“Cancelling” and “Collecting” in Trauma Healing

I was moved as always by adrienne maree brown’s post last week about “canceling people,” and likewise by the the number of people reposting it. (Granted, I tend to follow pretty progressive people and folks who I look to for orientation and inspiration, so my social media feeds are definitely skewed waaaaaay left.)

But, it strikes me as extremely important just how much the ideas she puts forth are resonating with folks.

I am holding her ideas alongside many others, including what is still percolating within me from the first Somatic Experiencing (SE) training I completed about a week ago.

SE is all about metabolizing and processing trauma in the body, on the level of the nervous system (see a few of my recent Instagram posts from the last two weeks for more on the nervous system). It’s about recognizing the physiological needs that human animals have to discharge and reset, in a seemingly endless pulsation of activation and settling. (Think of a sine wave, rise and fall, ebb and flow.)

But some experiences stretch us beyond our natural capacity to settle and discharge. And even when we do have access to that capacity, so much of our social and cultural constructs prevent us from tapping into it for fear of retribution, shaming, othering, and violence.

To name a few.

Part of what makes SE work is the approach to healing that recognizes this natural pulsation (sine wave), and seeks to work with it, to shape the healing process in a way that syncs up with our natural tendency to engage and disengage (what SE calls pendulation). And which recognizes that we all get overwhelmed, and when that happens, will we shut down and/or lash out.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this pulsation of activation/discharge, along with lashing out /protective / defensive behaviors, in the context of healing from the trauma of racism and white supremacy. Specifically, about the ways in which, when we find ourselves stretched or thrust beyond our innate capacities to self-regulate and settle, it feels threatening to us. **By definition and design, in those moments we are perceiving that we’re in some sort of a danger zone in which our sense of safety and stability are threatened. Thus, we react instinctively to protect ourselves.**

This type of reaction can take many forms, and is a natural and sometimes instinctive / unconscious response to the conditions we perceive as threatening.

I am thinking about white folk who have been engaging in racial justice work for awhile, myself included, and the ways that we are often very quick to “cancel” – to other, distance ourselves from, call out, shame, or otherwise isolate ourselves from white folks who are aren’t as “woke,” who haven’t been in the work for as long, who do and say things which are 1000 percent a function of their/our whiteness and privilege, and which often leave us (me) shaking our heads.

We expect those newly politicized white folks to immediately “get it,” to show up with a level of humility and awareness that are themselves the very antithesis of whiteness, and that only come – in my experience – from doing the personal work in real and excruciating and ongoing ways. (Again, that self-work being in direct contrast to the conditioning of whiteness which seeks to make itself invisible and us unconscious.)

We leap at the first opportunity to overwhelm folks with citations and critique, to pile on facts and fear, to inundate with stats and shame. We feel powerful for having done so. We feel righteous and like “good white people” when we know our shit and try to collect our people.

And we wonder why folks retreat.

Withdraw. Disengage. Succumb and get stuck in white guilt.

Or worse (?).

Folks get defensive. Last out. Push back.

From a Nervous System perspective, this makes perfect sense. How could it be any other way?

Combining these ideas with those of adrienne maree brown, in the context of racial justice work, I think that “cancelling us” – acting out, rejecting, isolating from, punishing – as well as the resulting withdraw or pushback – are forms of self-protection. This makes sense on the physiological level. For everyone.

For those of us who are doing the “collecting” and/or “cancelling” of folks, it is a form of discharge for us. It is both self-protection and self-regulation. We (understandably) feel at our limit when it comes to navigating whiteness in all its violent entitlement and willful ignorance. We have given enough of ourselves to toxic whiteness and white supremacy, centered it enough, oriented ourselves around it for our whole lives (as we have to orient ourselves around any predatory and threatening force).

But if we are to believe that our capacity for survival and thrival lies in tapping into more than just our animal instincts, we’ve got to give ourselves a chance to allow more of our other skills and tools to “come online.” We’ve got to give ourselves a chance to breath deeply, to assess just how much threat we are truly in in this moment, and to draw on our capacity for resilience, for clear seeing and creativity.

For those who are newer to the work and who shut down and retreat or lash back when called out (or called in but in no less intense ways), it is also a form of self-protection and self-regulation. An attempt to handle what is overwhelming and deeply threatening and which is – for many – totally new information, a paradigm shift. Literally life threatening in the sense that it threatens the very foundations of their/our lives and identities. Earth (and illusion) shattering.

We can have feelings and judgments about why it is that folks are just now waking up to shit. We can have rage and reactions to what took folks so long. We definitely can. We have a right to that. [Folks of Color, in particular, have a right to that and more.]

But if we take all our pent up intensity, our rage at the System and how it harms us, our burning desires to be free…and unleash all that on white folks who are just waking up, just coming to, freshly unplugged from the Matrix and using their eyes for the first time…we will overwhelm them. They will shut down and act out of the threatened place that they are in. The human animal instinct for self-preservation will kick in. We are hard-wired for it.

I am not suggesting that we white folks should be coddled or protected from the intensity of the world, nor provided the shielding and titrated exposure that no one else gets under the grisly grip of supremacy systems. I am not here to tell us all to be nice and sweeter and kinder to well-intentioned white folks who are just now coming to consciousness.

But, I am saying that we cannot apply the same “logic” of trauma to try and undermine the systems of trauma we’re all suffering within. If trauma is too much too fast, trauma healing can be slower and more intentional (while still being rigorous). If trauma is what we didn’t choose, something we didn’t ask for, them trauma healing can be that which we are supremely choiceful about, that which we deeply desire and move towards of our own volition, feeling resourced and supported as we do so.

I’m not totally sure of the implications of all of this, but I think I am “saying it out loud” as a way to ground myself in this reminder. I am trying to both breath life into and hold myself accountable to a mandate that expects me to do my part in working to undermine white supremacy culture within myself and my relationships.


These are incomplete and unpolished thoughts. But I am still working on not letting perfect be the enemy of good. If I wait for perfection to shape these jumbled and trauma-influenced ideas, I might never share this publicly. So I’m doing it, despite my fear and doubts. I welcome your thoughts and feedback. Feel free to comment on my IG feed @liberate2heal.

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About bienestarte

Patty Adams is a bilingual clinical social worker, as well as an experienced yoga teacher and anti-oppression trainer. She is devoted to intersectional organizing, liberation, holistic healing arts, and wellness.
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