Updated: Jul 26
“Show me anger and I will show you “Hurt”.
Show me hurt and I will show you “Love”.
Peel the layers if you care!”
Collective Trauma is People Asking if that was Fireworks Casually
You know a society is collectively traumatized when you are out for drinks in Beirut, and across the tables you hear sayings like ”is that fireworks or explosions?” but everyone is still socializing.
Lebanon is a country that has experienced numerous traumatic events that have become deeply ingrained within the psyche of the society, stored at a profound, unconscious, and even cellular level. Collective trauma refers to the accumulation of past and present atrocities, cruelties, tragedies, and horrors perpetrated by humankind.
The impact of collective trauma on individuals within a society can be profound and diffuse. For many years working as a doctor in the emergency field, I read a lot about trauma and witnessed it on a daily basis at work, yet the moment I asked myself: “Am I traumatized?”! I was shocked and froze for a while. For years I never thought or acknowledged the fact that I have been traumatized by major events in my life, but also by being a witness to many of the atrocities of daily work as a doctor. I have for years focused my inner work on rumination and a harsh inner critic with their resulting symptoms, and made progress that I am proud of. Yet, it was not until my recent visit to Lebanon after a year in Bali that I started acknowledging the effects of trauma on my behaviour and my share of microaggressions.
Breaking the Cycle: Microaggressions as Manifestations of Collective Trauma
Scene: An older married couple at the dinner table. The wife is exhausted from her daily chores, the husband stressed from another typical day in Lebanon.
Husband: The food is bland. There´s not enough salt.
Wife: (under her breath) Oh, really? I thought I put plenty of salt in it.
Husband: (not hearing her) Yeah, it´s just bland.
Wife: (sighing) Maybe you should add some salt.
Husband: (Still for a moment, then starts to eat)
In the aftermath of collective trauma, microaggressions can emerge as unfortunate byproducts of the shared pain. Microaggressions refer to subtle acts of discrimination, hostility, or aggression, often unintentional, that occur in daily interactions. With so many individuals suffering from a variety of trauma-related symptoms, these microaggressions become increasingly common and act as a driving force that perpetuates the cycle of trauma.
I acknowledge my responsibility for the microaggressive acts I commit unconsciously.
It is essential to observe our daily lives and identify repetitive situations that drain us emotionally. Perhaps it is the uncertainty of work or a relationship the microaggression presents itself. It also manifests through people´s constant worry with understandable reason since the quality of life deteriorated drastically in the last decade. I noticed that I would complain about the internet speed or lack of public transportation. The complaint was justified the first time, but repeatedly turns into a microaggression that I add to the collective stress of living here. So, basically we are more stressed and so is everyone else around, and we sink into confusion, despair, anger…
Understanding and Compassion: Bridging the Divide
Scene continued: The wife gets up and goes to the kitchen to bring salt. While she´s gone, the husband continues to eat.
Husband: (to himself) I know I´m being nitpicky, but I'm just so stressed out today. I had a really tough day at work and I need food now.
Wife: (rolls her eyes) here's more salt.
Approaching microaggression in our daily lives with an understanding that I am traumatized and so are the people around me can be transformative. Recognizing that these microaggressions arise from the pain and suffering experienced by all can help us respond with compassion rather than defensiveness or hostility. While writing this, I am reminded that months ago a friend asked me if I would like to collaborate with NGOs offering psychotherapy in Beirut, but for some reason I felt anxious and not at ease. I blurted out that I am not ready for that emotionally, which at the time was true. Then I started reading more about Trauma-sensitive mindfulness, and that is when I realized one of my trauma-responses is freezing and avoiding. Now I am aware of this avoidance behavior and see it as the reminder that I am overwhelmed. For example, attending yet another family lunch, I get the image in my head of being frustrated at how much food we consume and waste. At times, I blurt that out, sometimes too bluntly, and hurt someone whose intention is to provide nourishment, but themselves under a lot of stress, so behave accordingly. And the cycle continues.
How to Respond to the Unintentional Suffering We Cause
Scene continued: Couple finished eating and left the table to each side of the house.
Husband: (to himself) I was so hungry. Work was hectic and I didn’t have a proper lunch. I need to watch tv and relax; let's hear the evening news.
Wife: (to herself) I don´t want to hear this again. I am exhausted from taking care of the family and cooking all day; whatever I do is not enough. I don’t want to hear the same stories again and just need my tea (Alert: repetitive inner story).
Since my childhood, I found Beirut to be overwhelming with all the social engagements that stressed on more is better and violent communication patterns. I still get overwhelmed at times, I came here two weeks ago and have noticed my own microaggressions popping up here and there. I am doing self-care routines and happy with it, yet when stressed I tend to operate on autopilot with a younger self guiding me. For example, my old behavior of avoidance pops up every once in a while, and I am not fully present at family gatherings, instead keeping busy on the phone or in my head. I am causing some microaggressions, yet much less now and growing the small moments of connection I actively engage in. What I am adding to my self-care practice is awareness of the times I do act out, could be as small as refusing to join a family lunch or moving out from my parent's house for a breather. The intention for these acts was self-care, yet may be perceived as a microaggression by the parents: “My son does not love me” type of thoughts. When we acknowledge our microaggressions, unintentional as they might be, we can start choosing to respond differently, while at the same time setting healthy boundaries. After I moved out, I spent some time connecting with the family in the areas that are easier, such as being grateful for when my parents give me fruits to take back when I visit or bringing my laundry so that they feel helpful. Awareness of our own behavior and acknowledging it bring about the calmness needed to start observing others' microaggressive behavior, unintentional as it may be.
How to Respond to the Unintentional Suffering Others Cause
Scene continued: After dinner, the husband feels more nourished and relaxed and he realizes being unfair to his wife when he criticized her cooking and how he got triggered because the dining table is a strong trigger with decades of conditioning for adults.
Lebanese culture has a strong emphasis on food which is often a way to show love and care for others. In our community, it is common for family lunches to be large and bountiful. The grandmother would make sure everyone had enough food, refilling half empty ones forcefully. The Lebanese people have experienced a lot of hardship and loss, and food is a way to comfort and nurture. However, the abundance of food can also be overwhelming and stressful. It is difficult to say no to food when it is being offered with love. Additionally, the conversations at family gatherings can be triggering. Common questions such as “why don´t you move back home?” or “why don´t you get married?” become frustrating. These questions can be a reminder of the trauma that Lebanese people have experienced.
Basically, the dinner table became a stressful place to be at by itself due to the years of repetitive experiences that shape how we interpret the present moment.
Husband: I was hungry and tired when I got home, and I apologize for getting triggered and criticizing you. I am grateful for the meal you provided me with.
Wife: … (To the reader: Insert how you respond in similar situations)
Key Points/Key takeaways
Reflect over the question: Am I traumatized? For a few seconds on consecutive days
We are all stressed to some extent and it is important for each one of us to find calmness in whatever way works for them
Big traumatic experiences are amplified and sustained through small daily microaggressions created by a group of people
Recognize your own microaggressions and work on minimizing these acknowledging how others are also suffering
We heal ourselves, and that heals the whole group
Self-Compassion Guided Practices and Exercises by Dr. Kristin Neff:
“PC Principal Final Justice” is a hilarious episode of South Park that takes a satirical look at microaggressions. It is sure to make you laugh, but also makes some valid points about the importance of being disrespectful
The Body Keeps the Score is a comprehensive and accessible book by Gabor Mate that offers a deep understanding of trauma and its effects. Great read!