Addressing our Collective Fear: How Therapy Might Heal America’s Deepest Wounds
co-written by Jared Michaels and Shirin Shoai
As therapists, we’re trained to look beneath the surface of the myriad issues that our clients bring into the room. What we’ve found is that fear is usually the ultimate source of these issues. To help our clients heal, we may gently inquire about their reservations, concerns, or worst-case scenarios to shed light on them. We help our clients realize that those fantasies may not actually happen or that if they do happen, our clients will have the inner resources as well as a safe relationship with us to be able to navigate the situation.
Unfortunately, on a societal level we lack such a proven method for facilitating healing and growth. It’s no secret that the U.S. is in the midst of a deepening political impasse and cultural polarization, or that extremism runs rampant worldwide. In response, concerned citizens spend countless hours organizing, protesting, writing, and taking various other actions in the hopes of healing these rifts. For many, burnout is a real problem.
Instead of continuing on the same course, we believe that it would be helpful to look beneath the surface on a national scale. America, like our clients, seems to be afraid. We think this is why there is, for example, so much division around the Flint water crisis. On one side, there seems to be deep fear that White people in power value money over the health of impoverished African-Americans. On the other side, there seems to be deep fear that the anger coming out of Flint (and the rest of the country) stems from an attempt to gain power. On both sides, there seems to be profound fear of having a lack of safety – physical safety and job security. This fear is not only depleting, it separates people into camps and slows down progress.
That’s why we envision a kind of collective therapeutic process in which, to continue with the Flint example, everyone involved acknowledges, feels, and processes their fear. They would then be more healthy, have more energy to help each other, and treat each other as vulnerable human beings.
Here’s another example: As the public is becoming increasingly aware, police brutality remains unchecked because officers protect each other at the expense of the communities they’re called upon to serve. In a way that is similar to the Flint crisis, fear divides Americans into pro-community or pro-police camps. It actually increases negativity on emotional and practical levels. And, also like the Flint crisis, it’s clear to us that both addressing the systematic injustice and the widespread underlying fear is the way to move forward.
Here is a short list of fears we might grapple with at various points in our lives:
- Fear of being shamed
- Fear of being ignored
- Fear of being labeled as weak
- Fear of rejection
- Fear of being humiliated
- Fear of being attacked
- Fear of dying
- Fear of being scapegoated
- Fear of being misunderstood
- Fear of being stereotyped (vs. seen for your individuality)
- Fear of having your experience invalidated
- Fear of being manipulated
- Fear of being isolated
- Fear of failure
Do these fears sounds familiar? They’re nearly universal.
Fear is a powerful unconscious motivator, protecting us from true danger and often inhibiting true progress. We can no longer afford to leave it unexamined. We propose that we as a society take a good look at those who are perpetuating as well as suffering from injustice. We offer that fear is the root issue for people on both sides. Fear is used to sell products, control behavior, and promote agendas of all stripes. And fear, perhaps even more than the events it informs or the actions it evokes, is what we must deal with in order to create lasting change.
When we as individuals tend to our fear, we can move through it in therapy, meditation, or any place that supports us to detach enough to see it more clearly. On a cultural level, can we begin to give ourselves space for fear to be named, understood, and treated with similar compassion and wisdom?
We envision mental health professionals taking on a new role in relationship to America. We see them treating whole groups – small as a town and as large as all of America. We picture the country becoming truly receptive to these treatments, the same way that a traditional village might listen to a shaman’s diagnosis when he or she is addressing the village. And we imagine these groups then doing the inner work that’s necessary to complement the work of improving the outer world.
What would that look like in practice? It might look like therapists advising governments at the local, state, and national levels, joining their public relations teams, and being part of the policy-making process. It might look like therapists working with non-profits or for-profits to help them take care of the emotional underbelly of their organizations. There are many more possibilities – the sky is the limit.
Pick any issue from environmental destruction to the worldwide refugee crisis, it’s fear that ultimately keeps the whole cycle going. So may we as Americans learn to take action against social ills from a place of relative fearlessness. May we be empathic so that real listening, real negotiation, and real change can uplift us all. May we take good care of all of our afflictive emotions, like fear. And may we find safe outlets in which to exhaust it so that we can tend to the world with all of our intelligence and goodness.
Like the great poet Maya Angelou, Shirin Shoai believes that “there is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.” In her Oakland-based private practice, Shirin blends relational and Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy to help people reclaim their inner beauty and fire. She also facilitates process groups for motherless daughters.