How We Talk About Trauma Matters

by Christine LaCerva

A few weeks ago I hosted a community event on trauma at the Social Therapy Group’s Conversation with Practitioners series. A friend of mine, a psychologist and longtime political activist who hadn’t been able to attend, asked me why I had chosen this topic. “Doesn’t the field of psychology relate to people who have been traumatized around their victimization and powerlessness?” she asked. “I thought social therapy wasn’t into that. What were you thinking?”

It’s an important question. Yes — victimization and powerlessness are often the focus of how we think and talk about trauma. I’m a social therapist and a community activist. How could I not talk about it? As a social therapist my work is to create environments for developmental conversations that go beyond traditional categories of human experience.  I am interested in our collective capacity as human beings to discover new ways to see, new methodologies that have the potential to transform an uncertain, increasingly destabilized and traumatized world. So it seemed right to have this conversation in the context of community-building, to look together at the impact of trauma on our emotionality and subjectivity, and explore how we as a community can go further in responding to it.

I told my friend that I wanted the opportunity to talk with our community in Brooklyn about the host of assumptions and biases in how we think about trauma. For example, in descriptions of therapy with people who have been traumatized the words “power” and “creativity” hardly ever appear.  In my opinion, they’re part of the cure!

I invited three passionate practitioners who work directly in the field, who care about what is going on in the world, and are continuing to grow and shape what they are doing in helping people who have experienced trauma. Judith Sloan, who’s on the faculty of NYU, Gallatin division, is a multi-talented performing artist who works with immigrant youth. Asha Tarry is the executive director and president of The Collective Advocates for Social Change and Development, an advocacy group working against the domestic sex slave trade. Liz Creel is a psychotherapist who has worked with first responders from 9/11 and veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars.

The three of them spoke openly about their work and the impact it has had on them as practitioners. They talked about their struggles, their creativity, their own vulnerabilities and their passion as community activists who have something to say that goes beyond victimization and powerlessness. Collectively we created a conversation about the role that power, human creativity and community building plays in reorganizing how we see trauma and how we can collectively create possibility.

The question that shaped our dialogue was: “How do we need to organize our conversation about very painful, difficult human experiences of trauma in order to go beyond the feelings of helplessness and victimization that trauma can produce?”

Here’s a short video clip from my introduction to the event:

Talking about trauma and the enduring pain of repeated hurtful events can overwhelm us, impede our ability to cope, and — most importantly — it can cripple our capacity to be powerful and make use of the creative impulse we all have. The language we use can obscure the fact that, as humans, we have the capacity to go beyond ourselves, to build with the garbage of the world. And that is very, very dangerous — we live in a world of uncertainty and instability, we watch the evening news and worry about children being abducted, the ravaging effects of ongoing poverty in an unimaginable world that is in crisis.  Trauma isn’t just happening to certain individuals — it is increasingly part of all of our lives.

Here’s the video of the full event:

In my next post I’ll share with you what some of our international colleagues are saying about trauma, power and creativity.

Join our conversation here. Let us know what you think.