The Right Amount of Trauma
Maybe trauma is like unlimited rocket fuel, but only if it's the right amount
I’ve come to believe that there’s an ideal amount of trauma in one’s past. Or at least if you aim to be highly successful at something.
But it’s not just the right amount of trauma, but the right way of thinking about that trauma.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot with respect to high-achievers I’ve read about, and that I know in real life. Everyone I know who is grinding incessantly has some kernel of hurt within them. And grinding with a fire within you is what produces success. Having enough at-bats, and all that.
But this is troubling to me. Like, it makes sense why trauma produces hustlers and grinders that end up winning in life. I get that. But the real question isn’t about what’s happening in adults. The thing we actually care about is how to raise happy and healthy children.
What the hell does “the right amount of trauma” mean for kids? It’s an eternal struggle for parents who grind their way to a big house and a nice school for their children. The kids grow up with every video game console, safe schools, a full belly, and happy parents. And the father or mother suddenly realizes one day that the kids don’t have any fire in them.
They’re not particularly motivated to be better. To achieve. To attack the world. To crush it in life. They’re kind of default-content. School, video games, some other hobbies. Whatever.
That’s it actually. Whatever.
Grinders don’t have whatever. Every moment is a plan. A plot. A scheme to elevate oneself. To fill the hole left by whatever struck them in early life.
I think evolution loves that. Evolution loves when people grind and struggle and climb. It makes selection stronger. It puts higher filters on mates. It helps the best genes survive.
So I guess evolution loves the right amount of trauma. The amount that puts fire into the soul of an individual, but without damaging them so much that they give up.
This all makes sense, but it still blows me away.
How in the hell are we supposed to simultaneously keep improving our quality of life in a society, and in a household, but also instill this fire into our kids? Is it possible to instill this “right amount of trauma” into a kid without being a fucking monster? What would that even look like?
I’m inclined to think not. It feels like something that has to happen naturally or not at all. Attempts to replicate it artificially seem doomed.
But I can think of things that are similar in thought without being the real thing.
Having them spend time overseas
Having them help people in true need
Making them earn things that other kids get for nothing
Creating a highly-disciplined household where dopamine is a controlled substance, where things like family time are prized among everything else
Another idea is to look at subcultures that produce highly accomplished children. Many Jewish families, for example, have trauma build into the history of their people, going back thousands of years. The struggle, the grind. It’s part of the culture. I’m not an expert on it, but it seems like they’re always pushing to be better, and I imagine this applies to kids as well. I don’t think they have as much concept of “just surviving in this world is good enough”. I think they’re told that it’s their responsibly to crush it. To thrive. And to reproduce.
That’s some kind of trauma, if we are liberal with the definition, but in a very wholesome and healthy form. So maybe that’s a model.
Another case study is the Helicopter Parent / Tiger Mom. The trauma there is more tangible, as it’s widely accepted that the parents in this model commonly withhold affection and connection based on the performance of the children in school. Not great. And definitely traumatizing. But it produces lots of highly successful adults. Lots of advanced degrees. High salaries. In-tact families (although that is no-doubt multi-factorial), and many other benefits.
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But are they happy? Is that healthy? Hard to say, and you could write whole books on it and still not be sure.
And then you have another model that’s taken over in America, and let’s call it the multi-generational, liberal, white American culture. Needs a better name. This model doesn’t have the steady push of the Jewish model, or the militant agro of the Tiger Mom model. Instead, its primary focus is on eliminating trauma altogether.
Ironically they focus on trauma more than anyone, and talk about it endlessly. They talk about the trauma that was experienced, is still being experienced, could be experienced, and of course how that trauma makes them feel. In my mind the obsession with trauma ends up being a cause itself, and kids become these fragile, uh, traumatized animals that are largely unable to function.
This is where the mentality comes in that we talked about in the beginning. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging trauma, seeing a therapist, and trying to deal with one’s stuff. There are many cases where this is the best route to take, and many more probably should be doing so.
But not indefinitely. Not as an identity. Not as a personality. Not as a lifestyle. And again, this isn’t the kid’s fault. And in many cases, it’s not even on the parents. They’re legitimately trying to do what’s best for their kids. The problem is the culture itself that teaches this as the solution.
In my opinion, the best mentality for trauma is to 1) make sure it’s not a knot in your soul that’s severely limiting your functionality or causing you to be a worse person. If it is, talk to someone and get it sorted. And 2), take the trauma that’s left over after the healing and turn it into something positive.
It’s not a dark past, it’s an origin story
You weren’t buried, you were planted (not mine)
You don’t have baggage, you have loot
Take that negativity and use it to become stronger. Think of it like rocket fuel that doesn’t run out. The right amount turns into limitless energy. Just make sure the vehicle it’s powering is pointed in the right direction.
The main challenge is figuring out how to give our kids this permanent rocket fuel in an ethical and sustainable way. We can’t put them through our bullshit. Won’t work. And wouldn’t be ok if it did work. So we have to do something else.
I’ve given a few examples of how different subcultures approach it, but would love to talk to anyone else who has ideas.
There are obviously some kinds of trauma that there is no useful amount of.
One of the main challenges with “the right amount” for most people is knowing what that amount is. When is it manageable and rocket fuel vs. when do you talk to a therapist?
This essay is 100% AI-free, except the image, which is from Midjourney 5.