When Personal Responsibility Runs Into Trauma

Recently, my reading and writing has been critical of the idea of personal responsibility. Because we live in a society that is hyper focused on personal responsibility, because we live in an economic system where success is taken a representation of individual characteristics, and because the dominant religious views in our nation have viewed success as rewards for good individual choices and attributes, I find it necessary to push back against that narrative and look for examples of how personal responsibility can be discounted in evaluating the success or failure of another person. Perhaps living in a society that hyper devalued personal responsibility I would feel the need to highlight the role of individual responsibility in our lives, but as things are, it feels important to me is to write about the ways that structural and systemic forces can influence our lives, including the level of personal responsibility we are able to bring to individual situations and circumstances.
Trauma is one of those large structural and systemic forces that should make us re-think personal responsibility. Entrepreneurial autobiographies, self-help books, and even philosophical thinkers (like Ryan Holiday who I really find influential) talk about the importance of being able to overcome obstacles to become successful. However, a failure to adequately address and process trauma, something almost no one can (perhaps no one at all), can do on their own can prevent individuals from being able to overcome even the smallest of obstacles. Trauma can originate from incredibly early on in our lives, at a time when our brains are in their infancy and unable to even remember and recall the trauma. This doesn’t mean that trauma won’t still influence a life for decades to come. There have been lots of studies that look at childhood violence, food scarcity, and other traumatic factors and life outcomes for individuals as adults and found that those who experienced trauma have worse economic outcomes later in life.
This isn’t surprising, but somehow these findings never seem to properly make it into self-help books or our narrative around personal responsibility. Often, if past trauma is addressed in our personal responsibility culture, it is presented as another personal responsibility of the individual facing the trauma to seek out the proper help and therapy to be able to reprogram their mind.
This leaves individuals who have faced trauma in a precarious position. Their trauma is ignored and when it is recognized, it falls back onto the individual to do something to overcome it. Larger structural forces and systems don’t make an effort to understand an individual’s trauma and we don’t have larger systems and structures to provide a robust social support system to encourage and provide therapy to those who need it.
In $2.00 A Day authors Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer demonstrate how severe the trauma of others can be in shaping their lives and driving them into $2.00 a day poverty. Regarding one individual presented in the book they write, “surviving repeated abandonment by the adults in her life and a nearly constant exposure to danger had left Rae with underlying feelings of rage. Even at the relatively calm Parma store, Rae’s temper could flare up unexpectedly with slight provocation.”
For Rae, past trauma made it almost impossible for her to function in an individualistic and capitalistic society. Our individualism and capitalism has helped propel America to be the richest country on earth and has given us great luxury and has improved our world in many ways, but it has also left those who faced severe trauma, such as repeated abandonment as a child and physical danger, left alone with no appropriate way to cope with routine stresses and anxieties. It is no surprise that Rae had trouble holding a job, trouble connecting with other people to be a stable roommate, and  trouble containing her anger when provoked by rude customers. When living with the kind of trauma of physical abuse and abandonment that Rae experienced, self-preservation required a fierce and powerful reactions to threats, and that mindset could not simply be turned off even if Rae had read the best self-help book on the market.
We need to think of the trauma of others in our daily interactions and judgements of them. The United States does not have ample social support systems such as professional therapists, well trained mentors, or robust family networks for most people to receive the support necessary to overcome severe trauma. It is easy to dismiss someone who seems to act irrationally, as we can imagine Rae often did on the job or in her personal relationships, because we focus so intensely on the individual and personal responsibility. However, if we don’t recognize the role that trauma plays and the importance of social support for individuals who have been traumatized, then we risk pushing people to ruin, to $2.00 a day poverty, and potentially to suicide. It is not unreasonable to argue that our society needs to do more to support these people than say it is their personal responsibility to seek out the help they need on their own.

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