As therapists, we are trained to receive the communications of our patients. We listen to what they say, but must also look beyond the content of what someone is saying or doing to more deeply understand them. “Stay with the feeling,” we’re reminded.
As therapists, we urge our patients to “do the work.” That is, to do the work of unlearning the processes that are detrimental to their wellbeing, unlearning the modes of action or reaction that keep causing them harm.
The murder of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement officers and the ensuing protests happening across the country require that we engage in a process that parallels the work we do as mental health professionals. As therapists who take an oath to do no harm, remaining silent on police brutality and systemic racism is not an option. There is a clear mandate.
Stay with the feeling. Do the work.
Do you and your non-Black family members, friends, and colleagues feel scared? Helpless? Like your basic needs for safety and security are not being recognized? Stay with those feelings. Use those feelings. Engage in an empathetic process to get a momentary glimpse of what it is like to navigate a landscape of fear, insecurity, and vulnerability on multiple levels in daily life. Try to resist the urge to push it away, deny it, project it out in blame, or throw a quick band-aid solution on it only to disconnect again after the moment has passed. Then… circle back to recognize that your privilege has allowed you to believe that the moment “has passed.”
We must boldly be willing to be wrong. We will misstep but it’s our job to manage that discomfort. For those of us who are not Black, the cost is just that: Discomfort. For Black persons in America, the cost is a life, theirs or a loved one’s. Sit with that discomfort. Allow it to shift things for you internally so that you may engage with the problem of racism in a meaningful way.
Locate yourself in the problem. Don’t excuse yourself.
Re-evaluate the automatic processes and ideas you’ve accepted as truth and own that you have a choice to change them. Rather than engaging in intellectualized debates about the efficacy of peaceful protesting versus “rioting,” talk to yourself, to your family, your friends, your neighbors about how they are feeling. Ask: What has created this level of pain? What would have to happen in my own life for me to feel it? Go beyond what is on the surface, in the rhetoric, in the content of what is happening that distances us from others’ humanity. Doing so will help you generate new understandings of where responsibility lies, to re-author longstanding narratives that perpetuate harm to communities of color, and open a potential for healing.
As you have these conversations, listen. Listen to the communication instead of weaponizing it. Therapists: Let the healing work you do with patients on a daily basis serve as a template for how to engage with what is happening across our country today and on an ongoing basis. Truly listen to the stories. Say their names: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery. Learn the names and stories of those who were killed before them.
Take action (thoughtfully).
Ask difficult questions of yourself, and of those around you. Identify actions you can take right now. Identify actions you can strive to take. Identify actions you are too afraid to take. Check your motives and question who these actions are for.
To the people of color in our community and across this country, especially those who are Black, we see you. We can never know all that you carry. Still, our hearts ache to feel a tinge of the fear, helplessness, strife, insecurity, and injustice you’ve endured across generations. We at WILA are committed to engaging in a continuing open dialogue on racism, in our classrooms and in our therapy rooms. We’re working to do more, to stay with the feeling and do the work.
*Special thanks to WILA’s Executive Director, Dr. Michele Gomes for her contributions and support on this blog.