Secondary Traumatic Stress

A key driver of infighting is secondary traumatic stress (STS). STS is just like post-traumatic stress, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), except that post-traumatic stress affects the direct victims of violence, while STS affects the witnesses to violence. (STS has also been referred to as “vicarious traumatization” and “compassion fatigue.”)

STS is experienced by many advocates who are working to end violence. Not only does STS contribute to infighting, but infighting can exacerbate STS, resulting in a feedback loop.

Symptoms of STS include (but aren’t limited to) the following:

  • dysregulation (having a nervous system that’s out of balance and experiencing emotions that may feel difficult or impossible to manage)

  • emotional lability (having intense emotions  and an unstable mood that may change rapidly and unpredictably)

  • feeling like your efforts (e.g., to end the suffering you’ve witnessed) are never enough

  • misanthropy

  • intrusive thoughts (images of the suffering you’ve seen or know is happening suddenly coming to mind)

  • survivor guilt (feeling guilty for not suffering like others are or have suffered, and for simply feeling good)

  • traumatic thinking (seeing the world as an ongoing traumatic event, with only three roles to be played—victim, perpetrator, or hero)

Traumatic thinking

When we’ve experienced trauma, we can develop a mindset in which we see the world as one giant traumatic event, with only three roles to be played: victim, perpetrator, or hero.

When we’ve experienced trauma, we can develop a mindset in which we see the world as one giant traumatic event, with only three roles to be played: victim, perpetrator, or hero. (A witness can be either a perpetrator or a hero, depending on whether they enable or help prevent the trauma.)

We place everyone, including ourselves, into one of these three rigid categories. We lose our capacity for nuance, failing to appreciate that all of us, in different ways, play the roles of perpetrator, victim, and hero. For example, a vegan who advocates to save nonhuman animals is, in reality, not just a “hero”; they may also be the victim of a carnistic system that has traumatized them with its brutality and that allows for them to be publicly mocked and demeaned because of their ideology and practices. And they may perpetrate violence through toxic communication toward or about others.

Traumatic thinking can lead to toxic moral perfectionism. It causes us to hold everyone, including ourselves, to impossible standards. Because heroes are seen as all good, all the time, a perceived hero who makes one selfish choice, one insensitive remark, one deviation from the ideals of the cause they’re working for can suddenly be viewed as a perpetrator rather than as being on the side of justice.

The vegan advocate who doesn’t check the label on wine bottles to make sure the wine wasn’t processed using animal products is no longer “a real vegan” and is deplatformed. The feminist who supports a politician whose policies on gender aren’t fully progressive is suddenly colluding with patriarchy. This perfectionistic attitude contributes to the high rates of recidivism within justice movements, and it turns away many potential supporters. It also causes us to create enemies within our own circles. And when we lash out at these “enemies,” we fuel infighting and contribute to the self-cannibalization of the group or movement we’re a part of.

Traumatized advocates traumatize advocates

Trauma is contagious: when we’re around traumatized people, we can start to experience the symptoms of trauma ourselves. This is because traumatized people often relate to others in ways that trigger them to also develop symptoms of trauma.

When we’re traumatized, our anger, grief, and other emotions that are normal and healthy responses to witnessing injustice can intensify to the point where we feel unable to manage them. We can become emotionally dysregulated and highly sensitized to even the slightest of stressors, such as misunderstandings or perceived affronts, to which we react defensively, engaging in nonrelational behavior. We can therefore cause the person on the receiving end of our reaction to become dysregulated and defensive as well.

If, for example, a traumatized and dysregulated LGBTQ+ activist feels that a fellow activist is harming the cause by supporting a politician who hasn’t supported certain LGBTQ+ rights initiatives, the former may automatically communicate about and with the latter in nonrelational ways. In turn, the activist being attacked may become defensive and dysregulated as well; the last thing they want is to be thought of as a perpetrator of the very injustice they’re working to end.

Put simply, the emotional dysregulation that accompanies trauma can cause us to engage in nonrelational behaviors, which then dysregulate, or further dysregulate, others. So it’s important to learn how to self-regulate and to help regulate others.

In addition, when we’re dysregulated, we’re at increased risk of becoming further traumatized. This is because healing trauma requires that we practice self-care and build or reinforce healthy relational connections, and being dysregulated typically causes us to neglect our needs and to be less able to foster healthy connections.

Also, a traumatized advocate who’s become desensitized to traumatic material and desperate to further the cause may have the tendency to use traumatic material in their advocacy as a shock tactic without thinking of its impact on others. And they might share traumatic information with other advocates, without thinking about the fact that they could add to the other advocates’ trauma.

Of course, sometimes it’s appropriate to share traumatic material as part of our outreach to nonadvocates, in order to raise awareness. However, it’s important to always get consent from the person you’re reaching out to, or you could end up reducing, rather than increasing, their support for your cause, as well as traumatizing them in the process.

Survivor guilt

Many advocates experience survivor guilt, which is the irrational guilt someone feels when they’ve survived a traumatic event while others did not. Our survivor guilt may drive us to become so preoccupied with trying to save the victims of an atrocity that we neglect our own basic needs.

When we’re not aware of our survivor guilt, we can develop problematic coping mechanisms. We may, for example, try to alleviate the guilt we feel by seeking out and condemning others who are “more guilty” than we are, not only outside but also within our movement. This feeds our traumatic thinking and increases our sense of disconnection from other advocates. We may also try to alleviate our guilt by overworking, which can turn into workaholism that leads to burnout.

Ingrouping and scapegoating

STS can increase the tendency to ingroup, as traumatic thinking and survivor guilt can exacerbate our sense of moral superiority and rigid, either-or, us-versus-them thinking. Ingrouping is the psychological process of creating a strong social identity around a particular group we belong to and feeling morally superior to those who don’t share our identity. Common examples of ingroup identities include “Democrat,” “Republican,” “abolitionist,” and “pragmatist.” Of course, not everyone who attaches such labels to themselves is ingrouping; ingrouping occurs when we relate to those labels, or identities, in a way that causes us to feel morally superior to others. Ingrouping can cause harmful divisions, and it’s a key contributor to infighting.

Compounded trauma

People are more likely to become traumatized when the traumatic experience(s) they undergo or witness are denied by the dominant culture, and when they’re unable to experience secure connections with the people around them (issues that often go hand in hand).

For example, consider the experience of a climate advocate who feels grief and horror at the environmental degradation they witness all around them. This degradation is being perpetrated, encouraged, and even celebrated by the dominant culture and often even by those in their own inner circle. Many climate advocates find that some of their deepest convictions and personal experiences are invisible to those in their lives. They feel unseen and misunderstood, and are often on the receiving end of hostility and disrespect. So the traumatization that results from witnessing environmental degradation is compounded, or intensified.

Individuals who have high sensitivity—referred to as HSPs (highly sensitive persons)—may be at greater risk of becoming traumatized. HSPs have an increased central nervous system sensitivity to physical, emotional, and social stimuli, which means that they may become overstimulated and dysregulated more easily than non-HSPs.

Moving beyond trauma

See our page on how to prevent and manage STS.

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