Five Basic Needs Often Disrupted by Trauma

One of the first handouts I got from counselling was on these disrupted needs. I almost crumbled from reading it because it explained so much about my behaviour.

  • Safety for yourself The need to feel that you are reasonably protected from harm inflicted by yourself, others, or the environment
  • Safety for others The need to feel that people you value are reasonably protected from harm inflicted by yourself, others, or the environment
  • Trust in yourself The need to rely on your own judgement
  • Trust in others The need to rely on others
  • Control of yourself The need to feel in charge of your own actions
  • Control with others The need to have some influence or impact on others
  • Esteem for yourself The need to value what you feel, think, and believe
  • Esteem for others The need to value others
  • Intimacy with yourself The need to know and accept your own feelings and thoughts
  • Intimacy with others The need to be known and accepted by others

One reason why #IBelieveYou is such a powerful and meaningful response to someone who shares their trauma with you is because of the disturbance to the need to trust in yourself and others and the need for esteem for your thoughts and feelings. Sometimes the attacker will silence the victim, whether by threatening them physically or emotionally or by whatever means, and the silencing further challenges and overwhelms the victim's senses and coping skills. When you say you believe the trauma victim, you cross a great chasm and deliver love and support where it's sorely needed.

I always wondered why I needed so much validation for my accomplishments, and I oddly also had a hard time accepting those fished compliments. I thought that people might be trying to flatter me, to manipulate me. Sometimes my ladyfriend doesn't even like asking me to do certain tasks because of how much validation I'll need for doing it. Men are kind of like that, but sometimes I'll just bring out past chores I did and ask for a pat on the head. It's harder for me to trust people, so I don't allow certain people to make me feel good for fear of them using it against me later. Even though it doesn't make sense, it makes sense now.

It feels like these needs are like craters, where for others, it's normally a hobbit hole. Getting the necessary validation takes a lot of effort and time, so it feels like you're on an endless treadmill. I always knew that it took me a while to settle into new environments, eg. schools, jobs, homes, but I never knew why.

Think of every Legend of Zelda or Mario game. At the beginning, Link and Mario are overwhelmed by some baddies, and they are robbed of something. That might be the princesses or some precious item, and sometimes they are weakened by a magic spell. The entirety of the adventure is spent gaining strength, new powers, restoring harmony in side-quests, making friends and allies, and finally, defeating the bosses that caused the initial disturbance. It's a time-honoured format because it so closely reflects our own encounters in life. The setup is the same, but the battles change, along with their characters and settings. You wouldn't hate on the system of framing a painting, would you? Since the dawn of time, we humans have been using rectangles to contain images. There's canvas, papyrus, wood, metal, plastic, and endless iterations on the same system. Even in digital media, when the physical constraints don't necessarily apply as much, we still defer to the rectangular frame. (Except for smartwatches. Who the heck wants a circular display?) In the same way, life is filled with battles that make you feel like you're always playing the same game.

In this cruel world, victims are blamed for their abuse, they're silenced by the legal system, and they're even punished in various ways. Think of how many women came forward about Bill Cosby's sexual abuse over the decades. Now realize that it took a man cracking a joke to make the story go viral. My sexual abuse wouldn't be taken so seriously if I were a woman of colour.

I know this barrage of posts on untangling complicated thoughts and emotions is very heavy. What I want is for you to be able to relate easier to victims. That's the difference between empathy and sympathy. It can be hard to put yourself in someone else's shoes when they went through something so different from your experience. If you isolate and understand all the contributing factors, it blends into an image that you can place yourself in. Here's a video that goes into depth on the difference between empathy and sympathy. With your enhanced empathy skills, you can better satisfy some of the disrupted needs of the traumatized person.

Jonathan Phan Lê @jon_le