Voices on Boundaries and Compassion

My intention is to generally write weekly posts, but it’s also important for me to take in and learn from others. This post offers some links to articles from white women and people of color that I think help unpack and begin to work through the destructive, soul-killing effects of patriarchy and white supremacy. Please look through these and, if they speak to you, consider supporting the writers in whatever way you can.

“What I Don’t Tell My Students About ‘The Husband Stitch'” – Jane Dykema

An essay by a writer and instructor about “who we believe and why.” Particular focus on how language, memory, and emotions, and the ways certain patriarchal norms make it harder to hear, understand, and believe women’s stories of abuse.

“#ExpressiveWriting Prompts to Use If You’ve Been Accused of #WhiteFragility #SpiritualBypass or #WhitePrivilege” – Leesa Renee Hall

Writing exercises to help white people in particular reflect upon our racial identity formation and how it informs the way we relate to the suffering of people of color. Includes an overview of reactions to someone else’s pain and responding as a white person to being called out.

 

“Setting boundaries as a white ally: Why its important, why its challenging and how to do it ethically” – Tada Hozumi

Tada Hozumi offers useful guides to emotional self-management and boundary setting for white people engaged in activism, so that we do not burden people of color with our needs for emotional care.

“How to Set Boundaries with Your Abuser in Mind” – Kellie Jo Holly

This is an excellent primer on boundary-setting in general, with a particular focus on boundary-setting in abusive relationships.

You Matter

One day, during meditation practice, I noticed how much I kept moving out of the practice into fantasies or arguments playing on the movie screen of my brain. When I returned to my breath and presence, I had an unexpected thought.

Ugh, now I’m stuck in here with myself.

That errant thought was a thread attached to a long pattern of ways I’d related to myself and my life for years. All the forms of escapism, fantasy, all the difficulties with investing in myself and taking responsibility for my life. All ways parts of me tried to do anything but be stuck “in here.” Like it was middle school and my consciousness got stuck at the uncool table.

The more I sat with that, the more I saw how allowing that distaste to run me contributed to my unhappiness. If I did not particularly like myself or want to be around myself then I was limited in my ability to develop myself. I was too busy envying other people and putting down my wants and needs. I was unable to see the gifts that I brought. I was unable to savor all the ways that my life was already giving me the things I desired.

Feelings of unworthiness, self-hatred, beliefs that I don’t matter—these are some of the most pernicious and hard to unroot weeds in the garden of the Self. They take up space, they choke down the things we want to grow, they come back again and again. For so many, they are so ingrained in a sense of identity that we think they’re “reality,” just facts, confirmed over and over.

Others work themselves to death trying to prove these beliefs are untrue, which is another kind of trap, as trying to disprove something is also a way of giving it credence. “I have to get this person to love me so I can prove I matter.” This implicitly agrees that I don’t matter now.

Three figures in silhouette standing on a peak, looking outward at a star-filled night sky.

“Lost in a sky full of stars,” photo by Benjamin Davies

This doesn’t mean the effort is pointless. So many people grow up in cultures and circumstances that tell them, over and over again, that they don’t matter, such that building that inner certainty of worthiness is incredibly hard. Standing up for ourselves and making the effort to build whatever efficacy, power, and network of supportive relationships we need is all part of the work.

We all have our own journeys to becoming ourselves. For me, what that unexpected thought during meditation started was a process of realizing I needed to start taking interest in myself. I needed to begin to act like I mattered. I needed to recognize that, very literally, I matter. I am material, I take up space and resources, my very existence impacts the people around me, regardless of what my mind or people and systems in my life might say.

To believe I didn’t matter, then, was both self-destructive and an abdication of my responsibility to be in this world. I did a great many hurtful things to people believing I didn’t matter. I didn’t speak up when my voice would have helped. I didn’t reach out to people who cared about me. I didn’t develop my capacities to help, serve, and bring more joy into the world. My mind said I was doing it for others, but others did not want that of me. They wanted me to see I did matter.

My feelings matter. My wants and needs matter. Even when I don’t like them. Even when my mind, or advertising, or oppressive ideologies, or politicians, or spiritually bypassing religious teachers seem to tell me they don’t. Parts of me still don’t fully believe this, but the more I decide to act as if they matter, and take an interest in the Being I have and not what I think I’m supposed to have, the better life seems to go.

You matter, too.

Cover Your Feet, Find Freedom

Common sense says that when a person gets defensive it’s because they’re guilty. But I would suggest there is nuance here when people have grown over a lifetime to feel guilty or ashamed of themselves. People who grow up in certain cultures repeatedly receive the message that they are internally defective, untrustworthy, or wrong and need to “get right” through rigid perfectionism or ongoing displays of guilt and shame. Even when we get out of those families, religions, or other communities, that habit of reacting to any implication of guilt and shame persists.

Discussions about the “isms” are rife with defensiveness and hostility. Cisgender people who experience “cis” or “TERF” as a slur. White people who feel appalled, hurt, and disgusted at being called “racist.” Men who experience being told their behavior is “sexist” as “a disgusting insult.” Here I am focusing on these folks, recognizing that many white cisgender men (of which I am one) feel dogpiled, attacked, that somehow it’s okay to hate on privileged people but they’re not allowed to point out when others are acting with disrespect.

What I’m trying to name, before we even go into that, is that most of us in these conversations are reacting to our own feelings of guilt and shame when we hear these things. We think the person is calling us something awful because their words bring up uncomfortable feelings, and we defend against it like we do many other experiences of shame and guilt. We lose center and the possibility for a real, honest conversation in which there is mutual healing and growth.

Certainly anyone can be an asshole regardless of gender, sex, ethnicity, level of ability, class, etc. And it is certain that these reactions happen in all kinds of conversations, even the most seemingly innocuous ones. In our intimate partnerships, a simple disagreement over folding laundry might bring up these feelings. Sometimes it is necessary to step back and care for ourselves. Developing discernment about when to engage, when to step back, is a process that begins by looking at ourselves.

“Where would I find enough leather
To cover the entire surface of the earth?
But with leather soles beneath my feet,
It’s as if the whole world has been covered.”

― Śāntideva

One way I think of this is that two things happen from the inner and outer world. From the outer world we hear something like, “I’m pissed at you about what you said.” Or “You seem to listen to other men and belittle women.” Or “Black lives matter.” In the inner world, we “hear” more messages that come from our early wounding, like, “You’re terrible and hurt people you love.” Or “You’re worthless and don’t matter.” Though these are “you” statements, they come from within. They are actually “I” statements, my secret fears about myself. And they are all lies with just enough truth to be highly persuasive.

We could spend our lives trying to get people to stop saying things that bring up these painful inner experiences, which is akin to the solution of trying to cover the entire earth with leather. We could also begin to name, defuse from, and heal those inner wounds, which would be to cover our own feet with leather.

It is worthwhile to start small and engage in contemplation. This does not have to be a politically-related conversation but rather any kind of confrontation that left you feeling confused, hurt, or distanced from someone. Journaling is useful, as it helps to get the thoughts out of our head and so we can look at them with greater objectivity. Talking to someone who will simply listen and reflect what they’re hearing is also useful.

  • Think on these questions first—What happened? What was said? What did the other person say and do? What did you say and do?
  • What was your experience? What feelings, memories, imaginations arose? What in particular troubled you?
  • Taking the most troubling part of the interaction, engage in a process of contemplation. Follow the thread of meaning deeper. For example, “What did it mean to me when this person said [X]?” “What does it mean to me that I felt this way?” “What does it mean to me that I believe this?”
  • Review this material and see if a pattern emerges, a theme, a scary/upsetting/angering story about yourself or your relationships with other people.
  • Set an intention to watch how this story plays out over the course of the next two weeks. Whenever you notice that story arising, pause to take a breath, and perhaps journal about it later. Notice how often it comes up, in what circumstances, whether it is fairly constant or limited to certain situations. Also notice when things occur that seem to contradict the story, or times when you might respond.

At this point, we’ve gone far afield of the kind of political arguments with which I framed this, and that’s the point. This is a practice to help you come to greater self-awareness and freedom with your own patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Rather than taking them for granted as unfailingly accurate interactions with the world, they are material for study and growth as you grow deeper in your understanding of the truth of yourself and your relationships. When we do this, the harder and more nuanced discussions go better.

We are all figuring this out. Life, politics, cultural shifts, new technologies, economic transitions. The stakes are high and yet we’re all stumbling around in the dark with only our experiences and understandings of history to guide us. The more free I am with my guilt and shame, the better able I am to hear and respond to these difficult moments. I can sit with a confrontation and take in the information that is useful and discard what is not. I can withdraw from interactions that have become unproductive and focus my energy on what is life-affirming.

Image of a pair of legs standing at the edge of what appears to be a snow-covered pier. The legs are wearing denim and leather boots.

Photo by Ian Robinson

Becoming Hope

I am in love with this world and it breaks my heart.

This hasn’t always been the case. For much of my life I felt divided from the world by a cynical, gray, depressive curtain. Mistrustful of myself and others, wary of being hurt or taken advantage of, I aspired to a spiritual bypassing that one writer about the Enneagram encapsulated perfectly as “The False Buddha.”

As “The False Buddha,” I could make wise or knowing pronouncements and hide behind spiritual notions about the illusory nature of the world. All of which was a way to numb the pain of being in it. If nothing mattered, then there was no reason to take risks, no reason to face disappointment and heartache, no reason to leave my comfort zone. I could swathe myself in cynicism and eat my feelings.

I found teachers who could help me untie those knots in my life force, who taught me that transcending and rising above were not spiritual solutions but forms of avoidance that were not helping anyone. What was being asked of me to fall in love with the world and everything it offers.

Today, I think of nonattachment not as the unwillingness to take action but rather the willingness to act and be with whatever happens as a result. Nonattachment is not numb or distant. Nonattachment acknowledges lust, desire, anger, joy, disappointment, despair, pain, all as worthy and valid experiences of the Self.

Desire is what leads us out of ourselves, out of what is comfortable and into the mystery and expansion available to us. Following desire grows our life and Being, but it is not a guarantee that we will get the results we want.

An image of two white-skinned hands, one elderly and one younger, touching a red rose.

“Touching the Rose”, by Jake Thacker

Which leads me to becoming hope. This expression came to me last year when I saw conflict in my communities and felt despair that people were unable to listen to each other in mutual understanding, a practice that I have long-valued and often strive for. A practice that is, as implied, a practice, something that requires effort and failure and recommitment, something that grows with repetition and learning, something that is not easy or innate.

As I saw this, feeling without hope, I realized what I was seeing was my work. Not to fix my communities and repair all the conflict—that kind of thinking is a trap that both inflates self-importance and deflates efficacy. It leads us to devaluing other people’s power and burning ourselves out. An entire community is needed to mend and strengthen a community. What my community needed was for me to show up as the person I felt needed to exist. To act in a way that would kindle hope in my heart.

Practicing hope in this way invites a practice of the kind of nonattachment I acknowledge above. Because the results are out of my hands, or I may only be able to manage one burst of right action before I need to take a break. And asking us all to step up, to become our bigger selves, is to also be faced with all the ways we limit ourselves and keep ourselves small.

No one needs to be saved so much as they need to see what is possible for them. To see what courage and risk look like, and to know that this risk was undertaken by a fellow human being.

What Gets in the Way of Open-Hearted Conflict

When we feel mistrust in each other, fearful that the other intends us harm or simply is unable to hear and have our best interests at heart, engaging in open-hearted conflict becomes difficult. More often, particularly in Western white-influenced cultures, we retreat from the emotional engagement toward an intellectualization of the problem. Successful conflict thus looks like being technically correct, using proper grammar and argumentative structure, not making any mistakes, having correct evidence. This kind of argumentation is useful for disciplines pursuing truth, such as science and academia, but unhelpful when it comes to building relationships.

When it comes to interpersonal arguments, more often than not what’s at stake are basic human social and survival questions like—”Can I be myself? Will I be safe? Will I be included or rejected? Will I be cared for?” I think conversations about “microaggressions” bring up these questions for all participants. People who live in bodies and identities that experience violence and marginalization walk around with a certain sensitivity to signs of potential exclusion or violence.

For example—as a gay man, when I hear someone use the word “faggot” I do an automatic mental calculus about the context and meaning of that word, particularly how unsafe I should feel. When I was growing up, people used that word primarily in the context of insulting each other and threatening violence. When other queer people are using that word, I usually feel okay because I know that we share certain values and acceptance and that their use of that word typically does not suggest the risk of violence or exclusion. When I’m not sure if the people using the word are queer, or how they feel about queer people, then I feel on edge.

Thus, I understand that different groups might have strong responses to certain words. They want to feel safe and included, as do nearly all humans in social spaces. I also understand that the strong push to control, abolish, or limit the use of certain words and phrases is experienced as an aggression by others.

If I angrily respond to the person who I think is homophobic who uses the word “faggot,” and insist they can’t use that word, that person might experience their own sense of threat of exclusion or marginalization. Perhaps they think I’m being unfair because they do not consider themselves homophobic and do not see a problem with their use of the word. They might think I’m being oppressive by trying to control their language. We could get locked in mutual suspicion and escalate into greater distance. We could also share our experiences with each other in a spirit of mutual understanding and respect, and come closer together.

Image of a growling lion.

Photo by Samuel Scrimshaw

We don’t know how powerful we are. When it comes to interpersonal, face to face connections, we have much more influence over each others’ emotional states than we might realize. When two people are meeting, all the decades of history, systemic privilege and marginalization, economic disparity, all of that is present and yet not always fully conscious. Or so I want to believe, but often it seems the person in the position of power “forgets” their relative power and privilege until the moment they are aggrieved, and then retreats into it instead of engaging in conflict as an equal participant.

One’s boss is simply a person who makes mistakes and wants to be liked, and so may engage with their employees in a position of friendliness and equality, but the employees are very aware that they cannot have a simply human relationship with their bosses, for their economic security and job prospects depend upon staying in the boss’s good graces. Inevitably certain things stay unspoken, unaddressed.

Similarly, police officers may start a “consensual conversation” that results in the arrest of the person they are speaking with. Police officers are human beings with their own fears, hopes, strengths, and insecurities, and yet the amount of social and political power granted to them makes any interaction entirely lopsided. There is no possibility of authentic conflict. We are told to treat police officers with respect and that any disrespect we show invites punishment, but depending upon the culture and laws of the precinct, there is not necessarily a similar injunction on the officer to comport themselves with honesty and respect.

When there is no basic level of trust and safety, we turn to legalistic solutions. Rather than meet each other directly with our feelings, share our mutual experiences, name our hopes and fears, and discover the right next step—we turn toward third parties, byzantine systems of rules, authority figures to manage the conflict for us. We retreat from the basic questions of love and belonging and instead try to score points on each other. Instead of improving our sense of community and belonging, though, this leaves our resentments and fears simmering, unprocessed, unwitnessed, and any genuine expression of these ends up punished and demonized. Without open-hearted conflict, all we have is war.

Supporting Your Strong People: Some Suggestions

A friend of mine recently made a Facebook post that went viral about checking in on your strong people, or your “rocks,” that resonated with a lot of people. I can’t speak for all “rocks” but I have some thoughts that might be useful for those unused to thinking of their strong people as needing support.

Your strong people need support.

They may not ask for it or show it. You may think they are inhuman or don’t have feelings. But they are human and they feel.

Often strong people have a deeply rooted instinct to put others’ needs ahead of their own, with a concurrent doubt that others will be available, able, or willing to support them. Strong people might have a long history of feeling failed, ignored, or humiliated by the people who cared for them, so they learned how to care for themselves.

It is a strange paradox that these very independent self-caring people are nevertheless often driven to be available and helpful to others, and struggle to say no. The unconscious belief might be something like, “Once everyone is okay, then I will take care of myself.” Which never happens.

For those who are not used to offering support to your strong people, I wanted to offer some suggestions:

Photo of a Black man in a red striped shirt and ripped blue jeans standing in the middle of a scenic road.

Photo by Mohammed Faruque

  • Be assertive but not pushy.

Reach out and ask how they are, then after a few moments of small talk, ask how they really are. If they say they are fine and don’t need anything, or push you away, let them know you are available and willing to be there for them.

Avoid digging or asking a ton of leading questions, unless you know your rock well enough to ask what you know is the right question. The more you seem to want information or emotional revealing, the more suspicious and withdrawn your rock might become.

 

  • Be open to anything.

Sometimes when your strong person opens up, you won’t even realize it. “I didn’t have anything in my fridge today and had to miss lunch.” Okay? Not the end of the world?

But you may not understand the context—how important it is to them to eat regular meals, the sense of security they feel in opening the fridge and finding food. How this is an indicator that their routines of self-care have gotten lost, and how this symbolizes their sense of failure, overwhelm, inadequacy, and fears of slow decline. You don’t have to get all that right away. The takeaway is: keep in mind that the problem might feel a lot deeper than it seems at first.

On the other extreme, your rock might open up to you with some mind-blowing unexpected shit you couldn’t have predicted or even imagined they would be involved with.

And it is entirely possible that they would say either or both in the same tone. Like it’s not that big of a deal, maybe even kind of silly.

You might laugh. Laughing a bit is not a deal breaker. But once you get that this is important, try to compose yourself quickly and invite more information.

Do not, however, make fun of the problem, or imply that it’s not a big deal. In that case you might be confirming their secret fears that their problems are unimportant or no one they love can take care of them. You will lose the opportunity to support them and likely will not have another for a long time. 

  • Stay focused.

Once your strong person starts opening up, don’t check your phone or shift your focus on other priorities. That might be experienced as a sign that you are uninterested, overwhelmed, or think their problems don’t matter. They may quickly clam back up and continue pretending things are okay without telling you how you affected them.

If you do need to shift your focus, be really up front about it. “Hey, I need to use the restroom but I want to keep listening to you, so I’ll be right back okay?” “I really need to sleep, but can I call you tomorrow to keep talking about this?”

  • Be loving and supportive but don’t make a big deal about it.

It’s useful to try to keep your emotional level matching what they’re giving out. If your emotions get bigger than theirs, they will feel they have to take care of you. Examples include: apologizing excessively for some affront, expressing a lot of outrage on their behalf, or responding to vulnerability with huge expressions of feeling and care.

You may love to get big bear hugs when you’re crying, but your strong person might feel overwhelmed and smothered by it. Try starting smaller, like touching their hand or shoulder. Ask for permission to touch. Ask if they want a hug.

Let your strong person talk and try to listen with as little judgment and as much compassion as you can. Check in before giving advice to see if that’s what they want, and be okay if they say no. You might offer observations and opinions if they’re okay with it. 

“Wow, that would really piss me off,” is helpful empathy. “What the hell is wrong with that person!” might be too big and might feel to your strong person like you are centering your feelings and not interested in theirs. After a few rounds of this, you might be able to have a more free exchange of feelings, but be cautious the first time.

  • Accept dark humor.

You and your rock can make liberal use of dark humor so long as it’s clear that you emotionally understand where your rock is coming from and aren’t judging or shaming them. Laughing with, and not at, is an important distinction.

If you’re not into dark humor, understand that you may hear some of it and you don’t have to laugh along but avoid criticizing it at the outset. Your strong person might be more sensitive to shame than you expect. Perhaps they hold themself to high standards and rarely give themself permission to be messy and ungracious.

Let them be messy for a while. Eventually you can bring in any needed accountability, and they will be more open to your opinion when they’ve processed. 

  • Avoid talking about how much you admire their strength.

Strong people may feel like their strength is a burden, that those around expect them to be superhuman and it’s not okay to be weak and vulnerable. They might have been criticized in the past for being cold and “inhuman,” which is even more painful.

If they are showing you vulnerability, this is an opportunity to let them know it’s okay and you love them for being a whole person. Shifting the conversation back to how strong they are and how much you admire it may end up centering your feelings, minimizing their struggles, and communicating to them that their vulnerability is unacceptable.

  • Be strategic about saying, “You’re being too hard on yourself.”

I can almost guarantee you they’re being too hard on themself, they know it, they’ve been told it before, and probably feel a sense of embarrassment about it. Instead try fostering some curiosity about what in their life makes them feel like they have to be so hard on themself. What are they afraid will happen if they weren’t strong all the time? That’s where they need support.

  • Make suggestions about steps for more support.

Strong people might be so used to taking care of their needs that when you ask “What can I do for you?” they will struggle to come up with any kind of answer at all. Sometimes your caring, effort, and presence will be more than enough. Sometimes they don’t know how to assess their needs and name how others can support them.

You might ask some general questions about what they’re dealing with and make some suggestions. If you’re a person who is comfortable with receiving care and asking for what you want, this is an opportunity to use your experience to teach them. “Sometimes when I’m down it really makes me happy when people bring me a cooked meal. Could I do that for you?” Again, try not to personalize it if the person says no, defers, or doesn’t have an answer for you. It’s really not about how they feel about you, especially if you’ve made it to this point in the conversation.

  • Apologize if needed.

If things don’t go well and you realize you hurt their feelings, all is not lost. Your taking responsibility and offering a genuine apology may be quite healing for your strong person.


Knowing when to check in with your strong folks is a tricky thing. Think about what’s been going on in their lives and how you would feel about it, then factor in that they might have the same feelings but be worse at acknowledging them, and act accordingly. Pay attention to if they seem more tired, forgetful, less gracious, more irritable, less on their game.

If there have been a lot of crises lately but things are starting to settle down, that is a great time. Often strong people learn to postpone their crisis response. When they know everyone’s going to be okay or the worst is over, then they might allow themselves to have their crisis response, but struggle to acknowledge it since everyone else has moved on.

Thank you for taking the time to care for your strong people. They are more vulnerable than they want you to know.

Find Your Dry Land: Cultivating Resilience Instead of Crisis

According to the American Psychological Association, “the primary factor in resilience is having caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family. Relationships that create love and trust, provide role models and offer encouragement and reassurance help bolster a person’s resilience.” They further state that the following factors are associated with personal resilience:

  • The capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out.
  • A positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities.
  • Skills in communication and problem solving.
  • The capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses.

Link to Source.

One factor that I think is implicit but worth naming as an addition is curiosity, wonder, and an attitude of experimentation or problem-solving in response to challenges.

In contemplating my experience working with people in crisis, it occurred to me that a crisis could be characterized by the lack of these resilience factors. In my observation, a person in a crisis state often experiences some combination of the following:

  • Obstacles or stressors that seem inescapable, untenable, or impossible to cope with/overcome with current resources.
  • Overwhelming emotion—particularly the famous sympathetic nervous response called the “fight, flight, or freeze” reflex—or dissociation from that emotion.
  • Impulsivity in response, difficulty assessing available options and making decisions that are more beneficial than harmful in the long run.
  • Narrowing of perspective and fixation on challenges, setbacks, grievances, or fears.
  • Negative view of self and insecurity in strengths and abilities.
  • Feeling unsupported, alone, or actively opposed.

People in crisis are metaphorically drowning, and they bring up strong emotions in the people around them. When in crisis, we seem to invite others to freak out with us, join in our outrage or our terror, even though that’s not what we really want or need. We also start looking for a savior, anyone who can pull us out of this overwhelming situation and make the crisis end. We feel helpless, alone.

We are thus vulnerable to people who would exploit our crisis for their gain. We’re more likely to agree to harmful “solutions” that seem to fix the problem but get us stuck in worse. We’re more likely to give our power to people who promise us safety and security—two qualities guaranteed to no one in this world—only to learn later how much we’ve given up of our autonomy and values. When politicians and advertisers put out messages that stir up our crisis responses, we would do well to wonder what it is they’re trying to sell us.

People in crisis are like drowning victims. Those who want to help feel like we should get in the water to get them, but that runs a high risk of turning the would-be savior into the victim. (Link to source.) People who are drowning or in crisis want out as quickly as possible by any means necessary, so fixated on the existential threat that their brain’s capacity to evaluate outcomes and make reasoned decisions has been essentially turned off to focus resources on survival.

If you want to help someone who is drowning, the best way is to find your own stable ground, throw a line of some kind out to the person, and pull them back to stability. This is good advice for helping someone in crisis as well. Often what benefits folks in crisis the most is someone who can offer calm, grounding presence, who can listen while they process their distress and help them think through their options, find resources, and come up with a plan of what to do next. You might notice that this fosters resilience, as the supportive person is being that caring and encouraging relationship that helps the person reconnect with their strengths, manage the strong feelings, and think about the problem as something solvable.

If you want to find your stable ground, look to those resilience factors and figure out which ones you need to strengthen. Find someone who has experience and skill those factors, and build a relationship with them. You might start a sitting meditation practice to learn how to remain calm and observant in the midst of distressing emotions, but that is only one of many possible disciplines that can help with that. With practice, we can learn ways to move out into distress, surf its energies, and find our way back to calm.

Image of a man on a surfboard, cresting a wave, while another man watches.

Instead of drowning, we can learn to surf. Photo by Marcus Dall Col.

This post is a variation of a presentation I gave at a recent conference, which was followed by a discussion about community resilience. More on that discussion is written up in this post.

Conflict and Resilience in Spiritual Community

This past weekend I facilitated a workshop on resilience in spiritual communities for the Many Gods West conference. There was a spirited engagement from folks who have great experience building local communities and had seen successes and failures across the board.

Some of the memorable points I walked away with were:

  • Knowing the goal or mission of your community, to anchor your efforts.
  • Training and preparing leaders, almost from the first day, so they can continue the mission when the founding leadership is exhausted or passes on.
  • Identifying who is doing the work in your communities—including the invisible labor of organization and the emotional labor of tending and repairing relationships—and making sure they are supported.
  • As a complimentary point those doing the work who feel unsupported or overextended need to feel able to scale back their vision and labor to something that is workable today, to say “no” when needed, to delegate.
  • Skills around conflict are necessary for resilient relationships.

This last point became very important and highlighted during the presentation. We discussed how conflict avoidance in communities and organizations contributes to collapse and rigidity. Sometimes communities devolve into bickering, back-biting, and in-fighting where people attack and defend but never sit at the table to have an open-hearted conflict that brings them back to connection. The other extreme is when communities become hyper-legislative and make rigid requirements and rules to try to manage and process conflict, which similarly makes them brittle and unwieldy or prone to cover-ups when problems do arise.

This is not exclusive to spiritual communities, but in my experience these communities have a particular vulnerability to people acting out their wounds around attachment, their family roles, and their family styles of conflict management. We create powerful containers for connection and self-transformation, places where we want to feel trust so we can become more ourselves, and the spiritual framework often tends to heighten or mythologize the tensions and conflicts. Which provides the opportunity for even more potent healing and transformation… or more damaging explosions.

Image of a person of color holding a firework emitting thick orange smoke, which arcs overhead and obscures their face.

Photo by Ezra Jeffrey

Conflict is inevitable and normal, and successfully allowing and working through conflict strengthens and deepens relationships. So many of us feel that if we were truly honest about our wants and needs then we would be rejected, attacked, ignored, or some other terrifying thing. Perhaps at some point—or many points—in life this happened. Lacking this capacity to say and hear honest expressions of feeling restricts our ability to heal wounds and develop resilient, workable relationships.

Resentment doesn’t go away when we ignore it, it only deepens and becomes toxic. Turning toward and befriending resentment helps us to see the ways in which we’ve taken on tasks that aren’t ours to do, or ignore our needs for someone else’s, which helps us to set cleaner boundaries and even show up in relationship with more generosity and joyfulness.

One question that arose in the workshop was around conflict resolution, and fortunately there was a whole other workshop dedicated to that topic. What occurred to me in that moment was that many of us are not ready for conflict resolution because we still struggle to engage in open conflict. I have a style of conflict avoidance and people-pleasing that showed up during the workshop itself, when two participants began to have a conflict and I reacted by attempting to smooth it over and avoid it with some statement about “we disagree and that’s okay.” A moment later, I realized what I had done, and acknowledged that I had acted out the very dynamic we were discussing as a problem in our communities.

After the workshop, those of us involved in that exchange sat down to discuss where each of us were coming from. I cannot speak for those in attendance, but I felt heartened at the mutual sharing of concerns and emotional responses without shutting each other down. I do not know if any minds changed that night, but I hope the processing and softening of hearts helped us to walk away with things to contemplate.

Unhooking

As a kid, I learned in First Aid not to pull out a fish hook if it got caught in my skin. The barb of the hook, designed to dig deeper with resistance, would cause more damage. Instead, the recommendation was to push the hook through until one could clip off the barb with pliers, then back it out.

This wisdom may well carry over into relationships and community interactions. We use the metaphor of “baiting” people into conflict and refer to sharp, cruel statements as “barbs.” They hook us into emotional reactivity, and the more we struggle against them, the deeper they get “under our skin.”

We see this in Internet trolling, how people looking to stir up trouble throw out barbs, and then their prey gets hooked into an argument or reactivity until the troll is able to find some evidence to vindicate themselves. No matter how cruel and stupid the troll has been, they win because they have the greatest emotional distance and outward appearance of self-control. The fact that others respond to them is seen to be proof that the others are in the wrong.

An image of a person holding a freshly caught fish.

“Catch of the Day,” by Sticker Mule

It’s classic bullying. It’s unfair. The fact that it’s unfair seems to make no difference.

It’s a challenge for people who value living authentic lives, too, for expressions of vulnerability and appeals to compassion are not always safe or effective. Indeed, sometimes this seems to intensify the attack as the bully finds delight in the pain they cause. Or one’s efforts to advocate for one’s self while upset and hooked end up too messy and unfocused to be effective.

One sure sign of being hooked is feeling convinced that you have to get the other person to change their mind or stop their behavior. There is a fine distinction here. I’m not saying the bullying is okay. What I am saying is that bullies are unlikely to stop what they’re doing when they’re getting what they want. There may be things you can do to advocate for yourself and change, but what helps all of this is to start by getting yourself unhooked.

Emotional hooks find purchase in the parts of us that are vulnerable to the attack. Some part of me that quietly worries that the attacker is right about me, or feels I deserve the treatment, or refuses to admit that I’m hooked because I don’t accept my vulnerability.

This is where the powerlessness comes in—I have, let’s say, a secret story about being selfish. That being selfish is bad and I worry I’m a selfish person. So here comes someone who can defeat me by implying or outright stating I’m being selfish. Now hooked, I do everything I can to convince this person and everyone around me that I’m not selfish—I’ve already lost because now I’ve agreed with the attacker that their claim has enough merit to be defended against. I am on their ground. And I am trying to convince people whose opinions do not matter because they are not coming from a place of good faith. The person who first needs to get it is me.

So unhooking is following this inward, finding the emotional vulnerability, and pushing it out to expose the barb. What in me worries about selfishness? What is “wrong” with being selfish anyway? Perhaps I check in with people whom I trust to care about me and give me accurate feedback about my selfishness. Overall, I want to befriend this part of me that is in pain and give it loving witness until it is able to release the barb.

In this way, being hooked leads me to my next phase of inner healing work. The difficult situation may persist while healing, and may linger for longer than I’d like. Whenever a person brings out reactivity in me, I see where I am still hooked and where there is more work to do.

With time, however, I’ve discovered more emotional freedom is possible, which can lead to surprising ways of standing up for myself and changing the situation. Those attempting to bait or bully find instead a disconcerting self-possession that does not feed their hunger for victimization.

The Ego of Whiteness: Stories, Privilege, and Shame Resilience

Anti-oppressive work for people in privileged positions demands learning to tolerate and roll with the stresses to our cherished ego stories. According to Jones and Okun, white supremacy shows up in perfectionism, individualism, binary thinking, urgency, power hoarding, avoidance of conflict, and the belief in rational or objective positions. Those of us raised to identify with whiteness are often hesitant to step into the world of activism and consciousness-raising because our white-identified egos struggle to tolerate the shame of conflict. We personalize confrontation or generalized observations. If someone says something that brings up in us a feeling of shame, we’re more likely to attack that person for saying it and not exploring with curiosity the meaning of this shame.

In simple terms, my definition of the ego is “a story about myself that I want you to believe.” The more attached I am to that story, the more fiercely I will defend it against perceived assault, for beneath that ego-story is often shame.

My complementary definition of shame is “a deep story I fear is true about myself, one I don’t want you to believe.” In context with Jones and Okun’s article, I suspect my conceptualization of the ego is a psychological construct of whiteness that we impose upon each other and people of color, and not a descriptive feature intrinsic to humanity.

Mindfulness and meditation practice helps us reach deeper capacities of the inner Self, and work in community helps us access broader capacities of the collective Self. The deep Self helps us to recognize that stories of worthiness and unworthiness are simply that—stories that shape our experience but not the absolute truth of who we are. The broad, communal Self helps us to see how our Being and sense of worth finds function and expression in community.

A white guy sinking into the deeper Self. Photo by Isabell Winter.

This movement—downward into the Self or outward into Community—suggests strategies by which we can roll with and recover from shame. When I feel upset or “called out,” I immediately want to center my own feelings and react based on feeling attacked. This typically makes the problem worse. Here is a process I work with to move in a more generative direction:

  • Recognize that I am feeling ashamed/defensive or responding in a way that is harmful.
  • Name that out loud. “I’m being defensive/I’m feeling ashamed/I’m being really racist and sexist right now.” (This is context-specific and not always safe or appropriate, but it is remarkable in its potential to defuse reactivity. First of all, it stops me in my tracks. Second of all, it helps me move out of shame’s state of disconnection.)
  • Take a breath, letting my awareness drop into my body.
  • Sense the physical and emotional experience.
  • Take another breath, and expand around the uncomfortable feelings.
  • Ask myself—What is this person expressing? What are they asking for in this moment?
  • Identify a step I can take now to move toward what is being asked of me.
  • Take the step.

Notice that none of these steps involve telling the other person what to do, arguing with them, or agreeing with them without consideration. Often shame wants us to jump over the discomfort of the moment and defend or apologize excessively, both of which get in the way of us actually hearing what the other person is saying.

When I respond to a call-out with my ego, I notice that my responses often center myself or subtly try to make me look good (or really bad, if I’m in shame). Sometimes this is the best I can do. What I find even better is if my response centers the person I am talking to—not their perceived ego, but their expressed need and desire.

When a person expresses a need or desire to me in a way that arouses feelings of shame, it is tempting to want to dismiss or avoid the topic because I feel uncomfortable. My ego says that to take care of that person would be “giving in” or “rewarding the behavior.” Imagine if a person crossed the desert, was completely dehydrated, and standing behind you in line for the water fountain while you idly checked your phone. It would be understandable for that person to get impatient and loud in their need for you to move.

Your discomfort at being yelled at is less of a priority than their need for water in that moment, and from an outside perspective I think most folks would agree. Lecturing them about asking nicely is not helping anyway. Get out of the way, or if needed, help them get the damn water. Later you can discuss civility.

What trips up a lot of folks raised in whiteness is that pernicious wish to have the perfect response. It doesn’t actually exist, and believing we have it only throws us back into the dualistic ego dilemma. What we can offer is the loving response, one that has compassion for our own struggle and the struggles of the people we care for.