How Can We Heal Collective Trauma?

This month, I had the incredible privilege of attending and presenting at the European Forum for Restorative Justice Conference in Tirana, Albania. The conference aims to bridge the gap between researchers, practitioners and policy-makers in the field, and in my view, it was successful in its mission. The vast majority of the plenaries and breakout sessions I attended were rich with thought-provoking content. I intend to share a few key insights from the experience in a series of posts.

One of the breakout sessions I attended asked the question, “How trauma informed are restorative justice practices with offenders?” Because trauma is a major risk factor in developing offending behavior, understanding trauma and being aware of its impact on individuals is a major topic in the restorative justice field. In order to truly address harm, facilitators must understand the harm previously experienced by offenders in order to get to the root causes of violence and misbehavior. As they say, “hurt people hurt people.” So often, both the victim and the offender in any given case need a space to experience healing and empathy.

There is a conceptual tool called the Compass of Shame that is often used to explain the different types of problematic behaviors that all indicate an unhealed trauma at their root. We don’t only experience shame when we do something wrong, we also experience it when we have a deeply negative or traumatic experience. The Compass of Shame illustrates the different ways that human beings react when they feel shame: withdrawal, attack self, avoidance, or attack others. When you see these behaviors, the best approach is to provide a space to work through the shame and trauma at the root of the negative behavior, thus healing the core issue that has given rise to the negative or harmful reaction. This will allow the individual to empathize and change their behavior.

Trauma affects not only individuals, but also larger groups and even entire societies. This is called collective trauma. Collective traumas often stir collective sentiments. The presenter noted that when a society experiences a collective trauma and it goes unhealed, it often results in a more punitive collective sentiment. What I find particularly interesting to consider is that an entire society could also be viewed through the lens of the Compass of Shame. When a society is prone to attacking others, or to a more punitive mindset, it could be an indicator of a deeper unhealed trauma. Therefore, the best approach, is not to try to deal with the manifesting behavior head on, but instead to work to provide avenues for healing the deeper trauma.

During Dr. Fania Davis’ plenary speech at the conference, she spoke about how the United States was birthed in two deep traumas: the genocide of indigenous people and slavery. The wounds of these deep traumas are not healed and because of this, the harm continues. Over the years, the form of the harm has evolved and changed, from Jim Crow laws and reservations, to mass incarceration and substance abuse, but still the harm has been perpetually re-enacted. Fania said that in order to truly address these collective traumas, we need to engage in a collective truth telling and healing process. Perhaps something similar is needed in our response to the long-time traumas of sexual assault and sexism.

Rather than reacting solely to current forms of the harm, the way it is currently manifesting on the Compass of Shame, how can we go deep to the root of the issue to provide deep healing and restoration for the traumas in our collective histories? If there is one thing restorative justice has taught us, it is that you can never really move on until the wounds of the past have been spoken, heard, and a collective plan for repair formed. It is likely that these same principles apply at a larger scale. It is time to get creative in addressing this need!


One response to “How Can We Heal Collective Trauma?”

  1. […] a few reflections from the conference in blog posts. The first of these reflections is about collective trauma. I felt incredibly fortunately to have the opportunity to attend and to learn more about what is […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: