Hierarching Trauma is a Losing Game for Everyone

Who’s had it worse – a war veteran or a survivor of emotional abuse?

A child who grew up in the cycle of poverty or a survivor of a national disaster?

Someone whose family were victims of genocide or someone whose family were victims of slavery?

The answer is actually that the question is wrong.

Hierarching trauma isn’t new – as long as human beings have suffered, we have felt obliged to look to the suffering of others to see how ours stacks up. 

Are we responding reasonably? Are we managing our hardships with more or less maturity than our counterparts? Should we feel inferior or superior to the people in our sphere? How much grace should we have for others during times of struggle – how much did they have for us?

And on, and on, and on.

It’s a little dizzying from a bird’s eye perspective. 

What we know now about trauma is that actually, most kinds of trauma get interpreted by the brain in the same way. The cascade of physiological responses is strikingly similar, almost no matter what happened. Prolonged muscle contraction, morphed hormone expression, prefrontal cortex shrinkage…

Whether the traumatic event was developmental neglect or a big, scary car crash. 

What’s dangerous about hierarching trauma – categorizing some events as more or less painful than others – is that it culminates in the delegitimization of our own pain.

And when that happens, we don’t heal.

Hierarching Trauma in Action

This is a two-way street.

We can either diminish our own pain by considering that someone else has had it worse, and if that’s true, then we are weak and incapable when we aren’t able to perform just as well as that person. 


We can diminish the pain of others by noting how much better we’d been able to function if that had happened to us – after all, there was that time that we went through that horrible breakup and still didn’t miss a day of work, and what happened to them wasn’t even that bad, so they must be faking it…

It’s a mess. It gets even messier the more granular you get in trying to explain how weak you OR someone else is.

The deeper you try to go, the more you travel into the realm of judgment, and casting stones on those you believe are “sinning differently” than you…

Or judging yourself as not being as up-to-the-task as everyone else.

All of this behavior blocks the path to healing. 

What we’re really talking about is resilience – and that is as unique as a fingerprint for each and every person.

Resilience and its Effect on Trauma

Here’s what we missed out on in our early education. 

The answer to measuring the effect of various traumas on various people has nothing to do with the nature of the event. 

It has to do with our level of emotional resilience when the event actually happened.

But because that’s not part of our collective societal understanding of pain, we tend to disregard traumatic moments from our childhoods and early adulthoods because time has passed.

“Time heals all wounds” is simply an axiom – and no more universally true than any other.

Time heals wounds if we work to heal them. The mere passage of minutes only serves to separate us from the immediate effects of the event.

A death in the family at five is likelier to cause lasting damage in our psyches than a death in the family at 35 – because your world view and life experience hasn’t prepared you for the truth of dealing with death at five.

As adults, we all share certain cultural touchstones. But our resilience levels are vastly different, and unquantifiable without professional and personalized treatment.

So an attempt to hierarchize trauma through our limited lens and compare our suffering to the suffering of others – either to berate ourselves or congratulate ourselves – is an insidious practice that bleeds into every corner of our lives.

The worst casualty of this game is the connections we don’t get to make and the empathy we don’t get to give and receive.

When we think about trauma… we should be thinking about the nature of compounding, the survival patterns we establish in order to move on, and having grace for ourselves and those we meet because almost no one is doing it all right.

And without acknowledging that, our view is obstructed and our feet stuck where they are.

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.