Healing Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome

How It Impacts Our Lives and The Importance of Healing
with Dr. Lydiana Garcia


In honor of my Afro-Latina roots and the Black History Month (when the Podcast episode was released), I invite you to join me as I dive into the explanation of what Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome is, it’s impact in so many lives and the importance of healing and ways we can heal. As I continue to learn about the journey of my ancestors, I have gained tremendous insight into how their experiences shaped part of my life, and how to continue doing the healing necessary for me to keep breaking those patterns and moving forward for the next generations. 

Post-traumatic Slave Syndrome as defined by Dr. Joy DeGruy in her book called Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, is “a condition that exists when a population has experienced multi generational trauma resulting from centuries of slavery and continues to experience oppression and institutionalized racism today, added to this condition is a belief, whether it's real or imagined, that the benefits of the society in which they live are not accessible to them. The multi generational trauma together with the continued oppression and absence of opportunity to access the benefits available in the society, lead to post traumatic slave syndrome.” It's so relevant to speak about this, especially as we're starting 2021, we’re in that midst of the continued oppression and there is a still a lot of racism.


Here are the top 5 impact of Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome in our lives


1. Your beliefs. This is about white supremacy and internalizing different beliefs about how whites are superior, and that internalized or generalization that all whites are against you. All these different beliefs created generation from generation were based in survival. A lot of times it was that distinction that “my owner was a white person and they were technically my enemy” and kind of like generalizing this scenario generation to generation. This also includes all those generalized and internalized beliefs about themselves, about the world being a dangerous place, about their lives, about their worth, among other things.


2. Your self-esteem. Not having self-esteem or as Dr. DeGruy calls it, vacant self-esteem. She defines it as more about your worth, your belief on your own worth. This is really, really important because when we think about worth, if you don't believe that you're worth it, then why live, why would you care. And this is something that was shared a lot in Dr. DeGruy’s book. Some of the factors that could affect your self-esteem are:

  • Your caregivers. Their opinion about your worth, not only with what they say but also how they demonstrate it with their actions and the way they treated you. 
  • The society. This is a hard one because for many generations and centuries, there was that belief that Blacks were inferior, that they’re worthless, and this was done via institutions, laws, policies, and even media, and is usually based on white standards.
  • The community. Your community was in charge of the norms and encouraging conformity to society which is passed via generations. 


3. Hypervigilance. This is being super aware of your surroundings, always worrying that something bad could happen to you, and being in that fight and flight mode for the most part. There was a moment in our ancestor’s lives where making one little mistake can cost your life or that of someone you love. This was then generalized and that sense of urgency was passed on. Hypervigilance is also being really aware and that the world is dangerous, and that belief that nobody's there to take care of me so I am the sole person to take care of my safety. 

If I compare my mom and my dad, my mom has more of the Spaniard ancestry and perhaps more of the Taíno side than my dad. The side of my dad is the side that definitely has my slave ancestry and I can see a lot more of the things that I’m sharing here from my father’s side. One of those is that sense of hypervigilance, it was kind of instilled and manifests a little bit more as generalized anxiety, and taking everything as urgent. I was raised in a way that if there was a problem, it needed to be fixed right away. It's so interesting because my husband is not into seeing things as urgently as I have and it's been a very interesting adaptation of me figuring it out. At first, I thought he had an issue that he wouldn't take into consideration things that needed to be resolved right away. But as I'm getting older and exploring different things, I realized that whenever my parents come over, I noticed there’s always that sense of urgency, that things need to be done right away. Many people may see this as a great work ethic but it is tainted a little bit with that anxiety, or that unconscious fear that if it's not resolved right away, something bad could happen.

For me, I've learned to write down things and notice the times when I’m in that “I need to do it, I need to do it” mode, and then being able to realize that, no, I don’t have to. Especially last 2020 and this year, it has given me the opportunity to realize that some things cannot be done right now. Even though I feel the urgency, I can’t do them right away because I'm juggling so many different hats, which this could be one of the blessing in disguise of 2020 and this whole pandemic. When you generalize that anything could be dangerous and you're in that fight or flight mode, everything can be seen as a crisis.


4. Anger. Dr. DeGruy expresses in a different way, in terms of that anger is the normal emotional response to a blocked goal. But how I see anger is more like our bodies, which is our internal compass, telling us that we've been disrespected, we've not been honored, that we're being taken advantage of. If you think about the horrendous slavery crimes that occurred, whether it was in Puerto Rico or in the US, they were dishonored, they were not seen as human, they were not seen as an equal in that sense of being treated as shit and being treated as an animal or as a different specie. They were treated as someone that deserves those things because the church was involved. The church was even kind of supporting that cognitive dissonance because they were not Christians. They were considered less of because there's so many different instances in the Bible that in a way "legalizes slavery". The owners were using Christianity as a way to support this belief and making the general people be think that it’s okay to do those horrendous things to them because they're not “us”, because they’re less off. A lot of times, it was even Africans that tricked and sold their fellow Africans.

Something that Dr. DeGruy mentioned that left me thinking was that in the US, slavery and criminal abuse were treated very differently. Perhaps those Africans couldn't even conceptualize the extra mistreatment that their fellow Africans were going to experience in the US. In other parts of the world, some enslaved people were able to "buy their freedom" or there were ways that they were able to get their freedom after several years, like children being freed by their owners, either when they died or when they turned adult. But in the US that was not possible and those options were not available. The enslaved became part of their property and when they passed on their riches, they were part of it. When you have a community of people that have been dishonored, disrespected, and mistreated, one of the responses is definitely going to be anger.


5. Internalized oppression and the belief of inferiority. Dr. DeGruy calls it one of the most insidious symptoms of post-traumatic slave syndrome, because after centuries of being considered less of, you will naturally internalize this and when you internalize that belief of being less of, then you will act accordingly and you will continue to perpetuate this belief even without the perpetuator.

In the Caribbean, there is the colorism where the darker your skin, the worse and the the less privilege you are. There was also that concept of mejorar la raza, which is the bettering of the race, and something that I experienced more. Even the darker color families want their children to marry a lighter color person to kind of mejorar la raza, or to improve their race. This also includes the hair, which in my case, I need to do something about it growing up so I won’t have pelo malo or "bad hair". A lot of those things are more in Puerto Rico and people internalize and just go day by day without necessarily questioning all these concepts and the names that we are calling them. 

Even though internalized oppression is one of the worst impact of PTSS, also because of all the influence of the systems, the community and many other things, I feel that it has a lot of potential because this is about your own internal belief about yourself where there's definitely a lot that can be done.


The Importance of Healing


It is super important that we know that there is potential for healing and it's so, so important to go back into that opportunity. In general, the oppressor want to keep that idea that there's nothing that can be done, they've stripped people apart mentally, emotionally, and physically, that even though they might no longer be with the oppressor, the oppressor is still oppressing them. But a lot of people that are no longer with their oppressor can change the course of their life. There is definitely that hope and that opportunity. 

I’ll be sharing a piece that I love from page 158 of Dr. DeGruy’s book,“we must heal now, because our failure to do so will impact the generations to come on multiple levels. First, if we continue to allow ourselves to be victimized by the systems, and institutions that have afflicted us in the past, we will demonstrate and model fertility and acceptance of despair. And if we fail to recognize the impact that negative patterns of thinking and behavior have on us at the genetic level, we will be the authors of our own demise, we must heal now and give the gift of wholeness to our progeny.”

As many of you know, one of my specialties in trauma is sexual abuse, and one of the things that I noticed the most is that for my clients, a lot of it is not necessarily the sexual act that was the most traumatizing piece, many of them kind of froze and dissociated from that piece. It was more of the grooming that was involved, the emotional manipulation, abuse, making them feel worthless, making them feel they are sinful a person. These are some of the most difficult symptoms to manage, the internalized belief that you are someone that does not deserve to be loved, someone that does not deserve to be appreciated or to have the life of their dreams, or to manifest things, or to accomplish their goals, or do something back to humanity because they feel so bad in their core. 

This is what the oppressor wants because in general, they want to continue to oppress you. And part of my work is not only about their trauma, what happened to them but also working towards all this internalized negative beliefs about themselves, to change those and question those. That's the piece that makes me so much passionate about this topic because there is that hope and that opportunity to change the course of their life. 

When we are regulated and healed, we can provide from this place of being full as opposed to being empty. We are regulated enough to working first within us, and then to do the work towards anti-racism, towards policies and to be able to help others so we can continue to evolve as the human species.


Read Part II of the blog HERE to get the  of the most important recommendations to help you heal from Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome.


With Love,

Dr. Lydiana


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