WHAT ARE THE CONSEQUENCES AND POLITICS OF WOUNDING AS IDENTITY FORMATION?
This post is an experiment in resourcing collective wisdom via social-media discussions. This and another few related conversations were had on my facebook wall in November of 2017 -- this edited version here alone is over 7,600 words, packed full of brilliant insights and contributions on the topic of wounding/trauma and identity. Usually, such rich discussions eventually peter out and get lost in the hard-to find backlog of old posts, the focus always being on the new and immediate. As a longing for the archiving of community wisdom and resilience, I'm making this conversation available again in this format and hope that it may serve as a resource for related research, conversations, and resilience.
Original Post: Does anybody have a clear understanding of how and where and when wounding and trauma came to the forefront of identity formation for so many discourses? I'm curious how much of it was incubated within diagnosis and treatment of veterans and those with direct involement with war -- and I'm pondering how that might have eventually come to be internalized and normalized by society at large...in which case I shudder to think that our culture now views itself as suffering trauma from simply being alive, and that warfare and everyday civilian life within this culture are perhaps increasingly being used synonymously...
Jeremiah Evans It was decided that we “know” about trauma...and have decided to no longer wonder about it. Now that we know, we set about deanimating trauma. It is now a problem which we fix by applying a static formula.
Matthew Stillman Christos Galanis I would venture to say that at one time when trauma happened to a person or a people that that the traumatic event might have been considered a visitation by an alive spirit or god or gods and the trauma might have been spoken to/courted/tended thusly.
Karl Frost my experience with 'trauma' in postmodern humanities is 1) postmodern scholars coming in after scientists and healers had come to identify a phenomena as important for us to understand and address, postmodern scholars redefine the term and generate a bunch of writing using the new (not as documentedly important) definition of 'trauma' pretending that the import still applied to their 'interpreted' use of the word, and then 3) use this body of writing to establish legitimacy over something that had both social cache and funding attached to it.
Christos Galanis The history of trauma studies itself as a scientific field is intimately linked to treating veterans in post-war years, most especially WWI (shell-shock) WWII (Gross Stress Reaction) and the Vietnam War (PTSD). Along with Kubler-Ross and the (problematic) depiction of even death itself as a traumatizing event, it seems trauma and wounding have become increasingly central as a diagnosis for anything other than what we would dictate for ourselves and the world.
What I'm curious about is how and where and when significant portions of the general civilian population began basing their primary identity on trauma or wounding -- identifying with one's race/ethnicity/sexual orientation/class/gender/first nations status as not only a politically marginalised identity, but that identifying as a marginalised identity is in itself a diagnosis for wounding/trauma regardless of the specifics of one's own lived experiences and the quantity or quality of hardship one has encountered. I'm not denying or dismissing anyone's lived individual experiences or expressions of them, I'm just wondering on how this slow seep has now apparently spilled into notions of even dominant/centred identities (ie. whiteness) being in their own right traumatized identities because of the effects of oppression on the oppressor. I'm also not denying or dismissing these claims, there are strong arguments to be made in all these accounts. But I'm wondering about the very centrality of wounding/trauma in all these identifications, and what happens once everyone can claim some aspect of their identity as being one of wounding/trauma -- is it possible to have respect and compassion for someone if they don't claim trauma/woundedness, or does one first have to scramble to get under an identity-umbrella of trauma/wounding in order to deserve care and compassion?
At the end of the long day of traumatized identities, I can't help but wonder if much of this is simply a desperate attempt by so so many to be simply regarded with respect and compassion, and to be resorting to claiming for themselves a traumatized/wounded identity as the most socially acceptable manner to get this?
Ben Spatz When I say trauma studies I don't mean the medical work you are talking about Christos Galanis but rather the more recent turn to trauma in the humanities. I basically agree with Karl Frost's narrative of how that developed except I don't see a problem with it. It seems right to me that humanities scholars should take on and rework concepts coming out of medicine from their more distanced and critical position.
In any case the trauma studies I'm talking about were very influenced by Holocaust studies and how to make sense of that historical trauma from the position of the second and third generations, who didn't experience it directly. I think the relevance to identity is much deeper than simply wanting to be heard and respected: it's about how to articulate a kind of wound that is sedimented in embodiment way below the level of articulate language; and also how to get at the workings of violence beyond the level of individuals, not just in terms of group identities but also across time. Trauma studies is not my field but I'm aware of its wide impact across the humanities.
Jared Williams As someone who’s done very little academic research into this stuff, it’s my understanding that modern medicine certainly and modern psychology possibly developed largely in war zones or in their peripheries... is that true? Is that what you’re already implying? That the root of the tool to ‘fix’ the trauma is biased toward trauma and wounding?
Tamsin Haggis I'm properly tired today and unable to dive into all this complexity, though I have just skimmed all the comments with interest. Your question stuck in my mind this morning and the first thing I was thinking was, is this a question about discourse, or is it a question about a verifiable biological phenomenon? I'm not up on all the social science and humanties discourses and critique of the history of this idea, but as far as I know, the identification of trauma as a biological phenomenon has come to the fore in the last twenty or thirty years with the work of people like Peter Levine and Bessel van der Kolk (animal studies of behaviour in relation to life-threatening overwhelm situations etc, moving things on from the hazy recognition of the same in humans as 'shell shock' ) and the epigenetic work your friend mentioned in a comment above.
I started to wonder what a definition of trauma might actually be, went and did some googling, and saw that many of the definitions distinguished between physical trauma and psychological trauma. This seems to be extremely outdated in the context of recent neurobiological research which focusses on the nervous system (and fascia and hormones and all the rest of it etc) as part of an interrelated whole. I'm not sure I've contributed much to your discussion except to say that at the level of biology I wonder if the difference between war-created threat to the integrity of the system or abuse/neglect-created threat to the integrity of the system ends up biologically being pretty much the same thing?
Dare Sohei id like to chime in from my non-academic view of trauma, which includes acute vs chronic, emotional and physical... i do think that ptsd and such always existed, but people dealt with it in numerous folk medicine/magickal ways... which we have marginalized now and since the burning times.
theres also a strong possibility that one way to reframe trauma is lack: lack of resiliency skills and resiliency skills training from a number of causes, one major one being lack of wilderness skills training, lack of initiatatory ceremonies, lack of animal husbandry skills, lack of trade skills n general. there's a need for BOTH emotional and physical (sensory) resiliency skills training. without those what do we have? learned helplessness, and extreme vulnerability to hardship, addiction to privileges, etc.
Rebecca Solnit I was told that PTSD was defined as a kind of damage, lasting damage, for political reasons, to make the Vietnam War untenable. And that's stayed with us as the idea that we are a sort of porcelain that can be shattered rather than, sometimes, something resilient or even that sometimes living matter heals. Paradise Built in Hell: The mainstream story also tended to portray everyone remotely connected to the calamity as a traumatized victim. Once again, the language of a frail and easily shattered human psyche surfaced, as it had so influentially before the aerial bombing of the Second World War. The powerful phrase “post-traumatic stress syndrome,” or PTSD, was invoked, suggesting that everyone who survives or even witnesses an ordeal is damaged by it. The term arose from the politics of the Vietnam war, when antiwar psychiatrists and others wished to demonstrate the deep destructive power of an unjust and ugly war. As one British psychiatrist put it, the new diagnosis “was meant to shift the focus of attention from the details of a soldier’s background and psyche to the fundamentally traumagenic nature of war.” The risk for PTSD is far higher, unsurprisingly, for those who are already damaged, fragile, inflexible, which is to say that events themselves, however horrific, have no guaranteed psychic outcome; the preexisting state matters.
The term PTSD is nowadays applied to anyone who is pained at or preoccupied with the memory of a calamity, rather than only those who are so deeply impacted they are overwhelmed or incapacitated by suffering or fear. On September 14, 2001, nineteen psychologists wrote an open letter to the American Psychological Association, expressing concern over “certain therapists…descending on disaster scenes with well-intentioned but misguided efforts. Psychologists can be of most help by supporting the community structures that people naturally call upon in times of grief and suffering. Let us do whatever we can, while being careful not to get in the way.” One of the authors of the letter told the New York Times soon after, “The public should be very concerned about medicalizing what are human reactions.” That is, it is normal to feel abnormal in extraordinary situations, and it doesn’t always require intervention. Nevertheless, an estimated 9,000 therapists converged on lower Manhattan to treat everyone they could find. The Washington Post commented on the belief that PTSD is ubiquitous among survivors—“a fallacy that some mental health counselors are perpetuating in the aftermath of this tragedy.” It was another way to depict survivors as fragile rather than resilient. Kathleen Tierney remarked, “It’s been very interesting during my lifetime to watch the trauma industry develop and flower. The idea that disasters cause widespread PTSD is not proven, is highly disputed. It is also highly disputed that disaster victims need any sort of professional help to get better rather than social support to get better.”
Joy Working The word "broken" has come up a lot in this conversation, and I am reminded of the history of American prisons. At first, prison was largely co-ed and penal. Nobody thought of criminals as "broken", so they never thought to "fix" them.
Then the Quakers came along with notions of redemption and started changing the model to one of reformation. I assume that as reformation became the new norm, supportive services would have been added, and the "root of the transgression" would eventually be considered. There are those here who can add psychotherapy to the appropriate spot on this timeline, as well. I can imagine that as trauma gained the spotlight in conjunction with identifying one's Soul, it may have become a more important piece of self identification. "Look, I'm broken, but can be fixed."
Bruce Hooke From what I heard about how the men in my family who fought in WWII were changed by the war it seems clear to me that they came back with what we would now call PTSD, but of course that was before that diagnosis existed. Even so, the reports are that they were never the same after the war and their children suffered as a result, in ways that influenced how available they were for their children (my generation). In other words, my perception is that whether or not we have a name for it, the damage caused to the human psyche by major traumas echoes down through the generations. Since very few places in the world escape war or other traumas that affect broad swaths of the society at least every few generations (if not much more often), part of being human is living with the stress and damage that results from trauma. Pretending otherwise doesn't make the damage go away, it just buries it deeper inside us.
If anything, I feel like naming and diagnosing PTSD has reduced it's normalization within society. After WWII (and earlier wars) the men and women traumatized by the war were just expected to integrated back into society. War was normal and part of being a man in particular was being able to deal with things like war. Now we at least realize that war is not normal and that it damages those involved in deep and lasting ways.
It is important to note that the fact of living with trauma should not be used as a way to duck our responsibility to be good people and good citizens of the world. That's a victim mentality, which does not help anyone.
Zahava Griss What a great question. My grief teacher Sobonfu Some said that the epidemic of homelessness in our country started after Vietnam because the vets did not know how to come home to themselves. They did not know how to belong. I think today there is a crisis of belonging. Om says, "victimhood is wearing the cloak of social liberation." My sense is that really we want healing and belonging and connection but somehow the conversation has been distorted into blame. Perhaps that's because blame is less vulnerable. I think our collective pain body is extremely active and it perpetuates itself. So each time we activate the parts of us that are not our pain such as our soul, our creativity, our love, our resilience, our pleasure not as an escape but as an affirmation of our value… We are shifting this culture.
Catherine Magill Christos, would this also include things like the 'wound gift concept'? I've been curious about this idea of basing my identify and my gift to the world in a wound...was first introduced to it here: https://ssir.org/.../social_change_and_the_shadow_side_of...
Christos Galanis And to add another angle to this discussion of trauma, I don't know exact figures but at least a few years ago, the segment of the US military with the highest rates of diagnosed PTSD were remote drone operators -- the men (and women?) who lived at home, with their partner and possibly children, who would report to work every day and remotely operate a drone somewhere on the other side of the world, for their scheduled work-shift, and then when their shift was done, return home to family life. There's many theories for this, and, I find it quite compelling for understanding what exactly it is we're trying to describe with the word 'trauma'
Lara Owen Predating the PTSD discourse, the concept of the originating wound as a shaper of personality goes back to Freud, surely. Developed further by Melanie Klein and many others. During the years I was studying psych and hanging out in that world, I'd hear people say "What is your wound?" in conversation, as if it was like "Where did you grow up?" The answer is supposed to be something simplistic like "My mother was a narcissist" or "My father left when I was 2" This obviously is not sophisticated thinking, but it is often used as a (thoughtless) shortcut. I don't think it's a helpful way to conceptualise a life but it has become a very common way of telling one's life story to oneself.
Bethany Reivich Christos Galanis I think it goes beyond such recent historical and linear tracking, although, that's all a part of the culture of trauma. In a 'society' lacking rites of passage/initiation (the marked transition of one identity to another) the culture of trauma has the taste of being a sort of lingering bardo. With dissolution of distinct cultures and human roles in them (in 'globalizing' culture, or a sort of imagined idea of a homogeneous culture, abstracted from land and sense of place), the trauma doesn't crystallize into something meaningful in any given cosmology. There is no community to hold and contain the pain and help make meaning of it -- even if one is lucky enough to have some personal community, there is still no cohesive worldview/container for the experience (anima-mundi -- the individual soul's connection to the world....). So, even if we set up novel initiations, to do a wilderness fast, etc, again, there is no cohesive community/wisdom tradition to return to, because worldview is going through its own initiatory crisis. Though some manage to forge a deeper identity through their personal trials, contemplation, and action, in general the work is too archetypal for an individual and attempts to 'get over it' lead nowhere, because the culture itself is in a liminal time of change and gutting of identity and can't offer a container for individual alchemy. Rites of passage -- ritualized recreations of inner and outer conflicts within humans and between them, and the natural world -- aren't the only traumas in life, but the ritualization of extreme states contains them within a functional cosmology where the place of the one in crisis returns to the community with a new understanding/meaning/inspiration etc of her/his place in it. A growing fascination and increase in mechanistic proficiency, strategy, etc in military business and warfare (and media), and the culture of trauma, as I see them, are more analogous with the dissolution of culture/cosmology than the cause/effect of trauma. People simply identify with the 'figurehead' of war and military. But military and war seem more the unconscious ritualization. Ironically, more conscious ritualization was amputated with the transition from animism to to objectification, from poiesis -- the expanding of an image into many senses (mysterious and meaningful in its polymorphism) -- to utilitarian science -- its deduction into abstraction (conquerable and simplistic). The ritual is war, but that is only the focal point for what is happening analogously -- internally, individually, and collectively in a liminally-stagnated-non-culture -- It's not cause and effect, in that quantifiable, empirical linear way, and trying to deduce it to that is part of what perpetuates it. Any pain is tolerable with meaning (cosmological place), but without it, pain becomes the focus, and the difference between children and adults is harder to define..... As much troubling as the culture of trauma is the backlash/new-age anti-empathy movement. Both are symptoms of a larger gap in our sense of place, which fittingly, often shows up in the psyche like a gaping wound....how one fills it is, or what one does with the understanding is the question.
Andrew Wass "our culture now views itself as suffering trauma from simply being alive": don't several religions have this attitude towards existence, that the here and now is terrible and only when we meet our maker/join nirvana is it all good?
Daniel Bear Davis The term "post-traumatic growth" deserves a place in this conversation somewhere. I'm seeing it used more and more often. Also, many have dropped the D from PTSD, recognizing that the functioning of the nervous system is not a disorder. Which leads right into your question...
Katie Lee Weille What an interesting thread. One additional perspective is that trauma theory, which I learned about in the 1990's as a young psychotherapist, presented a new paradigm of liberation from old pathologizing ways of formulating people's - especially women's - distress - as personality disorder, hysteria etc. . So Freud had suggested his female patients had fantasized about sex with a male relative and Masson published this book saying that in fact freud's patients had in fact been sexually abused not had sexual fantasies. And with van der Kolk's groundbreaking work on trauma (from veterens to abuse survivors), we could now validate (that word came up earllier in this thread) the reality of our clients' suffering rather than just diagnosing them as borderline or some other label that suggested a deficiency or lack. In other words, it was empowering for someone to re-formulate themselves as not crazy but rather adaptive, ie they had had to cope with something difficult, hence their distress/ symptoms. By extension, trauma as a construct could legitimize the suffering of whole groups of people, and van der Kolk's later work considers community level experience and processes. Also the fascinating points people make here about the role of dance and other embodied forms of healing, have slowly been finding their way into the psychiatric/ clinical discourse on trauma, as the clinic van der kolk started in boston and the training programs associated with this ouvre have increasingly embraced an embodied 'somatic' approach to treatment (and of course, on his own parallel track, so has Levine).
So my impression is that the clinical tradition has done its best, given the intrinsic biases and blindspots endemic to the whole western medical model which undergirds and often rules psychiatry, this movement and van der kolk's work seme to me relatively progressive and open-minded, making intelligent use of accumulating research and clinical experience. However, the fragilities of the social justice movement and victimization becoming weaponized, are a whole development that go way beyond this clinical history. For this, i would strongly recommend Jessica benjamin's incredibly groundbreaking work on the psychodynamics of victim - victimizer dynamics and what is needed to break out of the polarized stalemates that people on all levels of micro-to-macro interactions find themselves digging into, hurting eachother perpetually as a result. Her last book Beyond doer and done to' has some powerful work on this topic as she looks at what heals: in short, mutual recognition, or, witnesing the suffering - without freezing the sufferer into an othered victimized status- and acknowledging the capacity for destruction that lies in all of us.
Richard Povall I'm no expert in this field, but based purely on personal observation I believe this narrative has grown directly out of the 'survivor' culture that has become increasingly endemic. Your point about veterans and their perhaps influential contribution to the notion of survivor guilt and other forms of trauma feels apposite. Certainly living in the US in the 1980s, and in northern California in particular, the presence of so many Vietnam vets contributed to a much heightened awareness of both survivor culture and post traumatic stress. Justifiably so. California was one of the first countries in the world (I believe) to introduce kerb cuts at intersections in order to allow better access for wheelchairs - because there was a much greater prevalence of wheelchair users in a place where many vets were landed on return from the war zone, and many simply stayed. Here, survivor-hood felt not only palpable but a moral imperative. Notions of 'wounding' and 'trauma' and being a survivor now seems to have been claimed by the many in a culture focusing on the self and self-hood. Survivor discourse became a mechanism for claiming special rights and privileges. I feel like I'm stepping into precipitous territory here, but I find much of the current discourse shallow and, frankly, an irritant.
Jonathan Megaw Hmm surely there is something of the notion of a defining wound in most major world religions and creation myths? Without trying to list them, Id suggest as examples that the Christian ‘Fall from Grace’ is treated as an original and defining wound very much in Christian churches’ dialogues and dogmas, and that there is much fetishisation of Christ’s wounds historically, As another example that Buddhist traditions have as a fundament the suffering of our unrealised condition! Post Nietzschean Western thought has incorporated the notion of a defining condition of dysfunction or wound for which healing is sought, from Freud, as alluded to by others here, to Marx!
It is clear though, as was well documented in the observation of and experience of soldiers of WW1, that what have become the defining symptoms of PTSD are observable and predictable, particularly in war zones. The culture of personal politics which seeks to emphasise the harm that has been done to individuals by other individuals or by a dominant culture, as self-defining may have had its antecedents in post=WW11 post-modernism, counter cultural trends that had their most popular flowering in the period from the late 1950”s-70’s, with therapies developed in Esalen Institute California for example perhaps specifically influential here. However we should not forget that it does in fact have roots in resistance to slavery, colonialism and patriarchy.
Surely the notion of psycho-somatic wounding may have become in some quarters a wearisome self-aggrandisement and projection of the cause of negative states onto others but I am concerned that the experience of war veterans for example are not diminished by an aversion to any unfortunate cultural trends!
Cator Shachoy hmmm.... I'm not sure whether I am understanding your questions correctly, but within the field of craniosacral we recognize that birth trauma is very common. This has nothing to do with war or overwhelming physical/emotional experiences we may have later in life (but can actually lay a foundation for our later patterning). Birth trauma can result from a variety of sources. It can be a result of medical interventions which somehow disrupt the natural flow - induced labor, forced separation of mother & child, being put in an incubator, etc. We recognize these interventions may be medically necessary to save the life or mom or baby, and that they are not necessarily wrong or bad, but there is an imprint of trauma on the nervous system. Birth trauma can also result from a 'normal' healthy birth... because birthing is intense, about survival, life/death, and separation. The imprint on the nervous system is what indicates trauma. As a cranial practitioner I can feel it in the cranial wave -
a physiological pulse. Stanislav Grof talks about the birth matrices and trauma in one of his books...
Eric Chisler Here's the rupture that the response would seem to emanate from in my view:
What must have befallen a people to whom mutual grievance seems a sane qualifier for personal identification? What must have been in prolapse in regards to all things identity which trauma has rushed in to replace? And, what must have been that thing's capacity to mediate trauma such that it would never ossify into an identity in the first place?
Dave Carrier Interesting -- but not at all arresting -- to my simple mind how thought-threaders go to the mind to look and find new verbal explanations to make "our times" seem especially troubled in relation to other past or concurrent times. Folk have come back from war in trauma forever. Always. Always part of being alive in groups of folk, be it tiny tribes -- harsher yet there/then?! -- or expanding nations.
Madelanne Rust-D'Eye Christos Galanis - just encountering this thread now, and will chime in as it's a topic I'm passionate about ... I use somatic approaches and paradigms when working with PTSD in my psychotherapy practice -- very much informed by Van Der Kolk (as mentioned by Katie Lee Weille), Stephen Porges, Peter Levine, etc -- and I also teach about how PTSD happens at the neurological level in my Body-Informed Leadership courses. I believe that understanding the neuroscience behind PTSD helps us to identify elements of our own experience that may be related to PTSD, to have true understanding and compassion for others who are experiencing PTSD, and paradoxically, to also access greater resilience, both in terms of understanding the power of post-traumatic growth as well as understanding what isn't PTSD, and in such cases building the skills to get better at tolerating discomfort in our bodies & psyches. So in a sense, becoming more specific in our collective use of the word "trauma" can also support us to be compassionate while working collectively towards resilience. In terms of your earlier question about integrating epigenetic and ancestral traumas into a neurobiological framework, my experience has been that with trauma healing, you don't need to diagnose the "original cause" (which can so often have happened in early life, before conscious memories could be created, or be stored in non-conscious brain systems, or as you've suggested actually originate ancestrally) in order to help the nervous system to do whatever it needs to do to restore integration. You just listen to the somatic cues the body presents, and offer appropriate support as the healing process unfolds -- it doesn't necessarily matter when or where the trauma originates. Although re-weaving the story of the trauma is often a very meaningful experience for the person in recovery -- it's just more often an end result, rather than a diagnostic jumping-off point.
Christos Galanis Just to say, I sincerely appreciate all the incredible sharings and insights and generosity of all of you in this thread and some other related ones. I'm also appreciating the level of respect and kindness and general consideration and care I'm experiencing in these threads, especially compared to the way such themes can often descend into bullying and nastiness in other places quite quickly. There's some very sensitive and vulnerable and triggering themes being discussed here, and I love being able to trouble them with all of you.
<3 to the brave