In my last article, I described Riane Eisler’s partnership and dominator models of society and suggested that trauma is the reason we are stuck in the dominator part of the spectrum. In this article, I clarify what trauma is, and explain how it may lock us into a dominator way of being.
WHAT IS TRAUMA?
What exactly is trauma? The following description is based on several sources including: wikipedia, MedicineNet and the Institute for the Study of Peak States.
Trauma is often used in medicine to refer to physical injuries, but this is not the sense in which it is most often used today. According to MedicineNet, psychiatric (or psychological) trauma, is “An experience that is emotionally painful, distressful, or shocking and which may result in lasting mental and physical effects.” A traumatic experience may be a single event or an on-going or repetitive situation. It usually involves a feeling of complete helplessness in the face of an actual or perceived threat to the life, body or sanity of the sufferer, their loved ones or community. The experience overwhelms the person’s ability to cope or to integrate the associated thoughts and emotions.
Trauma is a normal response to extreme experiences. It results in emotional memories stored deep in the brain and body which cause measurable physical and chemical changes to it. Individuals vary greatly, so that events that cause severe trauma in some will not significantly affect others.
Slightly different perspectives emerge from the work of The Institute for the Study of Peak States (ISPS). In his writings on peak states, Grant McFetridge describes how the way we respond to the original traumatic event becomes stored in the body, and this ‘memory’ is replayed like a tape whenever similar sensations are evoked in the present. In other words, we develop an unconscious, automatic survival response to any event that is identified as similar to the one which caused the original trauma.
From a rational perspective, such automatic responses may be quite inappropriate to the current situation, and may even lead to fresh trauma. A good illustration is claustrophobia in which an extreme fear of any enclosed space may originate, for example, from being locked in a cupboard as punishment as a child. Another is terror of all strangers, perhaps sparked by a frightening encounter with an unknown person in infancy.
Many traumas are individual, but others may be collective, arising from events in family or community history. These might include an unconscious memory of famine that creates a tendency for a community to overeat or hoard food. Or a ‘race memory’ of an atrocity that lingers as a fearful or angry reaction to anyone from a particular country or religion. Such memories often go back centuries, being kept alive by stories and rituals, and they fuel many modern conflicts such as Northern Ireland and Bosnia.
Turning now to healing: What does it mean for a trauma to be healed? And how can this be achieved? A healed trauma loses its power to affect the present. Conscious memories of traumatic experiences may be recalled and thought about at will, but cease to be associated with any positive or negative emotional feelings or bodily sensations. In other words, the emotional ‘button’ that used to be triggered by a certain kind of event disappears. The person becomes free to respond rationally and appropriately to such events.
Most trauma therapies rely on remembering and re-experiencing the trauma in some way. Indeed, McFetridge claims that traumas are events that haven’t been fully experienced because we ‘leave’ our bodies and dissociate from the physical and/or emotional pain. Hence, healing requires that the event be lived through again in memory – a process that may be very painful. Unfortunately many therapies produce only partial healing – the symptoms may be reduced but not eliminated, or may return after a time.
ISPS researchers attribute partial healing to the presence of ‘trauma stacks’. Imagine that an early trauma causes a dysfunctional response to all similar events in future. Each time we respond in this way, we create a further trauma that is connected to the root trauma. Most trauma healing deals with traumatic events one by one. So if I have lots of events linked to a particular root trauma it may take many sessions before the healing is complete. However, according to McFetridge, if we can get back to the original trauma and heal that, the whole stack of subsequent traumas will also be healed at the same time.
Mainstream trauma research and treatment focus mostly on events in childhood or adulthood, such as abuse, rape, torture, wars, disasters and accidents. Alternative therapies often stimulate regression to unconscious memories, and are thus able to tackle birth traumas, which are often severe, and experiences in past lives. However, McFetridge believes that many of the traumas that create our deep emotional patterns and ‘buttons’ happen before birth, at key development stages such as conception and implantation in the womb.
Effective trauma therapy is difficult because we lock the memories away securely in the subconscious to protect ourselves from the pain they evoke. This applies particularly to in utero and birth traumas which predate the development of normal conscious memory. However, it is also true of many traumas that occur after infancy. A variety of new therapies are increasingly able to unlock the doors to these memories. This is not the place to go into details, but they include Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), Tapas Acupressure Technique (TAT) and Whole-Hearted Healing (WHH). Other approaches that ISPS recommend as effective include The 15-Minute Miracle, Psycho Energetic Auro Technology (PEAT) and biofeedback of brain waves. Further information on all these is readily available on the web.
TRAUMA AND DOMINATOR SOCIETIES
So what has all this stuff about trauma got to do with switching from a dominator to a partnership society? My answer is: Everything. I believe trauma is the reason why the dominator model took over from partnership, and why it has remained dominant for the last 6,000 years. And until we do something about trauma, we will remain stuck in a dominator civilization despite our best efforts to promote reform.
In "The Chalice and the Blade", Riane Eisler wrote (p.xvii): “the original direction ... of our cultural evolution was toward partnership but ... following a period of chaos and almost total cultural disruption, there occurred a fundamental social shift ... to a dominator model ... At this pivotal branching, the cultural evolution of societies that worshipped the life-generating and nurturing powers of the universe ... was interrupted. There now appeared on the prehistoric horizon invaders from the peripheral areas of our globe who ... worshipped ... the power to take rather than give life that is the ultimate power to establish and enforce domination.”
What Eisler describes as a period of chaos and total disruption was clearly a time of intense social and personal trauma. And this trauma resulted in the switch in cultural evolution towards a dominating power hierarchy that we are still experiencing today. Once that switch had occurred, the violent system persisted because it creates on-going trauma, generation after generation.
I believe it is impossible to live within a dominator society without suffering trauma at some level. The ISPS claims that most people suffer significant trauma. Much of this may well occur before birth due to the experiences of the mother, but I will focus here on the more obvious childhood and adult traumas. Imagine (or remember) growing up in a dominator society. From infancy, you learn submission to the authority of your parents, teachers and other adults. Perhaps you learn the hard way that disobedience or talking back will be punished. You observe how the male of the household is boss, that men hold most (if not all) positions of authority in your community, and that men are tough and often violent. You are taught beliefs, whether religious or secular, about the nature of reality and the way of the world that reinforce these experiences. In this way, you deeply imbibe the ideas that you are somehow bad or inferior, that children deserve to be punished; that men are superior to women; that violence is ok and the way to deal with conflict; and that a hierarchy of power is the natural order of things.
Even in the rich world, trauma is ever present - in domestic violence, crime, accidents, rape and illness; in fear of strangers, terrorists and the opinion of others; in workplace stress and money worries; in loneliness and homelessness. Even our modern materialistic, mechanistic worldview is a source of psychological trauma, leaving us without meaning or purpose for our lives. Now imagine how it is for many in the majority world, perhaps facing starvation and chronic thirst; or living in the midst of war, never knowing when their family, home and community will be shattered by violence; or being a survivor and refugee from terrorism, famine, flood, earthquake or tsunami.
Trauma begets trauma. We naturally tend to bring up our own children in much the same way that we were brought up, and to pass on the core beliefs in which we were raised. And our responses to the world are shaped by our traumas. Trauma shatters trust in others and the universe. Out of fear, we may become timid and submissive, carefully planning our lives to avoid fear, and thus tacitly supporting the continuation of the dominator system. Similarly, we may take out our repressed anger at the way we have been treated on those who are weaker than us, particularly our partner and children. Another common response to fear is action, including aggression – getting in the first strike as a way to reduce risk, or pushing others out of the way to meet our own survival needs. Similarly, we may seek vengeance for the wrongs we have suffered, or simply become the tough, bullying male who physically or emotionally beats up anyone who opposes us. Hence, in one way or another, the violent system perpetuates itself.
If this emphasis on the prevalence of trauma in today’s world seems over the top, consider this. In a recent article in New Scientist magazine (16 June, p.24) psychologist Dorothy Rowe points out that the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and bipolar disorder are essentially the same as those for fear. In other words, she argues, the many millions of children in the USA and elsewhere now being treated with powerful drugs for these ‘disorders’ are simply ‘very afraid.’ This is not recognized because psychiatrists don’t know enough about the lives of their young clients, and children are most afraid of adults!
TRAUMA THEORY AND CREATING THE FUTURE
This theory that trauma is a major cause of the patterns of relationship and forms of society that lie at the heart of the human condition raises as many questions as it answers. Amongst them are:
• Is there direct evidence that trauma results in dominator relationships and societies?
• Are there cases where the reverse has happened and cooperative partnership societies have emerged from traumatic circumstances?
• How does the trauma model fit with other explanations of humanity’s predicament?
• Is it human nature to form male dominated, hierarchical and violent societies, or can we be different?
• Does the theory enable us to make any verifiable predictions that would validate it?
• What are the implications of this theory for creating a sustainable future?
• What can the theory tell us about key leverage points for achieving fundamental social and institutional change?
• What evidence is there that humans can heal their traumas and live permanently in peak states of consciousness?
Many of these questions cannot be answered unequivocally. But I will devote several entries to gathering together some of the available evidence. It’s worth the effort for the insights and wisdom we may gain towards creating a better future.
In my next two articles, I will explore how this trauma theory can explain the transition from a peaceful partnership civilization to a violent dominator culture thousands of years ago.