Jennifer Vera, MFT on Apr 30, 2018
Like so many others, I have been watching the rising tide of (public, explicit) white supremacist rhetoric and violence with increasing feelings of overwhelm and horror. I continue to follow the news in disbelief, some part of me thinking it can’t get worse than this, as I simultaneously know that it can and likely will. The events in Charlottesville evoked feelings of shock, heartbreak, anger and terror that are becoming all too familiar.
These feelings have permeated all my interactions—with friends, colleagues, and clients. I found myself having conversation after conversation about what we can do to resist, to protect all people and fight for justice. And, because I am therapist, I have found myself continually returning to the theme of self-care: how do we take care of ourselves and others in the face of violence and oppression? How do we find the line between complicity and avoidance, and self-preservation?
I certainly don’t have all the answers—I struggle with my own feelings of powerlessness and inadequacy. I am often uncertain about how best to show up and participate in systemic change. What I do know something about is the power of honoring your needs and taking really good care of yourself, and all that becomes possible when you do. The recommendations below are beginning steps that have proven helpful both to me and to my clients. I offer them in the spirit of building our individual and collective strength and resilience, so that we might stay the course in the fight for lasting equality, justice and safety for all people.
In the weeks after Charlottesville, I heard client after client express feelings of fear, followed by self-criticism and judgment. Most often these feelings came both from a deeply held ethic of solidarity, as well as a sense of guilt and shame about their own privilege—I shouldn’t be scared because I’m not a person of color, because I’m not black, because I live in a progressive city, because I have financial resources, because (fill in your own area of privilege relative to the marginalization and vulnerability of other identities). I heard this sentiment from white people and people of color, from citizens and immigrants, from all different class backgrounds, from straight and queer and trans folks.
And my answer was the same to everyone:
You are scared for good reason.
The events in Charlottesville—the waves of white supremacist rhetoric, organizing and violence across the U.S.—are terrifying. And—they are intended to be. The explicit purpose of the “Unite the Right” rally was to inspire fear; these actions are terrorism by definition.
You are scared because that was the point.
Also: your body is built to fight for your survival. There is a reason fear is so difficult to ignore: it is instrumental to keeping you alive. Our somatic responses (racing heart, trembling limbs, tightened muscles, heightened reactivity), the way we move into fight, flight or freeze—these are meant to override our ability to reason or think, in order to propel us into protective action.
Take your fear seriously. It is there for good reason.
I’m not saying we should let fear run the show. I am saying honoring the why of your fear is important, and will help you take action in ways that won’t traumatize you.
Respecting and tuning into your fear preserves your capacity to assess danger, lessens the long-term impacts of trauma, and creates the space to cultivate the courage and resilience you need to stay engaged.
Judging yourself for becoming overwhelmed or shutting down does not help build the capacity to do something different. The impulse to shut down is biological and self-protective; it’s your brain’s attempt to self-regulate when none of your other tools seem up to the job.
Whether you are a seasoned activist or newly awakening to the ugliness of white supremacy, judging yourself for where you are and how you feel will not help you move forward. Remind yourself that your body is trying to keep you alive; that protecting yourself physically and emotionally is something every person deserves and is necessary for you to be available for justice work. Treat yourself with the same kindness and empathy you’d easily offer to a person you love. We all need compassion, support and community to be our bravest, fiercest selves.
Re-traumatizing yourself in the name of social justice does not help the movement. There is so much work to be done—if attending a protest will trigger crippling anxiety or PTSD, it is neither kind to yourself nor the best use of your resources to show up there.
There is a literally endless list of things that need doing in the fight for justice, safety and equality. You can:
…and so, so much more. Don’t get hung up on how you need to do “the one thing” you are terrified of, or know will compromise your mental health. Think about your particular skills and talents (you’ve got lots!) and show up where you can be most helpful.
The rising tide of violence and hateful action create a real and legitimate sense of urgency among those of us who care about justice. This often translates into living in a perpetual state of crisis. It’s hard to avoid, in the face of awful after awful after more awful. People are being hurt and killed. With so much that is abhorrently, overwhelmingly wrong, many of us fear becoming complacent and complicit. Which in turn, can result in feeling like you need to read ALL THE NEWS, respond to every problematic social media post, or attend every action. And when you inevitably feel exhausted and weary, and need to take a break, feelings of guilt and shame emerge.
So let me say this now: you HAVE to take breaks. The work of dismantling white supremacy and kyriarchy1 is a marathon, not a sprint. The labor needed to establish and maintain social equality is constant. We need to be in this for the long haul, which can only be possible if you take care of yourself.
You need rest, food, and downtime.
You need meaningful connection with your people.
You need laughter and levity.
You need moments of mindless TV/internet memes/cat videos/insert-your-pleasure.
You need joy.
These are not luxuries.
First: it is what we ALL deserve. The problem is never that you have these things—it’s that some people don’t when everyone should. So much of what we often refer to as “privileges” are actually basic human rights that only some people are currently able to access under kyriarchy. Denying your needs—rarely, if ever—means that someone else’s needs will then be met consistently and sustainably. Building a model in which some people’s needs must be sacrificed for the gain of others perpetuates harmful models of scarcity. We can do better.
Second: The items above fill your tank, make it possible to withstand the awful, and stay engaged. When you become depleted and burnt out, you cannot show up fully. If you take excellent care of yourself, you will have more to give period: to your loved ones, to your community, and to those being harmed and marginalized. The hours you “lose” in the immediate, so that you can recharge, won’t compare to the greater impact of long-term staying power.
As Rebecca Solnit aptly put it: “Joy doesn’t betray but sustain activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated and isolated, joy is a fine act of insurrection.”
“I’m not doing enough,” is one of the most common refrains that I hear. I relate to the feeling—the problems are so big and constant, and the need is so vast. It is hard to avoid feelings of inadequacy, futility and powerlessness, which are often then compounded by feelings of guilt and shame over one’s own privilege.
Here it is important to remember: no one person can “do enough.” These are not individual problems: they are systemic and institutional problems.
An individual cannot fix systemic problems. Systemic problems require systemic solutions. Systemic solutions come from community solidarity and sustained action, from many people working in tandem. Trying to take on the weight of fighting systemic injustice as an individual will slowly (or quickly) crush you. Relieve yourself of this impossible burden—it is not a good use of your limited and precious resources.
We cannot do this alone.
“This” means upholding racial justice and systemic change, and, just as fundamentally, keeping your spirit alive in the face of oppression and cruelty.
Racism, hatred and violence harm all people—physically, emotionally and spiritually. We have to fortify ourselves with the largest counterbalance of goodness we can muster, and most of this will be found in community.
You need partners and collaborators in social justice work. You need friends who you can cry to and laugh with, go deep into the painful, ugly emotions, celebrate victories, and watch bad TV with. You need people who will motivate and challenge you, who will teach you what they know and call on you to live up to your best self. You need people who have your back, and who know you’ll show up for them, too.
None of us survives alone—and we certainly won’t topple institutionalized oppression and systemic injustice in isolation.
So find your people. Build up your reserves with the people and things that help you thrive, and take the time to recharge before you start running on empty. Identify some things that need doing and what you’ve got to offer—your particular skills, social network, time, money—and get to work. There’s lots to do, and we are needed, every one of us.
1Kyriarchy is a term that extends patriarchy to encompass and connect to other structures of oppression and privilege, such as racism, ableism, capitalism, etc.
Jennifer Vera, LMFT, is a queer, femme mixed-race psychotherapist based in Berkeley, California. She specializes in working with eating disorders, relationship and parenting issues, early childhood difficulties, trauma, and vicarious trauma and burn-out. In particular, her practice centers healers and helping professionals, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community. More about her practice can be found at www.verapsychotherapy.com