Surviving Trauma: The Power of Perspective

I sat in a state of shock, hoping my face appeared somewhat neutral. A ten year old girl was sharing with me what happened to her father. “He was mad all the time,” she whispered. “He was mad, then sad, then…,” her voice trailed off. I sat next to her, trying to look interested but not wanting to pressure her. Although her mother already told me the story, the little girl had yet to speak of her father’s death. “He tied my brothers to a tree. He tied me too. Then he poured gasoline on his head, lit a match, and…and…my daddy was gone.”

This is one of those moments as a counselor when I don’t know what to say. My eyes filled with tears and I quietly asked her what happened next. As she continued with her story I took mental notes of trauma symptoms she was exhibiting: her body was frozen in one position; her hands repetitively stroked a doll; her eyes continually darted at each sound from the open window; her tone of voice and choice of words sounded younger than her age. Although Sara (not her real name) was physically present with me, she was experiencing depersonalization. It was as if she was talking about a dream or a movie, instead of telling her own story.

During and after Sara experienced her father’s death, her brain was continually trying to create order out of chaos, looking for a way to avoid any similar experience. Sara’s brain concluded that her father died because she hadn’t cleaned her room that morning. As a result she compulsively cleaned every night after school; if someone tried to stop her, she experienced a panic attack.

Although Sara’s story is an extreme example, it is a powerful reminder that our ideas become beliefs, and our beliefs become behaviors. With perspective it’s easy to see the error in Sara’s thinking, but perspective is not something any of us—child or adult—has on our own lives. Part of the counseling relationship is bringing together the client’s experiences with the counselor’s perspective, creating lasting change.