Trauma and the Role of Community
Trauma can be defined as an event or events that when witnessed or experienced evoke horror, hopelessness and fear of imminent bodily harm and/or death. These events include circumstances such as: sexual assault, domestic violence, war, torture, and child abuse.
A traumatized person experiences many aspects of profound harm, but perhaps the most damaging is a deeply wounded sense of belonging. In trauma, our world becomes a fundamentally unsafe place, our faith in the goodness of others and belief in ourselves shattered by an event that changes everything.
Often compounded by a deep sense of shame, we avoid connection and suffer from relational problems. Nothing and no one feels safe anymore. We are desperate to be seen and validated and at the same time terrified of by the prospect of being exposed in our vulnerability. When the person has also enacted harm related to their trauma, it compounds their shame and self-loathing. Trauma leaves a peculiar type of visceral impression on its victim – a type of wordless terror that exists perpetually in present time, as though the event is happening over and over and any reminder of its details trigger a sense of impending doom. In order to manage the symptoms of flashbacks and anxiety, survivors often engage in extreme avoidance of anyone or anything that might cause such a reaction. Their world suddenly becomes very small and deeply lonely.
When the crisis is sexual trauma or domestic violence, there are often cultural narratives that increase a fear of judgement should the terrible secret be exposed, family loyalties may lead to victim blaming or abandonment further traumatizing the survivor. These dynamics can drive them further into self-inflicted isolation, self-harm and addictive patterns that reinforce the belief that their humanity has been irreparably lost.
In order to begin working to heal trauma, we must understand that it exists in a social context.
“Trauma shatters the construction of the self that is formed and sustained in relation to others. It undermines the belief systems that give meaning to human experience. It violates the victim’s faith in a natural or divine order and cast the victim into a state of existential crisis” (Herman, 1992). The sense of self can only be rebuilt through healing the separation that is felt between the survivor and their perception of the world. The fear of judgement, the shame and secrecy of trauma silences its victims.
Healing comes through finding our voice, sharing our story and being truly seen and heard by a supportive community.
Belonging is a core human need and healing it takes time and deep soul work. It means that we must be willing to believe in our own worthiness and allow others to see us, our imperfections and our mistakes. “When we hide the parts of ourselves that we feel ashamed of or believe aren’t good enough, we spend our lives outside our own story and hustle for our worthiness by constantly performing, perfecting, pleasing and proving, and it distances us from experiencing actual acceptance and belonging” (Brown, 2010).
For many years, I have walked beside survivors of trauma and been a part of their healing journeys. What I have seen time and time again is there is nothing more restorative than participation in community. The first time a survivor participates in a circle or support group, even if they don’t say a word, they see the number of people sitting around the room, and it reinforces a visual message of “I am not alone”, “It’s not Just Me.” As they hear the stories of others, they respond with empathy and validation, and holding others in non-judgement, allows them to begin to apply that lens to themselves. Compassion breeds self-compassion. In togetherness, we heal.
Brown, Brene (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection. New York: Hazeldon Inc.
Herman, Judith (1992) Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books Inc.
Sunna Murphy, H.B.A., M.S.W., R.S.W.
Sunna is a licensed clinical social work who specializes in the areas of trauma treatment, vicarious trauma, sexual abuse and domestic violence, and borderline personality disorder. She is the owner of Sanctuary Counselling and Training, a private practice in Kitchener Ontario. She has over 10 years of experience working with diverse clients and communities on issues related to trauma, sexuality, gender, race, disability and equity. Sunna is passionate about helping people find their authentic voice and using creative pathways to healing. She is an eclectic practitioner that blends psychodynamic therapy, art based methods, narrative therapy, healing circle practice and dialectical behavioural therapy. For more information please visit: www.sanctuarycounsellingandtraining.ca