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:


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