Thomas Hübl: Hello and welcome. My name is Thomas Hübl and this is Point of Relation, my podcast. Today let’s explore collective trauma, something that is close to my heart. I’ve been working in this field for over 20 years and I want to create a summary for you to consider exploring, looking into contemplating the nature of collective or systemic trauma.
When we look at the world or when we use the word “trauma,” we often use it for experiences that happen in our biography, childhood events, and other events or violence that happen in our lives. So that’s truly traumatizing and very important and needs its respect and also its care and treatment and healing.
Over the years, I’ve seen that in societies – there’s not only the individual trauma but actually there are massive impacts that have happened. Like the Second World War. First World War. Slavery and racism. Native American genocide. All kinds of genocides around the world. All kinds of wars, dictatorships, oppression – you name it. So there is a whole archeology of trauma in our societies and we were born into that kind of ecosystem.
So we grew up in a world that looks like this is the world. People yelling at each other, recurrent conflicts, all kinds of relationship conflicts, recurrent massive retraumatization like racism, anti-Semitism, and the effects/after effects of neo-colonialism. So there is the world that looks to us at first that this is the world and that’s how the world is.
I would say let’s look at this a little bit more differentiated. There is a part of the world that is integrated, emergent, is updating itself, is growing and learning – and that part of the world, that’s how the world is. That’s true. That’s the present part of the world.
At the same time, though there are many processes in our own personal lives, but also in our social lives, cultural lives that are repetitive cycles. We heard that conversation, we heard that argument, we heard that kind of situation, or saw it over and over and over again. That’s not growth, that’s just, as Freud said, the “repetition compulsion” of trauma that tries to make itself visible in life, but actually often creates just another cycle and that archeological layer of traumatization.
So we want to talk about today. The trauma is often a personal experience – an individual, painful experience. At the same time, it’s not just that but an individual, ancestral, and collective dimension. We are exploring the collective dimension because that’s in the ecosystem. We are swimming in a water that has substances inside that encode for trauma. It means that we are drinking this all the time. We are breathing it all the time. We are digesting this all the time. So we are in it.
And the collective dimension, I think, is not spoken about enough. We are speaking about some of the symptoms it creates where we are actually not speaking enough to the fact that we need some learning. We need some skill-building. We need some sort of process work and some community space where we can explore how we are actually part of that systemic trauma like puzzle pieces that show in the image and all the puzzle pieces, a part of that image that you see when it’s done.
So we are all also like a puzzle piece in something that we want to be able to witness to be able to see more clearly. I often say it’s like you lived your whole life in an apartment. You never left that apartment. One day, somebody visits you and says, “By the way, how does the house look like that you are living in?” You can’t say because there is no prospective to the house. We just know the apartment. So we can guess a little bit about how the house looks, but we don’t have the full perspective of how the house looks like. And this is the same with collective trauma because we grew up in it, we actually are a result of it, partly. We don’t have any bigger perspective to say, “Oh, this is collective trauma” because we are all swimming in it.
We are so used to some of the symptoms that we are not saying, “Okay, this is how life is in the integrated version. This is how life is when it’s hurt.”
So we name that part of our society is systemically traumatized. “Trauma” means the reduction of movement.
The nature of trauma is that it becomes frozen information. It’s the permafrost in our cultures. That part does not want to change because its essence and its intelligence are to freeze information, to freeze pain, to freeze overwhelm as an intelligence function, and to survive better. And it’s great at that moment, it’s really needed.
But if you don’t take care of the after-effects, it becomes a systemic issue. So if you want to respond much more skillfully and quickly to climate change – that part actually doesn’t want to change. So there is an issue there and the issue is not putting more pressure on the collective trauma because what you get is more counter-pressure. And then we are frustrated as activists because society doesn’t want to move and people don’t get it.
But that’s not the point.
The point is that activism is amazing, needed, and great, where we need much more public education. We need a kind of push to change our habits. For this, it’s great.
It’s not great actually, the opposite, it creates counter pressure. If we push from an activist place against trauma, we actually get a backlash. So for the death part in our society, we need healing spaces. We need collective healing spaces in order for us to digest the collective residue – the Holocaust, the Second World War, slavery, and racism. These are massive wounds in this society. There’s a lot of holding that was needed to go through this painful situation and that holding cannot just move. And we cannot just say just move. It doesn’t work like that. It needs relationship. It needs to be felt. It needs to be attuned to it.
We need to create safe spaces to be able to reflect, to digest, to integrate, to learn, and grow together and transform the dark legacy of our histories and maybe of our own lifetimes to transform that dark legacy into movement. So the more we melt the collective permafrost, the more we liquefy the past, and the more energy and intelligence we have available to deal with the current issues.
I think it’s a crisis. What does crisis mean?
It means that more and more pressure pushes against the frozen past, and often crisis discharges itself through conflict. That’s the last way systems can change. If there’s so much pressure against the unmoving parts that are usually unconscious, they’re residing somewhere in the collective unconscious. It’s not just a willful resistance. Often we don’t even know that we are resisting. You don’t even know how we are doing it because it’s not in our conscious reach. But it’s still happening.
And so we need a collective awareness. And it’s not an either-or: Do we need activism or healing? No, we need both. When a surgeon in a hospital performs the surgery, it doesn’t mean that the rest of the hospital stands still and waits and does nothing. So everybody will do their job while the surgery is happening. So it doesn’t mean that when we need healing spaces, we cannot do the rest in parallel. But we need all the competencies together to deal with the situation.
Unrecognized systemic trauma is the sand in the engine and is also the reason why we have limited awareness of what’s happening in our social spaces. The collective absencing as Otto Scharmer talks a lot about absencing as the reason for social issues. That collective trauma creates massive spaces that are unfelt and where our collective awareness is not present, is not sensing active. These are the spaces where a lot of re-traumatization happens. So we do need collective and collective architecture. We need to create social healing spaces in order to deal with social distancing and with the recurrent patterns of social re-traumatization.
Because trauma leads to othering, we saw during COVID-19 that there’s more stress through the pandemic. And this fragmentation, polarization, and the othering got much stronger. It didn’t get much stronger, by the way. It just was more visible because more stress and the system made the fragmentation more obvious. Often when we get really stressed, our patterns come out much stronger and our defense mechanisms are much more to see. So when we have more stress in the social system, then the fragmentation becomes very obvious. And that results in strong polarization, but it also results in a massive lack of global collaboration to deal with the most emergent issues that we are dealing with.
One of them is conflict. Conflict still looks like too graphically localized versus a systemic issue that the planet has – that all countries have. “No, they don’t get it.” Who is “they?” Where am I when they are there? What is my relationship to them?
Also in society how do we deal with re-traumatization through school shootings. It’s “That guy did it!” versus “What do all of us have to do with it?”
How do each and every one of us contribute to recurrent issues that are happening all the time? How many school shootings are there?
It’s not just the few people that do it. It’s all of us contributing to an ecosystem that brings that forth.
So that’s much more an ecosystem way of thinking, not just a merely separate individual doing something. We are ecosystemically interrelated. We are interdependent.
Everybody who doesn’t believe it, you will see it when we don’t breathe for more than 3 minutes. We know what trees and plants are doing for us right now. Without that, we wouldn’t have any podcasts. So the oxygen that we breathe and the living process of the biosphere are interdependent with our existence. It doesn’t exist alone. We always exist as interdependent relationships with the systems that we are part of. The toxins we throw into the ecosystem. Sooner or later, the toxins we will breathe and eat and drink and experience. So that means that we are all responsible for dealing with the after-effects of collective trauma.
Collective trauma is for most of it, except natural catastrophes, human-made toxicity. it’s the transgressions against human rights. So we are living in an ecosystem of thousands of years of killing, torturing, suppressing, and we are living in an ecosystem that carries the toxins of all that history.
It also carries all the healing, all the wisdom, all the brightness, all the joy, all the beauty. Of course, it carries all of it.
So it’s our responsibility as cultural spaces, as societies to implement social healing architectures that help us to deal with that aftermath because it’s a public health necessity.
After some years, we will see how health care costs will get reduced, how there’s more happiness, more motivation, more care, more togetherness, less othering, less racism, less anti-Semitism, and less marginalization. There’s more inclusivity because we see “nobody” is actually out there, but “everybody” is in the same water. We’re all swimming in the same water.
The times that we throw the toxic waste ‘outside’ somewhere in a global village, suddenly everywhere is in the village. There’s nothing outside of the village. So now we are getting everything back: microplastics, toxins, CO2, all this stuff is in here in our living room.
The only way to deal with it is, first of all, to recognize that and to be willing to sit in the spaces together. It is sometimes also painful that we need more competence to be in the ecosystem that we created, that our ancestors created, and to begin to create a different quality.
That quality will start to clean the water. And the more we clean the water, the more we have an ecosystem that will be a home for all of us, not just for some of us to the privileged. There is an equal system that is a fair, just, and an equal space for all of us to flourish. But we have to create that ecosystem because now we’re still creating something else. By looking away from the past, we are naturally perpetuating it by looking away from our shared collective past.
We are the ones that pass it on to the next generation and we need to see if we want that. And for sure, there are other opportunities, other possibilities. There is another way, and that depends on us first, to create together a bigger awareness, a systemic traumatization. It has to be the after-effects.
We can do something about our presence, our participation, our relational skill set, and our willingness to be together. To sit in the discomfort of what has been created in life so far is actually the beginning of a collective growth.
We need collective healing spaces. We need to ask for it both in the civil society movement and from our governments to see the tremendous impact that they can have on the health of our societies, the resilience of our societies, the collaboration, the reduction of polarization, and othering like a mutual orchestra.
Imagine all of us being musicians, and we have to play a symphony.
That’s our job. So I hope that looking a bit deeper, of course, there’s so much more to say.
But if you want to go deeper with it, I also write about this a lot in my new book, Attuned, which will come out on September 12th, or any other of our resources in our community where we illuminate collective trauma much more. And so I hope that’s an interesting sound bite, and it’s an interesting way to contemplate how you experience the ecosystem that you’re part of.