Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Short List of Self-Care Resources

Navigating the world of self-care information can at times feel like a cruel joke on account of how much crap is out there. So at the request of a friend, I've put together a short list of self-care related resources that I've looked through and give my stamp of approval.

Books and Online Resources:
  • Developing Your Self-Care Plan – A good place to start. It’s worth taking time to holistically assess what you’re already doing, what domains need more attention, what sorts of obstacles you face, and creating a plan to build healthier habits.
  • 45 Simple Self-Care Practices for a Healthy Mind, Body, and Soul - An article with a list of some simple, practical suggestions for self-care (if you just want some easy ideas).
  • Self-Compassion – Variety of resources (e.g. mindfulness exercises, psychoeducation, and writing exercises) for developing self-compassion.
  • Mindfulness Muse – Blog with practical and accessible information about mindfulness related topics.
  • Tiny Buddha – Resources for information and guidance on wide variety of topics, ranging from peacefulness/mindfulness, love and relationships, health, work fulfillment, etc.
  • Images and Voices of Hope – A collection of Restorative Narratives (stories about recovery and resilience) that can counterbalance the deluge of distressing stories we’re exposed to and provide powerful sources of inspiration.
  • The Happiness Trap – Self-help book about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for dealing with mood and anxiety. There’s an online program you can sign up for, too.*
  • The Mindful Way Through Anxiety – Self-help book for dealing with anxiety, website has guided meditation supplemental materials.*
  • Centre for Clinical Interventions’ Self-help Workbooks – Self-help treatment modules for a number of mental health problems: Assertiveness Training, Depression, Body Acceptance, Distress Intolerance, Health Anxiety, Self-Esteem, Bi-Polar, Disordered Eating, Panic, Perfectionism, Procrastination, Social Anxiety, and Generalized Anxiety*
  • Resiliency Building Skills to Practice for Trauma Recovery – physical exercises that teach the nervous system to be more flexible and rebound from activation sooner.*
* These modules and books are time intensive and geared toward addressing mental health disorders. They can be helpful supplements for therapy and/or cheaper/easier options if you don't have access to therapy.

Contextualizing and Identifying Limits of Self-Care

In order to best appreciate what it means to engage in self-care, we sometimes need to understand its limits and the risks of not challenging an oppressive or hostile environment.  If we’re simultaneously being told we’re responsible for taking care of ourselves while also being exploited (i.e. over-worked or under-supported materially or emotionally), this is a problem that we ignore at our own peril. 

The following articles explore some of the wider political contexts and power dynamics that impact what “self-care” means for us, and especially for people with marginalized identities (e.g. people of color, LGBTQ+, women, disabled people, immigrants, etc.):

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Control is a Trap

At the root of many mental health problems is experiential avoidance. As touched upon in a previous entry, experiential avoidance is trying to avoid, suppress, or get rid of certain private experiences (i.e. emotions, physical sensations, thoughts, memories), regardless of the toll it takes on us or others around us, or of how effective those efforts are. Control strategies, then, are what we use to try to avoid feeling the things we don’t want to feel. A few examples of control strategies include substance abuse in effort to drown out distressing memories, isolating ourselves so as to try to escape social anxiety, or perhaps surrounding yourself with yes-men so as never to have to face any critical feedback or being told “no” (lookin’ at you, Mr. President).

We all use control strategies to engage with our environment/situations, and these often work reasonably well for navigating the external material world. For example, getting burned by fire is super unpleasant, so we avoid sticking our hands in it. On the other hand, it is far less clear how to avoid getting burned by the fires in our minds, which can feel just as painful and threatening to our existence as real fire. We can often recognize external threats and adjust our behavior to avoid unnecessary suffering, but the same strategies simply do not carry over to our internal experiences. The regulation of our thoughts and feelings are largely unresponsive to our verbal/cognitive control efforts.

Do not, under any circumstances, think of a pug rolling down a hill. Did you think of a pug rolling down a hill? I bet you did, even though I told you not to. That’s because trying to control our emotions and thoughts is a rigged game. There are ways that we can manipulate our environments to encourage certain emotional states (e.g. distracting ourselves by watching a movie, invoking moods through music or art, etc.), but these are very limited and temporary solutions. The cruel fact of our lives is that the harder we try to push certain internal experiences away, the harder they come back to hit us in the face, over and over and over again.

The use of control strategies for our inner world are not all bad and harmful! It is when we adhere to them rigidly, uncritically, or without concern for their impact on ourselves and others, that we get in trouble. There are times when we CAN push away certain experiences - but doing so costs us or those around us greatly. We can avoid conflict in our interpersonal relationships, but how often does compulsive conflict avoidance lead to those relationships rotting at their core, or leading to unfulfilling, shallow, husks of connection?  We can use drugs and alcohol in such a way as to never be sober enough to experience the psychic pain we’re running from, but at what cost to our bodies and relationships? We can isolate ourselves from the world so as never to experience the anxiety of facing a sometimes dangerous or hostile world, but then what is made of the life we’re desperate to preserve?

We can constrain our lives in ways that make our world and ourselves smaller and smaller until we barely exist, but then how is that meaningfully different from already being dead?
Sometimes, even, the things we’re the most desperate to try to avoid are things that are most essential to our vitality. Sometimes we’re afraid of the very things that make us special, that makes us feel alive, or that makes our lives worth living.

This inability, this unwillingness, to have certain internal experiences is at the heart of social ills across all levels of social organization. Depending on access to status and power, our control strategies can seem more effective as we shunt our pain down onto others – often resulting in a feedback loop of more and more egregious abuses in order to escape or cover up underlying painful private experiences (e.g. insecurity, shame, having to self-reflect on our weaknesses or harmful behaviors). If we have the means and will to manipulate or coerce others into acquiescing to our desires, to avoid receiving negative feedback or conflict, to suppress their needs in order to meet ours – these things give the illusion of control and perhaps even happiness. And who’s to say it’s not real happiness? (It’s me – I believe that, but you don’t have to.) But there is a kind of shallowness/hollowness to those relationships - when others resent you, are afraid of you, or even worship you, how much of you are they truly able to know and appreciate?  There is evidence that suggests that those with high power are more isolated and socially distant (to be expanded upon in future entries).

And there are definitely limits to how far you can push people. No matter how much power you accumulate, you simply cannot control everyone and everything around you. (Trump certainly does not seem like a happy dude to me, for example - but I digress.) (It also highlights the problems of entrenched systems of power, how power accumulates, and who inherits the positions of power regardless of capacity to use it responsibly - but that’s another can of worms we’ll unpack at a later date.)

Of course, this is not to say we need to pity the rich and powerful, and ESPECIALLY not to excuse their abuses of power - but instead, it’s worth acknowledging the fundamental flaw of striving to obtain more power and status as a panacea for our suffering. There are limits to our ability to control our environment and our internal experiences, and there are costs to our attempts to do so. Our efforts to escape our demons often only make them haunt us more persistently. The more unwilling we are to sit with our internal experiences, the more we end up abusing ourselves and others, and the more we constrain and limit ourselves.

To live lives worth living, pain and psychological discomfort is inevitable, so we might as well learn how to embrace and learn from it. Of course, learning how to do so is a scary and difficult process, but I’d argue that not doing so is far harder.

Life being the rich tapestry that it is, our control strategies manifest in a myriad of complicated ways, so it’s worth spending some time to reflect on the following questions:
  • What are the most difficult emotions for me to experience?
    •  Some of the most commonly struggled with emotions are: shame, fear, anger, anxiety, uncertainty, despair, helplessness, weakness, confusion, embarrassment, sadness, grief, etc. Sometimes even positive emotions like happiness and pride are difficult for people to experience. What emotion are you currently trying to avoid the most?
  • What memories or thoughts do I try not to have?
  • What do I worry about in a way that feels excessive?
    • Rumination, which is compulsively focused attention on certain aspects of your distress, can also be an effort to avoid. Often people will feel like if they are constantly worrying about something, it will keep them vigilant or reduce the chances of that thing happening. Or it can be a way of avoiding sitting with uncertainty.
  • What kinds of situations do I avoid due to how they might make me feel?
    • For example: parties, dating, trying for certain kinds of jobs, etc.
  • What behaviors do I use in order to reduce or mitigate certain internal experiences?
    • For example: using substances, overusing your cell phone, dominating or steering conversations, “ghosting” people, distracting yourself with movies or social media, etc.
  • How have these control strategies worked in the long run?
    • Some of these might be helpful to some degree! What we’re most concerned with here is workability. Some might have worked in the short-term but lost efficacy over time. Some might still work occasionally, but have limited utility. Have your attempts to control or limit your painful experiences helped reduce the pain in the long run, or have they worsened your suffering?
  • What have these control strategies cost me?
    • Have you lost relationships, health, jobs, or previously valued activities? What parts of yourself or your valued life might you feel cut off from? What does it feel like when you engage in these strategies? How does it feel to “emotionally check out”?
  • How might things be different if you chose to deal with these painful experiences more directly?

Many of these questions can be scaled up when thinking about our interpersonal/group dynamics in our communities and movement building. Are there formal mechanisms or informal norms in your social groups that are rigid in their control strategies? What kind of collective or interpersonal emotional experiences are trying to be avoided? What are the benefits of these mechanisms and what are the costs? How might things be different if the group deal with these things more directly? What role might you play in maintaining, establishing, or challenging these dynamics?

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Clarifying What We Stand For

Understandably, many of us are feeling fatigued and trying to ward off despair. The stress we’re absorbing from the political climate permeates and impacts all corners of our lives. With so much uncertainty, so many sinister threats on multiple fronts, the task of trying to figure out what to do is daunting.

But it’s important to remember that you are not alone in this struggle and that we all have a part to play. We are individual humans with limitations (annoying, I know) - and it is critical to be able to recognize those and set boundaries. This fight is going to be long and grueling, and we have to find ways to fend off burn-out and remember what it is we’re fighting for.

Something that will be important to let go of early is the notion that things will settle down or “get better, eventually.” The on-going damage, much that has already been done, has been here for many and will likely stay for a long time. It’s important not to try to cope with the political realities by psychologically minimizing them or callousing ourselves to the suffering of others.

Our lives are guaranteed to have pain- some unavoidable, some we suffer unnecessarily. One of the most liberating things we can do is to attempt to determine the kind of pain that we’re willing to take on in order to be the kind of people we want to be. Because hell, we’re going to have pain anyway - why not have some say over what form it comes in?

So instead of trying to reclaim some false sense of normalcy (if you were lucky enough to have it before), or trying to numb or distract ourselves from the pain, the best we can hope to do is work toward creating meaning. We cannot guarantee comfort, we cannot guarantee happiness or success - but we can attempt to live a life that aligns with our values.

Values Work

Considering the overwhelming nature of the numerous challenges we’re facing, figuring out how to determine our priorities is an intimidating task in and of itself. Thankfully, there’s some scaffolding that can help us determine those.

For this entry, I have included two separate but related activities. The first will focus more holistically on the things that are important to us in our lives and not just in our political aims. Because while we are political agents, we are also parents, siblings, children, friends, lovers, artists, cat guardians, doggy daddies, teachers, cooks, mimes, etc. In times of difficulty, it’s important to figure out how to stay connected to some of the aspects of live that give us a sense of vitality, that inspire creativity and connection. After all, pain is not the only source of fuel for the revolution – joy is too.

To better orient ourselves to our values, we can turn to an established tool found in The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris (an excellent resource for more in depth information about ACT):

Once you have taken a more global look at your life and what is important to you, give yourself some time to let it all sink in before moving on to the next activity. Or if you feel like you’re doing alright more generally, feel free to dig into the specifics of your political values and goals. Or you can do them in the reverse order. (Do whatever you want, I’m not your master!!!!) You’re the best judge for knowing when it’s right to try to dig into any of these questions, and this post will still be here when you’re ready.

Political Values Clarification

For the political values clarification exercise, first consult the instructions in the previously linked values questionnaire for a breakdown of the distinction between values and goals. In the attached worksheet, we’ll approach identifying and narrowing political goals in a way that can facilitate a more sustainable effort.

Finally, consider doing these worksheets with a trusted friend and discuss ways you might be able to support one another in your efforts. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Harnessing Pain and Burning It as Fuel for the Revolution

Many of us with radical politics likely formed them in response to histories of trauma and abuse – sometimes in the form of discrete, identifiable traumatic events, sometimes in the form of cumulative interpersonal micro-traumas (e.g. rejections, invalidations, humiliation, exclusion, etc.). To acknowledge the common role of trauma in forming radical politics is by no means an indictment of them, but instead, a recognition that wisdom is rooted in the transformation of pain and suffering.

Within the context of political upheaval and overt threat, many of us are struggling. It sometimes feels like we’ve been transported back into previous worlds, previous lives, and our trauma responses are taking over. Many haven’t had the luxury to fully extract themselves from those abusive contexts, especially when the abuse is coming from the state or society more generally.

It can be difficult to identify when we’re reacting out of fear from when we’re acting according to our values. It can be distressingly difficult to figure out how to connect with others who do not share our assessments of risks, threats, and acceptable strategies. These challenges can span across a wide range of relationships, and especially strain ones that are already tumultuous. Even more insidious, it can be an overwhelming challenge to figure out how to connect with ourselves.

The task of healing is as daunting as it has ever been. Some of our wounds are inextricably tied to the configuration of society and cannot fully heal until our society is transformed into one that upholds justice, compassion, and equality. However, individual healing where it is possible is critical for effectively building that world.

In order to more methodically work toward healing and committing to action, I aim to create a series of posts about topics relevant to mental health within our movements of resistance. My goal is to provide psychoeducation and activities for improving our mental health in a way that is sensitive to our needs in the context of rising fascism – not just so that we can resist fascism, but importantly, to work toward building the worlds in which we believe.
I welcome feedback, requests, questions, etc. The more interaction and feedback I receive, the more useful this can be.

Getting in the Present Moment

Before going any further, let us engage in a brief grounding exercise:

- Take a few moments to notice your breathing. Observe for a few breaths as the air flows in and out of your nostrils.

- Shift your attention to notice any physical sensations you feel. See if you can feel your feet on the floor, perhaps wiggling your toes if you need. Notice your posture as you’re sitting. Notice the sensations in your hands, your fingers.

- Now shift your attention to your surroundings. Notice what, or who is around you. Take a quick inventory and name a few things you can see.

- Sit and listen for a few moments. What can you hear? Cars? Birds? People talking? The hum of your computer? See how many different things you can hear in your environment.

- Reflect a little on what it was like for you to take some time to ground yourself in the present moment. What did you notice? Did you notice a change before and after grounding?

Grounding is a common tool in psychotherapy for learning how to be more in the present moment. It is often taught in the context of treatment for PTSD, as PTSD symptoms can sometimes take us out of the present moment and transport us back into our traumas. I will talk more about grounding and the utility of learning how to be more present later, but this was a brief example of the kinds of tools this series will cover.

Learning to Drop the Internal Struggle to Pick-up the Revolutionary Struggle

The main framework I aim to use for this series is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which became one of my main frameworks for approaching therapy for numerous reasons. But I believe it can be especially useful for activist work due to its focus on clarifying values, committing to valued action, and providing tools for being able to engage in those actions more effectively. It aims to foster psychological flexibility, allowing us to more nimbly navigate the challenges of our own internal experiences as well as the external world.

One of the most important aspects of ACT for our movements is its ability to help us create psychological space from distress in a way that can give us a powerful advantage. ACT helps shift us from a defensive, automatic, reactive orientation to our challenges, to a more mindful position of acting according what is important to us. The ability to act mindfully may well be necessary in the fight against fascism, as fascism aims to dominate through terror and social control. We must build the capacity to gain space and perspective from our automatic reactions, especially as fascism aims to dictate the rules of engagement. In short, we need to be more creative than our oppressors.

ACT operates on six core processes: Acceptance, Cognitive Defusion, Being Present, Self-as-Context, Values, and Committed Action.


In individual therapy, I tend to wait and get to know my client a bit better before introducing the concept of acceptance, because boy howdy, it can bring out some powerful reactions. Considering that our politics are often fundamental rejections of the status quo, “acceptance” risks being conflated with complacency and resignation. However, acceptance here means of our internal experiences, not of injustice. A central tenant of ACT is that psychological suffering and distress is magnified by experiential avoidance.

Experiential avoidance is when someone is unwilling to remain in contact with a particular private experience (i.e. emotion, physical sensation, thought), and they take steps to alter the form or recurrence of them. Examples of this would include substance abuse as a way to drown out the distressing memories, or isolating ourselves so as to try to escape social anxiety. On a larger scale, we can see how experiential avoidance manifests on a societal level, such as constructing elaborate narratives to rationalize the murder of a black child by the police in order not to feel guilt, shame, uncertainty, etc.

Experiential avoidance is not a categorically harmful impulse, and has some limited utility at times (e.g. avoiding showing nervousness in an interview, tempering anger so as to be able to engage in a delicate conversation with a valued friend, etc.) While there are times when we must employ experiential avoidance in order to survive, the effects of using it as a long term strategy can be profoundly damaging. Further, paradoxically, the more frequently and consistently we attempt to experientially avoid certain internal experiences, the more we guarantee an increase in their frequency and intensity.

 A common theme in ACT is that of learning how to “drop the struggle” with our inner demons, to stop trying to avoid feeling our feelings. Our emotions are invaluable to us – they provide us with critical information for survival and about what is important to us. How many of our behaviors are taken in order to avoid feeling certain emotions? Acceptance can help us drop the struggle with our distressing internal experiences in order to better engage in the struggle for liberty.

Cognitive Defusion

In an ACT framework, we make a distinction between the "observing self" and the "thinking self." They interact and operate with one another, but sometimes one process will be more dominant than the other. Cognitive fusion is when certain distressing thoughts, feelings, or judgements take us over and gets conflated with “the truth.” It’s when we cannot see the thought for what it is – a thought, a product of the mind. Being fused with a distressing private experience can consume us, it can keep us stuck and cause us unnecessary pain. Cognitive defusion is an effort to unhook from those.

The degree of accuracy or truthfulness of a thought, feeling, or judgment, ultimately does not matter if it does not serve us. This does not mean that we ought to ignore evidence that upsets us, but instead, suggests that we learn how to unhook from dwelling and beating ourselves up. ACT teaches us to consider workability – to examine how useful a strategy for behaving or relating to our private experience is. Remaining fused with thoughts or feelings that keep us complacent, discourage us from pursuing the work we need to do, is not a workable strategy. Cognitive defusion exercises can help us build the psychological muscles to pull away from our thoughts, to see them from a distance, and to examine them as they are – as thoughts.  Perspective gives us the chance to decide how we want to act.

Being Present

ACT can help us foster non-judgmental awareness of our psychological and environmental events. This capacity for non-judgmental awareness helps us to have a clearer understanding of ourselves and the challenges we face. Working toward non-judgmental awareness allows us to better see past our cognitive biases, be more honest with ourselves and others, and helps us break out of harmful patterns. And who can argue with having more accurate understandings of ourselves and environments? (The answer is fascists and abusers, as they aim to confuse, sow doubt, and demoralize.)

Self as Context

Being a human is hella complicated. Over the years we tend to develop conceptualizations of ourselves that can sometimes constrain our actions or limit our ability to know the full range of who we are. We get attached to identities along the way that can sometimes overshadow other aspects of ourselves, or limit the information we’re able to process.

One example of this process we might see in activist circles is that of the ally identity. If we get attached to the identity of “ally,” it can sometimes lead to an unwillingness to be confronted with evidence that our behaviors are harmful to someone, because we’re invested in a self-concept of not being racist/sexist/ableist, etc. The converse can also happen, where, as victims, perhaps we have had to fight desperately for the recognition that we’ve been harmed and so we can end up attached to that identity. This can lead us to feel weak and powerless in the face of challenges that remind us of our past traumas, or on the other side, to perhaps dismiss evidence that we are capable of hurting others. Learning how to step beyond our self-concepts and understand ourselves in various contexts leads to more psychological flexibility.


Ah, values. Our bread and roses. ACT encourages us to clarify what is important to us, to disentangle values from goals, and identify priorities. How much of our society’s problems are influenced by inherited sets of values that teach us to strive for wealth and power at the expense of true human connection? While many of us have spent a lot of time reflecting on values, we may not have spent much time making them explicit and methodically assessing our progress in enacting them. In times of confusion, when we’re overwhelmed with all that needs to be done – clear values can serve as a compass to help guide us in the direction we want to go, even if we don’t have a map.

Committed Action

Another aspect that might not need so much explaining for veteran activists out there - but for some of the newbies, this is perhaps one of the most important factors in mental health. Many activists have pointed to the benefits of getting involved with causes you care about. Not only does this contribute to building a better world, it is one of the most rewarding avenues toward engaging in genuine human connection. Plenty can get in the way of following through on our values, and ACT provides tools for diagnosing these problems, and help us to implement strategies for living lives that feel meaningful.  

Looking Forward

Hopefully some of the information presented above can provide some helpful insight for how we can begin approaching mental health in the context of rising fascism. Going forward, consider trying to engage in some grounding exercises throughout your day over the next week. You can set a timer on your phone or computer to remind you, or place a note somewhere in a visible location. Grounding and other mindfulness exercises work best the more often you practice them – they are not just things you do once a week and expect to make a difference.

We’re up against a lot, and we need to find ways to be self-disciplined. Establishing a mindfulness practice can help us develop the capacity for self-discipline on a meta-cognitive level, which makes us more effective in establishing self-discipline in other areas. We are not just up against a new regime of fascists, we’re also up against our histories of trauma and conditioning. One serious challenge is undoing the damage of the patriarchal notion that emotions are bad or are a threat. We’ve been taught that to be emotional is to be feminine, which is to be weak – we’re also taught that to be weak is to be bad, rather than to simply be an unavoidable experience of the human condition. It is essential to redefine our concepts of courage to include a willingness to truly know ourselves.

Unfortunately, however, we cannot simply decide to know ourselves. It is a complicated process, as we’ve been conditioned in copious ways to distract ourselves from feeling discomfort, to deny certain aspects of ourselves, and to submit to a world order that depends on our complacency.  We engage in this work not just to take care of ourselves, but to be able to better care for each other. At times, the concept of Self-Care can and has been co-opted by capitalists to better exploit their workers – but it can also be a radical act of political warfare.

Further resources on grounding:


Monday, November 21, 2016

The Role of Shame in Shaping and Undermining Activist Communities

For many marginalized people, social justice communities are an essential form of social and emotional support. They can bring the oppressed and isolated together and help keep them afloat in a world that is at turns indifferent and cruel. While these communities often aim to challenge unjust power structures, they are not immune to reproducing social dynamics that perpetuate suffering and worsen harm. 

Many have already written about callout culture (tending to focus on online activist communities) — a pattern of behavior that normalizes public confrontation over transgressions against our identities and our persons. Some essays are insightful and sensitive to the plight of marginalized people, while others ubiquitously denounce callout culture without acknowledging its function or history. In one critique that falls into the former category, Asam Ahmed identified a parallel between callout culture and the prison-industrial complex (PIC).

Though it might seem disingenuous to compare a type of discourse on the internet to the well-oiled machine of disenfranchisement that is our nation’s corrections system- there is something of the indictment that resonates. The corrections system in the United States is largely characterized by its retributive principles — with our prisons functioning as socially sanctioned trauma dispensaries. While the economic, psychological, and social impact on marginalized people by the PIC is demonstrably more severe, the consequences of being shunned and rejected in yet another venue can be devastating for some of our most vulnerable people.

As evidenced by its high recidivism rates, we’ve seen that the retributive model of justice does not do much to address the causes of crime, and instead, there is evidence to suggest it exacerbates problems. The principles of restorative justice are a necessary antidote to the systemic violence of the PIC, and I intend to draw on Ahmed’s parallel to show the ways in which these principles can benefit our activist communities as well. Specifically, I turn to psychological research and the restorative justice literature to reflect on the role that shame plays in maintaining or discouraging abusive and oppressive behaviors.

The following questions guide my thinking:
  1. What is the social function of shame?
  2. How does shame contribute to oppression?
  3. In what ways can shame be transformative?
  4. How can these insights better inform our political goals and how we build our communities?
Shame as a Social Emotion

Like pride or guilt, shame is a self-evaluative emotion: felt by individuals, but inherently relational in nature. Similar to guilt, it is a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by an awareness of having done something harmful or foolish. While guilt confines itself to the feeling of embarrassment or to regret for harm, shame asks questions about what those behaviors mean about who we are. It operates on a deeper level, threatening our feelings of intrinsic worth or belongingness — or worsening feelings of worthlessness or alienation. Subsequently, shame is more disorienting and difficult to cope with than guilt, and often provokes more destructive responses.

The Unacknowledged Ubiquity of Shame

Shame is omnipresent in our lives. It permeates our personal interactions and institutions, yet it is seldom acknowledged. Even admitting to experiencing shame is unthinkable for many, much less acknowledging the specific contents of that shame. It’s one of the most powerful and ever-involved homunculi in our mind, helping us navigate through sometimes treacherous social landscapes. Our interactions are profoundly contoured by efforts to avoid experiencing shame, yet these processes are rarely exposed to the air.

Although shame is such an integral aspect of our social landscape- and perhaps because of its silently ubiquitous nature- shame can be impossibly difficult to confront. Our difficulties in experiencing and managing shame manifest in a wide range of social ills. Structural violence, interpersonal violence, bigotry, mental illness, and substance abuse issues all have complex hosts of material and psychological contributors, but shame plays a fundamental role in all of them.

Despite how often it is misused it is important to acknowledge that shame, like any other human emotion, is not inherently bad. Shame serves a crucial prosocial function in society- it signals threat to social bonds which can potentially motivate us to reflect on our values, identities, and actions. It can move us to change how we interact with others and to make amends when we’ve caused harm.

While shame’s social function is not inherently bad, our relationships with it are often muddied and strained. For better or worse, the difficulty handling shame can incite a wide range of conscious and unconscious psychological defenses to kick in and defend our egos. Alternatively, if it overtakes us, it can fester. This particular form of shame is referred to in the psychological literature as unresolved shame. It can be astonishingly toxic for the possessor of that shame, and for those with whom they interact.

Unresolved Shame and its Harm

Psychological research illuminates the deleterious nature of unresolved shame in a wide range of behavioral and psychological pathology. Relationships between unresolved shame with PTSD, depression, body-image related disorders, and substance abuse issues have been firmly established. These insights are not new for social justice movements; many have recognized the role that shame plays in further punishing those whom have already been traumatized and disenfranchised, and how it has been weaponized to silence, disempower, and maintain the status quo.

Understanding shame’s role in the perpetuation of abuse can help us to build more effective preventative interventions, inform our efforts to help victims heal, and to transform how we interact and shape our communities. It can also help us identify and lessen lateral violence — displaced violence we direct at our peers rather than our true adversaries. Building a sustainable social justice movement requires understanding how shame gets weaponized against us from above, within our communities, and within ourselves.

The Psychological Roots of Violence

Shame is a social emotion with physical consequences, which is why looking at its role in violence is illustrative. Gilligan (1996)[i], a prison psychiatrist and prominent scholar in the social and emotional origin of violence, proposed that the emotion of shame was the ultimate cause of violence. Gilligan suggested that shame was necessary, but not sufficient, to cause violence, and that there are three preconditions under which shame leads to violence. The first precondition he described is that the shame is a secret, painful, and overwhelming — analogous to what is described above as unresolved shame.

The second precondition for shame to convert into violence is that the individual has no nonviolent means of warding off or diminishing those feelings of shame (e.g. elevated social status, economic reward, sense of achievement, etc.). The fewer psychological and social resources that people have to deal with the pain of feeling shame, the more readily they become aggressive towards themselves and others. To make someone hopeless is to make them dangerous. And as is the nature of belonging to a marginalized group, many have fewer material or social resources that can be counted upon to help dissipate those feelings of shame.

The third precondition is that the person lacks feelings that inhibit the violent impulse (e.g. love, guilt, or fear for the self). Appealing to and acknowledging bonds, even in the process of calling someone out, can invoke feelings of empathy and concern. Bringing those positive feelings more toward the forefront of their consciousness lubricates the ability to resolve shame in a more constructive manner. (Johnson’s aforementioned guide provides a good source for thinking about how to approach framing interventions in an accessible, non-stigmatizing manner.)

The Transformative Power of Shame

With every social interaction we engage in, we can ask of ourselves “what is the hope, and what is the risk?” When we speak to someone’s shame, this question should be central. Even with all the risks of invoking shame in others documented above, we cannot ignore the hopes. Invoking shame invites someone to ask deeper questions about the implications of their beliefs and behaviors that can lead to transformation. While the risks of invoking such shame are high, the risks of not doing so may be higher.

In many ways, the callout has emerged as a tactic for responding to the psychological defenses (such as described in the concept of white fragility) that many in dominant roles display when faced with charges of oppressive behaviors or beliefs to deflect criticism and avoid experiencing shame. Dealing with deflection and facing further invalidation can be exhausting and harmful. Some do not always have the luxury to respond to subtle and overt threats to their well-being in non-violent, non-aggressive ways. Like physical violence and rioting — aggressive language, stigmatizing shaming, and ostracism seen in callout culture can be legitimate forms of self-defense. However, if our emotional well-being is not in imminent danger and we have the psychological resources to do so, responding with compassion can help someone see the world in a different way.

How Restorative Justice Can Guide Us

One of the most insightful resources we can turn to in order to think more holistically and compassionately about dealing with misconduct comes from the literature on restorative justice (RJ). Briefly, the growing RJ movement offers an alternative model for justice from that of our dominant criminal correctional system that is hinged on retribution (i.e. the Prison Industrial Complex). It is a cooperative process that focuses on the harm caused by criminal behavior that takes into account the needs of all parties involved: victim, offender, and wider community. (More information can be found at )

While by no means a perfect solution, the evidence for the efficacy of restorative justice is strong. Compared to more traditional forms of criminal justice (i.e. punitive/retributive), outcome studies for restorative justice have demonstrated significant decreases in offender recidivism, greater satisfaction in the process and outcome for both victims and perpetrators, reduced levels of PTSD from victims, and higher levels of empathy for victims and willingness to accept responsibility for the harm done from offenders. In no small part, these improvements are gained because the process involves taking into consideration the needs of all parties, rather than rigidly resorting to purely punitive responses to a crime.

Reintegrative Shaming

Reintegrative Shame Theory provides a framework for understanding the value of shame in shaping and enforcing social norms, while also offering tools for facilitating the management of the internal experience of shame. Braithwaite, a prominent restorative justice scholar, defines reintegrative shaming as “disapproval that is respectful of the person, is terminated by forgiveness, does not label the person as evil, nor allows condemnation to result in a master status trait.” Conversely then, stigmatizing shaming is disrespectful of the person, does not terminate with forgiveness, labels the person as evil or bad, and positions the one doing the shaming in a dominant status.

With reintegrative shaming, the process for managing shame is built into the language, allowing for the separation of the act the offender committed from their inherent value as a person. Rather than incentivizing the offender to invest their emotional energies into defending their worth as a person, their integrity or status, reintegrative shaming provides more emotional space from the threat of ultimate social rejection. The possibility to reintegrate into a community, restore integrity and status, and to be forgiven, provides an important emotional buffer. This space better allows for the offender to consider the implications of their behaviors and beliefs, and to acknowledge and resolves their shame.

Stigmatizing shame, on the other hand, has been found to more likely result in unresolved shame[iii]. This has strong implication for social justice movements, especially in regards to the American criminal justice system. Those caught in the system deal with dangerous amounts of state-prescribed stigmatization , contributing to further subjugation for certain populations (e.g. people of color, transgender people, poor and homeless, etc.).

Our criminal justice system is devoid of any mechanisms to help either the victim, the offender, or the wider community in psychologically dealing with the impact of crime. When a crime gets reported, the state takes ownership of the conflict and the victim has little to no say over what happens; it becomes offender vs. the state, and the objective is to establish guilt and deliver punishment. The victims and communities are deprived of the opportunity to express their disapproval, and offenders are denied the opportunity to truly acknowledge the harm done. The victims’ traumatic narratives are subjected to hostile interrogation, and the offender has a vested material interest in denying culpability. Communities are deprived of the opportunity to reflect on the structural inequalities that contribute to criminal behavior, and robbed of the power/responsibility to come together and address them. The structural problems don’t get addressed, neither the victim nor the offender gets a chance to express their stories in a constructive manner, and the wider community is exposed to a partial picture with which to form their judgments. Our criminal justice system, in a sense, is the ultimate unresolved shame producing machine.

Reflecting on our Use of Shame in Callout Culture

While the harsh tactics of callout culture are both rational and even necessary in some circumstances, they are not without negative consequences — especially when applied uncritically, and even more so when applied within marginalized communities. On the other hand, we should also be very careful in our critique of those in marginalized identities employing those tactics to defend themselves. It is no coincidence that many of us with marginalized identities wrestle with unresolved shame ourselves; shame and trauma go hand in hand, and trauma is disproportionately distributed. In spite of this fact — and because of this fact — there exists a moral and political imperative for social justice communities to strive to develop more mature relationships with shame.

This struggle will not be easy, nor graceful. Some of us might not currently have the necessary psychological resources to devote to such a task, and some might need considerably more help in the process. But when or if we can, we owe it to ourselves and to the communities we fight for to do so. The biggest obstacle for social justice movements working toward dealing compassionately and justly when conflict arises, is that we’re all caught in this cycle to varying degrees. Collectively, we have not yet assembled the resources needed to navigate these problems justly, and our efforts to pursue this goal are strained. Failures in this capacity can be directly traced to the conditions we’re stuck working in, and are not due to inherent inadequacies or malevolence. It’s important to remember that striving to be compassionate towards ourselves in this process is also crucial.

Incorporating Compassion into Callout Culture

The Risks of Empathizing

While it is imperative for us to collectively work towards compassionately holding others accountable for their harmful behaviors or beliefs, there are also real risks in undertaking this work. There is a subtle yet fundamental difference between empathizing with someone who has abused us and rationalizing their behavior — and it is inherent to the nature of abuse to try to blur that distinction. Many abusers rely upon their target’s (and third parties’) capacity for empathy to evade culpability for their harmful actions. Historically, the default position for third parties is to believe the abuser- to believe there was never any abuse, or that the abused party was deserving of the mistreatment. Without a political environment that empowers and trusts the abused party’s narrative, our empathy can be easily manipulated.

When faced with the task of addressing our own abuse, we are not obligated to empathize with our oppressors. When confronted with violence and degradation directed towards us, the expectation for empathy is oppressive in itself. We must consider whether we are safe or ready to engage in the process of empathizing or forgiving those whom have harmed us, or whom have harmed others in ways that mirror our own trauma histories. In those circumstances, we must prioritize our own needs, and the needs of those most directly harmed. Our anxieties and concerns about empathizing with abusers are legitimate, and attending to them is crucial.

The Challenge and Necessity of Compassionate Intervention

When we’re acutely aware of the suffering inflicted on marginalized people, and the dangers they continue to face, it’s easy to dismiss the suffering the offender experiences that contributes to abuse. Further, taking into consideration the substantial emotional toll empathizing can take on us, not everybody is in a position to do so. However, in thinking more holistically and systemically about how to deal effectively with violence and oppression, we cannot stop the analysis with the needs of the oppressed. Compassionate methods must be collectively incorporated into a holistic strategy for dealing with oppression.

In order to better refine our methods of intervention and creating social change, those of us who can psychologically afford to empathize and consider the emotional needs of those who transgress — especially if they are marginalized on other axes — owe it to those who cannot afford to do so. As Florez points out in her analysis of callout culture: in order to break these cycles of violence and oppression, some of us must take calculated risks of vulnerability.

It might feel threatening to empathize with someone accused of mistreatment, or someone espousing bigoted views- like we’re betraying those whom they harm or betraying our values. It might feel like by empathizing with them is to excuse or justify their abuse or bigotry. We might feel that that by considering their emotional needs we are enabling them or supporting those structures of oppression. Or, in the context of a society that doesn’t take bigotry and systemic oppression as seriously as it should, it might feel like being unforgiving makes up for those inequalities.

To venture into the psyche of those whom we fear, resent, or even those we hate (when/if we are in a position to do so) is both courageous and righteous. It comes with risks, and demands caution. However, showing compassion for those whom we might traditionally deem unworthy fosters an environment where it is socially acceptable to acknowledge and explore our own flaws, mistakes, and internalized oppression and domination. It allows us to acknowledge a more complex understanding of the human experience.

Nobody was born aware of how systems of oppression and domination operate, and none of us are ideologically pure. Many of us have been abused, and are still searching for different models for how to be in this world. We are all still in the process of learning and unlearning, and many of us got to be where we are because someone else compassionately educated us and helped us to manage our own shame.

How often are our call-outs back-firing and driving someone to deny their actions or double down on their bigoted beliefs? How are we incentivizing people to defend their egos and reputations, rather than helping them better empathize with the people that their actions/views harm (assuming that they are themselves not subjected to that same harm)? Are we utilizing shame in a way that makes room for the possibility of its resolution? By not asking these questions, we risk alienating people who might otherwise be able and willing to listen and change. Worse yet, we risk providing yet another platform by which someone with a marginalized identity faces further threat of social ostracization. Finally, we miss a crucial piece of analysis in what drives effective social change.

Because of the ubiquity of shame, its potential for damage, and its power to help us create more equitable and respectful social institutions- cultivating more mature relationships with shame can be revolutionary. This emotional piece is too often neglected in our political analyses. Our ability to reconcile and prioritize respectful relationships with one another whom have largely similar objectives is critical for building movements and establishing solidarity. Ultimately, our efforts to embrace the full complexity of human emotional experiences should fundamentally inform the policies and political restructuring that we fight for, and how we fight for them.

[i] Gilligan, James. Violence: Our deadly epidemic and its causes. New York: GP Putnam, 1996.
[ii] Braithwaite, John. Crime, shame and reintegration. Cambridge University Press, 1989.
[iii] Harris, Nathan. “Reintegrative shaming, shame, and criminal justice.” Journal of Social Issues 62.2 (2006): 327–346.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Prefigurology: the Study of Prefigurative Politics

Prefiguration is a concept in anarchism that puts an emphasis on living our political values in the here and now, a disciplined effort to exemplify revolutionary values. A focus on prefiguration is by no means the only approach toward building a more just society, and it is necessary to see it as one of several complementary (and sometimes seemingly paradoxical) strategies for fighting the good fight.

Complex Problems Require Complex Solutions

For the left, one of the most difficult challenges of bringing about a better world is figuring out how to break the constraints of our current social arrangements. With injustice interwoven into the fabric (and wood, concrete, plastic, etc.) of our society, our lenses for analysis cannot be rigidly stuck on any one level – policy, economic, cultural, rhetorical, interpersonal, intrapsychic, etc. We have to be able to negotiate the power dynamics on all of them if we’re going to pull off this danged revolution.

The complexity of the challenges we face can be overwhelming, paralyzing, and terrifying. We risk spinning our wheels, if not running clear off the road, if we do not engage with compassion, and discipline. Understanding ourselves and our relationships with others is not only key to figuring out how to build a sustainable, effective movement – it’s critical for informing our vision of the future we want to build. (In the critical and community psychology literature, this is what’s called psychopolitical validity.)

Incorporating a Trauma-Informed Lens

The aim of this blog is to advance an understanding of psychological principles that are relevant for movements of resistance. There will be a special emphasis on understanding trauma – the conditions that lead to trauma and abuse, common responses to trauma, ways to defend ourselves and others, and ways to heal from damage already done.

The impacts of trauma are unequally distributed in our society, with marginalized groups facing higher rates of stigmatization, discrimination, hostility, and violence. If we aim to eliminate these patterns of violence and oppression, we need to learn how to identify and change the conditions that lead to trauma, to intervene when we see it occurring, and to respond effectively in the aftermath. Preventing trauma requires an understanding of the cyclical nature of trauma and requires taking deliberate, nuanced interventions to disrupt those cycles.

Failure to incorporate a focus on trauma within our movements carries consequences too great to ignore. Not only do we risk reproducing the very same kinds of harmful dynamics we aim to combat, we critically undermine our efforts toward building true solidarity. We risk being consumed by psychological pain, lashing out in ways that can further isolate and divide us, compounding our suffering and undermining our goals. It risks neglecting and leaving behind those who need us.

Learning how to be true allies means learning how to understand when someone is suffering from the impacts of trauma and responding accordingly. It means learning how we’ve been impacted by trauma and working to heal and transform so that we can more effectively advocate for ourselves and others.

This work will not be easy. 
Not only does this work require honest self-reflection and calculated emotional vulnerability, our interventions and plans are often very difficult to implement! The degree of agency we have over ourselves and our environment is frustratingly and deceptively limited. In order to be the most effective about how we allocate our limited resources, we must be strategic. This is where the “ology” part of prefigurology comes in.

Case Study in Collective Trauma: Trump’s Victory

This election cycle and outcome traumatized our country. A minority of the country voted for a dangerous man who spews toxic views about vulnerable people, and now he is our president-elect. The message this country sent to immigrants, people of color, lgbtq+ folks, and women is: your issues do not matter to us. While some did foresee this possibility, many did not. Many are now struggling with how to make meaning of this failure of neoliberalism and their shattered view of their fellow countryfolk.

Many people who voted for Trump did not vote for him because of his overt hatefulness, and many can’t see why we find him and his positions threatening. The left has strugled in its efforts to reach out to those on the right, failed to do enough to hear their concerns and find common ground, and failed to do enough to make our concerns relevant to them. There's an influx of thinkpieces discussing some of the causes and potential ways forward in transforming the dialog across ideological lines– and this blog will contribute a little to that effort.

However, while understanding why people support Trump is important, we can’t get stuck trying to “fix” them. We can’t prioritize this aspect of transformation and resistance at the expense of other measures, and it cannot be our top priority while Muslims and immigrants have already been targeted for state-sanctioned violence. Any efforts we use to “convert” Trump supporters should be secondary to other measures to bolster our movement. We can’t just “civilly” work on changing the hearts and minds of those who got duped by this conman while he and his ilk steadfastly roll back our civil liberties and orchestrate ethnic cleansing.

In the wake of this devastating parade of bigotry, there are serious threats beyond the symbolic blow to social justice. Trump has already chosen to include people with demonstrated ties to white supremacist movements into his administration. Neo-Nazis, the KKK, skinheads, and other fascist organizations were instrumental in getting Trump elected (though Democrats had a role in this too), and have been emboldened by his victory to more openly recruit and organize.

The Trump Effect means that we will be seeing even more trauma than many of us are ready to admit. This means we need to invest even more resources in helping those who face the brunt of this uptick in violence and hostility. Material support, volunteering, and direct action are necessary for mitigating the harm that is to come. It is time to dig our heels in and embrace the fight. It is time to radicalize.

In addition to the overt threat of fascism coming from our future commander-in-chief, his administration, and his most rabid supporters, we have other enemies as well. Some internal, some external. Internally, we have the perpetual challenge of getting the heck along. Without the requisite skills, cooperation can be frustrating and inefficient. This work requires intensive self-care and demands radical support for one another. We’re also a product of this deeply flawed world, so we need to be vigilant about how we have internalized domination and oppression. As for external enemies – that’s a whole other post to come.

The way forward is not clear, and much is yet to be revealed. However, what we can anticipate is that with the complexity of the threats we’re facing, we must prepare to meet them with equal levels of complex solutions. We must respect a diverse range of tactics – we don’t yet know what will stick. We have plenty of ideas and resources, and we should continue to draw on the wisdom of activists who have already been involved in this fight long before this election. Work with mass organizations. Work with a close group of trusted friends. Ideally, do both.

It’s time to buckle down and confront some demons, y’all.