Bloom, S. L. (2012). Trauma-Organized Systems. Encyclopedia of Trauma. C. R. Figley. Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage: 741-743.
Beginning in the early 1990’s, Dr. Arnon Bentovim, a British psychoanalyst, family therapist and child psychiatrist described “trauma-organized systems” as a conceptual way of understanding physical and sexual abuse within families. He derived the idea of “organized systems” from previous work that introduced the notion of “problem-organized systems”, meaning social action systems defined by those actively involved in communication about a particular problem so that the way of communicating in turn becomes the problem (Anderson, Goolishian et al. 1986). He also drew upon the work of Straus and Gelles on abusive families who observed the process of interlocking emotional responses by which individuals with complementary difficulties come together and the resulting reciprocal nature of abusive interaction in family life (Straus and Gelles 1987). As Bentovim saw it, relationships in such situations are ‘organized’ by traumatic events and become “mindless action systems” that come to dominate family life because of secrecy, loyalty and patterns of trauma and violence that are repeated in family relationships. Referring to the concept of “traumagenic dynamics” in the family system (Finkelhor and Browne 1985), Bentovim described how physical and sexual abuse organize and create the personality style of the abused child and thus help determine the subsequent choice of partners, family life, parenting patterns and then the subsequent reenactment of traumatic abuse in the next generation (Bentovim 1992; Bentovim and Davenport 1992; Bentovim 1996).
Bentovim made special reference to the tremendous difficulty encountered in breaking what he called the “taboo of silence” within the abusive family (p.89) (Bentovim 1992). This taboo against referring to the traumatic event created a “hole” in the family conversation similar to the hole in the mind of the traumatized individual as a result of which the overwhelming distress of a traumatic event is deleted as is any talk about events of major importance (p.40)(Bentovim and Davenport 1992). As he saw it the result was the emergence of self-perpetuating stories which in turn created trauma-organized systems wherein abusive behavior was reenacted and reinforced. The essence of trauma-organized systems was that “they are focused on action, not talking or thinking (p.49) (Bentovim 1992).
Organizations as Trauma-Organized Systems
Enlarging the scope of this conceptual framework from families to organizations , Bloom and Farragher applied the notion of “trauma-organized systems” to the organizations who provide services to traumatized individuals and families (Bloom and Farragher 2010). Their starting point is that organizations are, like individuals, living systems (Senge, Scharmer et al. 2004). Being alive, they are vulnerable to stress, particularly chronic and repetitive stress. They asserted that chronic stress stealthily robs an organization of basic interpersonal safety and trust and thereby robs an organization of health. Similarly they believe that organizations, like individuals, can be traumatized and the result of traumatic experience can be as devastating for organizations as it is for individuals.
In their work, Bloom and Farragher observed that the impact of chronic stress and adversity on organizations has been thus far minimized and denied except in the most dramatic of circumstances. As a result, managers and leaders remain largely unaware of the multiple ways in which organizational adaptation to chronic stress creates a state of dysfunction that in some cases virtually prohibits the proper delivery of services to the individual clients who are the source of the organization’s original mission, while damaging many members of the organization’s workforce. As Bloom wrote, “just as the encroachment of trauma into the life of an individual client is an insidious process that turns the past into a nightmare, the present into a repetitive cycle of reenactment, and the future into a terminal illness, so too chronic strain insidiously impacts an organization (p.139)(Bloom 2010).
Bloom and Farragher (2010) use the concept of “parallel process” taken out of the individual context and applied to organizations as a useful way of offering a coherent framework that serves to connect different system levels. The definition they use for parallel process derives from work done in industrial settings: when two or more systems – whether these consist of individuals, groups, or organizations – have significant relationships with one another, they tend to develop similar affects, cognition, and behaviors, which are defined as parallel processes …. Parallel processes can be set in motion in many ways, and once initiated leave no one immune from their influence (p.13) (Smith, Simmons et al. 1989).
Bloom and Farragher recorded that the effect of chronic and repetitive stress on social service and caregiving organizations is that these workplaces tend to have problems that parallel or mirror the problems of their clients, including organizations that are chronically crisis-driven and hyperaroused, having lost the capacity to manage emotions institutionally. This results in a failure to learn from experience which they term as form of “organizational learning disability” that is accompanied by “organizational amnesia” as knowledge formerly gained is systematically lost. They observe that under such circumstances, the most emotionally charged information in any organization becomes “undiscussable” resulting in a form of “organizational alexithymia”. As this dysfunction unfolds, organizational leaders are likely to become more authoritarian and punitive, while workers respond with more aggressive and passive-aggressive behavior, and an attitude of learned helplessness, while the entire environment becomes progressively more violent, punitive and unjust. Despite this apparent deterioration, the likelihood is that unless this process is stopped, chronically stressed organizations will simply continue to repeat the past, engaging in reenactment and as a result, steadily deteriorate in function. In this way, an entire organization and even the larger system within which it is embedded, become organized around a past history of chronic stress, adversity and trauma, unable to adapt to changing circumstances and therefore chronically failing.
Just as family systems theorists such as Bentovim, believe that treatment has to be addressed “with each individual involved in the trauma-organized systems as well as the system as a whole” (p.107) (Bentovim 1992), Bloom and Farragher recommend a systems approach that they have called “The Sanctuary Model” to address the complex needs of every individual within the organization as well as the organization as a whole.
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