Politics, Trauma and Empathy: Breakthrough to a politics of the heart?


How did we get into this mess and how do we find a way out?

What are the impacts of our psychologies on our social structures, how and why have we got here and what kind of tools can help us make change happen? To answer this, we’ll look at the principal systems through which we make change in our society: our collective decision making systems, also known as politics.

Personal Roots

Much of our outlook is conditioned by neurobiological patterning in response to our experience in our first few years. This is a period we have all but forgotten by adulthood, but it continues to powerfully affect our resilience, attitudes, behaviour, and our ability to make healthy decisions for the rest of our lives. The quality of our early experience is highly dependent on our relationships with our primary caregivers and their ability to support us (or not) in these early years (Gerhardt 2003).

Colonial roots

All this can look like a personal issue — something to deal with in therapy or in our close relationships. And in part it can be. But the trauma we experience is way more than just personal — and it will take deep cultural shifts as well as personal growth to deal with it. To see why, we need to look back at the roots of our dysfunctional relationship with power.

The politics of trauma

Within our social and political systems there’s a vortex of unacknowledged trauma combined with a hereditary system of domination which, turbo charged by the neo-liberal agenda over the past 40 years, is now running close to costing us everything.

A politics of the heart

Is it worth trying to find another way of doing things? Can we find one which is able to recognise the deeper levels of our being, support that within us which is prosocial and that places our needs alongside those of other humans and species and within bountiful ecosystems that offer to take care of our material, and thereby spiritual, needs if we take care of them?

Mitigating human weaknesses

In some contexts it is very difficult for us to make good decisions: when we’re stressed, when we’re tired, when we’re triggered . . . So the first thing we need to think about in developing ideas about what a new political system might look like is how to ensure, as far as possible, that we create structures and processes which take into account and mitigate these difficulties.


Since our early trauma states affect our ability to relate well to ourselves and others, recognising this and creating structures which enable us to deal with our traumatised states is an essential component of a new politics.

  • We take regular breaks
  • We build relationships and share appreciation in our teams
  • We build opportunities for creativity (singing, dancing, simply sharing how we are feeling or subtler spaces) into our shared time together
  • We become skilled and confident in feeding back when things are difficult for us and in accepting honest feedback from others
  • We build tolerance and skills in sharing our feelings with one another — and in using them as useful signals to address what’s arising within and between us.
  • We see becoming conscious of and skilled in handling our own and others’ internal processes as a normal, socially useful aim
  • We deal openly and fairly with conflict between us, recognising that it is an expression of larger processes that we need to become conscious of

‘Cognitive’ biases

Humans are predisposed to a range of foibles in the way we make sense of what’s happening around us. Sometimes glossed as ‘cognitive biases’ these are more correctly a highly complex bundle of neurological, hormonal and cultural tendencies — some more deeply neurological and some more culturally determined. One of the most prevalent and, for the purposes of this essay, most important, is in-group/ out-group thinking. The extent to which we are conscious of this will have a big impact on the extent to which we are run by, or are able to manage it. In our globalised times, it is a crucial element to be aware of.

Cognitive Bias Codex from Designhacks.co

Power psychosis

For a very long time in our culture, power rested with the top dog, the biggest bully, the one who was the best at, or maybe just prepared to go the furthest, in terms of killing and maiming. Similar dynamics are still at play. Even if physical violence is no longer publicly condoned, bullying, shaming, taunting are all a familiar part of the way that politicians may feel they have to behave to defend themselves or get their way.

Supportive Strategies

Creating contexts that de-stress

  • firstly, acknowledging that our internalised childhood trauma is central to the colonising process that persists in how we are taught to relate to others in the public realm and
  • secondly, centring empathy as key to our decision-making and our place in the world, including in our politics.


These new decision making spaces wouldn’t rely on people digging deep into their historic pain to bring it into the light for healing (useful though such processes can be). They would only need to acknowledge that when we become unable to care, to be empathic, we have stumbled across one of our early hidden patterns. At those times, we need to reflect on why this has happened, on what’s going on with us that means we’re not able to be open hearted. This can be a quick internal process, or something that needs time and support from others. In either case it’s almost always enlightening and relieving and having been dealt with, can allow us to return to whatever we were doing with more information, more attention, and a mind that is once again open.

Uniform exceptionalism, or diverse uniqueness

Of course, political and economic elites’ sense of entitlement is built on a widespread social belief in ‘exceptionalism’ that is central to any colonising mentality. The idea that:

  • humans are exceptional, rather than are as unique as other species,
  • ‘science’ is exceptional rather than a recent variant on a widespread human or more than human story-telling process of gathering evidence and testing hypotheses,
  • ‘moderns’ differ from previous societies, rather than adhere blindly to an idea (in this case of ‘irreversible progress’) in a way that similarly hierarchical ‘traditional’ societies were also bound to seemingly inescapable but actually entirely changeable beliefs,
  • the UK has a second chamber consisting of people who are there because they are seen as being from exceptional bloodlines (meaning their ancestors were the warlords who took others’ territories), or because their ancestors or they themselves showed obedience to this system where those who govern do not do so in the name of the people but in the name of a person who represents colonialism,
  • for those in the UK, staying in the EU could have been solidarity-enhancing if it had meant ensuring the rich could no longer make themselves exceptions to being taxed, likewise leaving the EU could have involved confronting rather than entrenching notions of British exceptionalism by transforming a captured political and economic system,
  • many have feared that Scotland becoming independent would somehow break an exceptional ‘family of nations’, adherence to which is — by a sleight of hand — described as not ‘nationalistic’, rather than recognising that independence could diminish solidarity between people in the UK if it results from a mistaken exceptionalism (e.g. from the idea that Scotland gets who England votes for. In fact, even England doesn’t get who England votes for: parties only have to mobilise the votes of a strong minority in England to be able to impose their power on all), but equally independence could flow from a democratising impulse, drawing on Scotland’s unique experience of being colonised, and a desire to no longer collaborate in the colonising of others, in such a way that independence could enhance solidarity and insist on democracy across the UK.


These are the conditions which promote clear thinking, deliberation and good decisions. Such spaces need good facilitation, so the role of trained, highly skilled facilitators, who are aware of their biases and keen to compensate for them, would be a key addition to political processes that would contribute a great deal to making sure that our decision-making is safe, orderly and fair.

Citizens Assemblies

An ethnographic review of the Kingston-upon-Thames’ Citizens Assembly on Air Quality (John Boswell, in press) highlights the way in which innovative deliberative processes such as Citizens Assemblies require a depth of disagreement to be enabled. Supporting the safe expression of disagreement and alignment is needed for deeper empathy and deeper solutions to emerge.


Progressive social movements that seek to challenge power structures often perpetuate the same power dynamics within themselves. To become powerful enough to transform toxic power relations often means having already become them, and not becoming them is often because we have relinquished the battle and so left them in place. For example, Extinction Rebellion has had a welcome focus on ‘regeneration’ (self-care). At the same time, XR UK has had some toxic power issues, including a struggle between those focused on antagonizing others in order to drive the climate emergency up society’s agenda, and those trying to build bridges of care to those suffering impacts of the system driving the crisis.

Shared purpose over parties

One of the key insights from shared governance is that everyone’s view matters — everyone involved in a project has a stake in it and their voice should be heard. The way this is organised is by a strong emphasis on developing a shared aim. Once that has been agreed, participants are encouraged to see the shared aim as their guiding principle: objections to proposals shouldn’t be made according to personal preference, but should focus on whether and how they would cause damage to the aim.

Founding principles

A completely healthy political system is as yet impossible to fully imagine. To be viable and useful it needs to have the experience, voices and engagement of as many people as possible, particularly those who are marginalised by the current system. Indeed it will never be finished, as it will change and develop over time as the needs of the people using it shift and change.

Decolonisation support circles

One leading edge of this change can come from those for whom the idea of personal, social and cultural decolonisation makes complete sense. Many of these peoples are currently that fraction of the population who care deeply about the injustice and devastation that they see in the world, but who are disengaged from mainstream politics and often also from social activism because of the toxic reinforcement of the dominator culture they see within them. Here is a potential process by which this might progress:

Getting from here to there

Although it may be a struggle to see how we could ever replace the current system, in fact most of us already inhabit this way of being much of the time with our family and friends. We’re already used to inhabiting our empathy, to taking responsibility for our more difficult behaviours, to showing our vulnerability.

  • those who work with emotions, whether experienced as such, or expressed in the body through dis-ease;
  • those who understand the hidden roots of our everyday behaviour;
  • those who work with the realities of their own and others’ distress and know in their bones the ways back out;
  • those who have been through distress, breakdown or addiction and have done the work to come to wholeness;
  • those who support groups to develop and grow in a spirit of equality rather than competition; and
  • those who care for others in a myriad of other ways.


Culture shift: redirecting humanity’s path to a flourishing future by Jeremy Lent


Fearless Cities


Why Does Patriarchy Persist? Carol Gilligan and Naomi Snider 2018. Polity


Daniel Schmachtenberger

Methods and processes

Deep Democracy



Working towards a new relational political system

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Eva Schonveld

Eva Schonveld

Working towards a new relational political system