Therapy for white supremacy culture: Fear

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In today’s post, I will focus on the ways in which fear, which is the foundational characteristic of white supremacy culture, has made it harder for me to live a life informed by my values, and how the principles of acceptance and commitment therapy have helped me.

In my previous two posts, I provided a brief outline of the characteristics of white supremacy culture identified by Tema Okun and showed how they are all sources of pain and suffering in our lives, whether or not you believe they have anything to do with white supremacy. Starting today and continuing in the coming weeks, I intend to look at each of these characteristics more closely through the lens of acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT, which is a powerful evidence-based psychotherapeutic and coaching modality that combines mindfulness and elements of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

The six core principles of ACT are:

  1. Defusion – “Don’t believe everything you think.”
  2. The observing self – “Be a reporter, not a commentator.”
  3. Presence – “Be here now.” 
  4. Expansion – “Feel your feelings.”
  5. Values – “Live for what you love.”
  6. Committed action – “Love is an activity.”

The first four principles combined provide a decent framework for understanding mindfulness, which Jon Kabat-Zinn defines as a way of paying attention on purpose and without judgment to what is happening right now. When you consider that most suffering is the result of people reacting to painful events from their past rather than responding to what is happening here and now, it’s easy to see how mindfulness could be useful for anyone looking to develop more peace of mind. Once someone is ready to make a break from their habit of reactivity, the final two principles—values and committed action—give them the tools for creating a meaningful and fulfilling life.

Love and fear

Today I’ll just focus on romantic partnered love, even though I believe that love that is limited to one person is not truly love at all. Due to my own personal history of family trauma, it has always been hard for me to be present with a partner’s anger or upset feelings. Deep down, I am afraid of being judged unlovable, and this fear has caused me to withhold love from a partner when she is needing it most.

Humor and fear

I love to make people laugh. At difficult times in my life, watching comedy cheered me up when nothing else would. My love of comedy even inspired me to dabble in writing and performing stand-up. Though I’ve had some amazing experiences, my fear of not being good enough is one reason I haven’t pursued this interest further.

Justice and fear

I believe that for true justice to be achieved in this country and in this world, people with privilege—meaning people who aren’t spending most of their time trying to survive a world that is trying to kill them—must change our lives in order to become dedicated and effective agents of social change. However, changing my life is a huge task. It means standing up to authority figures for what I believe in. It means risking ridicule or punishment. It means risking inadvertently causing harm when that isn’t what I intended. All of these things trigger my fear of being cast out from my position of privilege. My favorite comedian, Hari Kondabolu, says, “We need more John Brown white people!” referring to the white 19th century abolitionist who waged a failed military attack on the structures that maintained the mass enslavement of Black bodies. He died for his belief in justice. My fear makes it harder for me to be who I know I must be in order to live up to my values.

Healing and fear

I’ve had to do my fair share of healing in this life—physical, emotional, and spiritual. Even considering embarking on a healing journey brings up vulnerability because it forces us to confront the inevitability of our death. At times this has been too much for me, and the fear has prevented me from even acknowledging that something was hurting and in need of care.

Spirituality and fear

I was raised Catholic for part of my childhood. Much of the teaching is informed by fear. Fear of sin, fear of temptation, fear of the devil, fear of judgment from other members of my religion. Spirituality, as opposed to religion, is an experiential process of discovering what it means to be alive, what our purpose is, and what our relationship is with the rest of existence. Such heavy topics obviously rouse heavy emotions, and my fear of being “wrong” or of not knowing the truth prevented me from even being curious about what spirituality meant to me until I was in my late 20s.

Responsibility and fear

A great spiritual lesson in my life was that responsibility is the key to our power as humans. However, the way the word responsibility is used in modern discourse arouses tones of shame, blame, and accusation. As a social creature, I have learned to be afraid of being poorly thought of by others, and this fear has made me less open to seeing and embracing my responsibility in life, which has disconnected me from my power to create change.

Community and fear

Judgment is a human trait, therefore my fear of judgment makes me afraid of people, which makes it harder to find community.

So what does ACT tell us about fear?

Fear feels very natural to many of us, but the truth is there are only two human fears that we are born with: the fear of sudden loud noises (tiger!), and the fear of the sensation of falling (help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!). It’s easy to see how these two fears are adaptive from the very start of our lives on this planet. But what this means is that all the other things that we are afraid of are things that we learned to be afraid of. They are a product of conditioning. ACT gives us the mindfulness tools to be with the feeling of fear without needing to make it go away, and it connects us with our values so that we can ensure that what we choose to do is influenced not by what we fear but by what we love.

Next week I’ll continue this ACT-based analysis of white supremacy culture by focusing on the characteristics of perfectionism, “one right way,” paternalism, and objectivity.

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Nauser Bear is a licensed marriage and family therapist in California (LMFT#123099; licensed with the BBS as Nicholas Jon Reynolds). To work with Nauser, send an email to nauserbeartherapy@gmail.com, call (510) 394-5373, or schedule a free 20-minute consultation by clicking here.

Disclaimer: This blog and comments on it do not constitute medical or mental health advice. If you are in need of support and live in California, contact me to set up a consult to see if working together is a fit. Otherwise, seek mental health support in your area. If you are in danger of hurting yourself or someone else, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention hotline, which is available 24/7, at 800-273-8255.

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