We’ve all heard the term, hindsight is 20/20. Looking back, it’s so easy to see it all clearly: decisions, events, actions and how they all played out. Many survivors of trauma spend much of their time stuck, focused on the minute details of the decisions that they made before, during, or after the trauma. They may often feel immense guilt or shame, thinking about what they could have done, or should have done, differently. And if they had just done X, or Y or Z, the trauma wouldn’t have happened.
If I had just been driving the car instead of my wife, the accident wouldn’t have happened.
If I had just not been drinking, I wouldn’t have been sexually assaulted.
If I had just listened to my mom and not gone to the party, I wouldn’t have been attacked.
If I had just gone to the doctor a week early to get checked again, I wouldn’t have lost my pregnancy/baby.
Ultimately, if I had just done X, this bad thing wouldn’t have happened.
This is called hindsight bias. This is the belief that we could have, should have, known what was going to happen, and had we done something differently, the outcome would have turned out positive. Hindsight bias fails to acknowledge that different decisions/actions may have also led to any number of unfavorable outcomes.
In cognitive processing therapy, we work to help resolve feelings of guilt and blame by examining rationally the decisions that the trauma survivor made at the time of the event, based on the knowledge and set of circumstances they were facing, at the time of the event, rather than with the knowledge they have after the fact. Many traumas happen within split seconds and it is impossible to know what a person might do in any given situation. Often traumatic experiences are completely outside the realm of the survivor’s control, though it’s common for survivors to have a difficult time accepting this. We all wish that we could prevent bad things from happening.
Sometimes, trauma survivors’ hindsight bias is made worse by being told by those around them that they should have been able to prevent the trauma. For example, survivors of rape and sexual assault are often criticized and blamed for their decisions leading up to the assault. You shouldn’t have dressed that way; you shouldn’t have been at that party. First of all, if dressing a certain way actually prevented sexual assault, don’t you think we’d spread that message?
It’s remarkably easy to blame survivors of trauma for what happened. Remarkably easy yet remarkably wrong and unhelpful. Why do we blame? Well, it’s a nice way for our brains to say that would never happen to me because I wouldn’t have done X, Y, or Z. That sort of thing won’t happen to me because I can prevent it. It’s a comforting thought right? Yet we can’t prevent all traumas. We can’t anticipate when they will occur. And engaging in risky behavior does not cause a trauma to happen. Being passed out on the floor of a party does not someone cause someone to assault you. A person could just as easily take care of you and make sure you are safe. Sure, there are lower and higher risk behaviors we can engage in, but in either scenario the behavior does not cause the event. Perpetuating victim blaming only perpetuates hindsight bias, which only prolongs psychological distress and dysfunction.
Cognitive processing therapy can significantly help clients see the situation for what it was, view it in a more realistic and helpful manner, and alleviate painful feelings of guilt and shame.