Sunday, May 14, 2017

Happy Mother’s Day, I Never Want to Speak to You Again

Mother’s Day is a gosh dang weird time for many, and downright awful for some. Relationships with our families can be confusing and deeply challenging - and having a national holiday to celebrate those relationships can highlight and bring forward a wild combination of feelings: doubt, ambivalence, grief, resentment, anxiety, etc.

As time passes and people grow (or refuse to) - our relationships with our parents change. It also probably hasn’t helped many people that our political conditions have polarized and sharpened some particularly ugly qualities of the human condition. With how hard it already is to navigate family relations, the added pressure of Mother’s Day can feel like an awful burden – especially if we’re not even sure we want to maintain those relationships.

The decision to cut ties or assert boundaries is rarely an easy decision, and can at times be so overwhelming that it gets put off until something gives. Being proactive about drawing new boundaries can sometimes spare you from the consequences of allowing a toxic relationship to run its natural course (i.e. until it explodes or you wither away). It can mean saving one or both parties significant suffering and potentially even allowing for repair down the line.

While it is usually best to talk through some of these issues with someone you trust (especially a therapist if you have access to one), I’ve prepared a list of questions for structured reflection on some important aspects of parent/child relationships that could be an extra resource for making this difficult and painful decision. Two important themes that will run throughout these questions are boundaries and power.

Boundaries and Power Inequality

Boundaries are a fundamental aspect of who we are as social creatures. They’re what separate us from the rest of the world, allowing for a sense of self. They come in several forms, including physical, mental, emotional, material, sexual, and spiritual (This is a good intro to various forms of boundaries). The task of navigating interpersonal boundaries is one of the most important and challenging aspects we face as humans who don’t want to harm others (I am making some wild assumptions about my readership, I know). An inability or unwillingness to respect boundaries is a defining feature of abuse, perhaps even the hallmark feature.

For numerous reasons, boundaries can be incredibly difficult to identify, respect, and assert. Firstly, boundaries are taught/learned – so for those of us who come from families with ambiguous boundaries, these are typically dynamics that have been passed down for generations. Secondly, power differentials obscure and distort peoples’ sensitivities to boundaries, enabling abuse and violation. When there is a significant imbalance of power, it can prevent the person in the more powerful position from experiencing the interpersonal consequences of having violated someone’s boundaries (e.g. we’re less likely to address a boundary violation with a boss out of fear of being fired).

Because there are global systems of inequality, boundary violations are epidemic in our society. Our social relationships are shaped by formal (e.g. laws, policies, etc.) and informal (e.g. cultural norms, family dynamics, etc.) hierarchical institutions, giving some people access to more power (e.g. money, social status, positions of authority, etc.) over others. With these hierarchical social relationships, we have economic exploitation, mass incarceration and police brutality, gender/racial/ability discrimination, etc. These systems subtly (and sometimes overtly) render some people less deserving of rights and having their needs met or their boundaries acknowledged or respected.

Keeping in mind these larger social structures and how we are embedded in them, one dynamic we are almost universally exposed to and are faced with navigating is the parent[/guardian]/child relationship. Our relationships with our parents are loaded with inherent power differentials, some culturally imbued, others that begin by necessity (human babies are ridiculously defenseless compared to the rest of the animal kingdom). These larger patterns of social organization are the settings for our familial organization, and our parents’ coping and parenting styles are strongly impacted by these larger settings.

As activists, many of us have done a lot of work to understand these systems of power and abuse on a large scale, but it can sometimes be difficult to make those connections in our personal lives. Using a lens of power dynamics and boundaries can be helpful when thinking about how your relationships with your parents evolved and how you might try to modify them.

Structured Reflection Questions

The following are some questions that might be helpful to think through in order to gain a more holistic picture of your relationships and needs:

  • What are the power dynamics of your relationship? Are there power inequalities?
    • Do you depend on them for any of your basic needs? (e.g. money, housing, etc.) 
      • If you are still dependent on your parent for whatever reason, this will obviously change the calculus in a fundamental way. If you simply cannot survive without their support right now, then the question becomes: how do you mitigate the damage? Some of the following questions may still be helpful for you.
    • Do you have power over them? Do they rely on you materially or emotionally?
      • If so, when did this power dynamic start? If some of these demands began in childhood, this can be indicative of an abusive relationship, or covert or emotional incest
      • If these dynamics have shifted more recently in your adulthood, how have these shifts impacted your relationship? 
    • Is there an imbalance in who gets upset, or do you tend upset each other? Is there an imbalance in who expresses their emotions or needs?
  • What are you boundaries like?
    • Do you struggle with boundaries? If you do, this is likely a reaction to inappropriate or distorted boundaries within a parent/child relationship. We primarily learn about boundaries from our families, so if you struggle with any of the behaviors identified on this list, it might be indicative of an imbalance in your relationship with your parent.
    • Does your parent respect your boundaries? For example, do they respect your privacy or when you ask them to stop a specific behavior? 
    • What happens if you attempt to assert a boundary? How do they respond? 
      • Do you feel empowered to even attempt to draw a boundary? 
  • What are the specific behaviors that you find troubling?
  • In what ways does your own behavior feed into the troubling dynamic?
    • Be careful when engaging in this question for numerous reasons:
      • It is critical to acknowledge that while our behaviors may contribute to an abusive dynamic, which does not mean that we are responsible for our abuse. The person who has more power is always the one who is responsible for abuse. 
      • However, by acknowledging that we are products of our environments and we have been shaped by our families we give ourselves a chance to increase our awareness and agency. Understanding how our behaviors fit into to an abusive dynamic can empower us to adjust those behaviors and patterns.
      • Sometimes the nature of abuse makes it so that our needs are minimized, and we are made to feel responsible for the other person’s suffering. If this is a part of your dynamic (a chronic sense of guilt or resentment is an especially tell-tale sign here), try to keep that in mind when exploring this question. 
  • What have you done to try to adjust or repair the relationship? 
    • Have you tried to address the problem in indirect ways? (e.g. withdrawing, avoiding certain topics, etc.)
    • Have you tried directly discussing some of the problems? If not, why not? Are you scared of how they might react? 
    • Do you believe it is possible to repair the relationship?
Thinking about where to go from here:
  • What are your values when it comes to your relationships? What kind of child do you want to be? (e.g. caring, loyal, attentive, etc.)
    • What would a good relationship with your parent look like? What specific changes would need to be made on both ends?
    • How well are you living up to your values in your relationship? What gets in the way? 
    • Conversely, how might your values be taken advantage of?
      • For example, if you value being loyal, does it make it harder for you to draw boundaries? Or if you value being giving or nurturing, does this open you up to being exploited?
  • When considering if a relationship is toxic or just strained, it is important to think about power dynamics:
    • Abuse is about power and control, but not all conflict is abuse. Sometimes there is simply an ill-fit between dispositions and personality types, even when you share half of your genetics! 
    • If you don’t feel like you’re being controlled or manipulated, it can be helpful to keep that in mind when you fight. A painful relationship may be better than no relationship (depending on what you value), and you may want to focus more energy on ways to adjust and repair, rather than on how to separate.
  • Is it worth trying to repair?
    • If you haven’t tried to directly address a problematic dynamic in your relationship and you feel it makes sense to try to speak with your parent about it, how they respond to that conversation can give you critical information about how you want to proceed in the future. 
    • This guide provides good information for thinking about how to build and preserve healthier boundaries. You can begin implementing some of these insights into your interactions and see how that impacts your relationships.
  • When to know it’s time to cut someone off:
    • If after having explored these questions and a pattern of control and abuse emerges, strong measures for drawing boundaries might be warranted. 
      • Sometimes a person’s forceful will is too strong for us to try to protect our sense of self in more incremental ways - or sometimes we’re just so early in our efforts to assert boundaries - that wholly cutting them off (at least for a while) is essential for giving us space to find our needs. 
    • If you have tried to draw boundaries and they continue to violate them despite your clear directions/protestation, this is a strong indication that cutting someone off might be in your best interest. 
      • Sometimes someone needs to experience consequences for their continual violations in order to be motivated to listen and change. Withdrawing as punishment is definitely not an ideal motivator in relationships - but if your relationship gets to this point, it can very likely be the most effective move.

Cutting someone off, especially a family member, is rarely an easy thing to do. It can be helpful to remember that cutting off contact with someone doesn’t have to be forever. Sometimes we just need some space to breathe and re-evaluate what our needs and values are. Sometimes, though, an indefinite cleavage is warranted. Allowing an abusive relationship to continue might feel like a way of showing our care - but it isn’t. When someone engages in abuse, they objectify that person, preventing true connection and vulnerability. It denies them the opportunity to grow and understand their own boundaries.

To assert your boundaries in a way that aligns with your values can, perhaps counter-intuitively, can give everyone involved a chance to grow and more fully connect down the line. You cannot control what your parent does or how they will react - but learning how to draw your boundaries, show yourself compassion, and find ways to more appropriately meet your needs, can give you a fighting chance to disrupt dynamics that have likely been passed down for generations.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Where the Rubber Meets the Road: Clinical Psych Tools for Organizers

The task of therapists and organizers share two fundamental goals: 1) helping people to understand their true self-interest, and 2) helping people figure out how to work toward it. There SHOULD be more overlap and cooperation in our work. Unfortunately, clinical psychology in the US (in its desperate longing to be like medicine) is plagued by neoliberalism, atomizing psychological distress. But obviously, as organizers, you know better!

Without a grasp of the larger sociopolitical power-structures that contribute to psychological distress, most of the tools that emerge from the mental health world are unfortunately used in ways that simply help people adapt to inherently unjust circumstances and neglect a focus on our fundamental interdependence. However, despite the serious flaws and problems of our mainstream psychological models of mental health, it has produced some resources that may be of service in the (sometimes overwhelming) task of healing our fractured communities.

The following is a short-list of resources of different frameworks and techniques used in therapy, with a short description and why I think they can be helpful in the task of organizing.

Motivational Interviewing (MI) - a bedrock theory in counseling. It provides a useful framework for learning how to better meet people where they are in order to explore the conflicts and ambivalence they may have about their distress. Its origins come from working with people struggling with substance abuse, but has been used in helping facilitate behavior change across a wide range of problems (e.g. abusive relationships, depression, medication adherence, etc.).

MI has a few qualities that make it particularly promising for organizers. It provides a solid structure for learning how to better explore and account for the various psychosocial barriers people face, and its emphasis on drawing out peoples' innate wisdom of the sources and solutions to their problems. One of the most useful aspects of MI is the way it helps us to reframe how we think of "resistance" and how we react to it. This can be a critical point in organizing in terms of learning how to spot resistance and "roll with it" in ways that can better avoid hostile conflict that worsens polarization and weakens solidarity.

The resources linked below are steeped in clinical language, but can hopefully be somewhat easily/intuitively translated to an organizing context (and if there are any questions or clarifications, feel free to contact me):

Distortions of Wellness and Justice - This framework comes from a larger framework of Psychopolitical Validity (PV), which is a generally useful idea to have in mind for building our movements. PV is a cornerstone concept within Community Psychology, which tends to have a much more systemic view of mental health than the field of clinical psychology does. The section I think may be of particular use for organizers is in the ability to distinguish different pathways of developing distortions. Of course, these are simple heuristics and the picture will always be more complicated, but it might offer a map for thinking about how different distortions might require different approaches/interventions for getting someone on board.

If the following chart piques your interest, you can read the whole article here:

(More of Dennis Fox's work on Critical Psychology and the intersections between Anarchism, Psychology, and Law, can be found here.)


Developmental Analysis of Psychotherapy Process (DAPP) - This suggestion will be for the more hardcore nerds, as it provides a dialectical materialist analysis of psychological/emotional growth. The underlying theory can be challenging to grasp in its entirety, though I believe it offers an elegant exploration of how psychological and behavior change can be fostered through interpersonal relations. Originally developed as a way to identify common therapeutic resources that can be found across all psychotherapy approaches, I believe the DAPP framework can be of use for organizers who are interested in finely-tuning their effectiveness in one-on-one interaction. 

  • For a comprehensive understanding of the DAPP framework (which includes a thorough exploration of adult psychological development and the factors that can encourage psychological growth), the book by Michael Basseches and Michael Mascolo can be found here
  • A quicker, simplified overview of the concepts and tools for learning how to apply them can be found here.

(A closing note: like with any of the resources I provide, I am always interested in feedback/requests. If there are specific questions or problems you'd like to get a clinical psych perspective on, please feel free to contact me! Finally, I intend to update this list with more resources as I come across them (or as you send them in to me!), so please consider this a living document.)

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.

Acceptance

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.

Values

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:

  • http://www.drcordes.com/blog/2014/11/24/easy-grounding-exercises-to-calm-the-nervous-system
  • http://www.fortrefuge.com/grounding.php