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I wrote this in response to Rasha Al Jabi’s article, titled “How ‘Trauma Culture’ Hijacked Complex PTSD & Perpetuated Victim Mentality.” I encourage you to read her article first. It makes some important points that come from the author’s hard-earned life experience, though I ultimately disagree with many of its conclusions.
I think the primary message of Rasha Al Jabi’s article, as I understood it, is to not minimize the suffering of those with severe and highly impairing forms of trauma, in particular CPTSD. I can get behind that. However, I strongly disagree with the idea that we should only use the word trauma in those cases, and I want to make a case that “trauma culture” (the fact that seemingly everyone is talking about trauma these days) is a beacon of hope for the future of our planet, not a sign of trend chasers and narcissism gone rampant.
Trauma is not some special category of suffering to be reserved for the most severe forms of impairment diagnosed by a medical professional; it is a part of the human experience.
Everyone will experience trauma in their lives.
Colonialism, genocide, imperialism, patriarchy, slavery, world wars, white supremacy, capitalist exploitation, and other forms of domination are past and ongoing collective traumas that spare no one. Yes, even those belonging to dominant or perpetrator groups, though the impact is obviously quite different. The idea that we need to gatekeep who has trauma and who doesn’t is a way to take a unifying concept and turn it into a divisive one.
As Janis Isaman pointed out in the comments of the original article, echoing trauma experts like Bessel Van Der Kolk and Gabor Mate, trauma is not the event itself: it is the impact to the nervous system, psyche, and spirit. Sometimes, people go through profoundly intense experiences and don’t develop trauma, and other times, people develop trauma in response to more mundane forms of suffering that there is no support or processing for at the time.
Gabor Mate further clarified that sometimes trauma is not “what happens in you as a result of what happened to you” but what happens in you as a result of what didn’t happen to you, just like a lack of nourishing support, community, development, or attachment.
Trauma symptoms include dissociation, overwhelm, coping strategies like addictive or distracting behaviors that provide substitutes for connection and meaning (drugs, food, TV, social media, and so on), self-loathing, numbness, depression, and anxiety.
Those symptoms will probably sound familiar to many people, and one might argue against such a broad definition. After all, everyone experiences these symptoms to differing degrees. To my mind, that’s a feature, not a bug. The burgeoning mental health and addiction crisis is increasing the awareness that, as a society, we’re not doing well.
I believe trauma (in all its forms) is our best way of explaining “why” while providing a unifying path forward.
Young people today are struggling, in part because they’ve inherited a system that is based on separation and extraction from our planet and its beings, a veritable trauma factory whose gears have been grinding away for centuries at least.
I don’t frequent TikTok or Instagram, but the idea that young people are defining their identity in part through their trauma is an uplifting sign: it means that the collective awakening is in progress, the awareness that we’re all profoundly impacted by trauma.
There will inevitably be attention seeking and narcissism that is prevalent alongside this, but that too is a symptom of suffering deserving of our compassion, not our scorn. The following quote from Adrienne Maree Brown’s Emergent Strategy speaks to this:
“The behaviors of abuse are also survival-based, learned behaviors rooted in some pain. If you can look through the lens of compassion, you will find hurt and trauma there. If you are the abused party, healing that hurt is not your responsibility, and exacerbating that pain is not your justified right.”
There is a tendency in our late capitalist culture to minimize the suffering caused by our dominant systems, or attribute it to presumably static and unalterable factors like genetics or human nature, both of which are much more fluid than the dominant culture assumes. The late cultural theorist Mark Fisher coined the term capitalist realism to describe “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.”
There have been numerous deleterious impacts of capitalist realism on our conceptions of mental health, including the notion that trauma and other mental health struggles are somehow private and should be kept as such. That our dysfunctions are the result of individual flaws like laziness, narcissism, or “bad genes” that are somehow resolvable through increased willpower, self-flagellation, or public shaming.
It’s important here to pause and have some empathy for this tendency rather than merely criticize it.
It’s harrowing to face up to the mess we’re living in, and those of us doing “well” by the standards of our insane culture will have an understandable tendency to minimize the voice that says everything is not okay, that the immense suffering in the collective field is merely the result of poor decision-making or flawed personalities.
Not because they’re somehow inherently bad or selfish, which is itself a mirror of the same faulty reasoning by attributing network effects to individual factors. No, it’s the wondrous and terrifying awareness that ultimately we’re all connected, and that includes our pain.
That’s a heavy burden!
It’s no wonder we might attempt to convince ourselves we’re separate, to build walls and categories in our hearts and minds.
I’ll acknowledge that the term trauma can be misused.
My partner and I overheard someone at a coffee shop, seemingly unironically, sharing a story that she unnecessarily “pre-gamed” before a wedding that unexpectedly turned out to have an open bar, and how traumatic that was. I can agree that the word is misplaced, to say the least, in these sorts of instances. That doesn’t mean we need to reduce the term to the most severe forms of trauma as diagnosed by medical professionals.
We absolutely should practice clarity and discernment when we use the term, recognizing the many different faces of trauma, utilizing additional descriptors (collective, individual, complex, generational, developmental, shock, attachment), and still recognizing the commonalities that justify using the word trauma for each.
However, I strongly believe that our collective awakening requires that we all have an opportunity to make sense of our trauma, to educate ourselves to the extent we’re interested, and to share our pain and trauma in supportive ways without minimizing anyone else’s.
I don’t name all of this to say we’re doomed, powerless victims. Rasha was right to point to the idea of post-traumatic growth as well as eustress (positive stress). However, the fact that we can grow from our trauma is exactly why it is so important to accept and name it as such. Otherwise, we risk minimizing our collective suffering, which will only impede our ability to grow from it.
We shouldn’t collapse the different textures, colors, flavors, and intensities of human suffering into a single uniform whole of collective trauma, but neither should we ignore the aspects of our suffering and trauma that are shared.
Our global systems are in need of a growth spurt if we’re to meet the unimaginable challenges of the 21st century.
Acceptance of our shared suffering and trauma is a worthy first step.