The politics of trauma
What does it take to embody justice - and heal from injustice - both personally and politically?
Fresh from a zoom meeting with the Working Families Party and Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, I’m feeling heartened, fired up and grateful. What would America look like if all our communities had what they needed? Where would resources be prioritized if the Breathe Act proposed by the Movement for Black Lives’ Electoral Justice Project guided our policies? Who would we need to become, and what would we need to embody?
That final question is important because justice and injustice are lodged deep inside our bodies, thinking and habits, so engaging that mind-body connection is crucial to realizing the future that we want. A number of techniques have been developed to help us do this, including ‘Somatics,’ which I’ve been learning about, working in and teaching for the last 25 years.
Somatics is a mind/body methodology that supports deep personal change, trauma healing, and embodying new practices for individuals and groups. The aim is to align our skills and capacities, ways of being and relating, and actions with our values and visions, even under pressure. For Somatics this is the test: how do we think, act and relate from what we most care about, including in the most challenging of circumstances, rather than reacting from what is familiar and accepted?
For predictable reasons, we tend to resort back to our habits, training and survival strategies when we’re under stress. Somatics helps us to understand how the mind and body function as an integrated system to develop these habits through practice over time. We learn these practices through our families, communities, and the economic and social conditions in which we live and work, often ending up embodying oppressive social conditions or our reactions to them even when we don’t believe in them.
Somatics and other transformative approaches are powerful in their ability to lessen suffering, heal trauma, strengthen our capacity to love and be loved, increase our courage, and improve our ability to envision a different future and challenge oppression together. Generative Somatics, an organization I co-founded, has worked with thousands of social justice and climate justice leaders over the last decade to help them excavate trauma, oppression and privilege from the recesses in which they’re stored.
For example, we’ve partnered with the National Domestic Workers Alliance for many years in their leadership development programs. The Alliance organizes domestic workers and their allies in support of domestic workers’ rights. Domestic work is the ‘work that let’s all other work happen,’ like caring for children, keeping homes clean and functioning, and caring for the elderly while others go to work.
Through Somatics we explored the automatic reactions and default practices of these leaders, and how they affected the movement’s work and impact. As is understandable, many domestic workers - especially under pressure - appease or look to smooth over conflicts, especially with their employers. These are good survival strategies in navigating the conditions they experience like economic migration, poverty, racism, and expectations that stem from gender oppression. But they’re not the most useful skills for organizing, talking with politicians, or street actions – the kinds of things that are required to build an effective movement.
The training provided an opportunity for embodied transformation, healing, and learning new habits individually and collectively – like storytelling, how to have useful conflict with each other to further their strategies, and to be cared for as they care for others.
As with these domestic workers, under stress or threat our mind/body reacts in predictable ways. We tighten up or go slack, and move toward the pressure or away from it. We puff ourselves up or look to fight. We check out or appease. We adapt to find safety, belonging, and dignity. Somatics understands these things to be inherent needs for all people.
When our relationships or the environment around us become threatening or violent, we engage automatic mind/body survival reactions like fight, flight, freeze, appease and checking out. We don’t think about these reactions or plan them because they bypass the conscious mind so that we can react sufficiently quickly. But these same reactions then become generalized patterns of behavior, living in our neurons, muscles and tissues and affecting how we think and act in our work for liberation.
For example, one of the people I work with is a cis-gendered, queer, white woman and racial justice organizer. She was raised Mormon and working class, and was sexually abused as a child. When she came forward about this abuse as a young adult, her family and community turned against her, and threatened her with exile unless she recanted.
This represented a profound loss on top of the abuse and silencing she had already experienced. What was happening for her somatically? Her survival strategies told her to shrink and take up less room, to cast her eyes down automatically and let others have the final say - to assume that if she became empowered she would be isolated. Her chest was collapsed in towards her spine, shoulders curled, and she seemed to be backing away even when she wasn’t moving. Her body communicated appeasement and apology.
While these are all understandable survival strategies given her past experiences, they don’t serve her current leadership role, relationships or values. If someone pushes hard enough against her or disagrees loudly enough with her opinions, these same embodied habits rush to the foreground and take over. As she told me, she often feels at odds with herself, as if she were betraying her social justice work, because her reactions weren’t building trust with the people of color and communities that she’s committed to in her organizing work.
Oppressive social and economic conditions define, on a vast scale, who is given safety, belonging and dignity, and who isn’t. Why is Black Lives Matter such a radical call? Because it’s a call for the safety, belonging, and dignity of peoples for whom these things have been systemically denied since the beginning of the USA.
In turn, white people have embodied, through their own social and economic conditions, the experience that their (perceived) safety, belonging and dignity is based on racial domination and the centering of whiteness, assuming that “white” is the defining norm, the standard setter, the decider. That means that we’ve a lot of embodied transformation to do, along with enacting the necessary policy changes and a radical re-envisioning of the economy.
Methodologies that address embodiment are becoming increasingly popular in both the mainstream and in transformative social movements. But, like most coaching, consulting, mindfulness training and therapeutic approaches, Somatics, up until now, has been a primarily de-politicized field, with little or no social analysis of power, systemic oppression or privilege, and the profound impact they have on people, communities and the planet.
The focus is usually on the individual, or in some cases, a team or an organization. The outcomes of transformation, while often profound for those who have access to them, tend to be defined by social conditions that are built on dominance and accumulation: becoming more successful (i.e. wealthier and more powerful), less stressed (to keep the bottom line increasing), happier (for yourself but not necessarily for others), and more peaceful - caring about the world but not letting it disturb you too much.
These mainstream approaches often encourage practitioners to use the skills they learn to improve and advance themselves, and since the jobs that pay the most are in the corporate sector and government, challenging the drive for profit becomes counterproductive. Transformation is then used to support racial capitalism, so who uses these methods, and to what ends, are vital questions.
Embodied transformation should be inherently linked to collective action for equity, well-being and a sustainable future. Healing and social action should be inseparable, so using transformative work to uplift social justice leaders, making it accessible to them, and supporting their leadership in the field, are priorities. What does it take to embody justice personally? What does it take for masses of people to embody justice? The processes that create personal transformation and those that create social and economic transformation are distinct but interdependent.
Because we have embodied, and been shaped by, social and economic systems built on exercising power over others and over nature, we need to transform these experiences and develop collective practices that grow from a premise of interdependence. We can do this by integrating a deep social analysis and an understanding of the costs of racial capitalism and white supremacy into processes of transformative change. This is what Somatics with a social analysis aims to do.
Through powerful methods like these we can change our embodied practices to align with liberatory values. Healing can support the collective reckoning required to face how violence and oppression are baked into ourselves, our bodies and our relationships. Somatics can name and explore social oppression and privilege, and purposefully link personal change to collective action for liberation. Either we transform ourselves on purpose or we are defined by our circumstances.
Staci K. Haines’ new book is The Politics of Trauma: Somatics, Healing and Social Justice.
Get our weekly email