Micro-Trauma: The Subtle Experiences That Can Become Traumatic Over Time
Life is made up of little moments—good and bad. As humans, it's normal to have experiences that are steeped in pain and sadness. However, if we continue to remain in dysfunctional frameworks, it can bruise our psyche over time and show up in chronic feelings of depression and anxiety. This emotional phenomenon, in which subtle hurts build up over time, is known as micro-trauma.
What is micro-trauma?
We usually think of trauma as huge, monumental events in our lives that leave a lasting impact—things like domestic abuse or the death of a loved one. But micro-trauma is a subtler form of trauma that actually happens over time. Margaret Crastnopol, Ph.D., a Seattle-based psychologist and psychoanalyst who has studied the phenomenon in depth, defines micro-trauma as "seemingly insignificant experiences that are emotionally injurious to oneself or another. Because they seem so minor, they can easily be ignored, denied, or otherwise swept under the psychic rug." These subtly hurtful experiences can accumulate over time, she tells mbg, and they can eventually inflict psychological harm on your worth, security and well-being.
In other words, when these incidents stand alone, it's easier to move on from them relatively unscathed without it detrimentally altering your way of being or relating to others. However, when these events are strung together, we begin to form a mosaic colored with a demonstrated history of repeated, emotional wounding.
"If not addressed, these subtle hurts build up over time and undermine a person's view of their self-worth and self-esteem, in turn compromising the capacity for healthy relationships," holistic therapist Sarah Rocha, LPC and CCTP, tells mbg. That means people who deal with micro-traumas will find it difficult to properly nourish their mind, body, and soul, as well as form healthy relationships with others.
Types of micro-trauma.
In her book Micro-trauma: A Psychoanalytic Understanding of Cumulative Psychic Injury, Crastnopol identified seven types of micro-traumatic, identifiable patterns that can distort one's personality and hijack the way that we connect with others:
1. Small slights and insults
One of the most common types of micro-trauma are what Crastnopol calls little murders. "Little murders, straightforward or oblique onslaughts on another's sense of personal worth, are foremost among injurious modes of relating. A vast and various group of behaviors, they include off-hand insults, slights, mockery, back-biting, discounting, damning with faint praise, and back-handed compliments," she says.
If perceived putdowns keep happening to you (e.g., why does my mom always nag me about my career choice?), it may feel like you need to stay on high-alert to fend off the next anticipated attack. But staying in a state of hypervigilance to protect your self-worth can be painful and constricting. As more of these slights stack together, it can build an impenetrable wall that you refuse to let down, distancing from others to avoid further hurt.
2. Being suddenly abandoned
If you've ever had a friend or a prospective romantic partner cut off all contact, you know how painful this can be. After all, you trusted them and thought you knew them fully. When someone withdraws abruptly, it can leave you feeling uncertain about your own judgments. I thought they felt the same. Maybe I was wrong. But then, was the whole relationship a lie? What was fiction, and what was truth? As you're navigating the situation, more feelings of insecurity can breed as you begin to question what you thought the relationship was, and ultimately yourself.
This unkind cutting back of a relationship can be a form of micro-trauma, especially if it's recurrent in a person's life: "Unkind cutting back is an unexpected, unilateral bid to attenuate a relationship in a way that [creates] hurt, confusion, and frustration," Crastnopol explains. "The decision to reduce contact occurs summarily and without a convincing explanation. By shortening or postponing contact, spreading it out, or minimizing its original importance, the one stepping back from contact inflicts micro-trauma by undercutting the other person psychologically."
3. Chronic entrenchment
Most of us know someone who is overly resigned to their lot in life. They're almost stubbornly stuck in place, unable to move forward or backward. This is known as chronic entrenchment, and the ones who endure micro-trauma from this experience are actually the other people around the stagnant person.
Some people can be "locked into either a self-diminishing or overly self-contented attitude in a way that generates collateral damage in others," says Crastnopol. "It feels familiar and, in some way, suited to oneself. Much of the person's energy goes into proving that trying to grow would not only be folly but psychologically disastrous. ... When they make efforts to try to do things differently, they abandon them before they could possibly yield fruit."
While the person may not view this as a damaging act—they're not making a fuss or rocking the boat!—this can be harmful to friends and family who are there for them and consequently get tangled up in their stagnant entrenchment. Over time, it takes a frustrating and often destructive toll on everyone to keep enacting the same toxic dynamic.
4. Chronic indignation
It's radically important that you feel accepted and feel like you don't have to hide your true self and raw edges. When you don't feel sufficiently accepted by your peers, your partners, or your society, that chronic feeling of indignation can develop into trauma.
To make matters worse, that chronic indignation can sometimes bring out uglier tendencies. Although anger can absolutely be healthy, for many people, reacting from a place of self-righteousness can often steer you to places that don't serve you or your relationships.
"The expression of unbridled indignation in personal relationships is often directly detrimental to whomever may be the object of the rageful sentiment," Crastnopol notes. "Self-righteous anger can stimulate reprisal and retribution rather than correction."
5. Airbrushing and excessive niceness
Psychological airbrushing is "inflating oneself or the other by minimizing or covering over flaws," Crastnopol says. "A partner to airbrushing is a blanket attitude of 'excessive niceness,' in which one responds affectively to the other as if any flaws or failings they possess are insignificant or immaterial. When people engage in either of these sorts of covering up...it may leave others unable to grapple with areas of friction effectively."
At first glance, it's easy to wave off the negative repercussions of engaging in this type of interaction. After all, it doesn't seem that bad. But this behavior is a seductive trap, creating false situations that call for further insincere niceties and, most importantly, an inability to see things as they are. By partaking in this selective erasure, you cannot communicate honestly or accept the shadow parts that we all innately possess. By striving to appear to have only socially desirable attitudes at all costs, it leads to a dangerous repression of a host of emotions that can be healthy if they are expressed, like anger, anxiety, and shame.
6. Uneasy intimacy
At the early stages when you begin to connect with someone, you sometimes rush into the intensity of the relationship without taking the time to understand each other's individual differences. Everything feels so great inside the bubble! Since you feel so connected, you can disregard your partner's dissimilarities to keep the perception of harmony strong. But if you continue to overlook your own values, thoughts, and ideologies to remain connected to theirs, it's a slippery slope to losing your individuality in the process and being totally enmeshed with your partner.
Crastnopol characterizes this tension as "an intensified closeness that tends toward co-opting the other."
"Uneasy intimacy is the problematic stepchild of intimacy, a kind of insecure closeness that can feel thrillingly engaging but also unsettling. This form of intimacy is an alluring but confusing bond that ends up thwarting you more than helping you, undermining your belief in your own judgment and weakening your trust in others," she explains.
Once you notice the pattern, it does become easier to see the difference between love and emotional dependency, and you can learn how to stop being emotionally dependent in your relationship.
7. Connoisseurship gone awry
While mentor-teacher relationships and the like can be positive, too much influence can read as coercion and, over time, could debilitate your sense of esteem and peace of mind.
"The connoisseur's mindset involves a preoccupation with seeking ever greater refinement in his or her knowledge, mastery, or level of appreciation. This often ends up structuring a form of relatedness wherein the 'savvy' person—for better or worse—inducts another person into the intricacies of a given subject matter, field of endeavor, or a way of being," Crastnopol explains.
There are no absolutes in life, and things are not black and white. When you filter everything through a singular view of a teacher or an institution, there's a possible loss of autonomy in trusting your own agency. It can also narrow the relationships in your life, the very relationships that help round out your way of thinking with their additional perspectives. Over time, this loss of contact with your own way of thinking can psychically limit you and become a form of micro-trauma.
Breaking the cycle and healing from micro-trauma.
If you identify with any of these previous examples, know that you are not alone. But how do we break free and move forward?
Try to identify the patterns.
"The very first step to identifying a troublesome, self-destructive pattern is to note and not discount feelings of disquiet or upset in one's own life," Crastnopol says. "Do these occur in the aftermath of certain kinds of relating, with certain kinds of people? Are there any troubling memories from earlier in life, that come to mind with regularity, that might be capturing an instance of mistreatment or being mistreated?"
Find ways to process your past.
It's important to sit down and process past emotions deeply to avoid bringing residual pains to the present. This can be done with a trusted friend or a trauma professional, who can help you lovingly remove these blockages from your life by talking about it.
"While you do not have to [explicitly] talk about your trauma, it's important you share your feelings and emotions with someone face to face, someone you trust who will listen with compassion. Talking about your emotions with another person can help shift the energy in the body, and you can receive positive support and validation," Rocha suggests.
You can also journal, meditate, or read books about micro-trauma as self-healing practices.
In your day-to-day living, try to stay grounded in the present.
Since it can be scary to confront this head-on, take the time to also move and connect your body. "Any movement that is rhythmic and engages both your arms, legs, and whole body helps the nervous system. Movement provides the brain with sensory stimulation. As you engage in moving your body, add awareness and focus on your body and how it feels as you move," says Rocha. "It's important to stay grounded in the present moment."
Be patient with yourself.
There is no right or wrong way to release micro-trauma, so take it at your own pace. Healing from any trauma takes time.
"Adopting new ways of relating will take experimentation and considerable practice," Crastnopol confirms. But the benefits will be great: "Understanding micro-traumatic patterns can help reduce a person's troubled feelings, end their propensity for engaging in damaging ways, and in so doing, greatly boost his or her emotional growth."
Julie Nguyen is a writer, certified relationship coach, Enneagram educator, and former matchmaker based in Brooklyn, New York. She has a degree in Communication and Public Relations from Purdue University. She previously worked as a matchmaker at LastFirst Matchmaking and the Modern Love Club, and she is currently training with the Family Constellations and Somatic Healing Institute in trauma-informed facilitation.