A few years ago while working as an undertrained, underpaid, undersupported case manager, I found myself struggling with a nasty case of secondary trauma. It is difficult for me to even talk about it without going down the rabbit hole of psychobabble and self-doubt. The best way to describe it is to describe one of the most startling symptoms: every time I saw a mother and child, a couple, or really any kind of family unit, without being fully conscious of it, I would try to move out of earshot. I was working in domestic violence, and eventually I realized that I wanted to avoid seeing the display of verbal or physical abuse that I had begun to assume must be occurring in every family. In other words, when I saw a hetero couple strolling together down the street, I assumed that the man would begin calling the woman names or hitting her at any moment. Fucked up, right?
Anyway, one of the major problems I’ve had with acknowledging and dealing with secondary trauma is that it occurs because of intense empathy for others’ pain (which is not to say it is inevitable). Because of this empathy, it is really hard for me to acknowledge my own pain—the secondary trauma—as legitimate. I mean, what could be more whiny-first-worlder than to complain that other peoples’ problematic lived experiences are so bad that they are traumatizing me? Those people had to actually live it, not just hear about it!
It seems to me that there is something in there that has a lot to do with broader struggles for social justice and wanting to recognize one’s own privilege. My understanding of the world suggests that while I am oppressed by certain systems (capitalism and gender, for example), I also benefit from others (race, class, sexuality, and nationality are all systems that privilege me and my experiences). What gets tricky for me is balancing being a good ally and trying to notice when my experiences are being validated a little too easily, but also feeling ok acknowledging my own pain and–dare I say–oppression.
Maybe this is part of what generates so much defensiveness around intersectionality on the left (I’m thinking especially of feminism here–just check out the comments on this post to see what I’m talking about). I suspect that sometimes I get defensive because acknowledging my privilege can feel like it requires downplaying my own pain. But (and here’s where the rabbit hole starts) then I worry: how can I tell the difference between the need to validate my own feelings and simply feeling threatened by the loss of privilege? Is there one?
It definitely doesn't look like this.
I followed the trail from this post at Feministing today to Jessica Valenti’s post about pay for activist work. Pretty interesting stuff to think about. Certainly I’m often infuriated at the way that social service work is generally done by young women who are expected to do incredibly draining care work for an income that almost qualifies them for food stamps (no exaggeration there, really). This shows so little respect for the work, for the women who do it, and especially guarantees that the low income communities of color that constitute the client base will continue to receive inconsistent and inexperienced assistance at every agency where they are supposed to be supported. [Mind you, this is an insider critique; I’m not saying young women are incapable, just that a balance of age and experience would generate better service provision as well as less burnt out, more effective social service workers.]
On the other hand, I find myself stopping short of wholeheartedly endorsing Valenti’s points because I’m wary of the entire system of activist superstars. I wonder if it might not be better to work toward eliminating the uppercrust of nationally known activists in favor of building activist capacity more broadly. It seems that Nonnie Ouch is already a kick-ass activist in her own right–why does she need Dan Choi to come inspire her peers?
And someday soon there will have to be a post on money and Marxist alienation.
Today I was thinking about a few changes I have made that have improved my life the most in the last few years. Though it’s my understanding that many anarchists are suspicious of psychology/psychoanalysis/etc. as a whole because of its individualist tendencies, I find psychobabble both essential for coping with my life in the world that I have been given as well as incredibly helpful in allowing me to dream about what it means to be really happy. For me, this harmonizes well with an anarchist desire to be fulfilled, in this world and not the next.
(Aaron Fermer - SFWeekly)
First, I have learned to be kind to myself (or at least I have learned that I should try to be kind to myself). Being kind to oneself doesn’t need to contradict being kind to others, nor do I want to go down the slippery slope of yuppie justification for materialism. Kindness isn’t manifested through consumption. For me, being kind to myself comes in the form of asking what I need or want from a day or a given situation. If I am feeling unhappy, asking what I might need in order to feel better and then not feeling guilty if I place those needs first and foremost in my day. Anarchism is a lot about creating genuine interconnection with others, and I am a lot more capable of doing that when I feel satisfied and at peace with myself than when I feel guilty or angry.
The second is the power of an open mind (which has some nice parallels in what I think works best within anarchism itself). I only learned to meditate, for example, when I figured out that it wouldn’t work if I tried to actively shut out all my thoughts. Rather, I have to recognize and accept that how I feel is how I feel, and what pops into my mind is uncontrollable. It does no good to try to stop either. What I can control is how much time and attention I give to these thoughts, just as I can control how I act on my feelings. Once I figured out the key to meditation was opening rather than closing my mind, I was able to relax for possibly the first time in my life.
Just some thoughts I wanted to throw out there since in my experience, those who feel the most committed to radical kindness to others are often the worst at practicing this with ourselves. Recognizing privilege can make us being kind to ourselves feel indulgent and selfish, but what are we working so hard for if not a world where we can ALL feel fulfilled? And we’ll never get there if we’re all burnt out.