year-old-world that I wandered up without a second thought to ask the forbidden question. I was shocked when she grabbed my work, stood on a desk and pinned it above my head for everyone to see. Naturally I was pretty avoidant of asking the teacher anything after that for fear of further public humiliation.
This is an example of a 'Little T' Trauma; a moment that may not have been life-threatening or even identifiable as traumatic to others, but I have not forgotten it. When I bring it to mind I still remember my hard work fluttering above the class with a mixture of pity for younger me and annoyance that I hadn't listened properly.
How is it different to 'Big T' Trauma?
When we use the word trauma most people think of 'Big T' trauma – events that everyone would agree are traumatic because they are harrowing and dangerous (a natural disaster, a war zone or an accident). However 'Little T' traumas get lots of airtime in the therapy room too because the accumulative effect of multiple 'Little Ts' amounts to the same level of emotional distress (or even more so) caused by a 'Big T' trauma.
In fact, the very nature of 'Little T' trauma is that it’s harder to identify, which means that often the people I work with have dismissed their distress as unwarranted or unacceptable and this adds to their low self-esteem and anxiety. Whilst my experience in the class room has stayed with me, and may have played into my shyness growing up, it didn't scar me in a big way because it was a one-off 'Little T' of this nature.
The 'Little T' Traumas that you may have experienced
In my experience of working with many clients, I've noticed that an underlying theme of 'Little T' Traumas is that they often relate to feeling negatively judged or left out by our friends, families or colleagues.
Even though a negative judgement isn’t a life or death situation, it is considered a threat in another sense... Humans are mammals and as such our survival depends on being part of a social group. If you’ve ever seen any David Attenborough programs you’ll know that the primates that break the rules and are ostracised or wander off and get lost from their group are less likely to survive for long on their own.
So too our human psychology is cued to be sensitive to our status in our social groups – if we sense that we are slipping down the social pecking order we feel threatened and try to make amends or find a way to protect ourselves from destitution. This is why moments when feel humiliated or left out are followed by intense periods of worrying that we don’t fit in, aren’t liked or are unacceptable. We will then dwell on what we did or said for days afterwards and this is typical in 'Little T' Traumas.
How do Little T Traumas impact us
These Little-Ts can really get under our skin. They have the power to shift our world-view in a negative way, in the same way that a Big-T trauma does.
Here's an example of a world-view shift after a Little-T trauma (lets say a friendship rejection) you could go from "I am fundamentally likeable" to "I'm not likeable or acceptable".
An example of a world-view shift after a Big-T trauma like an assault could be "the world is safe" moving to "the world is not safe.
World-view shifts in this negative way can make us feel anxious or panicky, interrupt our sleep and make us feel like we have a low self-worth or that others cannot be trusted.
If someone comes to therapy to improve emotional difficulties or self-sabotaging behaviours (like those listed above) but is puzzled because they believe that there's no obvious reason or Big T trauma to explain why they are like this, we will explore early life experiences and start to uncover any Little-T traumas and world-views that hang off them.
Perhaps there have been small moments of humiliation or embarrassment, feeling helpless, alone or misunderstood. You may subconsciously try to avoid a repetition of it by avoiding similar situations or trying to people-please.
You may want to read about the ways our parents' traumas can impact us here.
I'd also recommend signing up for blog updates as I will be posting more blogs in the near future about relational (attachment) traumas and Complex PTSD.