Why is it so important for trauma professionals to validate their clients personal responses to trauma?


3 min read

Jason Brien.

In philosophy there is a concept known as qualia which refers to subjective or personal experiences of consciousness. The most common manner in which the concept of qualia is described is with the question ‘Is the colour red that you see the same colour red that I see?’ That is, how can two people, who have different biological, neurological and genetic makeups be certain that they are seeing and experiencing the colour red in exactly the same way?  

Since we can never truly know whether the red that you see is the same red that I see, we must reach a level of understanding between us lest we always exist in a state of constant conflict and disagreement. To reach this level of understanding we, as a society, use intersubjectivity and ‘intersubjective agreements’. American sociology professor Thomas Scheff defines intersubjectivity as "the sharing of subjective states by two or more individuals". Intersubjective agreements therefore are created as a result of a shared definition or meaning between things. 

Let us explore qualia and intersubjective agreements in this way. Imagine that a stove is set on 50 degrees Celsius. You put your hand on the stove for 2 seconds before withdrawing your hand and shouting something along the lines of “Ouch… that’s hot”. Now how can you be certain that another person putting their hand on the same stove (set at the same temperature) for the same amount of time, is going to feel exactly the same level of hotness/pain that you just felt? Unless the other person is an exact clone of yourself, you cannot accurately presume or infer how the other person experienced the hotness of the stove. 

This is where intersubjective agreements come in. We as a society might create an intersubjective agreement which goes along the lines of “It can be agreed that two people have felt/experienced the same level of hotness/pain depending on the extent to which they have suffered a burn to the hand (i.e., 1st, 2nd or 3rd degree burn). This intersubjective agreement has allowed us to find a commonality between two people despite their highly individualised and personal experiences. 

So how can we relate the concepts of qualia and intersubjectivity to people who have experienced trauma and the trauma professionals who claim they can help them? When a person is exposed to a traumatic event, only they can ever truly know and understand what they went through. Only they can ever truly know and understand what they were thinking, feeling and experiencing at the time of the trauma. Only they can truly understand and know how helpless, scared, angry, powerless or fearful they felt in that moment.  

Since responses to trauma are so personal and unique, people can respond to the same traumatic events very differently and so we can never truly presume or infer that two people have been ‘traumatised’ the same way. That is, just because a trauma survivor is not ‘acting’ or responding in the same way other traumatised survivors do, it does not mean that their traumatic experience was less severe than others. Similarly, since all trauma survivors experience their traumatic experiences so uniquely, they may feel or believe that nobody could possibly understand what they have experienced nor know any way (or anybody) capable of helping them to heal and recover.  

This may prevent trauma survivors from talking to others about what has happened or from seeking professional help. If a trauma survivor feels that they are not being heard, understood and validated, because their trauma professional is TELLING them how they should have experienced their trauma, they will find it extremely difficult to trust their trauma professional which ultimately prevents them from developing rapport and developing a strong working relationship.  

In saying this though, whilst it is true that a trauma professional can never truly understand what a client has experienced, and must therefore respect, acknowledge and validate their clients uniquely personal experiences, the trauma professional can make some relatively accurate presumptions about what the client is likely to have experienced (due to trauma related intersubjective agreements made by society). An example of a trauma related intersubjective agreement may be something along the lines of… ‘During the immediate moment of sexual assault, the victim would have experienced intense fear, shame, embarrassment, etc. In the immediate aftermath, they may have experienced intense feelings of guilt, worthlessness, anger, etc.

Trauma related inter-subjective agreements, such as the sexual assault example just used, are often based upon repeating clinical or societal presentations of similar behaviours manifested by most, but not all, sexual abuse survivors. Obviously not all sexual abuse survivors will exhibit all of the symptoms and/or behaviours which again the trauma professional must recognise. The role of the trauma professional therefore is to find the balance between recognising and validating their clients unique trauma experiences whilst also recognising and validating their clients sameness (with other trauma survivors).

Resources

Gillespie, Alex; Cornish, Flora (March 2010). "Intersubjectivity: towards a dialogical analysis" (PDF). Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour. 40 (1): 19–46. CiteSeerX 10.1.1.724.7095. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5914.2009.00419.x. 

Unger, M. P. (2005). Intersubjectivity, Hermeneutics, and the Production of Knowledge in Qualitative Mennonite Scholarship. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 50–62. https://doi.org/10.1177/160940690500400304 

Vaknin, Sam. (2014). LECTURE Extremes of the Human Mind: The Most Terrifying Place of All. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CWT22Ow_B04