Undoing traumatic bonding: responding to claims of harm in the post-#metoo era

A note on scope: The purpose of this article is to simply introduce a few new ideas and get us to think more critically about how we respond to claims of harm in our communities overall. It isn’t necessarily to try to give all the answers. A short article like this can hardly cover all the bases, especially for high-impact cases with greater stakes. That said, I hope there is enough common sense within here that can give us shared common sense of ethical clarity that we can build our community dialogue upon.

Introduction: the situation we are currently in

Over the last half-decade, #metoo, as a mass movement has normalized exposure of harmful behaviors in some circles, especially by people who hold ample power, which has obviously resulted in many positive impacts.

I have myself participated in movements to expose the behaviors of powerful white men in my own community although my call-outs of Daniel Foor and Mark Walsh have less to do with misogynist abuse and rather white/Western supremacy and cult dynamics.

For all the good that #metoo has done for us though, it has revealed to us that many of us, even as community organizers in the healing justice movement, are ill-equipped to respond ethically and accountably, when we receive claims of harm. This has resulted in the prevalence of bad faith surveillance and policing within our community.

This issue has been at the crux of the ongoing debates around ‘call-out culture’ or ‘cancel culture’.

The general critique of call-out/cancel culture traditionally has been the claim that: as oppressed people, we cannot afford to reproduce the carceral system within our communities and dispose of our community members.

If I am going to be totally honest, I resonate with the spirit of this critique but I also find it can miss some marks for reasons I explore later in the piece. Truth be told, some of the very people who have harmed me through accountability abuse are devout acolytes of the church of restorative justice, where care work is the main paradigm for practice. (If you would like a more detailed breakdown of my personal experience you’re welcome to read this statement I made on Facebook on Nov 1st 2020.)

Continuing on, my proposal, based on my experience of both being both canceler and canceled, sits neither in absolute approval or disapproval of call-outs nor canceling in our community. If anything, I see that the responsibility for ‘policing’ our communities needs to be redistributed more evenly by all of us working on our skills of discernment in situations where there are reports of harm.

Basically, I believe It is important for every one of us, especially those of us in community organizing roles, to take the time, space, and responsibility to grow the skills necessary to navigate these situations, which are becoming more and more commonplace.

With all this said, below is an experimental guide that outlines some tools we may use to manage claims of harm, compiled from my professional practice, in which I often am called to weigh in on reports of harm, and my private life, in which I have been simultaneously a victim of bullying in the form of accountability abuse, a strong supporter to people who are bringing claims of harm forward, and a claimant who has called for the accountability of community leaders myself.

Defining the problem: traumatic bonding

In speaking to major issues around call-out/cancel culture, it is helpful to define the neurological problem that lies underneath it all: as beings with sensitive empathic nervous systems, receiving claims of harm puts us in a situation that is ripe for traumatic bonding or trauma-bonding.

Traditionally, trauma-bonding has been described as a dynamic between an abuser and co-dependent. Yet more recently, amongst healing justice practitioners, we have emergently started to extend the definition of trauma-bonding to emotionally entangled dynamics where people bond through shared traumatic experiences and begin to project emotions and memories onto each other. Part of this comes from the observation that the underlying dynamic that brings abuser-codependent relationships together is of sharing traumatic experiences such as an abusive childhood or shared ancestral or cultural trauma.

In the field of counseling, this trauma-bonded dynamic is called ‘merging’ – and it is considered a primary malpractice issue to look out for when we are with clients exposing themselves vulnerably to us. When we merge, we begin to project our unhealed material to our perception of our clients, clouding our judgment. This may lead to harm such as, coercing the client to work through a process when they are not ready, or affirming a claim of harm that was in fact distorted by the client’s over-reaction and displacement of unprocessed traumatic material.

My suggestion is that we take this seriously and see that merging, or trauma-bonding, is not optimal for any of our relationships. The reality is, all healthy relationships require a level of differentiation to function well and what follows when differentiation is not there is narcissist-codependent dynamics on the small scale of intimate relationships and cult dynamics on a larger collective scale of special interest communities.

I believe understanding the above is particularly important in doing healing justice work, where our roles as community members, support workers, and organizers necessarily cross over.

Coming back to the original question of, “what we do when we receive claims of harm?”, it is critical for us to recognize that this situation can flare up all of our past pain in an instant, leaving our psyche very vulnerable to traumatic bonding and the projection, distortion, and fragmentation that may ensue.

This is the principal pattern we need to avoid within what we refer to as call-out/cancel culture. We need to be able to be differentiated even while we take in claims of harm that can even feel monstrous.

I will be forthcomingly honest here that it has been a major problem that #metoo, as a decentralized campaign, has occupied center space in conversations of how to deal with these kinds of situations. If you stop and take notice, you will see in its very name, #metoo calls for bonding through acknowledging shared traumatic experiences. This may not necessarily always end up in trauma-bonding, and definitely peer support is a crucial aspect of healing as a survivor, but we also have to be realistic that the paradigm does not lend well to the discernment of the company we keep.

Because of this, I believe evolving our approach to effectively navigating claims of harm will require us to think beyond the current dominant paradigm that has been set forward in the last few years.

In this spirit, below are some basic principles that I think can help us re-orient to rightness in terms of how we respond to claims of harm in our community.

Re-Orienting

In order to minimize traumatic-bonding, I have found it helpful to follow these two foundational relational principles that help us psychologically differentiate ourselves when in complex situations.

One: Root in ethics, rather than care.

I find the first and most useful place to re-orient and emotionally disentangle ourselves is to root our behavioral choices in ethics, rather than care.

This may come as a surprise for those of us who understand care to be a foundational principle to a healthy culture of accountability, especially as there is often a perception that healing justice is care-based mutual aid work.

My observation has been that, in practice, ‘care’ is generally too abstract of a concept to really define appropriate behavior, and also has the natural tendency to pull us emotionally in too many directions as it can have a deep relation to our childhood material around nurturance. A paradigm for justice based on care often has the effect of leading us to burnout and even emotional abuse coming from codependency.

Here it is important to remember that coddling and not challenging the triggered emotional over-reaction of someone, even if they are a survivor, is actually a way we reify re-traumatization. Behind this kind of encouragement is almost always projection that comes from lack of differentiation that is negligence at best and abuse at work.

On the other hand, ‘ethics’ to me is a deeply helpful concept that allows us to describe a code of action that can be usefully distinguished from care, and the attachment material it brings up, yet still can be caring.

To me, not everyone deserves our care, that is our emotional labor, although everyone deserves our ethical treatment, which will often be caring by nature.

This distinction reveals the critical weakness of our tendency to use mutual care language around matters of justice. In practice, I find passionate sermons for non-disposability, which calls for the ‘care’ of even the perpetrator, to be deeply vulnerable to corruption through traumatic-bonding.

And even in pragmatic terms, my experience has been that less unnecessary hurt is done by being ethical rather than caring for everyone’s emotional vulnerabilities.

Two: Roles and responsibilities come before boundaries

With all the modern popular psychology speak around the sacred space of the individual, it is important for us to understand that we cannot ‘set boundaries’ in regards to responsibilities that are natural parts of the roles we have in our society, our community, and our relationships.

To make this obvious, for example, a landlord cannot set a boundary that they do not fix toilets when it is part of their natural responsibility of being a landlord.

Of course, real life is more complicated and sometimes our responsibilities are not easily defined, such as when our role is as a parent or mentor. That said, it is important for us to not default to simply drawing boundaries on our individual whim and always consider who we are in relation.

Continuing on, in reports of harm, there are generally four roles: the alleged harmed party, the alleged perpetrator, the informant, and the recipient (us). We require to keep constant track of the responsibilities that show up in each of these roles, as well as the other roles we have that layer on top, such as community organizer or therapist-in-community.

In this particular guide, we will be focusing mostly on our responsibilities as recipients, but I think it will also illuminate the responsibilities of other roles as these are always entangled and related.

Discerning claims

I have found the above re-orienting principles to be extremely useful as they can give us a sense of differentiation and grounding when to the claims of harm we receive.

Following the two principles, the first thing for us to do when receiving a claim is to realize that one of our central responsibilities as a recipient is to hold the informant accountable (who can also sometimes be the alleged harmed party) to a sense of ethics.

In practical terms, this means assessing the validity, actionability, and the good/bad faith nature of a report, and taking appropriate actions based on our discernment.

I want to note here that I believe: the validity of a claim should NEVER be used as criteria to determine whether a person deserves support with appropriate resources.

I was speaking with a colleague, known for their public discourse on restorative justice, who has asked for anonymity, who offered to me that the concept of ‘believing survivors’ is actually entangled with the fact that many social resources for survivors have been, and continue to be, withheld based on believability.

So in fact, ‘believing survivors’ is actually a way that we have, in the helping field, internalized the oppressive demand of the social welfare industrial complex, by arguing that claims of harm need to be considered valid by default so alleged harm parties may access help.

Extending this logic further, to not just seek resources but also justice, is obviously a tyrannical disaster.

Because of this, I want to be clear that assessing the validity of a claim is only ever about determining consequence, and that fundamentally, it is not on any survivor to prove the validity of their claim to access the support and resources they need. Being able to make this differentiation between seeking consequence vs. support is connected to being also be psychologically differentiated i.e. not trauma-bonded.

With all this said, below is a non-exhaustive or finalized guide that I believe is a good-enough to be a solid foundation to handle most common situations where we receive a report of harm and there is a need for us to determine consequences.

If the report is coming to us through a third-party informant, does the report have the consent of the alleged harmed party?

If the informant can’t produce explicit consent of the original alleged harmed party, we should be healthily skeptical in terms of its validity and actionability.

If this type of claim was brought to us and we are in a community leadership role and are expected to act on it, we need to be diligent that we do not propagate accountability abuse. Particularly, we need to be careful if the reporting may be happening in a way that it is in violation of the alleged harmed party’s privacy and consent.

Our responsibility here is to investigate further to find out if the reporting is in good or bad faith.

NOTE: Of course, this issue of consent needs to be looked at in relation to the severity of the claim and if there is a legitimate reason for someone to non-consensually report harm in order to mitigate harm.

How is the informant showing up?

The more an informant is showing consideration for the ethical treatment of all parties and contained emotional regulation (not calm, which can be masked dysregulation), the less risk associated with taking the claim more seriously and acting upon it.

On the other hand, the less an informant is showing consideration for the ethical treatment of all parties and contained emotional regulation, the more risk associated with taking the claim more seriously and acting upon it. In this case, I believe it is natural for us to request names, specific details, receipts, and so on, especially if there is an expectation of us to act in a way that produces consequences.

Also, it is important for us to recognize that high emotional activation introduces more likelihood of distortion of testimony from emotional entanglements and we need to be aware of how that may affect the validity of a claim.

NOTE: Sometimes assessing emotional activation through tone can be difficult, as some people have patterns that manage dysregulation through suppression of emotion and this will be particularly hard to tell through writing.

Are details vague or specific?

Reports that are specific, supported by elements such as receipts and public statements backed by them, are much more actionable, as they have natural accountability built-in where the alleged perpetrator has actual material to respond to.

On the other hand, vague reports without receipts and public statements back by them inherently lack accountability and probably should be considered less valid and less actionable.

NOTE: Vagueness here doesn’t refer to the kind of memory slippage that is common in traumatic situations but rather to descriptions such as: “X always pushes boundaries” or “Y was abusive to Z when they were dating”.

Is the informant requesting confidentiality and anonymity to the alleged perpetrator?

These reports tend to be the highest risk as they have the least amount of built-in accountability. In most cases, it is wise for us to tread very carefully unless the alleged harmed party is in a situation where they are in obvious threat of harm such as they are an employee or intimate partner of the alleged perpetrator.

If we encounter this, generally, our best route is to support the informant and the alleged party with resources so they may feel safe-brave enough to not require anonymity and/or confidentiality.

Further, if we have the resources, we should be willing to do further investigation ourselves to ascertain the good/bad faith nature of the claim. If we find that they are in bad faith, we may proceed to pursue accountability from the informant.

A real-world example

In order to show how we might practically apply the above guide, I would like to use a real-world example that happened on my social media.

Just recently, I had posted a podcast recording on my social media where I speak to my criticisms of a powerful white man in the somatic industry and someone came into the thread with this claim of the podcast host’s behavior.

Note: All of what has transpired and been documented below has happened on public posts and is not from private communications. I have decided to anonymize names, even though it’s probably easy to find out who everyone is because the purpose of this sharing is not gossip.

The words “patriarchal bullying” is key here because for many of us in healing justice communities, where there is ample awareness, sometimes even vigilance, around patriarchal violence, being exposed to those words becomes an open invitation for us to traumatically bond.

If we allow ourselves to differentiate though, a few things become illuminated 1) The informant’s tone is even by internet standards is easily read as flippant and sarcastic making it likely a high-risk claim 2) The claims themselves are vague descriptions of character that are interpretive 3) This is not about something that has happened to her and we don’t know if the informant even has the alleged victim’s support in pursuing the matter.

Some research of mine led me to the informant’s public feed, which turned up this screenshot of the original complaint of the podcast host’s behavior.

Something that immediately pops out here is that the alleged victim is claiming the podcast host requires their consent to reference material of hers that is in the public record. This is a more obvious situation to me: you cannot fence in what belongs in the commons through arbitrary boundaries you set. Regardless of what the podcast host’s intentions may be, at face-value, this stands out to me as a likely bad faith request.

For my due diligence, I asked the podcast host what this issue is about. In doing this, I did not ask him questions with any pretense of believing in the claim itself. What was important to me was his response, which was easier to measure in real-time and have a more sovereign discernment of.

The podcast host also explained that he did not publish any private communication of the alleged, which makes her original post a false claim. I have no reason to not believe him given there is a published book that contains hard evidence of this. If this is a lie, he would have no defamation case in the first place.

Another thing we may pay attention to is that the informant’s campaigning actually exasperates the damages that the podcast host is suing the alleged victim for, meaning that the informant’s behavior has the great potential to harm the alleged victim she is claiming to advocate for. Because of this, I asked the informant and another who showed up to my wall whether they had the alleged victim’s approval to pursue this matter in public.

Neither replied affirmatively.

In summary, overall, my conclusion was that the claims that were brought forward to me regarding the podcast host’s behaviors were highly self-invalidating and it would be problematic for me to affirm them through my actions. 

This does not mean that I necessarily believe the podcast host is incapable of transgressions or cannot have any malignant tendencies. It simply means though that my due diligence has not shown anything that should shift my relationship with him. I may change my opinion in the future based on new evidence and reports, but from the current information available, it would be irresponsible for me to treat him any differently.

Closing thoughts

I believe that we as healing justice community, in our pursuit of justice that is in whole integrity, have to become open to sitting with the bitterness of accountability as medicine before we open up to the sweet relief of safety and tenderness it may bring.

To me, truly committing to the spirit of accountability, which is also a commitment to the spirit of collective healing, necessarily means letting go of our attachments to over-protecting the emotional vulnerability, or even fragility, of ourselves and others, regardless of our role as an informant, alleged harmed party, alleged perpetrator, or recipient. This requires us to be differentiated and steady even as our nervous system’s addictive impulse is to bond beautifully and sensuously through shared pain.

This stance may seem almost cold at first, and even possibly harmful to those who are truly vulnerable, as it takes out of the warm glow of what we call care. Yet, I’ve found that in real-life situations, being ethical (not necessarily caring) in our considerations around matters such as consent and boundaries is completely capable of providing necessary protection to all parties, especially those who have been harmed.

And moreover, I believe, the warmth we find when we are able to finally land on solid ground, knowing that we are in alignment with our ethics and our responsibilities, not torn by the many directions our attachment traumas throws us in, will be well worth our drudging through the discomfort.

1 thought on “Undoing traumatic bonding: responding to claims of harm in the post-#metoo era

  1. Beautifully thought out. Thank you for your work on this complex issue.

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