Author: Dr. Aja Hill

I am a licensed clinical psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area.

How do you want to feel?

Feelings come and go–they can change from moment to moment with what we’re experiencing. A feeling can be triggered by a thought, a behavior, or an interaction with the environment or another person. I often find myself in conversations with people about how others influence or impact their emotions. Sometimes interactions with others are pleasant, and increase our happiness and overall satisfaction. Other times, social situations can make us feel bothered, offended, irritated, angered, frustrated, annoyed, and/or a host of other things. Even at times when we might be completely content or happy, another person can enter our experience with a different feeling or energy that can completely and immediately shift our mood. And often, when our mood shifts, we approach the rest of our day differently. We can go from being positive and productive to becoming grumpy and withdrawn, because of what another person said, did, or felt.

A lot of times these interactions are unavoidable since we can’t control the types of emotional stimuli emitted from others, and in our day to day lives, most of us are always receiving some type of external stimuli. What is in our control is the way we respond to what we’re given.  We can decide if the feeling we’ve received from somewhere/someone else will remain or dominate, or if we’d like to return to our original or another feeling state.

We all know someone who spends a lot of time complaining or venting about what they don’t like or how things are going wrong, and at times, we may be that person. As individuals, we each perceive many different things as wrong or not likeable. We all feel angry, sad, disappointed, or frustrated at times, so it’s likely that we’ve held both of these positions, the complainer and the listener, at some point or another. Sharing our feelings with others is an important part of relating. We feel connected, validated, and understood, when sharing something that can be held, mirrored, or reflected by another. This is a good thing.

However, it gets complicated sometimes. Other people’s emotions aren’t always welcomed or wanted. They can sometimes feel intrusive or burdensome, leaving us with a feeling that interrupts our previous level of functioning or being, or with a feeling that we simply just don’t want. Everybody knows the old saying, “misery loves company.” And though it doesn’t necessarily mean that people are going around intentionally trying to make you miserable because they’re miserable, it doesn’t change that frequently, that is the outcome. As said before, it feels good to be listened to, understood, and connected with. When our pain, sufferings, and idiosyncratic irritations are heard, it makes our perceptions valid and real.

But what do you do when your coworker comes and complains to you about how much they hate your boss, listing every wrong the boss has ever done towards them, engendering angry and resentful feelings in you towards the boss too? What about when your significant other comes home in a bad mood, and lets the bad mood influence how they relate to you? Or when that reckless driver cuts you off on your morning commute? There’s no question that most of us would have some type of negative emotion or reaction to any of these scenarios. These are all examples of uninvited emotional experiences unexpectedly entering your space, which is usually not cool and makes people angry. I’ve heard people describe events like this as ruining their entire day. Not all of us will have our whole day ruined by one of these unfortunate, unavoidable situations, but plenty of us would give considerable time and energy to feeling bad, sad, or mad. And that’s fine. We should all have space to feel our feelings and move through or process them as we choose. But I think we should also give ourselves options. We have some ability to choose how we feel. How about asking yourself, “how do I want to feel?”

Also, “Is this emotion useful or necessary?” and “How do I actually feel?” Not everyone is well versed in identifying and naming feelings. Sometimes we react before taking the time to really think and determine for ourselves what we feel. Looking inside to assess your own emotions is an important step, since lots of what we feel and experience comes from outside of us. Sometimes our emotions aren’t even really ours. Through transfers of energy, projective identification, displacement, and other energetic or psychological processes, certain feelings can be put into us by others. Do you want to hold onto a negative emotion that was transferred to you by someone else? If the feeling can be used, then maybe it’s worth keeping, but if not, why hold on to it?

Of course this is much easier said than done. Deciding to change your mood, and actually doing it can be extremely difficult. Yet, rewarding. It takes effort and focus to get back to a space of contentment when you’ve been thrown from it, but the effort can be worthwhile. Most of us don’t want to feel bad and usually we’re overall better people when we’re feeling good. We’re more productive, engaged, polite, social, and present in our lives when we’re in a good mood. So, how do you want to feel?

Here’s a short list of tools I’ve found helpful when making the choice to feel good:

1. Immediate intentionality. As soon as you notice an unpleasant or unwanted emotion interfering, make time or find space to reflect, meditate, pray, connect, or any practice that can center your thoughts on the feeling what you want. Be intentional and stay focused on what you want.

2. Change your behavior. Sometimes thoughts/feelings influence our actions/behaviors, but our actions and behaviors can also influence our thoughts and feelings. Start with your behavior and see if your emotions follow (i.e. smile, listen to music, exercise, do anything you enjoy)

3. Focus on gratitude. Studies show that thinking of things that you’re happy about and thankful for leads to good health and increased joy.

Feel free to share any tips or tools you use to stay in your mood of choice!

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What are you afraid of?

fear

What are you afraid of? The dark? Clowns? Flying? Death? Halloween is well past us and the Ebola scare seems to have died down, but it seems there is always something looming around the corner. Fear is something we’ve all experienced, with extreme variance from person to person. It can manifest and be experienced in so many different ways, whether it’s welcomed or unconscious.

Naturally, fear is a necessary and primal instinct for survival–it keeps us alive. When faced with something dangerous or threatening, fear activates the fight or flight response in hopes of giving us the best chances to survive. Imagine hiking on a trail and coming across a huge, black bear. What do you do? You become afraid, meaning you have a neurological response that communicates to your body that it needs to react. The neurological response becomes physiological, and you might start to sweat, feel your heart rate increase, and notice your breathing become more shallow. These sensations in your body alert you that it’s time to take action. Do you run? Scream? Freeze? Play dead? All of these are actions in response to fear.

What’s interesting about fear is that it can be utilized to keep us alive, but can also be used to keep us problematically, and sometimes strategically stuck. Some fears are innate, having always existed in us, while others are learned, from personal experience, family, media, or other external sources. Some fears are rational and legitimate reactions to threats to our lives, while others simply, are not. How do you know the difference between the two? When should fear be reacted to and when should you consider letting it go? It might help to ask yourself a few questions, like: What is it that you are afraid of? Why? Are you actually in danger? Has the feared stimulus ever, in fact, harmed you? Where did the fear come from? Is this fear actually yours or did it come from someone/somewhere else? Is this fear serving you? Is this fear hindering or limiting you?

Asking yourself these questions could be an important step in understanding the role of fear in your life. How is fear impacting your daily decisions and interactions? As stated earlier, experiences of fear vary drastically from person to person. Some people develop specific phobias, or irrational fears of specific objects or situations. Some common phobias are fear of closed spaces (claustrophobia), fear of spiders (arachnophobia), and fear of heights (acrophobia). These are the types of phobias that often come up in conversation, are shared among friends, and sometimes even joked about. These kinds of fears, of certain objects or situations may be easier to admit and accept because they are personal, and mostly experienced internally. If you’re afraid of heights, you’re likely to respond by avoiding high places. It is unlikely that this fear will significantly affect anyone, but you. However, there are other fears that are not only personal, but interpersonal. When your phobia is Muslims (Islamophobia), gay people (homophobia), or Black Men, your fear does not only affect you. Perhaps this fear is unconscious and learned from media or family history. And perhaps you employ the method of avoidance, similar to the person who is afraid of heights, by not interacting with this group of people. Perhaps this keeps your fear at bay and minimizes the potential harm that might result from an interaction with your feared stimulus.

But what happens when the feared stimulus is unavoidable? Imagine walking down the street and there is a Black man approaching. What do you do? You become afraid, meaning you have a neurological response that communicates to your body that it needs to react. As your brain and body communicate, you start to take action. Do you clutch your purse? Call the police? Cross the street? Start a fight? Kill him? All of these are potential actions in response to fear. And therein lies the real danger. The taboo of admitting these types of fears leads to general acceptance of rote reactions to perceived threats that are just that: perceptions–things that may or may not even be real. We’ve been learning to be afraid for so long, that our minds and bodies have mastered the ability to justify our false, irrational, and illogical panic. So long that the biological response has become automatic. Many of us have taken little to no time to really examine our fear and what underlies it. Consequently, our unexamined fear lies stagnant, in wait, until it is triggered. And when triggered, we react. Our reaction might be subtle, maybe avoidance or covert disdain. Other times, our reactions are aggressive or violent. Either way, this is a problem. When (imagined) perceptions lead to real interactions fueled by fear, the likely outcome will almost always be harmful.

black fear
The above example involves an interpersonal interaction between individuals, but this way of relating is not limited to person-to-person. This pattern is expanded and exacerbated when, through common experience, entire groups learn to fear a specific stimuli. In this way fear is built into systems, institutions, cultures, and entire societies. When fear is consumed by masses, the responses to the fear become even more engrained and normalized, and ultimately more problematic and harmful.

Living a life ruled by fear has perilous consequences. Some people miss opportunities of a lifetime because they’re afraid. We’ve seen interactions based in unconscious fear turn deadly. What would happen if you took the time to examine the origins of your fears? Ask yourself the questions listed earlier and see what you learn. Moreover, see what you can unlearn. Some fears don’t really belong to you. Release them. Allow for space to find things that aren’t yours and let them go. With this letting go will come a perspective change. Perceptions will likely better match reality and bring about more authentic interactions. Letting go of fear will also reduce stress and produce more contentment. On the other side of fear there is courage. Along with courage comes freedom. There, you might also find more empathy and understanding. We can all move in limitless freedom and courage, if we allow ourselves and each other. Don’t let fear keep you from the places you need to go or things you’re destined to do. Utilize fear when it is necessary–when there is an actual threat to your life. Otherwise, just live.

Images taken from dailyhit and tumblr

Choose your words wisely: language, labels, and stereotypes

label

Remember the old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?” It usually came somewhere towards the end of a speech your mom gave you, after the 4th grade bully called you a name or made some superficial unsolicited observation of you, with intentions of being insulting. It helped mitigate the bruise to your self-esteem that the bully’s words caused and for a moment you believed it and got over it. I’d guess that at some point in time, this idea that others’ perceptions and descriptions of us are meaningless and not hurtful has been used to encourage and maintain positive self-esteem and self-concepts and internal appraisals of ourselves. It’s a good strategy–telling yourself that other peoples words don’t hurt, but is it true? Does it really work?

I think this strategy can be useful and does help to bolster self-esteem and remind us of attributes we want and should accept about ourselves. However, it’s a lot more difficult than we might think. Words, in fact, can be very harmful and can have deep impacts on individual development, relationships, and behavior. In our daily communications, the exchange of words happens so quickly and automatically. Once we’ve acquired and mastered the use of language, words come naturally, oftentimes without thinking. We think less about the specific words we’ll use to express something, and more about the general idea we’re trying to express. But I think it’s worth it to take more time in choosing words. There are meanings attached to words, just as there are words and meanings attached to certain identities. Furthermore, there are thoughts, feelings, and attitudes associated with these words, meanings, and identities. Oftentimes the language we use can lead to stereotyping and/or stigmatization due to the meanings associated with words, and the identities they’re attached to. The implicit association test shows how automatic thoughts and unconscious biases manifest out of our awareness.

Unfortunately, societal stereotypes exist, and our language is just one way we reinforce these problematic prejudices. For example, in the workplace a man and a woman might be displaying the exact same work behavior, but it is more likely that the woman would be described as “bossy” or “abrasive” while the man might be described as “confident” or a “natural leader.” Stereotypically, women are supposed to be more submissive, sweet, and frankly, “less than” men in the workplace, which explains why these labels would be used when they step outside of that role. There are several studies documenting this phenomenon, which clearly shows how stereotypes influence labeling. One might assume that this behavior, in this particular example would be perpetuated by men, that men might be engaging in the labeling and profiling of women in the workplace. Actually, this type of stereotyping happens across genders, just as racial stereotyping and profiling happens across ethnic identities. This is usually not something that is done intentionally or maliciously. Most of the time it is a subtle unconscious process. Stereotypes and prejudices are so engrained in our psyche’s that we’re often not aware when we are perpetuating them, even if/when we belong to the group being stereotyped. We unconsciously choose the language that corresponds with internalized perceptions or attitudes we have towards certain individuals and groups because that’s what we’ve learned to do.

There are serious consequences to this mechanical speech. Labels are internalized by both the ones labeling and the ones labeled. According to psychologists people live up or down to the expectations of stereotypes affecting their group. This happens across settings and situations: in academic settings, in the workplace, and in the general social environment. The mental health field is full of stigmatizing labels and words. Diagnoses are called “disorders,” and people who might be suffering or simply dealing with a life change become “mentally ill.” The stigma of being associated with mental illness sometimes deters people from seeking help they might need. It also polarizes the vast spectrum of psychological experiences into just two categories: healthy or ill. A hierarchical separation is made between those diagnosing and those diagnosed, between the labelers and the labeled. Stereotype threat is a concrete example of when this happens. Stereotype threat occurs when an individual belonging to a particular stereotyped group, actually performs or behaves in line with the stereotype, like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Stereotype threat and other types of self-fulfilling prophecies can significantly impact academic performance, and can limit the development of identities and aspirations.

One way to combat boxing people in with labels and stereotypes is to be more aware of your language. Awareness of the language you use as well as the language that automatically comes to mind when thinking of certain individuals or groups. Some of our thoughts and attitudes aren’t even our own. Think about where your attitudes and beliefs come from? Does an automatic thought about a particular ethnic group actually come from you or did you learn it from the media? What are your negative perceptions of different groups based on, and where did they come from? Your family? Fear? Ignorance? Religion? There are lots of reasons we make assumptions and rely on automatic thinking, as opposed to making more accurate assessments based on reality. Slowing down and taking time to actually get to know a person instead of assuming you know them based on previously internalized “information” is a good start to reducing your own participation in negative labeling and stereotyping. Another way to reduce labeling and stereotyping is by letting people identify themselves before you take it upon yourself to guess, “figure it out,” or put a label on it. Of course there are social, structural and institutional changes that need to be made to really fight these issues, but as individuals we can all take steps to helping ourselves and each other be seen as our authentic selves, without limitations.

Image taken from: http://forensicpsych.umwblogs.org/files/2010/11/label.jpg

What to do with all of this ANGER

People are angry. And rightfully so. There is much to be angry about. Let’s start with a short list of recent things: the murder of Mike Brown, the funding and backing of genocide of innocent people, the murder of Eric Garner, the withholding of water from residents in Detroit, gentrification in Oakland, Ca and Brooklyn, NY, the murder of Ezell Ford, the sentencing of Marissa Alexander, the murders of John Crawford, Zoraida Reyes, and Tiffany Edwards, just to name a few.

Oh, and let’s not forget about slavery, the stealing of indigenous land, street harassment, systemic racism, glass ceilings, community violence, Oscar Grant, the policing of bodies, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, patriarchy, white supremacy, cultural appropriation, gender inequity, sexism, ableism, impingement on freedoms, stealing of rights, the prison industrial complex, the school to prison pipeline, colonization, gas prices, lack of healthcare, bad drivers, ignorance, and a host of other things. Again, a short list. These are just some of the things I notice as I scroll down my facebook timeline that people are angry about. We have a lot to be angry about and this anger is valid and real.

Anger is a complex emotion. It is layered and powerful. It has associations with many other difficult emotions including guilt, shame, hurt, sadness, disappointment, envy, and resentment. Have you ever been so outraged that you didn’t know what to do? Or so disgusted that you knew you had to do something? What did you do? What do you do? Anger is not one of those emotions that bides well. If it sits, it festers. It grows into a big ball of hate, despair, hopelessness, and resentment. There are some emotions that we can simply feel, like happiness. You can feel happy and not need to do anything else, but simply enjoy that feeling. Or sadness; It is not always necessary to do something with our sadness. At times it is, but there are times when it’s fine to lay in the bed, play some sad tunes, and wallow in the “woe is me.” But anger is different; it requires action ( most of the time). To simply feel anger without subsequent action can be harmful. Anger can manifest in our bodies as illness or disease. It manifests in our relationships as spite and mistreatment and it manifests in our environments through violence, division, and apathy. We need to do something with our anger. To avoid being harmed and harming our loved ones and the world around us, we should take control of this emotion. This could be a crucial step in breaking the cycle of continuous trauma, rage, and hurt.

Here are a 4 things to do with your anger:

1. Understand it
Understanding where our anger comes from is an important step in channeling it. Right now, it seems obvious where it comes from: all of the injustice in the world. Michael Brown, another innocent life was just taken with no regard. This is true, but there is more. There are generations of rage coursing through veins and deep, deep festering wounds that many of us walk around with everyday. Expressions of anger are often discouraged or not tolerated, especially Black expressions of anger, so we keep it in. We’ve kept it and it’s events like these that jarringly remind us that we’re still mad. It can be a painful process, but thinking about and reflecting on all the things that we’re hurt by, disappointment by, and saddened by can help in knowing why we’re angry and where we want to put that anger.

2. Express it
Scream about, write about it, talk about it, use your voice. Your feelings are real and valid, as is your voice. Let your voice be heard and your feelings be known. Don’t let it consume your thoughts or your body. Express your anger so that it can be moved through and used. Again, anger rarely serves a purpose in sitting, but it can start movements and revolutions if it is acted on.

3. Move through it
Don’t stay angry or let anger stay in you. Figure out how you can move through this emotion. You may need to forgive the one who upset you, or express the anger about what is upsetting. Perhaps some self care might help move through it. Just be sure to release it and not let it consume you. Remaining in an angry disposition for too long is harmful and unhealthy.

4. Most importantly, USE IT
There is power in anger. There is a physiological response that causes your body to react and move when you’re infuriated. You might tremble, or yell, or punch something. Use this power in you to create change. Do something. Organize or donate to those who are organizing. Organizations like Million Hoodies, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, and World Trust are doing the work. There are hundreds of other organizations that are just a google search away. Join them. Continue to speak out and share stories. Continue to record police officers and other injustices on cell phones. Let this anger inspire you to want something different and better. Don’t be silenced or defeated. March, protest, and resist. Share your personal stories. Continue to start conversations and dialogue. Unite and work together in anger. Let anger fuel productivity and change. We should be doing something with our anger. We can use this power to demand safety and justice.

What are you angry about and what will you do about it?

Video from Youtube.

Othering

In the last few weeks I’ve found myself avoiding social media (facebook, instagram, etc.) due to the content of the “news” being reported. All of the violence, conflict, and ignorance has just been too much. Countless stories of black boys and men being terrorized and/or killed by police officers, the genocide or war (however you’d like to call it) between Israeli’s and Palestinians, the U.S. airstrikes on Iraq, and the overall spreading of fear and lack of care or compassion for ourselves and each other. It’s hard to not get caught up in the scary world and become afraid. It’s hard to not take a side or place blame on someone, some group, some country, or some entire race of people. Lots of us have become very good at placing others in categories, neat little boxes, based on skin color, gender presentation, religious affiliation, age, body type, or whatever else we first notice and automatically associate with this persons appearance. We’ve learned to do this through history and the media does a great job of encouraging and reinforcing the use of these stereotypes and “otherness.” A simple definition of othering is “the process of perceiving or portraying someone or something as fundamentally different or alien.”

For some reason we worry about needing more (food, resources, money, power etc.) or having better, in order to live and thrive, as if there isn’t enough stuff to go around. Initially othering was probably mostly about self-preservation, distinguishing between ones self and allies between enemies, so that you and your allies could survive. But over time, self-preservation has transformed into something completely different. Survival has become easy for some, as we’ve added hoarding, stealing from, and dehumanizing others into the process. And as a result, there is oppression, suffering, and disregard of humanity. Othering takes away our ability to see a person as whole, as a valuable life with memories, emotions, ideas, potential, family, and an individual experience. It makes us automatically put some people in groups that we’ve designated as invisible, inferior, or not worthy. Othering is so engrained in our psyche’s that we’re often not aware when or if we’re doing it. It’s automatic and pervasive, which is a huge problem.

othering
Not only is othering automatic and pervasive, it’s also layered and strategic. There are some groups who have been strategically othered and made into “out groups” so that the “in group” can stay in–so that there are haves and have nots. But why cant everybody have? I think there is enough good stuff on the planet to go around, if some folks stopped hoarding, stealing, and keeping things (goods, land, food, wealth, education, etc.) only for themselves. The creation of in groups and out groups has detrimental effects on us all. Those who are othered, or out-grouped, often have less rights, are shamed, shunned, avoided, feared, misunderstood, and so on and so on. And on the other side is the in-group who does the shaming, shunning, avoiding, and get to be “normal,” accepted, and right. This othering happens in so many different contexts. Different body types are often othered. Who decided that slim or slender bodies were the norm and that larger or differently abled bodies were less acceptable or less beautiful? There is a protype and if you don’t fit it, you’re either not good enough, you’re not fully human, or you’re just not right. You’re wrong. By simply existing, and being yourself, you’re wrong. You likely get messages that you’re wrong from everywhere. A relative might feign innocence and ask you about going on a diet. Later, you might go see a movie where there is no one over 200 pounds cast in a lead role, there is no one who looks like you being portrayed positively on screen. Then as you’re driving home, you’ll be sure to hear a commercial on the radio for herbalife or nutrisystem, and pass by a weight watchers billboard. Of course this is just one example of body size, but this happens with all groups who are othered. Whether, you’re fat, Mexican, gay, homeless, dark-skinned, an immigrant, transgender, or have any other non “mainstream” part of your identity, you’ve likely experienced this.

Mainstream is usually seen as White, often male (but you can be included in the mainstream as a female if you’re white), cisgendered, heterosexual, wealthy or middle class, able bodied, skinny or “fit,” and attractive by society’s standards. Chances are, if you fit into the mainstream, your identity has never or rarely got you arrested, harrassed, shamed, excluded, or less access to resources. Usually those of us who don’t completely fit in the mainstream have felt or experienced at least one of these things in our lifetime. And what does that do the person or the group who is othered? In short, it leads to divisions within the group (ex. light skin vs. dark skin between black Americans), it leads to mental health problems, limits creativity and potential, lowers self-esteem, creates self-hate, and internalized racism, sexism, and so on and so on. It can be devastating to individuals and entire groups. Those who are not mainstream are not depicted in the media, and when they are, it is often negatively or stereotypically, therefore those who are othered are never really known. They’re never really seen or understood, as the vastness and complexity of their experiences are not shared or told. There are only small snippets of the others that are portrayed, which are often inaccurate and exaggerated, leading to continued negative views and treatment of those individuals and groups.

And what about those doing the othering? We can’t forget that this affects them too. Living a life with the privilege of othering, usually makes one unaware of and oblivious to those being othered. It decreases the ability to care, understand, or even want to understand anything other than what is right/mainstream. This is often unconscious and unintentional, as we’ve been othering since the beginning of time, for some of us it’s as natural as breathing or eating. It’s just something we do. But this thing that has become so woven into the fabric of our beings is actually not necessary like breathing or eating. We don’t need to other to survive. Othering is harmful and painful. It creates division, and engenders violence and suffering and I’m sure we can all agree that we could do without all of the violence and suffering. I like to believe that most people are inherently good and want to be happy and want happiness for others. We all feel a range of emotions as humans including empathy and sympathy, to some capacity, but othering has taken away some of our ability to remember this. I think we all need to remember. This week I’m challenging myself to make a very conscious effort to notice my assumptions and automatic thoughts and check them. Am I stereotyping that person? Am I judging someones experience because I don’t understand it? Am I thinking or wishing a person was different because they don’t fit into the box I want them to be in? Am I forcing them in the box anyway? These are some questions I ask and wish we would all ask before we judge, act, or react to someone we encounter.

Most people just want to be themselves and be happy. No one wants to have to feel bad or defensive or on guard for being who they are. We shouldn’t have to be apologize for being ourselves. Individual expression should be encouraged, supported, and celebrated. All identities should be encouraged, supported and celebrated. We have a long way to go before this is true, but we can all make strides to move in this direction.

1. Check your privilege
Most of us have privilege in some areas, some more than others. Checking your privilege starts with a non-defensive stance. Some people with privilege don’t realize they have privilege and will defensively deny that they may treat people differently, reinforce social inequity, or do harm. Accept that privilege does in fact exist and that you are likely benefiting from unearned advantages that others might not have based on your race, class, education, sexual orientation, gender, etc. Think about the areas in which you hold privilege and try to imagine what it might be like for a person who doesn’t hold privilege in that same part of identity. If you’re a man, imagine what it might be like to be a woman who has to deal with constant cat-calls and men trying to “holler” at them. Or better yet, imagine if the roles were reversed and you had to deal with women or men ( who are bigger than you, aggressive, and intrusive) commenting on your body and cat calling every day. If you’re White, imagine what it is like to be a Black person being followed in a store, or a Persian person stopped in the airport. Figuring out where you hold privilege requires identifying yourself. Once you identify yourself, check yourself. See how you can limit othering and simply encourage and acknowledge others, particularly those less acknowledged so those experiences and lives can be known and understood. Knowing and understanding more about others increases compassion and empathy. More compassion and empathy, less violence and suffering.

2. Check your biases
Similarly to privilege, we all have biases that influence our thoughts, attitudes, and behavior. Biases can quickly come into awareness and our responses to them come just as quickly. If we don’t slow down and think about what and why we’re doing something, we’ll continue to unknowingly reinforce harmful behaviors and interactions. Why did you hire this person instead of that person? Was there bias involved? Do you have assumptions about this race of people, which might be influencing you to send that child to the principles office more than other children, while both children are exhibiting the same behavior? Ask yourself questions and answer them honestly. Don’t judge yourself when you realize you might be acting unfairly to certain people or groups. We all have biases and can be prejudice, but checking is a good step in reducing them.

3. Listen and learn
Listening to and learning from those who you are different from is a big step in reducing othering and its detrimental effects. As humans, we’re all a bit narcissistic and thing we know what we know. And we do know what we know, but we don’t know what others know. Nobody can explain or portray a certain experience better than the person who has experienced it. If you’re ignorant about a certain experience or group, listen to them about what their experience is. Seeing a movie with a Black character or interacting with one homeless person, doesn’t automatically make you informed or have authority over that experience. Let individuals create their own narratives. You’ll never learn or truly understand someone else without.

4. Be open and kind
This is self explanatory and should (wishful thinking?) be the default way to be. But perhaps, we all need reminders sometime. Openness and kindness go a long way. If we could keep these two things in mind, I’m sure we’d all be less irritable and angry and more happy and content. With happiness and contentment come peace and love and that should be enough, right?

Photo from: Business 2 Community

No escape: The pervasiveness of trauma and the ease of retraumatization

Over the past 4 years in my psychotherapy practice in a community mental health center, I’ve worked with lots of trauma cases–children and families with histories of neglect, abuse, abandonment, exposure to violence, and a host of other horrific things. When I left the agency 3 weeks ago in hopes of pursuing other interests and diversifying my experiences, I was enthusiastically sent off towards an anticipated less stressful, trauma-free life outside of community mental health. Though I was extremely sad and somewhat regretful about leaving the children and families I’d become so attached to and invested in, I did look forward to new freedom and less stress.

What I didn’t expect was for my exposure to traumatic experience to drastically increase or to almost immediately experience a direct trauma myself. I was quickly reminded that trauma is not exclusive to community mental health or is it a rare or unique occurrence that happens to certain people (though certain demographics are at risk to more exposure to certain types of trauma due to forces such as oppression, history, cultural dynamics. ex. Blacks have higher risk of witnessing domestic violence). Traumatic events are always happening and their presence is sort omnipresent. We’re constantly being exposed to traumatizing things through media and by simply living in this world, whether it’s turning on the T.V. to watch a natural disaster occurring or a war in action, or turning on the computer to see a post of a violent fight or police brutality in your community. In the same way the media and the world gives us pervasive messages that reinforce sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, sizeism, etc., it also encourages and repeatedly displays trauma.

Due to the prevalence of exposure to traumatic events, these things have become routine and “normal.” And subsequently, many of us are or have been traumatized and don’t even know. Not all exposure to traumatic events result in a trauma response or diagnosis, but it is difficult to not have some emotional response to something traumatic. There are people moving through the world feeling fearful, distrustful, anxious, hypervigilant, angry, or depressed without knowing why. Others have found a way to cope with these painful things using highly developed defenses like denial, projection, acting out, and dissociation, among others. Both of these responses (reacting and defending) are logical and necessary ways of adapting to living in such an unpredictable and oftentimes cruel and scary world. These are ways we’ve learned to protect ourselves from experiencing emotions associated with being traumatized which can be intrusive and make us feel weak and powerless. However, in the long run these responses are harmful to our personal growth and healing, and to our relationships with the people and world around us.

Trauma is complex and experiences of trauma can vary significantly. Some people may experience one traumatic event in their lifetime like a bad car accident or natural disaster, while others may experience multiple traumas over time like consistent emotional or physical abuse or witnessing frequent community violence.

What is trauma?
Trauma is an emotional response to life threatening event like a rape, abuse, natural disaster, or accident. It can be experienced directly, or by witnessing, or being told about the event. Events like street harassment, neglect, emotional abuse, witnessing domestic violence, sudden death of a loved one, medical complications, bullying, or a humiliating or extremely disempowering experience can also be traumatic.

Types of Trauma:

Acute Trauma: Acute trauma occurs when a person experiences distressing emotional reactions within one month of a traumatic event. The emotional response can include dissociative symptoms (numbing, detachment), re-experiencing the event through dreams, flashbacks, and intrusive thoughts, avoidance of stimuli that remind one of the event, and increased anxiety/arousal.

Complex/comprehensive Trauma: Multiple and/or repeated exposures to trauma over a period of time, like persistent physical and/or sexual abuse and witnessing domestic violence and community violence would be characterized as complex or chronic trauma. Complex trauma can seriously impact a person’s development, especially a child. Early childhood trauma often significantly affects brain development, ability to regulate emotions, ability to form healthy attachments/relationships, impulse control, self-esteem, learning, and the ability to feel safe in the world. The effects of childhood trauma can be incredibly challenging for both the child and the caregivers of the child. Traumatized children often have learned to survive their traumas by using behaviors that can be difficult for others to understand or tolerate. When children are acting out or displaying troubling behavior, it is important to understand what underlies this behavior, as there might be some trauma or other emotional turmoil affecting them.

Generational Trauma: Some of us may not have experienced a direct trauma in our lifetime, but could be holding on to the wounds of trauma’s experienced by our ancestors or older relatives. Often times traumatic experiences are too overwhelming to process and work through, and the learned behavior and emotions associated with these traumatic events end up being passed down through. For example, as a result of longstanding systemic racism starting from slavery, some Black Americans have developed what is called Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, a term coined by Dr. Joy DeGruy. This is multigenerational trauma that continues to be transmitted through families and communities who have not yet healed from the trauma of violent and complex oppression.

Community or Societal Trauma:As mentioned above, trauma can be experienced not only individually, but collectively through some type of shared experience. On September 11, 2001, the United States was repeatedly shown the collapse of the World Trade Center, which was a terrifying experience. One did not have to be in NYC that day to be traumatized by the event. This is an example of how an entire nation can be acutely traumatized. Similarly, communities that are plagued with violence and poverty can also be traumatized. The collective experience of trauma by a shared group often establishes patterns and ways of being that sometimes become part of that groups “culture.”

Diagnoses that capture Trauma:

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder-Develops after experiencing, witnessing, or hearing about a harmful event. Symptoms last for at least one month and include re-experiencing the trauma through intrusive thoughts, dreams, and flashbacks, avoiding stimuli that triggers memories of the experiencing, and increased anxiety/arousal.

Acute Stress Disorder-Symptoms are the same as PTSD, but duration of emotional distress is less than one month.

Other diagnoses-Experiencing trauma can also lead to depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, attachments disorders, personality disorders, developmental disorders, and adjustment disorders.

Recovering from Trauma

Recovering from trauma can be a long, arduous process. If not dealt with, trauma can have devastating effects on healthy development and living; functioning in relationships, coping with emotions, and the ability to deal with day-to-day tasks will be compromised. To begin healing from trauma and move towards mental health and contentment, a therapeutic practice is recommended. Seeking a therapist can be helpful, but if therapy does not feel right for you, there are many other practices that can help work through trauma.

On the path to mental health and wellness. A list of 10 practices to try when therapy isn’t for you

As a therapist, I’m an advocate for talk therapy. Whether it’s family therapy, insight-oriented individual therapy, mindfulness-based group therapy, or any other of the many different treatment approaches, I recognize the usefulness and effectiveness of therapy as an agent for self-care, growth, and change. I’ve gone to therapy and made strides in my personal development and ability to be reflective about myself and my connections to the world. Furthermore, as a clinician I’ve been privileged to witness people work through traumas, change maladaptive behaviors into adaptive ones, and become (subjectively) happier and better people.

However, I realize that this is not everyone’s experience. I know some can experience therapy/therapists as difficult, intrusive, and even harmful. With roots in ancient Greece, and later in 20th Century Vienna with Freud, psychotherapy is historically a European practice. Presently the field has expanded its reach and though not fully, is more accessible and relevant to the masses. Most now see psychology and psychotherapy as tools to develop better understandings of ourselves, receive and provide help, and find strength and healing. Though these are the basic intentions of the field, it is also important to acknowledge that historically (and currently) it has also served to stigmatize, marginalize, and pathologize many groups of people. Whether intentional or not, the practice has historically harmed and limited the realization of true mental health for some. For example, women were once exclusively labeled as “hysterical,” queers were diagnosed with identity disorders, the poor and working class were excluded for lack of funds, and non-white people were misunderstood or not considered. These are just a few examples and are obviously large, general statements. But considering the historical context, it makes sense that we still feel and see the wounds that have been transmitted through generations as a result of misguided maltreatment in psychotherapy. For some, these wounds have lead to caution, skepticism, and even fear of the mental health profession. And as a result, therapy does not always feel like a safe or best practice for some.

Fortunately, the field has made great strides in becoming more inclusive, positive, and open. Today there are hundreds of treatment approaches integrating anything from existentialism, body awareness, social justice, spiritual practice, feminism, and the list goes on. As the field expands and diversifies, and clinicians from various cultural backgrounds and with unique interests and talents are practicing, the necessary understanding and connection between client and therapist is made easier, through reflections of sameness and shared experiences. As I said earlier, I’m an advocate for therapy and think it is a great tool. But I also know, that even with the advances in the field, it can still be triggering and hard to find a therapist who gets it, and gets you. So here is a list of alternatives (in no particular order) as you journey towards health and wellness, if therapy isn’t for you.

1. Spiritual/religious practice
There are many benefits to engaging in a spiritual or religious practice. It connects you to the world and greater power, it can add or clarify meaning in your life, and can relieve stress. Spirituality can be found in religious observance, nature, meditative practice, or whatever enhances the meaning and connections you feel in your life.

2. Exercise
We’re often encouraged to work out to lose weight or to help prevent and treat physical health issues. Along with weight loss and health benefits, which can be important desired outcomes, exercise can also impact psychological health, including lift your mood and self-esteem. Focusing on physical outcomes of exercise can overshadow its influence on mental health, but research shows a strong link between exercise and mood. Do something you enjoy and pay attention to your mental state as you do it and after. The neurotransmitters running through your body will make you feel good and just doing something you enjoy will add to that feeling. So if you’re dancing, hiking through nature, playing pick-up basketball, do what you like to do to get the endorphins flowing.

3. Community/connections
Positive relationships and connections with others is largely documented as a strong protective factor against the risk of mental illness. Connections and relationships can be with family members, friends, collective spaces of like-minded or similar intentioned people, community spaces/organizations, teams, etc. Any relationship that feels safe, supportive, and understanding can be helpful. Relationships are vital to the human experience and existence, so call your mom, take a walk with a friend, or join a group/space that fits with you to promote wellness.

4. Food/nutrition
I’m sure we’ve all heard the cliché saying, “you are what you eat.” What we put into our bodies can affect our present moods and our physical and mental health over time. In America there are an abundance of processed foods, with high levels of saturated fats, sugars, and preservatives. Research shows that the consumption of large amounts of these types of foods can directly and indirectly contribute to the development of many different psychological stressors (ADHD/hyperactivity, depression, dementia, low self-esteem). In short our bodies and minds are healthier when receiving the nutrients from foods that are more natural for humans. http://www.sciencebrainwaves.com/blogs/biology/food-for-the-brain-how-diet-affects-mental-health/

5. Personal reflective space
Space is important. Finding a quiet space and time to reflect on your thoughts and feelings can be an essential step in moving towards healing and wellness. It may help if reflecting is one of your first steps, as being able to look at yourself and identify and acknowledge your needs and desires, will give you direction on your path. Taking time to identify and acknowledge your values, beliefs, ideals, expectations, dreams, ways of relating, among other things can bring a sense of grounding and self knowledge that can make it easier to move comfortably through the world. Whether you find your quiet space during a meditation retreat, writing in a journal, or while listening to music on your morning commute, this space is crucial. Spend time learning yourself without influence or validation from anyone or anything else.

6. Traditional healing practices
Western medicine often excludes traditional healing practices, which sometimes offers healing through less intrusive and more organic, natural processes. Some ancient practices include aromatherapy, acupuncture, the consumption of plants and herbs, and shamans and other magical and spiritual healers. Some of these practices are still used and can be effective in treating physical and mental health issues.

7. Helping others/Altruism
“Altruism in all its forms—kindness, generosity, compassion, volunteering, and donating money—has the potential to reward the giver as much or more than the recipient.” Acts of kindness foster compassion, boosts our image of ourselves, and can provide something meaningful for others. Be careful and thoughtful about how you choose to give to others, as to not perform altruistic acts that primarily benefit you, which is a trap we can easily fall into. The happiness and esteem we feel when helping others is good, however it is important to be intentional and reflective about the meaning and the impact your acts might have. http://www.pbs.org/thisemotionallife/topic/altruism/altruism-happiness

8. Learning
When we learn new skills and information it shows that we care and value ourselves and can improve cognitive capacities. Taking up a new hobby or investing time in learning new information gives us a sense of mastery, usefulness and also releases the same endorphins that make us feel good when exercising. Try reading more, taking a course on something you’ve been interested in, or visiting a museum or area you want to know more about.

9. Arts
Artistic expression can be a way of making connections with ourselves and with others. The act of creating, the finished creation, and the witnessing of the creation can all have transformative and healing effects. Through art, we can teach and inspire through the use of our bodies, thoughts, voices, and other tools. Art is a medium of self-expression and expressing ourselves is an agent of healing.

10. Asking for help
Asking for help is one way we assert our needs, though it seems to be quite difficult for some of us. Since asking for help can communicate vulnerability and dependence on another, we sometimes postpone or fail to have a need fulfilled for the sake of appearing self-sufficient and contained. In reality, we all need help sometimes and asking for it also communicates strength, assertiveness, and self-care. Allowing another person access to your vulnerability or insecurity is a step in the direction of healing and care.

Resilience, growth, and mental health

Psychology for the people is a space for thinking about how our individual thoughts and feelings, along with our relationships and interactions are shaped by our society. This involves exploring how our individual and collective conscious and unconscious minds have been impacted by our environments, history, culture, families, perceptions, etc. Through a reflective process of my own personal development, my work as a psychologist, and my participation and observation of the communities I belong to, I hope to start dialogues and conversations about some common issues being faced and ways to begin working through them. The posts will focus on communities of color, with an emphasis on African-Americans and children, as these are the areas of which I am informed and passionate about. Through acknowledgement and increased awareness of our struggles and the fostering of resilience and psychological healing, we can change, grow, and experience true mental health.