Content Warning: Discussion of Psychological Abuse, gaslighting, terms such as crazy

With November being Family Violence Prevention month, I want to talk about a form of emotional abuse that is perhaps more insidious than physical violence: gaslighting. As a specific form of emotional manipulation, gaslighting causes one to call in to question one’s own sanity. A partner purposefully (or sometimes non purposefully, through psychological defense mechanisms) attempts to exert control on the other by making them psychologically unstable.

This makes the gaslit partner have to rely on the other while they contemplate their sanity. Gaslighting makes you feel as though you are going crazy and, even deeper, like you’ve lost yourself. You begin to doubt everything that makes up who you are – your beliefs, your values, your worth, your reality. And when that happens, what are you left with? In some ways, you feel like an empty shell of your former self.

“He told me that I was the reason he was depressed and angry all of the time. He said that to me whenever I got angry about something he had done, or a poor choice he had made for the family. And it’s not like I acted bad when I was angry, I just wanted to talk it out.  It got to the point where I couldn’t let myself show my anger anymore, because somewhere along the line I started to believe that my anger was the problem, and not his behavior that led up to that. It’s actually funny to think that I believed my angry reaction was the problem, and not the fact that he stayed out all night with friends and got fired from work. But this whole thing had me going to different psychologists and counsellors for years, trying to get help for my “anger management” issue. Everything that went on in the relationship, we both started to blame on my anger. It took a long time for me to figure out that I wasn’t the problem”.

If you find yourself in this situation, the first step is to recognize that you are gaslit, and how drained you have become. This can be extremely difficult, since one of the very side effects is believing you are the source of the problem. However, some clear signs you are being gaslit in a close relationship are:

  • constantly second-guessing yourself and your choices,
  • having trouble making decisions,
  • frequently asking yourself, “Am I too sensitive?,” and
  • making excuses for a partner’s behaviors to family or friends.

The next step is to ensure your safety in whatever way you can. If you are physically safe, the next steps in this process involves discovering yourself again, filling your “empty shell” once more. Here are small ways that can begin the process of rediscovering yourself:

Write down what you value. What do you value? Family? Spirituality? Respect? Write down your top ten and rank them from most valued to least. Then, think about ways you use these values in your life with others.

Write/type a paragraph on all the roles that you have. Ask yourself “who am I to others?” Perhaps you are a parent, aunt, cousin, friend, grandfather, teacher, etc. List them.

Carve out time to reflect on your own unique qualities. What makes you stand out from the others? Is it a quirky personality? A sarcastic sense of humor? Reflect on these positive qualities

Explore your character traits. The VIA character strengths can help you figure out your top character traits. This positive psychology tool provides you with a list of your top character strengths. Read the list and reflect on the traits. Do they accurately capture you?

Write a list of your qualities, beliefs, and values that guide how you treat others. Ask yourself based on your values, roles, qualities, and character strengths, which of these guides how you treat other human beings?  Then reflect on if you are being treated in the way that is important to you.

Validate yourself. Emotions are normal human experiences. The brain creates these emotions for good reasons – we can’t control our initial emotional reaction. (We can, however, start to control the way we behave when we feel emotions intensely). It is important to remind yourself that all of your emotions are okay to feel.

Check in mindfully on a daily basis.

Take time out of your day to do a brief mindful exercise.

S – Stop

T – Take a moment and take a breath

O – Observe what is happening in each of your 5 senses. What are you seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting? Observe what is happening internally. Non-judgmentally ask yourself “What am I thinking? What am I feeling? What body sensations am I experiencing?” Just notice these things and move on.

P – Proceed

Take it from a survivor, it can take time to understand that you are not the problem. Like fuel to a flame, gaslighting can leave you feeling as though you’ve exploded into pieces of your former self. It’s time to collect those pieces and bring them back into wholeness once more.


20181009_113447Erin Newman is a therapist by day, and a writer by night. She is also a parent, student, advocate, artist, and teacher.

Whether you are managing a team in your company, a committee in a non-profit organization, a classroom, or an online space, we have all heard about how important it is to have safe spaces. There is, however, a common misconception that spaces are safe, just because we say that they are. While it is crucial that the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable in any given space are announced, it is not enough to state the safety of a space alone to warrant it as such.

Safe spaces are, in fact, carefully and ruthlessly curated.

It might surprise some folks to hear this but I learned this fairly recently from a community member in a space I had built as part of an interfaith circle I co-facilitate. I think it is important for us to mark these turning points because too much of community organizing rhetoric is immersed in people just “needing to know” rather than reflecting the actual (often challenging) process of learning as we go.

At the beginning of the event, I proclaimed that this was a safe space for everyone to feel free to share their experiences, speak their minds, and be vulnerable – and I meant that. What I naively hadn’t taken into consideration was the other people in the space (it was a public event) and that they might not share my acceptance of others or the parameters of what I feel constitutes safety.

In fact, the community member who pointed this out to me made it very clear that her non-binary child would be unlikely to feel safe in a space dominated by members of conservative and orthodox religious communities who were fairly likely to shun them or worse. And she was right. Her kid would not have been safe there, because as soon as she said that, I looked around the room and I did note people who I remembered to be openly discriminatory and hateful towards such folks.

I was in a compassion bubble.

And it was, mercifully, popped. I suspect it has something to do with me never really having good boundaries as a kid and a tendency I have had my whole life to project myself and my worldview onto people around me. I thought I had gotten better at dealing with that but I was wrong.

Since that time, I have paid more attention to spaces I know are also considered “safe” and have taken note of how such a label came to be placed there. Several feminist groups on Facebook, in particular, have a long list of rules to follow and hurtful terms that are prohibited – and every new member of the group is supposed to read through this pinned post and then comment on it as acknowledgment of their having read and understood its terms. It is a social contract that is put front and center. When respected, the rules allow for authentic and vulnerable interactions to take place in a way that might otherwise be challenging or impossible.

It made me realize that not only was I assuming that everyone is as willing to accept other ways of being in the world as I do,  but I also had no safety plan in the event that something went wrong.

A safety plan is essentially a series of actions based on hazardous “what ifs” in any given scenario. This, of course, is based on what we deem to be unacceptable words or behaviours in a space, whether that be in person or online. And ultimately, the plan is in place in order to prescribe our reactions and, I would think, in order to overcome any fear paralysis or inability to act in the event that something very disturbing occurs.

I remember at the first Black Lives Matter – Edmonton town hall meeting, a young Black woman was voicing her opinion about the topic at hand and an old white man from the back of the room started yelling in a degrading manner that she ought to raise her voice and speak up when she’s talking to us. Everyone froze. You could feel how uncomfortable the room was. And without skipping a beat or a moment’s hesitation, one of the co-founders of what would become Black Women United YEG stood up and told that man to keep quiet or get out. She interrupted his very abusive tone and manner with such a fierceness, my mouth literally hung open. She then called out the folks who began apologizing for him, even as he showed zero remorse.

She knew what to do when the contract of the room was violated.

Why?

She had seen it countless times before. She could guess where this might be going and she knew that if she didn’t interrupt it, it might escalate. She knew that the first trespass is a violation of the sacred safety of a space. And she had zero tolerance for that.

I was in awe because I had grown up in a state of bewilderment that had gotten me into some pretty scary scenarios. I, like many others, had been socialized to diminish my intuitive voice, to ignore blatant red flags, and other such concerning self-permeability in the name of not making things awkward. The result was consent and boundary violations to my personhood, again and again. And I was never taught why this was happening or how to defend myself against it. I was confused and let down every time it happened.

Later, I was fortunate enough to take violence de-escalation training with the same amazing woman and one exercise in particular jumped out at me as memorable for the same reasons. We were instructed to put our hand on the leg of the person next to us and they were supposed to tell us to take it off in an assertive and vocal tone. As we went around the circle, all of us were laughing awkwardly and weren’t exactly as assertive as we should have been.

It was our social conditioning showing – the kind of conditioning that doesn’t keep people safe.

Rather than just doing the exercise as we were taught that it can be effective in stopping unwanted behaviour, we shrugged things off, unable to assert autonomy over our own bodies. That is, until it came to her turn. I put my hand on her knee and, again, without skipping a beat, she put the fear of God in me, growling for me to take my damn hand off her knee.

I wanted to applaud. I was in awe again.

But honestly, it just made me realize how let down we all are by what we have been taught and what has been deemed more important for the public school curriculum or for our households. Why isn’t it mandatory to teach folks about behavioural patterns of narcissistic predators and how they groom vulnerable people? Why aren’t we taught the typical behaviours of people with implicit bias or who are overtly racist? Why isn’t economic or labour exploitation taught in school so we can recognize it when it happens? Why aren’t we taught that our safety and that of our children and our colleagues and our community members is more important than anything else? More important than the customer always being right or the benefit of the doubt being awarded to one who just rubs us the wrong way. More important than the reputation of an organization in the event that it needs to cancel a meeting to keep its personnel safe. More important than the feelings of a sorry abuser whose behaviour never changes.

Why have we been taught to put our safety last? Everything comes before it: money, love, the feelings of the ones who harm us – even if they lack basic human empathy.

The answer to these questions is simple: systems that exploit are designed to be exploitative and they are upheld by those who benefit from them.

I have noticed, since drawing up rules and safety plans for the business I run and the committees I chair, that people tend to breathe a sigh of collective relief when the plans are brought out. They know how important these things are preemptively.

And the ones who huff and puff about them? I have my eye on you.

Next time, we will discuss practical steps to creating social safety plans, particularly in community organizing settings.


16265681_10154323322850753_2679466403133227560_nNakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. 

Dear Non-Muslim Allies,

We are living in a time of great unrest. While there are many causes worthy of our attention, today I need to talk to you about something very important: Islamophobia.

You might think this subject does not have much to do with you other than outraging you every time you hear about xenophobes spinning gravel at me with their pick-up truck wheels or some intolerant old man at the mall telling me to go back where I came from. You might think that your outrage is enough.

It is critical to realize that Islamophobia is not just about hijabi women being called out in the street or even violently attacked. It is not just about people calling us sand n*ggers. It is not just about the implicit bias we are up against daily, every time we apply for schools, for jobs, for positions we are overqualified for and rejected from because we are named after our beloved Prophets (peace be upon them) or their companions. Islamophobia is also about mass Muslim death going unnoticed and uncared for. About unspoken genocides, about massacres of Muslim children, about destroying our right to self-determination and life, about artificial famines that starve our people, about 1.2 million Iraqis dead without an apology, without the world batting an eyelash never mind shedding a tear.

In The Other America, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “This is the tragedy of racism because its ultimate logic is genocide. If one says that I am not good enough to live next door to him; if one says that I am not good enough to eat at a lunch counter, or to have a good, decent job, or to go to school with him merely because of my race, he is saying consciously or unconsciously that I do not deserve to exist.”

Islamophobia might not be the “new” racism to some but it follows a similar distorted logic. It is not only about the micro and macroaggressions Muslims face daily. It is about the end logic of what those aggressions mean– that the people who hate us ultimately believe we do not deserve to exist. That we are collateral damage on their way to homogenizing the world as they see fit. Can you imagine this being your daily reality? That someone hates you enough to think you don’t deserve another breath of air on this earth?

I, for one, try not to live in fear, but at the same time, I cannot dismiss what I know to be truer than most: Islamophobia exists in its most subtle and most violent forms. It is pervasive and it is far more common than people realize (or want to realize). Dear ally, step one is to recognize this. Don’t dismiss this. Don’t tell me it is all in my head. Don’t tell me I am being overly cautious. Or dramatic.

Step two is to reject Islamophobia with all your heart. Recognize that, despite your best efforts at acceptance and understanding, you are immersed in a culture that creates negative associations with me and my religion at every possible opportunity. Even Muslims suffer from the internalization of these oft-repeated and relentless messages. Many of us have come to stereotype ourselves and even reject our religion for the lies told about it. Recognize that you likely have implicit bias. Recognize it when it rears its ugly head: when something I do “pleasantly” surprises you, when you have to overcome your shock at seeing my hair for the first time, when you find yourself wondering just what I keep under that headscarf, when you think of our men and women as over-sexualized, when you think of Islam as a monolith and fail to see our incredible diversity, when you don’t think of me as a capable resource first, or second, or ever. De-bias yourself consciously, daily, feverishly.

Step three is action. No, dear ally, outrage is not enough. Returning to your life after glimpsing our reality is simply not enough. Waiting for Muslims to liberate themselves, to demand their freedom, to take their rightful space back is not enough. Waiting for us to explain ourselves, to educate the ignorant masses, to change the minds of non-Muslim non-allies is not enough. We are doing everything we can but we need your cooperation. You occupy a unique space of privilege. You exist in a space where audiences will listen to what you have to say about Islam because they perceive you as having no vested interests in the outcome of your teaching. You exist in a space where people will listen. I know, because I used to exist there too, before I converted.

Some of the greatest allies have not been those people who occupy the highest levels of privilege. The greatest non-Muslim allies have typically been those who too experience prejudice: people of colour, Sikhs, Jews, LGBTQ people and women. The minorities who also get spit on, who get discriminated against, who are abused, who are killed are often the first to stand with us. And it does not go unnoticed. We see you standing there with us. We thank you.

But if you occupy a socio-economic space of dominance, your outrage is not enough. Your introspection is not enough. Your personal de-biasing is not enough. You need to create spaces to centralize our voices. You need to #makeitawkward wherever you can. You need to speak out against injustice and celebrate our difference. You need to check out all the things you can do right now to combat Islamophobia. You need to initiate projects and plans that do these things. You need to be at the forefront of education on these subjects, engaging as stakeholders. You have something at stake here, in all of this: how you choose to stand up for a people marginalized, your integrity.

Does this seem like too much of a burden to bear? Am I asking too much from you? Are other marginalized peoples calling on you too? Are you tired? I understand your concern. I feel it when I am called on to stand up for others too. I feel exhausted by the weight of my own circumstance combined with the need to alleviate the suffering of others.

But I take solace in the collective. Take solace in knowing that you might not be able to save the world but you can join forces with other people who are trying to repair it, in their corners of this crazy place with the tools and talents they have their disposal. No small effort in the way of compassion is ever wasted.

Anas Ibn Malik narrated that the Messenger of Allah, Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said “If the Hour (of the End of Time) were established upon one of you while he had in his hand a tree sapling, then let him plant it.”*

In solidarity,

Nakita

*(Musnad Imam Ahmad 12491)


nakitaNakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

 

Implicit Islamophobia is a type of prejudice that results from subtle cognitive processes which operate at a level below that of conscious awareness. The bias refers to stereotypes and an overall ethos (set of attitudes subscribed to) that initiate behavioural patterns and thereby effect how we understand others, our actions towards them and decisions about them. Normally spoken about in the context of sexism and racism, one underexplored area that implicit bias manifests strongly in is interactions with and among Muslims.

The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity points out the following:

  • Implicit associations harboured in our subconscious develop over the course of a lifetime, beginning at a very early age through exposure to direct and indirect messaging.
  • Biases associated with these subconscious associations are pervasive. Everyone possesses them, even if we are dealing with individuals who have taken a vow of impartiality
  • Implicit associations we hold do not necessarily align with our consciously declared beliefs and can often contradict them
  • Our implicit biases favour our own group
  • Biases are malleable – associations we have formed can be gradually unlearned through a variety of purposeful de-biasing techniques

So what kinds of associations are we talking about here?

There are quite a few common stereotypes associated with Muslims through overt messaging or more subtextual associations in media and writing that affect our unconscious biases towards them. Some of these associations are internalized by Muslims as well and can affect how they think of themselves and one another. Recognizing that these associations exist and might be operating at the level of implicit bias is just the beginning of your journey in cleansing one’s self of these harmful associations.

The following associations are quite common and actually have a historical lineage in terms of being connected with anti-Muslim propaganda all the way back to the Middle Ages:

Muslims are naturally inclined to violence. This one has been around since the beginning and goes hand in hand with lies that Islam was spread by the sword (ask any credible historian: it wasn’t.) and that Muslims are inclined to be terrorists. The idea of the terminology “moderate Muslims” plays into this stereotype because it implies that the deeper one goes into Islam, the more violent one becomes. This simply isn’t true. Violence is a practice adopted by people who are part of many different cultural systems around the world – it is an unfortunate political tool for some and a symptom of trauma for others. The choice to engage with violence is justified differently by all cultural systems around the world from Judaism to secularism, and is not unique to one system over another. If anything, violence is a universal human trait that is either used or resisted by interpreters of particular cultural groups, sometimes identifying as the same thing but understanding and using (or not using) violence differently. Since, contrary to what many bigots think, Muslims are humans too, it is no surprise that some of them are violent. However, to state that violence is intrinsic to Islam or even condoned by its laws is categorically false.

Muslim women are oppressed and have no rights. It seems that ever since Christian women started de-veiling and the secularists took over, the veil itself (which is often associated with the stereotype of the non-liberated, oppressed Muslim woman) has come to be the symbol of the perceived oppression of Muslim women. Even when Muslim women are not veiled, they can still be seen as cloistered away in their homes, at the behest of their man’s will, without rights and even weak. While it is true that in many countries, the rights of women are limited and that these sometimes happen to be Muslim countries, it is also true that they are often not Muslim countries. Misogyny has no religious or geographical boundaries and remains a global problem. Interestingly, those who hinge this stereotype on Muslim women are usually ignorant of the incredible rights afforded to them in Islam (even over and above the rights held by modern Western, non-Muslim women) and the fact that many, if not most, Muslim women choose to obey Islamic laws including around veiling. The right to choose and to practice one’s religious way of life as one chooses never seems to factor into the Western savior complex though.

Muslim men are sex-crazed. This stereotype goes all the way back to the insults hurled at Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) himself by his contemporaries and has continued to be associated with Muslim men to this day. While street harassment remains a pervasive issue in many Muslim countries, problems related to sexual assault and harassment are not limited to Muslims if global numbers are any indication. Additionally, even in the confines of a consensual sexual relationship, there is no indication that Muslim men are more aroused or arousable than any other demographic.

How do these associations manifest as behavioural outcomes of implicit bias?

According to the research on racial implicit bias compiled by the Open Society Foundation, it was shown that negative associations can affect people’s decisions and their behavior toward people of other demographics than themselves. For example, a doctor with implicit racial bias will be less likely to recommend black patients to specialists or may recommend surgery rather than a less invasive treatment. Managers will be less likely to invite a black candidate in for a job interview or to provide a positive performance evaluation. Judges have been found to grant darker-skinned defendants sentences up to 8 months longer for identical offenses.

Implicit bias also affects how people act with people of another race. In spite of their conscious feelings, white people with high levels of implicit racial bias show less warmth and welcoming behavior toward black people. They will sit further away, and their facial expressions will be cold and withdrawn. These same implicitly biased white people are also are more apt to view black people as angry or threatening and to predict that a black partner would perform poorly on a joint academic task. White people with stronger implicit bias against black people actually do perform poorly on a difficult task after interacting with a black person—suggesting that, without knowing it, they were challenged mentally by the effort of appearing non-biased. While the studies on implicit bias and Islamophobia are still an emerging research area, it should be noted that often the findings with implicit bias and racial associations overlaps with Islamophobia, particularly when Muslims subscribe to certain racial identities such as being black or Arab. Compounded biases have yet to be explored in any real depth.

So now that you know these unconscious cognitive processes are happening, the next question of any regular, concerned individual should be:

How can I de-bias myself?

This sounds a bit strange but there are processes and programs developed for people to consciously decouple certain associations in their mind. Such programs tend to be based on the principles of Behavioural Conditioning Therapy but not always.

In a booklet put out by the National Center for State Courts (American) and Race & Ethnic Fairness in the Courts Organization, the following steps can be taken by individuals and organizations to reduce implicit bias:

  • Raise awareness of it: Individuals can only work to correct for sources of bias that they are aware exist (Wilson & Brekke, 1994). Simply knowing about implicit bias and its potentially harmful effects on judgment and behavior may prompt individuals to pursue corrective action (cf. Green, Carney, Pallin, Ngo, Raymond, Iezzoni, & Banaji, 2007). Although awareness of implicit bias in and of itself is not sufficient to ensure that effective debiasing efforts take place (Kim, 2003), it is a crucial starting point that may prompt individuals to seek out and implement the types of strategies listed throughout this document.
  • Identify and consciously acknowledge real group and individual differences (and know that that is OK!): The popular “color blind” approach to egalitarianism (i.e., avoiding or ignoring race; lack of awareness of and sensitivity to differences between social groups) fails as an implicit bias intervention strategy. “Color blindness” actually produces greater implicit bias than strategies that acknowledge race (Apfelbaum, Sommers, & Norton, 2008). Cultivating greater awareness of and sensitivity to group and individual differences appears to be a more effective tactic: Training seminars that acknowledge and promote an appreciation of group differences and multi-cultural viewpoints can help reduce implicit bias (Rudman, Ashmore, & Gary, 2001; Richeson & Nussbaum, 2004). In addition to considering and acknowledging group differences, individuals should purposely compare and individuate stigmatized group members. By defining individuals in multiple ways other than in terms of race, implicit bias may be reduced (e.g., Djikic, Langer, & Stapleton, 2008; Lebrecht, Pierce, Tarr, & Tanaka, 2009; Corcoran, Hundhammer, & Mussweiler, 2009).
  • Routinely check thought processes and decisions for possible bias: Individuals interested in minimizing the impact of implicit bias on their own judgment and behaviors should actively engage in more thoughtful, deliberative information processing. When sufficient effort is exerted to limit the effects of implicit biases on judgment, attempts to consciously control implicit bias can be successful (Payne, 2005; Stewart & Payne, 2008). To do this, however, individuals must possess a certain degree of self-awareness. They must be mindful of their decision-making processes rather than just the results of decision making (Seamone, 2006) to eliminate distractions, to minimize emotional decision making, and to objectively and deliberatively consider the facts at hand instead of relying on schemas, stereotypes, and/or intuition. Instructions on how to correct for implicit bias may be effective at mitigating the influence of implicit bias on judgment if the instructions implement research-based techniques. Instructions should detail a clear, specific, concrete strategy that individuals can use to debias judgment or action instead of, for example, simply warning individuals to protect their decisions from implicit bias (e.g., Mendoza, Gollwitzer, & Amodio, 2010; Kim, 2003). It should be noted (as it was above) that some seemingly intuitive strategies for counteracting bias can, in actuality, produce some unintended negative consequences. Instructions to simply suppress existing stereotypes (e.g., adopt the “color blindness” approach) have been known to produce a “rebound effect” that may increase implicit bias (Macrae, Bodenhausen, Milne, & Jetten, 1994). Others also perceive individuals instructed to implement the “color blindness” approach as more biased (Apfelbaum, Sommers, & Norton, 2008). For these reasons, decision makers should apply tested intervention techniques that are supported by empirical research rather than relying on intuitive guesses about how to mitigate implicit bias.
  • Identify distractions and sources of stress in your environment and remove or reduce them: If one is distracted or particularly stressed in one’s environment when interacting with people from different groups, including Muslims, their tendency is to revert back to typical associations and therefore behavioural tendencies. The reduction of both distractions and stress can contribute to clarity and consciousness of one’s thoughts and rationale process in governing your own behaviour.
  • Institute feedback mechanisms: Actively seeking feedback from others and articulating one’s reasoning process with regards to behavioural decisions made with and among Muslims is crucial. This involves a willingness to improve and be vulnerable to others – something that will likely be much appreciated. Pick people you feel safe with but who will also provide you with honest feedback.

Finally, if you are interested in kick-starting your journey in eliminating implicit racial or gender bias or Islamophobia, you might want to consider signing up for this 7-day online cleanse which provide you with daily tasks to de-bias yourself.


nakitaNakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

Last night at the AMPAC Women’s Safety Class, Strong Orange Violence Prevention instructor (and writer at The Drawing Board), Rachael Heffernan was putting forms of violence on a spectrum from “bothering” to “life-threatening”. Certain types of violence could fit on multiple places in the spectrum depending on a number of factors, including who is perpetrating the violence. She then brought up the subject of a perpetrator that is all-too-often forgotten: ourselves.

Whenever people take self-defense training or women’s empowerment classes, they are often taught about what to do when you experience violence or harassment from strangers (especially) and, less often, from people you know. Of course, the occurrences of violence (both physical and sexual) are statistically lopsided, meaning that you are much more likely to be violated by someone you know (family, friends, colleagues, mentors), but it still stands that all too many violence prevention courses focus on outward violence and neglect what happens when we internalize violence and direct it at ourselves. Statistics about self-violence (including negative self-talk) simply do not exist.

Before we go there, I want to talk about something else that Rachael brought up because it is an important factor in all of this, especially in “getting home safe” which is the mantra of the class. Very often, our ability to be assertive and stand our ground in the face of external oppression or violence is directly connected to how we value ourselves. Rachael put it best on the car ride home when she said that conceding to anothers’ whims (even if they violate our rights) because we don’t want to “upset them” or because “we can bear the brunt of the pain” is fundamentally flawed logic because it causes or is rooted in self-devaluation. The other person’s worth is deemed to be more than your own.

This is the first instance in which negative self-talk can harm you: in how you deal with harmful situations perpetuated by others. If you are constantly down on yourself, feeling you aren’t worth the time of day for anyone, you are much more likely to put yourself last, even when in life-threatening or dangerous situations. This is a common narrative we hear among victims of sexual assault, particularly when the aggressor is someone they know. Victims can admit that they swallow their pain and just want the whole incident over with, fearing they weren’t “assertive enough” so something like being raped is inherently their fault.

It is never your fault.

And the anxiety and self-rage that comes from feeling like you made a mistake in being assaulted can lead to further self-devaluing and the potential for future vulnerabilities in the face of both external and internal aggressors. This is what we are talking about when we say that people get caught in the cycle of abuse and do not know how to break out.

One place you can start is by stopping violence against yourself first. The way to do this is to recognize it as violence. If you view yourself as an aggressor, you can start to see how violence against yourself also appears on the spectrum from “bothering” to life-threatening. Some specialists recommend viewing your aggressor voice as an adult and your inner self, which it chastises, as a small child. This can help illuminate just how much we bully ourselves.

Bothersome violence might be how you look at yourself in the mirror. Thinking that you have parts that sag or have too much cellulite, or that the body you were given just doesn’t look like every airbrushed magazine or filtered Instagram pic you see online. It could be in how you hear yourself speak in a room full of peers. They are hearing the words flowing out of your mouth and all you hear is how many “ums” and pauses and poor word choices you make and if only you wouldn’t open your mouth in the first place, then you wouldn’t have to worry about it. Or it might be thinking about everything you said and did hours later, or days, or years. At the heart of these ruthless criticisms (which, by the way, we would be very unlikely to accept from anyone but ourselves) is anger.

And anger leads to rage.

And rage leads to more violence.

So much so that you might move along the spectrum from being bothersome to downright dangerous. Negative self-talk gives way to destructive behaviours. It can lead to eating disorders, to binge drinking, to excessive drug use, it can lead to self-medicating with food, it can lead to sex addiction or self-harm like cutting or burning. All of these things are dangerous behaviours that stem from self-rage, that stem from a feeling of anger directed inwards. It might be (and usually is) exacerbated by social isolation – but thinking we aren’t good enough might also cause us to retreat and vice versa.

Dangerous to life-threatening is a slippery slope. These behaviours can easily turn to suicidal ideation or attempts. The slow simmering burn of anger feeds the fires of depression, anxiety and trauma like nothing else.

So, what puts those fires out? How can we stop the violence against ourselves once we recognize it for what it is?

Firstly, realize that this is not intrinsically how your brain works. It has been trained to think this way and it can be trained not to. It is not an easy road, but it is possible and it has to be undertaken to interrupt those negative thoughts and actions while learning to replace them with positive and beneficial ones. It can be an uphill battle with poor self-image messages in society inundating us day after day, but by learning to dampen their voice and raising your own, among other powerful women, we can start to replace those messages.

Getting help is important. Seek out counseling or other mental health-care providers, and do not stop if they tell you that you are fine but you know you still hurt yourself. At my first session on University campus, I told my counselor that I had suicidal ideation in moments of rage which stem from a birth trauma I experienced and she concluded the session by saying that she won’t be seeing me again because I “seem to have it all together”. Another counselor I saw told me I am the highest functioning patient she has ever met and she didn’t know why I needed to see her, even though symptoms of PTSD regularly inhibit my personal joy and daily existence. Do not stop looking for someone to help you. There are problems with the system and how people access it, but continuing to ask for help is a sign that you are healing and removing the obstacle of isolation.

Be holistic in your approach and put your mental health first. Yes, before anything else. Before your family, before your kids, before your job, before your career. None of that matters if you are suffering daily violence and are at risk of hurting yourself. Everything else can wait. Yes, ladies, even your children. Lean on family, on friends, on childcare providers. Get to your appointments, get to the gym, make time to eat well and sleep well. Be shameless about this. These things are just as important for you as they are for your family. Stable mental health creates stable home environments and stability means that your children and spouses won’t ever have to face a day without you on this earth. Do not listen to the lies in your head that everyone is better off without you. That you always screw things up. Your family never, ever, ever wants to see a day on this earth without you. Ever. Just ask them: they will testify to that truth. And if they don’t, or your spouse tells you to jump off a bridge, walk out. You are worth walking out for. You are worth your own safety.

Even though it seems like I am just getting started, I want to conclude with this: be gentle with yourself. Perfection is not an ideal anyone should strive for. Fail and try again. Succeed and try again. Be gentle with yourself as you would expect a kind, loving parent (whom you may have never had) to be with you as a child. Be gentle with yourself as you would expect a respectful spouse (whom you may have never had) to be with you as a lover. Be gentle with yourself as a child intuitively is with their own parents. Be gentle with yourself.

This earth is vast. Its history is long. Its space is immense. Take up your rightful place on this journey and work towards being well. I am with you on that path and I know you are with me too.


This article was written by Nakita Valerio, owner and editor in chief of The Drawing Board. Nakita  is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is also the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco.


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