Knowledge is Power
With any problem or difficult situation, the very first order of business is to understand what is going on. In the case of trauma, there is a formidable barrier that prevent people from seeing the effects of trauma on their lives (or culturally). Avoidance. No one likes to deal with trauma. Avoidance of some sort is actually required for a person to receive a diagnosis of PTSD. So it is a very large issue. As a result, finding ways to surmount that avoidance is our first task in recovery- getting the idea out, getting it percolating in people’s minds is an important and large first step.
Regaining a sense of power and control is crucial to recovery from PTSD. Once that avoidance barrier has been broken, and a person begins to make sense of the correlation between past trauma(s) and current behaviors or states of mind, something amazing generally happens. It sounds corny, and it is. But it still happens: Most people react with relief and an unbidden sense of hope emerges from somewhere inside them. And for some, it’s the first time they’ve felt hope in months. It is actually one of the most gratifying things a practitioner experiences. What’s really happening when people start making the connections is they start to regain a sense of real power and control over their lives- just by making that connection. Again, sounds corny, and it is. And it’s still true.
Expect Setbacks and Fear
Having said that, it’s not all roses and sunshine, often intense fears associated with the traumas surface almost immediately, and those can be very strong and overwhelming. But after that point where the connections are first made, understandings and further connections do tend to come faster for most people. People get why they have to delve into the ugly stuff they’ve forgotten or been avoiding for years. And they do so even though they experience a lot of fear from their past personal traumas. But progress is rarely a straight line, and being okay with two steps forward and one step back is important. Staying in compassion with sort of twitchy, erratic progress and staying in compassion when there are set backs, those things are important.
Find Hope Even in Small Places
Let’s take the idea of polarization. The amount of polarization in public discourse can be disheartening. But what gets us moving forward is some hope and some sense that we might be gaining momentum. So I would argue that we are ideologically passionate now, but previously we’ve been more behaviorally brutal towards one another. I would argue that we are getting closer to breaking the barrier of avoidance than we ever have been before. I say this based on the tangible progress of marginalized groups. I am emphatically saying that for most marginalized groups there has been progress, not that we have achieved anything like equality. There are still miles to go for that. But we are headed in the right directions towards being able to really see everyone as fully human. That’s something.
Intense Emotions Do Not Lead to Well Thought Out Responses
Generally speaking, intense emotions rarely help with creating well thought out responses. I am not saying we must dampen our emotions, but only that we must find ways to be thoughtful about responding if we want to be effective. So consciously looking for ways to lessen emotional volatility so others can still listen is a tactic to use. Consider modeling ways to explore our real motivations as an offering and an invitation for others to do the same. When we can see what has really been driving us, and then address those things more directly and consciously, and honestly, we help others feel safe enough to do the same- maybe even spur them to try to outdo us or “one up” us at it:-). Tempering our words is not a sign of weakness. It is a very strategic tactic to continue to engage compassionately even in the face of inflamed responses. I like going back to find points of agreement “I think we all agree that staying safe is important.”
Appeal to Egocentrism That is Already There
We are all egocentric in our day to day lives. Let’s use it to our advantage. During therapy it is not uncommon for people want to go back into avoidance mode and to say they don’t think that delving into trauma is useful or that it’s too hard to change. I have generally tried to respond with something to the effect of “Well, okay, if you want to continue to act from a fear based stance, that’s fine”. Said in a compassionate but also challenging tone, this almost always works to get people back on track and working. On a cultural level this a variation could be used when people voice support for war or bombings. Focus on the fear inherent in their “solution” asking “Why are you so frightened?” and returning to that point again and again, calmly, and with compassion could help.
Use similar strategies with the “isms”. What I mean is finding ways to gently question defensive comments that often follow any voicing of any cultural norm that is problematic by saying something along the lines of “Wow, you seem really sensitive about this issue, why do you get so upset about it?” “Isn’t it interesting that this topic of ___ism makes you react so heatedly, what are you afraid of?” “Hmm, seems like it’s a difference of perception, why are you so afraid of acknowledging my point of view?”
Loudly Link Violence of Any Kind to Primitive and Fear Based (or Gutless) Tactics
On a cultural level we need to conceive of the use of violence of any kind as tactics not worthy of humans living in the 21st century. To do that we need people to see the use of violence as something pitiful. We need to call out suggestions for violence for what they are: fear based illogical thinking born of people with overactive amygdalae.
We need to make violence and militarism as outmoded as the wigs George Washington wore. Because they are. Militarism and oppression are cut from the same cloth and lead to the same ends: needless suffering for millions. The use of force, oppression, patriarchy and militarism are all different aspects of the same fear ridden power obsessed dynamics. The obsession with power and conquests comes from TBRs, in other words deeeeeeeeep fears about the possibility of not having any personal power. The use of intimidation and violence to consolidate power over others is born of deep insecurity. These were good survival strategies (for some) in a different era. At this point in time they are among the largest
problems -symptoms- we face.
See Oppression and Intimidation As Fear
On a cultural level we need to link oppression to fear based assumptions every time. We need to do this incessantly, so that when people think of garden variety bigots, greedy CEOs or politicians who work to oppress others, the vast majority of us end up seeing them as fear based frightened beings to be pitied. But also need to be removed from power ASAP.
Link Patriarchy to A Fear Based System
We need to see hypermasculinity in all its forms as a fear ridden response. We need to make the widest cultural inroads into this arena as soon as possible. I am NOT saying men are evil or need to be submissive to anyone. I am saying that projecting an air of intimidation or aggression needs to be seen for what it is: a defensive and frankly quite immature posture born of fear. Real men drive Priuses. Real men listen to women as often as they listen to other men. Real men are not threatened by others. Real men are secure enough to be curious about learning from others despite differences in anatomy, skin color, age, or if the wisdom bearer comes wrapped in fur or leaves. Real men do not have difficulties seeing others as three dimensional beings as wise as themselves. Real men are compassionate. Ditto for everyone else- Priuses for everyone!
Sorry guys, but from a psychological point of view, the science is in and the results are definitive: if you need armor or guns, you must be scared. If you need to show people who is boss, that you are tough, then what you are really doing is loudly signaling that you are afraid of others. Need an AK 19? To me that means you must be frightened out of your wits. You must think of the world as a dangerous place. In becoming intimidating or aggressive, you are trying to create a sense of safety by clinging to survival strategies that just don’t work well in the 21st century. This is what psychology says about hypermasculinity (and for the record, hyper femininity is problematic too, but it generally doesn’t lead to oppression and wars).
Link Compassion to Bravery
Reminding men (and women) that compassion is the real position of strength is a start. Compassion is what takes real guts. Talking honestly and showing vulnerability, that’s what takes real bravery. Going into difficult or dangerous situations without weapons “armed” only with compassion and determination to have things end peacefully, is the sign of a real hero, not some macho dude hiding behind a gun. Compassion is what allows us to grow into adults, not aggression (think of all the moments of compassion that were needed to raise a clueless little kid into an adult).
Make Compassion Gender Neutral
Applaud men who show compassion, call out the stay at home dads who make the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as the heroes they are. Make people feel good about putting down their armor and being real with one another. Find ways to make it profitable, if you must:-)
Demand That We All See People As Full Humans
Men who discount women are responding out of fear. Period. We need to support them in not fearing others so much. Women who discount other women have been brainwashed by patriarchal ideology, and we need to support them in realizing this and seeing others as fully human. People who discount the realities of continued racial discrimination and sexism need to be told that they are discounting real people and it’s making them look pretty immature.
I believe there is a very useful place for public shame (if necessary) in lessening the prevalence of patriarchal posturing. And I am aware of the irony of my next section heading. Hear me out. I honestly think more people should make fun of big trucks, make fun of gun nuts, make fun of the stupidity of bigots. I think there’s a place for that. Shame has a function. There are shameful acts: oppressing others is shameful and should be called out and treated as a shameful act. Intimidation by posturing as a huge tough guy is an attempt to show others a that there is a hierarchy and the guy with the big truck or the AK 19 is on top-that is oppression. Find a way to shame it. Link it back to fear. Make fun of it. Help it lose its power. If the big tough guy sees 10 out of 20 people snickering at his hyper masculinity he may scale back. Just sayin’
But we also need to make pathways for these people to come back as full citizens if/when they can behave as adults.
Create Safety In Any Way Possible
In this era of polarization, it’s difficult to remain compassionate towards others. But it is also essential.
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 we’ve just experienced that really really bad things happen when we are not in control. So telling yourself you’re safe or it’s going to be okay is the first step at getting back a sense of control.
Many everyday Americans have felt powerless to solve the myriad of problems we face. If we come to understand that these problems are all linked, we can collectively change our cultures. If enough of us call out patriarchal militaristic mindsets for the fear based and short sighted and ultimately quite cowardly postures they are, we will shift the moral compass on this planet to valuing compassion more than “power over”.
Be a Bad Ass
Refuse to be intimidated. Recognize and refuse to be intimidated by fear based tactics. Stand in a place of compassion based power. Be the bad ass who calls out the emperor when he’s a bully, when he’s not wearing any clothes. Be the bad ass that is not afraid to say “I see veterans as victims, not heroes”. Be the bad ass who says “You know, the really brave people are the ones who deal with dangerous situations without weapons.” Be the bad ass who tells his buddies, “Hey, no more of those kinds of jokes, guys.”
Be the bad ass who stands up for other groups. Be the bad ass friend who refuses to go to yet another male lead action movie and instead says “I am really sick of all this violence, and all these macho male leads.” Be the bad ass who says “Here are the members of the all male panel.” in a slightly sarcastic tone. Be the bad ass professor (or student) who loudly asks “The best professor in this department is an associate professor, why is she not a full professor?” Be the bad ass cop who says “Why are we arresting twice as many blacks as whites on drug charges?” Be the bad ass guy who decides to look at meetings with fresh eyes and when he now notices women being talked over, he backs them up and says “I want to hear what Jane was saying.” Say stuff like that out loud. It’s really not that hard once you do it a couple of times.
Be the bad ass who clamors for more compassionate responses from your boss, from your coworkers, from your neighbors, even from online people who disagree with you. Be the bad ass who grows compassion, who focuses on how to connect, who works for peace and prosperity for all with your eyes wide open. Let others see your heart even if they continue to show their fear in the form of nasty remarks. Listen to others’ points of view. Listen with an open mind.
Learn to listen for fear: a willingness to oppress or intimidate others in someone’s words or actions is a sure sign they are fearful or self loathing in some way. When you hear short sighted or untrue arguments, try to detect where the person’s real fears are, and then respond compassionately. In general it’s best to respond the way you want someone to respond to you when you say stupid stuff out of fear or ignorance. But still make it clear oppression of others is not an option.
If the words are more egregious? Call people out who try to silence people speaking their truth. Seriously, those dudes righteously bemoaning the horror of women speaking up and saying #MeToo? Tell them in no uncertain terms “No, dude, it’s you people don’t want to hear from.” Tell them to shut the hell up, after all, there’s a limit to how compassionate a person can be, even when we know a person is being an ass due to his own fears and insecurities. Real compassion (and bad ass-ery) is to stand fiercely in protection of those who have been mistreated. Shame the would be shamers.
Every time we have the bad assed-ness to respond from a place of compassionate power, we make it easier for our many, many, many allies to do the same and when we do so, we change the cultural norms.