On activist trauma-bonding and cultural codependency

This article assumes you have some basic working knowledge of attachment theory. If the term is new to you, you can go here to read more.

One of the key aspects of the cultural somatic approach I employ is to understand oppressions, not necessarily just as socially programmed thoughts and actions, but as cultural attachment patterns – behavioral manifestations of psychic wounds that we suffer when our stable connections to ancestral cultures become disrupted by ‘adverse ancestral experiences’ such as plagues, genocides, and imperial invasions.

We understand that these ancestral-cultural traumas live, not in our individual fleshy bodies, but also in cultural somas, collective bodies that emerge from complex networks of relationships. A simple way to understand this phenomenon is to see that Jung’s collective unconscious, carrying millennia of memories of adverse ancestral experiences in its depths, has a body and nervous system that is invisibly networked to our individual nervous systems.

Because of their fractal nature, when cultural nervous systems become inflamed in a trauma response, certain patterns begin to emerge in our individual and collective behavior.

Cultural appropriation is such a pattern. It is what you may call an anxious cultural attachment behavior, driven by white culture’s lack of secure connection to its own parents: the indigenous ancestral folk cultures of pre-imperial Europe.

Similarly, you may see that racial segregation is an avoidant cultural attachment behavior that expresses a need to reject and project shame on those that remind white people of their ancestral-indigenous communities that were more embodied, sensual, and animistic than contemporary white society. (“Dancing in the Streets” by Barbara Ehrenreich is an excellent book in this subject.)

Together, they form a colonialist disorganized cultural attachment pattern that bounces from anxious to avoidant.

Understanding oppressions such as white supremacy as culturally codified attachment behaviors bring us some important clues about how to work with them. Since cultural somas have a fractal relationship with our individual bodies, almost everything we have learned about healing ourselves as individuals through somatics and relational psychology becomes useful, even critical, for healing the cultures we belong to.

This brings us to consider some things that are very popular topics in psychotherapy but are rarely discussed in activist communities, other than nods to it through labels such as performative activism/allyship. That is trauma-bonding and codependency.

Trauma-bonds are essentially emotional entanglements that form when we go through peak experiences together that resonate with pieces of unprocessed trauma in our unconscious and cause us to surpass our emotional thresholds. As our emotional thresholds are different per individual or even per community, trauma-bonding can even happen unidirectionally if one party, and not the other, is stretched beyond their emotional threshold.

Trauma-bonds almost always produce codependent dynamics where the objects of admiration of trauma-bonded codependents become redeeming saviors that can do no wrong – until they do. When enacted in a community, trauma-bonds tend to create cult-like collective dynamics.

Why is this so important in understanding toxic patterns in activist culture?

This is because activism is typically ignited by collective peak experiences. The ongoing protests and actions around anti-Black violence are such an example, with a historical amount of white people becoming heavily engaged in anti-racist work.

While change is necessary and welcome, it is also common sense that there is a lot of cross-cultural-racial trauma-bonding is happening right now. I certainly see many white people engaging in anti-racist activism from a codependent need to ‘fix’. They are hyper-activated by the psychological destabilization that comes with facing the reality of their inherited legacy and desperately trying to find strategies to regain ground. I also see some BIPOC reciprocally engaging in narcissistic behaviors that mostly come out as dogmatic indoctrination and manipulation of social capital, mostly involving the same white people who are in a state of self-collapse.

What is often is missed about these culturally codependent patterns within the social justice industrial complex is how much they are connected to individual early life traumas that form toxic child-caregiver patterns. Based on my clinical experience working with recovering cultural codependents, of which I am one, childhood attachment traumas in our individual nervous systems tend to fire and fuse together with the ancestral-cultural attachment traumas held in cultural somas. In fact, when I ask clients about their internal felt sense experience of a stuckness in a cross-identity matter, they usually connect to some kind of familial or intergenerational wound, revealing that what they initially thought is about racism, misogyny, or some other oppressions, is actually about a whole lot more.

Social justice discourse is a perfect forum for the above patterns to play out and create cult-like dynamics because it is exactly where our childhood wounds and the ancestral shame as oppressor and oppressed come together. Behind what we call acts of performative activism, on both the ‘buyer’ and ‘seller’ sides, are deep knotted webs of childhood, intergenerational, ancestral, cultural, and even pre-historical traumas in our psyche.

All this said, none of the above critiques means we should stop healing. The point is to simply do it better, just like how we, in the field of contemporary somatic psychotherapy, have been undoing the retraumatizing effects of cathartic therapies from the last century, through the use of updated techniques such as titration, where small amounts of psychic information are processed so that our body’s neurological capacity isn’t exceeded.

In fact, a good place to start healing cultural codependency is to start with titration itself. We may at first monitor one’s own capacity for participation in activism, and gradually open up more as we become familiar with the Window of Tolerance of our nervous system. If shame arises from making such a behavioral adjustment, we may take a look at how early childhood emotions are being raised, rather than engage reactively.

This foundational work may also be followed up by healing ancestral-cultural attachment traumas in the body (which is subtly different from spiritually connecting with ancestors). You can learn more about that process here.

7 thoughts on “On activist trauma-bonding and cultural codependency

  1. thank you for this piece. i’ve engaged with your work for two or three years now, and have been seeing a somatic practitioner for the past year. it’s good to feel how your words land in my body, now that i feel ever so slightly more embodied. thank you for the suggestions of paying attention to the sensations that come up in interrogating cross-cultural stuck points.

  2. This is fascinating! Thank you!

    In the second to last paragraph there’s a phrase that I wonder if it’s missing a word? “In fact, a good place to start cultural codependency is to start with titration itself.”

    Should that be “a good place to start healing cultural codependency”?

    1. I see editing as a collective emergent process 😉 so thank you!

  3. Well written, well resourced. I will keep this at hand.

  4. Thank you for speaking to the culturally entangled aspects of historical trauma! As a therapist who uses EMDR. some somatic techniques, narrative therapy and a feminist practice lens in my work with trauma survivors, I also notice the transgenerational reverberations of trauma. I appreciate you putting it into words.

  5. deeply grateful for your work, thoughtfulness and interweaving of culture, animism, somatics and trauma. every time I find your words I feel so grateful that someone is holding this piece.

  6. Thank you for this – it gives me a framework for what I see happening in activist communities here in Minneapolis. I had sensed that first the pandemic and then the murder protests and militarized responses were resonating with and bouncing off of everyone’s trauma- I was thinking of it as trauma ping-pong, with multiple balls in play, all bouncing around at the same time with no common rhythm. As descriptive as that feels, the idea of cultural codependency gives me insight into how to begin healing.

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