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Let's Act, Not Re-enact

My last two posts were about re-enactment. In “Re-enactment is Real” (May 13, 2014), I define this concept and give an example of it in my own life–when the simple act of replacing a light bulb became painful and challenging. In “A Master’s Take on Re-enactment: The Words of Dr. Peter Levine” (May 5, 2014), I provide a deeper explanation of what re-enactment is by sharing the words of the expert himself.  This post, “Let’s Act, Not Re-enact,” is the last in a series of three on this topic, a topic which is key to our freedom.

To my mind, re-enactment is one of the most important concepts to grasp if we want to be peaceful, self-aware, kind, and creative. Re-enactment is the anti-thesis of creativity, for it traps us in patterns of unresolved past trauma and helplessness. Re-enactment relies on a lack of self-awareness and often results in hurting self and others. Re-enactment destroys peace and fills us with confusion, doubt, rage, and remorse.

When we understand ourselves and why we do what we do, we are empowered. We make sense to ourselves and feel happy and whole. We take risks, innovate, and engage in activities in meaningful ways because we are present and have no need to take care of something from the past. We can be kind to others because we are not needing to use them as unknowing actors in our compulsive dramas. In order to see how re-enactment works, consider several scenarios from Dr. Peter Levine’s book Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. 

You are driving home from work when you become aware of a car barreling toward you. You manage to swerve out of harm’s way and then pull over to recover mentally. You feel happy to be alive and proud of yourself for figuring out how to avert danger.  You are still worked up though. Your knees shake and your hands tingle. As you ungrip the steering wheel, you let your arms and shoulders shake; tears well up. Oh my god, you say to yourself, I could have been killed. Now in a calmer state, you begin to “review the event.” You think of when you first saw the other car, what you might have done better so that, if there is a next time, you’ll be more prepared. You congratulate yourself, go home, tell family, and get the hugs you need. You take a nap and upon waking, feel energized and lucky. Very lucky (175-176).

BUT what if instead, you “act in”? What if you don’t discharge those energies you mustered to avoid the close crash? You make your body stop shaking and tell yourself to get a grip. You deny the need to discharge the energy, thus “internalizing” it. What if instead of reviewing what happened in a relaxed way, you remain agitated and try to put the event out of your mind?  Get on with life, you say to yourself. Later, as a result of having ignored the need to resolve the  life-threatening event, you experience panic attacks and “compulsive” flashbacks. You are nervous when driving and are always on the lookout for that Cougar that almost mowed you down or another car like it. You are hyper-vigilant. Post-traumatic stress manifests (176).

OR what if you “act out”? What if after you avert danger and pull to the curb, you are highly agitated–heart pounding, teeth gritting–but you are frightened of the intensity of this energy. You become angry and focus on the idiot who almost killed you and imagine strangling him or worse, killing him. Rage crests again, further frightening you, but instead of allowing your body to discharge the energy, you remember that the idiot was driving a blue Mercury Cougar and head out in pursuit of the perpetrator. When you find this model of car parked in a nearby lot, you take a tire iron to it, smashing the windshield. Still feeling intense energy, you bust out the side windows and finally, the rear. Suddenly, you realize what you’ve done. People are watching and shame washes over you. You jump in your car and speed home, but instead of receiving the hugs and reassurance you need from family, you remain silent not wanting anyone to know that you acted crazily and broke the law. You get back in your car hoping to drive off the feelings, but the intensity of the undischarged energy won’t abate. You drive to your local bar (176-178).

Obviously, the first scenario is preferable: discharge, reflect, seek support. To “act in” or “act out,” the second and third scenarios, is extremely self-destructive; both actions hurt society and cause acute disruption. We have likely all been victims of unresolved trauma at one time or another. How did you handle it?

A civilization that is peaceful, self-aware, kind, and creative understands re-enactment and works to dispel trauma in self-empowering ways. Education about this phenomenon is needed. Re-enactment is real and as a society, we must come to terms with it if we want a different future–one with less violence and more harmony. A future in which we act, not re-enact.

4 Responses to Let's Act, Not Re-enact

  1. Dr Levine’s example is such a clear illustration of the choices we have after trauma. And don’t we all have traumatic experiences? Thank you for sharing this with us your readers, Wendy.
    Reading this makes me ask myself again how I’m dealing with the wash-up of the pyloric stenosis surgery I had as a baby: the way this operation was done in the past, the lengthy separation from my mother, my parents’ closedness about this chapter of their and my lives, and the complex relationship I had with my mother: these have not left me untouched.
    The except from Peter Levine’s book and your closing observations also prompt me to wonder (yet again!) how much of our personal, society and national uglinesses result from the way we (individually and together) choose to react or respond to events.

  2. Yes, I think quite a lot about this. When people commit crimes, when people exhibit heinous behavior, when people are violent–how much of these actions stem from reenactment? How I wish society in general knew more about this aspect of trauma! In any event, there are many choices available after trauma if we only had the information about what reenactment is and what options are open to us as individuals and as a society.

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