Race, Culture and HSPs: "Black People Don’t Do Therapy"

 

I am no doubt an HSP. I’ve read Elaine Aron’s wonderful and eye-opening books, I’ve taken the quizzes in the workbooks and I’ve been greatly helped by much of the advice given on HSP websites and by knowing that I’m not alone. And like very many HSPs I’ve suffered bouts of depression and very high anxiety, the type that requires professional help. Yet there’s still this nagging feeling I always have, one I have to constantly temper, that my sensitivity and the symptoms it causes are just my “weaknesses,” and that I have to work hard to not let my weaknesses show. Now I know this is just negative self-talk, which any white person who is also HSP can relate to, but my feelings and self-talk are largely influenced racially and culturally as is true for many black people.

Black People And Sensitivity

Admitting to and showing great sensitivity is a no-no in my (Black American) culture.  Being “tough” and not “letting it ‘get’ to me” are what I was always encouraged and at times, demanded to do. I can still remember my dad screaming at me, “You got a WEAKNESS!” when I was about 12-years-old and being picked on at school. My mother would threaten to hit me if I ever cried. And since we customarily “take over” for our parents as adults and end up treating ourselves just as well or as badly as they did, I got to the point in my late 30s where I couldn’t leave the house without having a four-alarm panic attack and the bravest thing I could do was seek treatment. I could no longer function in that anxious, unbalanced state. All that “not letting it show” made me physically, and severely psychologically and emotionally sick. So even though seeking help put me in a category that is downright scary to contemplate (according to a recent Al Jazeera America special report, black people are half as likely to seek treatment for anxiety, depression or any other mental health-related issue as Whites), I had to save my sanity and my life. I weighed 112 pounds. I needed help. I was sick.

Black People And Therapy

According to a paper published by the National Institutes of Health in 2008, many people of color who end up seeking treatment stated that it was the need to get well that triumphed over the opinions of the family and community when it came to seeking treatment, and often at the crisis stage.

112 pounds! Panic attacks! Hello?!??

Jinneh Dyson, now senior manager of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Arlington, VA, had debilitating depression while at college in Texas and rejected the idea of therapy for years. Loved ones would say, “That’s going to make you crazy. You’ve just got to pray and have faith,” recalled Dyson, who is Black and the daughter of a Baptist minister. “They said, ‘That’s the way of the white man, poisoning you.'”

But guess what? I’m not religious. And I’m intelligent enough to know that neither God nor prayer can stop a serious panic attack. Therefore, I, like Ms. Dyson, sought treatment.

The statistics are pretty scary:

  • African-Americans are 20 percent more likely to report having serious psychological distress than Non-Hispanic Whites;
  • Non-Hispanic Whites are more than twice as likely to receive antidepressant prescription treatment as are Non-Hispanic Blacks;
  • A report from the U.S. Surgeon General found that from 1980 – 1995, the suicide rate among African Americans ages 10 to 14 increased 233%, as compared to 120% of Non-Hispanic Whites.

Heart disease, obesity, diabetes and many other stress-related illnesses also affect Black Americans more adversely. This is no accident.  Therefore, it must be discussed and taken into account that all the anxiety and overstimulation affecting our community, and in particular those of us with highly sensitive natures, are large factors in these adverse medical outcomes, and can be addressed lovingly and effectively through good therapy.

Of course, race and culture weren’t the only factors in my getting sick. There was the job I lost, there was losing my sister, and losing the romantic relationship I was in at around the same time; there was even my lack of understanding about how important it is to my HSP nature to eat healthy, organic food and exercise regularly. Yet, I wasn’t thinking about those things when I opened the door to this new therapy center. I was thinking about connecting with someone of my culture, who speaks my cultural “language” and regularly uses Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) in her practice, which I’ve been wanting to try (it’s the “doer” in me), to help patients with social anxiety, so that I don’t feel like such an alien in my brown skin anymore.

How Tolerance Makes Us Smarter

 

I was reading an article recently that discussed how many people want what they want but have little curiosity about how what they want is created. Although that is a huge generalization, it made we wonder about some of the costs to ourselves of our fast, highly mechanized society.

The High Cost Of Machines

I think it is degrading to treat people as just consumers like children waiting for candy every day. It marginalizes us and keeps us dependent. This dependency suggests that we have lost our ability to take care of our needs. Perhaps we have. We have machines that take care of many mundane tasks to that we do not have to. We have schools that prepare us to live primarily as consumers. We are now used to the “freedom” to go to the store when we need something.

Should the status quo change do we have schools that teach us how to survive and thrive on our own? What do we do that requires patience, perseverance and resilience? Are we are so reliant on machines that we have surrendered important part of our personal development?

The Benefit Of Mundane Tasks

Mundane tasks are wonderful for our development. Whether it is cleaning our house, tackling some routine maintenance, weeding a garden or cooking a meal, these daily tasks help us engage in productive ways with our lives. They teach us to pay attention, to stick with the task even if it is not particularly enjoyable, to handle the minor mistakes that we make, and to participate in the process of getting something done. It feels good to engage in our own lives.

Mundane tasks also do something else – they teach us tolerance.

They teach us to tolerate the unpleasant, the boring, the mistakes, the inconvenience the surprises and disappointments.

The Gifts Of Tolerance

What gifts does tolerance bring us?

Tolerance

  • enables us to become strong through struggle. An obvious example is how a bird hatches from its egg after a struggle to break out. Only when its strength is adequate does it emerge. We have to tolerate our weakness as we grow strong, the weakness of other people in our lives and challenges that comes with strength. We also have to tolerate that what may be a strength today may be a weakness tomorrow as we and the world change.
  • helps us become wise. We are each a jumble of desires, impulses and energies that we need to learn how to channel wisely. We have to tolerate our mistakes and disappointments in order to learn how to make wise decisions. We have to tolerate false starts, blind alleys, and wrong directions to learn how to make our way in the world.
  • enables us to see into the heart of a situation or another person. It is our own tolerance for our struggles that enables us to look kindly on other people and their challenges. It is our tolerance for ambiguity that lets us be with our thoughts and feelings as difficult as they can be sometimes to be fully aware of the present reality of a person or situation.
  • guides us through the trial and error process of learning. We cannot know in advance. Too often I hear the expression that someone “should have known…”. Nonsense! We are not omniscient. Where the demand or expectation comes from I do not know. As a species we are often intolerant of the not knowing of things. However, if I look out into nature, I do not see a tree worried about not knowing. It just is a tree and that is fine. Do you see birds scratching their heads because they do not know?  They don’t; they get on with the business of being a bird. We have to tolerate our not knowing and when we do it becomes easier to persevere.

Tolerance has an open heart to reality. It does not have a list of demands. It is a gentle way of being in the world.

Tolerance lets us be vulnerable and in a state of wonder. When we surrender to our not knowing we let more of the world in, can learn from the rest of the universe and in doing so become wiser.

We have become deskilled and had our wings clipped by a mechanized society. We can become intolerant because we are so used to having so much available to us. If we allow that to occur, we are losing important parts of ourselves. It is unfortunate that in trying to lift ourselves up we may have created our impoverishment.