What’s Being Exposed is What Will Help Us Grow: Racial Bias and Trauma.

The world feels like a hard place to be in right now.

I’ll go ahead and say it.  The world feels like a hard place to be in right now.    We’re all tired of this pandemic, of racial injustice, of anger, of people just not hearing each other or themselves. Tired of being tired.

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”  That sounds great.  It is definitely something to strive for. But sometimes, we need to step back and acknowledge the lemons. So said Donna Oriowo, educator, therapist and author, at a recent webinar I listened to.

The lemons haven’t been the same for everyone. The death of George Floyd ignited international outrage.  It laid bare the kind of treatment that People of Color have told me they have often been aware of as a possibility, or a reality, but it has rarely entered the consciousness of most White people in this country.  It was one brutal incident that was filmed, among many others that weren’t.

Even if you haven’t been physically brutalized, maybe you have still experienced trauma, humiliation, or stereotyping on the basis of your skin color or ethnicity.  The events of this past month may have triggered past traumas that are the result of racism on systemic and interpersonal levels.  That is your story, your experience, and I don’t want to tell it or interpret it for you.  Nor do I want to assume that that is even the same story for everyone.

But I am here to listen your experience, whatever it may be.

What ARE your lemons?  That’s what we take time to look at in therapy.

The lemons are the bumps. The hurts, the stressors.  The roadblocks that get in the way of us being fully present in our lives. They could be experiences you’ve had with being sized up and treated a certain way, and as a result, you felt ashamed, powerless, or humiliated. 

It usually doesn’t help when someone asks you, “Are you sure that’s what happened?  Maybe it wasn’t (racism, sexism, harassment, ageism – insert your own perspective here).”  This likely well-meaning person is coming from the premise that it’s your own distorted perceptions that are keeping you stuck, and if you only changed this perspective, you would feel and do better.  

But when we are hurting, that’s usually not helpful.  It makes us feel more alone. Unheard. How do we trust someone if they can’t even hear us out? So we push that lemon down deep into ourselves, and keep on with our lives.  No judgment there – we do what we do to get through our days. But over time, with all those buried lemons, it’s kind of hard to make lemonade, isn’t it?

When I think back to the times when I was really hurting about something, and someone tried to be helpful, you know what meant the most to me?  When someone really listened.  Listened, without judgement, without trying to change my perception or my feelings.  That felt like compassion. 

And that meant the world to me.  It made me feel less alone. 

I think a lot of us need more of that, nowadays. People who can just acknowledge the lemons without trying so hard to make us “get over” them.

If you’ve been on the receiving end of racism, you have probably felt this for years, at different levels of intensity, but to survive, you may have had to suppress the parts of yourself that hurt or were angry because of this.  (And maybe you still do, at times.) Maybe those are your lemons.

If you have high-risk people in the home and are feeling anxious because you have committed to social distancing and/or isolation, while others around you have not, those might be your lemons right now.

So what do we do?

First of all, acknowledge the lemons.  The frustration, the pain. Accept that they are there, with compassion for yourself.

Some great authors to help you get started with that:  Tara BrachBrene Brown.   Resmaa Menakem.

Give yourself time for this.

Then, get help. I know I am not the only therapist out there.  There are options that are more affordable, and therapists whose way of working and being may be your preference right now.  But if you want to work on your stress and trauma in a structured but centered-on-you-in-the-moment way to get relief, that’s what I do.

I’m not here to decide what is “real” or not.  That’s not how trauma therapy or life stress reduction work. 

In fact, if you have done therapy before, you are probably used to a therapist giving you their opinion or interpretation of what’s happening in your life, and what to do about it.  That has its place, and if that’s the approach you prefer, go for it! 

It’s just not what I do, generally.  We will work to determine your lemons, YOU will decide with me, what they are and which ones you want to work on, and we will go from there.  It’s a process, and we will work on it together. 

It starts with acceptance of ourselves.  We don’t have to like every part of ourselves; just accept that these parts are there, lemons, lemonade, and all.   That’s where compassion starts.

Take care of yourself this month. You are worth it.

 

 

 

 

“When someone really listened… without judgement, without trying to change my perception or my feelings.  That felt like compassion.  “

 

Discussing your Religious Beliefs in Therapy

 

Happy April!  It’s the second day of the month, and the first signs of Spring are poking through here in Northern Virginia.  It’s looking greener, and the Cherry Blossoms are at peak bloom this week at the nearby Tidal Basin, Washington, DC

It’s also the month of Easter, Passover, and many religiously-based holidays around the world.  How does this influence your life, if at all? And if it does not, what is on your mind as Spring opens?

I’m not about to endorse or dismiss religious beliefs here.  I just want to open up a topic for discussion to those who wish to discuss it.

For those of you raised in faith traditions other than Judeo-Christian, I apologize in advance if I am not acknowledging you.  I am drawing on the faith traditions with which I am the most familiar, but please feel free to add a perspective based on your own belief system or background in the “Comments” section.

The holidays of Spring tend to focus around the themes of rebirth and new beginnings. This of course relates to the way nature is coming to life again after lying dormant all Winter.   Also, the Spring holidays are not as commercialized as some of the Winter holidays have become, but they still come with their own distinct rituals and celebrations.  They often come with expectations, too, from faith communities, family, and friends.  This is usually the time of year that folks seem to want to discuss religion with me more.  So I am opening up this topic for you here.

 I grew up in a predominantly Christian neighborhood outside Chicago.  Most of my classmates were Catholic or mainline Protestant, particularly Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Episcopal.  

“I have CCD today”, they would groan. (Usually, this was their reaction.)

“I gave up chocolate/video games/gummy bears for Lent”, was another refrain.

So for me, this time of year brings up these memories, along with coloring eggs and chocolate bunnies, come Easter.   Once we had a Passover dinner at the home of a parent’s friend.  I remember reading from a prayer book, matzoh crackers, and gefilte fish at that Seder.

Yet, I have known and worked with people whose memories of holidays and their personal issues as related to their faith beliefs or upbringing were more emotionally charged.  The man I know who, at age ten, went to confession and was told by the priest that he was “a very disturbed child”.  (He hadn’t confessed thoughts or deeds of harming anyone, just that he was curious about how the Universe worked from a scientific perspective.)  The boy recalled that in later years, the priest became increasingly negative during services to the point that his entire family changed to another church.  This boy later became a scientist, and he never returned to any form of organized religion, though he remained personally spiritual. He credited his openness to spirituality to his mother, who told him the priest was a human who did not know everything, and to a more open priest that he knew later in life.  On the other hand, there are the positives:  The girl whose warmest memories were of going to church with her grandmother, who she loved, and playing with the other children afterward, every Sunday. The young teenager whose Rabbi was able to hear his agnosticism and, because of this, felt heard and decided to continue learning about Judaism.  It is often the people we are attached to who influence our beliefs, for better or for worse.

Religious holidays in particular can trigger issues we have around our closest relationships, especially with regard to the people who raised us, be they parents, aunts and uncles, or other guardians.  Or maybe issues come up based on experiences we had with faith leaders in our community, like the little scientist I described. If you were raised in a Catholic area, you are aware that it’s now Lent, and soon it will be Easter.  What memories does that trigger, be they positive or negative?

How much do you identify with the faith you were raised with?  I want to emphasize that there is NO judgment in this question, just curiosity.  And if you went a different route than how you were raised, how did that affect your relationship with your family?  Did this cause a rift, was your path accepted, or was it a more winding road with a little bit of both?

Are you from a faith tradition (or lack thereof) that is not commonly understood, validated, or acknowledged by our larger society?   What comes to mind for me are people who grew up in a home that was atheist, agnostic, or perhaps Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan, or Evangelical Christian?  Or were you a religious minority in your hometown, aka, Jewish in a neighborhood of mostly Catholic residents? What was that like for you?  Or, maybe your family was of mixed faith backgrounds, like those described in the book, Being Both, by Susan Katz Miller.  How did this affect you and your relationships with family, friends, classmates, growing up, and what about now, if you are an adult?

And taking this a step further…What do you wish you could tell your therapist about this?  Do you want to discuss your religious beliefs in therapy?

Therapists are guided by codes of conduct, so we work with where you are on this.  In other words, we do not (or are not supposed to) dismiss your belief system or issues you might be having. Nor are we to push our beliefs about faith, at least, not intentionally.  We have codes of ethics about this, and therapy is about you, not those of your therapist.  More on that here:  

We may not be as informed about your faith tradition as you might like. Sometimes, this allows for more objectivity, but it may also mean we might miss how important a faith-related issue is to you.  If you feel that way in therapy, it’s a good idea to let your therapist know this.

Also it’s important to throw in that, for most therapists, the focus of the therapy is not to provide specific spiritual guidance, such as a Pastoral or Christian Counselor  might do.  If that is what you are looking for, a faith community, such as a church, bereavement, or religious study group might be a good place to start.

But we can listen to how your beliefs are affecting your emotions, your functioning, or your relationships. Sometimes, that objective “sounding board” on its own can help you understand more about what’s bothering you and how to cope with it.

Which brings me to another question.  Because therapists are varied, and human, they differ in how they might decorate their offices.  Have you ever walked into a therapist’s office and seen an image or sign of a religious nature that triggered a reaction in you?  Maybe the object was something affirming to you, and it made you feel more of a common bond.  Or maybe it had the opposite effect, that it was a big turn-off.  What was it, and why did this particular object affect you?  Again, no judgment, just curiosity.  Did you mention it to your therapist?

Or maybe there was no reaction, and you felt neutral about it.   It is not an issue, or at least not one that is relevant to your therapy.  That is to be respected, too.   But if it is on your mind in any way, what would you want to discuss?  Please feel free to comment on this.

And whatever your belief system is, may you have a great start to Spring!