Introduction to Empathy, Choice, and Trauma
First, some definitions. Empathy has at least two levels. Empathy level 1 is to consider what you would do if you were in the same situation. Empathy level 2 is to examine and articulate the actions of the other as reasonable–to say that what they did makes sense.
Choice is the functional process in decision making. Terming it good or bad diminishes its complexity and economics. Choices are either sustainable toward a specified goal or unsustainable for that goal. Sustainable choices result from information from multiple and competing sources, self-awareness clearly defining a goal, and system-awareness enabling the most complete set of options for decision making.
Trauma is pain, damage, or intense longing centered in a specific experience, which impacts choice behavior of those impacted by the trauma. Trauma-informed care is recognition of impact and inclusion in analysis of neurological, biological, psychological, and social effects in the determination of reason, complexity, and economics of any choice. Trauma does not have to be considered “negative” or “traumatic” by the decision maker in order to have an impact on the way that decision maker chooses. Trauma impacts the choice behavior and also structures the decision-making process.
The Options We See
The options we perceive are a direct result (even definition) of our reality. The challenge for us-in-community is that our actions don’t always promote community. They most often tend only toward self-protection. This natural aversion to risk can also become a barrier to open and honest dialogue. Because it is rooted in reality, our options can become a delusion of reality that services only our self-protection and never an opportunity for community.
This critique assumes that community is the goal for us all. Accepting this assumption, you have a set of unsustainable options and only one sustainable option. Unsustainable Options: Fold, Fight, Flight, Dissociate. Fold is simply to give up removing yourself from the conversation or barring others from initiating the conversation. Fight is silencing, shouting down, or overwhelming contrary voices and information in an attempt to be the last opinion standing. Flight is shifting away from conversations when any sense of disagreement surfaces attempting to maintain peace even if the result is superficial interaction. Dissociate is the decision to put on (deceptively) one face for each of the varying opinions discussed in an attempt to satisfy everyone.
Sustainable Option: Integration is the complete option allowing for the evaluation of trauma responses, development of empathy, and the increase in perception of available options. It recognizes that your options, interpretations, and reasoning are not inextricably linked to allegiances, prior rhetoric, or even your prior decisions. You are able and encouraged to respond in conversation. You are allowed to engage in conversation in order to inform and potentially update your competence and decision making.
The Lies We Tell Ourselves
If you lie to yourself, you can’t hope to know someone else’s lies or their truth. The integral approach of trauma-informed care realizes that you make your choices in the context of complexity. What is interesting to me is that the human tendency toward settled ideas and routine result in distortions of reality–the tendency for you to live a lie rather than make decisions in each moment based on the information provided at the time. I list a few of the distortion triggers as a way to check yourself. Knowledge of the triggers and resulting reality distortion is a necessary step toward integration of your true self into a movement toward healthy community.
Obligation. Most often related to parental or familial relationships. Rather than establishing an adult relationship with our caregivers and family (integration), we apply one of the incomplete options. Acceptance of this as culture within an ecosystem reduces the chance that it will be questioned.
Blackmail. You most likely know this from experience with a sibling. Blackmail is when you feel forced into a choice or behavior attempting to save face or maintain a reputation of self that is inconsistent with your behaviors. The sense of pressure is strengthened in proportion to the bond of relationship between you and the person who would come to know your behaviors.
Obliviousness. This results from a self-centeredness that is unsustainable. It is a preoccupation with your business lacking awareness of systems, policies, and mechanisms. It is ignorance assuming that any one thing can be totally devoid of impact on any other thing.
Narcissism. This is similar to obliviousness except that it knows full well how one “thing” impacts other “things.” Narcissism additionally holds itself as the most important of all things to the extent that it acts oblivious to others. “Narcissism does not cause other things to happen,” it defends. “Narcissism only displays its authentic self, and things happen. Narcissism has no responsibility for the outcome.”
Denial. Denial is perhaps the most informed of lies from a knowledge point of view. Yet, it is the most emotionally clueless of the lies we tell ourselves. Denial is characterized by the inability to empathize at even the most basic level–the level of considering what you would do if placed in the same situation.