The Role of Self-Compassion in the Intersectionality of Feminism and Antiracism Work

Dr. Audrey Atkinson

A common barrier to being fully committed to antiracism work for white providers is the sense of shame and defensiveness that comes around the topic of race and other diversity issues. Perfectionism, a common struggle and one of the ways we tend to defend against shame, can also play a role. Our tendency to view things in dichotomous categories (good/bad) often amplifies this, whereby the internal (or sometimes external) language becomes extreme and about us as a person, versus our behavior (i.e. “I’m a bad person” v. “I did something wrong”).  In My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies, Menakem (2017) talks about how this shows up in the body.  What we know and have been learning through the research is that when our bodies are activated and sent into a defense mode (fight/flight/freeze), we are unable to access the prefrontal cortex, which is the thinking part of our brain. Nuance and logic lose their meaning and the body only cares about feeling safe again.

Antiracism is about working to dismantle racism across the individual, interpersonal, institutional, and structural domains (Kendi, 2019). It is an active and ongoing process, which one must choose across their lifetime. Antiracism and feminism are connected, as white supremacy and patriarchy are connected. It is not enough to be working to dismantle patriarchy across different domains, but we as providers must see the intersectionality and also work to be antiracist. Historically, this has been a struggle for those who live in a white body or identify as white. Mainstream feminism has often been critiqued for supporting white supremacy and relying on Black women to do the heavy lifting (Kendall, 2020). It is a challenge to remain open while learning about areas where you and/or your ancestors have made mistakes, participated in oppression, or have privilege.

The ability to learn how to settle our bodies and be actively self-compassionate is critical to being able to do this work well and to increase our longevity as this is a lifelong journey.  Without these tools, it becomes too easy to check back out and allow our fear and shame to control us.  Menakem (2017) talks at length in his book about ways to settle our body and nervous system. He draws on polyvagal theory and many of the techniques he describes will be familiar to us as mental health providers. Highlights include slow breaths and body scans, as well as chanting and slow rocking, among many others.  I would propose that after some of these initial steps, self-compassion has a huge role to play as it can activate the tend and befriend response, which is defined as protection of offspring and seeking out of a social group for connection, support, and mutual defense, thus decreasing stress levels (Neff, 2021).  Self-compassion not only shuts off our fear response, thereby reactivating the thinking part of our brain (Neff 2011; 2021), it  also allows us to stop attacking our self-concept. This helps to decrease the sense of personal threat and lower shame. Furthermore, self-compassion can serve as a way to overcome the sometimes paralyzing response of perfectionism, and fear of doing it ‘wrong’.

Kristin Neff is a leading psychologist in the field of self-compassion and has two books, as well as a workbook on the topic, co-authored with Christopher Germer.  She defines self-compassion as having a yin and a yang side, with each having 3 parts (Neff 2011; 2021).

The yin piece of self-compassion is the more soft and nurturing side and includes the following:

1. Self-kindness- simply being kind to and treating yourself as you would a loved one.
2. Common humanity- recognizing that we are not alone, no one is perfect, and that we are all a product of many different influences, many of which we do not choose.
3. Mindfulness-turning towards our experiences and acknowledging them with nonjudgmental acceptance.

The yang side of self-compassion is more action based and firm and includes the following:

1. Protect- boundary focused. Being able to say yes or no as the situation needs.
2. Provide- saying yes to our needs—making sure we are also a priority and not always putting others above us.
3. Motivate- learning, growing, and changing

I have found both sides to be useful as I continue to strive to be more antiracist and work to dismantle the patriarchy. By leaning into mindfulness and common humanity, I have found self-kindness can flow a bit more naturally. Some of the books I have read as part of my journey have helped with this understanding, as the authors have a very compassionate stance and a great deal of time is spent talking about common humanity and how our shared history has led to us being raised in a society that is steeped in racism and patriarchy (Kendi, 2019; Menakem, 2017).  From this perspective I can accept I am a product of my environment and begin to compassionately let go of the shame. It also provides a safe place to fall when I make mistakes, which is an inevitable part of this journey.  In addition, this letting go has then allowed me to better step into the more fierce side of self-compassion.  Fierce self-compassion allows me to continue on the journey of being antiracist (motivate) and understand the importance of self-care to protect against burn-out (protect & provide).  Ample research has also shown that the more compassionate we are with ourselves, the more we also have to offer others, whether that be our clients, family, friends, and community (Neff, 2011; Neff, 2021).  I leave you with this quote from Kendi (2019), “To be antiracist is to let me be me, be myself, be my imperfect self” (p. 205).

Dr. Audrey Atkinson (she/her/hers) is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in women’s issues and trauma work. She completed her internship and postdoctoral year at the W.G. “Bill” Hefner VA Medical Center in Salisbury, NC and focsed on combat and sexual trauma. More personally, she enjoys spending time with family and friends, yoga, reading, scrapbooking, and traveling.

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