Mindfulness of Parallel Process in Activism

Photo by Marc Olivier Jodoin

Parallel process is a phenomenon in the supervision of psychotherapists in which a client’s challenges are mirrored in the supervisory relationship. If it’s not identified and addressed, it can have detrimental effects on both relationships, stalling learning for the therapist and healing for the client. According to counselor Marie B Sumerel, “Identifying their occurrence requires an acute and on-going awareness of one’s own issues and the events that trigger the issues” as well as “using the awareness as an intervention in facilitating growth.”

I’m seeing that activists can also experience a kind of parallel process in our work, if we aren’t mindful. When strong emotions take the driver’s seat, or when activists haven’t done the inner work before engaging in outer work, we can inadvertently engage in some of the same sorts of oppressive and harmful behaviors we’re endeavoring to uproot in society.

Of course we need to call out injustice and stand up for vulnerable people. The empathy, anger and outrage over the harms that have been caused are justified and feelings of frustration are inevitable. But, it’s possible to undermine good intentions and thwart important goals by acting upon these strong emotions in unskillful ways. It can be helpful to ask ourselves, are we mirroring the harmful attitudes and behaviors we’re working to eliminate in our society through:

  • Exploiting and dehumanizing ourselves by treating ourselves like machines or expecting ourselves to be more-than-human (and failing to see self-care as a responsibility), providing ourselves little to no rest, and othering ourselves through our exclusion from our “in-group” of compassion.
  • Shaming, humiliating or otherwise denying people their dignity? Observant parents learn that these tactics don’t make “bad” children into “good” ones. Research shows this is also true for adults and groups of people. If you’d like to explore some evidence of this, I invite you to read my blog post Is Anyone Beyond Compassion?
  • Othering, alienating or abandoning people? This only further entrenches them in a system of harmful beliefs. Intellectually, we know we’re all interconnected and there is no escape from collective suffering. We also know there is no true “away” when it comes to getting rid of stuff we no longer want. So why do we think banishing people from our circles will solve our problems in globalized world?
  • Consciously or unconsciously attributing certain oversimplified characteristics to everyone with a particular identity or who belong to certain groups (aka stereotyping)? When we say all police are dangerous, all white males are oppressors, all religions are exploitative, all yogis or meditators are spiritual by-passers, we reinforce and us vs. them attitude that perpetuates the delusion of separation.
  • Indiscriminately discouraging or shutting down dissenting ideas? Attacking, shaming, othering, and stereotyping can surround us in a “filter bubble” that insulates us from needed feedback, limits creativity, and diminishes authenticity and trust. Since effective activism is collective work, we need to build strong and trusting relationships with our allies that foster one another’s learning and growth.

How can we transform our empathy, anger and frustration into something skillful? Consistently doing the inner work is essential, both before and while we engage in the outer work. We can equalize ourselves with others, cultivate beneficial attitudes and mind states through mindfulness practice that helps us identify afflictive emotions before they become overwhelming, deepen non-discriminating compassion for self and others, and respond in alignment with our deepest values. We can notice the signs and resource ourselves to prevent burnout, thus reducing our risk for parallel process type behaviors. The inner work also keeps us humble, because we’re more realistic about our own limitations and challenges, and therefore more cognizant of others complexities and struggles. Finally, it builds psychological flexibility as we connect with a deeper understanding of the myriad causes and conditions that converge to create each moment.

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

-W. S. Merwin, Thanks

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