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Anxiety, Depression, Racism

How one desperate man used them to avoid facing shame & trauma

(Trigger warning: This article contains racist and oppressive statements toward BIPOC and can be triggering. This article does not discuss systemic racism at length. I encourage readers to learn about anti-racist practices. Only through exposing and dismantling systemic racism can we heal the collective and individual trauma it causes.)

My relationship with Jordon started with a phone call. He wanted help with overwhelming anxiety and low-self esteem. He was also depressed. This 30-year-old white man described his childhood as a “normal middle-class upbringing.” But the way he described his parents, irrational and violent at times, made me think they had all been victims of trauma.

Jordan started our first session with a 10-minute rant about African American people.

His racism of course had multiple causes, most dominant being the systemic racism imbibed by living in this culture. But in this piece. I will be focusing on a particular way of working with trauma: a parts perspective.

As a psychotherapist, one way I view racism is as a symptom, an adaptation the mind makes to bury overwhelming emotional distress and conflicts. As with any symptom, I welcome it into the therapy room and engage my patient with a stance of curiosity and compassion.

Believing his prejudice was a defense fueled not only by systemic racism but by his underlying symptoms of anxiety, shame, and depression, one of my goals was for us to understand this racist “part” of him.

Jordan reported the mere sight of black people was angering. He complained about how they pushed, shoved, and blocked him from walking at a pace he felt comfortable with as he traveled the subway to get to my office. He described them as “entitled” and as “beneath him.” The gross racist generalizations that came out of his mouth shocked me so much that I was challenged. I was disgusted and I felt myself shutting down. As a therapist, however, my job was not to judge but to remain curious. It took all my might to stay connected to Jordan and find my empathy.

“Jordan,” I asked in our first session, “I know this may sound strange but I wonder if we could get curious together about this part of you that judges black people. It sounds like it uses up a lot of your energy.”

At first, Jordan said it was not a part, it was all of him.

I explained that people are not born hating. We learn to hate.

“You were not born feeling this way, you learned to judge and hate. It is a defense that keeps you from feeling your core emotions.” And, from feeling shame, I thought to myself.

Shame, not the healthy kind but the toxic kind, is the emotion that always accompanies childhood adversity and trauma. But it was too soon to talk about shame with Jordan. He was all anger and bluster on the surface, and I felt his fragility underneath.

He thought for a moment and nodded in agreement. I validated that this part of him must have good reasons for being so angry.

When Jordan was a child, his parents frightened him. When they fought, they were violent. They threw things at each other. Then when the fights ended, it was like nothing ever happened. Neither of his parents checked to see if he was all right. They seemed not to realize the effect the screaming and aggression would have on their young boy.

His father and mother frequently criticized Jordan. They were "equal opportunity humiliators," criticizing and judging everyone they knew. His father often bragged about his own superior intelligence and how everyone else was an idiot. The closest times Jordan had with his parents were bonding over their judgments of others. I imagined the relief Jordan must have felt when his parents focused on someone else’s inadequacies and flaws as opposed to his own.

I assumed from the beginning that Jordan’s depression and low-self esteem was from early emotional neglect and abuse. His hate was redemptive for those weak and fragile parts—it gave him power. The hatred would come to be the antidote to his deep-seated feelings of inadequacy and weakness.

I hoped to help Jordan understand how the entirety of his healthy anger towards his parents had been displaced onto a group of people. I asked Jordan what were some of his earliest memories of black people. He reported a few negative encounters with people who happened to be black. For example, a grocery store clerk scolded him once when he was 10 years old.

To find out more and start the healing process, I suggested he imagine the racist part of him on the chair between us.

I asked, “Can we welcome this part of you into the room and get to know it? I am sure it has something important to share or else it wouldn’t be here with such a vengeance.”

Anthropomorphizing parts of us that hold symptoms helps us learn about them and communicate with them as if they were separate people. I hoped to create safety to explore something new.

Jordan relished the invitation. He was able to create some distance between his Self and his racist part. His racist part shared how black people were inferior and he had contempt for their inferiority. "It’s their fault they have it so bad," he said.

“Where was his compassion?” I wondered, not to mention his common sense and understanding of history.

Jordan’s racism was more about his personal stories than true hatred of others. Racism was his cover story. The real story was this: “I’d rather hate a group of people than my father, my mother, and myself.”

I asked him a few more questions. My questions were intended to ignite his brain cell networks that would lead us down the road to his primal memory—the historical moments when Jordan’s overt racist parts first came into being. I wanted to understand what were the deep emotional conflicts he had struggled to manage and how becoming overtly racist helped.

I asked, “What emotions do you feel as you rant about black people?”

“Superiority,” he said.

This gave me an opportunity to explain that superiority wasn’t an emotion. It was more like a state. Then I listed the seven core emotions for him so we could see which ones he was actually feeling when he ranted. I asked him to check inside his body to see if there was sadness? Fear? Anger? Joy? Disgust? And/or excitement? He could identify anger and disgust.

“Where in your body do you sense the racist part?”

“In my chest,” he reported.

"How old were you when you first had this feeling in your chest with anger and disgust?" I asked.

He said it started when the grocery store clerk yelled at him. I asked why he yelled at him. He couldn’t remember that but he vividly remembered feeling humiliated and hating him. He remembered thinking he was inferior so it did not matter what he thought about him. He was better than him so why care about his opinions.

When I asked him how he felt when the grocery store clerk yelled at him he said, “Like a worthless piece of crap.” A few sessions later when I asked him how he felt when his father criticized him, he said verbatim, “Like a worthless piece of crap.”

Projecting the part of him that felt like a worthless “piece of crap” onto an entire group of people was the only way Jordan had to expel the toxicity of the feelings caused by his childhood traumas. Take rage, shame and contempt, add in some anxiety and despair—it all mixes together to form a toxic soup that has to be expelled, as it is intolerable. I refer to it as the hot potato of shame—now it’s yours.

Jordan’s racism offered him protection from feeling weak, powerless, and vulnerable. When he was ranting about black people he felt powerful and superior. But, as I explained to Jordan, there was a cost for the protection that racism offered. The energy that goes into hate could otherwise be used for vitality and positive connection.

 Hilary Jacobs Hendel
Racism is considered a defense on the Change Triangle. It's a way to avoid experiencing intolerable emotions,
Source: Hilary Jacobs Hendel

“The racist parts of you offer protection from hard feelings but they are also maintaining your depression and low self-worth. The cure is to help you deal with the underlying insecurities and emotions directly.” I shared my feeling that he had been traumatized by abuse and neglect and the fact that he felt bad was not his fault. His parents had hurt him and society offered no protection. Black people were just the scapegoats.

Creating curiosity was the first step to change.

Jordan was willing to get curious because he was desperate for relief from the misery he felt. This desire to feel better over-powered his racist defense.

We worked together for several years. Even though our work ended prematurely, I was happy to know he would continue his internal healing.

As we understand the insidious effects of childhood trauma and the role emotions play in determining our opinions and behaviors, it’s important to have psychotherapeutic tools to help individuals confront racist defenses and the conflicts that “otherness” brings about. Simultaneously, we must work tirelessly to bring awareness to and transform the systems that continue to oppress.

Patient details have been altered to protect privacy and confidentiality.