Implicit Blame in Collective Trauma Work

red heart symbol with bandaid and patchHow do you feel when you’re blamed for something you didn’t do?

Often when we think of collective trauma, we consider the victims, most often with our love and compassion.

But how do we compassionately embrace the perpetrator’s reality? Thinking of ourselves as the perpetrator in a collective trauma brings up a lot of feelings. We feel guilt, shame and anger. Often, we feel rejected from the group of people we see as the victims who deserve compassion.

A White European Facilitating Constellations To Address Racial Trauma

I am a white European. Earlier this year, when I facilitated a course about collective trauma with black Bermudians, I gained a firsthand experience of the implicit blame towards me because of my ancestry.

As we opened the field for people to share their painful experiences related to race, story after story poured into our space. “White people” were the perpetrators throughout the stories.

This was difficult for me. What I felt was the implicit blame of my ancestors’ role in the abuse of people of color around the world. I hadn’t hurt anyone in the room personally, but the classroom was filled with tension and impatience. In other words, the room was filled with consequences of the wrongdoing and pain inflicted by white people in the past.

I had read about “white fragility,” and asked myself if that was what I was experiencing.

In my work, I hold plenty of trauma and difficult emotional content, yet this was different.

How can I single-handedly hold “white” responsibility?

Yes, it is a nonsensical question, but I found myself wishing for others “like me” to be present in the room. I needed more support to listen and stay present with what came forth.

Even if I as an individual did not participate in the classroom of the Bermudian’s historical or present-day trauma, there lives a dynamic between perpetrators and victims that cycles through the generations.

With enough support and no judgement when engaged with people who see me as part of the problem, I am learning that I don’t need to feel safe. I don’t need to disconnect from my heart in order to “accomplish something” or “not feel something”.

Confronting Sexual Abuse in Mixed-Gender Constellations

A similar dynamic showed itself in another circle that I facilitated recently, in which I worked with sexually abused women. The reaction from the men in the room was mixed. Some men held the space with compassion and strength and other men felt shame and guilt. Yet others felt anger at an accusation of something they did not do.

The tension in these spaces is ripe for leveling-up to a new understanding of collective trauma because of the heightened emotional state of the people in the room. In this space, we can develop a new understanding of collective trauma and its symptoms and build the capacity to hold a higher presence — a “pocket” of consciousness — within the traumatized field. We need to expand our consciousness, our perception and embodiment, and learn tools so we can let go of experiencing collective blame as a personal attack.

Constellations teach us so much about stepping into another’s shoes and embodying their experience. When we develop the capacity to hold space for others energetically, psychologically, and spiritually and not take everything so personally, healing can begin for all the people involved — the victims and the perpetrators.

If we cannot find ways to do this, we will repeat the trauma. Racial and gender conversations will continue to end in upset blowouts.

None of this is easy

How we stay truly present in these tense moments remains a challenge for most circles and groups. As group leaders, we are responsible for the creation of safety in our circles. We need to make enough space to hold all of it with care and love. It means we must move far enough along our own journeys to not be triggered when we find ourselves belonging to the group identified as the perpetrators.

I am still learning these skills and I know I need good support in holding such explosive dualities as victim/perpetrator collective dynamics.

We’d love to hear your experiences or thoughts on holding intense collective trauma in your circles or groups.

PS. Here is a link to a conversation between Anderson Cooper and President Obama, in which they grapple with how to understand  perpetrator/victim dynamics in our time: