Out of the rut – can psychological insights be used in activist practices?

The recent expansion of radical mental health projects focused on burnout, self-care, mental health, communication, sustainability, and the like are exciting developments in the radical community. This kind of work is vital and these are important areas to focus our attention; I believe they are all a big part of making real change in our lives and in our communities. However, I don’t think these projects are enough. We are missing part of the equation here. We have law collectives, medical collectives, mutual aid collectives, mental health collectives, etc. but what about psychology collectives that could focus on understanding how to make our activism more effective?

The insights and tools of psychology have been used by the advertising industry and mainstream institutions that seek to control people, but most activist efforts don’t take the time to consider how a particular campaign plays psychologically. We fail to ask: how are our actions seen by others, how do we relate to the world outside of the activist community, what outcomes are we envisioning when we engage in particular actions, and what really makes people change?

I don’t mean to suggest we use psychological tools, methods and insights in a creepy way the way an advertiser might – I don’t want to manipulate people. In fact, it seems that activists are too often using manipulative tactics in their campaigns: shame, guilt, and “educational” campaigns without much depth, forethought, or follow-through are regularly employed. I’m tired of those old paradigms. When I was 14 I would go yell “shame” at the old ladies wearing fur coats to the opera. I highly doubt that those ladies stopped wearing their furs and it just made me feel sheepish and indignant, rather than empowered and engaged in making positive change. In more recent years I have dealt with how campaigns of guilt, social pressure, and coercion can turn in on us and eat away at our communities and make people turn away from activism and from activist campaigns. I no longer find these tactics effective or fulfilling.

What would it look like if we used psychology in a positive and genuine way in our activist work? Steve Chase has used the phrase “psychologically-smart activism” and asked questions such as “How can psychological insights and tools be shared to help people develop the capacity to join together in social movements and make the world a better place?” (2007 keynote speech at Psychology-Ecology-Sustainability Conference). I’d like to use this kind of inquiry to come up with new ways of “doing activism”. It might just break us out of the old molds and help us come up with new ways to engage in social change work, ways that have more lasting power, more depth, and more substance.

I don’t know what the “answers” are – what the “right” or most effective way to “do activism” is or precisely which areas of psychology may apply to social change work – but I’d like to bring the discussion to the table in the radical community.

Just as we are re-evaluating the ways we look at our own mental health, we could step back and really look at our activist tactics. We might ask: in what ways are we stuck in a rut? What are new and creative ways to engage people on a different level than we have before? What can be done on the ground to heal the rift between what we aspire to or think about and what we actually do? How can we have meaningful conversation with people about politics and social change who are outside of our usual political community and therefore out of our comfort zone? So often in past work I have felt like I was just yelling at “those people” or an unseen “THEM” – and where has that gotten us? I’m tired of seeing things that way. This kind of “us and them” thinking is part of the split that creates psychological barriers to actually making change.

I’m sure I am not the first person to ask these questions. In my studies of psychology and social change I have seen that there are psychologists and activist who are talking about the joining of psychology and change efforts. Joanna Macy has been doing her powerful Despair and Empowerment Work since the anti-nuclear movement (http://www.joannamacy.net/). Feminist psychologist and ecopsychologists have addressed the connection between society’s problems, psychology, and change efforts. Despite all the above, I don’t see these ideas really permeating activist circles, at least the often younger, often direct-action oriented, often anti-authoritarian groups that I am familiar with.

We are so often in a reactive mode – responding to one tragic occurrence only to find it followed by another and another. It is hard to get perspective when we are constantly witnessing all the horrible occurrences in the world that need attention and work. There is so much for us to do. Thich Nhat Hanh councils, “A student asked me, ‘There are so many urgent problems, what should I do?’ I said, ‘Take one thing and do it very deeply and carefully, and you will be doing everything at the same time.’” It seems we need to find work that we feel good about and that really engages us rather than always jumping from one thing to the next – that seems to be one of the roots of much of the burnout I have seen in the community. We could take a deep breath, step back and look at the bigger picture of our work. Take a moment to get some perspective and allow a vision of what we want to form. Then we can work for what we want, rather than against what we don’t want.

Please contact me to discuss things like this: counterbalance@riseup.net

Keeping it Together in Interesting Times

I often feel upset that in an activist scene that is about awareness of the problems in the world, I find that — while we may be accomplished at taking action regarding the problems we see — we can be quite unskilled at talking about the emotions and feelings that these issues bring up. I worry that in our frantic reactions to recent events, we will not recognize the need to be mindful of our emotional and psychological states. I fear that emotional or psychological work may be the first or “easiest” thing to give up or overlook in a crisis (ironically, when we need to pay attention the most).

Recent events have been personally unsettling to me: several FBI arrests of people

I know, the collective I work with got audited twice in one month (state, not federal – and this has never happened before in the 10 years I have been working with this group), now the raid at Long Haul and events/arrests at the RNC that seem to have barely made the news.

This all weighs heavy on the community and can take a toll on us individually and collectively. My question is, what might be the emotional or psychological fallout of state repression and what can we do to take care of ourselves and each other?

Emotional and psychological impacts of repression

Harvard ecopsychologist Sarah Conn notes “Much of the burnout that occurs…in social change organizations occurs because there is no acknowledgment of the powerful emotions involved in living as part of a threatened world and working to save it. Indeed, one of the central barriers to constructive initiatives for social change is the taboo on public expression or even acknowledgment of these emotions. Breaking through the taboo and harnessing the power of our emotional connections is essential work to be done…”

Activist, psychotherapist, and author Pattrice Jones confirms that in many forms of activist or social work “the cumulative impact of doing emotionally difficult work over a period of years can lead to the same difficulties in living caused by dramatically traumatic events.” I worry that the toll activist work (often draining) can exact coupled with the recent upsurge in (visible) repression may accumulate into increased occurrences of burnout and breakdown. Some emotional reactions to be aware of are: fear and intimidation, stress/anxiety, anger/rage, feelings of violation/helplessness, suspicion/feelings of betrayal, fragmentation/in-fighting, and feelings of disconnection or emotional numbness. Any combination of these (or others) may come up and, while understandable, if left unattended, they could turn in on us and cause personal or group problems.

Jones also talks about collective trauma: “Groups of people may experience trauma collectively, as when…an organization is subjected to police action. The collective reaction may be complicated since trauma tends to interfere with relationships, but people who experience the same trauma often feel a special kinship with one another.” Ultimately, the good news is that these kinds of events can bring us together. If we handle it well, and don’t forget to pay attention to our emotions then our groups can get stronger. The next question is how can we help each other through these situations?

Ideas for emotional/psychological work we can do:

On a personal level-

*Don’t forget the basics – eat well, get enough sleep, get enough physical activity. Also remember to drink enough water and resist the urge to drink too much alcohol (or whatever too much) which can be especially attractive when stress levels go up, but ultimately make it harder for your body and mind to cope.

*Do what you need to do to take care of yourself – this might include talk therapy, body work, yoga/exercise, medication, getting outside, meditation, etc – for me the right formula is running/biking, yoga, massage therapy, being outside/gardening, talk therapy, anti-depressants, meditation/dharma talks, and baths. Remember that you are important – take time for yourself so you can continue to do activism, political work, or whatever you do to be engaged in the world!

*Stay engaged with other people, don’t get isolated. Talk to folks about how you (and they) are feeling. Check in with yourself on a physical level too – emotions exist on both a physical and social level.

* Take time away when you need it – it is ok to take a break.

On a group level –

*At meetings start with check-ins to talk about how folks are feeling – while this might feel time consuming or petty it will ultimately make the group healthier. I recently attended a meeting where we did stretching/yoga together spontaneously before the meeting and it really helped to ground and focus folks (I realize this might be a little too woo-woo for some!).

*There will likely be issues and disagreements that come up in high intensity situations – as a group, think about how to do constructive conflict resolution. Make room for folks, stay open-minded, remember to have empathy and compassion – everyone deals with difficult situations differently.

*Acknowledge emotions – learn how to see them and sit with them – this can be powerful work that positively fuels activism – if we are aware of emotions such as fear then they won’t control us.

*Organizations and groups are collections of relationships – nurture those relationships by being present with each other and seeing what is happening with each other. Healthy interpersonal relationships create strong and stable projects.

*Celebrate successes – say thank you to each other for all the hard work! Why does this so often not happen? In all my group work, I feel I often hear criticism more than I hear praise. Celebration and praise will help us to continue to do the work and not let police repression distract us from it. Hell, folks deserve praise for just continuing to operate after repressive state actions!

This is just a short collection of ideas; I’m sure folks have many others, talking about these ideas is a good starting point to open up dialogue about how we are handling things on an emotional level. I’ve been told that after the raid at the Long Haul something like 20 computers were donated, tons of people have sent monetary support, and dozens of lawyers have offered their services. This is all amazing. Now imagine if talk therapists, massage therapists, yoga instructors, meditation instructors, and group dynamic/conflict resolution experts had shown up to offer their services!

So often crisis can bring out the best in us. We see our communities rallying to support each other and our visions for a better future are confirmed in the present. We are all in this together, and we know it. Let’s take it up a notch and bring discussions of our emotional lives and of the psychological impacts of repression to the table. Our communities and our continued political work will be healthier for it. For further information on this topic, I highly suggest Pattrice Jones’ book Aftershock: Confronting Trauma in a Violent World – A Guide for Activists and Their Allies as well as Laura van Dernoot Lipsky’s Trauma Stewardship: An everyday guide to caring for self while caring for others.