Regaining Power and Control

The 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.

It’s only when the quest for power and control stays with people long after the event itself is over that it becomes 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 power and control over our environments 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 in order to make our way through life safely.

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 oppressive behaviors and how they can evolve into oppressive cultural systems 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 denial in many cases) when their routine acts of privilege and power are pointed out to them as unacceptable.

How The World Is

Insecurity can’t help but be triggered in some folks when we challenge their beliefs about how the world “ought to be”.

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 and when people are already overly focused on having power and control (as dominant groups in Western cultures have clearly taught some of their citizens to do).

From The Person To The Culture

As noted above, many small acts of individual trauma (or simply fear) based reactions can easily end up creating a cultural level decisions. Current examples are unfortunately quite common: building border walls, issuing travel bans, trying to roll back rights extended to transgender folks. Extended attacks on reproductive rights, the list goes go on and on. Cultural norms are created over time by groups of people. It is well documented that many minority groups have suffered extra burdens due to systematic and brutal oppression. These group have then in turn developed norms that help them cope with these extra traumas in what end up being maladaptive ways, but were simply attempts to deal with extra tough legacies.

Dominant groups create the same sorts of reactive norms when they feel (often times unconsciously) their sense of power in the world is being threatened. These have been traditionally (and correctly) labelled as acts of oppression. But they are also rooted in real fear, and most likely they are also trauma based reactions.