The Social Trauma Perspective: Shifting from Cultures of Shame to Cultures of Compassion


Throughout this website, I've detailed how our individual emotional experiences are inextricably tied to the conditions of cultural ecology in which we exist. As social creatures, we are highly attuned to our social environments, for good or ill. Today, the large majority of people in industrial cultures are chronically depressed and/or anxious, and this reflects the pervasively dysregulated condition of society generally, rather than primarily indicating an individual pathology or defect. Our collective cultural condition is profoundly dysregulated, chaotic, uncertain, dangerous, and hyperactive, and everyone -- in some way, to some degree -- is traumatized by this at some point in life.

We live in a culture of trauma and shame, which run together. One of the primary factors in this is the simplistic dichotomizing of emotional experiences into rigid binaries of "good" or "bad" emotion. And as the Harvard psychologist Susan David, Ph.D. points out: "Rigidity in the face of complexity is toxic." By abstractly categorizing some emotions "good" and others "bad," our culture exacts an ethical imperative to emotional experiences: it is good to be happy, it is bad to be angry. This carries implications of shaming people for feeling certain emotions, however, as so-called "negative" emotions are thought to be simply bad or wrong. Emotional states are, quite literally, tangibly instantiated in our neurophysiology, so when we condemn a given emotion as bad/wrong, people can easily experience this as a condemnation of themselves, as they are quite literally manifesting this emotional quality in their embodied minds.

In the "rugged individualist" culture of the United States, when someone doesn't conform to the abstract ideals of a happy, always-smiling person (as portrayed, for instance, on the airbrushed, glossy covers of mindfulness and health magazines at a store's checkout), we've been conditioned to think "What's wrong with you?" The assumption is that any "normal" and healthy person shouldn't display or express any of the bad/wrong/negative emotions such as sadness, anger, frustration, despair, etc. But this perspective totally ignores the fact that emotional qualities arise within us naturally and spontaneously as a result of, and in response to, environmental triggers and experiences.

So, rather than asking "What's wrong with you?" -- which is an implicitly shaming question, intention notwithstanding -- a more compassionate approach is to ask "What happened to you?" -- which question directs attention to the situation that initially prompted someone to feel whatever it is they're feeling. This is the shift from an individual-pathological to a social-pathological perspective. Everyone in late-stage global finance consumer capitalist industrial society is traumatized to some degree, and for most people such relational-psychic-spiritual harms occur early in childhood, long before we have any awareness of what's happening, let alone any tools or resources to help us resolve those experiences before they get stuck in our systems and eventually -- inevitably -- lead to maladaptive behavioral patterns, excessive emotional expressions, and/or misdirected emotional projections. Nobody chooses their trauma, and the maladaptive behaviors that stem from unresolved trauma are likewise not intentional, consciously-dictated actions. (At least not in most cases.)

So, rather than blaming and shaming people for their behavioral patterns that are symptomatic of unresolved trauma manifest as perpetual neurophysiological/emotional dysregulation, we can have compassion for their having been traumatized and not enabled to heal. This is not to say we thereby implicitly accept, affirm, or ignore the problematic behavior. We can agree conceptually that it is maladaptive. The crucial matter is the practical question: how did someone develop such a behavior, and how can they be supported in addressing the original cause of the disturbances that manifested as maladaptive behavior?

If emotional qualities are pre-determined to be bad/good, wrong/right, then when we experience such "negative" emotions we have no option but to repress, deny, suppress, ignore, or pretend like we're not feeling a "bad" emotion. For if the emotion is simply bad or undesirable, it would be problematic to express it, too. Bad/wrong also carries ethical implications, which are associated with feelings of guilt and shame. When we define an emotion as bad/wrong and this emotional energy arises in us, we feel bad or wrong -- guilty or shameful. This is because emotional energy is quite literally an active condition of neurophysiology; it is part of our tangible being. So if we are taught and believe that certain emotional qualities are bad/wrong, our somatic minds experience themselves as bad or wrong. This is how we shame people out of feeling their natural, intrinsic emotional life.

This shaming and repressing becomes especially problematic in how we respond to emotional experiences. Trauma is precisely the prevention of the release of the intense, emotional energies that were stirred up when someone was triggered into a defensive or survival response (i.e., flight/fight and/or immobilization/shut down). Such bottled-up energies are often those that manifest as "negative" emotions or states like anger, despair, and impatience. So, to further restrict people from expressing these feelings is to perpetuate the underlying trauma, and this can have severe consequences for our health. As Gabor Maté , M.D. explains,

Physiologically, emotions are themselves electrical, chemical and hormonal discharges of the human nervous system. Emotions influence -- and are influenced by -- the functioning of our major organs, the integrity of our immune defenses and the workings of the many circulating biological substances that help govern the body's physical states. When emotions are repressed...this inhibition disarms the body's defenses against illness. Repression -- dissociating emotions from awareness and relegating them to the unconscious realm -- disorganizes and confuses our physiological defenses so that in some people these defenses go awry, becoming the destroyers of health rather than its protectors. (When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection, p. 7)

Emotion, as the etymology of the term reveals, is a moving energy, an active, moving form of somatic-cognitive energy. (emotion: 1570s, "a (social) moving, stirring, agitation," from French émotion (16c.), from Old French emouvoir "stir up" (12c.), from Latin emovere "move out, remove, agitate.") Blocking energy flow in any living system is dangerous and damaging. Consider damming a river: the ecosystems that developed according to the flowing of the river will be disrupted and harmed. In similar fashion, if we dam the flow of our emotional and other neurophysiological energies, we are disrupting the proper functioning of our embodied ecosystems.

We must learn to safely express, appropriately direct, and make constructive use of our emotional energies. How something is used constitutes a large part of "what" it is. If anger, for instance, is purely bad and wrong, there is no way to constructively use or safely express it. So we repress. But repressed anger only grows and strengthens. As Susan David explains, this is called amplification: the more an emotion is repressed, the stronger it becomes. So when we repress/suppress emotional energy, we are working against ourselves, which requires more energy expenditure. It's like the opposite of a Chinese finger trap: the harder you try to pull out your finger, the more the weave pattern grips your finger. Inversely, the longer and more adamantly we repress emotion, the stronger the resistance of the emotion. Thus, the more energy required to suppress, the more resistance, etc. This cycle is exhausting and cannot be sustained for long. Eventually we either snap, or collapse.

What we need is to learn and develop a somatic-emotional intelligence and skill that enables us to engage and safely, constructively express the various affective energies we naturally experience in such a dysregulated and threatening social ecology. This entails developing a trust in the somatic mind to know what it is doing. We don't have to intentionally dictate or control this process, nor can we! Contrary to the naïveté of the modern paradigm, we are not in total, direct, linear control of our emotional energies; we must learn to work and move with them, understand what triggered them, and develop ways to safely and usefully express them.

As the pioneering neuropragmatist and autopoietic theorist John Dewey writes, our somatic minds can manifest "an efficiency of operation which it is impossible for [analytic] thought to match." (LW1:227, Experience and Nature, 1925). And as Rachel Knox, MD reminds us: "the brain is not in charge, the endocannabinoid system is." Likewise, from a process ontological, autopoietic quantum systems perspective, "self-organization can be defined as the spontaneous creation of a globally coherent pattern out of local interactions. 'Spontaneous' here means that no internal or external agent is in control of the process" (Richard Campbell [2015], The Metaphysics of Emergence, p. 212).

Emotional energies are spontaneously emergent within us: we do not generate an emotional state by reflectively deciding how to feel. So rather than trying to dictate, control, or repress emotions, we must learn to work with them as they naturally arise. Sherri Mitchell explains it this way: and emotion have a natural flow. Every thread of energy and every bit of emotion that arises has a distinct and predictable life cycle. It emerges from Source, follows a pattern circuit, and then returns to Source. If we disrupt the natural flow of that circuit, the energy is forced to search for new and creative ways to reach its end point. When we try to manipulate or hold the energy that arises within us, we create distortions in that flow and cause ourselves needless pain and suffering. Yet, if we can find the courage to trust that natural cycle and allow the pain to rise, sit with it, and observe any discomfort that comes up, without acting or reacting in any way, we will release ourselves from fear and realize that we are safe with our own truth. Then we can release our resistance and begin allowing our pain to slide through our awareness and return to Source. ...Each new evolutionary pattern is subtly introduced into our stream of consciousness so that we can flow with it gently and become accustomed to its rhythms. ...The best way to shift an existing pattern is to enter into its natural flow and slowly shift it from within. (Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change)

The emotional and affective qualities of human experience provide the most direct and potentially most effective sources of information as to whether a situation is safe or dangerous, to what degree, and how we can best respond to that situation. In addition, such qualitative experiencing constitutes the large majority of our cognitive lives, assuming we are connected to and know how to engage these dimensions of experience. These qualities enable the multisensory richness, depth, nuance, subtlety, complexity, and dynamic nature of "tuned-in" embodied engagement with the tangible world, and such sensuous intensity is the experiential basis for all the best feelings including joy, wonder, surprise, imagination, love, gratitude, kindness, compassion, and empathy, among others. Experiencing these emotional-affective qualities is an all-or-nothing affair: we can't selectively edit out the "bad" emotions and only experience the "good" -- they're all mixed up together.

To shift from a culture of trauma, shame, and fear that prevents people from feeling what naturally arises in us, to a culture that supports the development of a holistic cognitive intelligence incorporating emotional dynamics, we must acknowledge the fact that our current social condition, our cultural ecologies, are profoundly triggering, toxic, and unsafe in a variety of dynamic and subtle ways. And we must generate shared, mutually supportive understandings that nobody is unharmed in this situation, and nobody consciously chooses their trauma or their responses to it. Harmful, maladaptive behavior and destructive emotional expression is a product of a previous repression of volatile emotional energies that were released in what was initially an adaptive survival response to an unsafe situation. To support and promote healthy emotional experiencing is to encourage one another to develop the somatic intelligence to trust our embodied minds to safely and effectively metabolize the stuck, repressed energy that constitutes the maladaptive neurophysiological dysregulation we call "trauma." This is not necessarily an easy, simple, straightforward process. But, it is always worth the effort.