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Being The Activist Part 1: The Trauma of the Activist

‘Unless you learn to face your own shadows,

You will continue to see them in others,

Because the world outside of you is only a reflection of the world inside!’

Jung (1990)

I love watching the worlds of Counselling, Psychology and Psychotherapy right now. 

These past five years, or so, have seen a real attempt to change the narratives around our trainings, our theories, and our profession.  Intersectional movements have arisen, attempts to explore decolonisation, and the raising of voices of the other(s) have in my view broadened the scope of our helping professions, enlivening our world and opening the doorways towards greater inclusivity. 

I am therefore glad that there are so many activists out there. 

So many of us who are doing some good work for those in need, both within and without our profession. 

Yet, I also am very worried.

I am concerned because what I am also witnessing is the rise in activists who for whatever reason have not looked at the ethical often internal struggle(s) underpinning their rise to activistic prominence.  That so many of us have rejected that need to look and be with the trauma which when unresolved is then simplistically projected outwards.  Activists who in their laziness have become that very thing they are fighting so much against.

A covert ally for the superegoic internalisations they have yet to rid themselves of. 

A weapon therefore of the systems they so want to disrupt.

‘Activism is my rent,

For living on this planet.’

Alice Walker

Too many have hidden their trauma in their activism. Their failure to sit in the pain of powerlessness, to be with it so it can exorcise us, transform us, and heal us, means they will always be prone to distance themselves from said internalised shameful experience of Otherness.  They often do not realise, but in order to survive they pass the shame spiral ever downwards. They keep the system going. 

There are two ways in which this may occur.  The first is what I call Trojan Horse Activism.  Simplistically put, Trojan Horse Activism is where the aim of the activist is to gain a seat at the top tables of Supremacy.  In order to do this, in order for the activist to gain access to projected whiteness, to gain a seat alongside patriarchal superiority, the activist has to perform in a way which makes them amenable to those in supremacy.  They end up punching punch down, for example, on other others to affirm said parity with patriarchy, to confirm pledge their fealty to White supremacy, to show their unwavering commitment to class superiority. The shame of their systemic separateness is then exorcised out onto another other, as they themselves become acolytes for said systems of oppression.

This differs though to Authentic Activism.  Authentic Activism is by its very nature intersectional. It realises and sits with the shame of its own oppressiveness seeing shame as the key in the doorway towards allyship.

Yet, to move in anyway from Trojan Horse Activism towards Authentic Activism there has to be an internalised reckoning of just what the abuses we have all endured have made us.  There has to be a recognition that given we are all a part of these systems we are battling against, that the fight is as much in here, in us, in me, as it is out there, across gender, racial, or border divides. 

Until then, there will always be too many individuals and countries denying they are in unprocessed pain, meaning there are too many siloed groups and individuals with internalised systemic rage.

Until then, we will remain still so individually and collectively traumatised by our experiences, and unable or unwilling to learn the role our traumas play in our activism. 

Until then we will still be too individually and collectively prone to judgement of those who we believe are not as good as we are, as we fight the good fights we have chosen to engage within.

Until then, these battles will be incomplete.

We therefore need to do better. 

‘When you judge others,

You do not define them,

You define yourself.

(Unknown)

When we are on the other side of the coin, when we become the other, we endure many things, with judgement being that which has most often been used against us. When those with individual or systemic power objectify, stereotype, or other us, they don’t see us.  Not at all.  What they do is assume they know us.  And they judge us based upon those slivers of knowledge they have already implanted in their minds.  So, in those moments of invisibility we have already been judged, we have already been unseen, and it is one of the most painful things any of us can endure when it is based around something we cannot change, cannot hide, and cannot disrupt systemically.  In judgement, we are unseen, we are projected upon, we are acted against, and we are punished.  Judgement is therefore the realisation that we are or have been a victim.  So, to go back to that place, to even scent a whiff of this possibility, often brings with it a reactivity, a fightback, a struggle to resist our projected objectifier, hater, subject, or judge. 

When not owned by those of us who want to be activists, Judgement here is the narcissistic weapon of the physically weakened, when faced with the shadow strength of their own abuser. So, because we have not worked through our own experiences of powerlessness, we find ways to cope.  We punch down, we judge those we have internalised systemically as less than, and use them for our hate whilst hiding behind our righteous activism.  Like the feminist embedded within a patriarchal society, or the black activists enduring the hate of white supremacy, both of whom endure by hitting out at other gender communities.  It is, this judgement, the misused Machiavellian munitions of those who have been emotionally, spiritually, and bodily broken. 

Judgement doesn’t lift up.  Judgement drags downwards that which it oppresses.  It takes the other down to the level of the abuser/critic, and then forces them down further still.  Judgement is a signpost of the fragility of the critic/abuser though in these moments.  As it speaks through an unconscious comparison between itself and the other, judgement rips away the humanity of that which it oppresses; it dehumanises and reduces the other down to bit parts, to slivers of identity, then project its own shame across the bridge of its own hatred, a shame then worn in supplication by the other. 

‘Trauma comes back as a reaction,

Not a memory.

Bessel van der Kolk (2015)

Secondly, our trauma when untamed will destroy any and all attempts at unity; in its untamed hate towards the collective others.  It therefore misses out on, it denies, nay, it actively ignores our activistic responsibility to remember the humanity of those who have hurt us most.  Of those who have cut us the deepest. 

But let me go further.

Untamed trauma doesn’t distinguish.  Untamed trauma refuses to see beyond the binary of Black and White, of Male and Female, of (add your own version of this coupling here).  When we are driven by our trauma(s) as the other it/we can’t hold the more nuanced, more complex intersections of identity and otherness.  It projects outward that which has been internalised, normally our abuser, revelling in our narcissistic specialness, or grandiose victimhood, rejecting the shame of our own awfulness in return.  Our unresolved trauma, be it individual or collective, whilst craving relationship and comfort with seeming sameness, simultaneously eschews those most simplistic forms of otherness.  It distances and dehumanises as it others the (racial, gendered, child) Other. 

With both of these, with our fear of (yet ability to) judge, and with our fear of our trauma (whilst simultaneously projecting our abuser outwards), activism and activists run huge risks in become unwitting (or maybe willingly) acolytes of these very systems we are looking to disrupt. 

The truest of activists though understood this.  They recognised the need to turn inwards, to do the work on themselves, be it through creativity or be it through contemplation.  They understood the shadow side of the pain of being a victim, of being marginalised, that this involved not only returning ourself to a state of humanity, but that this also involved re-learning how to see difference. 

That this involved owning our hatred.

That this involved rediscovering ……

‘As I walked out the door towards that gat that would lead to my freedom,

I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison!’

Mandela (1994)

To Be Continued End February 2024 in Part 2

References

Jung, C. G. (1990). The Undiscovered Self. Princeton University Press.

Mandela, N. (1994). Long Walk To Freedom. Abacus Publishing.

van der Kolk, B. (2015). The Body Keeps The Score: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma (1st ed.). Penguin Books Limited.