It is not uncommon to see or hear about someone who behaves in a manner that falls below the level of our expectations.

Consider the following examples:

  • A friend’s child is being clingy and annoying
  • A friend is a people pleaser and has a hard time drawing healthy boundaries
  • A coworker commonly shows up to work late, and when they are there, they are not very proactive about doing their work
  • You find out that an acquaintance from high school was arrested for possession of child pornography
  • A teenager that lives next door has an eating disorder
  • You find out that your other neighbor is an alcoholic and was just arrested for a DWI

What question do you tend to ask as you experience these situations?

Do you ask, “What is wrong with them?”

Or, do you ask, “What happened to them?”

The question you ask dramatically changes how you process and operate in these situations.

“What is wrong with them?”

In the situations above, or others similar to them, I think that it is easier to ask or think the question, “What is wrong with them?”

This question is reasonable. I mean, it does appear that in each of the situations, something may be wrong with them.

But, what I am learning is that it is a judgmental, short-sighted, and unproductive perspective.

Consider your friend’s child who is being clingy and annoying. When you ask yourself the question, “What is wrong with them?” Is it easy or difficult to be empathetic and compassionate toward that child?

My experience is that when I ask the question, “What is wrong with them?” it brings out the critical side of me, and I end up operating in a manner that is less than my ideal self.

young boy reflections

“What happened to them?”

When we ask the question, “What happened to them?” we are acknowledging that their behavior or actions likely came about because of factors that exist outside of them.

For example:

  • When a friend’s child is clingy and annoying, it probably means that the child isn’t getting the love and attention that she/he needs.
  • When a friend doesn’t draw healthy boundaries, it probably means that they have an emotional hole that takes precedent over health.
  • When a coworker isn’t proactive, it may mean that she/he was raised by parents who were overly controlling and abusive.

Generally, when people behave or operate in a manner that falls short of our expectations, it is because at some point in their life, they experienced trauma to a degree that their frowned-upon behaviors feels right or good to them in the moment.

This perspective is a trauma-informed mindset. It is a mindset that is more empathetic, comprehensive, and productive perspective.

My experience is that when I ask the question, “What happened to them?” it brings out more of my kind, empathetic, and compassionate side. I am much more willing and able to respond to these people and these situations in a manner that is more aligned with my ideal self.

Further, this perspective, allows us to get to the root or the heart of the issues the person is experiencing. When we ask “What is wrong with you?” our natural inclination is to change their behaviors in some way. But, when we ask, “What happened to you?” we are more inclined to provide the support that they need to heal. And, when they heal, they will begin to operate in more healthy ways.

Law Enforcement Example

I think law enforcement often gets this wrong. Our law enforcement system generally takes the “What is wrong with you?” approach, and is designed to catch and punish criminals. If you do something bad or wrong, we limit your freedoms.

But, what if the reason why they did something bad or wrong in the first place was because of the trauma that they have lived through? It seems as though the “catch and punish” approach is a Band-Aid solution to a much deeper problem.

Although there are some areas where law enforcement is doing a better job. For example, not too long ago, prostitutes were generally seen through the lens of “What is wrong with you?” and were commonly arrested and put into jail. Now days, we are much more sympathetic to the likely abuse and even trafficking that sex workers have experienced. And, rather than going to jail, they are given resources to help them feel safe and protected from their abusers.

I also wonder how our educational system would be different with trauma-informed mindsets.

Biggest Lesson Learned Thus Far in 2021

To me, understanding this trauma-informed mindset has been the biggest and most profound lesson that I have learned thus far this year.

I have learned that when I wear my trauma-informed mindsets, I am more patient, more compassionate, and more like my ideal self.

If you want to develop trauma-informed mindsets, I couldn’t recommend the following books more: