My Therapist Says There Are ‘Little T’ Traumas and ‘Big T’ Traumas
Excavating those ‘little t’ traumas has helped me chip away at the bigger ones
When I first started going to therapy at 19, I had a pretty good idea of the traumas I wanted to excavate: divorce, parental addiction, eviction — the “big T” traumas that are easy to define in a word.
I used to think the only reason to go to therapy was to talk about trauma like this. I sat in the offices of half a dozen therapists, balling wet Kleenex in my hand and sipping on lukewarm chamomile tea in paper cups, while trying to get them to talk about these big things and changing the subject whenever they wanted to talk about how these big things were affecting me now. But when I finally found a therapist I connected with, who wore a knit pink sweater with a heart on it and sat cross-legged in her chair, I started realizing there was a lot more to excavate than I thought (big surprise!). Instead of these big pillar traumas, there was more like an ant farm tunnel network of traumas, things I couldn’t easily define in a sentence, that felt really bad, but that I didn’t know I was allowed to call traumatic.
My therapist says we can have “small t” traumas and “big T” traumas; bad things that happen in our lives that we don’t always feel like we can claim ownership over, things that feel murky, or things we’re told aren’t “that bad.” She says we can have a backpack filled with “small t” traumas that eventually get so heavy, it turns into a “big T” trauma.
My therapist first told me this about a year ago when I started reading She Said by the reporters who broke the Harvey Weinstein story. I have had nonconsensual sexual experiences, but don’t use the word “rape” to classify them, a classification a lot of people struggle with. I didn’t think I would be triggered reading a book about Weinstein, but I found myself feeling higher than normal levels of anxiety after reading only a few chapters. My chest was tight, I was afraid to be on a street alone with a man, and nervous to walk home from the subway after dark. A lot of women minimize sexual trauma, especially when sometimes it feels like being in a female body is an unending string of “little t” traumas: someone catcalling you, someone groping you in a bar, someone following you down the street.
For me, there was power in being able to label something as trauma at all, in expanding my definition of it.
Before my therapist said I could call my experiences “little T traumas,” I had never labeled those nonconsensual experiences. I just zipped them up in a pocket of a jacket I stopped wearing years ago, but kept in the back of my closet.
Now, I do use the word “assault” to explain what happened to me, which is something I have never done, because sometimes the world makes you feel like you need permission to say that what you’ve experienced was traumatic.
I didn’t know I was allowed to call having a best friend ghost you after five years of friendship traumatic, especially if that friend didn’t really treat you well to begin with; or seeing your dad’s broken nose after someone randomly attacked him when he went to the bank; or having your grandmother berate you, at four years old, for not wearing a bikini; or living with a seemingly endless string of your mom’s boyfriends, four of which were all named Mike. But experiences like this, which can’t even really be explained in a list, compound like student loan interest, making you feel less safe, less trustful, and tired.
What I’ve found is that excavating those “little t” traumas has helped me chip away at the bigger ones. Often, those “little t” traumas are aftershocks of the big traumas, like how being a “child of divorce(s)” makes you feel powerless, or being the daughter of an addict makes you constantly doubt yourself. Excavating “little t” traumas is taking off the backpack and looking at what’s inside, before it gets so heavy you have no choice but to topple over.
For me, “little t” traumas aren’t about ranking or minimizing trauma. It’s about letting myself put more of my experiences into that category, so I can move away from feeling angry or disappointed in myself for being upset about them and instead start to process them. Being able to call bad things trauma has given me a bin in which to throw all these negative experiences, a place where they can settle so I can look at them.
This feels especially important because the insidious nature of trauma is that survivors have a hard time recognizing their trauma or don’t think it’s “that bad.” For me, there was power in being able to label something as trauma at all, in expanding my definition of it, just like there’s power in learning to trust yourself and other people and in taking time to rest.
Having the “little t” label has helped me to see suffering on a spectrum rather than in black and white. It lets trauma finally sit in my body with some kind of name. Now, I can start to unpack it.