A Puncturing of the Soul
Facing Racial Trauma and Internalized Devaluation
My client Ophelia let out a deep wail, unlike anything I’d heard in my many years as a therapist. The accumulation of lifelong raw emotions that had been denied, ignored, or minimized for years was being released from the cellar of her soul. This 52-year-old Black woman, born and raised in England but now living in the United States, was on the precipice of a self-discovery that had eluded her for much of her life, even during years of intensive therapy.
Like countless other People of Color, Ophelia had lived much of her life maligned by an unnamed, self-defeating, and debilitating condition: an unshakable belief that had undermined her day-to-day life and most of her significant relationships. It was a haunting feeling of inadequacy that often forced her to consider compromising when she didn’t wish to and to remain silent when she had something to say. It shadow-boxed with her often over whether she was an imposter, deserving of her own achievements and strong feelings. Her recent epiphany that had taken place in my office was that this condition she’d been grappling with since childhood was a form of racial trauma.
Racial trauma is the predictable emotional, psychological, and behavioral byproduct of hyperexposure to racial oppression. It’s a silent assassin that attacks the mind, body, and soul. It’s both a response to and the effect of centuries of racial degradation, marginalization, terror, and domination that have been intergenerationally transmitted. Unfortunately, it’s a way of life for many People of Color.
During my work with Ophelia, the deceptively simple act of naming her racial trauma started her healing process. Over many sessions, I acknowledged and shined light on puzzling conditions associated with racial trauma, igniting her new awakening as well as her current state of inconsolable anguish. For the first time, she’d begun to see how racial trauma had propelled her decision to relocate to the United States, sabotaged her romantic life, informed how she parented her two children, dictated how she felt about her dark skin, and encouraged her to compromise her sense of dignity and worth at work, as well as in other white dominated places.
Coming to terms with all this at 52 was emotionally overwhelmingly for Ophelia. And it was excruciating for me to witness her pain. After all, from my own experiences as a Black person, I understood her tears were not just for herself, but for all of us who have been devalued as a matter of course and forced to live at the margins of our society. Yet those tears, and the ferocity with which they flowed, signaled that she was beginning the process of expunging the racial devaluation that she’d internalized her entire life.
Internalized devaluation, a form of racial trauma rarely talked about among therapists, profoundly shapes and distorts how people perceive themselves as well as the group in which they belong. One feature that makes this condition so devastating and difficult to detect is that the negative valuation messages can be consciously questioned or rejected on the surface and unconsciously internalized at the same time. This process often contributes to the creation of secondary symptoms that aren’t always associated with the primary condition at all. In fact, this is often the case when a Person of Color has a major emotional outburst in response to feeling disrespected by an action or event that a naïve onlooker might judge to be relatively minor.
Take, for example, the white cashier who approaches a cash register and says, “I’ll help whoever is next” and then immediately turns to a white patron. The Person of Color standing there might become enraged, regardless of whether they were next in line or not. The trigger for the explosive affect is a visceral reaction to deeply stored internalized negative messages that suggest “I’m less than, invisible, and not worthy of your consideration.” To the cashier and other onlookers, the reaction seems extreme and emblematic of the unjustified, unbridled anger and fury of yet another Person of Color.
What don’t they understand? Internalized devaluation creates a state of mind in which the Person of Color believes and expects their worth, value, dignity, and personhood to be constantly called into question (best-case scenario) and flatly devalued and rejected (worst-case scenario). It creates an exhausting, psychologically and emotionally taxing condition in which People of Color are constantly wondering whether they’re doing enough, educated enough, and working hard enough and, the deeply buried unconscious sentiment, whether they’re good enough. Internalized devaluation also leads to a great deal of second guessing and self-doubt, wherein some People of Color are never quite sure of their reactions, views, or behaviors. These psychological processes are dizzying, disorienting, and mentally disruptive. The persistent underlying and daunting questions generated by internalized devaluation can exist and persist unconsciously, even if they have been answered consciously.
"Am I Doing Enough?"
Xiomara is the 30-year-old, oldest of six children, daughter of Mexican immigrants. Her family moved to the East Coast from Mexico when Xiomara was 11 years old. She’s now the clinical director of a behavioral health agency in Princeton, New Jersey, where she attended graduate school en route to receiving two master’s degrees, one in public health and one in mental health.
She came to me seeking therapy because she often felt nervous, and she couldn’t remember the last time she had a night of peaceful and uninterrupted sleep. She noted that she loves her work but had been losing interest in her job over the past several months. She stated, “Since being promoted to director, I’ve been wondering whether this is the right move for me. Maybe I should’ve stayed doing direct services. I just feel exhausted, burned out, and constantly wondering whether I’m doing enough.” The theme of “not doing enough” continued to come up in our therapy sessions, although Xiomara could never fully explain the impetus for her worries about not doing enough. She wasn’t receiving feedback from her supervisors that her workload or quality of work was less than satisfactory.
I noticed that she repeatedly expressed very subtle messages that suggested internalized devaluation, so I often asked her, “Doing enough for whom or for what?” Each time, with a look of defeat, deflation, and puzzlement she nervously smiled while tearfully shaking her head and softly saying, “I don’t know. It’s just a feeling I have. Maybe it’s just me. . . . I’ve always put a lot of pressure on myself.”
A critical juncture in the therapy occurred when I asked, “Is it that you feel like you aren’t doing enough? Or is it that you feel you aren’t good enough and you’re worried that you’re an imposter?” The slow-moving tears that had crawled from her eyes began to stream more steadily as she sat motionless and seemingly stunned. After a few seconds, she acknowledged that maybe it was more that she didn’t feel good enough. She went on to express that she was anxious all the time and worried that her colleagues thought of her as a “diversity hire.”
“Do you think they’d hire a Mexican for my position if they weren’t trying to prove they weren’t racist?” She went on to share the childhood messages she’d heard since her family immigrated to the States, messages that said she had to be twice as good as “the Americans” (whites). I assured her that I was born and raised here in the United States, and as a Black man, I, too, had received those same messages, almost verbatim.
Clinically, I was certain that much of her fatigue and burnout were precipitated by all the intense psychoemotional energy that she was expending to prove to herself and to others that she belonged and was worthy of the position she held. Yet, there was also a part of her that wasn’t completely sure. Additionally, she worried that if she somehow wasn’t successful, it would make things bad for all other People of Color.
Like so many People of Color in similar positions, she’d get asked seemingly benign questions by whites, such as “Oh, how did you get the director’s position?” While the question could be a consciously innocent question posed by a curious white colleague, it’s commonly infused with the implicit bias that white people earn jobs and People of Color are given them.
As is common in cases of racial trauma, Xiomara made no overt mention of race in describing her presenting problem. However, by examining her presenting problems and related complaints through a racial lens, I was able to hypothesize that her emotional struggle with “not doing enough” was likely tied to racially based feelings of inadequacy: that is, internalized devaluation. I was relatively certain that beneath the anxiety and questions she had about whether she was “doing enough” was a much deeper nagging sentiment that unconsciously speculated that “maybe if I were better, I could be doing more, and because I’m not doing more, maybe this means I’m unworthy, or worse, an imposter.”
At that pivotal moment in the therapy—when I asked, “Is it that you don’t feel like you are doing enough? Or is it that you don’t feel you’re good enough and you’re worried that you are an imposter?”—the explicit naming of feeling like an imposter and later connecting it to devaluation allowed her to explore this painful internalized message.
It was also important that I explicitly acknowledge and name race, her Mexican identity, and her status as an immigrant. It conveyed a clear and powerful message that it was appropriate to incorporate these factors into our work. Over time, she felt free to openly discuss all dimensions of her background and to develop a keen understanding of how race and a bevy of negative and self-destructive messages had been deeply internalized, blocking her focus both at home and at work.
Over the years, I’ve worked clinically and as a colleague with brilliant People of Color who were overcome with what seems like self-doubt regarding their capabilities. Many had multiple—sometimes triple—bachelor’s and master’s degrees that didn’t provide the internal affirmation and validation needed to offset the crippling messages and experiences of devaluation that inundate their everyday experience as People of Color.
It’s important to note that internalized devaluation is not some random family-of-origin-rooted self-esteem struggle. But there is an intergenerational dimension to internalized devaluation that affects how many Parents of Color parent, which affects child development. The admonitions from Xiomara’s and from my parents to always strive to be “twice as good as white people” is indicative of this wound. White children are afforded the luxury and privilege to just be children, while Children of Color, at every developmental stage, have to play and grow up with the weight of the symbolic chains of racial degradation and oppression firmly clasped around their necks, wrists, and ankles.
Internalized devaluation is the direct result of external devaluation, which is something that happens to you. External devaluation involves a puncturing of the soul. It’s a process by which an individual or a group is stripped of the essentials of their humanity, their dignity. There’s no one definitive emotion that defines or is characteristic of it. Instead, there’s a complex array of emotions, some of which may seem contradictory, that accompany the wound, like despair, shame, humiliation, hurt, anxiety, and destructive anger.
The interesting issue is that when you’re devalued, all aspects of your life are devalued—thus, the despair, sadness, hurt, and grief are often ignored or dismissed and remain largely unacknowledged and untreated. And once devaluation is internalized, it becomes a fundamental component of one’s being and a robust negative perception of oneself. The situation rapidly shifts from recognizing “I’m being treated as less than” to believing that “I am less than.”
When one is devalued, one is essentially dehumanized; and humiliation is often a tool for dehumanization. Unfortunately, People of Color are humiliated by whites as a way of life. The constant and insidious overpolicing of Black and Brown people not only by the police, but also by all other white people, is a major source of humiliation. From elementary-age Black children removed from the classroom by the police, to the Black male high school wrestler whose hair was cut on the gymnasium floor before a wrestling match because his dreadlocks were considered inappropriate, to the Black teenage girl who was tackled by white male police officers in public while still in her bathing suit, to the two Black male business associates arrested for sitting in Starbucks, Black people, in particular, are always the subjects of public scrutiny, embarrassment, and disrespect perpetrated by entitled white law enforcement and civilians alike. Black people are often placed in awkward public social situations where we’re expected to gleefully offer “proof” that we belong or that we’re where we’re supposed to be.
Strong feelings persist because so do the acts of humiliation. This is one of the reasons so many People of Color find it really difficult to talk with white colleagues and friends after murders like those of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Whites often want to talk about that single experience, and most People of Color are overwhelmed and inundated with a stockpile of accumulated intense emotions that vacillate between shame, humiliation, and rage. One brief conversation about “this awful experience” offers no solace or soothing to the deeply rooted emotions that most People of Color are experiencing in those moments.
This is how trauma works. This is how racial trauma works: every murder brings back the pain of all of the previous murders, often dating back to ancestors. Not only do the shame and humiliation experienced by People of Color go unacknowledged, but there are very few places, if any, where these intense emotions can be validated and metabolized.
Therapy should ideally be the perfect place for this type of racial healing to unfold and blossom. Yet, this type of soul work can’t gain traction if we, as clinicians, fail to acknowledge the deleterious effects that race, racial oppression, and ultimately racial trauma have on the lives of People of Color. Our insistence to feverishly hold on to archaic, feel-good notions such as “we don’t see race” or other claims of colorblindness impede our ability to provide clients of color with the racially based care and treatment that’s necessary for healing.
Those of us who specialize in trauma-based treatment and aspire to be trauma informed must confront the chilling reality that it may be near impossible to be authentically and wholistically trauma informed if we are not also race informed. Until this shift in our collective thinking as clinicians is embraced, we’ll continue to assert that “trauma is trauma,” and the uniqueness of treating racial trauma will remain on the margins of what we extol as best practice.
Neither Ophelia nor Xiomara entered therapy with racial trauma as a presenting problem, yet the internalized devaluation that stifled their daily lives as women of color was profound. Both of them, albeit of different races, born in different countries, over 20 years apart in age and, for all practical purposes, living in different worlds, were connected by a common suffering. And it’s imperative for clinicians to be prepared to acknowledge, name, and treat it.
Adapted from Racial Trauma: Clinical Strategies and Techniques for Healing Invisible Wounds, (c) 2023 by Kenneth V. Hardy. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
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