Category Archives: Empathy
Discussions about empathy, compassion and healing from trauma
I’ve been struggling with what to write about “Insurrection Day” or at least that’s what I’m calling it. What else should we call the day a violent, seditious, coercively gullible mob attacked the U.S. Capitol building? White Supremacy Wednesday?
I spent the day feeling the suffering of a country whose heart was ripping in two, in real-time on live TV. My heart was dropped back into all that my generation has endured – the AIDS crisis, the Challenger explosion, Waco, Oklahoma City, Columbine, 9/11. I felt the same sickness, the bile, the disbelief, the familiar taste of crushing defeat transforming into cynically validating disassociative doomscrolling.
January 6, 2021 – A Day of Epiphany for the United States
It wasn’t until today that I recognized the timing of this event. Not just in relationship to the certification of electors, but with a Christianity that I thought I left behind. But in it, I found the message I most needed to share.
See, January 6th is the day Christians celebrate the epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas (depends on specific traditions). It celebrates the day the Magi came to visit the newly born Christ child, bestowing gifts upon him as a king, a celebration and recognition of his divinity. It is celebrated as a manifestation of the divine’s presence here on earth, a recognized symbol of a higher purpose and connection. It is a day of holy celebration. Like, literally – celebrating the holiness of Christ.
The overlap between those who call themselves Christian and those who scaled walls, attacked guards, and stole furniture is, I imagine, very nearly a full circle. All of the QAnon videos assume some affiliation to Christianity – even the mystic woo-woo generated videos. They rely on creating an “Army of Light” for Christ, for Christ Consciousness, for battling Lucifer in some epic stand-off between good & evil. They presume to think you agree, by default, that not only is there a Devil, but that you must weaponize against anyone who believes differently than them because any opponent is automatically under his control.
Or so they say. If you ask me, it’s an easy way to morally and spiritually justify planning sabotage, sedition and homicide. A self-fulfilling prophecy that was intricately designed perpetuate its own paranoia and anxiety through reinforced mechanisms of manipulation and authoritarian beliefs.
But their choice of January 6, a day actual Christians had once honored their divine Savior, was turned into a day of bloodshed, selfishness and moral bankruptcy. Instead of celebrating the holy presence of their own god figure, they chose to play god. It wasn’t just the election that motivated their actions, it was a deep desire to reassert their superiority over everyone else. If they can disrupt our government, no one will dare stand in their way. They wanted to prove their own invincibility to the rest of us.
They expected their whiteness to serve as a shield. They expected their positions of power to be waiting for them when they got back, whether it be a boardroom, a classroom, a pulpit or an elected office. They expected their dicks to generate a “benefit of the doubt” force field to keep them safe from criticism. They expected their version of “free speech” to protect them from their lack of impulse control. They decided that their cause was just because fighting the “Devil” in form of Nancy Pelosi and Mike Pence is their god-given duty.
They are so devoid, so out of touch with their own divinity that they have to use force, coercion and bullying to feel their power. They create villains to slay so they feel bigger and badder. But eventually the only monster left will be the one in the mirror, the one they refuse to face.
The Devil is our favorite scapegoat
I don’t know who needs to hear this, but, There Is No Devil. Crazy, right?
See, civilizations throughout the world have described battles of good vs. evil, of light vs. dark, of day vs. night. Humanity loves its dramatic dualistic battles for justice. The bad guys are always bad, the good guys are always good. There has to be a winner and a loser. Those are the rules. Amen.
But the reality of humanity is that we’re waging a war closer to that of Dr. Jekyll &. Mr. Hyde. Our own darkness became too much for us to admit, so we externalized it, molded it into avatars of our own shadow selves, projected images of fear for us to blame.
Those who are familiar with tarot are familiar with the representation of the Devil card – Baphomet – a horned creature that is half man and half goat. The depiction quite literally is symbolic of creating a scapegoat. Someone to blame when we give into our temptations or allow our shadow selves to take the driver’s seat. Scapegoating is possible when we externalize and project our own thoughts, words, and actions onto another being, we absolve ourselves from bearing the responsibility of those things. The classic “The Devil Made Me Do It”.
What if all this time the battle hasn’t been against a separate entity, but a battle against our own worst natures? That there is no Devil figure spreading evil across the earth. There is no cosmic villain to blame for what is happening in our country right now. There is no single mastermind out to destroy God. The King of Hell doesn’t give a shit about bargaining for our souls. He or she isn’t waiting around for us to innocently pass by or hunting us like some sinister collector of holy relics.
No, I believe the evil in the world can be traced directly back to us. To our fear. To our hatred. To our ignorance. To our pride. To our jealousy. To our entitlement.
There is no devil; there is only us.
Pathetic, lonely, cringing, victimized. Us.
Enraged, bullying, threatening, controlling. Us.
The evil in this world – for example, a seditious and treasonous coup, is of our doing. No one was forced to walk up the steps of that building. No one forced the same people who screamed “Blue Lives Matter” at all us all summer to use their crutches and American flags to beat an unconscious Capitol Police officer. No one was forced into any of this. No, they just needed an excuse, something to blame.
But they won’t blame the person actually responsible, who pledged his support as he whipped them into a fury, deftly playing their tune, knowing just how to twist, lie and manipulate them into doing his dirty work for him. A mass indoctrination of rabid minions, snarling and ready for the faux righteousness of drawing first blood.
In positioning the President as a “savior”, as some sort of divine messenger, they are able to create a self-sustaining loop of obedience and excuses. It isn’t Trump who’s to blame, it’s the mainstream media for not giving him enough attention. Any form of censorship of their batshit posturing is viewed as evidence incarnate of their suffering and the sinister plot against their FFFFRRRRREEEEEEEEDOOOOMMMM! It is a self-perpetuating loop of dubious group think that represents one the most reprehensible applications of manipulation we’ve ever seen. They are expendable to him, heartsick masculinity willing to die, impervious to introspection.
By convincing themselves they are fighting some Devil, they convince themselves that their cause is righteous and just. That they’re preventing great evil from taking over the earth. And yet, it is truly their own failure and denial of their shadow that is the true boss battle. Their divinity hides behind layers of false victimization and the violent rage it inspires.
But the Epiphany that is most needed is to face the Devil within. Unity will emerge once the shadow has been exposed and balance is restored. The most compassionate, loving response we can have right now is to hold them accountable – to shine a light on the failed commitment to something larger than ourselves. To shine a light on actions that break faith with our values. To take responsibility for remedying and realigning with the common good.
But for that to happen, we have to let go of the Devils we blame for the worst of ourselves. Accountability is the only thing that will come close to giving us the national healing we need and to face the darkness we’ve accumulated. For in facing the Devil within, we find a way to recover our own light and divinity.
A little about who I am professionally
Since I started this blog in 2011 I’ve been mindful about how I connect this blog to my professional life. But I also know that in order to let go of some of the trauma issues that have held me back, I have to forge a much more integrated, far less compartmentalized version of myself. This includes connecting the dots between the woman who talks about polyamory and consent to the woman who engages with holistic systemic change, all wrapped up with the hopes of inclusivity and accessibility.
What will always be consistent about me is my sincere desire to serve humanity in every aspect of my life. My radar is always attuned to tracking the ebb and flow of interconnectedness between each of us, especially when we engage in spiritual or systemic dynamics. I see the beautiful, magnificent brilliance of light that shines from each of us and how that connects, enhances, and amplifies the light of others. Every single one of us matter.
It has been 20 years since I went to law school, since I sat for my first torts exam or used a 4-color pen to book brief a case. The process of learning speaks so deeply to me – I miss being in school, but I’m also impatient for that learning to lead….somewhere. I have always sought to be a woman of action, a woman of substance and since I was a kid, I only ever wanted to serve humanity through acts of love honed with the sharp sword of justice. My priority in all aspects of my life, but especially professionally has been to ensure that no one gets left behind, no one is treated as “less than” or “undeserving”, and to not add to the burdens that people are carrying in their lives.
All people really want is to be seen and heard for who they are
That love of learning took me to take a class on trauma informed care when I was a mediator in private practice back in 2012. It changed everything for me. It gave me a term for something that I intuitively knew was the right thing to do but didn’t have the brain science to explain why. Once I recognized that what I was feeling about myself and about how people treated me, the mediator, during sessions, I started to recognize the patterns of my own trauma that were playing out during sessions. It explained not just my clients’ reactions, but the ones that were playing out for me under the surface.
Once I learned how to be trauma informed the biggest thing I noticed is just how shitty we were, as a society, at meeting people where they are. We are constantly pushing people to “just get over it” or to deny the severity of how a comment, action or even policy made them feel. I was a successful mediator in that I got people to transform conflict into something more positive, but often I was working harder than they were to recognize that the constant fighting, hypervigilance, and avoidance were all trauma reactions.
It’s not an understatement to say that my life has intersected quite often with trauma, both my own and others’. Over the years I’ve been transparent with my story because I know others have been through something similar, might be struggling the same ways I have (or am), and need a glimmer of recognition that will help them not feel so alone. By making myself visible, even at this moment, I have a hope of helping others feel seen through my own reflection and storytelling.
One of the most valuable concepts I learned as a mediator is how critical it is for the human psyche to feel seen and heard, to be recognized, valued, and appreciated for the insight and experience we bring. And that is especially highlighted during conflict. The temptation is to win the fight, to shout down our opponent, to view everything as us vs. them. We often fail to truly see and hear see one another when our brain is too busy defending ourselves. And yet, most of the time, people have similar goals and objectives in mind, the same problem they want to solve, but each of them are only seeing a small piece of the puzzle, not the overall picture. And when you truly make space for someone to be authentic and real, you make room to find solutions together.
So why is trauma-informed care important?
How much different could our relationships be if, instead of nagging our partner until they snap at us, we recognized that there might be more to the behavior than the ulterior motives we ascribe and assume. How might we change our approach if we recognized that our words and behavior triggers something stored deeply in their bodies that they aren’t able to cope with at that moment? For example, maybe our partner snapped at us because their last partner used to throw things at them when they didn’t “obey” and they’re immediately defensive because our nagging triggered that embedded reaction for them?And what if they knew that by calling our normal request for help “nagging” they used a deeply stigmatized cultural description that likewise triggers shame reactions from our own childhood?
Is there a better way to relate that doesn’t leave us hostile and on edge?
While trauma-informed care isn’t a cure-all, it is a framework for how we can be more conscious of how we relate to one another. And with COVID increasing levels of trauma and toxic stress for everyone, it’s even more critical that we develop some skills so that we don’t inadvertently add to anyone’s trauma, least of all, our own. For us to have our best chance of truly beating COVID, we need to develop skills that allow us to increase our empathy. We are challenged to give people a soft place to land while we slowly reconstruct what “normal” looks like.
So why Trauma-Informed Social Change?
Trauma-Informed Change is a societal shift toward the empathetic recognition, respect, and reduction of the widespread impact of trauma on the world.
A trauma-informed society acts to mitigate retraumatization and avoids the addition of new traumas.
When we are trauma-informed, we are saying:
- I respect that you’ve been through some stuff….
- Because I’ve been through some stuff too and I recognize how that feels in myself…
- So, even if we can fix the things we’ve been through, we promise to…
- 1) to not needlessly reopen old wounds; and
- 2) at least not add new ones.
My professional website says:
My vision for humanity is a more compassionate, just & sustainable world created through trauma-informed, heart-centered leadership. By preventing and healing the toxic trauma and shame imposed by misaligned systems, organizational dysfunction, and interpersonal relationships, we create a meaningful & accessible experience of equality and justice for all.Janet Rose
And frankly, the most trauma informed thing I can for myself and for others in 2021 is to show people that resilience is possible. Like seeing Bruce Wayne and Batman in the same space, we need to be able to believe that we can get through this as integrated, whole people, instead of fractured, fragmented, and alone. We need to have the #RadiantResilience to not only recognize the vulnerability of the collective trauma we are experiencing right now, but the inherent strength it took for us to still be here, no matter how weak or exhausted we might feel.
I am here to share that not only is resilience possible, but that we can actually contribute directly to building it for a new world. As more structures that have enforced systemic trauma, like police violence and food insecurity, are challenged and dismantled, we need systems that are more responsive to the generations of trauma we are carrying in our bones. And at the very least, how amazing would it be if even just once in a day, we consciously chose not to add to another’s burden, not to add trauma or retraumatization to an already difficult day?
What might happen if each of us chose to simply not add trauma or retraumatization for even just one person each day? Below is one of the videos from my YouTube channel where I share my thoughts about how that might look.
I believe a more loving, just, and sustainable world is possible if we choose to show up and truly see people.
Even if all we do is nod to show “I respect what has happened to you and I’ll treat you with the dignity you deserve for that”, it would go a long way to demonstrating the love and sensitivity we want to see for our future.
About a month ago, I taught a group of folks about trauma-informed care. During the presentation, I talked about the impact of inter-generational trauma. Specifically, I delved into how racial inequality, food insecurity, and other systemic injustices, such as police harassment stack up to create a traumatic effect. The goal was to get the group to realize how significant the impact of systemic inequality can be on the human system.
And when I spoke those words, in the Zoom chatbox came the phrase “Post Traumatic Slave Disorder” from the only black man in the group of 22. I was floored because it was so poignant, so true, so shockingly accurate. And I was honestly unprepared to be met with such a hauntingly visceral example of one if the most obvious systemic injustices.
This provided the perfect opportunity to touch on the concept of what some schools of thought call “cultural humility”.
Cultural Competency vs. Cultural Humility
Professions that often must deal with “diverse” (read: difficult) often have to take some class, workshop or continuing education course in diversity and inclusion. For many, the result is assumed to be “Cultural Competency”, a mastery of the ins and outs of how to work with diverse populations and workforces. But what “cultural competency” truly has become, is a massive cop-out for a lack of true inter-sectional solutions and equalized outcomes.
As an employer. especially in the social justice and nonprofit sector, the number of times I’d read a cover letter or resume that listed “culturally competent” was about as common as the word “passionate”. It doesn’t really say much to me, so when I’d interview, I would toss them a question or two about “why do you think people are homeless?” and watch as their supposed competency was revealed to actually just be complacency. The judgment and derision, the inability to grasp the systemic problems that contribute to if not directly causes homelessness and poverty were appalling for folks with masters’ level degrees.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in working with vulnerable populations it is that there is no single-serving, one-size-fits-all knowledge that prepares you for the rich variance in circumstances, stories and attitudes that we will encounter. We must be open, teachable and prepared to realign even our most cherished paradigms to the lived realities of those that we serve.
Of the people I hired or had a hand in hiring, 100% of them had lived experience in the system – such as personal experience with poverty, homelessness or disability or systemic barriers caused by racism, xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia, For many, their experience included being shoveled to lower paid positions or denied meaningful opportunities for advancement. Of the folks I hired, roughly 40% were black, 45% were white and 15% were Latinx. Within those races & ethnicities, 10% were Queer or Trans (self-identified) and 10% were immigrants and 35% disclosed a disability. I found them each to be highly qualified and worth hiring.
But I’m not going to applaud myself for my hiring practices, because I also know that for all those numbers, I was not always the best boss. I am constantly working through my conflicted feelings with being Chicanx from one side of my family, but wholly white in appearance and privilege from the other side. This often blocked me from seeing how I was using that to talk over others’ experiences or centering myself in discussions of race or bias.
I was a new supervisor, a new leader who was wholly insecure about my worthiness to even be in that seat. That insecurity often played out as arrogance and erratic decision-making which made work life miserable for some of my employees. This contributed to white supremacy in ways I was not even aware of at the time. It’s easier to see now that the stress is no longer clouding my reactions, I can see even more clearly where I still have lots to improve. Devoting sincere energy to better unfuck my own paradigms, dismantling the entanglements I have with white supremacy on levels I might not have seen before is just one way I can fix the impact of my mistakes.
Cultural humility is admitting that I do not have all the answers, that I’m not “competent” and thus, I have more to learn. It is about admitting when my own stupid white-influenced entitlement and pride can get in the way of hearing and seeing someone fully for who they are, letting them have the floor to share their experience without interruption or needing to tell my story. It is about listening, integrating, and implementing that knowledge to shape an even better framework.
So, what does this have to do with #BlackLivesMatter?
Where cultural competency says, “You’ve said enough for today”, cultural humility says, “Please tell me more?” One is a constraint, the other an invitation. Competency is a shield to vulnerability whereas humility is an open-hearted embrace of it. And when we are dealing with traumas as deep as racism, for example, where centuries of ancestors are calling out for help, it is a big risk for them to trust us with those soul truths. We must prove our worth for that trust by being open, vulnerable, and willing to be good stewards of that precious fragment of their soul they choose to share with us.
As discussions have accumulated and unraveled online, I see too many white friends and acquaintances declaring “I’m not racist”. Definitively. As if they earned a degree and were granted a ribbon bestowing the title of “World’s Best Ally”. They flaunt it, like it is a settled fact. Except it’s not. It’s an opinion and a woefully incomplete one at that.
They are neither teachable nor rational. Racism is bad, they are good, therefore they aren’t racist. Their lizard brain says “danger! Someone might expose the evil racist we have within and it will make me feel bad about myself”. So they threaten, they point fingers and prove in every meaningful way that being seen as “not racist” means a hell of a lot more to them than the work of actually NOT BEING RACIST.
And when it comes to racism and systemic inequality, we MUST remain teachable and open to learning more. As we encounter more stories, more people who are awakening to this gross level of inequality, as more data surfaces and systemic biases become easier to recognize, we cannot truly say that we are “competent” in knowing how someone’s myriad of cultural experiences have molded them. There are no shortcuts or declarations that we’re done unfucking our own paradigms. We need to listen, learn, integrate, evaluate. Lather, rinse & repeat for the rest of our lives.
Humility requires us to turn the mirror on ourselves
After 2 years as a lobbyist, 3 years negotiating contracts, 5 years as a mediator and 5 years in disability and poverty law, the greatest lesson I learned is that we cannot ever assume anything. People will always surprise us with a lived experience that is counter to what our formal knowledge and personal experience has taught us. And yet, our personal experience isn’t any more valid than that other person’s – unless, we have chosen to value them less for some reason, to assume they are lying or exaggerating. Is that really about them, or it is really about just bolstering our own confirmation bias?
Right now, the most dangerous thing we could do is white-out the lifetimes of experience our black friends, co-workers, neighbors, and celebrities are sharing with us. There is no integrity in indulging our denial, our obstinance, our vanity by denying that we directly benefit from racism. It was codified, allowed, protected and none of us, particularly those of us who are white, are immune from its bloody inheritance. Not only does it dishonor the authenticity of that other person’s story, but it likewise absolves us of the responsibility of learning how to dismantle our own white supremacy to ensure it doesn’t continue.
We must challenge our internal echo chamber that presumes our own innocence and white-as-light purity. We ignore the vulnerability required to recognize, admit and understand our own roles in propping up white supremacy. Our ego resists, clinging desperately to the illusion that “I would never say something racist.”
And yet we do. All the time. Including and especially me.
We try to shift the burden because racism is so distasteful to us and yet, we aren’t the ones bearing our share of the load. We must dig deep to unroot it from the core processes of our own lives because we benefit in some way from this patriarchal, racist system. For all our presumed “cultural competency” we are awfully quick to uphold a system of inherent inequalities to avoid the humility of confronting our own racist attitudes and behaviors. We would rather trust the broken systems, the social and legal contracts of our nation, than fully examine the mortar and bricks that are crumbling under the ethical and moral weight of justice withheld.
I often say that all people want in life is to be heard, seen, and understood. And yet, the ability to do this is entirely dependent on our willingness and skill at setting our own opinions aside for a moment and being present with another person as they tell their story. The humility of that moment, to de-center yourself to listen to another, is where empathy awakens. And as we see things through someone else’s eyes, this is the start of a more transformative, connective and collaborative healing. Only in humility can we find hope.
We cannot survive unless and until us non-black people can humble ourselves enough to listen to the lived experience of black communities that we have silenced and talked over for so long.
Resources for more reading
Want to know how dismantle white supremacy in yourself and these arcane systems? Here are some resources to get you started:
- Layla Saad: “Me and White Supremacy: A 28-Day Challenge to Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor leads readers through a journey of understanding their white privilege and participation in white supremacy so that they can stop (often unconsciously) inflicting damage on black, indigenous and people of color, and in turn, help other white people do better, too.”
- Racial Equality Tools – Compendium of tools, resources, and curriculum for examining white privilege and racial equity.
- Katie Couric, “A Detailed List of Anti-Racism Resources” Books, movies & more
- Showing Up for Racial Justice: 5 Ways White People Can Take Action in Response to White and State-Sanctioned Violence
- HealthLine: Anti-Racism Resources for Parents & Kids
It’s the night after Super Tuesday. Supporters of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are drunk with glee and supporters of Mike Bloomberg and Elizabeth Warren are processing their sadness. Each camp doing their thing in their own way – some are conducting outreach trying to bring displaced supporters into the fold, others are blaming anyone who dared to not support their candidate, and still, some others are just plain celebrating or mourning.
For what it is worth, I supported Elizabeth Warren in the primary (Castro had been my first pick) and like a good true blue Democrat, I’ve pledged to support the eventual nominee. At the time of this writing, Bloomberg has already dropped out and I’m hearing whispers that Warren might do the same. Yes, I’m disappointed that my candidate didn’t win more delegates, but I’m far more disappointed in the way each candidate’s followers are treating the relative winners and losers of this big political match-up.
And while this message applies to all (hi Republican friends!), tonight I focus almost solely on Democrats. It’s the party that raised and trained me, the party that has inspired and encouraged me. It’s also, right now the party most in danger of eating themselves alive.
I am a lifelong Democrat. I started in 1992, when I wrote a letter to Bill Clinton’s campaign asking some pointed questions about his stance on the environment, education and homosexual rights. I was in 8th grade. When I got to high school, I was involved in the campaign against Amendment 2 and organized around issues affecting our Latinx-majority school in the off years. I was devastated when Ben Nighthorse Campbell switched parties (he warmly responded to the letter I wrote him encouraging me to stay involved to fix things). I was one of the youngest delegates to the 1996 county and 1998 state conventions. I attended a handful of candidate training programs when I once thought about running for office. Over the years, I’ve grown more choosy about which candidates I’ll support; I will prioritize supporting good policymakers over the sparkle of pristine politicians.
Sometimes that means I’m on the losing end of things. And sometimes I actually win! But mostly, I’m used to my candidates of choice losing. I’m used to disappointment when my more progressive choices (Romanoff) don’t win, with a smaller experience of elation when others (Polis) do. I have seen great politicians make horrible policies (or not even care about it at all) and great policy minds lose at politics (because they care too much). I’ve also been blackballed by the party when I dared to work for and share passionate support for education reform. I have seen most aspects of how state and local campaigns work and how easily national campaigns can drown out the message.
The only reason I bring up my background is to remind you, and maybe also myself, that I’ve been a liberal Democrat for most of my life, trained by union leaders and involved in so many aspects of politics and policy to have some lived experience under my belt to evaluate emerging patterns. And what I see now scares me.
Because if we don’t stop inflicting shame on each other, we will never win, much less repair our fractured country.
First, a little about Shame
Shame by definition is a personal and painful emotion, aligning with a sense of failure to live up to some standard or expectation. Once experienced, the feelings of inadequacy can linger within us weighing us down with persistently resistant thoughts and self-judgments.
“Although we often use the terms shame and guilt interchangeably, those who study these emotions are careful to distinguish them. Guilt is an emotion we feel about a specific behavior, while shame is an emotion we feel about who we are. Shame is a corrosive, destructive emotion that leads us onto the path of self-loathing where, in defense of ourselves and in a desperate struggle to break free of our painful feelings about our self worth, we justify our actions—and our identities—as caused by something or someone else. According to psychologist June Tangney, the more shamed we are, the greater our anger and the less we are able to feel empathy—because we so want to stop the painful feelings of shame that we realign our perceptions of the world so that we are not ashamed. It’s not our fault. We aren’t bad people. Everyone does it. We had no choice. Others made us do it. The process is called cognitive dissonance—our ability to distance ourselves from our pain by altering the way we perceive the people and events surrounding it.”Dr. Janice Harper, “Bullying, Mobbing and the Role of Shame” (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beyond-bullying/201309/bullying-mobbing-and-the-role-shame) (Emphasis added).
And while experiencing this emotion may be inevitable, inflicting it on others is entirely optional.
Using shame as a weapon isn’t at all a new concept. It has happened throughout history and even in our everyday lives:
- The co-worker who sneers at our new haircut.
- The parent who tells us we’re “not good enough”.
- The boyfriend who fat-shames us into dieting.
- The wife who calls our fetish “disgusting”.
Regardless of whether the expectation was expressed or not, whether someone said something mean or something nice, our exposure to conditions that inspire shame is a chronic experience for us all. And while shame can occur from really innocent things such as forgetting someone’s birthday, I’m fairly certain almost all of us can recall a time when another human passed along their own pain to us through shaming words and actions.
Public humiliation. Abandonment. Rejection. Mockery.
The best way I can describe weaponized shame is self-loathing inflicted by third parties. And to distinguish from bullying for my purposes, I’m focusing on using hostile means (shame) to reach a righteous outcome (get your candidate to win). It has become more than just a strategy, it’s become the currency of our current debates. It’s so familiar, we hardly even recognize it.
Face it, even with the best of parents, we’ve all experienced what it feels like for someone else to go out of their way to make us feel small. Even if our first moments of shame weren’t inflicted by parents (“You should be ashamed of yourself” after some minor transgression), it was likely inflicted by peers in school (“Smelly Suzie” taunts in the schoolyard) and even teachers or coaches (“Well, Jonny, are you happy now? Now the whole class loses the pizza party because of you“). It continues through adolescence when our first crushes reject us (“eww…who would want to be seen with you?“) and throughout our college lives (“Alpha Cow Omega” instead of Alpha Chi Omega) and into our workplaces (“If you can’t handle that client, .that sounds like a you problem. No one else had had an issue“)
For folks with anxiety or depression, for example, shame is particularly tortuous since we already worry about what others think of us. Hearing and reading those comments directed at us only amplifies those fears and gives them a face, a voice.
When I was outed by a small GOP gossip blog, I only had read a handful of comments about me before I started having panic attacks. One mused how much he might pay for a blowjob, several called me fat. But the one that detailed why my kids should be taken away from me sent me over the edge. The idea of losing my kids was terrifying and I couldn’t bear to read the rest. I shut down my life, I stopped going out, I stopped actively engaging in politics. I felt radioactive, only reinforced by the abandonment of my friends in the party elite. The experience of being so publicly ridiculed, dismissed, mocked, and scorned for being who I am was enough to drive me toward suicide as a last resort. And while I’m grateful I stopped myself, the experience is a major source of PTSD for me, a source of nightmares and one of the biggest reasons I’ve held myself back for so long.
Whether purposely or carelessly, when we choose harmful words, a disciplinarian tone, a rageful attack, make no mistake, the intention whether realized or not, is to make the person pay for their opinion with shame. Our pain, our hurt is so justified, so great that we have to make sure others have to suffer too. Our pride, our egos, our decisions are superior and thus we must righteously defend ourselves whenever they’re under perceived attack. And any mistake, no matter how small, will not escape our scrutiny. We will pile on until they acquiesce or leave public life entirely.
Because I left public life, outed for my “liberal agenda”, my persistence, my presence, and my insight also were absent from public life. So was my passion to bring people together. So was my energy for canvassing and phone banking. That one act of weaponized shame (by what I now suspect was an intern out to make a name for himself), not only removed me from politics entirely, it removed what some thought was a valuable voice from our party.
I stopped showing up because it was no longer safe to stand tall in myself.
We can’t win if people don’t show up.
And there is the problem, when we shame, when we destroy, when we wield punishment as if we have some authority to pass ultimate judgment, all we are doing is hazing others because someone hurt us. I was hurt, so you should hurt too. “Only the strong survive” is all well and fine, except with the 2020 election, we actually need everyone to show up. Not just those who can endure our punishment, but those who we’ve estranged as a result of it.
When we inflict shame on others, all we are doing to spreading the pain around, not to heal it, but to maximize its blast radius, to make the people like those who hurt us feel the same pain. Weaponizing shame by pushing people into a corner so we can control their thoughts, feelings, and decisions is abusive AF. Just another bully living out their revenge fantasies by proxy – since the candidate has no idea we’re doing this on their behalf. Controlling others, manipulating people into feeling shame and guilt might give us a temporary surge of power, but won’t change anyone’s mind. When we punish people for not meeting our expectations, we are telling them that we’re in control, we decide who gets in or out and we can destroy you if you step out of line.
Isn’t that exactly what we say we’re fighting against?
This has happened forever in party politics, but with social media has just grown louder, more persistent and with better documentation. We have the receipts now. So we can keep this going on forever. We can schedule tweets to piss you off hourly. We can post evidence of your mistakes and faux pax on Reddit and pop some popcorn as we watch them burn you. We can stalk, harass and pressure even more than before. Because we have to win, so the ends justify the means, right?
Bullying is bulling, no matter what cause we’ve attached ourselves to.
After a while, people are going to tire of the targeted shame and harassment, the inherited pain and collateral damage and will just stop showing up. Our democracy and indeed the entire Democratic agenda of defeating Trump depends on us being able to unify in large numbers against this rising tide of hatred.
And to do that we need people to show up!
If we want to be the voice of inclusion in this election, we have to live it.
In an era where we are challenged to come together to address collective and global crises (Coronavirus and climate change, for example), we are so distracted by our worst impulses and fears that we likewise succumb to our lowest selves. We classify our opponents and critics as “haters” or the “enemy”. We paint them with a wide brush and feed them hatred hyperbole for breakfast. And we feel satisfied like we’ve done the world, and our candidate a favor because we put the other guy’s supporters in their place.
“Guess what? That wasn’t your job, jackass,” says the universe.
We were supposed to bring people to the Bernie/Biden/Warren/Bloomberg party, not set them on fire because they didn’t show up to ours right away. We were supposed to persuade people to join our cause, not push them further away when they voiced concerns. We were supposed to sow seeds of growth for our vision of the party, not destroy everyone else’s.
We are far too quick to inflict emotional pain, and far too slow to listen and keep our mouths and keyboards shut. I have been dismayed at how easily we resort to belittling, mocking and bullying behavior. We push the boundaries of dignity and make veiled threats and jump to slurred half-cocked conclusions. But more than anything, we are damaging our own credibility – how can we say we’re for diversity if all we’re doing it shouting down anyone who expresses a different idea or priority?
But more than anything, we are damaging our democracy.
Democracy relies in no small part on the cooperation and trust of others. In a functioning republic, the representative democracy that we have, we elect people to faithfully represent our interests and work together toward the good of the nation. In my experience, trust and cooperation are necessary components for success. And because there will always be more than one way to solve a problem, more than one opinion about what to do, and more than a few feathers that are ruffled no matter which decision is made, we have to have something to anchor us in our collective purpose. Thus, we recognize and accept that to resolve conflicts and failures of trust and cooperation inherent in bringing disparate parties together for the good of the nation, we agree to be governed by a core set of rules and values and we put our trust in that.
We have opponents, we have rivals and even sometimes a nemesis might persist, but we are not enemies. We all are governed by the same rules, participate in the same systems, but have differences in how we experience those, augmented by the very authentic differences that make us so damn shiny – our identities, our communities, our lived experiences, faith, values and so much more. We each have a reason to shine and our political success should not depend on suppressing that authenticity but harmonizing it. That’s sort of the beauty of being a nation based on the core freedoms we’ve identified – we have such an array of experience, backgrounds, and insights that we have all the tools we need to succeed. Together.
Except we don’t want to be together. Because, as we all learned in school, group projects are hard. We get frustrated when we’re not heard. We hate when people don’t pull their weight. Our ego gets bruised when the group decides on something different. We have such poor conflict management skills as a society, that we would rather seal ourselves away in our echo chambers that we wouldn’t recognize a good idea unless and until it pierces that sacred space. We burrow ourselves in our false sense of righteousness and punish anyone who tries to share their insights. And so we shame, we belittle, we mock, we antagonize, we point fingers and call names.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t call out racism and sexism when we see it or that we shouldn’t correct ableism or transphobia when it shows up. We absolutely should call that out. Generational patterns of unhealed trauma and systemic violence has heaped a ton of unbearable shame onto communities that are righteously and gloriously fighting back. But that well of strength and energy are not self-replenishing. And sometimes, we need to tap into the talents of others who can either help us build a bridge or enforce our boundaries. We are not in this alone, which is sort of the beauty of it all Others feel the same, but have different talents, different stressors, different tolerance levels. Not everything needs our control or input.
Right now, our passion for our causes and candidates has caused us to take a weed whacker to the whole garden, cutting down all the new growth and ideas that we were cultivating. And with the amount of invincible ignorance we encounter, sometimes it feels like we’re playing a neverending game of whack-a-troll. We are only human – it is okay to step back, put the spade and shovel down and let nature take its course.
We can plant the seeds, nurture the message, leaving some room for the light to get in, pulling out the weeds of shame and fake news when they threaten the growth of a better world.
You can’t fight darkness with darkness. Limiting access to only those who have the perfect point of view, the right ideas, and the right opinions only serve to further exploit and marginalize others. By limiting the voices at the table, forcing them into lockstep with us, we are in danger of becoming the very opposite of what we say we’re here to do. We blur facts and with opinions, problems with solutions, feeling with reason until there’s so much dissonance that people start dropping out.
This is literally the opposite of what we want.
If we want to win, people have got to feel welcomed enough to show up & grow.
If we want to win, people have to feel valued enough to show up & grow.
If we want to win, people have to feel safe enough to show up & grow.
Shame threatens to remove some of our most vulnerable, valuable and marginalized voices from the conversation, thus removing our greatest chance of a solution. So if we are serious about winning, serious about repairing our nation and our earth we have to be in this together. We cannot afford for anyone to be left behind.
Each of us shares our life with someone.
In all actuality, we share our lives with many someones.
Our orbits pass through one another, sometimes crashing through the orbits of others everyday. With every action, with every word, with every choice, we send ripples of significance. We each influence someone, several someones, in our day-to-day lives and in the memories reverberating in those we may never see again. And even the most obtusely selfish among us can serve as an inspiration to someone else. One ripple sends another and another.
We are all connected. Maybe positively, maybe negatively – no matter how brief, no matter how intense, the connections we share are inescapable. What happens to one of us reverberates through the rest of us.
Even in the darkest of my depressions, it is this truth that keeps me going. This truth has been the basis of my life and my calling. It is the guidebook for my decision-making, the tome I refer to when I feel I’m off my path. I gravitate toward connectedness with others, even if it means breaking faith with what the world would have me do with its rules and expectations.
It is the universality of our connectedness that gives me hope for our future but likewise makes me fear for our present.
We live in unprecedented times. When I was 15, I cared deeply about politics, but it didn’t rule my every thought or conversation. I worried about getting my homework done, navigating increasingly more adult decisions. I didn’t have to worry about my life or the lives of those around me. We didn’t know the earth was dying.
My son is now 15 with a keen mind for politics and history. He doesn’t want kids because “why bother when the earth will be uninhabitable by the time they’re 10”.
It breaks my heart that my son, my bright light of hope in this world, cannot see any hope in our future. He watched with panic and anxiety when Trump announced, foreseeing a time that brown people would be locked up. Fearing for my Mexican family, that election was so difficult to endure for us both. It became real to us – we were being collectively targeted and threatened.
Combined with the regularity of lock-outs, the proliferation of cyber bullying and the rapidly empty responses to climate change, he has nothing left to believe in. He watched his country, the adults and parents who should be watching out for his generation, elect the most unsophisticatedly inhumane of any candidate possible to usher his generation into adulthood. Environmental protections are dismantled, a sledgehammer has been taken to a woman’s right to choose, and racism, sexism and discrimination is sanctioned and protected.
We have a generation of children who have been force fed a steady diet of fear and impulsive intolerance. Even for the kids not directly in harm’s way today, the multitude of dangers they have to navigate put my youthful grievances into clearer perspective. The trauma, the low, constant hum of human suffering accumulated slowly over time.
Who would they be if we hadn’t done this to them?
We all belong to each other.
This isn’t about my kid vs your kid. This isn’t about comparing our suffering. It’s about recognizing that we share the burden of carrying that experience with and for each other. Without your experience, how can I possibly ever understand mine? We serve as mirrors for each other, reflecting both the pain and the resilience, the fear and the healing. By sharing those experiences, we give context to someone else’s.
People often tell me that I share too much online. And I do. I know better than most the consequences of sharing so much. But I also know that dee in my soul, I share my ideas and experiences so that others might find something that resonates with them. If my story can help even one other person, then I experience a transformative effect for the pain I’ve lived through. I reclaim more of who I really am and I experience a greater freedom in living my most authentic life.
So many of us have been through some horrible things, things that we’re only now starting to find a voice for. Many of us are grappling with the outcomes and consequences of shame, guilt or trauma. That realization has a ripple effect around us, even momentarily altering how we see ourselves and the world around us. And if, in this moment we can collectively mourn for the people we never became, if we can reconcile the betrayal we feel, we might recognize that we have more in common than we think.
In these moments of crisis, in these days of uncertainty, we have a choice whether to silo ourselves away in a tower of enforced misery, or whether we might deserve the strength of sincere companionship. We have a choice to model for our over stressed and over burdened children how to handle emotions like fear or distrust, how to maintain resolve when it looks like all is lost. We can show them leadership. We can show them another way.
Connecting with one another, making ourselves vulnerable to share in the burdens, collaborating on solutions together may be the only way we can ensure that our children will survive their futures.
We all belong to each other.
We all want to be loved, to be found worthy of our intended’s affection, to be worthy of our parents’ pride, to be deserving of close friendships and to bask in the joy of romantic passion. Only by realizing and engaging with that connection will we be able to create a world of abundance, security and peace for us all.
Something snapped today.
I have known for a while that I might break. I’ve been wound too tight for too long without much opportunity for relief. And I know what you’re thinking: sexual relief *giggle*. And while I will get to that in a minute, I mean some actual soul-level relief.
I work in a highly stressful job. Stressful and immensely rewarding. Intuitively it seems like it should balance out, but it really doesn’t. There is a price to be paid for being positive and hopeful and optimistic in the face of overwhelming disparity, trauma, and hardship. And I have been paying that price for much longer than I’ve had this job.
It won’t surprise you that I care about caring. I care about virtually everyone I meet. A kid walking down the hallway who trips over his shoelaces–I care about him. An old friend from HS who is having marriage problems–I care about her. A celebrity’s family after a tragic accident or loss–I care about them. I don’t know these people, but I expend heart energy for them. My personal avatar should be a Care Bear.