About The Journal
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Vol. XVI, No.3 Spring, 2002
The Don't Rules in
Societal Trauma and Its Healing
The Nightmare Must End
Toward a New Palestinian Strategy
Is the 'War on Terrorism' Repeating Major
Errors of the 'Cold War'?
The "Don't Rules"
in Societal Trauma and Its Healing
by Darling G. Villena-Mata,
There is no such thing as post-trauma,
for it never stops for me or for anyone I know affected by racism. It
always is. --a gang wannabee,
The words 'discrimination' and 'racism' make the experience of
them sound like a set object, like a chair or sofa. It just is. But
using the word 'trauma' implies emotions, a process, and a possible
healing. --Chloe Mata
Although many conflict resolution models include human needs theory,
intercultural communications, narrative mediation, and transformative
mediation, the concept of societal traumas arising from "isms" (e.g.,
racism, sexism, classism) have not been included as a major player in
helping to dissolve conflict or addressing the health issues
experienced by those affected by "isms". Nor have societal traumas been
typically viewed as consequences of racist, sexist, and other "ist"
behaviors delivered by societal institutions and their practices in the
United States; although their impact in other countries is
acknowledged. Additionally, in the discussions of race relations and
diversity or intercultural understanding, the impact of physiological
and psychological trauma, which are created by discrimination and the
ongoing "triggers" due to isms are normally not included.
Trauma can be created out of the pain, fear, grief, and often ongoing
low level to medium stress of being on the receiving end of "isms".
Those who have been victims of hate crimes and any high stresses,
resulting from overt discrimination often do develop traumatic
responses. Adults and children alike, who are recipients of "isms", can
be traumatized and thereby can find themselves developing ongoing
trauma stress skills, as well as responding to physiological
responses--both which could be transmitted via generations if the
climate of societal traumas and their "triggers" persist throughout
This article is based on some of the elements discussed in the book, Walking
Between Winds: A Passage Through Societal Trauma and Its Healing,
which explores the impact societal trauma has on such areas such as
grief, trust, safety, biculturation, identity formation, meaning,
communication styles, revenge, and conflict resolution, as well as
avenues for healing. Societal trauma can be a major event or a series
of reinforcing events that prompt people to develop attitudes and
skills along safety lines, similar to what adult children of childhood
abuse have adopted in order to survive. Micro and macro implications of
trauma are addressed in an interdisciplinary context.
The Effects of the "Don't Rules" of Societal Trauma
The Don't Rules is one major area that I wish to address
in this article. These "rules" are often developed by adult children of
childhood abuse. Claudia Black, Janet Woititz, and other authors and
practitioners made this concept popular back in the 1980's. The Don't
Rules are "don't feel, don't trust, and don't talk." In other words, do
not feel your feelings, do not trust yourself (or others), and do not
talk about it-the problem-to others (especially to "them," the
abusers). These rules are familiar to those who have experienced
childhood abuse and other micro traumas.
Many people who are recipients of racism or sexism -- or any kind of
"ism"-- develop this set of "rules" as well toward the perceived
abusing group. In this case, the perceived abuser may be the dominant
group. The dominant group can be defined along racial or ethnic lines.
In the United States, the abuser group could be perceived as the
European-Americans, or "Whites" as called by American Indians (also
known as First Nations people) and by African Americans; or "Anglos" as
called by Hispanics (also known as Latinos). In the case of gays and
lesbians, the abuser group could be perceived as heterosexuals,
especially because there are still many societal institutions and laws,
which do not protect gays and lesbians. The dominant group may be
defined along gender, class, or religious lines as well.
As a member of abused groups, the person learns that he or she cannot
automatically trust a person of a perceived abuser group. Instead, the
members of the perceived abuser group will have to "earn and
demonstrate trust" to the abused group and its members. As part of the
healing from societal trauma, the abused group and their members would
eventually need to experience (the perceived abuser) person as an
individual and not a representative of a group that has harmed them.
Based on the amount and intensity of the exposure to the members of the
perceived abuser group, the abused group may act and communicate in a
way that revolves around safety considerations, which, of course,
affects the level of intimacy and effective communication. If safety is
paramount in the interactions, then healing will be impacted in a
negative way, as intimacy and trust would be slow in being embraced. If
societal traumas are multigenerational and intergenerational, the Don't
Rules become part of the communication styles between groups,
needing "interpreters" to truly understand what is being stated and
what is said as means to prevent retaliation or attacks.
Don't Rules can be applied to women who have been
discriminated and who have had negative interactions with men. In this
case, men would be perceived as the abuser group, until the men in
question could prove to the woman that they could be trusted and are
"safe". To the degree to which these Rules are used is based on the
severity and duration of discrimination experienced by the person. It
does not matter whether the discrimination had been due to racism,
sexism, classism, anti-specific religion or spirituality, or
heterosexism. These Rules are used if there is a perceived threat
coming from the perceived abuser group.
Any non-dominant group that perceives itself abused will have developed
the Don't Rules. Members of discriminated groups learn to prioritize
which incident really matters enough to feel an emotion about it--let
alone say anything about it.
If societal traumas are intergenerational
and pervasive, and if there have been activities of revenge/social
justice retaliations by all parties concerned, then every party
affected will perceive themselves as the abused, and the "other" as the
abuser group. If societal traumas continue for generations, the
memories will be focused on the unresolved "justice", the chronic
grief, and instances of betrayals by the "other group". Third parties
who wish to mediate differences or conflict between abused and abuser
groups will do well to understand the concepts of the Don't Rules and
societal trauma vis-a-vis "isms" if successful long-term resolution is
Regardless if the abuse is actual or perceived, the fact that it is
held as true and acted accordingly by the perceived abused group should
be sufficient basis for a perceived neutral third party or intermediary
to approach the conflicts from a power and non-power perspective, not
as parties equal in power. Furthermore, if societal trauma, resulting
from the society's "isms", is indeed addressed as one of the major
foundations for ongoing conflict and reactions to societal "triggers",
then avenues for healing must also be included in any conflict
Consequently, physiological considerations of traumas need to be
addressed. People who are traumatized are in a state of short-term
thinking, are safety-oriented, and in a "fight, flight, freeze" immune
system reaction to their surrounding environment as well as to their
internal body environment. Prolonged heightened alert by the immune
systems invite health problems and challenges. Health issues will creep
up and become frequent visitors in the affected lives. From low level
stress to high alert alarm and action, the body will find itself
lacking rest and relaxation.
Chronic grief will impact the human body's systems, such as the
lymphatic. The inability to simply "be", breathe, and to let go may be
seen as dangerous or monumental tasks for a person whose life has
become defined by "doingness" in order to stay safe and maintain
approval. When the body finds itself being threatened, humiliated,
disrespected, and in a state of loss, the person will learn which of
these stressful actions are to be responded and which ones are to be
gulped, swallowed, and stored in the body.
However, there are people who do not take in the energies of "isms" and
thereby, do not create traumatic responses within their bodies or
actions. There are a variety of indigenous and new western healing
tools, including BienEducada work, narrative/storytelling work,
faith/spiritual redevelopment, identity work, dreamwork, somatic and
energy modalities, SomatoEmotional Release, and Somasensing which
assist the person and the groups affected to release traumatic energies
and create new perceptions which the body will follow, while
maintaining appropriate vigilance for the ongoing "isms" of society.
These same tools can also be used to deal with societal traumas induced
by "isms". Funding for healing at the community level as well as the
individual levels should be included in any agreements between the
parties. Mediation can only go so far in opening the doors to dialogue.
Conflict resolution must also address the aftermath of trauma in the
kinds of conflicts the world is now facing.
One must also keep in mind that cognitive skills and assessments are
based on safety factors as well as physiological considerations. To
expect members and leaders of abused groups to not be affected by
trauma considerations is folly and dangerous, especially if we are
relying on them to develop policies, practices, and community
implementation that are fair to all societal groups concerned.
Cognition and leadership skills can only be as effective as the overall
health of the individuals involved.
The Rules serve to compartmentalize and prioritize one's lives. But at
what cost? Depending on how severe the threat is, imagination and
creativity are used to develop ways to avoid the abuser's attention, as
well as ways to maneuver and manipulate within the abusive environment,
so that basic needs are met, be it according to the norms set by
society or not. The person learns to "work the system".
While most survivors and recipients of trauma (be it micro or macro)
develop skills and strategies to keep them safe, there are some who
will see their ongoing lives as lacking personal meaning and safety (be
it physical, spiritual, or psychological). To those who feel that they
have nothing to lose because normal channels of being heard and feeling
that they matter are closed to them (be it actual or perceived), they
may involved themselves in 'scapegoat' behaviors or 'problem' behaviors
(to the society at large). If we are to totally heal from societal
trauma, healing will have to be addressed at both the micro and macro
levels: through our selves, our groups, our communities, and society in
While this article focuses on a few similarities between micro and
macro abuse, other elements must be included if healing is to occur,
such as physiological changes due to "fight, flight, freeze" reactions,
transgenerational passages of those reactions; identity formation
centered around the societal traumas; transgenerational revenge which
is fed by ongoing "triggers" of "isms"; pride and grief's impact on
communication; grief and loss attachment; and coping skills developed
due to the traumas, as well as healing modalities which include
indigenous methods of the parties concerned. The kinds of conflict that
the world is facing warrants a more wholistic and interdisciplinary
approach in the resolution of current conflicts and foundations of
healing to prevent future conflicts from occurring.
(For more information, read Walking Between Winds: A Passage
Through Societal Trauma and Its Healing. You may also contact the
author, Dr. Darling Villena-Mata for consultation, training, and
presentations at email@example.com or at leave a message at
310.474.7627, Los Angeles, California, United States.)
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