In the first two articles of this series, we tried to understand what narrative is underlying the behavior of people who work for people on the move. Together with three people who are affected by the narrative, we learned that there are certain attributes associated with the term ‘refugee’: poor, uneducated, religious, conservative, suffering, weak, vulnerable, helpless. Trying to understand where the narrative of the poor refugee comes from, we landed on the assumption that it is a combination of western arrogance and white guilt that creates this narrative and that the narrative might be the reason why many of us volunteer or work in this field in the first place, rather than a mindset that many of us happen to share.
But, as it turns out, white guilt and western arrogance are not the only factors that create the narrative. According to the theory of the psychiatrist Renos Papadopoulos, there is a whole complex psychological process behind it: confusing complexity.
Papadopoulos observed similar behaviors in society as I do among people who are supportive of asylum seeking people. That is, assuming that all ‘refugees’ are traumatized, vulnerable, and helpless. He sees this even among his colleagues and criticises that they show a tendency of relating the legal status of asylum seekers directly to their mental health. However, being displaced does not necessarily mean that a person is traumatized.
While all people who seek asylum in Europe have certainly had horrible experiences and the experience of being displaced and seeking asylum has a big impact on a person’s mental health, whether this causes an actual trauma – in the sense of a Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder – depends on what Papadopoulos calls ‘psychological immune system’. This psychological immune system is, to a big part, built in a person’s childhood and how well their needs were met during this time. If a child’s need for shelter, food, love, belonging, and self-actualization were satisfied appropriately, it will grow up to be an adult with a healthy psychological immune system and will therefore be more resilient to potentially traumatizing experiences later on in life. This means that not every person who experienced poverty, oppression, violence, war, and displacement is traumatized.
I believe that society nowadays has at least a basic understanding of psychology, and the concept of childhood experiences shaping a person’s mental health and resilience is not new to most people. And yet, we seem to disregard this concept when we talk about people on the move. We perceive all of them as equally traumatized and vulnerable and often don’t see their resilience, skills, and resources. We assume that they all need and deserve the same kind and amount of help because we associate a certain mental state and level of vulnerability, poverty, and capability with their legal status. Papadopoulos calls this the ‘narrative passport’.
For Papadopoulos, the cause of the narrative of the poor refugee does not lie in Social Darwinism and white guilt, but in the confusing complexity of the situation. We are confronted with the tragic stories of poverty, violence, oppression, and displacement but we do not understand them because we have not experienced them ourselves. The complexity of the political, social, and economic processes that lead to human suffering are too complex for our minds to grasp all the aspects of them. So we oversimplify them in a way that makes sense for us.
This explains the two opposite attitudes that people typically apply to the topic of migration. We learn about wars in faraway countries through the news – where the circumstances are already oversimplified – and we see either the violence, religion, and conservatism or we see the suffering caused by the violence and the lack of resources for the victims to escape it. For those who see the suffering, the tragedy of it can leave them feeling overwhelmed. As we have not been in a comparable situation, we are unable to understand that anyone who experienced these situations could be resilient enough to not be traumatized by them. The suffering is too big for us to grasp, which causes a psychological response called ‘polymorphous helplessness’. According to Papadopoulos, we choose between two options again: We can choose to feel powerless and unable to help – impotent – or we can choose to be powerful and able to ‘fix the situation’ – omnipotent.
From how I understand the theory, I believe I have met both kinds of polymorphously helpless people. I have met the kind who feels impotent, who becomes paralyzed when they are confronted with other people’s suffering because they would like to help but don’t know how. And I have met the kind of people who feel omnipotent, who disregard rules because they believe they are in their way of helping people and because they are unable to anticipate the consequences that breaking these rules can have. I believe that the latter is what we typically call a white savior. The people who, according to Abode, think they know best what kind of help other people need.
Reading Papadopoulos’ explanation of how the narrative of the poor refugee is constructed, I wonder if confusing complexity alone can be blamed for it. How do the factors mentioned in the previous article play into it? The role of the media seems quite obvious at first. It shows us a one-sided picture of the circumstances in the countries that people on the move come from. And the lack of education mentioned by Abode would probably enhance our oversimplification of the suffering we see.
But how can we lessen the narrative of the poor refugee in the minds of people who want to support newcomers to our society? In the next article of this series we will try to find out more about this.
Papadopoulos, R.( 2007). Refugees, Trauma, and Adversity-Activated-Development. European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling, 9 (3). Routledge Taylor and Francis Group
Papadopoulos, R.K. (2022). Therapeutic Complexity. In Maloney, C., Nelki, J. and Summers, A. (Eds.) Seeking Asylum and Mental Health. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.