I was invited to do a Masterclass on Ethics for a private group of people who are training to become coaches in the healing industry. The beautiful woman leading the class had made my book, Ethics in Energy Medicine, part of their curriculum, and I was there for a Q&A opportunity for her students.
Our class ended up being right smack in the middle of the protests happening around the world in response to George Floyd, systemic racism and black lives. It was a heavy time for self-reflection, especially for us white folks, and that heavy air was laden in our discussion.
Our conversation about ethics was – different. It wasn’t just about privacy and confidentiality and consent. It was about the difficult topics, the really hard stuff – and I was ecstatic. I was thrilled to be part of a conversation that was finally OPEN.
It’s been a hard ride, trying to talk to folx about ethics. So many people get their backs up and think that I’m trying to tell them everything they’ve been doing wrong. That’s not my intention, of course, but defensiveness tends to rear its head when we talk about the stuff that matters. When we’re talking about racism, we have a term for that. It’s called white fragility. I’m not sure if there’s a similar term that applies to ethics…?
And so here was this group of caring women, mostly white, who had already had their defensiveness cracked open with all that was happening in the world, who were ready and willing with hearts open to hear what it was that they needed to do better, who wanted so desperately to do better.
We talked about our own traumas and racist clients and setting boundaries, about what we’re okay with as practitioners, and what we’re not okay with. And we heard from one of the participants, a woman of colour, who had been traumatized repeatedly by different practitioners in the healing world. Spiritual bypassing, gaslighting, unethical behaviours – she had experienced it all. And miraculously, still wanted to be in the healing world, but not knowing if there was a place for her.
She asked, “Is it true that we can’t run an ethical business (practice) without looking through a social justice and trauma-informed lens?” My heart leapt in joy at the question. “Yes”, I said. “Yes times a million.” She gets it!
How can we ethically coach, counsel or do healing work with someone if we have no concept of the context in which they live their daily lives?
I gave an example of our current regulated health system, which includes therapy, counseling and mental health services. An impoverished black kid with mental health issues goes through the government-run system. He’ll receive, if he’s lucky, 8 sessions of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy to help him formulate more helpful thoughts. There is no consideration for the facts of his life.
He’s going to go back home, if he has a home, to poverty, drug use, abuse, violence, racism, oppression, denial of resources and opportunity, inaccessibility to quality health care, education or supports. He’s dealing with complex, repetitive trauma. But let’s help him think better thoughts, and that’ll make everything better? How much harm are we doing him, gaslighting him by denying the reality – the context – of his daily life as a person of colour.
Members of marginalized communities are constantly challenged by non-marginalized people to prove the reality of their pain, to explain and defend the hatred, oppression, dehumanization and objectification that they experience every day. It is demanded of them, and this demand – this ignorance and lack of education – is re-traumatizing. It is the complete opposite of the validation that is needed for any healing work. Never, ever underestimate the power of being seen or heard, of having our experiences validated. Most marginalized people never receive this from people outside of their own community.
What defines a marginalized person? You may not realize that this is not only about black people – there are many communities of marginalized folx – but the root of all marginalization is white supremacy, and what white supremacy deems is “normative”. Anyone with a body who falls outside of supremist standards is considered to be “non-conforming” and therefore unacceptable to society.
According to white supremacy, the only acceptable bodies are white, cis, hetero, abled, straight-size (not fat), neurotypical, healthy, middle-aged or younger, middle or upper class. Anyone who doesn’t fit this description is non-conforming and either needs to be exterminated or, if that’s not possible, to at least live a life of slavery and servitude. White supremacy fuels capitalism, the food and drug industry, diet culture and celebrity culture. Yes, if we want to truly understand trauma and social justice, then we have to also dive into the realities of consumerism, health care, food, dieting, anti-fatness and body terrorism, and false social hierarchies.
If you think this viewpoint is too extreme, I beg you to look it up. I beg you to take a look at the violence and hatred that your privilege has hidden from you. I beg you to try to understand what you may be contributing to a system that wants to eradicate disabled people, LGBTQIA+ people, BIPOC, trans people, fat people, autistic people, chronically ill people, old people, poor people.
I’m begging you on a personal level, not just a professional level, because I myself am a member of 4 different marginalized communities. I know what it feels like to spend a lifetime being hated, threatened, persecuted, denied opportunity, employment or adequate health care because of the way my body looks.
I know what it feels like to have friends and practitioners with privilege deny the truth of my life because it’s just too difficult for them to accept. I know how horrible it is to be shamed into believing that the struggles of my life are all my fault. I know what it’s like to be threatened with violence every time I leave the house, to be told that I am sub-human, that I deserve to die, that the world would be a better place if I just killed myself. I didn’t elaborate on these personal things in our discussion, but I’m elaborating here, for the benefit of you, the reader.
If you’ve never had to experience any of those things, you have privilege.
If you have privilege, you can’t possibly know what the life of an oppressed person is like. So it’s time to stop thinking that you do. It’s time to listen.
The conversation continued.
How much damage are we doing to marginalized people when we tell them the tropes we might have been taught, tropes that are quite possibly the basis of our work. “You create your reality” and “Everything happens for a reason” are my two biggest anger-inducing statements. Stop and think about them. Would we say these messages to someone who is suffering from abuse, torture, rape, war, poverty, starvation, enslavement, disease, chronic illness, cancer, or any other horrific thing? Would we feel comfortable blaming them for their suffering?
If we wouldn’t say a thing to the most marginalized people in the world, to the people who are suffering the most, maybe we shouldn’t be saying it at all.
There are two realities that happen for us – one is that we have a brain and the ability to co-create a reality, where we can shift how we think about something in a way that helps us instead of harms us, whether through CBT or hypnosis or EMDR or manifesting or inner work. But we can change our reality only to a degree, and we can only do that if our nervous systems are not under threat.
The trauma experienced by an oppressed person – and oppression itself is trauma – is not a one-time event in the past. It is ongoing, every day, every moment.
The nervous system of a marginalized person is constantly under threat, which leaves little room for cognitive change or growth. When we’re just trying to survive, our brains will lock down our internal safety mechanisms and disallow change, because any change, even good change, can be re-traumatizing. Even talking about our oppressed lives – especially having to explain them to someone who doesn’t understand – is re-traumatizing.
The other reality that is happening is that we are part of a whole, part of a human consciousness comprised of 8 billion other people who also determine our reality. We are part of a society, an earth and a cosmos with both visible and invisible forces that influence us in every moment, things like social policy, governments, health care, viruses and oxygen, gravity and gamma rays. That whole also determines our reality. That whole shapes our thoughts and behaviours.
And if that whole is threatening violence against our client’s body every time they leave the house, how can we as practitioners simply ignore it?
How can we deny the context in which a person lives? Worse, how can we gaslight that person by engaging in victim blaming, convincing them that the struggle of their lives is all because they’re not thinking about things “correctly” or not trying hard enough or manifesting clearly enough?
We are creating more harm when we fail to realize that not everyone starts off life at an equal place, so achieving a goal is much harder for some than it is for others. Resources and support are not distributed equally or available equally. Not everyone has the same opportunities or power. Not everyone has privilege.
If we approach a client with the belief that they have or have had the same chances that we’ve had, or that their life looks anything like the way that our lives work, we are working from a basic assumption that can do great harm to the people we claim to be supporting.
If we assume that a client’s trauma is in the past instead of ongoing, how are we going to support their healing process in any way? How are we to be present with our client if we’re not with them in their story, deep in the reality that is their life? And if we can’t be present, how can we not do harm?
Even for those of us who identify as marginalized, these are points we need to consider. We are not immune to prejudice and bias. We are not immune to our own trauma and struggles when we enter into the healing space with another person.
There are many times when I need to ask myself: How present am I going to be able to be with a beautiful, thin, rich, healthy woman who is experiencing anxiety or emotional pain? Will I be able to relate or empathize? How much rage, jealousy, envy or anger will I feel at listening to her story? Can I remind myself that privilege does not diminish pain? And that I have other types of privilege? Will I be able to be objective? Is it appropriate or healthy for me to be in a supportive role for her?
Will I be able to be present with another person’s trauma without it re-traumatizing me? Am I able to regulate myself effectively enough that doing supportive work for another will not compromise me?
Do I need to give myself permission to say no to a client or to take time out for my own healing? Absolutely. Do I need to make sure I’m doing the work of dismantling prejudice within myself too? Absolutely.
We’re all human, we’re all part of an unhealthy society that doesn’t address our needs, and, whether we are healers, teachers, counselors, practitioners or leaders, we are all still bumbling along trying to figure this out.
What are some guidelines for creating an environment or practice that is supportive and ethical?
We listen. We open our hearts to what we are hearing.
We do our utmost to take it in without passing it through the filter of our own lives.
We validate a person’s experience, no matter what it is, and we never ask them to explain, to justify their pain, or to educate us.
We ask our clients what they need.
We surrender our own agenda in favour of those needs.
We engage in constant self-reflection, self-analysis and inner growth work.
We acknowledge our own privilege and forms of power and engage them effectively and appropriately.
We educate ourselves about everything that is wrong in the world and we actively work to change it, both in our outer world, and by dismantling our own inner biases and prejudices and pre-conceived notions about life and health and healing.
We never let ourselves believe that the pain we experience from learning what is wrong is equivalent to the pain of living a life of violence and oppression.
We take what we’ve learned from our teachers and we pass it through our filter of discernment and rationality to see and feel if it holds true or makes sense.
We expose ourselves to a diversity of people and listen to their voices.
We do our own work and our own research instead of demanding free emotional labour from those without our privilege.
We give acknowledgement where it is due, and pay others for their work.
We do not appropriate what is not ours.
We engage in the work of social change.
We take action to make the world a safer and more equitable place by working to dismantle the inner and outer structures that enable injustice.
And this is by no means a complete list. It is only a start.
I want to thank you for showing up. I want to thank you for opening your hearts and listening and reading this. I want to thank you for actively working at doing better.