By Will Hall
In the world of mental health advocacy and the psychiatric survivors movement, you will encounter “difficult people” who will interact in ways that leave you feeling traumatized. Emotional bullying, however, takes place everywhere – workplaces, schools, all activism, the community – not just mental health settings. You don’t have to be a psychiatric survivor or mental health advocate. We live in a world where it’s not uncommon to communicate and interact with someone in ways that shakes you up and makes you feel stepped on and mistreated. Sometimes things go better among mental health advocates and survivors, because people have learned skills and been through things that have made us wiser and more caring. But not always. I’ve unfortunately found emotional bullying can happen anywhere, including among people deeply committed to mutual support and collaboration. With all the group facilitation, training, public speaking, and traveling that I do, and the many people I meet and interact with, how do I take care of myself?
Over the past few weeks I’ve been quite busy and doing a lot of teaching and meeting people. Virtually everyone is wonderful, but every now and then something happens — I’m harangued by a person who is too loud and intrusive, a misguided woman keeps making homophobic comments, I have a rough interaction with an overworked store employee — and I find myself being bullied emotionally.
After I’ve de-escalated the situation and/or disengaged, I take care of myself. Here are some personal guidelines — I hope this is helpful to everyone when facing similar situations.
Don’t be alone. I find an ally who’s on my side and will listen to and witness me. I might ask them to listen to what happened, and also sit with me as I meditate and work on myself around this.
Get grounded in my body. Feeling powerful, safe, and awake in my body is my most important resource in life, and as soon as I am shaken out of my body by any overwhelming experience I bring my attention back to my body sensations. If it’s hard to re-enter my body I will move around, identify colors and objects in my environment, stretch, do energy work, hug myself, or ask for some supportive touch from someone I trust.
Breathe, but don’t suppress. I use a number of breathing techniques for immediate relief for dissociation and overwhelming feelings. I also watch out for over-controlling my emotions with my breathing, or breath exercises that themselves become dissociative or contribute to denial.
Express emotions, but don’t get dissociated. Being angry, hurt, or sad, talking fast, yelling, punching the air, growling — these are all responses I may have not felt safe enough to express. I give myself encouragement to vent emotions, including ugly or vulnerable emotions, that have a hard time coming out. I don’t censor myself or believe that “spiritual” people shouldn’t have “negative” emotions. It’s all human. Yelling in my car, for example, has always been a great tool. At the same time I watch out for leaving my body or getting so into the emotion that I am dissociated. All emotional expression has body sensations as part of it and I work to keep connected even as I express strong emotions.
Focus and discover words for the experience. Trauma often takes place non-verbally, and not having words can worsen a sense of being out of control and alone. Eugene Gendlin’s focusing is a very useful meditation tool that takes me from a sense of overwhelm to a specific felt-sense in my body and then to a set of words that match the felt sense.
Give myself compassion. Regardless of losing composure, feeling incapable, reacting strongly, or becoming overwhelmed, I still deserve forgiveness and compassion. I remind myself that I am a survivor and a vulnerable human being. I love myself.
Connect with the spirits. I have voices and personal spirits and plant spirits that I call on for support and guidance. Just remembering they exist can be helpful even if they are not speaking to me in the moment.
Notice trauma triggers. I inventory the role of trauma triggers in what happened. Was I physically touched? Was I interacting with someone physically larger than me? With a man? Am I in a triggering circumstance or situation? Are there chemicals or fluorescent lights around? Loud sounds or crowds? Am I sleep or food deprived? Were specific words or accusations used? Is the other person in a position of authority?
Look for past patterns. Going over details I might find ways the situation reminds me of the past. Maybe the other person feels like a family member, or I am in a pattern where I fear losing connection or safety like I did in the past. A triggering situation today might connect to a whole memory of past trauma.
Find the trap. Past traumas are often associated with situations where I was trapped and unable to escape. This can be both physical and circumstantial, as well as part of the emotional scene itself. Am I teaching and unable to take a break or finish early? Do I both want to cut the other person off and at the same time I can’t bear losing them as a friend? Do I want to challenge them but I also need to keep a good working relationship with them? Am I enduring abuse but also afraid of it getting even worse?
Identify feelings of powerlessness and doubt. Trauma and bullying can awaken the inner critic inside myself, and I sometimes sink into thinking and feeling in self-defeating ways. I notice these messages and listen carefully, standing up to them and challenging them. At the same time I recognize their usefulness in the past as self-protection, and I remind myself I don’t need to respond in this way anymore, that I have confidence and power I didn’t have in the past.
Unwind the trauma. As I notice my sensations, I meditate deeply on the felt sense in my body. I ask questions of myself to regain focus when I notice my tendency to dissociate, avoid, or lose my attention. I can often find parts of trauma activation in my body, such as a tight chest and throat or a trembling knot in my solar plexus. I allow these sensations to be there, and wait for what comes next. Sometimes a slight trembling or shaking will grow in my body and a sensation will start to move and unwind. There might be spontaneous body movements like tightening my shoulders, folding my body, movement in my jaw, clenching fists, punching the air, stomping my feet or sinking down. These are usually gradual and slow as they emerge spontaneously — I am not pushing for catharsis here. As I notice this unfolding I also watch for it to change. Often there is a shift from cold and tight to warm and open; trembling moves to a more gentle humming, or I might start to sweat a little. The trauma is unwinding and discharging out of my body: if the sensation is now feeling nice, I stay with it and enjoy it, allow the relaxation to fill me, notice my deeper breath. If I do get overwhelmed with a sensation that is too strong, I will either leave the work for later, or swing back and forth between focusing on an unpleasant sensation and then focusing on a more positive or neutral sensation that I can find somewhere else in my body.
Notice the rank relationships. In the bullying situation, how are different kinds of rank interacting? Am I identified with the low-rank part of myself? Do I have power and rank that I am not identifying with? Maybe the other person sees my high rank while I can’t see it or feel it myself. As a teacher and community leader I sometimes forget people don’t notice my vulnerability and humanness. Is the other person identified with being low rank, do they feel hurt or rejected or incapable, even while I am only seeing their high rank, such as their anger, outspokenness, or loud voice? Are there gender, race, class, sexual orientation or ability differences that make for unequal rank I should be aware of? If I want to continue to engage with the person in the future, am I powerful and rankful enough to just set aside my feelings of being mistreated, and step into a helper role to focus on getting the other person through the interaction? Maybe they need more support that they don’t have, while I have support in myself from my high rank that I can draw on.
Notice how protecting is also attacking. The other may be attacking me, but are they also protecting some wounding or low rank place in themselves? When I do things to protect myself — such as disengaging, not expressing my feelings, or becoming impersonal — does the other person experience this as an attack?
Watch for diverse communication styles. Is the other person emotionally expressive while I am cool and rational? Are they quiet while I am freer to speak? Do they have a lot of movement in their body while I am still? Does one of us use different words and vocabulary? Are there language differences? Are there cultural differences between their background and the formal distance punctuated by emotional explosion of my Southern Baptist upbringing? Are they more likely to resolve things indirectly, by just spending time or a shared project, or do they appreciate more direct communication about feelings and issues?
Take a deeper view. Sometimes people don’t know they are bullying, are completely convinced they’re doing nothing wrong, or they seem to react defensively to any effort to put the attention on changing their behavior, preferring to turn it around on me. It’s hard to imagine, but maybe they are right — at least a little! Maybe something I am doing feels bullying to them. If I can somehow hold all this at the same time within myself, can I support myself 100% — including getting angry and separating — while also knowing that humans are vastly complex and the person who seemed to be out to get me might actually be showing me things about my own self and behavior that I need to look at? It’s terribly challenging, but can I use this as a learning and growth opportunity? Am I ready yet, or do I need to express my emotions and take my own side and take care of myself against them first? It’s a disaster to embrace a spiritual view too quickly or be too sympathetic to someone who has hurt me. I usually have to give myself time as a separate and independent person first.
Don’t scapegoat or marginalize the other. Venting is important and I must take my side, and at the same time everyone is human and doing the best they can on some level. Everyone deals with hurts and protection in ways that may mean attacking others, and everyone has their good reasons somewhere. Me versus Them “othering” denies the complexity of people’s lives — and also unfairly puts me in a higher position of judging the other person. We are all human. Sadly we all need to admit that despite all our work and efforts everyone sometimes ends up doing things that are hurtful. One of the best ways to be compassionate towards my own limitations is to be compassionate towards the limitations of others. I make this an ongoing practice, and I watch out for gossip, triangulation, and back-biting. When others start to tell stories about how so-and-so is a terrible person, how they bullied and traumatized them, I will witness and acknowledge other people’s feelings, but I do my best to not gang up on an absent third party and trash them behind their back.
Hold on to a spiritual, dreaming perspective. It seems that the other is a separate person unlike me, doing terrible things I would never want to do. At the same time from a dreaming view this person is a part of me. How can I find the essence of their energy or position, and then claim something useful about it for myself? Is there some positive quality in the other that could be helpful in my own growth and development? Turning an aggressor into a personal development coach with a message to impart takes a huge effort, but it can really defuse things and dissolve my preoccupation with what happened. This is often the hardest part and has to be done with compassion. Trying to learn a lesson from my abuser too quickly can end up siding with their abuse and leave me hurt even more. Sometimes I’ve got to just say, Fuck you! And thats ok for now too.