Sunday, June 10, 2018

Cultural Trauma: American culture is like an abusive parent

This morning I shared an article on Facebook about how American culture is contributing to our rise in depression and suicide.  It isn’t the first time I have shared such an article but today it actually received some comments one of which asked why people seem to get upset by the idea that our culture may be contributing to our mental health crisis.  And why do people seem resistant to making the changes that might make them feel better?

I am not a mental health professional.  I am an amateur observer of culture with an inquisitive mind that I like to use to try to figure out what makes myself and other people do what they do.  I also have my own experience with trauma, depression, cPTSD and other issues.  I am a survivor of sexual assault, an abusive marriage, and our culture.  Yes, our culture.  I think it is very difficult to be raised in our culture and reach adulthood without some sort of emotional scarring.  

Our culture is like a narcissistic parent.  It loves you when you do all the right things and meet its near impossible standards and make America look good but woe to you if you fail in that. When you are pretty, successful (or at least appear so), thin, white, in control, straight, partnered, always achieving, etc. America will love you.  And it sends all of us a pretty clear message that if you don’t meet these standards, if you are fat, non-conforming, emotional, gay, alone, poor, unhappy, vulnerable in any way – you are not worthy of America’s love and affection.  

We are also taught that if we do not achieve these things it is our fault entirely.  We are inherently lacking it what it takes to make it.  And so we do what any child does who is raised in a home where the conditions of love are confusing and impossible to predict, we develop coping mechanisms.  We work 60 hours a week.  We buy whatever latest thing is supposed to make us happy (or at least enable us to fake it).  We drink, we binge, we hide, and we separate.  We numb out.  We keep looking for that one thing that will either make it all better or keep the pain at bay for another day. 

At this point it really doesn’t matter if your depression and self-loathing is due to chemical imbalance in your brain, or trauma, or if you are yet another victim of an abusive culture, or all of the above.  In all cases it means you have failed and because you didn’t make it you are simply unworthy of help. 

When I first started therapy to deal with past trauma I had a heap of coping mechanisms; most of them pretty unhealthy - drinking to numb the pain, seeking out anonymous sex to feel less lonely, occasional self harm, keeping too busy, etc. I knew these things were not good for me but when I began to realize that doing the work to heal myself, also meant having to let go of these ways of dealing with the world, I freaked out. I was terrified. That part of the what I was supposed to do was to learn new ways of managing myself - ways that were healthier - didn't matter, it was still letting go of what I knew. Even though these things didn't work and in the long run made me feel worse,  it was still the only way I knew how to deal with the world. It was hurting me, but it also felt safe.

This is a huge step for most people. It was for me. It is no coincidence that this process is often called self-parenting or re-parenting. I had to learn to do the things for myself that the people who were in my life were not able to do for me. I was tasked with learning to give myself the care and love I didn't feel I even deserved. For me it has been a long, difficult, and painful process. And I have set backs all the time – I had one last night in fact, and it is very hard to not say - "See, I went back to this old way of coping so I really must be the awful piece of shit I believe myself to be."

We are experiencing this on a cultural level. If we think of our culture as the parent or partner or friend who didn't nurture us, who judged us, who abandoned us when were in pain; you can begin to recognize at all the ways we developed to deal with that - numbing out with drugs and alcohol; buying and accumulating things; putting on the happy mask; pretending that things are okay; work, work, work, work...and whatever you do DON'T allow yourself to be emotional or vulnerable.

Asking people to let go of those things is just the same as asking any individual to give up their cutting habit, their drinking, their excessive consumption, their numbing out, or whatever other coping mechanism helped them feel safe and in control while having to exist in our inherently abusive culture.  It may not be good for us, but it is what we know, and attempting to learn another way is frightening and risky because, well, it might not work and we'd rather stay with what we know, even if it is damaging, than to risk feeling worse.   

I want to be clear here.  It isn’t simply a matter of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and muscling through.  And I’m also not saying that some folks don’t need the assistance of medication – some do - but even with medication, we still have the issue of learning to cope with the world in a better way.  And with medication or not, this work is really fucking difficult to do alone and asking for help is not something we are taught to do.  Asking for help is a mountain sized hurdle to overcome in our culture and many folks never get there.  That they don’t find themselves able to do so is not their fault.  If our culture was one that valued connection and community, they wouldn’t have to, because we’d all be there to witness each other’s pain and come to aid one another. But it isn't, and as such many suffer alone and will continue to do so.

Compassion is the only 'weapon' I know to combat this. Recognizing the suffering of others, recognizing our own suffering, and beginning to learn what we can do to alleviate that suffering is paramount.  We start with ourselves first, and then begin to work on healing our broken culture.  We could call this re-culturing – constructing a culture that is compassionate, supportive, and kind even if it is just in our one little corner of the world. How we do that I'm not sure, I've some ideas, but I  know it has to happen if we are to move from surviving to flourishing.  I know fore sure none of us can do this alone and we shouldn’t have to.


  1. A very thoughtful and observant essay. This should be shared.

    1. Thank you. Please do feel free to share it <3