All Cultures Traumatize

Where would Western Society be without Trauma?

Listen to Audio Version


Reading Zoe Williams’ recent article in the Guardian about Bioenergetics actually caused me to realise something that I’d lost sight of, having worked with trauma for so many years. Few people consider themselves to be traumatised. The typical perception of traumatization is that it is something that happens to a few, unlucky souls and that it’s the result of incidences of abuse, accidents or the loss of a loved one.

To me, these are accurate perceptions of trauma. But breaking things down just to these simple acts of traumatization overlooks the reality that, actually, we have all been traumatized… by our cultural upbringing.

This is not some “level the playing field” claim to make those who’ve suffered major incidents of trauma somehow feel better. It’s a simple fact. When trauma was first researched by psychologists, back in the early twentieth century, figures like Sigmund Freud, Otto Fenichel and Wilhelm Reich introduced no separation between occasional acts of extreme traumatization and the reality of the systematic cultural traumatization of infants. Wilhelm Reich even went so far as to isolate 5 personality stereotypes - each the result of childhood trauma - back in the 1920s.

Somehow, over the years, we’ve come to associate trauma only with those extreme acts noted earlier and not with the ways the average child is raised. But, actually, all cultures traumatize deeply and it would be rare indeed to meet someone not living a life vastly, if not overwhelmingly, influenced by the conditions of their early infancy.

But negative associations have developed around the word “trauma” and the notion of having “been traumatized.” Consequently, most people are keen not to be seen to belong to this group, less they should end up feeling even worse about themselves than they already do. Something I totally understand and relate to but which, nevertheless, greatly impedes the situation from improving.

All Cultures Traumatize

Cultures traumatize the individual for two reasons. Firstly, to empower the culture as a vehicle of influence out in the world. Secondly, to maintain some level of coherence as generations pass by and the old give way to the young. Humans, as mammals, have huge needs throughout infancy. If these needs are not fully met, then certain character types tend to develop. This can result in cultural breakdown or chaos. But it can also give the culture possibilities that simply wouldn’t arise if the average infancy was more psychologically healthy.

Let’s take a look at an example.

The British Way

I’m British. I’m part of a culture that, a few hundred years ago, exerted vast influence upon this earth. We ran a huge empire and colonised America. We traded commodities worldwide. We created the Industrial Revolution. Other cultures knew they better check in with us prior to embarking on any global enterprise, else they might soon regret it.

But how did this brief period of global superstardom come about? Well, true, the UK was well located geographically to make the best of the emerging seafaring trade routes. But so were a lot of other countries. How come the British were so good at inventing stuff? How come they could hold to a thoroughly rational course in the face of powerful animal emotions - the famous “stiff upper lip?” How come they worked away in factories, in horrific conditions for little reward, without rebelling? Did some god somewhere briefly favour the British with these qualities? No, they came from trauma.

The conditions that marked the upbringing of British upper class children created a systematic traumatisation that, whilst it caused great suffering to the individual, resulted in the whole having capacities other cultures of the time could not match.

Deprive a child of natural connection with the mother from an early age and you might well create what Reich termed the “Schizoid-Oral” character type - someone who lives in dreams and ideas and who fantasizes about gaining acceptance through fame and recognition. In short, the classic “inventor” type.

Others, subject to the same conditions, will develop a “Schizoid-Rigid” character - excellent for holding to a idea regardless of what is going on, externally or internally.

Meanwhile, for the middle and working classes, breaking the child’s natural desire for self-assertion around the age of two, tends to create large numbers of the “Endurer” character. These are individuals who will simply work away at a designated task, grumbling and complaining, but sticking at it nonetheless. Ideal for getting routine, drudge factory work done.

The British upbringing created sufficient numbers of these three character types to rapidly elevate the British to a role of global dominance. They made incredible scientific discoveries. They manufactured early industrial goods in factories. And they dominated sea travel and trade. Without that childhood, and the character types it created, it is hard to imagine the British achieving such a period of power.

The British strategy, however, was far from perfect. The three fundamental types of character that developed - Schizoid, Oral and Endurer - are all ego-deficient types. On an individual level, it is very hard for them to achieve much. Only when set together and given strict direction can they really be a force.

All would likely have continued well for the Brits if they could have kept the whole world strictly under their control. But, as other cultures developed, so maintaining control would have required a great deal more adaptability and flexibility than these personality types were capable of.

As the decades passed, so the British relinquished power, bit by bit, recognising that they could no longer maintain dominance. Western Culture 1.0 had shown promise but had finally lacked the fluidity needed to adapt to a rapidly shifting global environment. The British were great with ideas, structure and drudge work. But they could not reinvent themselves and the hierarchies they formed lacked grounding.

However, with the rise of America, so some modifications could be trialled. Let’s take a look at Western Culture 2.0.

The American Way

As mentioned, finally the British were condemned to the scrap heap of global influencing because their upbringings were simply too harsh. So little proper connection with the parents. So little right to freak out and develop your ego as a two year old. As a culture, Britain was like an oil tanker. Yes, it could move forwards under central control. But it could not change direction and it could not reinvent itself.

What was needed, perhaps, was a culture where the disconnection and repression was there, but not so harsh. That way, maybe, the culture could itself develop and maintain power in the face of ongoing challenge.

The last two character types identified by Reich - Rigid and Aggressive - are not ego-deficient. They can self-motivate. To create Rigids, you need children who have experienced a basic level of connection with the mother. They have to have been nurtured to some slight level. And they have to have been allowed to freak out a bit aged two. But then you train them by only giving them occasional levels of affection and even then only as a reward for good behaviour.

The core belief of the Rigid is that self-worth can only be achieved through doing. You cannot be loved for who you are, solely for what you do… and do well. Rigids love hierarchical social structures. Rigid parents are also excellent at creating rigid children.

Aggressives are more tricky. None of the Reichian character types can be absolutely guaranteed to develop from the specific childhood wounding that usually creates them. But for most, the success rate is high. Lack of felt connection with the mother before the age of 12 months will create a high proportion of Orals. An unsafe-feeling environment in the womb or in the first 12 months will create a lot of Schizoids. Breaking the child’s fledgling ego at aged 2 years will mostly create Endurers. But Aggressives need to pass through these phases of ego development relatively unscathed.

Aggressives are highly self-reliant and extremely adaptable to shifts in environment. They learned as kids to channel their emotional energy up the body to the chest and face, creating a charismatic and confident-seeming front. Whilst Rigids respond to the threat of feeling vulnerable by tensing up, Aggressives charm their way out of danger and back into control. To the Aggressive, life is simply a game, and one to which they follow the rules only when it suits them. To them, rules are for suckers.

The most sure way to create an Aggressive is through breaking an already-formed bond of trust between the child and the parents. This cannot be done much before the age of four years, else there will be insufficient ego to create the Aggressive character type. But, being let down by a parent you previously trusted, aged 6, could work. Realising aged 8 that actually your parents have simply been manipulating you with their love all along could also work. Finding out aged 9 that you are simply a pawn in an ongoing power struggle between two parents also has a high success rate.

A culture high in Rigids and with at least some level of Aggressives is a formidable phenomenon. The Rigids maintain the structure ruthlessly. And the Aggressives seek out new possibilities to make profit in a manner that’s positively, well… aggressive.

And, with these two additions, your culture can still function well with high levels of Orals, Schizoids and Endurers too. Indeed, they can be put to good use. The Endurers can do the drudge work on the factory floor, grumbling away, whilst the Rigids manage them. The Schizoids can design stuff and have new ideas. The Orals can become musicians and artists or get spiritual.


I wanted to write this hopefully light-hearted piece to point out that traumatisation is endemic to human culture. I could equally have picked upon an Asian, African or Latin culture and have found heaps of systematic traumatisation going on just the same, I’m sure. I picked on British and American because I know them better and because they have been so influential in global culture.

The deeper point I’m seeking to make is that trauma is complex. You cannot easily unentangle a culture from the trauma it ongoingly makes use of to survive and forward its ends. Simply making a culture less traumatising for kids will not necessarily create good results. You might sit around patting yourself on the back for one generation, only to find that irreparable systemic damage is tearing your culture apart a generation down the line. Indeed, it is possible that American culture is in the grip of such a fate right now.

We love simple solutions. But they rarely work with complex problems.

Thank you for reading.

Further Reading