How the mainstreaming of trauma is changing culture
Great topic. Lots of material for though. One thread that comes up for me (Im a practitioner who works with /through trauma very regularly).
The conceptual dilemas and contradictions you mention regarding trauma derive in my understanding from a tendency from therapists to believe in their models as if they are reality. Models are maps and not the territory. We use them first and foremost to bring a certain order and meaning into the chaos patients are in (and that we are also in but might feel more in control). Trauma is an interpretation, part of sense making. And sense making is soothing and sometimes deeply meaningful, and could therefore be used as part of the healing.
Unfortunately psychotherapy promotes more knowledge than wisdom. It takes wisdom to use models convincingly and lightly - at the same time.
Having three times partnered up with men with extreme adverse childhood experiences and addiction, I really feel what you are saying about ‘all this trauma’ sort of muddying the waters, or diluting attention ... while also making it feel more ok to be ‘effed up’... and also creating a risk of unhelpfully centering trauma or supporting the building of identities around it. Great job teasing out all these tensions.
We’ve followed Alex howard some, through his reset program which I really like because while it is trauma ‘informed,’ it isn’t trauma ‘centered’. It’s centered on mental habits, ie, when your internal voice starts hurling abuse at you, you can take a moment, realize you have a choice to continue with that or to do something else. Mine was a more invisible attachment problem than what my trio of long term partners have each faced, but stout nonetheless (hence the addict addiction it seems), being very alone way way too much from quite young. I remember very little of my childhood I find, compared to many people. I don’t think the memories are ‘hidden,’ I think of it more as a choice of thought-focus habits. the unvisited memory synapses just don’t have good pathways leading to them...
Meanwhile, more recently I have come out of whatever became of the Left, angry for feeling like people want to shame me for being tough and unrepentant, shrugging at trigger warnings and chaffing at obsessively formulaic meeting practices that reject anyone with charisma from taking the floor and speaking as somehow automatically a bully. The safety culture favors bureaucracy and standard predictable procedure against vitality. Directly against vitality I think, and it’s being covered up something like ‘only privileged bullies think that they are above the talking stick rules’ when actually maybe the person who is being forceful in a conversation against current meeting rule convention actually has something to say. Not that there was never an overbearing bore in a meeting, but those people could be contained by other people stepping up rather than by bureaucratic procedure if people were emboldened to manage the spaces that matter to them instead of relying on authority and procedures. This ‘meeting rules’ example is just one example, and it feels far from the trauma story but something about the way trauma is being used culturally feels relevant to it. Trauma in the abstract as a bludgeon separated from trauma in the flesh as experienced by so many people who find themselves in families failing to function in a culture which cuts off everyone at the roots, thirsty and wilted.
Great essay, Ali. It reminds me of a point Hillman was making in “We’ve had 100 years of psychotherapy and the world’s getting worse” (from ‘92!), that psychotherapy may have taught us to internalise our problems too much. He gave an example that if he’s upset about being stuck in traffic, he’ll work on his anger with his shrink and discover he’s actually mad with his dad. So he will be at peace, and he will no longer be motivated to do something about the traffic problem, like move cities or advocate for fewer cars. Kinda like spiritual bypassing, I think there’s a version of psychological bypassing happening too. Maybe feeling outraged about traffic is a trauma response. Or maybe it’s an appropriate response to an environmental, political, lifestyle issue.
I think about that a lot when I work with “all-t” trauma (I see it show up in a mix of developmental wounding and survival response at the same time often). I see dysregulation sometimes naturally transmuted by clients into some form of activism or creativity, even before going through “healing”. In many ways, it feels essential to them bringing something into the world or becoming themselves, from a more transpersonal perspective. And that’s why for me the conversation about trauma feels much richer than the nitty-gritty of physiology. It’s astonishing when you start to look at archetypes or astrological charts (as woo-woo as it sounds) and discover how neatly the person’s traumatic experience fits the archetypal mould. Which doesn’t deny real suffering, but also poses some interesting questions about the nature of trauma and our relationship to it, as well as the potential interdependence of nature and nurture, and our perception of evil. To me, trauma is a physiological, psychological, and philosophical problem that furthers conversations about the nature of suffering and our ideas about good and evil, much like old religions used to. It’s inseparable from spirituality and may actually provide some insight into kundalini phenomena, as Peter Levine writes. But as with anything that’s so complex and requires us to hold paradox (trauma sucks but is also good for us?!), I think it’s quite challenging when it gets stuck only in the scientific or therapeutic point of view.
I wrote about the liberal trauma obsession a while back:http://culturalspeciation.blogspot.com/2022/02/the-american-psychiatric-association.html. I got interested in the topic after a short-lived relationship with a severe avoidant attachment woman. At first I was bewildered at her fear of intimacy and outright sadism, and triggered by not being able to share my thoughts and feelings with her (she explicitly asked me not to), because I had an ACE with a bully who did something similar, censoring me from my parents. But once I understood what was going on (after we broke up), I was able to have compassion for her.
Ultimately, we are all trying to fill a "tribe-sized hole" to paraphrase and modify Pascal's saying, and that is a big elephant in the trauma-community room. We are all being traumatized by not having a tribe and land to belong to, and tribal folks to connect with on a daily basis. This is how resilience and anti-fragility happened for most of our evolution, by forming attachments to tribe and land. On the average, trauma has probably decreased in recent years, but so has the traditional cure to trauma--tribe and land. And we've also become dependent on tribe and land, so just their absence is traumatic in itself. I'm not sure therapists and somatic therapies can ever make up for that.
Thanks Alexander, felt triggered several times as the trauma frame and somatic healing has been such an important journey and sensemaking in my personal life, but you did a good job at recognizing its value and zooming out to the bigger picture. I believe though that the critique is more targeted to the so called "hero journey" narrative, that is also the starting point of your article, then to trauma and somatic psychotherapy. In my view is the individualistic, marketing oriented framing of "YOU matter", "YOU are seen", "YOU can heal yourself" (if you buy my program or therapy) that remove complexity and makes trauma another cultural meme, instead then a needed deep understanding of human nature and the inner somatic resources through which we can heal and thrive. I also find the attempt at debunking some of the theories behind somatic psychotherapy weak, especially by removing from the discourse the polyvagal theory, which is at the base of the broader definition of trauma and the somatic roots of it.
I hadn't read Alexander before. This was an excellent tour of a very complex and important phenomena. I shall share it with colleagues who've worked with trauma. I'm more interested in the "James" type of problem in which early attachment challenges are woven into identity.
An approach that enlivens me is in working with that is this further question, " How can I normalize this story?" What in mythology and story informs an opens it up?
This presupposes, correctly I think that our own "trauma story" is connected to shared narratives. AND we're all immersed in shared stories about belonging in which some of the participants suffer a great deal.
We inhabit those stories but we're not tethered to them. They don't at all define us; in fact we help define and clarify them. You could say it's the "tethered" that makes us "hung up."
We can work with narrative and imagination to open up the story and see the different characters. I imagine a group in which we open up our own deeper stories and have them reflected on (with no attempt to fix or advise) by others. The greater understanding is that all these stories and experiences, however difficult, belong to all of us. Seeing them as such helps us see the hidden gifts.
James Hillman explores similar themes in Healing Fiction.
Thanks so much for this Ali, this article is hugely thought-provoking and has helped me to understand some of the complexities I've been feeling about this subject, particularly as it relates to coaching. I've been feeling unsettled by 'trauma-informed coaching' which been growing in popularity with the coaching community over the past year. Not only do I question if this will blur the lines between what coaching should and shouldn't work with, I also feel it places emphasis on a trauma informed narrative. When we come at a challenge looking through the lens of trauma, do we stop overselves from imagining beyond that limited horizon? Are we inadvertently defining ourselves by the worst things that have happened to us. As opposed to 'creating from' are we getting ourselves stuck?
It makes me think of the idea of spiritual warriorship. I love this quote from Don Juan as quoted by Jack Kornfield in 'A path with heart' : "Only as a [spiritual] warrior can one withstand the path of knowledge. A warrior cannot complain or regret anything. His life is an endless challenge and challenges cannot possibly be good or bad. Challenges are simply challenges. The basic difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge, while an ordinary man takes everything as a blessing or a curse.” This isn't to minimise the real and sometimes life-long challenges that come with trauma AND as your article speaks to, is the 'trauma narrative' indeed keeping us trapped in/by our trauma.
An excellent and thought provoking piece. As a traumatised person, and a therapist who works with people with trauma, it's given me new insights and perspectives I now need to unpack and integrate into my personal and professional life. Thank you.
Such a beautiful, thorough, thoughtful and well researched article. I really appreciated getting to read this today.
I really appreciated this. I myself have really benefited from trauma-centered therapy (especially after a big T trauma event) but have been skeptical myself about some of the same questions you raise in this article about the validity of the theories of trauma being peddled as scientific fact, and the religious-like way some people approach psychotherapy. Especially when I see people argue that everyone has a moral duty to be in continuous psychotherapy without any clear treatment goals or end date because that is the only way to “prevent cycles of harm.” (I don’t disagree inner work does contribute to preventing cycles of harm, I just don’t think continuous psychotherapy without a clear end date is the only way to achieve this).
I am currently studying traditional eastern medicines and their possible applications in today’s world, and it’s interesting to me that in yogic models of the mind the concept of a samskara seems similar to (although not exactly the same as) the modern idea of embodied trauma, and so too does the Chinese medicine concept of “heart shock.” One difference between eastern models of health and western ones is that in addition to the physical body and the emotional/mental body, there exists a third thing, the “energy body” (or prana or qi) which governs the relationship between the body and emotions. In the classical Chinese medicine model, for example, trauma isn’t so much a thing stuck in the body as it it is something that creates changes in an electrical field associated with the body, and those changes can lead to other downstream changes, including embodied symptoms as well as emotional symptoms that may linger until an intervention is made.
I believe that all models are wrong and some are useful, but I’m hoping to see more work being done looking to eastern models of the body/mind interaction to possibly inspire new hypotheses about what actually might be going on with all of this!
What a Joy to read! I turned off the cartoons and sat down to read this article. As I read through the piece I found it to be a wonderful and complex roller coaster of both pleasant and not so pleasant ooo's and ahh's. The Psychology as Religion was really fascinating, given that I have yet to hear the similarities of a sort of mystical/dogmatic thinking between the two. Thank you for the work you are doing!
Agree with much of the article having studied under and trained via some of those named greats and your take on it is refreshing and so pleased to see the challenge to this issue. (I would also say and hope not to piggyback too much on your writing; the narrative has been stagnant somewhat for many years as the trauma that often gets written about is corporeal and finite in many cases. Life changed about 27 years ago, culminating in newer ways of experiencing life events categorised under those books, clusters and diagnoses). however, as a child trauma therapist working with the inutero cases of FAS and substance use has given me a newer framing of what developmental trauma really is and looks like. Thank you for taking the time to write this piece.
The Myth of Normal by Gabor Máte touches on a lot of these points.
Great piece. IMO the word 'trauma' itself can be greatly misunderstood, as if it denotes some sort of tragic event. And yet 'trauma' is tied up with our growth as human beings, with 'traumatic events' marking moments of progression and/or development of consciousness. Trauma explored within the context of Ontology (human development) reveals that we all suffer from, or react to, some form of early trauma – which may not in fact be dramatic, or overly traumatic in the eyes of our adult selves (and usually isn't) but at the time of occurrence will certainly be experienced of trauma of the highest order. It doesn't need to be a significant event, but simply a core need that was not met.
We do require the support of others in order to visit these things, for often the emotion is buried deep within is, and we simply do not have access to the core wounds that we carry – we have often also framed them or covered them up, seeing them through the eyes of our grownup selves, or indeed burying them deep in order not to experience the shame, guilt, self-blame they generate in ourselves.
I speak from personal experience here - as a baby born prematurely and suffering from rhesus factor I was incubated for the first few months and starved of connection with my mother, whilst also being administered 6 blood transfusions - and when getting to the root of the experience I was able to access (yes) the pain of separation, the longing of connection I felt as that newborn, but also an overiding sense of shame and disgust at my weak, impoverished self - which of course set a template for much of my life experience and expectations.
So the word 'trauma' itself can be a misnomer. People can look at this, and assess whether or not their early life was 'traumatic,' and by what measure – rather than seeing trauma as part of life experience, which can adversely effect our subsequent lives, in the character we develop and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and about life, without being conscious that we are even doing it.
Thank you for this interesting piece. I think developmental trauma merges into cultural trauma and the general sense people have that we are not living according to our natures, a sentiment that founds many religions. So it becomes ontological, and in the process, of course, distinctions are lost. It is as if the only relationship possible to the living is one of suffering, as to be embodied is to be estranged. I wrote a piece a while back in which I tried to reinterpret the metaphor of the Fall as reflecting an inner sense of the unnaturalness of the patriarchal social order. All we can do, I think, is accept that this is the cultural matrix within which the drama of our individual lives evolves, against which we are in constant rebellion but which also has a resilience of its own. To try to make this suffering bearable we impart to it a constitutional character; but we would do better to observe its true nature and to attack its weak spots where the force of the living is strongest. We in fact deny ourselves the most potent healing resources available to us, which are in the domains of physical intimacy and lived spiritual experience, preferring second-best solutions which allow us to feel culturally less uncomfortable. Indeed to the point sometimes where the latter may become the most effective immediate option, but only as a gateway to deeper levels of healing.
Wonderful read. Thank you. I keep reaching for a word or other terminology that helps frame trauma. So I have a question: what is the opposite of trauma? I feel like anti-fragile is not the opposite of traumatic, I’m not sure. Something, an event or pattern of life, that is enduringly developmentally helpful.