Interacting with traumatised individuals by @psycho_claire

This is the fifth post in a 6 part series on feminism and disablism written by The Psychology Supercomputer for A Room of our Own

In this fifth post (1,2,3,4 here) in the series prompted by a discussion of the Telegraph’s “Is modern feminism depressing” web chat I want to discuss how the prevalence of survivors within the feminist movement can impact on our communication. I will also discuss the idea of Societal Stockholm syndrome and hopefully, we can begin to see that we all need to be gentle with each other. Trauma impacts us in many ways and an ignorance of its effects is a further example of disablism in mainstream feminism.

I have a feeling that the majority of feminists are survivors; whether that be of DVA or sexual violence. I think women who have been harmed by male violence are drawn to feminism, because it helps us to heal (there’s a whole other post here). What this means is that when we interact with other feminists it is highly likely that we are interacting with women who are dealing with the effects of significant trauma. And this can and does have a massive impact on the way we respond to one another.

I’m going to use myself as an example to highlight what I mean: I’m a survivor of (amongst other things) significant psychological and emotional abuse. Despite many years and a lot of healing since escaping, this still profoundly affects my interactions with other people. I am EXTREMELY sensitive to “mind games” and “emotional blackmail”. If I perceive any hint of them, I shut down. I pull away. I lose all ability to interact rationally. All of the self preservation and survival tactics I learned come into play. I can’t continue to interact with someone in this state. Now, this is all well and good when someone is actually trying to use manipulative tactics on me, but there are times when I’ve perceived this behaviour and I’ve been wrong; specifically in interactions with other trauma survivors with different coping mechanisms and triggers. (I’m no expert on PTSD and so I’m not going to comment on dealing with the consequences of that. But what I will say is that we should all take responsibility for caring for each other).

A concept I am familiar with, and one that speaks to me as a survivor, is that of Stockholm syndrome. I can identify the patterns of behaviour in myself, I can see the effects in my interactions and I can see how we could extend the idea to cover all women. Stockholm syndrome is the name given to the phenomenon of hostages bonding with their captors. It was named thus after a bank robbery in Stockholm where the hostages came to sympathise with the bank robbers. I first came across Stockholm syndrome theory as a Psychology undergrad but it was presented as something which occurred in hostage taking situations and kidnappings; so I didn’t make the connection to my experiences of domestic abuse. At least, not until I began reading “Loving to Survive” by Dee Graham (available at www.radfem.org as a free PDF download).* The initial couple of chapters of this book have given me greater insight into myself and a greater understanding of how things can go so horribly wrong in interactions between survivors. So I’m going to break down some of the main points:

 

In order for Stockholm syndrome to develop four conditions need to be in place:

“1. Percieved threat to survival and the belief that one’s captor is willing to carry out that threat

2. the captive’s perception of some small kindness from the captor within a context of terror

3. isolation from perspectives other than those of the captor

4. perceived inability to escape” 1

There are a couple of important points to note here, firstly the threat to survival doesn’t necessarily refer to physical survival (though it often can) it also refers to the threat to Psychological survival i.e. a threat to one’s sense of self. Secondly, the act of kindness can be simply not abusing the victim at one particular time, or giving the victim a small gift or saying sorry. Finally, the inability to escape is not about a physical inability necessarily; it is about the victim’s perception (not that of an outsider) of the feasibility of escape and the costs of an attempt to escape. With these caveats in place it becomes clear how well these conditions are met for women coping with male violence. DVA survivors should immediately identify these conditions as present within their experience, I know I did.

So what does this mean for interactions with others then? Well, in order to cope with the situation presented by the conditions above the individual in whom Stockholm syndrome arises develops a number of cognitive distortions and coping strategies:

“Graham and Rawlings (1991) theorised that prolonged exposure to the four Stockholm syndrome precursors would cause victims to generalise abuser/victim (or captor/captive) psychodynamics to their relations with others. They identified four principal long-range outcomes of prolonged Stockholm syndrome: (1) splitting; (2) intense push-pull dynamics in relationships with others; (3) displaced anger; and (4) lack of sense of self except as experienced through the eyes of the abuser.”2

For our interactions as survivors two of these four factors are particularly important – Push-pull dynamics and displaced anger. Push-pull dynamics refers initially to the relationship with the abuser; such that the victimised individual will push away from the abuser, whilst at the same time their survival depends on bonding with the abuser so they are pulled towards them. Prolonged exposure to Stockholm syndrome causes this pattern of interrelationships to be generalised to other interactions and relationships. Similarly, individuals exposed to prolonged abuse will experience displaced anger; that is the anger that they really feel towards their abuser becomes directed at themselves or others who are perceived to have less power than their abuser.

So the interactions of survivors are severely affected by their experiences. For me, displaced anger is definitely an issue; I have spent a significant portion of my life being angry at myself, at the world, at everyone but my abuser. And I KNOW this has affected my relationships and interactions with others.

But what about women who aren’t survivors? What about those who don’t recognise Stockholm Syndrome theory from a personal perspective? Well, there is an argument to be made (and it is made in Graham’s book) that ALL women are experiencing Stockholm Syndrome. If you take a class analysis approach and view the status of all women within a patriarchal society it can be argued that we all live under the four precursors for the development of Stockholm syndrome. The generalised fear of male violence (e.g. all women being taught to fear rape), the fact that some men are kind to us, that we cannot “escape” this patriarchal society and the prevailing view of women being the patriarchal view – all fit the four precursors perfectly. As such, it can further be expected that we will all display the 4 types of behaviours described above. I think displaced anger plays a large role in a lot of disagreements within mainstream feminism. I can also identify aspects of a lack of sense of self except as experienced through the eyes of the abuser in internalised misogyny.

What I’m getting at here is that our dealing with trauma, triggers etc within feminism has to be about more than those much debated “trigger warnings”. And we should be mindful, of our own issues and those of the women we are interacting with. We need to be kind to one another, because at the root of it all we are all survivors of men’s violence.

 

* I want to say that I recommend this book to other survivors, because it is excellent. However, I’ve found it very difficult reading, and very triggering so for that reason I’m going to say – take care. If you can read it then I’m sure you’ll love it.

1Graham D (1994) Loving to Survive: Sexual terror, men’s violence and women’s lives, New York Univeristy Press, New York, page 33.

2 ibid page 47

 

 

The Psychology Supercomputer: I write about Psychology, Science Communication, Women in Science and feminist issues. I also tweet as@psycho_claire.

 

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