Friday, October 21, 2011
Trauma and Resiliency, Responsibility, and Agency...What a Boring Title!
The following is an excerpt from an unpublished paper I wrote on psychological resiliency after enduring a difficult or traumatic event. I would love to hear anyone's thoughts
Focus on responsibility and agency.
Several clients come into our offices talking about their individual traumas and how they have made things difficult for them. They also talk about how it has affected their relationship with the perpetrator(s), other close people, the community, and God. Many of them have guilt and blame themselves and/or hold severe grudges and harbor anger and hate towards the perpetrators. At times they question why life has been more difficult for them than for others and how they were dealt such a poor hand. The following is going to be more of an explanation based on psychology and spirituality in hopes to answer some of the questions.
Traumatized clients’ relationships change and function on a level that deviates from the norm. Much of that is due to the trust that has been broken time and time again. In Maslow’s heirarchy of needs, their level of safety, love, and esteem have not been established or maintained. Therefore, their ability to self-actualize (Maslow’s hierarchy) is not possible. The only level that is actually, at times, maintained is their physiological needs (i.e. food, water, shelter, etc.), though that can be in question with neglected children/childhood as well. On the level of safety, an individual must feel comfortable and secure in their environment with minimal attack on their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual self. If attacked, their capacity for moving to the higher hierarchical needs is diminished. They may struggle with giving and receiving love or having esteem for themselves and others. Thus, can be a large factor with esteem. When a client has been traumatized time and time again they begin to lose trust with initially the perpetrator, and then it can spread to others who are close to them, the community, and to God (depending on their beliefs). Recently, a client (whose name we’ll call Matthew) disclosed horrific traumas from his childhood. Much of it involved abuse and neglect from his family and a large part involved a neighbor who befriended then molested him time and time again. He did not trust his family for help so endured the continued abuse. He described other economic difficulties, physical health problems, and general loneliness. He asked why it is that he was given a difficult life. He felt that it must have been something he did to deserve the pain and suffering without much respite. To try to escape the pain he had attempted suicide many times, though without success. When asking why he had to suffer I explained something to him, that I hope will help others. First and foremost, everyone has the right to act (free will). Anyone can do what they want. Whether they are conscious of the results depends on each individual. Some people, however, have made the choices to act against others in a way that is harmful, degrading, and usually self-serving. Such acts can be considered abusive, because it is in an attempt to remove or negate another’s free will and control them or change their acts. Such self-serving acts do not serve the victim (the receiver of the self-serving acts) in any positive ways. It can change the victim’s life perspective (specifically on relationships) and attacks their general need for safety (Maslow’s hierarchy). Therefore, the abuser (the one who acts self-servingly) is responsible for their acts and how it affected the victim. Responsibility lies solely with them and none other, especially the victim. Therefore, the victim is not the guilty party. The guilty party in the technical sense is only the abuser. Guilty signifies “1 : justly chargeable with or responsible for a usually grave breach of conduct or a crime. 2 obsolete : justly liable to or deserving of a penalty” according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. Therefore, it is not possible for the victim to be guilty for the self-serving act when they were the individual being acted upon rather than acting. Matthew blamed himself as that was the only logical reason he could come up with. Why else would it happen if there wasn’t something so terribly wrong with him or his character–something innate that called to abusers “Here I am! Hurt me! That’s what I’m here for!” The truth of the matter is that each person can act in whichever way that they please, selflessly or selfishly.
That brings us to the next point that Matthew brought up, which is also a point other clients have made regarding God. If God was a merciful and a just God, how is it that he could let such terrible things happen to undeserving people and let the abusers go unpunished? At that point one can revert back to free will. If free will is truly something that exists, an ability given to all to act; and God is God–all powerful and all knowing with the ability to do what He wants, would he not allow the individual to exercise their free will “according to the dictates of their own conscience?” Any other way would be tyrannical, dictatorial and contraindicative of what free will is.
The power of free will is that many can exercise it in a way achieve Maslow’s highest achievement which is self-actualization. In spite of the difficulties one has faced, or the traumas caused, one can utilize and strengthen their ability to act to achieve safety and overcome the trauma–thus developing resiliency.
There are no guarantees with behavior, thoughts, or emotions. There can be guarantees with action due to agency and responsibility.