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Some thoughts on whiteness and psychotherapy

Psychotherapeutic models give us useful tools and frameworks for understanding how suffering manifests and how to address it, but the majority of the ones widely taught and available grow out of and reproduce dominant white supremacy culture. Unless we are actively practicing something else every day, this will be the default for white therapists and it will be perpetuated through everything we do and say, as well as the (conscious and unconscious) goals we set for ourselves and our patients and how we approach pain and define health.

White people need to approach whiteness as something that is making us unwell, and we need to be able to see and sustain our awareness of the truth of this with less panic and activation. That takes daily practice, and it takes community.

Whiteness, and the privileges and comforts — as well as the conceptual bubble or echo-chamber – that come with it, insulate us from what is happening in our individual bodies and in the collective body of which we are a part. They pull us to instant gratification and consumption, the quick cycles of impulse and reward, instead of the steady repetition of practice. we can’t heal this way, and we can’t show up for other people’s healing or to concrete a just and healthy world this way.

The belief that the state of the world is not our business or directly relevant to our health and life is another product of this system and the individualism that only deepens separation within and between society, ecosystem, and psyche. We know from systems theory and from models of healing that the wellbeing and evolution of any complex system is correlated to integration. White supremacy culture, capitalism, and trauma all further its opposite: segregation. The idea that an individual can seek out and accomplish individual health and wellbeing in a deeply unwell world is a fiction of the health and wellness industries and is founded in the individualism that underpins all western psychotherapeutic models.

What do my words provoke in you? Do you find yourself nodding in agreement, puzzled, shut down, aggravated? The work we are called to do as therapists and humans in this world now is to get into the present moment and what is happening in our bodies as we face difficult truths. I am interested in building community with people who feel this call also as well as the need to face what we are carrying and perpetuating in our own bodies with bravery and vulnerability, together.

Attachment Science and Animism

Attachment theory is a central component of the dominant western understanding of human psychology; it helps shape our understanding of developmental stages and developmental trauma. Some modalities such as Emotion Focussed Therapy (EFT) and Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP) place attachment at the centre of healing. If we can understand what happened and didn’t happen in childhood with primary caregivers, we can address the ruptures, deprivation, losses, and defenses that continue to impair our relationships with others and our ability to function today. 

My understanding and experiences of attachment have played a very significant role in my own healing from complex trauma and in the way I work with those who seek me out. Following one of the central tenets of AEDP, I seek to undo the unbearable aloneness that someone experienced as a child, and that blocked their access to their own healing potential, so that the wired-in forces of positive change can be activated now.

Recently I have been challenged, in particular by BIPOC writers and thinkers, to see more clearly the limits of attachment theory. To begin with, our understanding of attachment comes out of a western, white, individualist lens, in which the main focus is on the dyad (caregiver-infant; therapist-patient) with some attention on the family of origin and possibly grandparents in the case of intergenerational trauma. Working through an attachment lens, we situate the most significant problems to be addressed in the past. For example, an individual’s marital difficulties are shaped in part by childhood dynamics in which emotion was overwhelming or blocked. There is profound understanding and change to be had in facing these dynamics. However, there is a way in which this focus can obscure or downplay crucial problems in the present – particularly the oppression and violence experienced by BIPOC and others in our unjust society, as well as the effects of privilege. Attachment is not an accurate or sufficient frame to address these. Healing childhood trauma is not applicable to state-sanctioned trauma being inflicted in the present, and focussing on my individual trauma as a white person does not equip me to face my part in perpetuating injustice. 

Attachment theory comes out of a colonial culture in which the nuclear family is the most significant unit. In keeping our focus there, we maintain a white frame of reference primarily suited to white patients, and we reproduce the culture of individualism. If we are to challenge the ways in which psychotherapy perpetuates and maintains white supremacy, we need to widen the framework from the dyad to the wider web of relations that predate colonization and that still define the experiences and healing practices of other cultures. If we are to challenge the ways in which psychotherapy remains mute about or complicit with climate change and ecological destruction, we must widen the framework beyond the web of human relations to our connections to land, flora and fauna. This is not to say that early relational history is irrelevant. I am suggesting that we need to zoom out to seek the sources of, and remedies for, suffering within a broader framework of relationships.

Animism is the attribution of soul or spirit to plants, commonly-seen-as-inanimate objects, and natural phenomena. Psychotherapy made a decisive split from these connections when Freud designated the ancient cultures that honour them as “primitive,” and set the healing of white people on a certain course in keeping with a colonial relationship to the natural world. (Although this manifests differently in Jung’s honouring of the collective unconscious, his too was a white male perspective.) Indigenous and African voices are conspicuously absent from the lineage and canon of psychotherapy as it is taught now, and even the recent upsurge in mindfulness practices is an individualist reframing of ancient Asian practices that are embedded in deep connection to other beings. It is my increasingly strong conviction that the limits I have come up against in my own healing and in the healing of others reflect the existential void and vast destruction wrought by colonization and alienation from the world, and other beings around us. This void cannot be addressed adequately by an individualist framework or by attachment as it is commonly understood, and in fact that frame continues to obscure what is most needed for our health and for the earth’s.

The following passage is from the chapter “The Council of Pecans,” in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. I am sharing it here as an invitation to address the similar limits to the scientific principles that structure and define psychology:

“The pecan trees and their kin show a capacity for concerted action, for unity of purpose that transcends the individual trees. They ensure somehow that all stand together and thus survive. How they do so is still elusive….

In the old times, our elders say, the trees talked to each other. They’d stand on their own and council and craft a plan. But scientists decided long ago that plants were deaf and mute, locked in isolation without communication. The possibility of communication was summarily dismissed. Science pretends to be purely rational, completely neutral, a system of knowledge-making in which the observation is independent of the observer. And yet the conclusion was drawn that plants cannot communicate because they lack the mechanisms that animals use to speak….

There is now compelling evidence that our elders were right—the trees are talking to one another. They communicate via pheromones, hormonelike compounds that are wafted on the breeze, laden with meaning. Scientists have identified specific compounds that one tree will release when it is under stress of insect attack….

The trees warn each other and invaders are repelled. The individual benefits, and so does the entire grove…. 

The Potawatomi Gathering of Nations reunites the people, an antidote to the divide-and-conquer strategy that was used to separate our people from each other and from our homelands….

As a nation, we are beginning to follow the guidance of our elders the pecans by standing together for the benefit of all. We are remembering what they said, that all flourishing is mutual.”

Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are really princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and bravery. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that needs our love — Rainer Maria Rilke

Segregation and Integration: Healing the Trauma of Whiteness

My work to heal myself and hold space for others healing from complex trauma has given me many experiences of how segregation functions in the psyche. We know from the diagnoses available within the dominant mental health framework, such as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), that trauma fractures us into pieces. During a traumatic event, pockets of sense data, fragments of embodied memory, and disparate notions of self become segregated and are thereafter experienced as “parts” that are separate from, and often incompatible with, one another. This is explained biologically through changes in brain function when trauma occurs, and it is explained psychologically as necessary and adaptive defense against overwhelming experience that is adaptive in the moment but comes at a high cost.

The fundamental approach of Internal Family Systems (IFS) to trauma is that all parts are welcome and must be re-integrated in order to achieve health. Systems theory tells us that complex systems are moving towards a state of greater integration. Quantum physics and entanglement tell us that everything is connected to and affects everything else and that the opposite only appears to our limited sense perceptions to be true. Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP) guides us to create a facilitating environment and a new experience of attachment that can hold the trauma adequately to re-integrate what has been split off. These are, however, all approaches whose results are often interpreted within the framework of whiteness and white supremacy culture, which is itself grounded in segregation. 

That segregation must be addressed if we are to attain health on a greater-than-individual scale, which I believe is what the current climate and political crises are inviting us to do.

When I am holding space for someone who is hijacked by a traumatized part, our first task is to establish enough safety to un-blend the part and bring it more clearly into view. This requires a shift, for the traumatized person, from being taken over by symptoms to externalizing a part and beginning to “see” it in the room. At this early stage in the work, the part often appears as fearsome, non-human, sometimes demonic, or even inanimate. I have worked with a protective part that appeared first as a black obelisk; a wounded part that appeared first covered in oozing sores; a defense that looked like a red spinning sphere; a feared part that showed itself as a hunched gremlin. As the work unfolds, it becomes clear that the appearance of the part is not objective, but actually a reflection of how the part is held within the self-system: hatred and fear shape its manifestation, and dawning understanding and compassion transform it into someone else – often the child who experienced the trauma – who can be re-incorporated into the self and, in doing so, change the entire system.

The foundations of whiteness and white supremacy culture are also in collective traumatic and traumatizing segregation that goes back centuries. Whiteness as a cultural identity co-arose with many shadows or dissociated parts including blackness and savage-ness. Whiteness was created as a legal category in the so-called New World (itself a construction based on erasing indigenous peoples) to divide and conquer those whose existence and rebellion threatened the dominant class, but it rests on binaries created much earlier and present in different forms around the world. There are no actual “black” or “savage” people: these are the projections onto other humans made by whiteness of what, in its own nature, it has been traumatically split from and can no longer perceive directly. For most settlers of European descent, their embodied connection to the earth and the other species that co-created the ecosystems they were born in were destroyed in the Middle Ages and during the witch burning times. The worldwide dominance of the English language, which defines so many other beings as objects, is also a reflection of these traumatic losses.

Whiteness is defined by these layered segregations, and much violence has been enacted to maintain these splits and project the disowned parts onto other humans. For example, to be a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied man is to be defined by a long list of characteristics that are founded on binaries and exclusions: not mineral, not vegetable, not animal, not female, not BIPOC, not LGBTQ2, not disabled – categories of deficiency then projected onto other parts of Creation and needed to shore up the white man’s sense of who he is. As this man, I require all these categories to exist as split off parts to maintain my identity – the more I disown, look down upon, and fear these parts, the more distorted my projections onto others will be, the more separate and frightening other humans will become, and the more violence I will require to police these boundaries that tell me who I am.

I believe the process for facing and integrating trauma is a potential roadmap for healing the segregation of whiteness, and in a society that did not identify itself through the denigration of spirit, it would also be recognized as a spiritual map. To the extent that any of us has taken in and is embodying white supremacist culture – and those of us with white skin are born with a huge dosage already administered – we need to be able to face the demons our race has made, which are in reality the split off parts of ourselves we lost centuries ago that must be integrated if we are to become healthy and whole. Donald Trump, as easy as it is for us to disavow him, is only the pinnacle of the white patriarchy many of us are also defined by and profit from. He shows us our illness and disfigurement so exaggerated that we can no longer miss it: as the most terrified and emptied-out part of humanity (part of me), he must desperately re-assert his identity hourly through disavowal and segregation. If you want to know your whiteness, see his projections and know that we do this too, and that other real humans have borne that violence for centuries. The work of facing our whiteness will require that we face what we most fear in ourselves just as those I work with must face the parts of them that have become alien and inanimate: our savagery, our darkness, our splitting, our violence and projection, our stupidity, our lifelessness, our blindness. All the ugliness we see ‘out there’ as demons and abject, lesser-than others are actually our own lost pieces projected onto other beings. We must do this in order to recover what we have collectively lost – integration with land, life, spirit, the gods, our bodies the earth, and the whole “nonbinary” flow of Creation that this language can only define as a negative because we speak out of the shadow of its loss.