Existential Psychology

Just World Trauma

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We are going to discuss a hypothesis for trauma that specifically fits into the mentality of people from dominant culture and we will develop it using existential psychology. Then we will offer a silver lining of hope for those who feel they fit the criteria.

The construct of ‘Just World’ was proposed by Lerner (1980) and includes three basic premises, which are:

1. The world is benevolent
2. The world is meaningful
2. The self is worthy

These suppositions make sense for the majority of people who see themselves as a part of dominant culture because up until the time of a trauma they have secretly believed that following the rules and guidelines of the culture within which they live makes them immune from anything really bad happening. Until the time of trauma they did enjoy many privileges, spoken and unspoken, that made the three criteria above seem objectively true.

In our society this comes down to the American dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We believe that the individual is capable of anything, that hard work pays off, that what goes around comes around, and that buying into the moral precepts and rules of behavior will keep us safe from all of the uncertainties of life.

When a trauma occurs people with the mentality outlined above have their suffering compounded. Not only are they forced to deal with the horror of the concrete event and its ramifications, but they also suffer an existential crisis because their underlying expectations about how the world works turn out to be wrong. A metaphor to describe the feeling is to suddenly find yourself in the middle of a vast wilderness with no compass or supplies when just a moment before you were striding confidently down a path you knew well.

A person thinks despairingly “I did everything right. I followed all the rules. How could this have happened to me?” The story of Job from the Old Testament is a good representation of the existential pain. “My God, why have you abandoned me?” Job has done everything right, trusts in the Lord, has a beautiful family, lots of land, and a profitable living. Yet it is all taken from him out of nowhere.

While you cannot change the trauma that has occurred, every conflict is a chance for spiritual development. This is the silver lining of having suffered a traumatic experience when before you felt immune as a member of dominant culture. You have the chance to reexamine all of your beliefs and values and search your soul to see whether they truly fit who and what you are and who and what you want to become. You can decide that you can’t control everything, but what you can control is your attitude towards what happened.