Big-T Trauma, Little-t trauma, and Mental Health Cutlery

Big-T trauma, little t-trauma, and mental illness cutlery (spoons, forks, knives, and more)

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.

The stress bucket model, with stress coming in the top of the bucket and taps releasing it from the bottom

Using the stress bucket model

I think 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 (I’m looking at you, Grace), 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”?

Mental health coping toolkit

The Coping Toolkit page has a broad collection of resources to support mental health and well-being.

48 thoughts on “Big-T Trauma, Little-t trauma, and Mental Health Cutlery”

  1. I love this post. I definitely fall into the category of feeling like my “my stuff isn’t bad enough, so I should just get over it”. I love how you describe it. As a fellow spoonie, I’m very familiar with the spoon theory. I haven’t heard the fork one before but I like the connection. I agree, if someone disagrees with how YOU feel things and respond to trauma, that’s a problem with them, not you.

  2. In the past, when surrounded by a lot of toxicity, I felt invalidated over and over. And, every time I would try to stand up for myself, things didn’t work out for me. I just could not overcome the toxic company, and it took decades, because I am referring to family toxicity mainly. Today, things have improved by my removing myself from the family equation. It’s sad but it was completely necessary.

      1. Agreed, but really… I was affected for so long. Narcissism and toxicity from those who are supposed to love you? You just don’t think that’s supposed to happen. But, then reality sets in and you realize it happens A LOT to a lot of good people even. Abuse is fucking senseless. Thank you too btw.

  3. Not my first laugh laugh of the day (I’ve been up since 5:30am) but a a giggle all the same. I don’t need metaphors to describe/recognize what I’m feeling, regular words do me just fine. I didn’t even know/realize I had been traumatized until my shrink said to me “How did you survive your childhood?” Not until I put all that into perspective did I realize why I reacted the way I did to certain situations (triggers) and that my childhood was far from normal (and that my mother was a psychotic be-otch) And nope, I have no problem at all acknowledging that what happened to was bad – really bad. If someone wants to say “Oh you exaggerate” that might trigger me and then I might put all that cutlery to a non-metaphoric use (on them, not me.)

  4. I admit I lost the metaphor somewhere. I don’t even know what a “pastry blender” is (why would I want to blend pastry?). But I do have things in my childhood that I think weren’t “bad enough” to be trauma, even though they did have a big negative effect on my psyche (and still do affect me), and even though my therapist called the main situation “traumatic” (I think with a small t, but I’m not sure).

    1. A pastry blender has multiple dull cutting edges to cut butter into flour.

      The big-t/little-t difference is very subjective, but I think of little-t as anything that’s not immediately obvious to the world that it’s a trauma. I think it’s easy for people to get hung up on the nature of what happened, but it’s the effect it has on an individual that really makes it traumatic.

  5. Does this way of looking at big-T and little-t trauma make any sense to you? Yep. But I admit I get some odd looks when I try to explain it to people who either never had a lot of stress/trauma OR deny that stress and trauma exist. Yes, they live in a country known as De Nile. I have two of those latter folk in my immediate family.

    Do you have a hard time feeling like what’s happened to you is bad “enough”? No. I never have. I knew, even before I was diagnosed, and before therapy that what happened was massively damaging on some level. I would never judge someone else who had less trauma as ‘minor’ though. We have to be our own advocates, because in the end we’re the last people in ‘our’ own corner.

  6. I quite like the metaphors. Sometimes they are such a great way of communicating complex feelings. I like the cutlery terms explanation you provided.

  7. This in itself added a difficult layer to my trauma. I have been able to see it for what it is now but I suppressed for a decade, if not longer, my trauma because of how everything looked from the outside. Seeing it from that point of view, I had nothing to complain about. I too enjoy metaphors and the cutlery example makes sense of the smaller yet still there events that eventually flow over. As I was looking over your site, I came across a post examining this subject and I am glad you elborated on it today for my comprehension. Your site looks amazing btw!

      1. Much help has come from the information your blog offers. Seriously, the past four years of blogging have encouraged me to acknowledge, process, and heal my childhood trauma in a manner that brought me to forgiveness for myself. Being a part of this community plays an integral role in my recovery.

  8. Pastry blenders, I like that! Metaphors are good for grasping the nature of something like this. What about smaller fork traumas that aren’t necessarily repeated, ie. someone who may have experienced one or two things but for whom these are experienced as big traumas, perhaps because of other factors at that time, ie. generalised anxiety, low self-confidence, lack of support, lack of social circle, etc? x

  9. This is interesting. I did have to google pastry blender, though.

    I do think there’s a difference between big t, ongoing big t and little t trauma. Can little t accumulate? Yes. Is my trauma or your trauma worse than each others? No. I don’t think so. They are different. I think many people down okay their trauma. It’s their lived experience and they don’t know any different so it’s just there I guess.

    I am over hearing people just it’s trauma in relation to an event. I guess I see a difference between a traumatic event say a car accident and trauma.

    What are your thoughts on the dandelion and the orchid and how that theory fits with little t trauma?

    1. I hadn’t heard of the dandelion and the orchid theory, but that fits with what I’ve read about resilience being a combination of innate and learned factors.

      I agree that trauma isn’t inherent in an event. Multiple people may go through the same event and have very different reactions. I think what makes something traumatic comes down to whether or not it overwhelms the brain’s ability to process it and cope, and that’s such an individual thing. That’s kind of what I was thinking about in terms of lack of spoons; it’s not exactly the same thing, but not everyone has the same level of resources available to cope with difficult events.

      1. Yup! This is exactly it. This whole article and this comment are trauma therapist approved 🙂 I can’t wait to see some of your other work!

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