In a year where I feel like I’m huddled in the quiet place at the center of a tornado, I’ve been spending a lot of time watching the swirling whirlwind around me and marveling at its cruelty. Whenever I venture a little out of my comfortable quarantine space, bad things seem to happen. A few days ago I commented on an article online, and every day since, I’ve been barraged by people accusing me of intellectual, educational and moral degeneracy. These people don’t know anything about me except for one line of text, and based on that they feel entitled, and even morally obligated, to treat me like an enemy.
What’s more, I understand the urge. Sometimes people express opinions that fill me with righteous anger, and I wonder how anyone could possibly think the way that person does. Unless I consciously push back against the hardwired workings of my brain, it will automatically put that person I disagree with into the category of “other,” a person who is not part of my tribe, and not to be trusted.
Our brains evolved to classify people in this manner in order to keep us safe. When confronted with someone new, our brains will almost instantaneously assess that person’s appearance, demeanor, and attitude, and decide if that person is “us” or “other.” This was a matter of life or death in antiquity. Someone from a neighboring tribe would quite likely be an unsafe rival who competed with us for food and other resources, and they could be dangerous to our physical safety.
Unfortunately, as the centuries progressed, this hardwiring to the ancient structures of our brains didn’t change, and people still unconsciously continue to assess those that are unlike them to be threats. We can easily see this behavior in teenagers who form cliques that are fiercely loyal to each other, and who roam school hallways together looking for “others” to crush.
While people gain identity, safety, and companionship from being part of the group, they may also be stifled by it. Those that don’t conform to the group norms can end up ousted from the group, and find themselves in the cold and frightening role of “other.” As a result, people stop being creative, stop growing and changing, and stop trying to understand those who are different from them in order to avoid losing their safe place as part of the tribe. Sometimes, people will even do things that go against their own moral codes in order to remain in good standing with the group.
While we may not form cliques as often as we get older, we still join and conform to tribes. It may be a political party, a career path, an ethnicity, a religion, or even a family group. Our identities become bound up in these groups and we’re hardwired to see people in other groups as “the other” and somehow threatening to us, even if they actually have no intention of harm.
As people become more and more identified with their tribes, they lose objectivity, and they can be easily manipulated into hating the other group. Unethical people who are looking for power will often use this all-too-human tendency to unite against an “other” to rally people behind them. This process is extremely dangerous. Throughout history we’ve seen what happens when groups of people are demonized, labeled and feared: genocides, civil wars, concentration camps, witch burnings . . . the very worst of human atrocities. They all happen because of this hardwired tribalism.
So what’s the fix? How can we intervene? Well, the first step is to start paying attention. First, pay attention to the messages within your particular groups. Who is it that is being placed in the role of “other,” and who is benefiting from placing people in that role?
Next, pay attention to the feelings in your own body. If you feel comfortable with the messages of one particular group, but the other group’s messages make you feel physically uncomfortable, that’s not a sign that the other group is bad. It’s a sign that you have become so aligned with the beliefs of your own group that the way people from other groups see the world feels alien to your nervous system. Instead of further rejecting the worldview of other people and seeing them as wrong, grow curious. Start investigating other ways of thinking and believing. The more that we understand other people, the more we can embrace their differences.
Read books about topics that you’re uncomfortable with, and by people who you don’t agree with. Talk to people from the other group with an open and compassionate heart and mind, and try to understand why they see the world the way that they do. Nobody arrives at their beliefs in a vacuum. They’ve had life experiences that led them to where they are now. Understanding and knowing those stories breeds compassion, and we are in desperate need of compassion right now.
In my work as a therapist I talk with people from every imaginable group, and I can tell you that suffering, and a need for understanding are universal. Showing understanding for someone in a group different from yours is healing for everyone involved.
So, next time you’re online and see someone posting an opinion that you don’t agree with, instead of pelting them with insults, I encourage you to ask them why they believe what they do, and ask it with a truly open mind. If they answer, it might not change your mind, but it might help you to have understanding and compassion for a different way of seeing the world. It might help you to bring that person out of the “other” category and into the “us” category.
The truth is that we are all human, and while seeking out the differences between us in order to categorize, label and oppress people might be part of our hardwired nature, I believe that we have the capacity to rise above our hardwiring and make choices. People do it every day. They choose not to punch that person that made them angry, or ram that car that cut them off. We have the capacity to choose our behavior because of our amazing frontal lobes, which give us reason and self-awareness. I encourage you to start viewing people as a tribe of humankind in all of its wondrous and beautiful variety. Maybe then we can start treating each other with true humanity.
I was 34 years old when I went through my serious illness, and I’ve always looked young for my age. As the illness progressed, I became extremely thin, which made me look even younger. People expected me to be healthy and happy because that’s how I looked to them. One day, while sitting in the lobby waiting to see a neurosurgeon, because an MRI scan had shown a brain abnormality that the neurologist thought was a tumor, an elderly man looked at me and said, “You don’t look sick enough to be here. You look too young and healthy.”
His words struck a painful chord in my heart. By the time that I got to that neurosurgeon’s lobby, I’d been accused of lying about my illness so many times that I’d actually begun to question my own veracity. Not because I wasn’t being honest about my illness, but because everyone around me seemed to believe that I couldn’t be as sick as I was. Multiple doctors told me that the problem was really anxiety or depression. If I’d had the energy to appreciate irony, I would have smiled at their desire to diagnose me with a mental health problem instead of a physical one because, as a psychotherapist, I was just as qualified to diagnose anxiety and depression as they were. I was afraid, yes, but it was as a result of the illness, not the cause of it.
After being disbelieved and turned away, my desire to be heard and to be helped with what I was going through became somewhat desperate. This didn’t help my situation at all. The doctors felt my desperation, and it further convinced them that I was simply an anxious person, not a sick one. A cycle developed.
As a psychotherapist, I was taught that I am not the expert on what the client is going through. Clients are the experts on their own experience, and it is my job to explore and respect that experience. It’s my belief that if medical professionals would adopt this stance, people would get the help they need to get better much more quickly and easily. Patients would feel heard and understood, and there is evidence that experiencing compassionate understanding is medicinal in itself.
Injuries, like the one that led to my illness, can happen to anyone at any age. Illness is the same. In fact, there are illnesses that primary affect the young. Just because people look OK on the outside, doesn’t mean that they are OK on the inside. I would like to ask the world to stop telling other people what they feel, what they are experiencing, or who they are. If you think about it, it makes no sense for me to tell you what you are experiencing. How on earth could I know? Ask questions. Reserve judgment. You’ll be surprised by how much you can learn about someone if you do. And you never know; the knowledge you gain might just save a life.