Trauma is all too common, and in spite of growing recognition, receives far less attention than deserved. Trauma affects not just individuals and families, but communities and society, defining the human experience over centuries.
While adaptive responses to trauma leave us with greater self-compassion, driving development to higher levels and creating wisdom and judiciousness, ultimately elevating ethics and morality, the path along the way can be fraught with moral hazards. Here is a partial accounting of some of the familiar ways in which unresolved trauma, with accompanying moral injury, may play out along the way to recovery.
1. Injustice Salience.
People who have experienced maltreatment, abuse, or neglect—and especially betrayal trauma—are prone to be acutely attuned to injustice. Actual injustices are often amplified by reactivated unprocessed trauma. In some cases, people may perceive unfairness or malfeasance where there is none. Betrayal trauma worsens sensitivity to victimization deepening mistrust, the consequence of perpetration by close others, typically family members or friends of the family, adding the violation of trust on top of the trauma itself.
2. Moral Development.
Early trauma may delay or pause important aspects of development, leading to the persistence of younger developmental phases into later life. This can happen in many areas, such as relationship with self and various other aspects of adult identity and relatedness. This can happen with moral development, increasing the risk of morally self-sabotaging decisions.
Kohlberg’s model has 3 levels of moral development, with six stages:
- Level 1: Preconventional Level
- Stage 1: Punishment/Obedience
- Stage 2: Instrumental Purpose Orientation
- Level 2: Conventional Level
- Stage 3: Good Boy/Nice Girl Orientation
- Stage 4: Law and Order Orientation
- Level 3: Postconventional or Principled Level
- Stage 5: Social Contract Orientation
- Stage 6: Universal Ethical Principle Orientation
It is not unusual for developmental trauma to leave us hovering around Levels 1 or 2, leading to difficulties navigating the often ethically murky seas which characterize adult life stemming from moral rigidity or over-simplification. Without being able to move forward with tough calls, or compromise in negotiations with others, things tend to grind to a halt.
3. Threat Orientation.
Another way early traumatic experiences can shape moral behavior connects with emotional states. On a basic level, current life events get suffused with unresolved feelings from the past, introducing strong bias in the way they are interpreted so that they seem worse than they are. For example, an innocuous text message appears to be a veiled insult. Innocent comments may be perceived as threatening, and threats are enhanced.
Strong emotions affect judgment and planning, making it more difficult to make adaptive decisions. Finally, others’ distorted reactions, which often involve misunderstanding and even outright rejection, repeat and strengthen expectations from early trauma that people won’t be reliable, heightening moral outrage and potentially leading to isolation.
4. Superhero Stance.
Because trauma may leave people in states of hyperarousal and vigilance, more attuned to interpersonal threats and injustice, when something does seem right or actually isn’t right, it’s easier to respond with justified force and much harder to respond constructively. This is especially true if early role models were easily angered or slighted, physically or verbally aggressive, or prone to use abandonment or withdrawal of love as punishment.
Out of moral outrage, and to an extent post-traumatic distortion and regulatory difficulties, we may often act out of revenge, leading to sometimes regrettable outcomes. It’s also important to note that it can be hard to act with appropriate assertiveness in the face of injustices, leading to the opposite problem, failure to speak up and advocate earlier.
5. Moral Radar.
Trauma can jam moral radar, though trauma can also attune us to what is right and wrong when properly harnessed. Uncertainty about others’ intentions often makes it difficult to work out whether something was truly unjust or intentional, leading to blame rather than thoughtful inquiry. It’s easy to lump people into classic roles: victim, abuser-perpetrator, or bystander. Being a vigilante can be appealing but self-defeating, often interfering with becoming a collaborative upstander-activist, and making it harder to work collaboratively with others for sustainable change.
6. Unbounded Possibility.
Trauma changes our sense of what is possible. Compared to people who have not survived terrible situations, the world looks very different for someone who experienced early sickness and death, interpersonal violence, abuse or neglect, and other forms of extreme experience. This is something which people who have not lived through adversity often have trouble fully grasping—reality is fundamentally changed by extreme life experiences.
Reality can change in a split second—and while we may all know this on some level, when you’ve been there, it is a different story. This creates opportunities for misunderstanding when life experience is so different, and it can make it easier for people who have experienced trauma to take extreme, familiar, measures.
Why do we sometimes have different ethics toward ourselves, treating ourselves more poorly than we expect others to treat us? What gives me the right to approach myself differently? Many times, people with trauma are more likely to advocate for someone else, and not themselves. This may lead to a cycle in which people strive so hard to take care of others, to defend others or fight for others, that it is easy to fall into self-neglect.
The consequences of self-neglect can be profound. Without properly tending to one’s basic needs, factors like sleep deprivation, poor sleep, lack of exercise and rest, and related issues erode resilience, undermining post-traumatic growth and recovery, worsening chronic stress and further interfering with self-regulation and effective long-term thinking.
For individuals working through traumatic experiences, various factors shape moral and ethical emotions, behavior, and reasoning in ways that may at times backfire, though they often drive progress during the most challenging times. Under the influence of active trauma, it can seem like polar opposites are the only alternatives—for example, being silenced out of fear or acting with unbridled righteous indignation. Often, these extremes aren’t very adaptive.
Traumatic experiences, while never justified, ideally resolve into wisdom and maturity, driving positive changes. Understanding some of the ways trauma may shape how we take up morality, how we perceive and act, helps to inform how we may act calmly and constructively in the face of great need.
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Originally published in Psychology Today on December 16, 2020
Grant H. Brenner, MD
Grant Hilary Brenner, M.D., a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, helps adults with mood and anxiety conditions, and works on many levels to help unleash their full capacities and live and love well.