For many clients, racism can be a deeply emotional topic.
The experience of racism (and the scenes of racial injustice that occur far too often) can trigger a wave of painful emotions that threaten to shift clients into a state of reactivity and overwhelm.
Shelly Harrell, PhD worked with a client who found herself in that very situation. In the video below, Shelly shares how she first addressed her client’s racial wounds – and then equipped her with strategies to ease her emotional reactivity.
Have a look.
This is a woman who never really processed issues of race, and I think her socioeconomic privilege kind of protected her in her mind initially. But there were clearly things that were hard for her to manage emotionally that propelled her into the abuse of alcohol. She came to therapy actually saying, “I’m finding myself being really reactive to issues of race. That hasn’t been true in my life. I need to figure this out because I want to just scream at people a lot.”
And so, we initially just started talking through her experience, she was very critical of herself for her reactivity, but also knew that there were things that had not been explored around the issues of race in her life. She found herself very sensitive to racism in the media, at all levels of analysis. So from kind of larger sociopolitical issues to issues that she witnessed, and then not just in the media, but in her own experience.
Now, of course we know with the social media, if a video goes viral, we potentially get exposed to it over and over and over again because it shows up everywhere. So incidents of racial violence, she would watch stories and just was continuously being triggered by these things. But really where it came to a head were her children came of school age and she enrolled them in a predominantly white private school and her world then was surrounded by predominantly white, very privileged communities and she initially was feeling some commonality, but over time, her sense was that there were some ways of interacting with her that were devaluing, that were expecting her to be more stereotypical, and then her children were having some not so positive experiences that she was reacting to.
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So she initially was aware she was being triggered; someone could say something, and she would feel a surge of anger or resentment. But she hadn’t explored this stuff before. This is sort of a different presentation of emotional triggers, but it was just as intense for her that it interfered with her relationships. It interfered with her sense of safety and well-being in the world.
And so part of the work with dealing with emotional triggers is giving some validity to where they come from: real things happen that wound us. If we don’t care for the wound, it can become infected or it can stay open and unhealed. She had never really cared for the wounds that racism had imposed in her life. She hadn’t attended to those. They had gotten uncared for, so it was a process of recognizing some of the roots of her woundedness at those multiple levels of analysis.[We] looked at her familial and interpersonal [experiences], the death of her father, and those sorts of things. Also [we looked] at experiences in society including some of the ways she felt wounded by stereotypes, prejudice, and racism, all of which had not been processed.
Really, again, accepting that this reactivity was there for a reason and it didn’t come from nowhere; she wasn’t just a crazy woman. These reactions had a basis in her life experience personally and in the collective experience as a person of color or as a biracial African American Korean woman.
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What started to be really important, in addition to these awareness processes of exploring where her reactivity was coming from and some of the origins of it both personally and societally, was beginning to encourage her to speak about this more. Also [to encourage] her to join conversation and community with others who had similar experiences and wounds who could say, “Yeah, that happened to me. Yeah, that triggers me, also.”
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She didn’t want to just make it her individual issue. Part of what was healing for her was seeing it as a collective issue and becoming more involved in groups and organizations where she could bond with people and get affirmed. This is part of the caring for the wound so that it begins to heal when we feel a sense of connection and commonality and shared experience with others. She became less reactive to issues of racism and more in a place of being responsive. It affirmed that there was a reason for her reactivity. We didn’t want to just dismiss it like it’s just a personal problem. There were layers to that reactivity.[We] gave her some agency of, “If I see this as a problem, as unfairness, as ignorance,” however the ways she considered it, “How can I respond to this rather than react to it?” Again, [we were] increasing a sense of agency by bringing in that awareness, the allies, and the action piece of, what can I do then? What are some of the choices I can [make] to engage in the world around this trigger? Both attending to the wound and caring for the wound and attending to the conditions that created the wound so that one can be more active and feel that sense of agency. And both of those things helped to reduce the reactivity.”
If you found this helpful, here are a few more resources for working with racial stress and trauma in a session:
And if you would like to learn more from Shelly and other top experts (like Peter Levine, PhD; Pat Ogden, PhD; Stephen Porges, PhD; Dan Siegel, MD; Richard Schwartz, PhD; and more) about how to help clients shift away from reactivity and build powerful self-regulation skills, click here.
Now we’d like to hear from you. Do you have clients who might benefit from the strategies that Shelly described? What are some other ways that you might work with a client’s emotional triggers? Please let us know in the comments below.