Differentiation in a Field of Trauma

by Amina Knowlan | June 2007

"The saying - "walk a mile in someone else's shoes" - the Matrix group allowed me to follow the path of someone else and her ancestors - for hundreds of miles, across oceans, over decades, even centuries, without ever giving up my own shoes, my own ancestors, my own truth."
— E. Smith,
Boulder Introductory Weekend Participant

THE PROSPECT OF WORKING CREATIVELY with differences becomes virtually impossible with the activation of trauma fields and the resultant trauma roles that individuals and groups can get caught in somewhat unconsciously. When there is a perceived or felt threat in the group or in the environment, the atmosphere becomes electrically charged with that sense of threat or lack of safety. Differences can escalate to a volatile conflict between a particular pair, while others become mute bystanders. Often, individuals (or groups) begin to compete about/for the trauma roles rather than about the differences in perceptions, experiences or values that reside underneath those roles. Trauma roles include the victim, or person who has suffered the injury and shock and who was powerless to prevent the injury. The perpetrator is the person who has injured or harmed the victim and who, in some manner had power over the victim. In addition, someone in a traumatic context may freeze into a bystander or observer role; or take on the role of rescuer or savior.

When trauma fields and roles are activated in any group context, we are no longer really in the room with each other in the present moment. We are emotionally, psychologically and physiologically in our personal biography and ancestral lineage, expecting to be mistreated or injured in the historical way. Whenever language includes violent words such as "violated" and "attacked," to describe present, in-the-room interactions, it is an indication that a trauma field is activated and influencing the interaction.

Competing for the Victim Role
In a polarized or highly charged conflict, the parties may become locked into a competition for the victim role. The fight appears to be about who hurt the other, or who caused the worst injury to the other. In other words, who is the perpetrator and who is the victim? Who is the most hurt? Who suffered the greatest injustice? Whose fault is it? Frequently people are fighting about whose version of "the truth" is correct or valid. The deeper truth is more likely that both people are victims of larger systems of oppression, such as racism, sexism and classism.

Cross-Cultural Intersections
There is an additional complexity that is present in any cross-cultural context (If we look deeply with enough awareness, this would be most, if not all contexts.) For a person whose central identity lies in a targeted or marginalized group, there is a strong overlap between trauma fields,  cultural identity and institutionalized or structural oppression. People of color, gays, Jews and women - among many others - would say that that they have very good reason to walk into every group context that is predominantly white, Christian or male and feel unsafe. They cannot simply relax out of the potential to be targeted when racism, anti-semitism and sexism are not only still prevalent but institutionalized and held in place by the system of capitalism in the United States.

When individuals are members of a targeted or marginalized groups, their identity may also significantly rest in being a voice for bringing awareness to the horrific mistreatment of their people. When the present connections become full enough, it is essential to include space to listen deeply to the reality of the experience of centuries of mistreatment. When this difference can be understood and included, there begins to be more room to come into present connection. We are typically here in this room because we want to fully acknowledge the suffering that we have all endured and have all caused. We want to know each other as fellow human beings.

In Matrix contexts we begin with diligent attention to establishing and returning to the ground of health of getting to know each other as fellow human beings. We are building the ground of connection that will allow us to discharge the trauma fields that are carried in lineages of oppression without diminishing the message of the suffering that has occurred. It is through slowly building person-to-person interactions that we establish enough trust to share the deeper stories of the often-extreme mistreatment that we carry from our lineages and in our personal biographies. In last month's ezine, Joanne DeMark, Phd., a Matrix trainer and long time cross-cultural trainer pointed out that what counts as ground of health for one person, may be filled with pain and complexity for another. In returning to current connection, we are also building the capacity to give feedback about these cross-cultural intersections.

Re-Sourcing in the Matrix as Present Time
Once members begin to have some awareness that they are caught in reacting from trauma roles of the past, they are free to move toward an exploration of the differences and challenges that are occurring in their present connection. We work to generate awareness that both parties are caught in roles that are attached to more highly charged or activated trauma fields. It is crucial to question and change language that induces and carries a trauma field. Any words that describe violent actions are typically trauma laden. No one is being attacked or violated in this moment. No one is going to be destroyed or abused. If we slow down and come into present time and present connection, what is more typically true is that people are afraid of being hurt again. They are protecting themselves from the future possibility or re-living stories from the past. When the "trance" of the old injury is heard, acknowledged or cleared there is another vulnerable, fallible human being sitting across from them.

Regardless of the source of our suffering, with enough present connection we can begin to set our sights beyond the recreation of this injustice. We are all victims; we are all perpetrators. We are all caught in roles, carrying lineages of both personal and structural harm and injustice. We are all here because we cannot sufficiently rescue people or save the world working alone. We all want to move out of the bystander role and into connected action. With enough connection we begin to see and connect beyond trauma fields. We meet in the realm of human hearts and spirits co-creating a just world that can continue to hold, explore and even cherish our differences.

Next month's ezine will look at the reactivation of trauma in groups and the Matrix concept of distributing the trauma roles - a radical departure from the notion that one person is in need of healing or fixing. That orientation rests in an assumption of separateness. We will see how Matrix Groups profoundly support the resolution of trauma in individuals and in groups-not by "healing" the victim, but by distributing the whole field of trauma and trauma roles among the group. We create a transformative experience of, "This, too, am I."


"Out beyond ideas about wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I'll meet you there."
— Rumi

(1) Knowlan, Amina. Matrix Leadership: The Art & Science of Creating Sustainable Groups, Communities and Organizations. March, 2007, forthcoming. All rights reserved.

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