Injustice Trauma: Individual and Collective Distress
Why you matter as a pathway for healing.
Posted Jun 28, 2020
I propose that injustice trauma is a specific type of experience that occurs when other people make decisions and do actions that unfairly impact others. Similar to betrayal trauma (see Freyd, 2018), injustice trauma may be inflicted by individuals or institutions. While betrayal trauma is associated with broken trust (when people or institutions on which a person depends, significantly violate that person’s trust or well-being), injustice trauma can shatter a sense of morality and belief in a just-world (See Janoff-Bulman, 1992).
Injustice can manifest when people are mistreated, judged, blamed, humiliated, or neglected, or feeling unfairly blocked from resources, opportunities, or career advancement. Injustice also occurs when people are targeted for their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or other outward characteristic. Why should innocent people suffer inequities, undeserved treatment, and hate crimes? It is not fair, and it is not right. I propose that injustice becomes a trauma when either the magnitude or accumulative experiences exceeds the capacity to cope. Injustice trauma can lead to life-changes including alterations to one’s self-concept and perceived attachment with others and the world.
Sexual trauma by its very nature is an injustice trauma. It is a violation of someone’s rights, and of someone’s body. It can be associated with layers of injustice in the aftermath of the trauma (e.g., how the event was handled by individuals and institutions, negative reactions or lack of support from others, and on-going consequences). It is highly unjust that an event of long ago continues to interfere with one’s life. It is unjust that other crimes are adjudicated and shared, while sexual trauma is hushed in silence and shame. It is certainly unfair to blame the one who got hurt. These injustices make you feel like you don’t matter.
Feeling like you don’t matter is an accurate result of sexual trauma. Because to whomever assaulted you, in that moment, your well-being did not matter. Sexual assault is the ultimate way to say to someone that you don’t matter. Your will, your body, your humanity is painfully crushed while someone else dominates. It is purposeful and deliberate.
This sense of disconnection is echoed in all forms of abuse whether sexual, physical, or emotional; from verbal slights to systematic and institutionalized practices that convey the message that you don’t matter—because of your skin color, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or anything else about you (age, size, ability, etc.). Anything that defines you as “other,” or “different” and then judging that the difference is somehow less valuable, less desirable, and less than—who? Whomever is in power and wants to be the leader? It is not right, not fair, and entirely inaccurate.
Experiences of injustice can accumulate. There becomes a tipping point when accumulated injustice overwhelms one’s resources to handle or ability to accommodate it. Instead, a deep sense of injustice lodges into a person and becomes internalized. People come to expect being hurt again. They may hide or avoid others, or wear a coat of emotional armor for protection when out in public. They assume they will be met with discrimination, harassment, and abuse, and then anticipate, defend, act, and react accordingly.
Injustice feels different in the body than other qualities of traumas such as the component of fear. Injustice may feel heavy, constricted, like you want to break free and scream or cry. It sits on your chest and clenches your throat. It is understandable why people want to protest, as they are crying out because of an injustice and a long history of accumulated injustices. These are cries of anger, grief, and helplessness, and a passionate desire for change.
People ask me if it is okay to cry, as if crying would be somehow symptomatic or pathological. In fact, crying is a healthy, natural, biological reaction to release the emotions of grief, anger, and helplessness. It is appropriate to cry. Injustice is stifling and it hurts. We need people to acknowledge the injustice, grieve, cry, and self-express in safe ways.
Mobilize these emotions as powerful motivators for change. One pathway is to make alliances with others who have experienced the same. And when you are ready, make alliances with others who have not experienced the same. Injustice is a collective issue. It is a human being issue. Inequities hurt everyone — the individual and the collective.
When we discriminate, dominate, or shut down someone or a group of people, not only is this immoral and a violation of human rights, but society misses out on vital voices and perspectives. We need diversity for a healthy balance. While absolutely true that those who are dominating are without a doubt benefiting, but it is short-sighted, not just from a moral perspective, but from an evolutionary and ecological perspective.
Looking to the wisdom of nature for guidance, we can see that diversity is essential to the harmony and balance of an ecosystem. When one species is harmed or suppressed, it throws the balance off and creates poor conditions for other species including the ones that become dominant. The damage infiltrates the entire food chain. This can threaten the survival of the ecosystem and may lead to species extinction. Nature works because everything is a dynamic contribution to the life-sustaining system. Biodiversity has inherent checks and balances. The more diverse, the more stable an ecosystem (see Biggest Little Farm, 2018).
Biodiversity is our nature. Hurting one group or one person hurts us all. Each life matters because we are all connected and interconnected. There is nothing like this current pandemic to show us how quickly things can spread, globally.
I contend, that it is our similarities that bind us close, but it is our differences that will ultimately sustain us. We need diverse leadership, diverse models of education, diverse communities, and diverse thinking. Diversity enhances creativity. When I was an undergraduate student at University of California, Berkeley, I was a volunteer research assistant for Professor Charlene Nemeth. I worked on a study that supported the idea that an opposite point of view enhanced creativity (see Nemeth, 2018). Nemeth’s work has shown the power of dissent is critical in avoiding groupthink (a form of group agreement where people can end up making poor decisions). Diverse points of view enhance creativity and promote innovation.
Feeling traumatized by injustice is real. Your reactions are valid. Acknowledge them, and then release them. Free yourself of the hooks of bitterness and resentment and take a stand for how you want to live your life. You do matter, very, very much. Please participate in your life. We need your unique voice, opinions, and point of view. We need your unique laughter, quirky style, and sense of humor. We need your understanding of pain and love. I invite you to share, engage, listen, honor, include, explore, learn, and embrace. You are valued. Similarly, find the unique value in others. Know that the sum of all of your particular life experiences adds to the natural wonderful diversity of us all.
Chester, J & Chester, M. (2018). The biggest little farm. An American documentary film
Freyd, J. J. (1996). Betrayal trauma: The logic of for-getting childhood abuse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Janoff-Bulman, R. (1992). Shattered Assumptions: Towards a New Psychology of Trauma. Free Press.
Nemeth, C. J. (2018). In Defense of Troublemakers: The power of dissent in life and business. New York: Basic Books