Regaining Power and Control

A key thing to remember about trauma in individuals is that our sense of control vanishes during the traumatic event. Not only does it vanish, but the experience of trauma tells us that really, really bad things can and do happen when we are not in control.

As a result, getting a sense of power and control back is the very first thing we need to do in the aftermath of trauma. It becomes urgent and essential. This is a normal human reaction to trauma. 

There is almost always an increased psychological focus on and need for power and control in days and weeks after trauma.  This is also a normal response. 

In optimal recovery, the heightened needs for power and control fade after a while.  Unfortunately, optimal recovery from trauma is not obtained in many cases.  Many things can and do go wrong as people try to recovery from trauma in the best ways they know how.

Personal struggles around power and control can lead to acting out unsafely, infringing on the rights of others, and/or impair people long after the event, and can easily become highly problematic. People with PTSD are often obsessed with safety and having control in their lives.  People with PTSD will often attempt to regain power and control by any means necessary because it is so important to them. This can easily include infringing on the rights of others.

Power and Survival

Having a sense of power and control in our lives is closely linked to our very senses of survival in the best of times, and certainly becomes more explicitly linked with survival after experiencing trauma. We all need to have a sense of power and control in our lives, and to feel safe enough in our environments in order to make our way through life safely. In PTSD, an over focus on power and control issues happens and can become highly dysfunctional.

As stated elsewhere, the vast majority of humans become very primitive, very defensive, and very reactive when there is any hint at all that our our senses of power and control could be threatened (whether or not our true power and control are actually threatened is not the issue, it is the worry about a possible loss of power that triggers the primitivism).

Power and Primitive Acts

Trauma based reactions can lead people to think in highly defensive ways as well as act oppressively in order to feel safe. We see this in individuals. But we can also see it plainly in large cultural reactions. A classic example might be the internment of Japanese American citizens after Pearl Harbor.

Cultural reactions to events mirror those of the people living within the culture. People are profoundly affected by personal traumas, and it makes sense that cultural reactions end up being large as well. This does does not excuse oppressive behavior at all. But understanding the (probable) origins of the impulse to oppress, and how the impulse can evolve into various kinds of (very serious and large) oppressive symptoms can help us immensely as we strive to create more peaceful and less oppressive worlds.

Recognizing that worries about power and control often trigger deeply defensive reactions, leads to a highly convincing explanation for why some people become so defensive (to the point of clinical level denial in many cases) when their routine acts of privilege and power are pointed out to them as unacceptable.

Challenging people’s beliefs is tricky.

When we challenge oppressive acts or beliefs, we are tearing down people’s perceptions about how the world is and with that, their senses of how to have power and control within the world. This can easily become terrifying. Especially if those being challenged are already overly focused on having power and control (as dominant groups in Western cultures have clearly taught some of their citizens to do).

Individuals with PTSD use tools to try to feel safe in ways that can become highly dysfunctional (a controlling demeanor with loved ones, a dozen outside video cameras, or an arsenal of guns, for examples). If we simply take away the person’s access to tools he’s misusing to try to feel safe, things will probably be safer in the short term, but it may not do anything to resolve his sense of compulsion to “feel safe.” It is quite likely the person will find other tools to try to meet his unrealistically high needs for safety and control.

Similarly, at the cultural level, when we simply take away the current dysfunctional way to have a sense of power (for example: the ability to oppress others is cut off via laws against discrimination) without resolving the underlying compulsion, the impulse to oppress still remains and isn’t resolved. So Cultural PTSD theory says it is essential we recognize, understand the dynamics surrounding, and find ways to resolve/eradicate the underlying impulses to oppress. The theory says we must see the dysfunctional urge to oppress as the MAIN issue, and not “just” address the results of it. And no, Cultural PTSD does not see the impulse to oppress as “human nature,” it sees the impulse to oppress very clearly as a learned behavior.