Learning about Systemic Trauma
Entering the month of February I finally had the time to write about something that has been on my mind for weeks. Wrapping up and posting this article is a different story, that’s why you are reading it now.
Saturday February 2
I’m staring at the three tea lights in the glass flowerpot that I lit: it’s the day that my dad was cremated – two years ago now. But this piece is not about that. Well… not specifically anyway.
I don’t quite know where to start. So I’m just going to let my hands do the typing and worry about how all the words and images end up on the screen later.
Tuesday January 14
It was the middle of my launch week for the Systemic Leadership Summit earlier this year, when I received a message via the summit website chat.
Hey, I was wondering if there is anyway to get more deeply involved in this summit as I specialize in systemic trauma and healing.
For a few seconds my racing mind (and…well…the rest of my body included I guess) substantially slowed down in its tracks. I reread the request. On a practical side it was no longer possible to take on more speakers for the summit. But the point of systemic trauma and healing stuck with me. And not just as a summit topic, but as something that anyone who works with leadership and change needs to know about. From the inside out. I know about trauma, but not so much about collective trauma and how to work with it.
Tuesday January 21
A week later, only a day or two after the summit ended I met with Hilbrand. He founded the School for Systemic Awareness here in the Netherlands. For no particular reason I had decided to contact him for an intro and a chat and was free to do so after running my event. Once we sat down, it didn’t take me long to bring up the subject of trauma, and as he works with themes like migration related trauma, we had an interesting exchange about it. When I said I wanted to work with trauma in systems more, he said: “You’re one of the few people who are interested in this. I hardly met anyone who is actually willing to go there” he said, “Not in general and also not in the colored population in the Netherlands that is into systemic work”. “Why not?” I said and pierced my eyes to see if I could hear the answer before he uttered another word. “Well…many people find it scary. Some speak about it in an intellectual way, but they don’t actually go there, because they are afraid of what they may find.” It reminded me of working with a client organization that deals with these dynamics and asked me to help them. Traumatic forces are so strong, that they permeate day to day decisions that seemingly don’t have anything to do with the trauma. When you look closer, they have everything to do with it.
Friday January 24
I open my inbox to find a video about trauma-informed leadership and the importance of empathy and active listening. I’m intrigued. Especially when he says “There is trauma on both sides”. Have a look and then come back here :).
There is trauma on both sides.
Saturday January 25
A little over 10AM my partner and I arrived at De Nieuwe Kerk Amsterdam. As we enter the church my mom is already inside. The queue is not that long yet: we are early. We’re all here to see The Great Suriname Exhibition: it’s a comprehensive exhibition about Surinam, a former Dutch colony, that tells the fascinating story of this South American country and its people (who come from very different backgrounds). It was my mom’s second time, for my partner and me it was the first time. First there was a timeline, an overview of the major historic events. What struck me most is that the Dutch were the last ones to let go of slavery in the Surinamese region. Then we walked past the beautiful cultural art expressions of Surinam at the beginning and end of the exhibition. In between were the many many horrifying stories about the very traumatic events in the history of Surinam. Stories of large numbers of people being taken from Africa and shipped to Surinam to work as slaves (that is, if they had at all survived the journey at sea) and the very inhumane conditions they lived in. This was never captured in Dutch history books or taught in school.
Strangely enough, the more impressed and shocked my partner was, just like the majority of the visitors at that moment, the lighter my heart became. I didn’t expect that at all. Growing up as a second generation Surinamese Dutch woman (my parents came to the Netherlands in the sixties) wasn’t easy and it took a lot of processing and hard work to have a sense of what my identity is and where I belong. I was also taught to stay away from many things Surinamese. But as I watched and witnessed, my heart became lighter and lighter, as I recognized the flows of the different people, of when and how all the colors of the blood, not just African, running through my veins entered Surinam.
As I walked I realized how this was a recognition of who and what was and came before me. And with that, of who I am. I also realized how both sides of the stories of what happened, make up the trauma we have. Victims and perpetrators hold the same trauma. And if trauma is not acknowledged, it just perpetuates. It keeps on going, just like any other pattern that’s stuck.
Victims and perpetrators hold the same trauma. And if trauma is not acknowledged, it just perpetuates. It keeps on going just like any other pattern that's stuck.
I recognize the music and the traditional clothes and the food and the language. It was so weird how lighthearted and cheerful I felt. I ended up buying all kinds of books and food at the museum shop, including a book about the Surinamese language (I was deliberately not brought up with it) and cook books too. The three of us talked about our experience over lunch and I eagerly practiced my Surinamese. The history, slavery, the role of the Dutch, current debates about integration and racism, all was discussed over lunch as if we were talking about the latest movie we’d seen. “But how do you explain trauma to the average person in the street?” my partner said. “And how do you explain that the trauma is a collective thing and not just something the victims feel or experience?” I added.
Saturday evening January 25
Four people are sitting at a dinner table. We’re talking. One person is German, one is Dutch, one is half German half Dutch and one is me. And we are talking about the collective guilt that the Germans feel and have felt for generations for their role in the world wars and the Holocaust. And how this trauma is passed on to people who have never had anything to do with the war. They are simply German. And at the same time the trauma is part of their identity, as it is part of German history. And by acknowledging what happened then, there is a chance for all involved to work through the trauma.
In that conversation something dawned on me that is probably going to infuriate a lot of people. But I’m going to type what I said in our conversation anyway. And that is that the Dutch also have a passed on trauma from their role in slavery. Just like the Germans with their role in the Holocaust. The current generation doesn’t have anything to do with what happened for centuries. But it is part of the history, our history. And it is important to acknowledge what happened in order to work through the trauma. Otherwise it stays stuck. We stay stuck. But then…how do you explain this to an average person down the street? Who would want to know about a trauma they have, but are doing just fine not knowing?
It is important to acknowledge what happened in order to work through the trauma. Otherwise it stays stuck. We stay stuck.
Sunday January 26
“Did you see the MP on television today?” she asks. I’m talking to a friend on the phone. “No why?”. “He apologized for the approach of the Dutch government towards the Jews in WWII” “Why now? Is this a special day or something?”. “No idea”.
And there was indeed, 75 years after the war, an apology where there hadn’t really been one. There were attempts, but this sounded genuine and real to those who wanted to listen and needed to hear it. The same day and the next many people wrote about Auschwitz and how important it is to remember this as something that can never happen again. Also here on LinkedIn. Acknowledgment of what happened, remembering what occurred and an apology by generations that came after, is what matters. It’s important. And I can’t help but wonder if there is ever going to be an apology for what happened to all those people in Surinam.
Acknowledgment of what happened, remembering what occurred and an apology by generations that came after is what matters.
Friday January 31
A few more hours and then the UK is no longer part of the EU. Many people in the UK are celebrating. But not all: some are deeply saddened that they are leaving the EU. I can’t help but wonder: is this a collective trauma and if so who are part of the collective? All Europeans and all British people? I recall talking with two friends who both live in England when the Brexit discussion first started. One wanted to stay part of the EU and one wanted to leave. And I asked them why they felt the way they felt. Both reasons were both intellectual and not so intellectual. Where things got really interesting is when I asked them: where do you feel like you belong, do you feel like you belong to Europe or Great Britain or England or…? The one who wanted no Brexit felt like they belong in Europe. The one who wanted Brexit couldn’t sense where she belonged: no one had ever asked her that question, so she couldn’t say Britain or England or anything else. Belonging and identity are so closely knit. As I was listening to her I touched upon my own sense of belonging that is not always clear, and gets challenged by people who can’t identify where I belong by looking at me.
In the afternoon I found myself facilitating a constellation in a place I’ve never been before and with people I’ve never worked with. I don’t know why I was invited that afternoon: this wasn’t my regular practice group and the only person I knew, was the person who invited me to this practice group. The entire afternoon was strange from the get go. During a check in I tried to figure out what the rules of the group were by asking questions and we ended up in a discussion about who belonged and who didn’t. At some point someone said they felt like I belonged and they didn’t and I was in shock over that. He had been part of this group once before, I hadn’t. Why he felt like I belonged more than he did was never expressed. When I said that I was fascinated about trauma and felt that I somehow had to say it out loud in the group, someone spontaneously got up. Before we knew it we were in a constellation without a facilitator.
When the client came in, the person who invited me to the afternoon restated that it was his client, but that he was too involved to practice constellation work with this client. The client said that he had an authority issue with the directors he works with at his employer. He hates anyone who abuses their power. He calls them Nazis. Somehow the client ended up picking me as their facilitator and so we started. In the constellation work with him the victims ended up in the constellation. There it was. Trauma that was passed on. But there was not much space to work with the perpetrator energy in the constellation, other than in the very beginning of the work, where the directors were in. We ended up going back two generations in the client’s family system. At some point the victims were “done” and left the constellation.
And I wonder if that is the same as what I felt earlier. How much are we really willing and able to look the perpetrator in ourselves and in our systems in the eye? How can we understand trauma if we look at it from only one side? And what do I want to do with this in the systemic realm now that I know what I know more consciously?
Sunday February 2
I’ve only scratched the surface of the big T word. There must be loads. But I’m not running away from it. Because it is part of my life, the clients and organizations I work with and society we all live in.
The candles are gone: they are all burned up. Not me: I’m all fired up about this!
Aftermath: March 4
This week I received a message from a former client at Philips. He wanted to share that he is retiring soon. And that one of the first things he will do, is visit Surinam. The reason for this is knowing me from being my client all those years and his recent visit to the exhibition at De Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam. I will call him soon and ask him what exactly moved in him to go there. And I hope he realizes, the trauma is in Surinam but also here in the Netherlands.
I wish I could go again, but the exhibition is now closed. I read that Amsterdam is planning to open a slavery museum (see here), but who and what will be included and excluded in the museum story about the role of the Dutch in slavery seems to be already dominated by one part of it. As I read another article I see how, in different shapes and forms, trauma is passed on. Again.
If there are any speakers, books, courses, videos or other great things about systemic trauma that you’d recommend, let me know.