Ep. 182: When Trauma Is Taken out of Context

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I want to start this week off with a quote from Resmaa Menakem: “Many times trauma in a person decontextualized over time can look like personality. Trauma in a family decontextualized over time can look like family traits, trauma decontextualized in a people over time can look like culture and it takes time to slow it down so you can begin to discern what’s what.”


I often see this decontextualized trauma with clients who carry the trauma of their ancestors. Resmaa suggests this could happen for up to 14 generations. That’s a LONG time.


This episode is about the importance of contextualizing trauma –  giving it a name and a place in our own story so that it’s not hanging over us in the present.


Have you ever driven by a wooden cross or pile of flowers or a stone pile on the road? Like a marker for a person who suddenly and unexpectedly lost their life there? I like to think that we can do the same with our traumas – we can mark those events in our lives where a little bit of us died. This can help us contextualize that trauma in a way that honors its impact but ALSO leaves it in the past.


Contextualizing trauma is so important because without it, that trauma can become deeply ingrained within our personality, family dynamics, and culture and be misattributed.


For example, someone who has experienced childhood abandonment may develop a strong need for validation and reassurance, which becomes a characteristic of seeking external approval. We might label that as someone’s personality – being “needy.” But doing that obscures the underlying trauma.


A reminder here that these coping mechanisms – the response to the trauma itself – are what shape our personality. Not the trauma itself. Traumatic experiences can lead to the development of behaviors and patterns that influence our identity, how we show up in the world and in our relationships.


So, what about decontextualized trauma in families? This can manifest as enduring family traits that can be passed down (14 generations, remember?), giving rise to familial traits that appear imagined but are, in reality, responses to unhealed trauma.


For example, maybe a family has grappled with the trauma of migration and cultural displacement for generations. Even though they might seem innate, their attachment to their cultural roots and their “strong work ethic” are family traits that have been influenced by historical trauma… and resilience.


And when it comes to decontextualized trauma and culture – trauma experienced by a collective group – that can leave a huge imprint on cultural norms, values, and behaviors. I could be due to historical injustices, systemic oppression, or other shared experiences. I think one of the most salient examples here would be the experience of Black-bodied people in the United States.  The resilience and strength associated with Black cultural identity are often viewed as innate characteristics, but, as Resmaa says, are actually responses to generations of racialized trauma.


We could also look at the Indigenous communities in North America, including Alaskan Natives. The trauma experienced by them, including forced displacement, colonization, and violence, has been decontextualized over time, resulting in negative stereotypes that persist to this day, like the belief that Alaska Natives are prone to alcoholism.


While it’s true that some Native communities have high rates of alcoholism, this stereotype overlooks the historical trauma that contributes to these issues. It’s decontextualized. And in this case, that decontextualization doesn’t just perpetuate a negative stereotype. It also hinders the understanding and support needed to address the underlying issues and promote healing within indigenous communities.


So you can see why recognizing the historical context and impact of trauma on personality, family traits, and culture is crucial to breaking down these harmful stereotypes and working toward meaningful solutions in the healing process.


Without it, we’re missing an essential element of healing, self-awareness, and social transformation.


The best way to heal these traumas? For personal healing in individuals, we are required to make a journey of self-discovery and awareness. Once we understand the origins of our coping mechanisms and recognize how they developed in response to those specific traumatic experiences, we can begin to separate our true, soul-based and authentic personalities from the trauma-induced traits.


If we look at families and cultures, healing and contextualization involves acknowledging the presence of generational trauma and its impact. Recognizing this can encourage more open conversations and the development of healthier patterns. Plus it helps us break the cycle of trauma transmission way before 14 generations 😉


Understanding the transformative power of contextualized trauma is essential for healing and transformation that is so needed right now.


Now, it takes time to discern the impact of decontextualized trauma, but in that process, we discover the potential for profound personal and cultural transformation. One small island of sanctuary at a time.


You will learn:

// The importance of contextualizing our trauma

// How decontextualized trauma can influence how others perceive our personality, family dynamics, and culture

// Ways we can contextualize and heal these areas of trauma



// My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, by Resmaa Menakem


// Episode 59: The Mother/Father/Parent Wound


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