Ingeborg van Teeseling

Our Overuse of the Word “Trauma” Weakens It (and Us Too)

Mary Trump’s book promises to outline the “trauma” her uncle enabled, but I believe that particular word is dangerously overused.


Mary Trump’s long-awaited book about her uncle Donald has been released. It’s got a great title: Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man. All the president’s men have tried to stop its publication, but thankfully for our lust for gossip and schadenfreude, it will come out regardless. And its content will be, its author says, about the “trauma, neglect, and abuse” of the Trumpian clan. This is why I won’t be reading it.



I’m really, really fed up with the overuse of the word “trauma.” The thing is, words matter. If you deploy the term “fascism” for Australia’s PM Morrison, what do you use to describe Trump? If burying your dog is a trauma, where do you go when you want to report on the murder of your family? Most things we witness or experience are simply part of life: sadness, sorrow, pain, hurt, loneliness.

Once we blow everything up to superlatives, especially negative ones, we not only lose the words to properly talk about true horror, we also undermine our own resilience. In the chain of big-bigger-biggest, some things are just big. Not nice, but possible to overcome and put down to experience. The problem is that we have started to believe that a pleasant life is something we deserve, something we have a right to. Then, when something uncomfortable or annoying happens, we complain and see it as an abomination: how dare they (whoever “they” are) put us in a situation like that?

Writer Donald Horne once described the quintessential Australian as “a man in an open-necked shirt solemnly enjoying an ice cream. His kiddie is beside him.” It was not a compliment. He thought most Australians were (especially intellectually) lazy, smug and mediocre, infected with a “look-no-brain-attitude.” The consequence of that, Horne wrote, was that Australians were surprised and indignant if somebody stole the ice cream.


Once we blow everything up to superlatives, especially negative ones, we not only lose the words to properly talk about true horror, we also undermine our own resilience.


My biggest issue with this kind of behavior is that it infantilizes us. And that means that we cannot, or refuse to, see and acknowledge real trauma. Most of us have not experienced generation after generation of rape, abuse, poverty, neglect, lack of education, destruction of self, or being thrown off our property. A lot of Indigenous people have, but because we are too busy having a tantrum about not being able to go on holiday now, we are not listening. We know nothing about living in a refugee camp for years, in a tent, with two other families. About being rejected by rich country after rich country and slowly losing hope. For quite a few refugees this was their “normal,” but because we can’t go to the “there but for the grace of God,” we choose to blame them for the spread of an illness instead.

I understand that we are all tired. First the bush fires, then the plague. 2020 has turned out to be a long year, and it isn’t over yet. Who knows what is still to come. We might need the word “trauma” for real yet. So, let’s not forfeit it now on rich people in big mansions.


Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating to Australia from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She is writing a book and runs Lifebooks, telling people's life stories.

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