Are We Appropriating Other’s Trauma Instead of Addressing Our Own?

I’m posing the question because I have a genuine curiosity about this.

Since my PTSD diagnosis nearly four years ago, I’ve taken the path of healing. It’s been hard, I’ve needed help, and I am still untangling the effects of trauma on my brain and body. When I was diagnosed, I not only didn’t know anything about PTSD, I didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about the process I would have to go through to heal and begin to restore my health. The information I didn’t have for the two years before I was diagnosed did a lot of damage, and even now I find it really hard to focus on the work to heal rather than get caught up in helping everyone else.

Another thought, related to that…

I work a lot in narratives and with historic places. Sometimes I research historic properties to understand how they came to their current condition so that I have a better set of information from which to make recommendations. I sometimes speak on the history of places, and I find that, in generational terms, Baby Boomers have much greater interest in what I am saying than do Millennials. It’s not that Millennials don’t care about history, it’s that they have such a different relationship to “history” that previous generations, I think.

The mid-century propaganda battles of US v. USSR and the narratives of those times, plus the physical and psychological tolls of a century of war on the international stage and the complete lack of information we had on the reality of trauma have made for certain narratives and nostalgia for some generations of Americans. For other and newer generations the narratives have changed drastically as young people have watched the cultural, religious and governmental institutions held up for so long crumble in front of them. History is part of the wreckage as unacknowledged narratives are finding voice and the narratives that have been dominant for so long are being challenged and obliterated. It’s no wonder that young people have such a difficult relationship with notions of history. There is no longer stability in the narratives, and there is a lot of trauma.

When I was sitting in a presentation last week, listening to disruptive attendees and wondering what would cause someone to behave this way toward a person who speaking in support of the ideals they were snapping their fingers to represent, it struck me that it might be possible that the disrupters, who referenced supporting, demonstrating and protesting on behalf of groups needing a voice, may be living with the effects of trauma themselves, and rather than finding a way to tolerate the pain within themselves, were fighting against intolerance toward and pain within others.

Because this is something I can understand. I don’t think it is positioned to achieve great outcomes, and I don’t think it contributes to better mental health outcomes, but I can understand that if you cannot address your own trauma, you may find relief in addressing the trauma experienced by others. Appropriating trauma, if you will, because it is more tolerable than your own. If you don’t have the information and resources to identify and manage your own experience with trauma, you may be looking for agency, which you might feel you have on behalf of groups that lack voice for themselves when your own group of origin has more privilege.

This week I am having to face up to helping so many other people before helping myself. And not that we shouldn’t help others, I have a strong ethic of service to others and it brings me joy to help out. But I have been and continue to do that to the detriment of my own well-being, the depletion of my own resources, and the breakdown of my own mental health. That ultimately doesn’t serve anyone, especially myself, and the behaviors and patterns that I have from not being able to establish boundaries and identify causes of distress post-trauma make it that much more important to address my own so that I am able to effectively participate in larger efforts of reconciliation and healing.

woman holding we don t have time signage
Photo by Markus Spiske on

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