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Human beings, like all living creatures and systems, have certain needs that must be met in order for us to achieve optimal states of health and maturity. Our long evolutionary history has hardwired us to require certain physical, intellectual, emotional and, perhaps, spiritual energies, conditions and resources in order to survive and develop toward wholeness. While biology, physiology and medicine continue to identify and specify our physical needs, fields like evolutionary psychology are clarifying our previously more subjective intellectual and emotional needs.

Meanwhile fields like Internal Family Systems and Imago Relationship Therapy are helping to define the optimal relationships between our various needs in terms of systems principles. These fundamental, innate human needs have remained stable, despite great changes in many of our ways of life, over the last many thousands of years.

We may be more or less aware of certain areas of needs on a daily basis. Some needs may take precedence over others in terms of basic survival. And we may, at times, confuse needs with wants. Despite all of this, however, maturity is, in the long run, largely proportional to the meeting of all of these classes of needs.

Defining Trauma

In various life situations, conditions develop or events occur that cause important needs to go unmet for a period of time or indefinitely. Because they are needs, not just wants, their going unmet is certain to lead to some limitation, however small, on healthy growth, development and/or health maintenance. When this impact reaches the level of affecting the person’s structure – their physical or psychological configuration – in a way that is immediately unhealthy or that limits their capacity to develop or maintain health and maturity in the future, that is when I call it trauma.

In other words, I view trauma as the result of a circumstance or event that wounds us, either depriving us of a need and/or infringing on our ability to meet our needs in the future. This is a rather broad definition of trauma that may or may not be shared by all authors on the subject. However, it has proven very effective for me in understanding human development and health and I believe it is a defensible definition. Indeed, the word “trauma” comes from the Greek word for “wound.” I interpret this wounding to refer to the structural impact of the traumatizing event or condition.

Types of Trauma

Physical Trauma

We are all very familiar and comfortable with this terminology when used to describe trauma that impacts and wounds the structure of the physical body. If a person is stabbed and the blade punctures the skin, ruptures a blood vessel or damages an internal organ, we recognize that this event, due to its structural impact, is a trauma and this is what it is called medically. It has impacted the ability of our body to meet certain needs, for instance the need for the integrity of the skin to protect us from disease, the need for oxygen and nutrients to reach and wastes to be removed from the area served by that blood vessel or whatever needs are usually met through the proper functioning of that internal organ.

Emotional Trauma

However, traumas can also occur in other areas, in analogous fashion, especially emotionally when events affect the personality structure. What if you are hit and sustain no physical damage at all, however, it affects the structure of your personality deeply in that it creates great fear and damages your ability to trust significantly? This can also be traumatic and may leave a psychological wound that limits your ability to meet your needs for emotional safety and security, for instance.

Spiritual Trauma

Some talk about the existence of spiritual trauma and wounding, as well. While I am very open to that being the case, and believe I understand well the experience to which such people refer, as an agnostic, I have a harder time speaking with certainty about the specifics of it. However, I interpret this as an event that affects one’s ability to feel a connection to his or her deeper self, to meaning, and to the world larger than themselves.

Mixed Traumas

While some traumas may primarily wound us in one area or another, many of the worst traumas common in our culture – for example, rape and physical or sexual child abuse - may effect our physical, emotional and spiritual needs simultaneously.

Sources of Trauma

Trauma can be caused by any entity or condition that impacts our ability to meet our needs.

Just for example:

Physical trauma can be caused by:

  • “Natural causes” – Hurricanes, floods, droughts, famines, diseases

  • Other people – Someone shooting us, hitting us, stabbing us, etc. These types of traumas may occur more frequently in certain settings, such as a dangerous neighborhood plagued with gang violence or a war-torn region of the world.

  • Other living creatures – Animals attacking or poisoning us, plants poisoning us

  • Our own actions – Self-inflicted injuries

  • Inanimate objects – Falling from a height to the ground, banging against a hard or sharp surface

Emotional or psychological trauma can be caused by most of the same sources:

  • Anything that causes physical trauma – Any of the traumas listed above can, along with damaging the body’s structure, also affect our emotional needs for trust, security and safety, among others. In addition, imbalances or dysfunctions in brain or hormonal chemistry can lead to or escalate emotional wounds.

  • Other people – Lying to us, abandoning us, verbally attacking us, spreading falsehoods about us. We are especially vulnerable to such traumas from caregivers on whom we are, at points in our life, dependent for the meeting of our needs, as well as those closest to us. Furthermore, since many of our needs, such as connection and belonging, require interaction with others, we are always inherently vulnerable to trauma from other people – especially if we already maintain wounds from earlier relationships in our lives, since we tend to be drawn to repeat such relationships.

  • Social or Environmental circumstances – A bad economy may threaten our sense of security, living in a culture in which we are an unwanted minority may impact our need for acceptance or safety.
These lists are far from comprehensive and offer just a few examples to show the range of sources of trauma. The full spectrum of potential causes of physical trauma is addressed by the field of medicine, and specifically traumatology. The larger spectrum of causes of emotional and psychological trauma is the realm of the mental health field, especially those that specialize in trauma prevention and recovery.

Degrees of Trauma

Trauma can range from very minor, where it barely effects the structure or the structure can easily repair itself (ie: a paper cut or someone telling a small white lie that just violates our trust a bit but has little lasting impact) to very major, where it has a lasting impact on physical or psychological configuration and takes more serious, invasive measures to repair (ie: a serious bodily injury that requires surgery to repair or a psychological trauma that leads to deep neurosis or congeals into the configuration of a personality disorder that requires deep inner work to heal).

What determines how serious a trauma is for a particular person is not just the nature of the act itself. In fact, the very same act may have a very different impact on different people, or may even affect one person greatly and another barely at all. Furthermore, in cases where the trauma is caused by another person, the seriousness of the trauma may not be dependent on the intent or even awareness of that person. Though they may not mean to cause any harm or even realize that they are doing so, their action may still cause structural damage, nonetheless.

There are cases where a person’s intent can be a factor. For instance, if a person abandons us, that act’s impact on our need for acceptance may depend greatly on whether they did it on purpose or not. If they later inform us that there was simply a misunderstanding and that they weren’t actually rejecting us, it can certainly affect the degree of wounding that the incident ultimately leaves. However, in other cases, such as the neglect of a child too young to understand or a physical injury, some of the damage may remain independent of the intent of the perpetrator.

What does affect the resulting level of trauma are factors such as:
  • The recipient’s age at the time of the event – The same act may have an enormous impact on a young child or an elderly person, while having no effect on someone else. Or, in contrast, it may affect someone in the prime of their life, while being rather innocuous to a young child or someone nearing the end of their years.

  • The recipient’s developmental maturity at the time of the event – A person’s developmental maturity on various measures may often differ from their chronological age as evidenced by the diversity, even among people of the same age, in variables such as body development, Emotional Quotient (EQ) and Intelligence Quotient (IQ). The same act may have a different effect even on two people of the same chronological age, if they differ on other developmental factors. A highly physically, emotionally or intellectually mature 20 year old may be less affected by a particular event than a comparatively immature 40 year old.

  • The recipient’s current developmental stage at the time of the event - Certain critical aspects of a person’s structure are exposed especially vulnerably at various times in development. For instance, an adolescent, though older than a two-year old, may be more vulnerable to experiences relating to their body image since this is a time when identity and attractiveness are major concerns. Similarly, a given event may devastatingly impact a person experiencing a mid-life crisis while having relatively little effect on the same person at an earlier or later stage in their development. Physically, the importance of developmental stage is especially clear in the case of the fetus, when the impact of events can be very different depending on the exact week of pregnancy at which they occur and which crucial body parts are developing at that precise time.

  • How life-threatening the infringement on the need is or is perceived to be – A short period of abandonment can always pose some level of threat to our needs for connection and security. However, this threat may be only slightly upsetting for a 12 year old, while it may be extremely traumatizing to an infant. The reason is that, for the almost totally dependent infant, connection and security are, at all times, life and death issues. This relates to the different emotional development stages of the infant and 12 year old. Meanwhile, being exposed to a gun in a dangerous situation may be perceived as life-threatening to an adult, hence creating a lasting trauma, while an infant, at a lower level of intellectual development, will not even know what a gun is and therefore may not experience any threat to life or resulting trauma whatsoever.

  • Any previous developmentally-arresting traumas on top of which the current event is occurring - Being lied to may have little effect on one person, whereas to another, who was often lied to growing up, it may trigger sensitive pre-existing wounds and, thus, have a serious impact. To a veteran who has been in war, a loud noise may remind them of previously traumatizing battle scenes and reopen a wound, whereas the same noise may have no effect on someone else. (This is the concept behind Posttraumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD). To someone with a disease that limits the development of their immune system, an otherwise innocuous bacteria may cause serious tissue damage.

  • Any other traumas being experienced concurrently – To a person already going through a divorce and struggling with cancer, a third additional stressful event, however small, may serve as the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” The same event, experienced by another person or even this same person at a less stressful time, may have been handled more easily without resulting structural damage.

  • How much support and validation the person has in their life – A rejection may have little effect on a person who already has strong social ties, whereas it can be devastating to someone who is already very alone and has severly unmet emotional needs. Also, even an upsetting rejection that does have an effect may not reach the level of impacting the person’s structure if they have others around to help them process the event rather than developing a wound. This is why support and validation are so crucial in helping all of us, but especially children, work through potential traumas without lasting damage.

  • The recipient’s original temperament and personality type or configuration – As explained by theories of personality type, some people are born with or develop natural inclinations toward certain preferences. For instance, one person may feel comfortable with more structure while another gets bored with too much structure and desires a great deal of novelty and change. These preferences, in turn, influence their preferred strategies for getting needs met.

    Therefore, the same event may help one person meet needs while for another, who tends to use a different strategy to meet those same needs, it may threaten their ability to do so. A person that thrives on spontaneity may find it very easy to get their needs met in a constantly-changing environment, whereas a structured person may find the constant change frightening and threatening to their emotional needs, as well as possibly to their ability to meet physical needs. A very introverted child may be traumatized by being forced too often into draining social situations, whereas a more extraverted child may thrive and grow in the very same situations.

Coping and Defense Mechanisms: The Lasting Results of Trauma

The ultimate impact of trauma may result not only from the immediate impact that the event or condition has on our physical or psychological structure, and hence on our ability to meet needs in the present. If serious enough, the trauma may also lead to lasting changes in our structure, which, while designed to help us survive the event in the short-term, affect our long-term ability to meet needs in an ongoing fashion. These longer-lasting structural changes that result from unmet needs are known as coping mechanisms or defense mechanisms.

Depending on the severity of an emotional trauma, for instance, as determined by the factors previously listed, including our age and developmental stage at the time of the trauma and our pre-existing personality type, we may develop defenses of varying rigidity, solidity, and type. At the extreme, these defenses can congeal into a serious personality disorder or a neurotic pattern such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The body has its own coping mechanisms that can result from physical traumas and that may also develop into lasting structural changes. For instance, a serious stab wound may lead to scarring in an organ that limits its capacity to perform its function, thus ultimately inhibiting the body’s ability to meet needs.

The Effects of Trauma at Emergent Human Systems
(Family, Social, Cultural, Global) Levels

Just as some may be more aware of and comfortable with the notion of physical trauma, which is visible and concrete, than they are with the more abstract notions of emotional or spiritual trauma, some may also be more comfortable with the idea of individual trauma than that of trauma on other levels of human systems. However, as Richard C. Schwartz explains beautifully in his Internal Family Systems model, the same configurations of defenses that can emerge in an individual can also emerge from traumas in a family, society, culture or among nations and ecosystems.

Human systems on all levels have their own set of needs, some the same as those on the individual level or other levels and some unique to that level. Healthy families require a certain degree and type of communication and trust among their members, for instance. Healthy societies and nations require a certain degree and type of security and resources. All of these systems require their needs to be met in a certain balance.

Conditions or events that unhealthily impact the structure of these systems in ways that challenge their ability to meet needs today and into the future also constitute traumas and can lead to analogous defense mechanisms in that family, society or even in humanity as a whole. A family can be in denial of wounding events in their history. A society can project its failings onto particular groups or other societies, scapegoating them. The important work of many authors focuses on the trauma and defenses inherent in our modern culture.

Cyclical Nature of Trauma and Defenses

One of the most damaging aspects of trauma and its resulting defenses is that they have a contagious quality. When a person – or human system – experiences trauma and then develops defenses, they may then interact with other people and human systems, especially those closest to them, and with their environment, in ways consistent with and limited by their defenses. This not only continues to diminish their ability to get their needs met, but it also diminishes their ability to help others get their needs met, including those, like children, who are dependent on them, or leads them to overstep boundaries and even prevent others from getting their needs met.

Thus, intentionally or not, the traumatized person or system then becomes a creator of further trauma to themselves, to others, and to their environment. Their victims then develop defenses of their own and the vicious generational cycle continues, sometimes exploding into an epidemic.

The Normalization of Trauma

Not only is this vicious cycle and epidemic of trauma damaging directly through the suffering it causes throughout generations, but it is also dangerous because when trauma and defenses become so common, they begin to become normalized. The defenses themselves begin to render us blind to the dysfunction of these patterns and we may come to believe that they are simply how things are supposed to be. We may even begin to forget the importance of certain needs entirely.

For instance, in our rather materialist-minded culture, we are especially vulnerable to overlooking or minimizing the impact of unmet emotional or psychological needs. Indeed, our lack of attention to our own wounds in these areas has often led to defense mechanisms that specifically render us unable to appreciate these forms of trauma, making them very insidious. However, the level of defensiveness is even more evident in the fact that we often ignore and minimize even the more obvious physical forms of trauma. For example, we have become highly desensitized to violence in many settings. Spanking children, the potential trauma of which is often not considered due to its normalcy, is a prime example.

Unfortunately, regardless of how normal or common a particular trauma, defense or unmet need may become in a given community or culture, it becomes no less damaging to health and development as a result. The determination of whether something is traumatic should not depend on whether the person appears functional in a society that may itself be dysfunctional. It should depend on whether it has significantly impacted their ability to meet their needs and respect the needs of others in a balance as relates to an evolutionary understanding of optimal health for our species. As evolutionary psychology is teaching us, we must use a standard of health, not a standard of normalcy based on any particular culture, in assessing trauma and its impact.

In addition, this normalization may even add to the trauma that victims experience since it may make it more difficult for them to receive the validation and understanding that might otherwise minimize the trauma’s lasting damage. Thus, they may develop a stifling layer of self-blame on top of their already crippling wounds.

The Central Role of Trauma in Our Culture

Sustainable health is, I believe, the most important goal for human systems. This involves the ability for people and the rest of our ecosystem to get their needs met in balanced fashion now, while ensuring the ability of future generations to do the same. However, trauma leads to the exact opposite. It generates fearful, guilty and shame-driven defense mechanisms that disrupt our ability to get our needs met, and to interact with our colleagues, families, communities and environment in a way that assists, rather than infringes on, their ability to get their needs met.

It is becoming increasingly evident to many that, as a result of the widespread trauma and defenses on so many levels, members of our culture – specifically the modern industrial civilized culture that Daniel Quinn refers to as “the Takers” - are experiencing and creating a number of threats to health and sustainability. A wide variety of groups exist that focus on one or another perceived shortcoming of our culture. But the one thing they all have in common is that they believe that some aspect of the culture is infringing on the ability of us, of those that share the planet with us, and of future generations to get our needs met and develop in a healthy way. While some of these groups may perceive the situation more accurately than others, I believe it is clear that there are in fact far too many people – and other living creatures - finding themselves unable to meet far too many of their needs sustainably.

There are countless obvious examples of this epidemic, such as the prevalence of concrete physical trauma including rape, physical and sexual child abuse and other violent acts, as well as the inability of millions around the world to meet basic needs for clean water and food. But given the broader definition of trauma that I use, we are even infringing on less severe, but still important physical needs, as evidenced, for instance, by our widespread level of sleep deprivation. From severe to mild, we are experiencing trauma on many physical indicators.

The evidence of trauma is also abundant, though tragically less clearly recognized by many, in the preponderance of serious emotional disturbances, including personality disorders – especially Borderline Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder – and other disorders such as PTSD that often originate from the solidifying of a personality configuration or structure around defenses made necessary by developmental trauma. This category includes many who are meeting their own physical needs in abundance, and so may appear well, but are doing so at the exclusion of some of their other needs or at the expense of the needs of others in their communities. This unconsciousness of their emotional needs, repression and suppression of parts of their full personality and aliveness, and lack of empathy for the needs of others around them is a hallmark of many of these emotional disorders. Such individuals may focus exclusively on the benefits they have received as members of our materialistic culture, while remaining ignorant of its cost to them and especially to others. The emotionally traumatized population also includes people who are equally unconscious of their own wounds, despite being much more obviously damaged by the culture.

Trauma also plays a role in many social and global issues such as the extreme imbalance of wealth and human rights, war and genocide, our dependence on sweatshops, and our overall lack of respect for sustainability and the importance of other forms of life on the planet. It is becoming more and more widely known that, due to our defenses, we have lost a great deal of our connection with and appreciation for the living environment that we depend on. This is leading us to destroy much of our landbase, damaging the environment and the resources upon which future generations will depend for their needs, while saddling them with massive debt, to boot.

In fact, I believe that almost every major issue facing us today on every level is impacted, to some extent, by the issue of trauma, which both creates aspects of the problems and also, due to resulting defenses such as denial and projection, limit our ability to recognize and respond to the issues appropriately. Thus, trauma plays an absolutely central role in our culture and may, in fact, be the central issue in the culture since it is involved in almost all of the most serious threats to health and sustainability.

Other Resources on Trauma and Its Cultural Impact

Many authors, including many of my favorites, have written beautifully, from various angles, about the role of trauma and the defenses they generate on several levels of our culture and society.

Some of the best are:
  • Derrick Jensen – Most of Jensen’s work focuses, at least to some extent, on the interconnected and destructive personal, social and global impact of trauma in our civilized way of life. This theme is especially prevalent in his incredible book, A Language Older than Words, in which he explores the links between his own personal childhood abuse and the inherently traumatic and violent nature of our culture.

  • Alice Miller – Miller, a renowned psychologist and author of The Drama of the Gifted Child, sees the impact of trauma on the developing child, as inflicted by parents, our educational system and other institutions, as central to the destructive nature of our way of life.

  • Judith Herman – A psychiatrist and professor at Harvard Medical School, Herman is well known for her work on issues of trauma. Though I haven’t yet read her work, her books, including Trauma and Recovery, are considered classics in the field, and are often cited by others, including Derrick Jensen.

The Treatment and Prevention of Trauma

Given how central trauma, broadly understood, is in our way of life, the devastating effects on health and sustainability that come from the defenses it leads to on all levels and its cyclical nature, I believe that recognizing, understanding and healing trauma and its existing developmental effects – including those that often go unnoticed or unseen – is one of the most important things – perhaps the most important thing - we can possibly do to improve every aspect of our culture and our lives, as well as the lives of others on the planet. Moreover, it is just as crucial to begin to intervene to prevent further trauma, and to break the generational cycle by which extreme imbalances, misguided priorities and unsustainable lifestyles are passed on to our children and grandchildren.

This effort presents a serious challenge. In pursuing these goals, we must be willing to question the potentially traumatic impact even of habits and institutions that we may have come to see as normal. Normal does not mean healthy or sustainable, and I believe there are many aspects of our most entrenched, fundamental assumptions about parenting, education and making a living that, in comparison to what serves our actual evolved human needs, are destructive.

Furthermore, we must be cognizant of the catch-22 whereby our very own traumas may create defenses that render us liable to overlook trauma’s role in personal and social issues. There are people in many fields ranging from medicine to mental health to sociology to activism working on addressing a wide range of issues of health and sustainability. While some of them are wisely focusing on root causes, others, often due to the blind spot caused by their own unconscious traumas and defenses, are focusing ineffectively, and with little consideration of strategy, on symptoms. Some, as I have discussed, are even using their activism as a form of projection, a defense in which they focus on external issues in order to avoid becoming aware of their own personal wounds. They may also, in their well-intentioned, but misguided, approach, display other defenses, ranging from fearful and security-focused to idealistic, magical thinking-laden extremes of personality.

In order to most effectively treat and prevent further trauma in our culture, I think it is important that people working in all of these fields gain an understanding of both the role of trauma in generating the conditions on which they focus and insight into how their own personal wounds and defenses may skew their perceptions. Only by remaining highly vigilant to the subtle signs of defenses and underlying trauma can we best direct our energies toward optimizing human systems at all levels.

Fields Involved in Healing and Breaking the Cycle of Trauma

There are members of many disciplines that play a role in intervening in our epidemic of trauma and its aftermath. Obviously, many of the disciplines that address physical trauma reside in the medical and public health fields. Several areas of the mental health field, as well as others, address psychological and emotional trauma and its results on the personal, family and social levels. And academics, practitioners and activists from a wide range of fields focus on the impact of trauma on the international level and on the community of life, our ecosystem and the planet as a whole.

Among these many fields, there are several that I have found most helpful that focus directly or indirectly on these issues. I believe that those informed by these disciplines are more likely to grasp the central role of trauma and defenses in generating the symptoms that they address, as well as to grasp the interconnectedness of its impact on various levels of human systems.
  • Internal Family Systems – This field applies Systems Thinking directly to the optimization of human systems at the individual, family, social and global levels. It explicitly recognizes the central role of trauma in forcing aspects of an affected system into extreme roles, and creating burdens that can freeze their development until we retrieve and unburden them. IFS gives the most detailed and precise explanations of the systemic configurations resulting from defenses that I have found, as well as offering very specific methods for healing those dysfunctional states to generate a healthier systemic arrangement.

  • Imago Relationship Therapy – Imago, especially in Keeping the Love You Find, precisely details archetypal forms of developmental trauma resulting from unmet needs at various stages of growth, and how they lead us to cut off parts of our personalities as we develop specific defensive configurations. It then explains how these defenses interact with the defenses of others to determine the nature of our relationships with caregivers, intimate partners and our children, as well as how to use new forms of communication and interaction to turn these relationships into sources of healing.

  • Inner Child Healing – Inner Child work focuses on techniques that help us access and mentally revisit the scene of past wounding experiences in order to re-script them and heal their effects.

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