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Reflections on Power and Privilege from a Trauma-Informed Expert

There are ways I am disadvantaged by the systems we live in, AND there are privileges I am afforded by the systems we live in. This is true for everyone. Acknowledging both is critical to our healing.

Today, we're going to talk about some of the most triggering topics: power, control, privileges, and disadvantages. If you've been to my training programs, you know that I will trigger you, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

When we are triggered, when we feel upset, when we notice we are slipping into trauma brain or becoming stuck in a reenactment; those moments teach us where we have work to do.

And, most of us (if not all of us) have work to do when it comes to power and privilege.

What keeps us stuck when talking about power and privilege?

Sometimes, when we have conversations about privilege, people are easily triggered. They think about all the ways in which they’ve been disadvantaged by society, and they are, rightly, upset about it. Yes, it is unfair that you’ve been treated that way. It is true that you haven’t had it easy. And, you are valid for feeling that way.

The trouble arises when someone isn’t able to process their emotions, and they become stuck in trauma brain.

It's important to note here that there's nothing wrong about falling into trauma brain: it doesn't mean we are morally or ethically compromised or that we are bad people. In fact, it's the most common protective mechanism we use as human beings to survive.

In the altered state of mind of trauma brain, the triggered person now sees the world as black and white, either/or, with no room for nuance. They believe that people fall into one of two categories: privileged or disadvantaged. And, because they are still reveling in the hurt they’ve experienced at the hands of the harmful structures we live in, they see themselves as falling into the disadvantaged category and (here’s where they make the crucial mistake), that they cannot also be a part of the privileged category.

In the world we live in, we are affected by and we also influence the larger systems and structures around us. It is a bi-directional situation. Each and every one of us is both harmed by those structures and afforded certain privileges. Let me repeat that: every one of us is both harmed by society and given privileges in society. Yes, that means you, too.

Of course, this is where people like to engage in the unproductive practice of trauma competition. We think that by measuring our pain and comparing it to others, we might prove that we’re justified in feeling the way we do about what has happened to us.

If that’s where you are, then I encourage you to set aside time to reflect on and process those feelings—and for now, to use your self-care strategies to remain in your executive functioning while you read this article.

Firstly, you do not need to justify your feelings. They are justified simply because they exist. You are allowed to feel that way, whatever that feeling is.

Secondly, comparing our suffering to others does not serve us. We can both be hurt at the same time. My hurt does not take away from your hurt, and vise versa.

A trauma informed approach: Two things can be true at the same time

Two things can also be true at the same time. We can possess both privileges and disadvantages from the structures of society. I know this is true from my personal and professional experiences.

If you've read my memoir, you know that my childhood was, for lack of better words, not easy. It was defined by abuse and neglect, and after entering foster care, things did not get better for me. The system, as it had failed many other children and continues to fail our children, failed me.

I was undoubtedly a disadvantaged youth. An adult once told me, "People like you don't go to college. They grow up to serve people like me." It was cruel. But it wasn't untrue.

While there were many things in my life that ultimately "saved" me, in truth, the coincidences in my life could often be traced back to my position in society as a pretty, young, white woman. If any of those things had been different, I would not have gotten a job as a law office clerk, which led me to the path I am on now.

My privilege got me a job where I sold my body (aka my labor) in a socially acceptable way. If I were not white or young or didn't fit into traditional beauty standards, that pivotal choice of how I would afford to eat and pay rent might not have been so beneficial to me.

These conversations are hard. Some people will find reading this article difficult; speaking to the people in your life about their stories, their real stories, is even more challenging.

But we have to start having the hard conversations if we want to heal.

Complex topics aren't easy to learn

Learning about power and privilege, structural violence, and systems thinking is a complex endeavor that takes years to truly understand (this piece is a large part of why successful equity initiatives and trauma-informed systems change projects take multiple years to launch).

Even if you're a quick study, being new to these concepts means that you're starting from the beginning. And you can't skip the basics if you want to have a solid understanding of the more complex pieces.

Whether you're still new to learning about structural violence or people in your life are new to understanding structural violence, it's important to be kind and compassionate to those at the beginning of their journey. While some people may be able to self-teach, others struggle to learn without a mentor (and most of us don't have mentors when it comes to these things).

Whether you're thinking of yourself or someone else, remember that there's nothing wrong with being at the beginning of a journey.

And, it's important to acknowledge that we all have a responsibility as adults to practice universal precaution and do as little harm as possible while holding ourselves accountable for our own learning and cultural humility practices.

And, some of us have more of a responsibility than others when it comes to acknowledging our power and privilege (leaders, I'm looking at you).

Final Thoughts: Doing Your Personal Work

Many of my clients come to this work because they want to do better for their clients, patients, or students. They come with the lofty goals of changing systems, improving social justice, and launching DEI and employee wellbeing initiatives. And then, they quickly realize that this work is a lot harder than they initially thought.

The challenge of this work is that it starts in each of us, and it requires us to do our own personal work. If you want to help repair a broken system and address structural violence, then you need to start reflecting on why some conversations (like those around power and privilege) can be so triggering for you.

That involves cultivating self-awareness, building strategies for emotional regulation, and processing your own personal experiences. It also requires us to step into our role as leaders and develop stronger professional relationships.

Change is a collective effort, and we need to do the work we are asking others to do.


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