psychology

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

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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

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.