The Charlottesville headlines have dwindled, but have your feelings? How about the people in your life with opposing perspectives? Have the controversies subsided?
My guess is that the feelings are still there, especially for those of us who are sensitive and care deeply about social justice.
The violent racism we saw in Charlottesville along with the political aftermath left many of us feeling outraged, sad, helpless, and anxious. That’s a healthy human response to a horrific situation.
But you’re not hearing from me until now for a reason. I deliberately chose to take time to respond to the events in Charlottesville. I knew that impulsive reactions to share fear-invoking posts and start wars on Facebook would only impede my desire to advance understanding.
I also think it’s important to keep these conversations going after the headlines recede.
If you’re a sensitive person, chances are that overt actions and words that hurt people bother you at your core. And you’re likely more apt to pick up on subtle prejudice. Awareness can be both a gift and a source of frustration as we wonder what we can do about these problems.
After some reflection, I’ve decided to share a few tips for interacting with the people around you and taking empowered action. I think sensitive souls have a unique gift to carry out all of these.
How to Deal with Difficult Feelings and People After Charlottesville
1. Remember that we are all products of social conditioning.
Conditioning refers to learned thoughts and behaviors we adopt unconsciously as a result of reward, punishment, and opinions of those in our environment. We learn who we should and shouldn’t be and who others should and shouldn’t be. We create stories about ourselves and how the world works for our own sense of identity and belonging. Anything that poses a threat to those stories generally results in fear. And well, in this context, fear usually results in anger.
Not always, but often traumatic experiences in which we feel little control in life form our beliefs and modes of operation for living in the world. It’s human nature to want to feel we have control over our lives, especially when we’ve felt powerless. You may have friends or family that see things differently from you. But if you want to have a relationship with those people, consider how they’ve been conditioned.
When I feel angry or irritated with someone, I use two visualizations to help me:
- I picture the adult as a child. What might it have been like for that child to grow up? What narratives was he told by his parents, religion, etc.? What kind of hardships did he face?
- I imagine the person simply as a brain and body. This might sound strange, but it helps me to see the other as a brain that has been wired as a result of his life experience. Knowing what I do about neuroplasticity in the brain, it also gives me hope that the person can change.
When I talk about developing understanding and compassion, this is not about condoning racism, sexism, gender prejudice, and so forth. It’s seeing the truth about both the limitations and potential of those around us and helping myself to cope with difficult realities around me. I find this perspective to be one of the most important forms of self-care for sensitive people dealing with anxiety too.
2. Avoid shaming.
Researcher, author, and public speaker Brene Brown recorded a Facebook live video just after Charlottesville that I would encourage you to watch. If you’re not familiar with her work, she has dedicated her life to researching shame and vulnerability and she’s adamantly opposed to shaming and dehumanizing others.
I know how easy it is to get caught up in the thick of an argument and lose the cool you thought you could embody. It’s not easy, but we have to get away from calling people names and shaming. Think about what bubbles up for you when you hear, “Shame on you.” Whether you overtly say this or tell someone they’re unintelligent, bigoted, white trash, or whatever… It’s not an effective social justice tactic.
Take domestic violence as an example. You can shame the abuser, but it will likely do little to stop the abuse. Rather, the abuser will become more careful, secretive, and covert with his or her behavior to avoid shame. It’s not that different with racism. Yes, we’re seeing overt racism in the form of white supremacy, but the problem that is much more widespread is one of prejudice that many of us don’t even realize we have.
When we shame, we do little to advance social justice and get our message heard. If you’re a sensitive person, you likely have a great deal of empathy. Remember what it feels like to be labeled, criticized, and shamed.
3. Spark understanding.
This is not easy. I know… But truthfully, arguing about facts and ideology usually doesn’t get us very far if a person’s identity feels threatened. This may be a waste of breath, unfortunately. I know because I’ve been in this position myself.
Most of my life, I’ve been very left-leaning in my ideology. I was politically active and pretty much clung to the democratic party. Then I went through a period of my life in which I questioned a lot… about both parties, foreign policy, food issues, vaccinations, UFOs, etc. I got caught up with a community of people who valued many of the things that I did, but believed in a slew of conspiracies. And I did too. I see the friends in that community constantly posting things about “fake news” and “false flags” on Facebook. And you know what? They’re not racist. They’re mostly libertarians with anger and fear that don’t trust the government.
It took me time to get clear in my head. Even the simplest thing like my partner challenging my belief that GMOs are harmful (which I no longer believe, but I also don’t believe they aren’t) would throw me into a tizzy of defensiveness. Or I’d shut down.
So, if we don’t argue facts and ideology, how do we dialogue?
First, it’s important to clarify the other’s stance without simplifying that stance into your terms. Ask questions without assumption. Identify the fear and get an understanding of it. You might need to read the news sources that the other is receiving in order for your point to be heard as well. I recently came across an article “How Half America Lost Its F**king Mind”. It was written just before the 2016 election by a writer from rural Illinois and it gave me some real insight into the perspective of rural America.
Do your best to use “I” statements such as, “I feel really angry when my experience in the world is disregarded,” rather than accusatory assertions. You might present a story or example that illustrates an idea and ask the person what he or she might do.
4. Speak up and say something.
This is where we have to be keenly aware and work the balance between mindful dialogue and standing up for social justice. There are times when we need to call it as it is. When white supremacy shows its face or you witness injustice, you must speak up. We must speak up in our families, communities, and worldwide audiences. And we must keep the conversation moving about situations like Charlottesville. Silence is not an option.
There’s a fine line between tenacity and stubbornness. They might look similar. Which are you practicing?
5. Support a cause doing meaningful work.
If you want to make a change, empower yourself and take action. Donate. Get active. Call your elected officials.
I learned about a Chicago-based organization, Life After Hate. This non-profit was founded by former members of alt-right violent extremist movements who made a transformation. They help radicalized individuals disengage from extremist movements and rehabilitate them to counter the seeds of hate. These guys are doing amazing work to transform hate. I was quick to donate and offer additional help with a fundraising event.
Whatever you speak and do, always aim for it to come from grounded peace and not scattered anger. Anger is a valid, human emotion, but we must turn it into fuel to advance love, justice, and great change.
I’d love to hear what you’re doing to promote equality and social justice. Please share in a comment below!