The self holds our awareness for how we exist in relation to the world. We are always in relationship — with the world as well as with ourselves. In the age of “social distancing,” many of us have been forced to find alternative, safer ways to connect and engage with others. On the other hand, others have found significant value in the opportunity (albeit quarantine imposed) to connect deeper with themselves.
But what becomes of our relationship with ourselves when, in our relationship with the world, we are perpetually sent messages (via words, actions, images, laws, etc.) that we are not valued and can be easily disposed when pulled over during a traffic stop, jogging in our own neighborhood, sitting in the comfort of our home eating ice cream or watching television, walking down the street with a bag of Skittles or, in the case of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston and 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, protecting our home from plausible intruders? What becomes of our relationship with ourselves when, in our relationship with the world, justice seems to politely — yet repeatedly — remove her blinds when it comes to the unbiased treatment of Black women, men and children, as well as those of other marginalized communities?
Frequent reminders that one is not enough, not seen, not valued and not worthy of humanity is traumatizing and erodes the very cornerstone of positive self-concept, self-image and overall mental and emotional functioning — an individual’s self-acceptance beliefs and their affirming of all the elements that make up their uniquenesses and sense of identity.
Black social psychologist and Stanford University professor Claude Steele developed Self-Affirmation Theory in 1988. He recognized the motivation to affirm the integrity of the self when one’s self-image is threatened or wounded. Recently, psychologist and California State University Dominguez Hills President Dr. Thomas Parham wrote, “… the quest to better affirm and support the dignity and humanity of all African Americans and all citizens is a struggle for the soul of this nation.” Similarly, learning to affirm self is a process that starts at the soul. Expanding Steele’s theory, I developed the Self-SOULstice Model of Affirmation, which outlines four stages to affirming self and others:
Self-Examination: Exploration of our core self and sense of individuality to develop consciousness of our self-concept.
Self-Healing: Taking steps to restoring our self’s core of its woundedness and developing a more genuine view of self, as well as healthier responses to internal and external messages that pose a threat to our self-concept.
Self-Affirmation: Accepting self unconditionally, shifting our focus from self-worth protection to self-worth enhancement while asserting self positively.
Self-Externalization: Extending outward our affirmed self to confirm and support others in their present self-concept.
Published in 2012 by the Journal of Existential Psychology and Psychotherapy, this model defines the “soul” as the center and core of the self. It is the part of the self that is perceptive and must be nurtured in order to develop authentically and heal any woundedness of self-concept.
Trauma, for many of us, is not new and the cycle of transgenerational trauma continues to inform how many see themselves in a world that continues to stigmatize marginalized people. Trauma has also informed mistrust of the health system. Historically, studies like the Tuskegee Experiment and non-consensual sterilization of women by the government and medical community exploited African-Americans and other people of color in the name of medical advancement. Further, African-Americans who experience mental health challenges continue to be misdiagnosed at higher rates than non-Hispanic white Americans.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons that, despite research showing African American adults 20% more likely to report serious psychological distress than non-Hispanic white American adults, only 30% of African American adults with a mental health condition seek treatment, which according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), is below the U.S. average of 43%. Of course other factors impact these numbers, including access to care, finances and resources for basic needs. (Interestingly, these same factors also contribute to the disproportionate numbers of Black Americans whose mortality is directly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.) Self-affirmation, however, can be the difference between someone seeing themselves as having “mental illness” versus “mental wellness,” even with a mental health diagnosis.
So, how do we address the harm and the woundedness incurred by a health care system that historically wanted us to be physically and mentally sick and oppressed? How do those who experience mental health challenges (particularly those who have been fearful to seek treatment, yet feel the impact of the viral and racial pandemic compounding their symptoms) learn to navigate such a system and cope with a mental health diagnosis from a place of self-affirmation? One strategy is centering attention on the self and its core – the SOUL:
Sit Still (Self-Examination): Sit with the information that you received. Breathe. Try to remain calm.
Sit with your feelings and your thoughts. Give yourself permission to experience these feelings and thoughts. Your thoughts and feelings are likely very normal. Breathe.
What questions do you have about your diagnosis? Write them down. Breathe.
Organize Your Resources (Self-Healing): Whatever your diagnosis, you get to decide the relationship you will have with its symptoms and, inevitably, your mental and emotional wellness. It is your choice if and how you navigate management of your wellness, thus it is important to know and gather your options. Educate and advocate for yourself. You have a right to educate and advocate for yourself. You have a right to heal.
Ask your clinician to explain why you were given the diagnosis and what to expect if you choose/not choose treatment. What can you expect if you choose to work with that clinician?
What are your treatment options (i.e. medication, counseling, etc.)?
While you may decide to do your own research, make sure you discuss what you find with your clinician before implementing your findings.
Are you satisfied/comfortable with the information your clinician gave you? Consider if you would feel more comfortable with a second or third opinion.
What support will you need? Identify people who are capable and willing to support you in your healing.
Utilize and Optimize Your Wellness System (Self-Affirmation): We are relational beings. As you consider how to move forward with cultivating your daily mental and emotional wellness, you may consider how to integrate the following individual and collective relationships to nurture and affirm your relationship with your wellness.
Mind: Therapist, Psychiatrist, Psychologist, Social Worker
Body: Primary Care Physician, Relaxation, Exercise, Play
Spirit: Nature, Faith, Indigenous Practices
Community: Family, Friends, Organizations
Live Your Life (Self-Externalization): Even with a diagnosis of a mental health condition, you have a right to live the best quality of life possible. Mental Health America, the nation’s leading community-based non-profit promoting overall mental health, found that research supported the theory that one’s well-being is, to a large extent, up to them. In other words, you choose the relationship that you have with your emotional and mental well-being and to live it with others as affirmatively and realistically optimally possible.
Pay attention to your progress. There will be times that your progress towards mental and emotional wellness and stability may vary. Pay attention. Consult as needed with the appropriate component of your wellness system to assess and reassess your needs. Remember, we are always in relationship — with the world as well as ourselves.
Mental health conditions can vary in severity (i.e. very mild to very severe) and the severity can fluctuate based upon the stressors faced. Most would agree that the stress from co-occurring racial and viral pandemics makes for the perfect brewing of a mental health pandemic. Like physical health, some individuals may require more assistance to stabilize and manage their mental health. When self-affirmed, however, one is able to maintain themselves as true and valid, while asserting themselves positively, even in the face of being diagnosed with a mental health condition. When self-affirmed, one recognizes the importance of investing in their mental health rather than buying into the stigma of mental illness.
Despite what the world may tell us, our soul has a right to be nurtured and cared for. It has a right to develop authentically. It has a right to heal. You have a right to heal. You have a right to be affirmed.
Dr. Bates is a licensed professional counselor in private practice in Marietta, Georgia. For more information about her, please visit drdbates.com.