Beware of canary tendencies when doing social justice & healing work

Image by Susan Prescott

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation,

and that is an act of political warfare.

- Audre Lorde

As highly sensitive canaries, we're heart-wired to fight and speak up against abuse, prejudice, inequality, oppression, disenfranchisement and privilege. Before we are able to utter our first word, our little bodies are already in tune with the suffering that those are around us tend to deny.

By the time we're adults, we may be inspired by powerful role models, such as Jesus, MLK, and other messiahs, who transcended the limitations of their bodies. When we tentatively try on their big shoes, we tend to forget that their physical transcendence happened only AFTER they were self-actualized and had embodied their fully enlightened soul authority.

It's NOT the same as what I and many sensitive canaries prematurely do - offer ourselves up as sacrificial lambs when only half-baked then wonder why we're so overwhelmed.

Let's shed light on this by getting a better grasp on our default mode of operating. Embodying suffering was often the only way we could authentically express our inner truth. Most families, schools and social settings didn't know how to make space for what we deeply felt and sensed because many of these subtle sensations are inaccessible to at least 80% of the population (only about 20% is highly sensitive).

And even if they did, many of us are here to make deep, systemic changes, and many adults, even if partly on board, are caught up in day-to-day survival.

Because of our canary tendencies, we implode and direct our off-limits energy and observations inward as self-blame, frustration, hurt, grief, self-loathing, not-good-enoughness, depression and anxiety. Not many of us exploded and directing our frustrations outwardly.

As highly sensitives, we are more likely to turn our anger on ourselves, and agree with oppressive messages that maintain the status quo. It kept us safe, fed, sheltered, sane, functional, alive.

Sometimes we do a combination of both, and feel bad and ashamed about our explosive acting out because this doesn't jive with the compassionate, caring notion we have of ourselves. Or we hide and alienate ourselves from society as I did, dreaming that I was Mowgli when roaming through stretches of rainforest dispersed through my neighborhood and our farmland we visited every weekend on the outskirts of the city.

Taking care of ourselves gets complicated by another layer of feelings and stories when we move towards healing, individuation and wholeness. Still tuned into the suffering, we feel selfish, disloyal, ashamed and struggle with survivor guilt when we try setting limits and practicing self-care to manage the overwhelm.

The Serenity Prayer

Even the Serenity Prayer can pose issues. Focusing only on areas where we can make a change, and letting go of what and who isn't ready to change can be hard to accept as a long-term strategy. We canaries take our jobs of alerting and saving others seriously.

We're quick to take personal responsibility for the distress of those in need or in pain, feel perpetually frustrated, helpless, and sad about ongoing injustice that can't be instantly fixed. We believe that we are abandoning, deserting, or neglecting people we can't help.

Self liberation feels like a double-bind and an impossibility.

How do we alleviate ourselves from survivor guilt so we can be as powerful and impactful as possible?

Changing Careers

If doing this kind of soul work is your priority, consider changing your professional identity and career. Explore archeology and excavating toxic energies out of the dark coal mines, instead of giving your canary body and health up. This would be particularly unwise if your alarms and discoveries are not given the prompt consideration they deserve.

The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.

- Audre Lorde

The shift from canary to archeologist happens through these transformational steps:

1) Healthy separation through stronger energetic boundaries needs to be your number one priority.

2) Boundaries help us to understand where we begin and end, and enhance our self-awareness. This may be an entirely new idea. Not only is it possible to cultivate stronger boundaries, the health benefits and peace that you reap from doing this are your birthright and serve as a revolutionary act, as Audre Lorde asserts.

3) We need to get a firm grasp on the ways in which we experience vicarious trauma when we hear about other people’s trauma and suffering, and how it activates our own unresolved stuff. Hold space for this possibility and what the common feeling tones are, even if the content is different. There is a by-passing and projection component, in addition to our porous boundaries, that we highly sensitives tend to overlook.

4) When we are primarily focused on “the suffering and injustice in the world” this could derail us from deeply transforming. It can become an addiction because it fulfills an avoidance coping need. It's often harder and more painful to look inside and see what similar wounding still festers within.

5) By bypassing this inner work, we run the risk of tainting the experience of those we are trying to help with our own buried trauma, and rob them of their unique healing trajectory and soul authority.

6) We can get stuck in an implosion - explosion pattern of energy distribution. It could feel helpful and cathartic, but is we step back, we may realize that the "same story, different day" keeps unfolding when we are unaware that underneath whatever is triggering or fueling us on any given day are our own unhealed wounds.

What’s also in our blindspot, if born and raised in modern Western societies, are the pat explanations and stories that we may impose on complex healing processes. This keeps us trapped into a psychic trauma bubble, and don't give a true chance to transform on a deep level.

Take the word privilege, for example. In general, the definition of being privileged is that you, just through your membership to a social group, no effort of your own, unfairly have access to better resources and privileges than those born into other social groups. They have been denied these privileges for no other reason than their race, skin color, culture, gender, class, sexual orientation, nationality, etc.

Social justice means ensuring that everyone has access to the same resources, opportunities, basic human respect and rights, and privileges. But here’s where things get tricky because reality is not so linear and clear-cut.

Feelings of guilt, shame and rage can accompany and crystalize the polarities around privilege. Instead of leveling the playing field, these feelings could deepen the inequities when we only focus on the material and physical aspects.

A privileged person could so guilty around their privileges, they end up 1) relying on denial to numb out , 2) mistreating themselves as punishment, 3) doing things that absolve them and lose sight of the cause, 4) getting recognition and approval from others to feel better rather than get better, and so on.

Someone so enraged about being denied privileges could end up rejecting reform and privileges because of 1) survivor guilt, shame, or identity confusion - who will they be as a result of these changes?, 2) mistrust and fear of getting their hopes up and being disappointed, 3) unprocessed anger and not ready to "forgive and forget" without deeper soul healing, but not able to articulate these needs.

Soul healing involves an openness to complex and paradoxical nuance and the understanding that there is light and dark that co-exists in all of our psyches. The oppressor-oppressed dynamic lives in all of us, regardless which part is socially and publicly expressed.

The ego-mind denies data that support this complexity to keep justifying patterns that we're familiar with and that give us some cathartic release. We don't care all that much in the heat of the moment if we got to the root of the pattern and if it returns in a week.

We feel better now and this is what matters.

Long-term change requires stretching into new territory

Let’s do a 'trade-places with someone' exercise to bring some life to what I mean with the layered complexity within the notion of privilege.

In this trading-places exercise, you don’t get to pick and choose a patchwork or ideal list of features, like we do with our behavior, persona or bodies.

You need to adopt the whole package and eco-system of the person you are trading-places with. (This, by the way, is not how we usually do things and what leads to a lot of "comparison suffering." Our default fragmented thinking is an often unexamined cultural mode of operating that hides in our blindspot.)

I'm stating this exercise off by thinking of someone who on paper has enjoyed every imaginable privilege on a silver platter — our president.

Raise your hand if you would like to trade places with him.

I haven’t met anyone who would. No surprise there.

But doesn't this challenge the idea that being privileged is a unidimensional condition, and always better than not being privileged?

While skin color and race are the ticket into a particular kind of privilege, White privilege, there are psychological processes ("Ugly American" traits for ex) and an impoverished spiritual mindset that accompany this status.

Our president in particular embodies pretty much all of these “Ugly American” traits and offers an inside look into soul loss and fragmentation due to privilege:

  • Entitled

  • Arrogant

  • Superior

  • Know-it-all

  • Righteous

  • Shallow

  • Opportunistic

  • Materialistic

  • Controlling

  • Patronizing

  • Bossy

  • Tantrummy

  • Immature

  • Excluding

  • Marginalizing

  • Prejudiced

  • Shaming

  • Opinionated

  • Colonizing

  • Monopolizing

  • Mistrust

  • The Savior

  • Splitting

  • Success at whatever cost

  • Spiritually void

  • Denial

  • Disdain of vulnerability

  • Narcissistic

  • Deep wounding

  • Morally corrupt

  • Toxic

  • Quick-fixes that backfire

  • Driven to rule

It’s trickier to detect these same patterns and attitudes of privilege in less extreme forms and personalities.

But when I do the trade-places exercise with clients who feel triggered by or envious about an “everyday” privileged person in their lives and I ask, would you want to trade places with them, most, if not all, who deeply reflect on this still say "no."

Deep down we like our total package and raw materials, yet we have no spiritual frame to make sense of this. Our naked, two-eyes are used to dominating and overriding our third-eye perceptions and view of reality, and want things to be equal on the material level.

Social equity is not a transactional and mechanical process, however. Not if we want it to stick.

For this to happen, we also need to harmonize and heal our energies on a spiritual level. And those of us more "privileged", conscious or intact in this area, may need to be honest and ask, what kind of piggy bank would I rather have filled up when it's my time to crossover? The material or the spiritual?

I'd prefer spiritual (if forced to choose, but why is it either-or?)

The argument may be, well, those going through a very hard time and with even less privileges than us would want to trade places in a HEART BEAT.

This may be the most eye-opening counterintuitive data: It's NOT that clearcut that less privileged people would like to trade places with us in a heartbeat. Whether or not that’s true depends on their mindset (how polarized and split it is), which is much less dominant in non-Western cultures and people.

Name-calling and tension around "sell-outs", those who assimilate and reject their cultural values, mannerisms, and identity to improve their chances of gaining entry into more privileged groups and a higher social status indicate that there is more going on than meets the eye.

Those who are holistic and operate from a non-dualistic worldview (regardless of privilege, class and resources) consider the price they’d pay for the trade, and are really not as impressed by us and our privileges as we think they are.

They are often capable of loving themselves, their lives and plights with much greater depth and radical acceptance than we do, and don’t see a material resource or physical safety necessarily as the solution to their problems if it requires giving up their spiritual connection and self identity.

Sadly, their fears of losing these values may lead to more suffering in the material realm, and those of us trying to level the playing field on a systemic level may be missing some key factors if we ignore what's operating on the soul and energetic levels.

Here are some samples of the scientific and professional data I’m basing my claims on:

My senior honor thesis on body image, self acceptance, acculturation levels, class and eating disorders in White, non-White, US-born and foreign-born female college students. This was my first study on the complexity of privilege that I detected - 30 years ago. Eating disorders and less self acceptance correlate with being White and with higher class, being US born, and higher acculturation scores. While severe trauma clearly would lead to soul loss, fragmentation and suffering, soul loss and suffering also highly correlated with White privilege, cultural values and ways that protected material wealth and elevated status.

Seven years later, I did a crossnational dissertation on the multiracial experience in a 3rd world country Suriname vs the US. Suriname wasn’t faring well in the aftermath of a political coup and if we looked at these two societies through the lenses of privilege, you would detect a dramatic disparity.

Nevertheless, Surinamese young adults didn’t perceive their American counterparts, White, of color, or mixed, as “privileged” or being better off than them. On the contrary, in value-based surveys that measured individualism and collectivism, they viewed average Americans, regardless of race, as needing help and possessing many of the “Ugly American” qualities listed above.

They would not want to move or live in a society that didn’t get or honor their values, which were a balance of both individualistic and collectivistic values and customs, and mastery in living in harmony with differences (these were unprecedented survey data and results).

Because of their strong spiritual disposition, their view of what we perceived as a privilege appeared to them as a deficit - and had a soul root cause to it. It was not just a physical manifestation due to external and racial features.

It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and

celebrate those differences.

- Audre Lorde

This occurred at the same time I was unaware of my own imbalanced motivations and patterns as a devoted anti-racism activist and overextended canary student in grad school. As co-leader of the students of color group (during my "free" time, working for free), I'd created and guided eight committees focused on retention, curriculum, outreach, faculty, social support, communication, and so on, while doing practicum trainings in community mental health in East Palo Alto and East San Jose.

Going rogue and returning to my cultural roots empowered my own budding insights around the complexity around privilege, and what I had struggled with when trying to come up with deep healing systems that got to the soul root problem. I was able to understand privilege from many angles simultaneously.

I worked an additional five years in campus wide diversity trainings, education, workshops, and violence prevention programs through the Multicultural Immersion Program at UC Davis (at least got trained and paid!) and guided several groups, including an international students group.

Interestingly, these international students felt similarly overpowered and oppressed when trying to join rallies, organizations, and causes with other students of color who claimed to be empowering them.

There was a lot of confusion about not fitting in and their mixed feeling about clear positive intentions to help. These students often experienced these efforts and worldviews as untrustworthy because they detected and turned off by “Ugly American” cultural norms and ways of dealing with pain and trauma.

Despite being similar in terms of skin color and racial appearance, these students, sometimes homeless parachute kids, felt more empowered and better off on their own or when in contact with their own people, even when these were overseas, than in the company of supportive peers of color, because of the cultural differences.

How unfortunate and hard.

But this is what I realized and uncovered over the decades since these early struggles through my work with diverse grad students and faculty of color, from the US or other countries, fighting social injustice with specializations in domestic violence, social welfare, police brutality, incarceration, food justice, public health, misogyny and so on.

We're better off not patronizing people who we perceive as less privileged or suffering due to social oppression which doesn't exempt anyone. There is more than meets the eye – we each have a powerful soul mission that's unique and personal that we need to embrace.

That doesn't mean that we shouldn't work on leveling the playing field where ever we can. It means that we also need to do it on a spiritual level, and recognize that the more privileged, the more we may be out of touch with key parts of our soul.

I learned this from those who operate outside of our culturally conditioned norms. The cultural buffer that many international students possess is a priceless asset and gift they're not willing to give up for any privilege or commodity.

It's a protected and intact inner eco-system, especially if they are from cultures where the ego-mind and its implosion and explosion patterns are less ingrained, and vulnerability, connection, and surrender to a greater intelligence and mystery are commonplace in dealing with life’s challenges.

Despite their great leadership potential, would you freely give them the floor or leadership positions to guide us into a more holistic reality and world?

Not likely. That's why they often feel marginalized and oppressed by the trauma patterns that have been internalized and are overtly operating within POC groups and communities. Their ability to buffer and maintain boundaries and self worth are unfamiliar, not believed, treated as naive and subpar, and overpowered by dominant worldviews where sustaining an intact inner eco-system in the face of oppression is beyond comprehension.

Doing deeper shamanic and Depth Hypnosis work with these international students over the years has indicated to me that they are not in denial. We are. They are indeed capable of doing this – their energetic boundaries and eco-systems tend to be more intact and unharmed by oppressive forces because of a greater spiritual connection to mystery and nature and an ego-mind that's less prone to taking mistreatment and situations personal.

In any event, it’s less about them, and more about our own healing as Americans, all with our own unique sets of privileges and disadvantages.

As we continue to focus on making sure that basic material needs, protection, access to financial resources, education, health, food, jobs, and so, are more equally distributed, we need to dig deeper and expose our dark underbellies to the light if we truly want to transform the root soul imbalance that fuels privilege, racism and many similar forms of oppression.

Until this has shifted, we will continue to play out and re-enact our oppressor/oppressed cycles and our imploding and exploding tendencies will continue to get off on scapegoating and projecting our unacceptable parts on others.

By integrating all parts of ourselves, the good, bad, and ugly, we'll truly be in a position to level the playing field for all, and nourish both our spiritual and material needs as one human family.

We also won't need to sacrifice ourselves and bodies anymore, like canaries, but instead, reveal what's buried and in need to composting in ways that benefit all.