woman writing in diary

User Manuals and trauma

White woman writing in a journal

One of the joys of writing a User Manual is having one place that stores lots of information about who you are and how you do relationships. If you want a basic introduction to the idea Meg John and Justin have put together this really helpful zine & I highly recommend it. One of the things I think it would be helpful to expand on for many folks is how trauma can be talked about in a user manual & what we might want to think about when trying to share our own.

For far too many of us, a history of trauma in relationships has a huge impact on how we exist in the world. It may be childhood trauma related to our family of origin or other caregivers in our lives, and/or it may be the result of experiencing abuse in other relationships. When we have trauma, particularly if it relates to sexual violence, we face lots of decisions about how and when to disclose it in our intimate relationships. It can feel really difficult to have open conversations about histories that include violence and victimisation, especially if those experiences are a far cry from who we are now (even if they still have echoes in our behavior and emotions). 

So, this is where the User Manual comes in. I see the User Manual as a place that we can explore ourselves (and our selves) first and foremost. It is a place we can dig into the impact of trauma on our relationships with our emotions, our bodies, and other people. I find this the most compelling reason to write a User Manual, because it gives me some prompts to look deeply into who I am at a moment in time — usually at a time when I’m thinking about diving into something with someone new. This opportunity to look deeply at how trauma has and is impacting us can be powerful. It can show us how far we have come and how different our relationships are now to the ones that traumatized us. It can reveal what boundaries and needs we have to stay as safe as we want to be while we take the risk of being seen/loved/held by new people. 

Writing a section of your user manual on trauma can also be a way of distilling what it is we want to share. Many of us spend years being silent about trauma and abuse, and once we have the opportunity to share we do so in ways that aren’t helpful to us. Perhaps we share too much with people who do not deserve our trust and vulnerability, or we do so in ways that trigger people around us with similar experiences. It can be hard to balance the need to be seen in our complexity and trauma with the need to be safe. The process of working through what is important, what is relevant, what still has an impact, can help. We can clarify what needs to be shared so that we have an easier time with disclosing what we need to, and not oversharing or going into so much detail that what we actually want and need from the other person gets lost. 


So, how do we do this? I think it is most helpful to recognise that this is an exercise in self enquiry that is likely to be hard and sometimes painful. It can be effective to do it in small pieces over a few weeks, rather than trying to get it all down in one go. I suggest folks try to do it in 5-10 minute chunks, and to have a plan to move attention to something more pleasant immediately after, because otherwise you can end up stuck in the difficult feelings and that isn’t great for anyone! I’ve added some questions that I think are useful to me, and perhaps they will help you to work this through too. 

Some questions to work through

  • What parts of my trauma history are relevant to me today?
  • What do I need someone to know about my trauma history to keep myself safe in relationship with them? 
  • What do I want to keep private about my trauma history? 
  • What boundaries do I need to share that relate to my history of trauma?
  • Are there any kinds of touch that I’d prefer to avoid? 
  • What needs do I have that relate to my history of trauma?
  • If I dissociate during sex or conversation, what might that look like? 
  • How do I want to deal with that? Do I want any help?
  • How could someone make space to hear more about my experiences? What might I need to support my sharing?
  • How might I content warn this section of my user manual?
  • Who would I want to share this information with? 
  • How and when?

Once you have worked through these questions it can be helpful to set aside another time to move from the self reflection part of your user manual to considering what you might want to communicate to others. Doing this at a separate time can give you a chance to step away from the intensity of working through these questions so that when you return to what you have written with fresh eyes you are able to discern the most important messages you want to give the other person.

My own experience is that it is usually helpful to share about relevant history, things I’d like to avoid/might trigger me, what happens when I get triggered & what might help me. The things you want to share may be different to these, but thinking about what you need to share & what asks you need to make is often a good place to start. 

Of course, there is a big difference between reflecting on and writing about your history and present experience and actually sharing it with someone. If you’re in an established relationship it is likely to be easier to share much of this information than when something is just starting. You might use what you’ve written as the basis of a conversation rather than sharing it in written form, or you may decide to just send someone the lot! It will depend on your relationship and your communication style. One thing is for sure, though. Taking control of your story, choosing what to share, when and what help to ask for is immensely powerful. It has the possibility of creating a lot of intimacy & building trust in yourself and your relationships. 

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