An article I recently wrote on anti-oppressive listening and solidarity-based therapy was one of the more widely read pieces on my blog (which meant that it had a fighting chance of cracking three figures in unique views, but likely remained a solid two figures, which a writer of limited ambitions such as myself counts as a win).
[The link just fyi is: https://loveliberationstruggle.wordpress.com/2015/03/13/anti-oppressive-listening-in-counselling-and-therapy-why-its-more-important-than-degrees-or-methods/]
Just as importantly, I really enjoyed writing it. I was able to write about my day-job, as opposed to some random geopolitical event I have no control or agency over, usually resulting in a sardonic rant that masquerades as an article. Whatever. Call it manifestations of a deep-rooted anger at the various awful forms of oppression, trauma, and hurt around us (see previous posts on this blog for further reference).
I’m also realizing that there’s no end of stuff to be angry about. It’s fucking tiring. This has led me to be even more attentive to the stuff that brings joy. Over the last few months, I’ve realized that I would like to write about happier, more liberatory things, rare though they may be in a socioeconomic order largely predicated on profit and injustice. This article (disturbingly new-agey title notwithstanding) is continuing in that vein. Like the previous one, it’s related to my current job as a trauma-informed therapist.
I dedicate this piece to my many brave and inspiring clients who fight the good fight with all their might every day, no matter what life throws at them. As they heal, I heal. As they liberate themselves, I do so as well.
In that spirit of collective healing and liberation I would like to present an evolving, flexible, and easy-to-follow framework for happiness, health, and freedom that I’ve been working on in therapy sessions with various clients, learning from them, and further honing it down over time. I’m keen on sharing it as an anti-oppressive, liberatory therapeutic model for any of us to follow/change/adapt to whatever degree we feel would suit our lives.
Silly as it may seem to do so, I feel compelled to state that I’m not suggesting this as some all-encompassing “solution” or anything of that sort. It’s nothing more than an article presenting an evolving, accessible, and humanizing therapeutic framework that I’ve been exploring in various ways with my clients; one that’s based on core ideals of life (that anyone can understand, adjust, and implement) rather than being based on hyper-medicalizing, uber-pathologizing, and stereotype-inducing psychiatric labels (requiring experts, diagnoses, and prescriptions that keep us shackled to an oppressive system). It does not pretend to have all the answers. I’m keen on learning from others and hope they’ll share their thoughts, suggestions, and critiques.
Ok, now you may or may not have noticed that I tend to use triples a lot in my writing (and in case you didn’t notice, to drive my point home in a rather crude manner, I peppered the previous para with them). I’m beginning to realize that I tend to do that in life too. Three is a pretty solid number to grasp when providing a healing framework to remember easily. There’s a certain cosmic and spiritual stability to it. It’s no coincidence that the idea of the holy trinity has resonance in multiple bodies of faith and spirituality. It’s a small enough number to grasp, while still affording for sufficient diversity. The Father and Son would be pretty lonely without the Holy Ghost. My guess is that Daddy and Junior would bicker a lot. On a similar note – Brahma, the creator, and Vishnu, the protector, both very pristine, clean-cut gods (you know, goody-two-shoe types), rely on the hippie warrior Shiva, the kickass destroyer of all evil, to look cool. Without ol’ Third Eye (ha!) and his irreverent celestial justice, they’d be squares (double ha!).
Trinities – they exist for a reason.
Coming back to my own, less fantasy-laden, life as a therapist in a community health centre, I have found a trinity of trifectas, each trifecta consisting of three words or catchphrases, to be immensely useful when constructing and building frameworks for mental health exercises and life-management strategies with my clients. They are all intentionally simple enough to remember during times when life gets overwhelming and the darkness doesn’t seem to go away, yet each word or catchphrase carries enough strength and hope to wage a mighty battle against our demons.
The 1st trifecta consists of the ideals of life that every member of humanity (and, indeed, every non-human soul) is rightfully entitled to: Health, Happiness, and Freedom. These ideals are what we all strive for, fight for, and seek, both as individuals and as a collectivity.
The 2nd trifecta consists of the building blocks of life that every member of humanity (and, indeed, every non-human soul) needs to have as a foundation in order to access the 1st trifecta of health, happiness, and freedom, and they are: Love, Passions, and Sustenance. A foundation for life built using these building blocks makes it easier to access happiness, health, and freedom with ever-increasing frequency to the point where those ideals are the norm in our lives. This foundation also acts as a buffer or safety net when tragedy or trauma strikes us, which is inevitable for all of us.
The 3rd trifecta consists of the tools of mental resiliency that every member of humanity should have in order to deal with the day-to-day struggles of building that foundation for life in the best way possible (and, while I’m willing to be challenged here, these tools might not be particularly relevant for non-human souls): Sense of Control, Sense of Time, and Sense of Rationality. These tools of mental resiliency help us, on a day-to-day basis, deal with stress, worry, anxiety, trauma, pain, hurt, depression, grief, sadness, hopelessness etc. all of which make it harder to find love, passions, and sustenance in one’s life, without which we cannot build a solid foundation for life that helps us access the ideals of happiness, health, and freedom.
If you just went “eh?” or groaned at yet another piece of self-help mumbo jumbo, then please be patient with me, there is a reason for this tantalizing threesome of trifectas beyond mere platitude or literary quirk. As I discuss each word/catchphrase, I will also discuss practical tips in the form of questions that one can ask of oneself, and a suggested method to implement this template in one’s life. Let’s start with the first trifecta.
1st Trifecta – The Ideals of Life – Happiness, Health, and Freedom:
People need to be happy. We don’t need to have excessive wealth in order to satisfy desires for material luxuries for which there will never be an end to. We don’t need to have fame in order to pander to insecure narcissisms that can never be satisfied. We don’t need to have status in order to satisfy sterile individualisms that deplete our souls. We need to be happy. Happiness is not a permanent state of being. People who are genuinely happy are merely having moments of happiness on a regular basis, moments when dopamine is released and beautiful memories are formed. These moments are often marked by laughter, bliss, contentment, joy, fun, and satisfaction. They also rarely happen for those who merely wait for them to happen; one has to make a conscious effort to seek out moments of happiness and, needless to say, they can never ever come from hurting someone, including oneself. Ask yourself: Who are the people in your life who bring you happiness? Who are the people in your life whom you make happy? What are the activities in your life that make you happy? How might these people and activities become regular, core parts of your life? There can never be a substitute for real, soul-enriching happiness. Clichéd though it may sound, money, fame, and status are merely substitutes for happiness, and not the real thing. Deep down, any desire for those sterile substitutes is ultimately a desire for happiness. Why not just strive for the real thing? Apart from people and activities, a good way to find happiness is through one’s health.
People need to be healthy. We don’t need bodies and minds that cater to oppressive societal norms. We don’t need healthcare systems that cater to an artificially contrived and crippling fear of death. We don’t need health norms that fall prey to individualism and perfectionism. We need to be healthy. Health is a feeling of physical, mental, and emotional resilience. Ask yourself: What do you need to do, i.e. what manageable changes can you make to your life in terms of exercise, diet, hygiene, and sleep that might improve your health? How can you implement those changes on a daily basis? Who are the people in your life whom you feel are healthy influences for you? What are the activities in your life that keep you healthy? How might these people and activities become regular, core parts of your life? Also, don’t rush it. I always have to remind myself that gaining good health requires patience. It happens incrementally, over a long period of time, by getting some of the basics right. It happens when we start to enjoy it and do it with our loved ones. Equally importantly, both health and happiness blossom the more free we are.
People need to be free. We don’t need power and authorities that seek to be the false guides to freedom. We don’t need nationalism, religious fundamentalism, and other forms of chauvinism that become the false prophets of freedom. We don’t need vapid pop culture and thoughtless consumerism that merely act as facades for freedom. We need freedom. Freedom from oppression, freedom from abuse, freedom from hatred, freedom from loneliness, freedom from fear, freedom from marginalization, freedom from poverty, indeed, it is freedom from all that harms us in life. It’s not easy, but there is no greater task in front of us than our freedom and equally that of our fellow human and non-human beings. Ask yourself: What are the different ways you feel your life is constricted or shackled? What do you need in life to feel free and liberated? How might you break those constrictions and shackles in solidarity with other people? What are activities you can partake in that seek to dismantle various forms of oppression such as sexism, racism, poverty and so on that prevent people from living truly free lives? Of course, while it may seem obvious now, it bears repeating that we don’t need wealth, fame, or status that, akin to being sterile substitutes for happiness, end up as sterile substitutes for freedom too (them three substitutes just keep mindfucking us). True freedom requires us to often go up against the norms of a socioeconomic and political order that seeks to undermine freedom every chance it gets. Don’t be afraid to take an occasional leap of faith as you free yourself.
Now, you would have noticed that with the questions to ask oneself, they were mostly related to people, activities, and basic needs. That’s because these ideals of happiness, health, and freedom are ethereal and useless platitudes without the practical nuts and bolts that give one a fighting chance of accessing those ideals with ever-increasing frequency. That’s where we need a basic foundation for life, built using the building blocks of love, passions, and sustenance. This foundation is what makes the ideals of happiness, health, and freedom possible and it is what will save us during the times in our life when those ideals seem out of reach.
2nd Trifecta – The Building Blocks of Life – Love, Passions, and Sustenance:
Love is probably the most overused word today, while also being the least understood. The word is ubiquitous but in its omnipresence lies it’s shoddy treatment by vast numbers of humanity who often confuse abusive co-dependency, oppressive familial ties, or pop culture stereotypes for love. All humans and non-humans need love. Love is a real fucking thing. As important as air, water, and food, with the remarkable ability to make all three of those essential elements for human life seem inconsequential simply by being absent. Love has to be based on happiness, health, and freedom in order for it to be true. Love is, in my opinion, the highest connection between two souls and a core element of the human condition. Ask yourself: Who are the people in your life who will support you when the chips are down, who will fight for you, who would willingly make tough sacrifices for you? Who are the people in your life whom you would do the same for, the people you will support, fight for, and make tough sacrifices for? It’s a better life when the answers to those two questions overlap completely (i.e. all the people you love, love you back in equal degree), are in balance with each other (i.e. you and your loved ones support each other equitably), and is a number greater than zero (you have more than just yourself as someone to love) – the higher the number, the better. How many people do you have in your life whom you can honestly say would fall in both those categories? Friends? Family? Comrades? And if you find it tough to come up with anyone, well it seems like someone has some healthy community-building to do. How does one do that, you ask, oh so sarcastically? Well, let’s take a look at your passions.
Passions, as I take up the term here, are those life activities that determine who we are as individuals. Usually of an artistic, political, intellectual, sporting, or spiritual bent (or some combination thereof), passions are those activities that fill our soul, develop a healthy ego, and define who we are in terms of a core sense of self. They’re the life activities we do regardless of whether we get money, fame, or status from it, because from those activities we get some form of emotional or spiritual fulfilment. They get our minds into a state of “flow” – mental states resulting in periodic releases of small amounts of dopamine (as opposed to the big releases when we’re having delirious joy and fun). Flow is often marked by feelings of understated bliss, spending hours on a passion without thinking about the time, and getting a sense of satisfaction or mastery as regular, healthy time is spent on one’s passions. These passions can, and should, be done both as an individual and in collectivity. Ask yourself: What are activities or endeavors in your life that truly fill your soul, that fire your spirit, that make you feel good about yourself (without harm to anyone, including yourself, of course)? You might have to dig into your past, because there is a way in which a capitalist way of life subdues the passions of the soul. If you don’t have ready answers, then you have a very exciting journey ahead of you that requires finding those activities that fill your soul, fire your spirit, and make you feel good about yourself, without harming anyone (I repeat that because it’s so easy to find activities in this world that supposedly make you feel good about yourself, such as those based on violence or exploitation, but instead only dehumanize you). But perhaps you now wonder: dude, how the fuck can I figure this passions shit out when I need to feed myself, clothe myself, and shelter myself? Well, mythical person I made up to ensure a decent segue into my next point, I’m glad you asked that question. Let’s talk about sustenance.
Sustenance is what we need, not what we necessarily think we need, but what we actually need, as in what all of humanity needs: food, clothing, shelter, and, equally importantly, the knowledge that it’s secure and safe for the foreseeable future. You don’t need a car. You don’t need fancy clothes or gadgets or toys. You don’t need damn near 90% of the so-called amenities you think you need. If you have the first two of this trifecta down pat, i.e. if you have your loved ones and you have your passions, trust me, all you need is food, clothing, and shelter. The greater the love and the passions, the simpler your food, clothing, and shelter needs will be. Ask yourself: What do you need to do in order to ensure that you can feed, clothe, and shelter yourself, alongside and in partnership with your loved ones, but without any other luxuries? Now, ask yourself, what is the bare minimum that you and your loved ones need? What might it take to get a basic modicum of those bare necessities without having to worry about the future too much? The less you need, the less stress you will put yourselves under to get the bare essentials for a life of happiness, health, and freedom. There are hunter-gatherer societies in existence today that have almost no violence or abuse, literally plumb peaceful lives, simply because they have loved ones and passionate, joyful, musical, dance-filled lives bereft of capitalist social norms. You don’t need a career. You don’t need societal status. You don’t need to feel “successful”. With loved ones and passions (neither of which you need money for), all you need is basic food, clothing, and shelter, and the security that it’s going to be there for the foreseeable future. When you have loved ones and passions around you, you won’t feel the need to lay emphasis on the status of your job or the amount of wealth you make, but instead only lay emphasis on satisfying your basic needs, i.e. the bare essentials (which can be quite minimal and far less ominous when done in community anyway). We then get to spend the majority of our lives focused on loved ones and passions. Now that’s a beautiful thing.
It’s important that all three entities in this 2nd trifecta are given optimal focus, which means not privileging any one obsessively over the other two. Focusing solely on love without taking the time for one’s passions that give you your sense of self, or one’s sustenance that gives you your independence, will result in relationships that always have the potential for abuse or co-dependency, which isn’t really love. Focusing solely on passions could result in brilliance or mastery in that passion, but in a life that’s likely to be quite miserable because that passion then becomes the sole reason for existence. And focusing only on one’s sustenance neglecting love and passions is a one way ticket to gloom and sterility. All three are needed to build a solid foundation for life. This foundation, again something that takes time to build, acts as a springboard to access happiness, health, and freedom on a regular enough basis such that those ideals eventually become the norm in one’s life. Simultaneously, this foundation acts as a buffer, a safety net whenever tragedy or trauma strikes one’s life, an inevitability we all will face some time or the other in our lives.
But what about the day-to-day life struggles while coping with various mental health issues? What about the times when past trauma cuts like a knife, when the anxiety cripples us with stress and panic, when the depression smothers us like a heavy fog, when the pain is just too much to bear? What about the times when the day-to-day life struggles seem like they’re too much to handle, eventually taking a toll on our loved ones, our passions, and our ways of sustaining ourselves? Let’s get a grip then on some basic tools of mental resiliency.
3rd Trifecta – The Tools of Mental Resiliency – Sense of Control, Sense of Time, and Sense of Rationality:
First, let’s understand this issue of control. It never fails to surprise me just how much I and the people around me (including you reading this article) stress about things we have absolutely no control over. Literally, worrying our asses off about situations and possibilities we cannot influence no matter how much we try or want to. Getting a solid understanding of what’s in our control and what’s not in our control will go a long way in helping us deal with stress, worry, anxiety, and other mental health issues that often severely reduce our quality of life while also preventing us from taking the steps we need to take in order to strengthen ties with our loved ones, work on our passions, and sustain ourselves adequately. Doing so also breaks down problems and hurdles we are facing that might seem overwhelming, into the small number of things we can control (and thus take steps to work on) and the humungous number of things we cannot control (and thus do mental exercises to stop thinking about). It’s quite possible that a large reason for many problems being overwhelming in nature is because we’re worrying about stuff that we cannot control, as opposed to focusing solely on what we can. Ask yourself: Among the things I stress and worry about, what are the elements that are in my control? What sort of daily tasks can I do to get those elements under control? What sort of mental exercise can I do to stop thinking about those elements that are not under my control? Take employment as an example, an issue of constant worry for us in this shitty capitalist existence. There are really only two things in your control: the ability to search for jobs and the ability to apply for them. That’s it. Yet, most of the time we’re worried about what employers will think, how they will respond, when they will respond, why they’re not responding etc. I tell my clients to follow one simple rule when job hunting: apply for the job and then forget about it. Is it going to get frustrating and depressing as time goes by and we hear crickets? Of course, but that’s a different feeling to stressing endlessly about every job you’ve applied to. We can address that feeling of depression by diving into our passions or reaching out to our loved ones. I cannot think of one reason why we need to stress about things we cannot control, yet all of us do it all the time. Just getting a sense of what is in your control and what is not is a huge victory in the journey towards mental resiliency.
Now, let’s get a sense of time. Let’s address the past first. There is one inviolable truth to all the shitty things that have happened to us in the past: we cannot change them or stop them from happening, they’ve already happened. However, we can change the way we relate to our past, where our trauma and pain become a source of strength and resiliency just as much as they are a source of pain and anguish. Post-traumatic growth then replaces post-traumatic stress. This can only happen by first coming to terms with that one inviolable truth about time, which is that we cannot change the past. Once we truly internalize that fact, we can then let go of the one question about the shittier experiences of our past that completely paralyses us: the what-if-this-didn’t-happen-to-me question. Ask yourself: How much time and mental energy have I spent wondering how my life might have been had my past been different? We’re constantly, consciously or sub-consciously, thinking about how our lives might have been different (imaginably in a positive way) had the painful, traumatic experiences of our past not occurred. While this is a natural thing to do, it is also monumentally useless. It does nothing for us other than hinder our healing and liberation. Please note that I’m not in any way saying that we should minimize pain or suffering. Not even the slightest. Indeed, what I’m saying is that we need to honor that pain and suffering by changing the way we relate to our past, which we can only do by first understanding that our past is unchangeable. Let’s move on to discussing the future now. This tends to be more along the lines of the issue of control we talked about in the previous para. We cannot control the future. We can only revel in the present. Ask yourself: How often does my stressing about the future prevent me from enjoying the present? If it’s happening too regularly, then take a step back and figure out ways to stay in the present. Go back to understanding what you can and cannot control, do the best you can to work on the things that are in your control, and let go of the things that aren’t.
Finally, we have rationality, a word that’s deployed in multiple ways, but here is meant to indicate a sense of proportion and reason. Getting a sense of rationality, like understanding control and time, is a powerful tool of mental resiliency. It is the ability to apply a sense of proportion and reason to any mental stress. While getting a sense of control helps us understand that which is in our hands, and getting a sense of time helps us build resiliency by developing a healthier relationship with our past and staying grounded in the present, getting a sense of rationality helps us identify those stresses that are not worth stressing about either because they’re unlikely to ever happen or because they ought to be peripheral concerns that we shouldn’t devote much attention to. Getting more information and learning from a diversity of sources grounded in free thought, anti-oppressive values, and solid modes of enquiry is important in getting a sense of rationality. Refraining from fear-mongering, panic-inducing, right-wing media hype is also necessary. Ask yourself: Among the issues and problems in my life that I constantly worry about, what are the ones I have to be genuinely concerned about, and what are the ones I can let go off? What are alternatives to my fears, anxieties, and worries that will help keep me calm and grounded? When in doubt, learn more about the issue. Knowledge and the confidence to apply that knowledge can be powerful weapons against fear and anxiety. Information is absolutely key to getting a sense of rationality. Often, our stresses are primarily due to lack of information, which is something we can always bring under control simply by learning more.
Ok, now that we know the basics of what each trifecta consists of, let me briefly discuss an easy way to use these three trifectas. (Remember, this is just a suggestion – feel free to be creative in the way you might use this template.)
One way to use this template is in using the trifectas in increasing order of how much anguish, anxiety, or angst you might be under. The higher the stress, the more crippling the anxiety, the heavier the depression, the more painful the trauma, the faster you seem to be losing control, then go to the higher numbered trifectas, either the 2nd or, better yet, the 3rd. You might have noticed that the 3rd trifecta probably had the most practical day-to-day tips/questions you could utilize for yourself, while the 1st was the most abstract, you know, kind of really deep, soul-searching-type tips/questions. So if you’re feeling really fucked up, go straight to the 3rd trifecta of getting yourself grounded and mentally stabilized by getting a sense of control, time, and rationality. Take the steps needed to get a greater sense of calm. Remember this golden rule: It is always, always, always better to be calm. Getting that sense of calm helps you think with greater clarity and peace of mind. Once you’re there, once you’ve got the day-to-day down pat, go to the 2nd trifecta to start making some positive life changes, taking the necessary steps to get more love in your life, start making the time for your passions, and ensure some basic needs/sustenance is taken care off (and, in the West especially, if this means reassessing your life in order to maybe see if you could benefit from living simpler, do it). Then when you got some of that going at a decent ebb, paying egalitarian attention to all three, take a step back in your life, a philosophical step back, to the 1st trifecta and start figuring out your long-term happiness, health, and liberation, and that of others as well. The 1st trifecta can only be done with others. Your happiness, health, and liberation will never be possible without that of others. Remember to pay attention to different forms of oppression in your life, the ones you benefit from and the ones you are subjugated by, and do your best to liberate yourself in solidarity with others.
So there you have it, the trinity of trifectas: an anti-oppressive mental health template for healing and liberation. Feel free to forward and/or distribute this to anyone whom you feel might benefit from it. Use it to whatever degree suits your purpose. Please remember that it’s just an evolving framework to be changed, adapted, and implemented in a variety of ways. It’s also nothing more than a tiny, portable aid in what I hope is a lifelong and rich journey of healing and liberation for you. It’s best adopted in a holistic way, all three trifectas work well in unity with each other, but certainly some parts might resonate more than others and thus might find greater currency with different people. Regardless, I hope you find something in it to help you. Thoughts and suggestions are always welcome.