In recent weeks, I have been writing about various characteristics of white supremacy culture in order to help white folks understand what white supremacy culture is and how we are harmed by it. My hope in writing these posts is to motivate white people to start doing the work of uprooting white supremacy culture from our own hearts and minds. This week’s post is about white supremacy culture and individualism.
I have struggled my entire life with loneliness and the belief that I’m supposed to solve all of my problems on my own. Does that sound like you or anyone you know? For those of us socialized as men, this sense of “I’m on my own” can be even greater. Just this week I held space for a cisgender female friend who was experiencing some difficult emotions. Afterwards, she offered to hold space for me in kind, and even though I’m currently experiencing growing pains in the areas of career, family, and physical and emotional health, rather than take her up on her offer, my initial instinct was to self-isolate as if I believed my stress were a contagious virus, and to self-medicate with Netflix. I’m a therapist, for crying out loud! And still, even I need to remind myself to tell people how I’m feeling!
Though the irony frustrates me, it doesn’t surprise me, because our culture socializes us to believe in the myth of individualism. In describing the characteristics of white supremacy culture, Tema Okun writes that “Individualism is our cultural story – that we make it on our own (or should), without help, while pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Our cultural attachment to individualism leads to a toxic denial of our essential interdependence and the reality that we are all in this, literally, together.”
Denying our interdependence means ignoring reality. This reality is exemplified by how the vast majority of us do not grow our own food or live near a natural water source. It is exemplified by how if I choose not to wear a mask, social distance, or wash my hands during a pandemic, my choice to exercise this “individual right” can have a deadly impact on people that I don’t even know exist.
In order to further illustrate how individualism causes harm and reduces our quality of life, I will share various ways in which my own individualistic behaviors have alienated me from some of my core values.
It breaks my heart to think of all of the human-caused suffering in the world, and I want to make a bigger difference for justice. But when I see someone soliciting donations for a non-profit, or when someone asks me to attend a protest, what I feel in those moments is a fear of losing something important to me, whether it’s time or money or identity or ignorance. Even as I express a desire to transform white supremacy culture, my internalized individualism tells me a comforting story that all I have to do is take care of myself.
Throughout the course of my life, as I have attempted to heal from past traumas, I have self-isolated and hidden my pain from the people closest to me. This intensified my shame and slowed my healing process.
The most obvious value that individualism interferes with is community. The pandemic has been hard for a lot of us, not least because of the isolation that it has caused us. My hope for when we get through the worst of it (or at least start cooperating — the antithesis of individualism and white supremacy — more effectively so that we can engage safely in community events) is that we will start to realize how lonely and isolated we already were even before quarantine, and we will start to appreciate and honor our interdependence.
Now, I want to clarify something. When I talk about the problems of individualism, I don’t mean to knock the entire idea of individuality. We are each unique individuals and we each have special needs and gifts that we would do well to grow our awareness and acceptance of. Furthermore, even though we need to collectively heal our culture and the world from the wounds of white supremacy, and even though that healing can be done in groups or with the help of a therapist, ultimately each of us is responsible for our own individual healing and growth. It’s both/and, not either/or.
If you’re looking for a place to start on your journey of recovery from toxic individualism, I invite you to join my free weekly workshop focused on healthy relating. Because the fact is that all of our unhealthy behaviors were once adaptive responses to problems we didn’t know any other way to solve. Individualism is no different: we haven’t always been able to count on other people, and so many of us decided as a result to just steer clear in order to not get hurt. If this is you, I encourage you to check out my free weekly offering:
How to get along – A free weekly drop-in communication workshop
Are you having trouble talking to people about cultural problems like racism or transphobia? Do you find it difficult to set and maintain boundaries with other people regarding COVID safety? Are you struggling to get along with partners, family, friends, roommates, neighbors, or coworkers? I’d like to help you.
I provide education and guidance through an intersectional social justice and trauma sensitive lens to support:
- Healthy boundaries
- House meetings
- Intentional dialogues
- Nonviolent communication (NVC)
- Repair conversations
Wednesdays from 12 – 1PM PST
Nauserbeartherapy at gmail dot com or click here for more info
Nauser Bear is a licensed marriage and family therapist in California (LMFT#123099; licensed with the BBS as Nicholas Jon Reynolds) and a coach for HELPAs (Healers, Educators, Leaders, Parents, Activists & Artists) wanting to build a life of sustainable selfless service. To work with Nauser, send an email to nauserbeartherapy at gmail dot 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.