This month, I’ve been exploring how identity, specifically large-group identity, plays a part in how trauma is passed down through generations. Large group identity refers to a group of people who share the same tribal, ethnic, national, religious sentiments, but who will never see or even know of most of the other people in the group. This is different from individual identity, which refers to the continuity in the sense of self and persistent sense of sameness within oneself. Vamik Volkan (2019, 2021) developed a metaphor to help distinguish between these two types of identity. This metaphor was inspired by Eric Erikson’s (1959) theory that primitive humans wore animal skins or feathers for protection, and based on these items of clothing, tribes or clans were able to distinguish themselves from other tribes or clans. Volkan imaged everyone as wearing two types of fabric. The first layer, which fits snugly, is the person’s individual identity. The second layer represents a large group identity and is the canvas of a tent which is supported by a pole. The pole represents the leader of the large group, and the leader’s ability to hold steady or shake the tent.

Large group identity can develop in either childhood or adulthood. When it’s developed in childhood, it becomes the individual’s core large group identity and is almost impossible to get rid of or change without any anxiety. Parents and other important people in a child’s life such as teachers and peers, “deposit” images of past historical events into the child’s mind. For those sharing a large group identity, the stories are for the most part the same, creating a shared “psychological DNA” belonging to every member of the group, even future generations. Through trial and error, children learn what things or people belong and don’t belong in their tent. In this way, children learn the concepts of “We” and “Other”. In adulthood, the large group identities that are developed are usually deemed sub-groups because they don’t replace the core large group identity that was developed in childhood. Followers of a specific sports team or members of an academic organization can be thought of as sub-groups because being a Timbers fan doesn’t change the fact that you are Asian-American. There are some exceptions to this, where a newly adopted large group identity leads members to lose some original moral attitudes. When this happens, the individual exaggerates certain aspects of their core large group identities that are deemed important while ignoring other aspects that don’t align with the new group’s attitudes. This type of large group identity can be seen in immigrants but has the ability to be very dangerous and on the most extreme end of the spectrum can result in cults or terrorist organizations. 

Large group identity plays an absolutely crucial role in the transmission of trauma through generations. The concept of “depositing” images into future generations is what keeps certain aspects of the trauma consistent while changing the function of it. Each future generation has a new perspective on the traumatic event based off of the ways in which those images are deposited. The survivors have to face the event head on whereas the future generations are left to pick up the pieces and make sure no one forgets what was broken. 

As a leader, it is important to understand the power that you hold. You can use concepts of “We” and “Other” that you learned as children strategically for good or for bad. They are most often used to create a sense of togetherness within a large group, while excluding those who don’t share the same identity. While it’s a good thing to have a sense of safety and community within a large group identity, the exclusion of “Others” can sometimes bring more harm than good. The more that we can open our tents to others and understand that as living things on Earth, sharing the biggest tent of them all, the more we can repair the torn fabric that we all live under. One large group identity that people don’t usually think of is that of being a living thing on Earth. All humans, animals, plants, anything living on Earth depends on the Earth to survive. This is a special tent that doesn’t have a single pole, it has many and these poles have to work together to hold up our tent, because if one or two or many of them don’t do their part in holding up the tent, it will collapse. 

Kira, who is a psychology major at Willamette University,  is researching intergenerational trauma in the context of leadership and storytelling. Learn more about Kira here.

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“We” and “Other” by EcoFaith Research Intern Kira Saito

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