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Trauma as Morality
Substack doesn't allow for nested lists which means unfortunately this flows even worse than I wanted it to but I will send you the literal .DOCX if you want, I guess! Anyway.
A trigger is a stimulus of pretty much any variety that causes a person who has experienced trauma to physically re-experience some version of their reaction to that trauma. It is typically understood as something beyond the person’s ability to rationalize away, as in, they may know very well that the original events are not occurring again, but regardless they experience acute forms of fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response, for example.
I say “physically” and not “emotionally” in part because the mind-body divide is super fake and those are the same thing, and in part because I recognize that it’s hard to remember that they are the same thing and we have given a sort of respectable legitimacy to medical problems that are not afforded to “psychological” ones. Obviously that sucks but that is the reason why it is sometimes tactically beneficial to address traditionally “mental” areas of health as physical “imbalances” and “dysregulations” rather than gamble one’s immediate needs on the glacial pace of movement to destigmatize mental health struggles.
People use the word “trauma” to describe a number of different experiences, from the more Freudian developmental sense (where traumatic change and the subsequent presence or absence of support in adapting is regarded as a necessary dimension of growth) to something rare and clinical which is basically exclusive to veterans and refugees (who have sustained what we largely consider the most severe tragedies).
Of course, there are all kinds of trauma, and they don’t really exist on a spectrum of severity. Some people really do bounce back from the unspeakable, and others never can cope with the supposed small things. Those who speak about trauma from a disability rights and justice perspective often bring this up as a salient reminder that you can’t just measure people against each other, at least not broadly or easily.
There are definitely ways of responding to another person’s trauma that are almost always harmful to them, but most of the “good ways” are actually a grab bag of approaches that sometimes contradict each other. There will never be a “here’s exactly what to do and say every time for any given person,” which might seem obvious, but it isn’t. I need to remind myself, too, which is why I’m writing it out.
In my experience, most people default to binary thinking.
Indeed, a lot of people with pronounced traumas themselves struggle with downright rigid thinking. It’s one of the “classic” side effects.
I remember how appealing some pretty fringe beliefs and ultimatums seemed to me when I was younger and had fewer to no tools, support, and resources for what I was feeling.
I can give you an example of one of these exceptions to the “rules.” Sometimes, when I am disclosing the reasons why something is, let’s say, upsetting to me, the more sensitive and trauma-informed people in the room will remain silent because they don’t want to “speak for me.” Upset people are usually interrupted and told to shut up, which almost always makes them feel worse and does not solve whatever they are upset about. Therefore, handing someone the proverbial microphone can be a crucial act of respect that fosters their internal belief in their own value and power.
Despite this, something that I have noticed about my own needs in these kinds of situations is that I feel more supported when that other person listens first and then does do a lot of speaking for me. I’m tired of being the only person to speak up for myself, actually. It makes me feel intensely alone and suspicious that I am being set up to be the only person to suffer from inevitable pushback, fallout, retaliation, and so forth.
I don’t expect others to solve my problems for me, rather, the act of speaking about my feelings takes so much out of me, that when others share in the effort, it is a gift.
It also makes me feel safer when I hear my needs reinforced verbally by others around me. I wonder if this is partially because I have witnessed a few individual people who have repeatedly hurt me change their attitudes and behaviors only once group opinion openly changed around them? Maybe. I’m also a person who is intensely auditory, for whom hearing and listening are deeply impactful in a way that I think most people in the contemporary West experience with vision and looking. I don’t know how to explain it better than that. I can’t possibly know if that sounds kind of like “made up specialness.” Regardless of whether or not “something happened to me” or I’m just “wired this way” or both or neither, the standard advice in this area does not apply to me.
When people are really observant and take the time to ask me what would make me feel supported, I tell them about this exception. Sometimes it leads to the uncharitable perception that I send others to do my dirty work for me. I’m okay with that consequence, because it is the lesser of the available consequences, you know? Well, now you do know.
Trauma doesn’t always have a specific source, is the heart of it, anyway. I think the popular but pretty vague awareness of Freudian developmental theories lead to a common assumption that there are ultimately two categories of trauma: surviving some manner of public violence or catastrophe that takes place or comes from outside the home, and standard-issue nuclear family dysfunction. And those are the ones that it’s supposedly embarrassing or neurotic to take with you into adulthood: daddy issues, mommy issues, spoiled brat, anal retentive, bossy oldest sibling, people-pleasing middle child, attention-seeking baby, self-absorbed only kid, and so on and so forth.
Immaturity is, I guess, a short way of saying “you’re too old to be playing out this dynamic from an earlier state, such that you are making it a problem for yourself and others.”
The markers of adulthood are culturally specific and often arbitrary. Telling someone to “grow the fuck up” can be a really helpful wake-up call for them to recognize that their patterns are not serving their circumstances and they will be a lot happier if they genuinely change, and in fact, that they have the ability to genuinely change because those around them are both asserting boundaries and also implying room for other possibilities. Telling someone to “grow the fuck up” can also just be a way to reject them because they remind you of yourself in a previous state, though more commonly, because they are unable to fulfill their potential as an amasser of wealth and status.
Sometimes people say that they are traumatized and we suspect that they are not “really” traumatized but are instead entitled, fragile, lazy, or some other less acceptable excuse for their behavior or request, which is almost “funny” in a general atmosphere that denies and ridicules victimization. And sometimes, having trauma ourselves, we feel really conflicted about our suspicions. Uh oh, we think, are we Victim Blaming? Is this internalized stigma? Because saying “I have C-PSTD, actually, and can’t handle this” in the vast majority of situations in America in 202X will not elicit sympathy, much less accommodation in any form. See also: disability rights and justice.
Because almost everyone defaults to binary thinking, scenes and circles that care about social justice or mental health or whathaveyou can have funny little inverted rules, like how it’s important to believe every single survivor account and accommodate every single stated limit and need. In addition to being impossible, this sucks for different reasons, but it does come from a much kinder place. I would still rather be surrounded by people who are struggling to accept the inevitability of bullshit stunts pulled in the name of need, versus the people who are outright hostile to the very idea of need.
The binary which is occupied by both mindsets (which I recognize could themselves become a false binary of my own making) is one of morality. Cruelty treats trauma as a personal moral failure, and therefore, kindness treats trauma as a personal moral achievement. See also: this sucks for different reasons, “oppression Olympics,” and so forth.
But it is not necessary to understand to trauma this way, and I think we should stop. It has become understood among people who mean well and struggle with it—it has been internalized—as a receptive role and, as such, a coherent identity class.
Because it plays out this way, it’s both knowingly misused and unknowingly misused. Consider the misuse of triggers as a rhetorical device to attempt to contain or shut down negativity, disagreement, confusion, and plain old awkwardness with one’s own stakes in the subject at hand. There are so many specific examples of this that I don’t even know where to start, honestly.
But because of this misuse, among those interested in kindness and justice, I have noticed that the pendulum has lately swung a bit in favor of denying certain claims to trauma for the sake of more robust kindness and justice. For example, some art on the internet which is tagged with a trigger warning around race, but seems to be largely about the tagger’s own white fragility, thus perpetuating racism in the name of nebulous forms of safety, which is about the oldest trick in the book at least when it comes to white supremacy.
Therefore, it is very understandable maneuver to try and discern trauma from fragility.
Yes, I have read enough of Conflict is Not Abuse to be lukewarm about it. I have read a lot of the author’s books, and sometimes she frustrates me with her general tendency to stake insightful claims on really poor and disjointed examples. I think she is are worth reading in order to have interesting disagreements about with people you trust.
The impulse to sort trauma from entitlement, fragility, laziness, and so forth loops us back into the fundamental distortion of trauma into a strictly receptive role within a moral category of experiences. It reifies the binary belief that there is legitimate trauma which can be set apart from frivolous harmful bullshit that therefore isn’t trauma. Something adjacent to the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, maybe.
Because the thing about trauma is that is not synonymous with power or virtue. It forms and operates within power, but it does not belong to one clean point along power’s axis, and it cannot bestow virtue. This dimension of trauma is very hard to discuss with people you care about not being cruel to, because it gets easily and understandably misconstrued as some kind of psycho-social “both sides.”
Another way to put it could be that we know that abuse can cause trauma, for example, and maybe that abusing can be caused by trauma, but we are uncomfortable with recognizing and discussing that abusing for no clear motivation at all can also cause trauma.
Or maybe the short version is that just about anything can cause trauma. It manifests in perpetrators, in bystanders, in benefactors. People get “sick” for all kinds of reasons.
I feel uncomfortable just typing that out. I feel like I am creating “excuses.” That I will be misunderstood as an “apologist.”
That is the moralistic binary, though. That is a distortion that does cause me harm when I choose to reinforce it. I am trying not to do that.
This is also partially why I find it helpful to think of it as a “medical condition,” even though, again, loops and loops of implicit goodness and badness underpin that.
It is definitely related to the way that oppressing others delays the liberation of the oppressors as well as the oppressed. The point is not that they are “equal” in harm done. The point is that everyone has skin in the game and that the responsibilities cannot be abdicated, and that solidarity is not about charity.
It would be a lot easier if it were a moral category.
I originally started writing about trigger warnings, content warning, and safety toolkits, but realized it was too in the weeds, so this is not the entirety on my thoughts on negotiating trauma triggers so much as a way for me to interrogate if I am even using the same language as anybody else who might wonder what I happen to think about them.