Intergenerational Trauma

TrumpTrauma Part 2: Exploring the Psychology of the 2016 Election

In TrumpTrauma Part 1, I explored some of the foundations of the human experience in the USA today. The pre-existing conditions included a) our long history of violence, b) cultural/linguistic dissonance, c) technology, d) distrust, and e) preserving a positive self-image. Continuing with the exploration of the heightened state of fear in our country, Part 2 will expand on the psychology of fear, protection, and power.

In this post, I will briefly explain some Psychology 101 concepts, explore their application to our current circumstances, and offer some strategies to remedy some of our negative patterns.

Lessons from Psychology

There are many mechanisms at play regarding fear, survival, trauma, violence, and the protection of our ideals about ourselves and the world. Here are a few to consider:


Think back to the section on Preserving a Positive Self-Image in TrumpTrauma Part 1, and the commentary, "We are not better than this."

Those are painful things to hold, to feel, and to enact.
So take a couple deep breaths. Feel your feet on the ground. Notice the room around you. And do what you need to in order to take care of yourself through this content.
Psychologically, humans are experts at finding ways to reduce and suppress pain. We drink. We smoke. We play games. We have sex. We pray. And we engage psychological defense mechanisms. A primary defense mechanism is projection. How does projection function? In short, if it is too painful (or conflicting) to recognize and own my own potential for something (i.e. violence), I will project it onto others. Due to my inherent desire to not experience violence in myself, I will rapidly recognize violence in others and not hesitate criticize it. 

We, as a species, are exceptionally good at overlooking our own flaws and irately accusing others for the same flaws. It is the classic game of "the pot calling the kettle black." Unfortunately, these accusations often elicit additional defenses and heightened reactivity.

Remedy: Take ownership and responsibility. Every time you find yourself wanting to condemn, judge, and blame an individual or group for violence, for stupidity, for anything you loathe, pause, and genuinely explore those qualities in yourself. "I'm racist." "I'm violent." "I'm judgmental."
Too much?
Try: "I can be racist at times." "I have the potential for violence." "I tend to be judgmental."
Feeling overwhelmed? Shut down? 
Thinking of someone else and how much they need this feedback?
Feeling angry, escalated, defensive, and/or ready with "But..."?
Just notice how those are all ways to deflect and displace the pain of owning your own shortcomings. This is not about shaming you. This is not about self-flagellation. This is a practice of great compassion--being willing to look directly at the pain, own it, and continue to love yourself and others.
Want extra support in what this could look like? Listen to or read Andrea Gibson's poem "Evolution."


What about the psychology of aggression?
In 1961, Albert Bandura and some colleagues performed the famous Bobo Doll Experiment. Of the children participants, one group had an aggressive role model, one group had a non-aggressive role model, and one group did not have a role model. The children who witnessed aggressive adult behavior with the Bobo Doll were significantly more likely to demonstrate aggressive play than the other two groups. 

So what does this mean in the context of post-election behaviors? In short, as white children chant "Build the Wall" to Latino students, as rates of harassment skyrocket in schools, as fake deportation letters are handed to students, as rates of anti-Asian, anti-Black, anti-Disability, anti-Immigrant, anti-LGBT, anti-Muslim, and anti-Woman incidents spike, it appears that the mocking and derogatory language that Donald Trump used during the Presidential Campaign has turned into a nation-wide Bobo Doll Experiment. We are witnessing the power of Social Learning Theory--especially in schools. Teachers are reporting multiple incidents in which minority students are saying, "Bullying is okay now, because our President is a bully. Everyone is bullying me because I am _____ and there is nothing I can do about it." In cases in which teachers are attempting to interrupt bullying, students are vindictively responding, "Donald Trump said it, so I can, too!"

Remedy: Model how to take ownership and responsibility. 
Trump supporters, Conservatives, Republicans, and even Donald Trump himself can step in to apologize, to be accountable for distasteful words and actions, and to model how to repair relationships across differences. This takes more than looking into the camera and saying "Stop it!" on 60 minutes (although I do appreciate that). It requires the humility to voluntarily state, "I modeled this behavior. I (unintentionally) endorsed this behavior. I was wrong. I am sorry, and I want to do better and be better. My first step will be to _______."
Anti-Trump protestors, Liberals, Democrats, and even Hillary Clinton herself can step in to apologize, to be accountable for distasteful words and actions, and to model how to repair relationship across differences. Clinton started this process by apologizing for the name-calling (i.e. deplorables) that took place during the campaign period. 
(Note: while all people can demonstrate accountability and humility, the people who are in leadership positions and who have power have a more substantial impact in how they model behavior.)


Continuing with the psychology of violence, we must also keep in mind the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment from 1971. Even in this role-play scenario, people who were randomly selected as "prison guards" found themselves executing intimidation tactics, domineering attitudes, and violent actions towards "inmates." The experiment had to be cancelled due to the degree of psychological distress exhibited by the participants.

How does this relate to what we are seeing emerge across our nation? Ultimately, we are observing the dynamics of power. For example, people who look like Donald Trump (i.e. white men), especially if they agree with his words and actions, can experience a type of prison-guard syndrome--a propensity to feel insulted when their power is challenged (i.e. anti-Trump protests), and are likely to make an aggressive presence known (i.e. the KKK celebration parade in North Carolina; see hateful incidents linked above). We are reminded about how stepping into a system with an inherent power differential requires rules to maintain that system. If the rules are: some people get less food (and/or lower quality food), uncomfortable and/or unsafe living conditions, limited rights, limited medical care, etc., when those people request (or demand) something different--more rights and comfort, especially--what are the options for the people in power to do? If we review the experiment, initial requests were dismissed, and escalated responses elicited fear and control from those in power.

This experiment helps us remember that good people, average people, ordinary people are rapidly susceptible to enacting heightened violence in order to protect themselves (physically and psychologically) from the resistance that comes from oppression and from inhumane conditions. In the case of the Stanford Prison Experiment, "inmates" -- students who were accustomed to many freedoms and human rights -- struggled significantly with the experience of being in a cell without typical access to movement, to food, to socializing, to creativity, to meaningful use of time, etc. When their requests for those things were ignored or denied, they expressed their distress more intensely. The first response from the "prison guards" was to put the "inmates in their place"--to maintain the rules and the system at all costs.

Remedy: Get curious about the disparate conditions between "prison guard" and "inmate". When you feel like the protests or "uprisings" are personal, take a deep breath, and make an effort to listen open-heartedly. Perhaps it isn't personal. Get curious about how the psychological impacts of Toxic Stress interrupt communication skills, making requests for compassion sound more like insults. Get curious about how you would respond on the "other side." Ask yourself, is it possible to maintain order and justice without systemic rules that legitimize fear and oppression? If fear, discomfort, and feeling unsafe/unvalued are at the root of what people are resisting, get curious about your own role in creating a safer, more comfortable space.
Want to dig deeper into this dynamic? Check out the podcast by Reveal News: The man inside: Four months as a prison guard, and carefully follow the dynamics occurring at Standing Rock in the #NoDAPL protests (Indigenous Rising Media; Fargo Inforum; Bismarck Tribune).


As we learned from the Stanford Prison Experiment, there are times in which one group of people will express experiences of fear, discomfort, distrust, anger, and other uncomfortable emotions. We also can recognize that, if those are not your own experiences, it is a common reaction to respond to those claims with doubt, disbelief, and an impulse to justify or rationalize why they happened. 
Trayvon Martin was unarmed? He must have been a troubled kid.
Eric Garner was unarmed? He must have been a thug.
Brock Turner raped an unconscious woman? He must have been intoxicated...
Notice anything?
This might be a good opportunity to refer back to the earlier questions about your relationship with violence (TrumpTrauma Part 1). 

Privilege is thinking that something is not a problem because it is not a problem to you personally.
— Unknown

And a good opportunity to take another breath.

So what happens when someone's experience of pain (or marginalization) is not believed or understood? Or dismissed? Oftentimes, they try harder to be understood and heard. In that process, something fascinating happens--discomfort and pain increases for the other person. This phenomenon in the counseling world has many labels, and in the field of Contemplative Psychology field it is known as exchange. Exchange occurs when a therapist works with a client regularly, and starts to experience some of the same symptoms that the client experiences. For example, counselors working with clients with trauma and PTSD may start to demonstrate hypervigilance, difficulty sleeping, perseveration on the stories of the clients, and reactivity--all common symptoms of trauma survivors (even when the counselor has not had personal experience with trauma). In this case, this particular phenomenon is also known as vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue. Similarly, a therapist may experience depression symptoms (i.e. hopelessness) when working with clients with severe depression, or experience symptoms like paranoia while working with clients with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. This phenomena can happen on larger scales as well.
Example: When I, a hearing individual, was learning American Sign Language (ASL) and attended my first Deaf event, I remarked, "Wow. I am missing so much information! And I'm working so hard to keep up!" Deaf folks politely smiled and responded, "Now you know what my everyday experience is like around hearing people." Exchange.
Note: This is a common experience for hearing people who are learning ASL.
Example: When I, a white person, started to engage in conversations about race and received feedback about my mistakes, I felt judged and belittled--like my every move was being watched. When I shared that experience, I was offered compassion, grace, and a recognition that "People of color receive criticism for communicating, even in academic language, on a regular basis. As well as a nearly constant experience of being watched like a hawk." I noticed how my feelings would occur regardless of negative tone or presence of criticism, and have since witnessed others remark, "So I can't even open my mouth because I'm a white male!"  Exchange.
Note: This is a common experience for white people learning how to engage with racism.

Are you upset because you suddenly feel attacked? Like you're walking on eggshells? Like you're being marginalized? Like you're being told that you're hated for who you are? It is likely exchange.
Are you feeling fearful in the face of ISIS/ISIL and the Syrian refugee crisis? Imagine the immense fear that the refugees are facing. 

In the case of current-day U.S.A., people of various marginalized identities (and their allies) are taking to the streets, expressing their fear, their concern, their age-old exhaustion, their anger, and their grief, which includes intergenerational trauma. As protestors express that the vote for Trump/Pence is a personal threat to their safety and well-being-- and is a continuation of policies and legislation that marginalize them and their communities--many people are becoming upset. When experiencing an uncomfortable emotion that is not part of your everyday experience, it can be helpful to ask, "What happened before what happened, happened?" In other words, before you started to feel fearful (etc.), what happened? Your fear might not be yours alone.

Remedy: a) Learn about Trauma (stay tuned for TrumpTrauma Part 3).
b) When you feel pain in a new way, try to believe the pain that your counterpart is experiencing. Practice responding from compassion, rather than reacting from discomfort. 
c) Study historical contexts and relationships. Your current discomforts did not initiate with the current politics, protests, or circumstances. They stem from a long history of violence and pain between people. Due to the human tendency to project and displace pain, pain is ultimately distributed unequally--just as power and wealth are unequally distributed (because wealth and power have been employed as buffers from pain).
d) Practice deep listening. Underneath your discomfort, underneath the reactivity, can you hear the truth in what people are saying? Naturally, the people who have been carrying a disproportionate share of pain are trying to displace it and/or heal it. Protests are a brilliant attempt at doing that: Announcing, "I've been carrying immense pain and burden, this circumstance heightens it, and I am still here. I am still alive. I still matter."

You matter. You have value to add to the world. Even if you don't know what that is yet. Even if you're doubting it right now. You are still here. You matter. You matter. You matter.

Interpersonal trauma, historical trauma, and intergenerational trauma all influence our ability to respond to stress and injustice in a measured, relational way. Before we complain that our counterparts are "crybabies" or "wimps" for any reason, before we demand that people get "thicker skin" and more grit, it is crucial to understand the mechanisms of survival and trauma. Stay tuned for TrumpTrauma Part 3 for an in-depth exploration of trauma and fear on our brains, our development, our perception of the world, and our relationships.