Did You Know that Defensiveness is a Symptom of Trauma?

Gillian Sisley

I only just made the connection recently, 7 years into my healing journey.

Photo by Joanna Nix-Walkup on Unsplash

I’ve recently been reading the memoir by Chanel Miller, “Know My Name". Chanel survived sexual assault at the hands of former Stanford student Brock Turner, and until last year was known as Emily Doe in one of the most publicized civilian sexual assault cases we’ve ever seen in the media.

As a survivor myself, I’ve had the intention of reading this memoir for some time.

There’s a strange feeling of responsibility you have as a fellow survivor to delve into the pain and trauma with another and hear their story. That’s a premise that this Fearless community was built on, and one that still resonates with people on a daily basis and helps them heal.

I felt a responsibility to Chanel to know her story, hear her words, and read her truth.

Like with many cases of reading a story by a fellow survivor, I’ve been having a lot of “huh" moments. Moments where I think, “Yep, I remember that feeling,” and “Wow, I’ve never thought of it that way".

The crazy thing about being a survivor of sexual assault is that we all have different stories and circumstances, but at the same time the aftermath and trauma we experience is surprisingly so similar.

We wrestle with the same complex feelings. We struggle with the same insecurities and concerns. We are changed for the rest of our lives for the same reason — we’ve been deeply violated, and nothing can undo that.

While reading Chanel’s memoir the other night, I came across a section where she talks about how following her assault she was so angry all the time. When her family would ask her the most mundane questions, she’d immediately respond defensively and aggressively. It was like an automatic response.

I read that in my immediate thought was,

“Well, that sounds familiar. Could this have been a symptom of my trauma all along?”

Defensiveness shows itself through trauma for a variety of reasons.

According to science, defensiveness is a common symptom for those who struggle with trauma, especially those who struggle with trauma related to sexual violence.

I started delving into this research because Chanel’s account of her defensiveness triggered thoughts of my own.

I’m a person with a very calm disposition, and many know me for being quite patient, but some of the stupidest things cause me to be defensive.

Before I know it, defensiveness comes out of me like a primal instinct for survival.

In my relationship with my husband, the most common defensiveness that we encounter is my defensiveness over cooking.

It sounds very stupid, but it’s true.

If my husband tries to remove elements from his diet that don’t sit well with his stomach, and that ingredient is used in several of my staple dishes, I’ll immediately get defensive. If my husband suggests a change to a menu or substituting certain ingredients while I’m in the middle of cooking, my immediate response is defensiveness.

Every time it happens, my husband and I look at each other in surprise and shock. Because neither of us knew where that came from.

Only now, 7 years into my healing and recovery journey, have I learned and recognized that not only is this sort of out-of-nowhere defensiveness common among survivors, but it’s also a common symptom of the trauma we live with.

It may seem small, but this was a massive light bulb moment for me and frankly a giant relief.

We go on the defence because of our own insecurities.

Less people these days are asking why survivors don’t step forward to report their assaults.

They’re asking less because so many survivors have already answered that question:

“It’s not likely that I’m going to be believed. It’s a 'he said, she said' situation.”
“My friend stepped forward to report her attacker and the police blamed her for her assault.”
“When I tried to tell a loved one about what happened to me, they didn’t believe me and accused me of lying.”
“I watched that one case on TV where the victim was accused of attention seeking, trying to ruin the reputation of their attacker, and just looking for 15 minutes of fame.”

All of these statements and experiences are commonly felt and expressed within the survivor community. Just about every survivor out there can identify with at least one of these statements.

In essence, in the time when we most need to be believed and are suffering, we are often disbelieved.

The experience of being disbelieved and silenced only furthers the damage caused and deepens the wounds of our trauma.

The early experiences of trying to get help or support are muddied by feelings of shame, guilt, and aloneness.

When a person steps forward to try and express their most vulnerable, deepest and most damaging experience of their life, and they are met with harmful disbelief and shaming, that changes a person forever.

Now we live with the unfulfilled longing of being believed and even the most mundane moments of our lives.

We are attempting to fill a void that can never be filled, because the damage of disbelief has already been done.

We go on the defence because of our own shame and guilt.

Just as battling disbelief can be an external battle, it’s also an internal one we are constantly fighting.

We’re in a constant tug-of-war with ourselves to lay blame on ourselves for the violation we’ve experienced, and treating ourselves with grace by recognizing that we’re not the ones at fault for an assault committed through another person’s choices.

The complexities of trauma are not rational or logical. When the reality of living with trauma is so severe, a person will try to convince themselves that the situation wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

We as survivors try to talk ourselves out of being traumatized by minimizing the attacks we endured.

But like any trauma, it doesn’t go away by avoiding it. If anything, the longer you avoid it the harder it will hit when it finally catches up with you.

If you’re a survivor, or know one personally, you’re familiar with the back and forth survivors go through of trying to cast shame and blame and guilt on ourselves one day, and then the next putting the full responsibility of our violation on the person who attacked us.

Even very far into the healing journey, this is still a tug of war that survivors deal with. It’s certainly one I still deal with.

It’s a very scary reality to live in when you don’t feel like you can trust the world you exist in, and you also don’t feel like you can trust yourself.

When we’re so unsure about details related to our trauma, because there is no reason or rationale there, we desperately grasp onto the things in our lives that we know definitively to be true or false.

And while it may be confusing, we’re willing to die on that sword simply for the fact that we know if it’s true or false. Because in the parts of our lives where being able to make that distinction matters most, we are unable to do it.

Because frankly, I’m a very self-aware person. And it drives me to the point of insanity knowing that because of my diagnosed PTSD there are instances when I simply do not know or recognize myself, and there is nothing I can do about it.

And that is why I am so defensive over the most seemingly unimportant things.

And why many other survivors are the same.

Final word.

You’ve heard me say it a thousand times before — healing and recovering from trauma is a lifelong journey.

It’s also a very complex journey that continues to shift and change throughout, which makes it hard to follow, hard to stay on top of and an incredibly frustrating existence sometimes.

But when it comes to healing, every bit of information that we can collect to better understand our trauma and better learn how we can navigate it makes a world of difference overall and in our quality of life.

Realizing that my confusing defensive nature over certain things is related to my trauma isn’t going to fix it.

Our trauma causes us to do something odd, we reflect on it and do our research, we try to find the source or root of it, and we try to take that knowledge and put it to good use in our healing.

That work never stops. And the only reason we have to do that work is that someone else felt entitled enough to us that they violated us for their own entertainment or pleasure, and then walked away without giving a second thought.

Truth? That reality f*cking sucks. And it’s a total piss-off sometimes. Which, honestly, can also cause frustration to come out as defensive or aggressive behavior.

Survivors have a lot of really valid reasons to be frustrated and angry and feel a constant sense of injustice in their lives.

But we’re also doing the best we can to work past that and regain the quality of life that we once had.

It’s a thankless job, but we do it so that we can survive and thrive.

And no one else is going to do it for us.

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