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One week, he told me he’d stopped going into the office on weekends, though he checked his email on Sunday evening so as not to have any surprises Monday morning. “Sometimes I feel like I should still be working every chance I get—because what woman wants an unemployed black man?—but then I realize that’s my black shadow talking.”

As he began to reframe his personal narrative into a larger picture and understand the black shadow’s role in his life, Joe started to heal. Together we developed more affirmations to help him keep the black shadow at bay, such as “I’m a smart black man. I’m not a nothing. I grew up in a white environment that told me I was nothing, but I don’t have to accept it.” Since he enjoyed film, I encouraged him to look for positive sources of black identity in movies. In subsequent sessions, we used those external sources as bridges into his new, positive identity. For instance, I asked Joe to make a list of adjectives or phrases that describe positive black male identity. “Pride in your black heritage, standing up for what’s right, thinking positively, and giving back,” Joe listed.

“You can practice daily gratitude and appreciation when you observe these behaviors in other black men or when you exhibit them yourself,” I suggested.

Eventually, Joe’s conversation with himself shifted from focusing on negative feelings about homeless black men to positive feelings about African American contributions to society. “My work, what I do, is my proof that I’m a man of worth,” declared Joe in one session, and he went on to tell me that he’d joined a professional association of black men in his field, which helped him connect to a larger community.

Rewriting the Story

On his own, Joe looked up four white classmates from high school and met them for dinner a few times. Grinning, he told me they were happy to see him. “I wanted to know what they’d thought of me back then,” he continued. “And I was surprised when they all said that they thought I was the smartest guy in school.” This helped Joe remember that he hadn’t been totally alone in high school—at least a few of his white classmates had been friendly and thought well of him.

Eventually, Joe decided to go back to his elementary school to speak to the students about his profession and accomplishments in school. That experience had a profound effect on him, bringing his lifelong feeling of shame and humiliation to the forefront of his awareness. “I recognized the little boy inside me who felt so bad about himself all the time,” he said. “I told him he’d grow up to be a very smart black man. I told him he’d understand better why he felt the way he did. I told him the way he felt wasn’t his fault, no one had prepared him to face blatant acts of racism. Most of all, I told him I was grateful to him for not giving up.”

After several months, Joe ended therapy on a good note. He no longer went to the strip clubs he’d visited for so many years to get relief from his sense of shame and inadequacy. He joined a dating site with the intent of finding a long-term partner (he preferred it be a black woman but was open to other ethnic groups), and he was no longer distraught about making mistakes at work. As he put it, “I’ve pulled stuff off from the top to find something new underneath. I know who I am. I feel like I’ve become an enlightened black man.”

By removing his exceptional black male mask and being more authentic, he found that he could be in touch with his real feelings and the true struggle that African Americans face. He became better able to accept himself as a black man without any shame, knowing the difference between his true worth and society’s myth of black inferiority.

The seemingly personal problems that Joe worked through—his deep sense of worthlessness, his isolation, his perfectionism—were all connected to larger issues of race and identity. I believe that helping clients recognize that our minds absorb and repeat the myths about our worth that we get from our caregivers, teachers, and the culture at large is a central part of the therapist’s task. In Joe’s case, I addressed the black shadow. In other cases, people have internalized negative messages about their sexual orientation, gender, or other identity markers in ways that affect their relationships, livelihood, and sense of well-being. By confronting toxic, unacknowledged beliefs that live in the shadows of clients’ awareness, therapists can help them enlarge their personal stories to tap into a powerful source of transformation—turning the isolation of suffering into a way of connecting with a larger community that shares their struggles and their hopes.

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