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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, Ph.D.

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, Sacramento, California

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 time.

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 wanted.

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 resolution.

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 general.

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 or at leave a message at 310.474.7627, Los Angeles, California, United States.)

Partial References

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