I think everyone should read the book What Happened To You

I think everyone should read the book What Happened To You

For this month, I’ve selected a book I’m deeply impressed about. In What Happened To You?, Oprah Winfrey talks with Dr. Perry about trauma, resilience and how we can heal from our deepest pain. At first glance, this book pick might seem fairly difficult to read. But the message about trauma is important, as it refers back to the most integral and universal parts of the human experience. So if you’ve ever wondered about trauma, and how it appears in our lives, this book might be something for you.

I’ll admit that I didn’t know a lot about trauma and how it shows up in our lives. Until very recently I had the idea that trauma had to be a big, gigantic thing experienced. I considered it as a heavy topic related to extreme experiences like rape, racism, or abuse. After reading the book I realized I missed out on a lot. Not only does the majority of the world’s population deal with some form of trauma, we also don’t need to have experienced the deeply distressing or disturbing moment ourselves, to be traumatized – which was also new to me.

The title What Happened to You? is a good start in an effort to explain the focus of this book, and the core message behind it. In the introduction of the book Oprah Winfrey writes: “Through this lens we can build a renewed sense of personal self-worth and ultimately recalibrate our responses to circumstances, situations, and relationships. It is, in other words, the key to reshaping our very lives.” By shifting the conversation from, what’s wrong with that person?, to: what happened to them?, allows us the space for empathy. It suggests an approach to trauma as something that happens inside of us as a response to what happened to us in life.

By shifting the conversation from, what’s wrong with that person to: what happened to them?, there might be more space to empathy. To approach trauma as something that happens as a response to what happened to us in life. Or, as Gabor Maté said in #, it’s not so much what happened to us in life, but what happened inside of us as a response to what happened.

During the book Oprah Winfrey asks psychiatrist Dr. Bruce Perry questions in an ongoing conversation in order to explore the subject and dive deep into it. Several personal stories and examples from the work field of Dr. Perry alternate and are then placed in a larger scientific context. It’s a great mix between tapping into stories that are recognizable but then also get explanations for why things happen the way they do, and why people act and feel the way they do after trauma. I couldn’t get enough of the examples Dr. Perry shares from his work experience.

After reading the book I realized how so many things in life are connected and that everyone is on their own path of healing and growing. There is just so much from anyone’s childhood that you bring with you into the present. By shifting the conversation from, what’s wrong with that person to: what happened to them? Trauma can be described as something that happens inside of us as a response to what happened to us in life. The reader is reminded time after time again that empathy is key. It’s just not justified to judge ourselves and others harshly. We are not able to grow from that behavior.



Default mode

One of the things I find highly interesting is how our brains don’t seem to recognize time difference when it comes to trauma. Our brain has different layers and once triggered, many parts of the brain shut off – the brain goes into default mode. When a person goes into this default mode, they are basically only able to experience basic senses like touch, smell and sound. During increased stress-levels, the areas of logical thinking and rationality are shut off temporarily.


Then, when a person is triggered by something in his later life, there will be no difference in his emotional response. The person will re-live the initial traumatic moment, even if the trauma actually happened years ago.


There is a multitude of “labels” that refer back to what happened to us earlier in life. While to outsiders the triggers can look like an overreaction, the body and the brain respond completely normal. Such labels range from being an over achiever, to a people-pleaser or even someone that arguments about everything. If we focus on those little snippets, we will ignore important elements of the person’s past that might lead them to the way they are acting now. While we often ask ourselves what’s “wrong” with us or the people we look at, we do better by asking ourselves what happened to us or what happened to the person who’s lives we haven’t lived.



Many faces

When we talk about trauma, we might think about horrific experiences related to sexual assault or child abuse first. Although we can’t compare pain with pain – as it’s both pain and horrible, traumatic experiences might happen more often, in other more subtle ways too.


For example, every child needs to feel heard. The child needs a caregiver that is devoting their time and emotional availability by being an effective listener. When a child wants to tell a story about boys at school, or a painting she has made in class, and the caregiver starts to look at his or her phone, it will condition the child. It can leave the impression that the child is not heard. That the phone might be more important than her voice.


That’s how we move into the world as an adult. We develop a certain worldview based on our passed experiences. In other words, we tend to see the world not as it is, but as how we think it is. That is key here. The child could go into the world and everytime the person in front of her stretches its neck or coincidentally looks away, the adult kid is affirmed in its worldview: See, my story doesn’t matter. I don’t matter. In many ways, trauma all comes down to how you were loved. Neglect and trauma are hand and hand because both are equally toxic.


Originally published on May 22, 2021. This book recommendation is now on my personal reading list: the best psychology books, which is limited to books that have personally impacted my life. All previous book recommendations can be found on my Bookshelf.

Lisanne Swart is a writer, blogger and the owner of The HotPot, which is my weekly newsletter. Visit this page to sign up.

This is what the community thinks of What Happened to You:

150 150 Lisanne Swart
Previous Post
Next Post

    Start Typing