Learning the difference between a big beast and a little beast and how they are both valid.
Would you rather fight 20 duck-sized horses or 1 horse-sized duck?
You might be asking yourself why I would ask such a question to begin a post discussing trauma but I promise there is a reason and that reason is to put you in the frame of mind to understand the difference between Big “T” and Little “T” and how, despite their differences, they both pose a threat to your mental well-being.
So back to the question at hand. Little horses or a large duck? Well, in the instance of little horses, they are small and easy to kick around but they are fast and sturdy and have the ability to sneak up on you without you realizing until it is too late and they are biting at your ankles. A large duck on the other hand is very easily spotted and fights alone, requiring your full attention. While kicking off the small horses is tedious and annoying, the large duck is exhausting and strenuous.
That is the difference between experiencing little “t” trauma and big “T” Trauma. Little “t” traumas are “smaller” traumas you experience throughout life that aren’t life-threatening or severely physically damaging, but instead, things like emotional abuse, interpersonal problems, and minor injury that results in a trauma response to specific stimuli. Being bullied, in an emotionally toxic union, getting into a traumatic car accident, or being heavily criticized by a parent can all qualify as little “t” traumas. These traumas tend to stack on to one another, building a big wall out of tiny trauma bricks.
Big “T” Trauma on the other hand is more severe trauma that typically comes from being the victim of or witness to larger mentally-damaging experiences in which the individual is subject to harm, near death experience, physical abuse, sexual assault, or other situations impacting their physical safety. Being a victim of sexual abuse, being in a physically abusive relationship, being in a car accident that resulted in a near-death experience or the death of others, or witnessing the death or injury of someone close can lead to Big “T” Trauma. These traumas are like brick walls all in themselves, but can often be associated with little “t” traumas as well, almost like fighting the duck while the horses nip at your feet.
Big “T” and little “t” trauma co-exist but, often times, Big “T” trauma is the poster child for the mental illness community as it is typically what people think of when they think of PTSD and trauma in general. Even as an adult who has been in therapy for nearly 2 years, I can’t help but to occasionally write-off my own traumas as inconsequential or invalid because they are little “t”. However, I really want to fight to get the legitimacy of little “t” traumas recognized as they are something that greatly impact my life.
While my traumatic experiences never posed a threat to my physical safety, I still feel them very deeply and personally and they greatly impact how I conduct myself daily, view myself, and present myself in social situations. The presence of someone else’s trauma is not the absence of your own. People can live through worse than you have and your anxieties and traumas can still be valid.
There is often a level of guilt associated with complaining about little “t” traumas when, in reality, you have the right to feel your traumas, no matter how seemingly small, as much as you need to in order to process them. That is one of the most important things to remember about mental health. No one is living your life except you. Your perception of experiences does not have to match those around you and what you might find to be traumatic will not impact someone else in the same way for a number of reasons. So don’t compare your mountain to someone else’s mole hill.
Whether you’re spending your time fighting off tiny horses or the large duck, just know that you are strong and valid for doing so. Because overcoming trauma isn’t easy, it is a process that takes tenacity, strength, and courage. Be proud of yourself no matter the size of your “T”