Surviving Trauma is Like Playing Dungeons and Dragons

Photo by Alex Chambers on Unsplash

In my ongoing quest to help people understand mental health struggles and triggers, I came up with this idea based on role playing games for people who easily understand the concepts of stats, critical hits and failures, hit points, levels, and character weaknesses. Even if you’re not a tabletop role playing gamer, this idea applies to basically anyone who has ever watched Pokemon cartoons or played any video game. I’ll mostly be discussing emotional abuse by a parent, but these ideas can apply to many types of emotional manipulation in a variety of relationships and throughout a person’s lifetime.

Stats and Classes

At the onset of most role playing games (RPG) like D&D, you’ll determine your character’s attributes, which usually go something like this:

  • Strength — Raw physical strength
  • Dexterity — Agility and grace
  • Constitution — Health and hardiness
  • Intelligence — IQ/raw intelligence and education
  • Wisdom — Common sense and spirituality
  • Charisma — Strength of personality and leadership abilities

Have you ever noticed that people tend to praise children with traumatic pasts for being wise beyond their years, great in school, or particularly mature? These kids have usually leaned into wisdom and charisma as coping mechanisms, often relying on their raw intelligence to garner praise and attention at school while they lack support at home. It’s possible that abused children put on a charismatic face at school or in public to keep the secret of abuse.

It’s pretty easy to make the leap into assessing your childhood self in similar terms. Your childhood intelligence and wisdom focused on seeing trends and patterns in your abuser’s behavior and avoid incidents, while your childhood charisma may have taken the brunt of the attacks, wearing your personality and confidence down over time. Compare these attributes to your adult self now and see the ways in which you’ve embraced your creative passions and overcome the damage to your mental and spiritual wellness. Or perhaps your mother harshly judged your body image as a child and now as an adult you focus a lot of time on your health and fitness, by prioritizing strength or dexterity as your primary attribute.

Another D&D parallel of note is that sometimes your character is at an advantage or disadvantage. Separate from skill and attribute, these characteristics are situational. For instance, if your character is knocked on the ground, you’re at a disadvantage for attacking and your enemy has an advantage over you. From an emotional trauma standpoint, disadvantages are common in childhood, especially if your abuser is a parent. But as you learn to put up boundaries, have the ability to leave the situation if your abuser is trying to manipulate you, or simply learn to ignore their attempts to provoke you, you take the advantage for yourself and you’re able to disarm them and keep them at a disadvantage.

One technique that can help you maintain an advantage over a manipulative or abusive person is the “Gray Rock” method. Simply put, you just act like a boring rock all the time. If they say you’ve gained some weight (trying to upset you and critique your body image), just say “Yes, I have.” Aw shucks, you didn’t take the bait. If your partner tries to derail a conversation by saying “Maybe we’re not meant to be together” (attempting to create an emotional tangent and avoid the issue at hand, which is not remotely a breakup level concern), say “Maybe we aren’t.” Your partner will likely admit they don’t actually want to break up, and you can get back to the conversation you need to have without derailing to avoid the discussion.

Your “class” in game terms is the type of character you play, which could be a fighter, a wizard, or lots of other options. These vary game by game, but they boil down to three main types: Tanks, Healers, and DPS. A tank or “heavy” is the character with high strength and a lot of hit points who will stand in the front line and draw fire from enemies. The tank is frequently accompanied by a healer, who helps the tank to stay alive while under attack. A “DPS” character does the most Damage Per Second and is often a smaller, more agile character that can get close to enemies for high damage attacks, or perhaps an archer who can attack from afar.

Before I get too into the metaphor here and start rolling dice, my point about class is that when there are multiple children or people in a traumatic or abusive household, they’ll often fall into different class archetypes. An older sibling may stand up to a parent to protect a younger sibling (serving as a tank), while another may take on a comforting or nurturing role after an angry tirade (serving as a healer). As children grow up and leave traumatic homes, they may still fall into these roles and swap as needed, one helping to heal and support the one currently taking fire from the abuser.

Strengths and Weaknesses

When you’ve been abused, especially emotionally or mentally abused, you’re going to come out of that experience with inherent strengths and weaknesses. Maybe you’re great at adapting to new situations and you have an extremely resilient personality. Maybe you’ve developed a charismatic persona that helps you make friends and give presentations at work. Maybe you have good instincts to realize when a situation isn’t safe.

Allowing children to scrape a knee or take a small tumble has been shown to improve their coping skills and self-sufficiency, and children who grow up in an abusive home tend to show similar advantages later in life when it comes to resilience. All this to say, childhood trauma doesn’t define you, and you are stronger than you realize. You are a survivor.

On the flip side, abuse will almost always ingrain some triggering memories in its survivors. These are the weaknesses on your character sheet, the things that may knock a few extra hit points off when your peers can deflect the attacks. If you saw the 2017 movie Jumanji, you may recall that each character has weaknesses and strengths, one of which is mosquitoes. Just one bite from a mosquito is enough to end this particular character’s current life, though it wouldn’t affect the other characters at all. This is how triggers can work; each person who has experienced trauma (whether a combat veteran, cancer survivor, house fire survivor, childhood abuse survivor, etc.) will react to their own weaknesses or triggers.

My personal triggers and weaknesses include heavy sighing, loud sounds or voices, and the words “ruin” or “worthless.” In my case, I grew up with an emotionally abusive mother who prioritized a clean home over all else, and if my sister and I hadn’t cleaned to her standards, it wasn’t rare to hear our mother stomping through the house while sighing and muttering about those worthless, good-for-nothing kids of hers. If she was doing household chores, we had better damn well have been doing something too. Loud clattering of dishes and doors while she did what we should have done echoed through whatever house or apartment we were living in at the time. And God forbid you wake her up by being loud (even if it’s the dishwasher running as you get a head start on tomorrow’s good deeds).

I’ve seen other mental health advocates discuss their triggers being bleach, broth, and gelatin desserts (this person spent months in the hospital, smelling disinfectant and bleach while being fed a diet of broth and gelatin). A friend dyes her hair bright, vibrant colors so she doesn’t see her mother in the mirror. After my ex-husband lost his father, he stopped watching TV shows that had a parent dying as a plot point (Ok, it was This Is Us, and I do not blame him).

Leveling Up & Countering Attacks

In any video game, role playing game, or Hero’s Journey story arc, you have conflicts and boss fights. In the Star Wars saga, you’d have a pretty boring plot if you meet Luke, see Luke and Darth Vader have a fight, and Vader instantly kills Luke because he’s so far ahead of Luke’s training and abilities. You need the character development, you need to see Luke “leveling up.” In Spyro the Dragon, you fight each level’s boss before eventually getting to the final world and defeating the major villain of the whole game. (I’m a 90s kid and I’m going to need you to deal with that).

Overcoming abuse is similar. If you’re a child with a narcissistic or otherwise abusive parent, you’re a level one or two human, just learning basic skills and coping mechanisms. You don’t know any attacks or defensive moves, you’re just figuring things out as you go. Your abuser is a level twenty boss with finely tuned attacks and powers of manipulation, which seem like magic when you’re that young. Each guilt trip, manipulation, and disproportionately harsh disciplinary interaction leaves you feeling like you messed up and deserved it. This is trickery and mystique from a high level magic user — and no one expects you to be able to deflect those spells when you’re just a kid.

But just you wait, because the older you get and the more you start to extricate yourself from this Confundus charm (Harry Potter, for those following along at home), the more you start to level up — exponentially. And the amazing news is that your abuser is probably stuck at their level for the rest of their life, because they’ve got decades of that being enough and they aren’t exactly motivated to pursue emotional or personal growth.

Every book you read about toxic parents and abusive relationships is a level up. Every time you calmly end a conversation with a manipulator without giving in to the drama they’re trying to inspire, you level up. Every time you seek support for yourself, with medication, or a therapist, or a support group, you level up. Eventually you’ll be leaps and bounds ahead of your abuser’s level and they’ll be effectively powerless against you.

This doesn’t mean you’ll never have a relapse or backslide into old habits. You spent years in a survival mode that worked for you and defended your deepest identity against this person, and there’s bound to be a flaw in your armor somewhere. You still have those weaknesses on your character sheet, but the more you level up and continue to improve yourself with training and experience, the less those weaknesses will affect you.

Each attempt of your abuser to get under your armor and take away your health points is a roll of the dice. Your attacker may have a flimsy attempt to poke a sore spot, but they’ve only rolled a 4, and you remain impervious to the attack. But every once in a while they’ll roll a 20 and you’ll get smacked with a critical hit. The higher your level and the more you work on yourself and your coping strategies, the less damage these attacks will do. And remember — you are not broken or damaged, you are surviving.

Building Skills

Another important part of any character creation or video game adventure is the development of skills. Often your character will develop skills as the game goes on, like in The Sims, spending time reading, exercising, or doing other tasks will fill up skill bars and help you become an expert in different topics. D&D character creation includes skills like Arcana (Magic), Deception, Insight, Intimidation, Investigation, Perception, Performance, Persuasion, Stealth, and Survival.

It’s an easy jump to see how honing a few of these skills can help you to overcome and exit an abusive situation. The first step in escaping abuse is to understand that the situation is actually abusive. It’s tough when you’re a child, because you basically assume this is how every family works. As you grow older and learn that this is actually not the case (maybe you talked to someone who experienced a similar childhood, maybe you talked to a therapist, maybe you read a book), your Perception and Insight skills develop and you’re able to spot manipulations from a mile away and better defend yourself. And remember, as you level up, your abuser’s Intimidation and Performance skills won’t work as well on you anymore.

Whether you’re a seasoned gamer or someone who has never played a video game in your life, I hope these parallels have helped you to understand that healing from abuse and trauma is possible as you develop skills and coping strategies. Trauma is certainly not a game, but games and media can help us process and understand our experiences in new ways that bring us closer to healing.

This post was originally published on Medium

Level Up Your Boundaries & Recovery

If you enjoyed this post, you’re going to LOVE my Level Up course. It’s a five week course where we dive into everything I touched on in this piece, diving deep into character creation, skills and weaknesses, and how to level up into your next level self with stronger boundaries so that you can become the hero of your story. Book your spot with me on the Course page.

Published by Caitlin

Caitlin writes and coaches about trauma recovery, relationships, motivation and confidence, self-love, queer identity, and social justice. They are the author of The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation. Find their work at

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