Most of us agree that the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and other Black folks are unconscionable. But some still aren’t in clear agreement about what to do or think about the chaos erupting in our world.
If you’ve wondered whether your private attitudes and actions or lack thereof matter, it might help you to learn that yes, they definitely matter. Those who’ve studied trauma have learned that when witnesses to injustice do nothing, it’s a greater source of distress for sufferers than the act of brutality itself.
This is because “neutrality” is a form of deep invalidation. When we humans experience invalidation from others, it sends a message to the survival parts of our brains that we aren’t valued or protected. This lack of safety creates pressure under which the human mind eventually will either “implode” or “explode” — usually a little of both.
Invalidation is a form of relational trauma which, over time, harms the brain and nervous system. Clearly, it also results in the disintegration of any healthy bonds of connection, and dissolution of trust in others.
In the Gottman research on couples, (the Sound Relationship House model) we’ve learned that sustainability in a relationship depends upon the stabilizing walls of trust and commitment. Betrayals, like invalidation, will weaken these stabilizing forces, and sometimes stressors will reveal that trust and commitment were undefined or even absent from the beginning.
These principles for a relationship of two hold true on a larger scale, as well.
A Simple Example
Michael and Jesse were visiting me for couple therapy. Jesse confided to Michael about stress with her coworkers, seeking his understanding and support. While Jesse was describing painful interactions, I noticed that Michael couldn’t stay open to her. He didn’t seem able to listen, exhibiting tension.
He was dismissive with phrases like, “I don’t see why she lets that bother her. I don’t see why she keeps bringing that up. I don’t see why she doesn’t get over that. She’s bringing this on herself.”
Jesse felt slapped in the face when she expected Michael to listen and care, and from the accumulation of shock and despair in this on-going pattern of betrayal, she finally exploded, attacking him emotionally with pent-up rage.
Michael felt righteously indignant. “I don’t know why she’s angry at me! I never hurt her! I don’t deserve this!”
“This is how it always is,” Jesse explained, “every time I expect him to care and have my back, he sides with the other person.”
“I am not siding with anyone!” Michael huffed, exasperated. “I am neutral here,” he exclaimed, crossing his arms and turning away.
The example of this couple’s conflict is in no way intended to minimize or simplify the magnitude of racial injustice. But if we can explore this small vignette, it may shine some light on the larger scale.
Many people from every race can identify at times with Jesse and also with Michael. But Michael’s supposed neutrality is not neutral at all. It’s actually a betrayal of his partner. His withholding of care and attention to her concerns has become a deep wound, corrosively dissolving their connection. Despite what he thinks, she receives the message that she’s not heard, not respected, and therefore, not valued. This is a form of betrayal trauma, which over time lodges in her limbic brain. It can even feel like a threat to survival. When under stress, she’s unsure whether Michael is not also her enemy.
Similarly, when White people claim neutrality, they’re actually betraying Black people by witnessing injustice against them, including their murders, yet some are staying passively silent. The “neutrality” of their fellow citizens, through the mechanism of invalidation, is experienced as betrayal trauma, and is actually another weapon against BIPOC.
This is what Archbishop Desmond Tutu meant when he said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Who did that to you?
If part of you identifies with Michael, will you kindly let me pull on a thread that might lead you in a new direction? As I did for him, I want to ask, who did that to you?
When you think back through your lifetime, if you felt scared, in pain or unsafe, who told you, “you brought this on yourself?” When you were unfairly punished or mistreated, who said you were to blame for that injustice? Who said, “shut up and stop complaining?” Who humiliated you for your tears?
If we’ve lived in a family, been part of a peer group, gone to school, or interacted with authorities, then we’ve all been misjudged, rejected, or invalidated at some time. Each of our stories contains at least a taste of the meanness that human beings are capable of.
“Meanness,” a word meaning “small,” comes from the smallest, most diminished versions of ourselves. Meanness is an attempt to diminish another. We all participate in various ways at times with the meanness and invalidation that swirls through our human systems crossing all borders and all generations. This invalidation is a mechanism that gets perpetuated, until individually and collectively we choose to stop it.
Neurobiology of Invalidation and Empathy
For most of us, invalidation occurs before we can even speak, in the form of traditional parenting. In infancy, the refusal to respond to our cries for comfort pruned mirror neurons in our brains, reducing our capacity for empathy. We might see how this led us toward avoidant tendencies individually and as a culture; we might recognize blind spots and weaknesses in our own ability to have compassion. But when we intentionally practice kindness, due to innate neuroplasticity, we can change our own brains to increase compassion for ourselves and others.
As I explained to Michael, this lack of empathy for Jesse is not “just your natural wiring.” I believe when we’re in touch with the fullness of our humanity, there’s enough room inside each of us to hear the stories of others and to care, even if we disagree about solutions. The healthiest versions of us can acknowledge others’ realities.
But when we can’t, I have to ask, “who silenced your voice, invalidated your pain, and refused to look at you when you were ‘out of step’ with expectations?” Because that’s where your wounds are — and where your shame is. This is also oddly connected to the privilege that you may be defending with clenched fists and closed hearts.
Like Michael, in that clenching, we might also be ready to pounce aggressively if we feel threatened because that invalidation of pain — our own and that of others — has gotten wired into the survival systems in our brains. This is our trauma of betrayal.
Our refusal to identify with the marginalized, or even to have compassion for our own partners in the heated argument we’re perpetually having, is from our fear of letting any light shine on that vulnerability.
Our defenses feel like necessary soldiers — hardened against softer feelings, and rigid in their thought processes. This internal state is activated by stress. We can recognize this heightened arousal if we’re seeing issues in terms of all or nothing; good or bad; black or white; us versus them; I versus “it.”
Answering Black Lives Matter with “All Lives Matter” is another example of a defense. It may seem inclusive, and no one could argue with its basic truth, but it’s the sort of argument we make when we haven’t carefully considered the problem. We’ve failed to take another person’s perspective. It’s clearly invalidating. “All lives” are obviously not at risk for police violence.
My question, “who did that to you?” is not to blame parents or authorities, because blame doesn’t heal. Blame just deepens the shame and perpetuates the trauma.
The purpose of the question is to illuminate. When we see, not for the purpose of blame, but for the purpose of turning inward, then we can start the process of repair with others that begins in our hearts.
As Michael grew more aware of his own story, he shared, “My father didn’t step in when my mother hit and berated me. He didn’t stop her or even say a word. But as a boy, I naturally had to take on his view of things to be like him.”
“So now I see when Jesse expects me to take her side, something really strong rises up inside me to oppose her. It’s sort of an alarm going off — I’m not supposed to take sides — even my own side. Because that would really leave me out in the cold. But I did to her what my dad did to me. Now I get how much it hurt her!”
Michael’s insight allowed him to soften toward Jesse. He was pleased to discover that when he could validate and empathize with her experience, this opened them both to healing trust and intimacy. Earlier, Michael had unknowingly deepened his partner’s trauma when he was out of touch with his own story.
Similarly, on a cultural level, if we, as White people, aren’t compassionately connected to our own varied stories of invalidation, we can’t imagine the more extreme experiences of the oppressed, and we won’t be able to connect with those who are raging against our society’s abuses.
We may make the mistake of thinking we need to stay “neutral,” but in doing so, we betray those who need and deserve to be seen, heard, and supported.
Michael’s ability to empathize didn’t mean he had to give up all boundaries or give Jesse unlimited access to whatever she might want. Although at one time, this was his fear from the very young part of himself that held his wounds.
Rigidity and Chaos
Bouncing between the extremes of rigidity and chaos is a symptom of an unhealthy – or disconnected system. In their 20 year history, Michael and Jesse suffered a lack of deep connection because of the lack of empathy. The rigidity instilled in Michael caused him to invalidate Jesse’s experience. She had learned to deal alone with her feelings in order to not rock the boat. But this was a false peace, since it left them both in avoidance mode, pretending things were ok until a wave of stress would hit them, and then they’d erupt into chaotic arguments.
Taking a rigid stance is never the way to heal a relationship. It only invites chaos around the next corner. Nobody can connect with another’s defenses.
As Michael did, we can listen and learn from those we’ve wounded. Simultaneously, we need to connect with the wounded parts of ourselves, as we each recognize our culpability and seek to change. We can do this through practices of self-compassion or spiritual practices of confession, repentance, and atonement.
Just as this couple worked through a process to heal their relationship, each community will need to work through similar steps to create new bridges of awareness and trust.
Three Steps to Healing
There are 3 steps that heal betrayal trauma in The Gottman Method. We call these atone, attune, and attach.
- Atone: Atonement means to take action to right past wrongs. Atonement isn’t a one-time gesture, but a continual cessation of all harmful behavior alongside embracing actions which repair and heal breaches. As a culture and as individuals we need, at every opportunity, to continue to give to, include, invest in, subscribe to, join, invite, serve, promote, honor, learn from, fight for change for, and respect people of color.
- Attune: Turn towards those we may have wronged through our invalidation. This means listening, perhaps for the very first time — getting to really know and see their realities. In the deepest attunement, we’re able to share someone else’s story and perspective. And we’ll care enough to come alongside in their pursuit of growth, healing, or change.
- Attach: Make a commitment that repeats all of the above on an on-going basis. To attach is to create a deep bond where trust and commitment can flourish.
We can’t do any of this from our meanness, with diminished versions of ourselves. This will require the slow, ongoing work of diligent growth in character, self-awareness, and love.
We’ve learned that it takes 20 experiences of attunement — or turning toward — to heal the limbic brain from one episode of invalidation. But because of neuroplasticity, practicing “small things often” creates lasting change.
Jesse won’t be able to trust Michael until he’s demonstrated his desire to hear and connect with her consistently over the long haul. In this volatile time in American history, many non-Black folks will post, give, and share at first. But just like in a couple relationship, it will be the consistent, genuine actions done frequently over time that will result in the greatest positive changes for the future.