Community-Help: Why Individualized Healing is Only Half the Picture
I’ve been to series of sessions of individualized talk therapy four times. While the insights I’ve gained have always been helpful and moved me along my healing path, I’ve also always had strange underlying uneasiness with the process. It feels alienating to have to pay to talk about my feelings. Sometimes when I was in therapy, I felt like that meant I didn’t need to or couldn’t talk to anyone else about my feelings. I deal with some heavy things; I have a long abuse history and a lot of trauma to work through. I often feel like I don’t want to “dump” that on someone. But when the only outlet for actually talking about this stuff is commodified — a service that you pay for — there is something very lonely and suffocating about that.
Traditional individualized therapy can certainly positively impact mental health. I benefited from all the sessions I attended, and I actively encourage others to seek out therapy for themselves. However, this model of mental health care can often feel isolating. Traditional therapy, often by default, places emphasis on the expertise of the therapist and commodifies active listening and emotional literacy. Suddenly, listening to someone’s heavy feelings is something you need a master’s degree to do, and being listened to is something you have to pay for. Mental health care becomes inaccessible and out of the control of those who really need it. Unfortunately, many people really do see this as our only path to emotional healing.
I believe that our idea of healing needs to be expanded. Individual therapy, while not devoid of flaws, is important — and it’s not the only thing we need to do. There are many different models of healing which are more community-based, less individualized, and therefore more radical. They can be used in tandem with traditional therapy, or on their own.
What could alternatives to traditional talk therapy look like? Alternatives that address the issues of traditional therapy need to be de-commodified and less individualized. Hopefully, they would serve to connect participants to their communities and each other.
Deep Work Groups
This year, I had the privilege of living in an intentional community for several months. In the community, there were several different emotional work groups offered, each with a different format. One provided a place for people to have longform check-ins, talking out their feelings to a whole group of other people who would simply listen. The groups I attended were more focused on doing what was called “deep work.” Each week we came together, we would check in, and then pick a few members of the group to work on their issues during that session. As an attendee, I supported those group members, honored their requests, and helped facilitate their working if I could. Some of the people who organized the group were more experienced facilitators, and were able to guide participants through various therapy exercises and techniques, like role-playing, speaking to a younger or older self, and prompting with sentence starters. This container was available to me, the other group members, and anyone else in the community, free of charge.
This healing space had a profound effect on my life. It was in this deep work group that I learned to call my experiences what they are: abuse. Seeing other people of varying ages and backgrounds working with their own wounds was so powerful to me. It helped me feel much less alone and recognize how much of my human experience I shared with others. Getting to help facilitate the work of others was also very powerful. I reveled in the chance to grant people their requests, to ask them questions, to hold their hand when they needed it. I found that participating in this group also helped ground me in the larger community — although I was only there for a few months, I found that going to this group deepened the connections I was able to make with others.
Another model that is practiced across the country and internationally is called Re-Evaluation Counseling, more often known as co-counseling. In this model, you take a class or learn from experienced co-counselors about the practice’s specific techniques, which are designed to improve your listening and emotional support skills. You choose a partner to work with and regularly meet to practice both listening and sharing your feelings. Your work with your partner is a reciprocal exchange, meaning it is free and both people benefit. You refine your emotional literacy skills and are able to offer them to your wider community.
I have adapted this counseling practice on my own. I have a few friends with whom I share “feelings time”, wherein we exchange roles of listener and speaker and offer support to each other. This type of model has been good for me when group settings are not available, and has also facilitated deeper connection with some of my friends as individuals.
These are just a few examples of different community-oriented models of mental health care and healing that are possible. When I discovered people could use models like these, that we could make intentional agreements to talk about our feelings with each other, hold space, and create a dynamic that allowed for mutual aid rather than “dumping” and perpetual care-taking, I began to feel hope for the very lonely part of me. Although we often view emotional healing as an individual process, something you need to work on and complete on your own, I’ve found over the course of my life that this is very rarely the case. I can’t recall a time when I was able to really heal on my own, without the support of others and a nurturing environment. I believe that individual healing and self-care and drawing a path for yourself are extremely important, but I think they’re also only half of the picture. In fact, the times I’ve felt my best and healed and grown the most, have been the times where I’ve had multiple people I could talk to and share with in this emotional, reciprocal way. The times that I’ve felt valued and accepted and affirmed in my environment have been the times that I’ve felt most comfortable doing deeper self-exploration and healing.
Sometimes, when I am working through my abuse responses and need to soften my inner critic, I think about dogs who come from abusive homes. They are often very shy at first, or aggressive. But if they are welcomed into a new and loving home, once they recognize they are no longer in danger of being harmed, they often “warm up” and become open and loving again. This is how it works for me, too. When I find myself in new environments or social situations, my automatic response is often fear or suspicion, which surfaces as shyness. But once I know that I am around safe people who won’t try to hurt or abuse or manipulate me, but instead accept me lovingly and treat me well, I open up and feel safe enough to dip into my self expression.
Affirming environments are important for survivors of abuse and people with marginalized identities. Last year, during my tour with The Radical Mapping Project, someone I interviewed told me about a similar dynamic. We were interviewing a queer housing collective, and our interviewee told us they had never heard any of their housemates raise their voice at one another. Their house had a huge emphasis on practicing nonviolent communication and being a safe space for people who had experienced abuse. As a result, they told us, people often began to feel more interested in expressing and exploring themselves and their queer identities, because they were surrounded by other loving queerdos.
The thing is, I didn’t know I needed an affirming environment until I experienced it. The only way I was able to experience it was by finding other people I could share things with, who I could relate to, who could reciprocally exchange with me without judgement of my needs or identity. I went to a commune where regularly sharing feelings, co-counseling and deep work groups, and queer feminist anarchist politics were the norm. Once I had experienced this affirming environment, I knew I needed it to heal and feel good and seen. Regular talk therapy as my only outlet was no longer going to cut it.
This makes me wonder how many other people need this but don’t know it yet. Our culture has such an individualistic view of healing, but I suspect individual efforts are less effective without the community piece, and without non-commodified models of healing.
To truly heal and feel good, we need community. We need people to listen to us, and we need people to listen to! We need to see others struggle, and know we are not alone. In the behavioral health field, these needs are increasingly addressed with the peer support model. A peer is referred to as “someone who shares the experience of living with a psychiatric disorder and/or addiction.” Peer support works because of the power of seeing others dealing with the same things we’re struggling with. Often I am surprised at how witnessing someone’s emotional work or listening to someone during a co-counseling session or a check-in is just as effective and comforting as doing my own work or telling my own story. We need affirming environments where we feel encouraged to be our whole selves and open up.
Often healing is painted as this very individualized journey and objective; if you gather the tools, you should be able to make it there yourself. You should be able to be strong and get the help you need and get through it. In reality, people who are able to heal are often supported by many more people than just their therapist and their own self-care practices. In her collection of essays, Peregrinajes/Pilgrimages, Maria Lugones discusses how the individualized narrative of achievement so often focuses on the person who reached their goal and their efforts alone. She asks us to look behind that person, and see all the people who supported them to reach that goal. I believe achievement of any kind is often much more of a team effort than we are willing to acknowledge in Western society, and emotional healing is no exception.
To really work through our feelings and work towards healing, we need other people on the journey with us. Self-help is bullshit. Many of us are familiar with neoliberalism as it applies to labor and wealth inequality; why should we expect ourselves to be able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps when it comes to our mental health? Brianna Suslovic sums up the neoliberal undercurrents of self care perfectly:
“..the burden for care rests solely on the self. No one else is given any responsibility for checking in or helping you out with the basic things that enhance your well-being. And why not? Perhaps it’s because this kind of communal care would start to look a lot like a visible kind of resistance.”
It is important to remember that many mental health and emotional struggles are linked to societal issues. My abuse history points to the patriarchy, capitalism, and heteronormativity. Many “disorders” are at least partially socially constructed and brought on by the conditions in our society that we see as fixed and take for granted. Depression, anxiety, suicide, and drug use are all at epidemic levels in the U.S. — we can’t pretend that the mental health struggles of these individuals are not connected to larger issues in our society. There are various studies which indicate that people of color, people experiencing poverty, and women are more likely to experience mental health challenges than socially privileged groups, like white men. All forms of oppression have mental health implications.
Unfortunately, many of us lack even basic access to mental health care. While community-based alternatives like those described above may be monetarily more accessible, they do require a fair amount of social capital and volunteer labor to set up and maintain. What’s more, they require skills that many of us are just beginning to access. Mental health needs to be taken seriously. Doing this work for and with others is something we need to prepare for with study and practice.
Setting up community mental health resources should be prioritized in radical communities. We need to be literate in emotional healing and mental health care, so we are better able to take care of each other and ourselves. We need to create networks and counter-institutions so that our only option is not clinical mental healthcare, or at least so that we have more than one modality of healing. Doing so will add to our revolution and our capacities as organizers.We need to stop viewing mental health as a purely individual concern, and start practicing ways to support and care for each other.