In a recent article on climate change, fragmentation and collective trauma (2021)1, I suggested that in order to understand the ground from which ‘the culture of uncare and exceptionalism’ (as Sally Weintrobe describes it2) emerged, it may be helpful to look through a trauma lens.
In her book ‘My name is Chellys and I’m recovering from Western Civilisation’, Chellys Glendenning3 calls the tear between Western culture and the world ‘original trauma’. Around the age of Enlightenment, only 9-10 generations ago, the ancestors of Westerners alive today would have started to experience the systematic breakage in the connection to place, to the cycles of the seasons, to village and communal life, local food production, traditions and rituals that provided containers for shared experiences. Glendenning describes how a growing sense of separation resulted from accumulated suffering over generations and the domination of the natural environment. Collective forms of amnesia and an anaesthesia served to normalise a feeling of being exiled from the world.
McGilchrist4 supports this view and describes how the period of Enlightenment started a process of ever greater left brain domination, where the gifts of the right hemisphere have increasingly been sheared off and been seen as suspicious and inferior.
The last century has added unspeakable atrocities to the inheritance of an already traumatised field. We are the current carriers of horrendous legacies, like the mass killings of World War I, the inhumanity of the Holocaust, the terror and barbarism of the Second World War, the use of nuclear bombs on people and places, the brutality committed in the name of Empire, the human rights violations during the cold war, the killing and raping of millions of women, the degradation of human dignity through slavery and institutional racism, brutal deaths by starvation, forced labour or state oppression in communist regimes, genocides in Rwanda and elsewhere, the reckless exploitation of the natural environment for profit, the oppression in the name of class, gender or race, and the constant subjugation of the human psyche to capitalist ideals.
I therefore suggest that our culture is built on layers of unprocessed trauma. Without the cultural and collective means to digest collective trauma, any new experience that falls on an already traumatised field is unlikely to be digestible. We are nevertheless flooded with an informational cascade of atrocities on a daily basis. It is beyond the capacity of most people to process these facts, let alone respond empathically to such an onslaught of information. Numbing has become a necessary survival skill.
We have lost communal and collective traditions that support people in their suffering and have replaced them with private, individualised forms of support. I suggest that the de- contextualised focus on the individual has pathologised moral injuries that are of a collective nature. A collective trauma perspective is therefore necessary in order to attend to collective wounds that may run so deep that dissociation may have been the only possible adaptation in the given circumstances.
In general, a trauma response is a healthy function of the nervous system of an individual that goes through an overwhelming experience without adequate support. In order to protect survival, there frequently is a fragmentation in the nervous system. The overwhelming experiences are compartmentalised and then split off in an attempt to numb the wounded part. The trauma theory of structural dissociation describes how the brain’s structure of specialised hemispheres facilitates disconnection in threatening situations. The disconnection between the hemispheres allows the left brain to take over control and perform the tasks of daily survival. The left brain hemisphere is able to stay focussed, remain positive and function in a logical, task-oriented way. Much of the function of the right part is suppressed or cut off. It still remains in survival mode, braced for danger or frozen with fear. Over time, the functions and needs of the fragmented part can slip out of awareness and be forgotten. They are then experienced as ‘not me’, but can still be passed down the generations.
If we consider the possibility of a culture or society as having a collective psyche, a traumatised culture would show signs of fragmentation, polarisation and dissociation.
In a traumatised culture, the technical, functional and purely rational aspects of society would be free to flourish, whereas the parts that hold complexity, emotional overwhelm and the shadow side of control, progress and linearity would need to be fragmented and controlled. In relation to the climate emergency, it may therefore not be surprising that we are currently unable to respond from an integrated, balanced and adaptive perspective to the very real threat of human extinction.
Through a trauma therapy lens
From trauma therapy, we know that it is futile to expect a trauma sufferer to change their responses according to logical thinking. We can’t shame, blame or force trauma sufferers into healthy adjustments. The traumatised aspect of a person or a collective is not able to change at the same rate as we would rationally expect. Dissociation, defensiveness, numbness, indifference, deflection and resistance are all creative adjustments to unbearable circumstances.
Through a trauma lens, we can see that what we experience as resistance can be understood as a healthy function of the organism to protect itself against more overwhelm. Without the means to heal their ‘fragmented selves’, trauma survivors are unlikely to be able to respond from an integrated mature perspective in a situation of threat. It is far more likely that they will respond in a reactive and maladaptive way This is not due to a lack of care, but due to a traumatic defence. Without help that calms the nervous system and supports integration of the fragmented parts, trauma cannot be resolved.
Trauma therapy suggests that the rigid trauma response only loosens if it is compassionately validated as a necessary adjustment even if these adjustments have engendered chaos and pain. It is relationship, a sense of belonging and the human capacity for empathy that brings healing, even to the darkest places.
I therefore suggest that it is time for us to come together to form collective containers for the collective wounds that run through us. We can open ourselves up in an effort to resonate with the suffering and the beauty that is held in us, in the land or the cities we live in. Like in any relationship, we cannot choose the stories we want to hear. Some stories will fill us with awe, whilst others may tear us apart. It is time we listened, so that the trauma that is held in the fabric of life can be heard. This is the gift that we humans may be capable of bringing to the world.
The research of German ethnopsychologist Juergen Kremer (1999) stipulates that the path into a sustainable future leads through the atrocities our ancestors committed in the name of Empire, God or a sense of supremacy over other cultures. He writes:
The endeavour which I call "recovery of indigenous mind" is a process which does not invite romanticism or nostalgia - it is a painful process of remembering back in order to go forward. There is no going back. My way into the future moves through the integration of historical wounds, painful memories and seemingly senseless events in order to work out a future (…) based on an ecologically specific notion of balance.
Epigenetic research5 suggests that external and environmental factors are passed down the generations through genomes. Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance of stress, trauma and fear have been shown to reverberate across multiple generations even without the presence of the original stimulus.
How do we even begin to make amends to the collective wounds that our ancestors perpetrated and experienced?
In order to the able to lean into the storm ahead whilst also addressing the shadows of unresolved inter-generational trauma, we need to be able to support one another. If we build containers that are large enough to hold us in our fear and our pain, something which is yet invisible may have space to emerge. If softness, space and movement can be brought into this contraction, our heart can break open into life.
Trauma therapy approaches and current work
In recent years, trauma therapy has generated important new insights that strengthen the general distress tolerance in individuals. These span from Porges’ Polyvagal theory and co-regulation strategies to the work with parts in Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems, to somatic trauma therapy and the insights that Bessel Van Der Kolk and his team have contributed. These approaches mostly focus on the individual in the traditional psychotherapeutic lens, but I believe that these methods can be scaled up for work with larger groups and communities.
Thomas Huebl6 proposes a method called ‘Global social witnessing’, which describes the willingness to mindfully attend to global events with an embodied awareness, shifting from mere bystander to bringing our human response-ability and compassion to world events.
Francis Weller7 uses community rituals and grief tending as ways that allow people to step out of their isolation and create a larger container to explore psycho-social causes of suffering.
I currently work with Francis Weller and a German colleague on ways to address collective themes in groups and communities. Having trained in multiple trauma therapies and Huebl’s pocket project on collective trauma and climate change, I am also writing a book on this subject and would be grateful to hear of any suggestions, ideas or comments you may have that could support me in my research. Please
Steffi Bednarek, Psychotherapist, Trauma therapist, consultant and trainer to various national and international organisations.