In the field of psychiatry, there has been many discussions on whether there is difference between the traditional diagnoses of PTSD and a more specific and differentiate diagnoses known as complex-PTSD. While the DSM 5 did not include C-PTSD, the purpose of the label C-PTSD is to address a particular form of social traumas that relate to being held captive or abused over a prolonged period of time that often has dramatic implications when it comes to social attachments for the victim.
While I am not fit to wade into the complex discussion as to whether PTSD and C-PTSD should be treated as different diagnoses, there is something I want to highlight about the portrayal of C-PTSD that is important for our understanding of social traumas: the traumas that result from long-term exposure to negatively significant emotional experiences.
Before continuing, something needs to be clarified here about my usage of “trauma.” Often, trauma is a word that gets used to be thrown around to garner sympathy and favor from other people, so when we hear the word we can sometimes develop a sense of skepticism to labeling something as trauma. Indeed, I can remember a few instances where a person who got offended by something that said resorted to saying something along the lines of “You are traumatizing me” or other forms of victimizing language. When I use the word trauma, I want you to disabuse yourself of that notion. When I use trauma in this context, I am using it to refer to a series of experiences and memories that negatively change and impact the function of a person for the long-term. Psychological trauma debilitates us in a way that a bowl of ice cream, a long chat with a friend, or a vacation does not take away.
It is also understand with trauma that it is deeply personal to the way people process and function. What traumatizes one person may not traumatize the next person. A serious car wreck may be traumatizing for one person so that they are scared to drive afterwards, whereas another person is perfectly ready to drive. While some people are more susceptible to the impacts of trauma than others, it is also true that what would be considered traumatic differs from person to person.
Also, being traumatized and having PTSD are not the same thing. PTSD is a pervasive condition that can cause the long-term dysfunction of a person’s whole life, whereas many traumas may only impact our functioning in more narrow domains of life. This may seem obvious, but it is important to emphasize that one can have trauma and not have PTSD. While I am not a psychiatrist and can only speak from an outsider perspective, my concern is that much like ADHD, Autism Spectrum, etc., PTSD has become increasingly a catch-all diagnoses for the presence of psychological traumas.
With all of this said, I want to put forward a reason that we need to distinguish between two different types of social traumas that has the potential to impact our relationships with other people. The first relates to single or a handful events of highly negative emotions, such as fear, panic, etc., that come from the way another person treats us. Domestic violence, rape, burglary, etc. are all types of events that most of us recognize and understand how they can create trauma. When we think of trauma, we are inclined to think of these types of events.
However, there is a second type of social trauma that often goes under the radar: traumas that result from a long series of negative social interactions that a person feels they can not prevent or escape. These types of interactions can range from relationships where narcissistic abuse takes place, stalking, repetitive racial denigration, persistent but low grade forms of social aggression towards employees, mobbing, etc.
The reason it is important to make a distinction between these two is three-fold. Firstly, even as both forms of social trauma can impact attachment, we are apt to show greater sympathy to the former because we can readily identify the problems as such traumas leave visible “fingerprints,” whereas the latter forms of social trauma are often too subtle and complex for people to readily grasp immediately. A person whose significant other has consistently controlled their life choices in pervasive but subtle ways often doesn’t some traumatized like domestic abuse would be, leading to them to receive less sympathy. More likely, people would explain to their problems to some other problem they had from their past, whether it be their parents, they have some other psychiatric condition, etc. This hampers recovery because what people need to recover from trauma is stabilization by experiencing the world in its positive aspects. However, a person who has enduring a traumatic series of negative social interactions in a way that is isn’t readily identifiable to others may not be able to get access to the type of positive interactions that they need to recover a sense of their value and positive expectation of social relationships.
Secondly, social traumas emerges from a series of negative social interactions can often times be hard for the victim to understand themselves. A victim of rape often has a hard time in the aftermath dealing with problems of pervasive shame and unworthiness, but their route to recovery often comes with recognizing that what happened to them wasn’t their fault. While there are some forms of rape that are not as clear about how the victimization occurs, much of the time there is a clear sense of what happened and how it was an evil violation. However, for people who experience social traumas from a series of repetitive, smaller violations, it can often be quite hard to quite put their finger on all the problems. This makes it simultaneously harder for them to recover through wrapping their heard around what happened and harder for them to communicate what the nature of the problem and the trauma is. The difficulty of communication then exacerbates the first problem in that people don’t understand them as well.
Nevertheless, such social traumas are not usually attributable to any deep prior problem in the person that lead to the problem. Such people are put into a situation where they are somehow bound to an emotionally and socially threatening situation beyond their perceived control or without high personal price and cost. For instance, given the often ambiguous legal ground that stalking exists under, stalking victims are often left with little legal recourse to stop some forms of stalking and are often forced into situations where they have to endure the unwanted person or they are forced to make changes in their lifestyle that may have serious impacts on their life. An employee whose manager has a vendetta against him may have to either choose to endure the series of humiliations, double-binds, etc. or risk going unemployed. A person dating a narcissist either has to continue to make themselves available to the narcissist and endure the toxic assaults on their well-being or risk the narcissist engage in social aggression through various means, including slandering them to their family and friends. In my case, I had the make a choice between either continuing in my social life and have to endure the violations of boundaries that I was powerless to address or largely socially isolate myself.
Now, perhaps the victim had something in their lives that made them susceptible to being targeting by such people, but focus on that would deflect from the fact that the experiences of the emotional assaults actually changes them for the worse in a way that wasn’t true for them beforehand. These are very real damages that are done to the person, and it can be quite hard for them to recover from the traumas as they are not as liable to receive help and they are often liable to be a bit uncertain about what happened themselves.
There is a third reason I am wanting to point out this form of trauma though. I want to isolate a potential cause for these forms of social trauma: the dissolution of specific social and moral conventions for how we treat one another. The stalker, the narcissist, the hostile manager are different from the overtly criminal in that they don’t violate a clear and abiding “NO!” Instead, they are people for whatever reason do not have a sense of moral virtue and self-control to treat people with a basic sense of boundaries and respect. Most societies throughout history have inculcated a sense of social roles for people that determine how they are expected to treat other people. These social expectations are not always positive forces, but one of the positive functions they have is enculturating citizens of a society how to interact with one another and what is to be consider inappropriate.
While awareness of some forms of such social norms still do exist, they are not taught like they were in the past. The end result is that people’s social interactions is more spontaneous. This may sound good on the surface for those influenced by a more romantic understanding of human life, but the end result is that it leads people to act in a more egocentric manner based upon what is important to themselves, without as much regard for other people. If someone is a naturally empathetic and conscientious person, there is no concern. They may be susceptible to the occasional slip up and faux pas, they will not be a source of persistently negative social interactions. Such people will naturally adjust their interactions based upon the way other people respond to them. However, if some people are more self-absorbed, they will be able to act in certain ways that in the past would have been considered wildly inappropriate. Because there is a less deeply engrained sense of awareness of the social norms, the actions of the self-absorbed are less likely to be censured by their victims or by other people.
In other words, a society without well-defined and enculturated social norms, whatever those norms are expected to be, is a society where these more pernicious forms of social trauma are much more frequent. It is here with the post-modern move of devaluing widely binding moral frameworks, the romantic move of valuing spontaneity over convention, and the globalist move away from treating the local community as the center of life has had the effect of undermining any consistently reinforced sense of norms for social interactions and relationships.
However, there seems a increasing awareness of these types of relationships and traumas, but we don’t necessarily handle identifying them well. For instance, the internet is replete with articles about narcissistic dating abuse, but people are not apt to recognize that narcissistic dating abuse is about a series of interactions over the long haul, not simply a person who was a little rude, decided they didn’t want to date you, or wasn’t deemed as emotionally available. Because we fail to comprehend that such social traumas are the result of persistent negative social interactions over the long haul, whereas we are apt to try to associate the traumas and the characterizations with single actions, we don’t identify these traumas very well.