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.

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.