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The master’s tools and mental health: We can’t get...

The master’s tools and mental health: We can’t get out of our struggles the same way we got into them

Something hit me recently: one of those things that must have been staring me in the face for so long but somehow I never saw it. And now that I have, I can’t unsee it. We can’t get out of our mental health struggles the same way we got into them. 

The research on trauma and mental health suggests that a huge part of the way we generally got into them was non-consensual treatment at the hands of other people and/or the world around us. So whatever we do to recover, heal, or otherwise address our issues, it has to be done differently: from a place of consent, care and friendliness for ourselves instead of a place of fear, shame, and harshness.

The master’s tools

Audre Lorde famously wrote that ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’. This means that we can’t dismantle systems and structures of oppression using the same kinds of mechanisms and tools that were used to put them there in the first place. If we try to do it that way we generally re/create corrupt systems rather than finding our way to some genuine alternative. 

We can see many mental health struggles as a set of inner systems and structures which were put in place when we were treated non-consensually during our lives, often in childhood, but also through traumatic experiences which happened later on. Most of the main therapeutic approaches agree that when we’re taught that we have to be a certain way in order to receive care and protection – or to avoid punishment or rejection – we develop survival strategies in order to cope.

Trauma and survival strategies

It’s these survival strategies – in the form of habits and patterns like addictions and compulsions, fear and anxiety, depression and distancing, anger and acting out – which we end up addressing as adults, when we realise that they’ve become a problem. They may be rooted, for example, in physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect at home, in particular traumatic events that happened to us, in the discrimination and hatred we experienced due to being part of any marginalised group, and/or in being repeatedly sent back into unsafe situations such as bullying or otherwise hostile school environments.

In our current culture few of us escape such experiences entirely. Few girls reach adulthood without experiences of sexual harassment and assualt and without learning the ways they will be denied agency and regarded as second class citizens throughout their lives. If you are part of an oppressed group you will soon come to realise how differently you are treated: how your body, labour and life are valued less. School is a pretty non-consensual situation for even those who escape the more obvious forms of trauma there, much of which is normalised. Most families pass on messages that children should override their self-consent in order to conform to normality, hide their feelings and/or meet others’ expectations. 

All of this occurs within a wider culture which rests on teaching people that they are lacking and should be different to how they are in order to ensure docile and productive citizens, and in order to sell everything from drugs to diets, fast food to fashion, soft drinks to spirituality.

Treating ourselves non-consensually in the name of recovery

The problem is that – once we become aware of our mental health struggles, our habitual patterns, or our unhelpful survival strategies – the way we go about trying to address them often mirrors the very way they were put there in the first place. We try to fix ourselves, we push ourselves too far too fast, and we force ourselves to do all the things we’ve been told will help, punishing ourselves we don’t find ourselves improving as quickly as we felt that we should.

This has been brought home to me recently in a few ways. I’ll share my own experiences here and then give a few further examples where this might apply.

Trauma work

First I’ve been struggling particularly in the last year or so with what I’ve learnt are called emotional flashbacks: quick plummets into fear and shame which result in feeling very small, fragile and incapable of anything. I realise I’ve experienced these at greater or lesser intensity throughout my life, but the literature on cPTSD has helped me put a label to them. After reading a few books on trauma I fixed onto an idea – also common to many schools of therapy – that it could be useful to use current triggering experiences to connect back to earlier memories of traumatic events, and to revisit those in some way to loosen their grip.

Being somebody whose survival strategy tends towards the overfunctioning end of the spectrum, I grasped this idea and ran with it. One day, for example, I decided to write down all the traumatic memories I could think of in order to start revisiting them as a regular practice. Needless to say the result of this was not in any way pretty. I’m learning that the only way to do this kind of work is slowly and gently. If you try to push through, or force it, you end up retraumatising yourself and doing nothing to loosen the grip of the habits you’ve developed in order to survive.

Mindfulness

Another example is mindfulness. As regular readers will be aware, I’ve always been skeptical of the mindfulness movement from a social justice perspective, and a lot of my work involves attempting to weave Buddhist thinking and practices together with social understanding and engagement

However, I definitely bought the Buddhist mindfulness idea that it was generally a good idea to put time aside every day to sit, to notice your thoughts, and to keep bringing yourself back to the present. I figured that should be helpful to enable me to become more present to everyday life, to learn how not to get carried away into reactivity when hard stuff happens, and to notice forms of oppression acting through me and working to dismantle those as much as is possible.

What I actually found was that my fifteen minute meditation at the start of every day ranged from – at best – sitting with my noisy mind carrying me away for fifteen minutes and feeling a bit bad that I hadn’t come back to the present at all by the end to – at worst – taking a fifteen minute journey into precisely how bad I felt about myself.

I’m now reading an awesome book by David A. Treleavan called Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness which brings mindfulness into dialogue with trauma-informed therapy and social justice. It’s helped me to make sense of these meditation experiences. As someone with regularly recurring cPTSD symptoms, meditation like this can be counterproductive unless engaged with in a trauma-informed way. In fact many – if not most – people experience some mild to major re-traumatising when they try to just sit with themselves without having any awareness of how trauma works. In pushing myself to meditate every day like this, with the idea that it must be good for me, I think I’ve been making things worse, and certainly not better.

Staying with feelings

A final example is staying with feelings: something that I’ve always been a big advocate of, as you can tell from my zine of this name. But engaging with the work of blogger and trauma-informed counsellor Love Uncommon showed me a vital missing piece of these practices. It’s only a good idea to stay with your feelings when they are in the manageable range. When they have reached a high intensity – or tipped into reactivity – then it is far more helpful to soothe yourself until they are manageable again. As with the other points, trying to stay with feelings when they are overwhelming is often retraumatising and unhelpful, making the feelings more scary and harder to stay with, rather than less so.

A similar thing is true for conflict and staying with each other’s feelings. A lot of people have the sense that the best thing to do in conflict is to stay and hash it out. But if any of the people involved has tipped into high intensity reactivity – or a trauma response – then that is a really bad idea. Far better to take time out, self-soothe, and cool down, perhaps making a time to return to whatever the conflict was about when everyone is in a good place to do so. Staying when one or more of you is in a place of trauma is again a recipe for retraumatising yourselves, acting out your survival strategies in ways that tighten rather than loosening them, and making further painful conflict between you more, rather than less, likely over time.

Other examples

Other examples where people often take a non-self-consensual approach to addressing their mental health struggles would include forcing yourself to go to a form of therapy or support that doesn’t feel right for you, staying with a therapist who doesn’t feel good, insisting to yourself that you must ‘be better’ by a certain point, anything which rests on the idea of ‘pulling your socks up’ or ‘getting over it’, and engaging in any form of self-help which is based on the idea that you are broken and need fixing rather than that you are okay as you are and deserve support. 

I’ve also had some interesting conversations with people recently who’re moving away from abstinence and restriction approaches to addressing addiction, self-harm and self-soothing to models where you allow yourself all the things you want, but engage with them consciously and intentionally with curiosity. One person said that any habit that harms us is oppression acting through us, so we cannot and must not respond with further self-harm and oppression.

It may seem paradoxical that some people experience way more radical shifts when they move towards the latter model, but it makes sense from the perspective that progress is only possible when we stop treating ourselves in the way that put the survival strategies or unhelpful habits there in the first place.

The role of fear and shame

Another part of this clicked for me after reading Pete Walker’s book on cPTSD (yes I am becoming a trauma nerd). He puts a lot of emphasis on the fear/shame feeling combo as being the key feature of emotional flashback and also – I realise now – a low level everyday backdrop to life for most of us with these kinds of past experiences.

Related to the idea that we can’t help ourselves using the same non-consensual approaches that hurt is in the first place, is the idea that fear and shame will not get us out of fear and shame. When we’re struggling we often try this kind of approach. We feel that we are bad people for struggling in these ways so we try to shame ourselves into addressing them or sorting ourselves out. We try to frighten ourselves into action by pointing out all the terrible things that might happen if we continue to employ our survival strategies.

There’s a whole additional post to be written about how fear and shame-based strategies don’t work for changing other people’s behaviour in a world where these seem to be the go-to strategies everywhere. Justin and I recently podcasted about this in relation to the fearmongering and shaming responses we’re seeing in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Fear and shame tend to make people frightened and defensive, and therefore more – rather than less – likely keep right on doing the things you don’t want them to do. The same is true with ourselves when we’re struggling. Like what could be a worse strategy for trying to cure ourselves from fear and shame than giving ourselves a load of fear and shame about our fear and shame. Think about it.

So what can we do?

So what I’m saying here is that if we treat ourselves in the ways that put our survival strategies, habits, or stuck patterns there in the first place this will solidify and tighten them, rather than dissolving or loosening them. 

What is the alternative? Well it is a massive challenge within our current cultural context because it involves us treating ourselves – and each other – in the radically different ways which intersectional feminists from Audre Lorde onwards have been encouraging us to do: valuing ourselves and others equally, practicing self-care, sitting with the places in which we are oppressed and victimised and the places where we oppress or hurt others. 

Such thinkers also point out that individual and systemic shifts need to happen alongside each other, given our interdependence. It’s hard – if not impossible – for individuals to change their inner landscape if the non-consensual outer landscape remains the same, and the idea that we should be able to do so harms us more. Engaging with others to share our experiences and work collectively is vital if possible.

For me a key starting point is self-consent. I’m trying to slow down my everyday life sufficiently to notice every time I’m drawn to override my self-consent. This is proving easier to notice now that many attempts to do so result in an emotional flashback plummet into fear/shame (trauma humour). But I’m also trying to notice the micro-moments of overriding my consent, the flickers of fear/shame that come up when I do that. I try to pay attention to what happened to elicit that response, to bring self-compassion to the situation to understand why that was my response, and to consider ways in which I might engage with whatever happened differently, in ways that don’t override my self-consent.

Slowness is another key here. This just can’t be done fast. Speeding up inevitably involves pushing through and getting overwhelmed. It’s helpful to tune into when I’m stepping out of my comfort zone into my stretch zone, and ensuring that I pull back into the comfort zone before I hit overwhelm. I was having a lot of quiet nights in before they became the default.

If fear and shame are a big part of the problem, then the solution is the opposite: cultivating protection and care to counter the fear and shame. Pete Walker talks about reparenting yourself and reparenting by committee. Other authors talk about cultivating a compassionate witness within yourself or befriending yourself, often alongside receiving a safe-enough and kind-enough therapeutic relationship to model what this might be like. 

I’ll be writing more about how I’ve gone about this from a plural perspective, but basically it’s anything you can do to be kind and protective towards yourself rather than shaming or frightening yourself, and to treat yourself consensually instead of non-consensually. 

Useful questions to ask yourself are: ‘what do I usually/habitually do under these circumstances?’ and ‘what would the opposite of that look like?’ You may find that there are several different ‘opposite’ options to play with. They may also be the ‘opposite’ of the experiences that resulted in your stuck patterns or survival strategies.

At this point you can bring those other practices back in. For me it’s not about stopping addressing traumatic memories, meditating, or trying to stay with my feelings. All those practices are immensely valuable, but only if done consensually, gently, gradually, and in ways that feel good rather than bad, and stretching rather than overwhelming.

Patreon link: If you liked this, feel free to support my Patreon, it will certainly help this self-employed person to maintain some income during these uncertain times.

Plural tag: This post was written by Beastie.


Meg-John Barker is the author of a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History, How To Understand Your Gender, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To), Rewriting the Rules, The Psychology of Sex, and The Secrets of Enduring Love. They have also written a number of books for scholars and counsellors on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice.

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