“If someone comes along and shoots an arrow into your heart, it’s fruitless to stand there and yell at the person. It would be much better to turn your attention to the fact that there’s an arrow in your heart...” -Pema Chödrön
Early in my career in social justice education and before becoming a trauma therapist, I stood my solid ground in all-or-nothing ways of seeing people and the world. I urgently called out my family and friends for contributing to racism in their beliefs and actions. I devoutly preached my views, not as an invitation but as a declaration. From high on my soapbox I could easily turn the spotlight away from myself and highlight what was good and bad, right and wrong about the way other people were doing things. I effectively escaped my grief and pain for years.
When I first learned about white privilege my thinking was rigid and my behavior punitive. I was trying to sort out seeing the world and myself in a new way, and wrestling with the contradictions of who I thought I was. I see this happening with white people newly engaged in a deeper understanding of racism and it's a predictable part of the growth process. The psychological stages of racial identity development can give us deep insight into the developmental process of learning and growing in our identity.
I don’t like talking about my early approach to anti-racism without talking about horse culture. From six years old the barn was my second home. Horse culture reinforced a precarious position on the soapbox where there is only one right way to do things. This is a tenant of white supremacy culture, which mirrors horse culture remarkably well (all-or-nothing thinking is on the list too). I’ve observed the same rigid and punitive behavior mentioned above, in horse people who have shifted from traditional horse training methods to a positive reinforcement-based approach. It might sound like a contradiction to have the word rigid and punitive in the same sentence as positive reinforcement, but it really makes sense. When we have new information or an "ah ha" moment that changes the way we see things, contradicts old information, or negates our self-concept, all-or-nothing thinking helps us avoid the pain of cognitive dissonance and threats to our sense of self. The pendulum swing of all-or-nothing is an adaptive and protective process, even if it damages relational connections down the line.
I see these all-or-nothing debates play out constantly, especially online. When I observe these encounters, I know we need to develop alternative ways of protecting the parts of ourselves that are tender and hurting so we can engage with more nuance, cocreate create space for each other to grow, and even hold space for multiple truths at once. We all have arrows in our hearts, so let's start there.
After 15+ years of this work, it's still hard for me not to run toward the door marked “you’re right!” I feel things deeply and believe things strongly. Maybe if I was right I’d be less racist, more worthy of love, or somehow exonerated from all the abuses I’ve committed against my horses in the past. Now, when I see that door urging me to run, I do my best to slow down. I’m better at not running from myself because I’ve committed not to turn away or abandon versions of myself that fill me with shame. My vow to them is compassion.
It is self-compassion that allows the space between us to breathe. It allows an all-or-nothing debate about positive vs. negative reinforcement, for example, to become an invitation for dialogue, finding shared meaning, and listening to understand rather than to win. It is self-compassion that gives us room when engaging in difficult conversations about race and racism to acknowledge “I’ve been there, I used to believe that.” And in doing so commit to holding a loving space for those parts of ourselves so that we can create space for others to grow.
There is no soapbox in self-compassion. No “I’m right and you’re wrong.” When we practice self-compassion we are choosing to stay with and take care of our pain with a simple acknowledgment; I see and love myself enough, to see and love myself in you.
With tenderness and care,
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