A Case for Black Self-Compassion

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Photo by Nick Owuor (astro.nic.visuals) on Unsplash

As technology advances nationwide, and we view ourselves through the lens of social media and social comparison, many of us have become overly self-critical. Further, Black people have had a history of being particularly hard on ourselves as we’ve worked to survive in a racist society long before the rise of digital platforms. It may have started generations ago, when the whippings from slave masters continued in the form of whoopings from parents, who were scared that if their children did not obey orders they would receive far worse punishment–even death, at the hands of White people. This fear of what will happen if Black people don’t obey the orders of White people continues today as parents try to prepare their children to survive encounters with police. This anxiety and fear can manifest as harshness instead of as a communication of the deep love that family members have for their children. Many of us have internalized this harshness and turned it on ourselves. Further, Black people in America receive constant messages that we don’t deserve to be treated well or with compassion. The school-to-prison pipeline, the trauma-to-prison pipeline, mass incarceration, the criminalization of addiction, and blaming Black women for the plight of Black families are just some examples of the lack of compassion shown towards Black people in America.

One consequence of surviving terror is learning to be tough all of the time. The hope is that if we are tough and avoid being vulnerable, we will be able to protect ourselves from emotional pain. As we learn to be tough we cut ourselves off from intimacy with other people. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much when a family member was killed if we didn’t express how attached we were to them. And, we cut ourselves off from intimacy with ourselves. Maybe we could better handle abuse and mistreatment if we just suppressed our emotions so we couldn’t feel them. The reality is that the pain of loss still hurts even if we had a strained relationship with someone (and sometimes it’s more difficult to process) and suppressing emotions may help us to avoid feelings temporarily but ultimately emotions come out in ways that can cause problems for us and our relationships. suppressing difficulty emotions also limits are ability to feel and express positive emotions. Not having safe spaces to learn to honor our pain and to be vulnerable has left us without life giving self-compassion.

Whenever I talk to clients about self-compassion the first objection I hear is that if people are kind and compassionate to themselves they will never improve, they will be stagnant. We have confused criticism, internalized stereotypes, and feeling like we are not good enough with healthy striving for growth and development. Being compassionate to yourself does not mean giving yourself a pass or letting yourself off the hook for mistakes. Self-compassion actually helps us to face and take responsibility for the things that we have done wrong. It is much easier to reflect on our problematic behavior and consider how we want to move forward when we have a foundation of self-compassion. Let’s use a metaphor of two teachers; one teacher is very harsh and critical of their students. Constantly calling students out for mistakes and telling them that they’re stupid and will probably never learn. The second teacher encourages students to take their work seriously and also provides comfort when students don’t do as well as they hoped. They acknowledge that what they are asking the students to do is difficult and help students to think about how they can improve their skills and increase their knowledge. Which teacher do you think will be more effective with students? Which teacher is creating a safe learning environment for their students? Which teacher would you prefer to have? I’m guessing you’d rather have the second teacher. It is hard to learn, grow, and love when we are in an overly critical environment; even if that environment is just in our heads.

You might be protesting against this case for Black self-compassion by thinking that Black people don’t have time for compassion. We need to be fighting police brutality, mass incarceration, and infringement on voting rights among other issues facing our communities. You might assert that these issues are more pressing than learning to be compassionate with ourselves and others. I agree that these are all pressing issues and I challenge you to consider what our communities will look like if they are not infused with love and compassion. Racist institutions in the US have systematically attempted to erode love and compassion in Black communities. Thankfully these efforts have not been completely successful but it is time to intentionally rebuild Black love and compassion in our communities. Black self-compassion is radical, it is personal and political. Black self-compassion challenges the stereotypes that we are just hard and tough, that we are not fully human. Black self-compassion pushes back against any racism we may have internalized. Black self-compassion helps to break cycles of violence and trauma. Black self-compassion allows us to honor Black humanity.

The following is my conceptualization of what Black self-compassion looks like. It combines established components of self-compassion (mindfulness, self-kindness, and common humanity) and two other components that specifically address traumas and other experiences that Black people commonly experience.

Continue reading “A Case for Black Self-Compassion”

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Overcoming Loneliness

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Photo by Savs on Unsplash

Loneliness is painful. It often involves feeling disconnected, feeling outside of the circle, feeling forgotten. Loneliness has been a frequent companion throughout my life. I grew up as an only child and while my parents are wonderful, they established clear boundaries between their relationship and me, which I think was great for their marriage (they’ve been married for over 38 years!) but did not feel great for me as an only child. Starting at an early age, I felt somewhat on the outside in my family. This feeling continued for me at school and church. While I think I was generally well liked, I always felt like I was different and didn’t quite fit in. There were times when I actually was left out or teased (never badly) and then there were times when I was hypersensitive to the experience of being left out and looked for evidence to confirm my assumption that I was being excluded. There were also probably times when I held back in friendships and relationships fearing that I would be rejected and ended up feeling disconnected. One of the ways that I adapted to my experience of loneliness was to make myself useful. To be the friend that people call when they are going through a hard time, to be the one who bakes cookies from scratch and brings them to the gathering. I unconsciously believed that if I did enough people would include me regardless of whether or not they really wanted me to be there. While I will probably always enjoy doing things for people it’s been interesting for me to push myself to unlearn this tendency especially in the context of doing therapy where just being present can be powerful and healing.

I wish I could say that I was over this loneliness, this fear of being left out but I’m not. While I have come a long way and I’m much less sensitive than I used to be, I continue to struggle at points. Even as an adult I have struggled with being left out by my friends questioning what I have done wrong, how I could be better/different so that I could be included.

Your loneliness may look different than mine Loneliness can involve being in a crowd of people and feeling all alone or it could be spending a night at home alone scrolling through social media wishing you were out with friends. Loneliness can feel like wanting to call a friend but feeling like they won’t answer or want to talk to you. Loneliness often accompanies feelings of self-criticism and even shame as we assume that we are lonely because something is wrong with us.

Despite our increasingly connected world and ability to access other people at any time, many of us are feeling lonelier than ever before. This growing prevalence of loneliness is not something to be laughed off as a silly problem affecting millennials; it is a serious issue. Loneliness can negatively impact our health with some research studies connecting loneliness to dying earlier. We are social creatures and when we do not get the social connection we were designed for, our immune system can break down and we are more likely get sick. If you struggle with loneliness, consider the following strategies for overcoming loneliness, which I have found helpful in my own life.

Continue reading “Overcoming Loneliness”

Gaining Peace through the Wisdom of No Arrival

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I have been dealing with minor but fairly uncomfortable and frustrating digestive issues since last summer. If I’m being honest I would say that I have been dealing with minor digestive issues throughout my life. My initial approach to addressing my digestive issues was to struggle against them, to figure out how to fix the problem so that I could move on with my life. I worked with an integrative health coach/nutritionist (who was very helpful), I restricted my diet (no grains, no gluten, no dairy, no alcohol), which in turn restricted my social life. I started to feel like I couldn’t fully live my life until this issue was resolved. I love cooking and trying new restaurants and felt like I wasn’t able to engage in activities that brought me joy. I was doing everything that I could to get rid of the problem (natural methods, western medicine, etc) and it just wasn’t working.

Then around early May I began to accept that my digestive system is working very hard but struggling to digest food in the way I wanted it to. I stopped thinking about my body as a problem and started appreciating it for what it was trying to do. I reflected on the fact that I have had a sensitive stomach since childhood and accepted that I will likely always have a sensitive stomach. I transitioned away from trying to find the solution to my digestive issues and began to move towards figuring out lifestyle habits and types of food that my body prefers. This is my life, this is my body, and I can struggle against it and treat it as a problem or I can continue to practice accepting it and treating it well. I moved away from seeking to arrive at a place where I would not have digestive issues and could eat whatever I want, to accepting that there will be no such arrival. Since making this shift I have felt much more at peace. I have stopped complaining as much about my symptoms or telling people about all of the foods that trigger my symptoms. I have stopped searching for a magic cure. I have accepted that sometimes I’m not going to feel great physically and I know how to take care of my body during those times. I have gotten back to focusing on living my life instead of waiting to live my life once I’ve arrived at a solution to my problems. I still have days when my digestion feels better and days when it feels worse, the biggest change is how at peace I feel with it all; this peace has come through applying the wisdom of no arrival to my life.

Continue reading “Gaining Peace through the Wisdom of No Arrival”

A Remedy for Resentment

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Resentment is like a dark cloud hanging over us. It can sap the joy from things we once found pleasurable and can leave us feeling frustrated and angry much of the time. Resentment is the feeling that we experience when we say yes to something that we really don’t want to do. When we feel like the people in our lives are not taking us into consideration or acknowledging our needs. Resentment typically arises when we are overworked and over-committed. When we’re busy taking care of responsibilities, handling things, making stuff happen, and we remember that we agreed to that choir rehearsal, to make a dish for a potluck, to host a gathering because we felt guilty about saying no. When we spend most of our time thinking about the needs and wants of people in our lives and don’t feel anyone is considering us. Knowing that we are sacrificing our peace and free time for the sake of someone else and feeling taken advantage of.

I believe resentment is something many Black women struggle with. Feeling like we have to pick up the slack for the people around us, feeling like our lives are filled with obligations, and struggling to say no to commitments can leave us resentful. As Black women we are often in the position of doing the work to make things happen. Whether at church, schools, or our workplaces, Black women are the people working late, picking people up, dropping people off, cooking, cleaning, setting up, organizing, coordinating, etc. Often, the expectation is that we do this thankless work with limited recognition or appreciation. We are taken for granted in our families, our places of worship, and our jobs. All of this leads to resentment. Getting annoyed when someone asks us to do something because we feel we can’t say no is a sign of resentment. Feeling frustrated and judgmental of people who establish boundaries and say no to things is another sign that we are struggling with resentment. Continue reading “A Remedy for Resentment”

Dealing with Relationship Anxiety: How to Heal for Healthy Relationships

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Romantic relationships used to be the number one trigger for my anxiety. I would experience some stress and anxiety related to academics and a little in response to friendships but dating was what consistently caused me to feel most anxious. And there’s good reason, in contrast to a lot of areas of our lives, romantic relationships are one place where we don’t have much control. Sure we have agency over how we engage with the person we are dating but we can’t control how they feel about us. We can feel like we are doing “all the right things” but we can’t make someone like or commit to us. Also, romantic relationships put us in a place of vulnerability. In romantic relationships more than other types of relationships, we open up to our partners and share parts of ourselves that we are scared to let the world see. This combination of dynamics coupled with my desire for everyone to like me and the pressure I felt starting around age 23 to meet and marry the right partner made relationships a powder keg for my anxiety.

Thankfully, I have emerged from that period of my life more calm and grounded in myself, which has helped me to be much less anxious in relationships. My last relationship was a true testament to the growth that I’ve experienced in this area. While there were times when I felt anxious I was able to manage these periods and communicate constructively with my boyfriend about what I needed. Instead of getting overwhelmed and leaving the relationship abruptly or beginning to criticize my partner in response to my anxiety I learned to soothe myself and identify when I wanted to address a concern and when I could let things go.

Below, I highlight some of the primary challenges people encounter related to anxiety in romantic relationships along with strategies to begin effectively managing your anxiety so that it does not ruin your relationship. Continue reading “Dealing with Relationship Anxiety: How to Heal for Healthy Relationships”

Acknowledging Burnout and Learning to Restart the Flame

african-american- woman gazingI’m feeling burned out…I have said yes to too many things, I have too much on my plate, I have some tough things going on in my personal life and the result is me feeling burned out. One of the worst parts of this is that it’s negatively impacting my work. I love being a therapist; sitting with people, helping them to process their emotions and experiences, bearing witness to their pain, and talking through strategies to help them improve their lives. And yet, in this space of burnout I feel less empathic and patient with my clients who are most challenging. My ability to take a step back and see what is happening emotionally in sessions has been diminished. I feel guilty and embarrassed by these shortcomings. I feel badly that I may not be offering my clients the best support possible.

Part of my experience of stress and burnout is situational. I work at a university that is on a quarter system and this is the time of the quarter when we are busy and have a lot to fit in before the academic year ends. Part of this is because of my own difficulty saying no to things and my general excitement related to taking on new things. I am realizing that I need to be more strategic about what I say yes to and that I cannot sign on to everything that looks good and comes my way.

I imagine that most of you may have experienced burnout or have felt overwhelmed at one point or another, so I’m opening up and writing this post for my own growth and healing and in the hopes that it helps you too. The following is what I’m doing to get myself out of this space. Continue reading “Acknowledging Burnout and Learning to Restart the Flame”

Honking in Traffic: Are You Struggling Against Life?

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There is an elementary school down the street from my office and every afternoon around 3:45pm there is a long line of cars with parents and caregivers waiting to pick up their children from school. At least a couple times a week this line of cars is accompanied by someone who decides to lay on their horn seemingly frustrated with the traffic caused by 5 year olds getting in their parent’s cars to go home. It always feels nonsensical to me. Why would someone honk and get so frustrated if they know this traffic jam happens every day at the same time and if they know the cause of it? Why wouldn’t they take another route to get where they need to go? Or better yet, why don’t they just relax and make their way through the line like everyone else?

It’s easy to judge these drivers who honk their horns loudly in frustration and to get annoyed at the noise pollution they cause as I attempt to provide a calming therapeutic space for my clients and yet as I take some time to reflect and use this as a metaphor I realize that there must be times and places where I do something similar.

I have to ask myself, where do I create unnecessary stress and tension while also disrupting the people around me because I’m resisting what is? Where are the places that I struggle against life when I really need to relax and let life go at it’s own pace? When are the times that I run into the same predictable barriers only to respond with frustration instead of humor and acceptance? I’m going to take some time to think about my answers to these questions with the hope that it will make my life and the lives around me more calm and peaceful. I encourage you to think about where these places are for you. When are you honking your horn during a predictable traffic jam? Where are you struggling against life?