The myth of survivor solidarity: Why it’s so hard for us to all just get along

As a Weinstein survivor, I’ve noticed that journalists love to explore the presumed solidarity among “sister survivors” – in our case, the over 100 women who came forward about Weinstein’s sexual predation. But what journalists don’t write about are the challenges in preventing any group of trauma survivors from imploding. Only when we survivors understand the impact of trauma can we overcome the underlying forces that threaten to pull us apart and stand together against injustice and abuse.
 
Journalists often look for a “feel good” element to a story, particularly when reporting on distressing subjects. It makes sense. Why not try for a little positivity when there is enough bad news nowadays to sink us into overwhelming despair? As a Weinstein survivor, I’ve noticed that one positive spin journalists love to explore is a presumed solidarity among “sister survivors” – in our case, over 100 women who came forward publicly to recount our personal experience of Weinstein’s long reign of sexual predation.

Trauma, anger
Trauma, anger. Photo @Melanie Wasser for Unsplash.

Solidarity among survivors is a value I happily embraced, the idea of us coming together to support each other as more and more victims of high-profile abusers courageously stepped forward to join the ranks of those who cried, “Me too!” For my part, I have spent the last four years talking with survivors and connecting individuals to create a network of mutual support. It felt like an act of sedition in the face of powerful men and an at-times indifferent establishment. Still, I should have known that this camaraderie would develop stress points and, in some cases, fall apart. Interpersonal trauma in particular often results in a distrust of other people and a host of other protective responses that work against cohesiveness. In the refreshingly honest words of one interviewee in an article about community trauma: “…traumatized people interacting with other traumatized people – a community can really run the risk of imploding” (1).

To get to the root of what may seem like self-destructive behavior on the part of survivors, we have to understand the impact of trauma on the body. The physical adaptations that happen in response to trauma and that are designed to protect us from further danger may later prove counterproductive when we are no longer under threat. In particular, they can scupper our best attempts to connect with other people, which in turn deprives us of oxytocin (the “love hormone”) and its calming effect on the sympathetic nervous system, the mediator of the fight-or-flight response. A more in-depth explanation can be found in “Trauma Responses”, a new online course I have developed for Echo, the nonprofit I run.

Here are a few of the most important psychological and physical responses to trauma that help to explain why survivor solidarity is something we aspire to but find so hard to achieve.

  • Emotional dysregulation. Trauma survivors may be quick to anger and quick to take offense. The fear center of the brain (the amygdala) becomes more reactive in response to trauma. We often see danger or insult where there isn’t any because the amygdala doesn’t want to take any chances. “Better safe than sorry” could be the amygdala’s motto. Also, the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that is responsible for emotional regulation – is supposed to be the boss and override the amygdala. Yet an over-reactive amygdala may “hijack” the brain and make the pre-frontal cortex less effective (2). Hence, we get scared or angry, and the amygdala runs with it, potentially alienating our friends and the people who could help us.
  • Dichotomous or “black-and-white” thinking. When you show images of neutral faces to children who have experienced trauma (3), they will usually conclude that the faces are angry. This is because the amygdala is again running the show and, in the absence of information, will assume danger. The lack of tolerance for ambiguity means that the amygdala is always trying to classify a person or situation as “safe” or “dangerous,” “friendly” or “hostile.” Even a small anomaly in the behavior of a previously trusted person may cause the trauma survivor to re-evaluate and conclude that their ally has turned on them. Hence it is not unusual for trauma survivor communities to suffer from constantly shifting allegiances, with a dizzying dissolving and redrawing of enemy lines.
  • Enemy images. The propensity of the over-active amygdala to classify a person, or a whole group of people, as “the enemy” simplifies the world in a way that satisfies the fear-driven brain. The unfortunate effect in creating an “other” is that it becomes easier to dismiss their humanity and interpret everything they do as evil (4). No mistakes, misguided good intentions, inherent limitations, or our own possible misinterpretation of events can exist in this polarized view of other people. When the fear-driven brain is in control, our higher brain – the emotional and thinking parts of the brain – is offline. We have lost our ability to be fully human. Clearly, the fear-driven brain explains every war ever fought and every atrocity ever committed by humankind. But it also explains why we as survivors sometimes hold onto our resentment of others and hesitate to repair relationships or give one another the benefit of the doubt.
  • Empty frame of aggression. When we cannot confront the real perpetrator because, for example, they are too powerful (or dead), we carry around what Georgian psychologist Darejan Javakhishvili calls an empty frame of aggression (5): The rage we may feel toward our abuser is discharged by transferring our anger onto the nearest available object, similar to grounding static electricity. This concept has helped me understand why someone the survivor perceives as having disappointed them can provoke as much outrage in them as the perpetrator themselves. When coupled with the emotional dysregulation I mentioned above, the survivor can become consumed with a displaced fury. One survivor told me her post-traumatic stress made her feel as if she were running around with her hair on fire. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the people who surround survivors – especially if found wearing the empty frame of aggression – will occasionally feel the heat.

Survivor solidarity is a tall order because you’re asking people who’ve been harmed in interpersonal relationships to trust interpersonal relationships. When we do manage to overcome the challenges to connection that spring from our shared trauma history, the resulting camaraderie is as heart-warming and inspiring as any journalist’s best hopes for a redemptive storyline. The Weinstein survivors will be there in force to support those testifying at the Los Angeles trial. I am lucky enough to count many other trauma survivors – their abusers well-known or not – as friends and fellow activists. I regularly receive messages from whistleblowers and silence breakers who reach out for support as they courageously step forward into the public arena. The network of survivors and helpers remains strong and active, and I am humbled by the willingness of these individuals to work without pay or recognition to help people in need.

By gaining an increased awareness of the impact of trauma and by practicing emotional regulation skills, we can overcome our conditioned responses to trauma and choose compassion for ourselves and others. When that happens, we are an unstoppable force, as resolute and as sure in our aim as the love that propels us. And that should make the abusers and their enablers really nervous.

References:

  1. Pinderhughes, H. et al., “Adverse Community Experiences and Resilience: A Framework for Addressing and Preventing Community Trauma”, 2015.
  2. Goleman, D., “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ”, 1995.
  3. Gibb, B. et al., “Reported History of Childhood Abuse and Young Adults’ Information-Processing Biases for Facial Displays of Emotion”, Child Maltreatment, 2009.
  4. Rosenberg, M., “Speak Peace in a World of Conflict”, 2005.
  5. Javakhishvili, D. et al., “Trauma and Psychosocial Assistance”, 2001.

Louise Godbold is the executive director of Echo, a nonprofit providing training on trauma and resilience to survivors and service professionals. As one of the #MeToo silence breakers, Louise has given TV and press interviews internationally on the subject of trauma and sexual violence. She has written for The Smithsonian Magazine, Pacific Standard, Slate, The Wrap, and The Imprint. This essay first appeared in Culturico on January 10, 2022.

6 responses

  1. Pingback: This Week’s [pretty Catholic] Trauma Survivor Resource Roundup | Erin McCole Cupp

  2. Your thoughts are profound and spot on.
    When I wrote the first paper on PTSD in 1980 I called it the Public Health Legacy of Vietnam in Appalachian Combat Veterans.
    “Divorce, substance use, problems with the law, sleep difficulties, and thoughts of suicide…”
    Your recognition of amygdala driven neurobehavior explains why we were all suffering the neurobehaviors and why our relationships were so difficult.
    Thank you for your keen insight and reminder.
    You are a miracle and blessing.
    Daniel Sumrok MD DFASAM FAAFP ABPM ABAM.

    Like

  3. This is a profound insight in my opinion. I could relate to everything. It’s so easy to just write someone off or not trust them because I don’t wanna be hurt again. Thank you so much for this article and I am sharing it with everyone I think could benefit from it.

    Like

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