Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Secondary Wounding and Borderline Personality Disorder: Part 1

Stick and stones may break my bones, but words will only cause permanent psychological damage. 

I’ve talked about unintentional wounding or unintentionally exacerbating triggers in someone with Borderline Personality Disorder before. Today I want to expound on a tangent of this.

Secondary wounding.

Trauma. The initial experience may end quickly, but the half-life of healing can be quite long [1].

It takes time to get over a traumatic event. Most people get that. What they don’t often appreciate is the amount of time that can be necessary for that healing or have the patience for people that react in a very normal way to trauma. Often people have this very chauvinistic ideal that taking it quietly and mushing on is the only truly acceptable way to deal with trauma; when in fact this can do more harm than good.

Secondary Wounding is the term used to describe what could loosely be called ‘insult to injury,’… kicking you when you’re already down on the ground and bleeding, ripping the scab off the wound. Need I go on? It’s not the initial experience that caused the trauma; it’s when people react to your experience of that trauma in a way that perpetuates the emotional wound.

Typically people go through life with a sense of relative safety. You may know that bad things happen and even accept that bad things could happen to you, but if you have relationships and an environment where you can receive support and have your experiences validated, it’s possible to regain that sense of safety and stability you need to move on with a healthy life. However, if you do not have support, if your experience of trauma is invalidated, secondary wounding is experienced and it can lead to a greater risk of longer-term effects, even PTSD.

Secondary wounding happens a lot, especially when people are uncomfortable with the kind of trauma that’s been experienced; rape, self-harm, abuse, etc. Sometimes people just get tired of hearing about something b/c they feel like the person hasn’t gotten over a experience soon enough, like a bad break up, and they just want to ignore it. If a person takes a few weeks, a few month, or forbid a few years! To get over a trauma, people start to ask what is wrong with that person. Why can’t they just get over it already? 

Ironically, a key factor in “getting over it”, also known as Real Healing, requires validation and the support of your interior circle of relationships without judgement, pressure, or guilt adding to the process. Having good support makes a HUGE difference to someone recovering from a traumatic experience.

However if instead you receive Secondary Wounding by hearing things like:

“I don’t want to hear about it”

“It didn’t happen the way you say it did”

“It’s not important or a big deal”

“It’s your fault for failing to predict or prevent it”

"You're too sensitive"

"You're paranoid"

"You need to toughen up"

"Your depression is causing you to misinterpret their actions"

"Your judgment is way off"

"You need to change"

If instead all you receive are ways of invalidating the trauma, taking the attitude that the main problem is that you're the one messed up, not that the thing that happened to you is what’s messed up, then your ability to heal is inhibited. The problem is no longer something external to you, you’re being told it’s a part of you. The problem now seems even more insurmountable.  

There are many forms of secondary wounding.

Disbelief, denial, and discounting. This is when someone invalidates a traumatic event by denying that it happened. This is when someone flat out says they don’t believe you or that the event occurred. This is when someone tells you the experience isn’t as significant as you feel it is.

Blaming the Victim. If you’ve ever been the victim of sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape, or abuse (though not limited too!), this may be something you’ve experienced. When someone says it’s your fault for having been in the situation in the first place, that’s blaming the victim. “You might not have asked for it consciously, but…” or, “You brought it on yourself by {insert reason} even if you didn’t intend it to happen,” that’s blaming the victim.

Stigmatization. Most of us here are familiar with dealing with stigmas. Secondary wounding happens when people blame the survivor for their reactions. Ridicule; misinterpretation of the survivors symptoms as a moral failure or mental deficiency; an implication or statement that the survivor’s symptoms reflect a desire for sympathy, attention or financial gain; or as punishment of the victim… that’s secondary wounding through stigmatization. This happens often with self-harm when people accuse you of self-injuring/cutting “for attention”, instead of trying to understand an individual’s personal reasons.

Denial of assistance. Asking for help is extremely difficult. When you need help, but can’t get it, or are refused it, you might as well be told that you don’t need it because what you’re going through isn’t worthy or require help.

The sad thing is, most people that engage in secondary wounding don’t even realize they’re doing it. A lot of things contribute to their reasons, intentional or not.  Which we will get to tomorrow ;) 


  1. I love your blog. Have you noticed how the media polarizes these issues when a person is accused of crime? How pundits and celebrity shrinks diagnose someone without having met them such as Jodi Arias and Casey Anthony? In my opinion, this rewounds survivors. Also, the constant barrage of commentary saying a person with an axis 2 disorder such as borderline can't empathize or feel remorse does NOTHING to help a person suffering from these issues.

  2. Also, I am a person diagnosed at 30 as having boderline features. I agree with that assessment because I do have a major abandonment issues. Nevertheless, I have worked on these issues for years and have experienced tremendous growth in the area of trust and abandonment. I have to keep my boundaries clear and need an emotionally stable environment. I realize that before, the relationships I chose, were very abusive. i could't heal when dealing with a liar, you know what I mean? Or someone yelling and screaming all the time ( i have PTSD as well). Thanks for listening.

  3. wow again and thanks again. i'll definetely read this blog forever =) i had never heard of the term secondary wounding, but it does explain a lot.
    this blog makes it almost useless to search on BDP features and issues elsewhere.

  4. I really glad I found your blog. I am desperate for help and some direction on how to support my husband after his near fatal motorcycle accident. He broke both clavicals and was unable to do anything for himself. It was like having an adult baby. I've been his caregiver since the accident which was 2.5 months ago and working full-time in a group home with teenage boys and also caring for 4 kids. So needless to say I'm burning out and not providng the right support and patience he requires. He is suffering from PTSD and his attend counselling once a week, he counsellor described to my husband that I may be suffering from Secondary Wounding (new to me). Thanks your article, it helped me learn about some of the things I may be doing that are damaging to my husband.


Leave me a comment! It makes me feel good and less paranoid about talking to myself =)

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