Trauma is a profoundly human experience, happening to anyone regardless of gender, race, or profession. The degree of its effect is varied, the form it takes is most certainly tied to environmental and cultural context, and what is called into question are the deepest aspects of our lives. While trauma is often immediately connected in terms of mental health with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), there is another framework being explored, that of moral injury. Despite moral injury’s current primary connection with military service, the exploration of it and attempts at offering a frame for working through it, can be helpful to anyone having experienced trauma.
Studies of PTSD have looked at trauma through the lens of fear, most often connected with an identification of potential or actual harm to self. Moral injury looks at trauma from a frame of ethics or moral schema. Trauma’s destructive potential reaches across the domains of mind and body to a level that is viscerally existential. The accompanying feelings, ranging from despair and anger to shame and isolation, draw a person’s focus from the social to the deeply personal. It’s not simply that trauma inspires fear and wariness that makes it so debilitating, it’s that the mind turns in on itself such that what was thought to be clear is now no longer so, what was believed to be true has been cast into shadow. To explore that, we need to consider first the structure of how people form their perspectives.
Viewing the World through A Moral Lens
We are, as a species, rather obsessed with determining what is just and right. When faced with adversity, common phrases like “that’s not fair” or “it’s just not right” abound, often accompanied by calls for justice, changes to a system, and/or a deep-seated feeling that something just isn’t right.
“Individually and collectively, our very existence depends on our ability to reach accurate conclusions about the world around us. In short, the experience of being right is imperative for our survival, gratifying for our ego, and, overall, one of life’s cheapest and keenest satisfactions.” (Schulz, 2010)
While Schulz is discussing “right” in the sense of accuracy of knowledge, the accompanying feeling is, I believe, where an innate ethic for living begins. Each usage of “right” is a form of assessment, an appraisal of the world and in particular, one’s relationship to it. We need to be right not merely because it feels good, but because that feeling of goodness provides a path for how one proceeds with their life.
In other words, no declaration of what is right, as a belief or statement of perceived fact, is absent of a degree of certainty as to its connection with how one should be or act. To use a philosophical phrasing, there is no statement of an “is,” in the sense of the world being a certain way, without an accompanying feeling of connecting such to an “ought,” or this is how the world should be now or always.
There are of course variations in this feeling. A person will have far less righteous indignation if another disagrees with them about what car manufacturer is the best, than if the debate is about when life begins as it pertains to abortion. For that matter, keeping with the car manufacturer example, the degree of emotional weight will shift precipitously if the discussion is expanded, in certain circles, to which one best exemplifies the values of their particular country.
Note the shift and there begins to be seen a frame of the appraisal relationship from person to world. We can say that the degree to which a person’s declarations of fact or belief are accompanied by a feeling of moral weight, is determined by:
1 The perception of how central the belief is to a particular area (Value) of life.
2 How many other areas (Values) of life the belief is connected too.
3 The degree to which those areas (Values) are considered fundamental to self-image.
Let’s go back to the car manufacturer example. Whether another person agrees is incidental for Point-1, but add in how the manufacturer is or may be connected to nationalistic pride for Point-2 and that such is considered quite important in Point-3, the result is fiery exultation. If, however, the example is that of when life begins as it pertains to abortion, then Point-1 is often sufficient for accruing a great deal of moral weight, increased even more as other areas (Values) of life are considered and believed important.
The reason Values are associated with areas of life is because this is how people think and talk about their beliefs when there is moral weight attached. Remember that being right is about an accurate appraisal of the world, it is the projection of the relationship between the person and the world of their experience. We frame these relationships through the verbal short-hand of Values.
We can take a few common Values as examples:
• Honesty/Trust: the relationship between one’s inner assessment and outer declaration
• Family/Friendship: the relationship between self and others
• Independence/Freedom: the relationship between one’s desire to act and the ability/social-support to do so
• Integrity: the relationship between one’s stated adherence to a particular Value and the continued alignment of their behavior with it
• Self-worth: the relationship between the internal-individual and external-social assessment of importance
Note that none of these Values have any particular form of behavior attached to it. Further, none of them come with any built-in, or innate, number for their importance. Indeed, that very importance may shift depending on the circumstance. There are situations where honesty may be considered subservient to life if telling the truth is perceived as leading directly to harm. Many find situations where their family or a friendship is considered more important than their self-worth. This in no way means that honesty/truth or self-worth no longer matter to the person, it’s simply that we assess a situation via a shifting hierarchy of Values, not in one that is rigidly formed..
Where we get into mental health trouble is precisely when Values are no longer looked at as tools for assessment, but as identifiers for an absolute connection to a particular behavior. Instead of looking at ourselves as relational beings, we are reframed as rigid automatons. Within this rigidity is where moral injury finds room to fester and a return to relational-ness provides the space for healing.
Healing through Meaning-Making
The utilization of Values as an initial or foundational tool for experiential assessment grants an immediate moral weight to situations that is difficult to disconnect. When a person lies, it is immediately thought of as a betrayal, and only later, if ever, is there a consideration of why the person acted that way. When we ourselves act contrary to a particular Value, the chastisement and accompanying sense of shame happens first, and only later, if ever, is there an attempt at understanding the contextual constraints that led us to that behavior.
This exploration views people as meaning-making beings and seeks to understand how the gears of that process can be gummed up through trauma, sometimes so badly as to result in serious deficits to mental health. As part of this view of people as meaning-making beings, Values are here considered universal, though clearly the how of their manifestation in life and the degree of their importance, is both individually and socio-culturally determined. Our Values do not separate us from one another or contribute to a sense of shame and loss. Rather, it is the rigid conflation of particular behavior with Values and the conception of Values as belonging to a hardened hierarchy instead of a situationally-shifting one, that leads to the lasting harm of trauma.
“In a study of 23 clinical professionals with extensive backgrounds working with Veterans, Drescher et al. (2011) found that the most commonly mentioned warning signs of a moral injury included social problems (e.g., isolation, aggression), trust issues (e.g., lack of confidence in social contracts), spiritual and/or existential issues (e.g., loss of faith, questioning personal morality), self-depreciation, and a sense of betrayal, as well as PTSD and other mental health symptoms.” (Currier, Holland, & Malott, 2013)
Consider all these symptoms from within a framework that looks at Values as tools for assessing the relationship between self and world. We have here negative behavioral manifestations for Values of trust (lack of confidence in social contracts), spirituality (loss of faith), self-worth (self-depreciation), community (isolation) and integrity (betrayal). Is it then any wonder that the person no longer feels confident in their ability to assess their relationship to the world? The very tools previously used to do so have been shown, at least so it is believed, to be worthless.
Not every traumatic event, thankfully, results in the same degree of lasting mental health effects. To determine why, we can use the same three criteria here as before, substituting trauma for belief:
1 The perception of how central the trauma is to a particular area (Value) of life.
2 How many other areas (Values) of life the trauma is connected too.
3 The degree to which those areas (Values) are considered fundamental to self-image.
Consider the betrayal of trust. Points 1-3 are all concerned with meaning-making, the structure of a person’s worldview and the degree of their connection to it. This is why the suffering from broken trust is greater when it happens with those closest and diminishes to almost nothing if the person or organization is considered to have little connection to the Value. Moral injury occurs when a particular Value is 1) cut off from a relational hierarchy and placed in an absolute one, 2) that Value is then connected indelibly with a particular form of behavior, 3) the behavior is violated.
This tri-part path for moral injury is why such trauma associated with the military and other organizations of rigid structure is likely so high; their centrality to a person’s life is all-encompassing, the areas of life they’re connected to are equally broad and the person’s self-image is deeply conflated with that of the organizational structure. When such a system is considered to have failed, there is little room for maneuverability; the person’s individual assessment tools, or Values, have been disconnected from the profoundly human relational system.
“The meaning-making model posits that recovering from a stressful event and its distress involves reducing the discrepancy between the appraisal of that event and global beliefs and goals within the person (Park, 2010). Meaning making coping such as positive reinterpretation coping has been shown to decrease the initial appraisal-global meaning discrepancy, which results in decreased distress (e.g., Folkman & Moskowitz, 2007).” (Riley & Park, 2014)
“Global beliefs” (see Footnote for further explanation) is synonymous here with one’s basic system or schema of Values . The discrepancy noted has been here looked at as a difference between the relational hierarchy of Values that is innate to each person (global beliefs and goals) and the rigidity with which Values are often associated with particular behaviors of self and/or other (appraisal of event). The hoped-for healing occurs when this difference is decreased.
To decrease the discrepancy and effect change upon chronic symptoms requires an appreciation for one’s innate ability for meaning-making and reclaiming Value as being centered within humanity her or himself, not in any particular behavior. This is an active, continuous response to experience of noting the variability in Values each situation possesses and how any single situation does not encompass the whole of how Value can manifest in a life.
This is a reminder that we as a species and individuals lie, cheat and steal, but we also show love, charity and forgiveness. A broken promise is not the end of honesty and trust, anymore than a lost dollar is the end of wealth and personal potential. The meaning-making of Valued appraisal is at the core of our self-stories, each narrative brimming with creative possibility. No situation, organization or ideology can hold that potential in its entirety and we should not let any restrain the healthy growth and exploration of our lives.
Nash, W. P., & Litz, B. T. (2013). Moral injury: A mechanism for war-related psychological trauma in military family members. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 16(4), 365–375. doi:10.1007/s10567-013-0146-y
Riley, K. E., & Park, C. L. (2014). Problem-focused vs. Meaning-focused coping as mediators of the appraisal-adjustment relationship in chronic stressors. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 33(7), 587–611. doi:10.1521/jscp.2014.33.7.587
Schulz, K. (2010). Being wrong: Adventures in the margin of error. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
David Teachout is a counselor and coach in the pacific northwest, working with a diverse clientele who are building lives of integrated healthy relationships. Read more about relational living at http://lifeweavings.org