The Filipino’s Collective PTSD

by Fernando Perfas

Fiesta Parade in Dasmarinas, Cavite | Photo by Beth Macdonald on Unsplash

The title of this essay may raise eyebrows, although I’m writing this with all seriousness. In some of my previous writings, I have already touched on this subject. It’s a recurring theme I keep going back to in my struggle to understand the Filipino psyche as it relates to the living spaces that contain his daily life and public affairs.

My jumping point is framed in the Philippine colonial past and the historical trauma inflicted on Filipinos during that period. It is not a trauma story of one person, an ethnic group, a religious, political, or racial group, but rather a collective national experience. A pivotal experience accumulated through centuries and transmitted through generations. The effects of this continue to play out in the present.

This fact is no small matter considering the magnitude of people involved, particularly when we consider that the Philippines ranks 13th as the most populous country in the world, with more than 105 million people. The colonial experience of the Philippines as a former Spanish and American colony and briefly under Japanese occupation during World War II is unique for its length (spanning close to four centuries), the painful nature of the colonial experience, and the absence of inter-racial integration between the colonizers and the natives.

Unlike the colonial experience of, say, Latin Americans, where co-habitation with Native Americans by Spanish or European settlers was more common, thereby producing a large population of mestizos, such did not happen in the Philippines. This interracial dynamic tempered the oppressive colonial impulses and led to the total integration of European settlers into their newfound homeland, thereby solidifying their national identity. This gave rise to feelings of nationhood, fueling nationalistic sentiments and eventually leading to independence movements from the Spanish Crown or colonial power.

The Philippine colonial experience, particularly under the Spanish, was both lengthy and oppressive. The use of force by more militarily superior Spanish and American forces to subdue revolts took a tremendous toll on Filipinos, not to mention losses during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. The more than three centuries of Spanish colonization of the Philippines were characterized by brutalities and all forms of oppression. They included forced conversion to Catholicism, agrarian and economic exploitation, the suppression of basic freedoms and liberties, limited general education, racial oppression, and discrimination. The church and civil authorities exerted complete moral and social control over the lives of Filipinos. The highly touted educational instructions provided by the friars were largely self-serving and focused mainly on the religious catechism instead of learning to think critically. It perpetuated state control and maintained the influence of the church on Filipinos’ religious and secular lives.

When oppressed people are extensively subjected to an overwhelming force with little opportunity and means to fight back or defend themselves adequately, it gives rise to feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. The population becomes docile, adapts to harsh conditions, and internalizes their adverse experiences. For more than three centuries of Spanish rule, there were isolated Filipino revolts against the church and colonial government, which were easily quelled, but there was no meaningful national liberation movement not until the late 1900s. The Spanish military tactics of pitting Filipinos against each other by mobilizing Filipino militia from one region to quell revolts in another had reinforced Filipino regionalist tendencies, a divisive force thwarting the rise of nationalist sentiments and a strong sense of nationhood. The prolonged dehumanizing Filipino colonial experience dampened their spirit and began to shape their national character.

Undoubtedly, the Filipino colonial and war experiences were traumatic. Not only did the experience marginalize their physical existence, but it also left deep marks on their psychic make-up, stunting Filipinos’ sense of self and ability to develop and connect with the concept of nationhood. The inequities in land ownership, which started with the Spanish land grab during the colonial period, have continued to the present time, concentrating wealth among the few elites and leaving a large segment of Filipinos landless and poor.

“When oppressed people are extensively subjected to an overwhelming force with little opportunity and means to fight back or defend themselves adequately, it gives rise to feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. The population becomes docile, adapts to harsh conditions, and internalizes their adverse experiences. “

Unlike other countries that suffered similar historical and colonial experiences, the Filipino struggle to achieve freedom and define itself as a nation has been stymied by the confluence of several unfortunate circumstances. The revolutionary movement suffered from limited resources, poor logistics, a lack of well-defined ideological doctrine, and a splintered leadership. Rivalries, self-interests, and divided loyalties plagued the leadership, and a lack of a coherent tactical strategy to win the struggle against Spain and later the Americans doomed the movement at the outset. Although Emilio Aguinaldo proclaimed Philippine independence from Spain in 1898, the Philippines was not a liberated nation back then. The brief Filipino-American War, following the Spanish capitulations to the Americans, saw the control of the Philippines change hands. The Filipinos never won true freedom for their country in battle. Instead, its independence was granted more than 40 years later under an implicit arrangement of continued hegemonic influence as a former colony under the United States.

In light of new knowledge about historical and colonial trauma, particularly the intergenerational transmissions of the effects of traumatic experiences, we can assume that Filipinos continue to carry the scars of their ancestors’ colonial past. Theirs is a collective adverse experience suffered by a national group under oppressive regimes. The colonial trauma experience manifests in a cluster of conditioned behavioral and psychological responses often lumped under the broad concept of “colonial mentality.”

It is an internalized perception of ethnic and racial inferiority resulting from the colonizers’ physical, psychological, and racial oppression. Alongside the feelings of inferiority is the perception of “being less than” vis a vis the perpetrator, who is often perversely emulated by the victim. We have observed this play out in many countries under the former colonial rule where the political vacuum left by colonizers was filled by native rulers who became equally, if not more, oppressive than the former colonial masters.

The Filipino colonial mentality consists not only of a preference for American or Western things and ideas. It includes a split in his consciousness where the outer crust emulates Western ideas and ways and a deeper aspect of self that connects him to his cultural and psychological pre-Spanish ancestry. Since he’s driven by a mere desire to emulate and project a Westernized image, without much thought, there is little discernment or self-awareness involved. This makes him appear shallow and trivial. This often shows in his taste in fashion, arts, and lifestyle, including his superficial understanding and practice of the Christian faith. There is a preoccupation with religious icons, not as a mere representation of the divine, but treated as if the “thing” itself, and without it, his worship won’t be complete.

Notwithstanding resiliency, which is a more adaptive unintended byproduct of oppression for some, the general damage done to the self and spirit of a people subjected to prolong and pervasive oppression has lasting consequences that could take time and favorable circumstances to heal.

The unconscious mode of thinking involved in colonial mentality is expressed in preferences and values, self-perception, and coping strategies molded by the human imperative of survival under dire circumstances. Filipinos’ bias for white skin and Western culture, which persists even among the younger generations, is a generalized projection of “white supremacy” embedded in the unconscious. It explains the sustained popularity of skin-whitening products and unbridled consumption of American pop culture.

The power relations between colonial masters and subjects reinforced Filipinos’ perception of racial inferiority. These arrangements included Filipinos’ lack of significant participation in decision-making in matters of local and national affairs. The colonial grip on Filipinos’ daily life fostered the feeling of powerlessness and a deep-seated feeling of inferiority.

“Many of the chronic psychosocial, economic, and political conditions that plague the Philippines can be traced to the adverse consequences of colonial and historical trauma on the Filipino consciousness, which are transmitted through generations.”

In dealing with the exigencies of daily existence and limited resources and opportunities for social mobility under colonial rule, Filipinos developed an opportunistic coping style, a style driven by survival instincts. Under a relentless oppressive environment, Filipinos constantly felt under siege and evolved a survival strategy I refer to as Siege Mentality. This coping strategy stems from a deep-seated sense of physical and psychological insecurities centered around survival. It can manifest in hoarding behavior or compulsive accumulation of material things. It underpins the rampant corruption in the government and its bureaucracy. As a defense mechanism, it is expressed in over-compensation as in an ostentatious display of wealth or an over-the-top adoption of an imported Western idea.

These inherited intergenerational coping strategies continue to influence Filipino’s sense of self, preferences, values, and sense of priorities. They are determining factors in raising a family, maintaining social relations, conducting business, politics, and national governance.

Many of the chronic psychosocial, economic, and political conditions that plague the Philippines can be traced to the adverse consequences of colonial and historical trauma on the Filipino consciousness, which are transmitted through generations. Their effects are played out on the national stage of politics, governance, and the use of power. They manifest in Filipino’s relationships with his natural environment and his social consciousness, such as the treatment of the environment, preservation of natural resources, heritage sites, and cultural treasures. They influence and shape national values and sense of priority, time perspective (short memory and tardiness), emphasis on appearances, and glaring contradictions in the practice of his faith.

The argument of Filipinos’ collective colonial and historical trauma and the need to find ways to heal the wounds is supported by careful ethnographic observations and current research in the field of colonial and historical trauma studies. The Filipinos, however, are not alone as we now observe the same pattern occurring in most countries that were subjects of brutal past colonial conquests.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR  Dr. Fernando B. Perfas is an addiction specialist who has written several books and articles on the subject. He currently provides training and consulting services to various government and non-government drug treatment agencies regarding drug treatment and prevention approaches. He can be reached at fbperfas@gmail.com.

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3 comments

Jessie Cueta September 26, 2022 - 11:12 am

Pilipino People should stand what he is,now We Pilipino be freed and fly high

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James Figueroa September 26, 2022 - 2:17 pm

How true, this true. The church was a Spanish weapon utilized to segregate Filipinos from their fellows. Only instead of an Inquisition, we had oppression by a country who wouldn’t take the hint and leave.

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Roberto M. Reyes September 26, 2022 - 3:15 pm

Thanks, Dr. Fernando Perfas, for your article. This is quite a similar finding with my earlier hypothesis that the Filipino people, especially the young voters, are bent on committing mass suicide, starting with political suicide.
I addressed the voters of such a political suicide when I ran for governor of my home province of Sorsogon in 2016. I told the radio listeners that the popularity of illegal drugs is a symptom of the said political-suicide disease.
The main root cause of it (in the Philippines) is poverty. After all, William Shakespeare earlier wrote, “Misery acquaints man with strange bedfellows.” Yes, if I might add (as I said in the radio broadcasts), even waking up with bedfellows like fellow substance-abuser new acquaintances. (As posted in my Timeline where I shared your article, Dr. Perfas.)

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