I’ve heard quite a few people talk about not having been traumatized enough for their trauma to really count. I love me a good metaphor, and I think spoon theory and fork theory can be useful in explaining how little-t trauma (i.e repeated smaller stressors) can cause serious damage just like big-T trauma can.
Spoons as coping resources
Spoon theory, first described by Christine Miserandino, is a way of describing limited resources in chronic illness. To cope with stressors, you need spoons (i.e. energy/resources) available to deal with them. Chronic illness, as well as difficult life circumstances, can severely deplete one’s supply of spoons. The fewer spoons there are available, the less stress it takes to overwhelm the capacity to cope.
Forks as stress pokes
Fork theory was first described by Jen Rose to describe the effect of cumulative stressors that can get you to the point of “stick a fork in me, I’m done.” I see small-t stressors as fitting well with forks. Individual fork pokes may not be enough to cause serious damage, but the cumulative damage of multiple fork pokes can kick the crap out of you.
Yet if you tell other people about your forks, they might wonder what the big deal is. If other people treat your fork pokes as if they don’t “count,” it can be harder to convince yourself that they do.
Knives as bigger traumas
I think of big-T traumas as being more like knives. A single stab, depending on how it’s delivered, can do massage damage. The impact of these is more obvious, both to the self and to others.
People can conceive of a knife stab being able to do serious and potentially lasting damage. It’s a lot more obvious than the effects of multiple forks. People may still not get what it actually feels like, but they’re more likely to acknowledge that knives “count” as trauma.
Pastry blenders as ongoing trauma
Pastry blenders aren’t sharp like knives, but they do a lot of slicing. Even if they’re not slicing deeply, it’s a lot going on, and that can add up quickly.
A pastry blender might look like a pretty innocuous thing to someone who isn’t low on spoons or hasn’t been exposed to a lot of knives and forks. If you tell someone about it, they’re not going to get as concerned as if you were stabbed by a knife. But you’re still left sliced and diced.
Using the stress bucket model
The stress bucket model is another way to capture the effects of big-T and little-t trauma. A single big-T traumatic event might flood your bucket all in one go. However, your bucket can also flood if you have repeated little-t traumas filling up your bucket faster than you have the coping capacity to release the associated stress. Either way, your bucket can still end up getting flooded, no matter how small each individual little-t trauma might be.
What do these metaphors mean?
I like metaphors, but they don’t work for everyone, and that’s okay. The underlying point is that you don’t have to have obvious big-T traumas for it to count. If you’ve been through things that overwhelm your ability to cope, that deserves recognition (from you, even if other people are too blind to see it). There shouldn’t have to be a competition around whether “enough” bad things happen to you to be worth recognizing. If things have negatively affected you, you deserve compassion (and self-compassion), and you deserve to find healing.
As for other people that think you weren’t hurt/stressed/traumatized “enough,” their inability or unwillingness to validate you is a problem with them, not with you.
Does this way of looking at big-T and little-t trauma make any sense to you? Do you have a hard time feeling like what’s happened to you is bad “enough”?
The Coping Toolkit page has a broad collection of resources to support mental health and well-being.