I’ve been reading The Language of Emotions by Karla McLaren, and even though I’m only part way through, the book is lighting up my brain. There’s so much wisdom packed into a small space, and it’s a huge synthesis of everything I’ve been working on and learning about myself lately. The book is basically a training manual for empaths. The skills it teaches and describes apply to all people, but it is most accessible if you are an empath-type personality, or someone who is highly sensitive, because you already have access to the emotional resources to do the exercises and understand the concepts in the book. If a person is extensively cut off emotionally, I’m afraid it will read sort of like a quantum physics book for someone who never got past eighth grade algebra, and a different starting point is needed. But for people who are aware of their emotions, or have emotional challenges at a conscious level, it is an amazing resource.
The aspect I find most inspiring, and also most frustrating, about the book is her discussion of the role of trauma in society. Since I’ve been doing intensive trauma therapy, my eyes have really opened to the way that trauma shapes personality and behavior, and, through individual behavior, our whole society. We are so collectively blind to the ways that we accommodate trauma and allow it to disrupt relationships. In fact, we view as normal a great deal of trauma-driven, disordered interactions.
McLaren’s background is that she came from a relatively healthy family, but was traumatized through stranger sexual abuse between age 3 and 5. Like every traumatized child, the abuse disrupted her development and her sense of self. She became hypervigilant, and therefore highly sensitive to the emotions of everyone around her. This is very common, and not unlike my own experience. I had a fairly normal nurturing environment until I was 3, then my mother had major psychotic break and I experienced abandonment and neglect between the ages of 3 and 5. I, too, became hypervigilant and hyperempathic.
But we are not unusual. McLaren says about 50% of people in our society are affected by unhealed trauma, and that people deal with it in one of two main ways. The first way is directing the pain inward, which causes PTSD, and the second way is directing the trauma outward, which inflicts the trauma on others, sometimes criminally.
In my own personal growth work, I’ve been interested in what the endpoint looks like. How does a healed, whole, functional person behave and conduct their life? I’ve found lots of answers and have a pretty comprehensive picture at this point, but the best summary I’ve found is, “When you are at peace with yourself, you are at peace with everyone else.” People with unhealed trauma endlessly re-enact their traumas until they are resolved. Unfortunately, the ways that they choose to re-enact rarely lead to healing and resolution. This is played out in much of the suffering we see in our every day lives. Every time you see someone in conflict with anyone or anything, that conflict is mirroring an internal conflict in the self. This is so hard to see and teach because we are so accustomed to victimhood–and with good reason, because many of us have been victims.
McLaren points to a culture of emotional repression as the reason that we have so much trouble healing from trauma–because trauma, in itself, is natural. We are not allowed our feelings, and without acceptance of feelings, we can’t release the energy of trauma. We carry it with us.
I’ve found a significant path to healing through therapy, and I encourage others to try therapy when I can. Advising people individually to try therapy, however, feels like an ineffective way to heal the culture at large, and that’s something I worry about a lot, because each generation of unhealed traumatized people visits more trauma on the next generation. And although indigenous non-western cultures have in the past provided models for effective *cultural* healing of trauma, colonialism and genocide have visited unhealed trauma on those people, too, making our western emotional repression into a universal problem.
Therapy can be effective, but there are a couple of problems with therapy. The biggest problem is that people simply refuse to use it. Therapy doesn’t work unless the individual is highly motivated. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with people who have shared their struggles with me, and who I have advised to try therapy, and who have told me they are all for it and fully intend to take my advice, and then simply don’t. Many reasons are offered, but it’s all one. People resist therapy. Until some spark or change occurs that makes them truly want to change and heal, a person will not seek therapy.
Another problem is that not all therapy is equal. The most popular therapy modality is cognitive behavioral therapy. There’s nothing wrong with it. CBT is about changing distorted patterns of thinking and belief that lead to dysfunctional behavior, and it’s good for that, but it does not usually address early trauma that is at the core of those beliefs. A person undergoing CBT will be managing symptoms, but not healing. Another problem is that not all therapists are equal. Many people are driven to the helping professions out of their own woundedness. There’s an axiom that you can not heal beyond the level of functioning of your therapist. And when you are significantly wounded yourself, it is very hard to assess the woundedness of your caregiver. Lastly, therapy is a medicalization of a problem that spans not only mental health but spirituality, physical health, and relationships. Many people are not drawn to a medical solution as they rightly sense their trauma has disrupted these other aspects of themselves.
I’m convinced that the origin of the widespread emotional repression that prevents natural healing of trauma is inequality. When humans began setting up hierarchies with the dawn of agriculture, they forced some people to sacrifice themselves–self care, self respect, dignity, etc.–to benefit others. Women. Slaves. Children. Humans living in hunter gather groups tend to be non-hierarchical and egalitarian. But once agriculture is introduced, social hierarchies are created, and when hierarchy exists–when people are unequal–emotions can not be allowed, because the core emotion created by inequality is anger, and anger can not be expressed by those who are “less than.” It would disrupt and destabilize the hierarchy. Even people at the top of the hierarchy are affected, because they are inculcated with a kind of narcissism–either narcissistic parts or actual clinical narcissism. Believing that one is superior disconnects a person from their core self. So even the people that “benefit” from a hierarchical system are suffering from disconnection.
The solution is social justice and restoring our birthright of equality–perfect and total equality. The problem is that the people who must protest and reclaim their power are the same people carrying unhealed trauma–by definition. As long as they are in victim mode, their protests actually hand power to their oppressors. All the time, I see valuable social justice work undermined by traumatized advocates who don’t know how to assert their rights without at the same time asking for acceptance and validation in return. And making their own power and equality contingent on the acquiescence and behavior change of their adversaries, they give power to those others. I see too much explaining, too much undirected emotion, too much hurt, too much backpedaling and placating, and not nearly enough boundary setting and refusal to accept–or argue with–bullshit.
I want to know how we can combine healing with our social justice movements for stronger cultural change. I want to know how we can begin to create a culture that will motivate people to heal not only by providing resources in a medical context–difficult to access with many barriers–but in a social, cultural, physical, and spiritual context. I want to know how we can help people with unhealed trauma move more effectively toward healing. How we can make it the obvious and inevitable choice, rather than fueling their battles against their boss, landlord, ex-wife, mother-in-law, or other irrelevant villains. I want to know how we can hold people accountable without compounding their trauma, without sending them to prison to be victimized and made into better criminals, without forcing court-ordered psychotherapy (which is a pointless waste of time). Can prison become a place where people are forced to confront their own wounds and CHOOSE healing, rather than a storage facility for broken people?
In a culture that is increasingly narcissistic with each generation, I want to know how we can cure narcissism, which has NO clinical cure. How can we heal the disorder which refuses to admit that it is less than perfect, much less actually sick? How can we heal an entire culture infected with such a sickness?
These are answers for which I have no questions. I am probably underestimating the benefits of each of us working on ourselves, on creating our own bubble of peace and stability, and being an authentic, grounded presence for the frightened and disordered people around us. We all know that one truly connected person can have profound effects on others. And yet we live in a society that continues to be unequal, and as long as we allow that to continue, children will also continue to have their birthright of authentic selfhood stolen from them, because they happen to be unfortunate enough not to be white males. They will continue to face the dice roll of circumstance, hoping to be lucky enough to escape childhood without a massive wound in a world where their ability to heal through free-flowing emotional release is disallowed and shamed.
I don’t have comments enabled on my main blog. (The mirror on livejournal still has comment capability.) But if you have answers, or the same questions, you’re welcome to share by email. I’m cathshaffer at gmail dot com.