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Being “Woke” in an Unwoke System

“Woke is a political term of black origin which refers to a perceived awareness of issues concerning social justice and racial justice.” —Wikipedia

Today’s post is borrowing, with respect and apology, a very heavily-laden term from one highly-charged political context to another. Justice and oppression are deeply concerning topics in the news right now. Many individuals are struggling to “wake up” to clearer understandings of their actions and consequences, of the impacts those consequences have when they move out from the individual to a broader societal context (when many people “normalize” a particular behaviour out to the broader group-level enactment of that behaviour, and when that behaviour has been normalized on the broad spectrum for so long that it has become embedded or entrenched as a defensible cultural VALUE). Systemic oppression is a factor hitting many people in a maddening variety of ways: sexism, racism, ableism, classism.

Add to that list: relationism.

Okay, so that one’s not really a word, but in its own way, relational systems (family or intimate/romantic) *CAN* be as oppressive as any other system we encounter. We don’t start out to enmesh ourselves in oppressive systems, but it sometimes happens so subtly we never see it coming until we start to wake up to the weight holding us back. In family dynamics, it’s not like we really have much choice for most of our formative years BUT to live in and survive families as best we can. Sometimes the erosion of connection and intimacy in our romantic relationships becomes the thing that slowly buries us under the weight of invisible expectations and assumptions and the (sometimes non-consensual) enforcement of hidden values.

When people come into counselling, either in a couple/group relational format or as individuals, those of us who work from a systemic perspective are KEENLY aware that one person pursuing individuation, or attempting to create differentiation from an oppressive system, face particular challenges. One of the first steps in any differentiation process is to step back a little from the system and simply observe it, and to observe the self as it reacts within the systemic influences: where do we feel hooked in, and where can we choose a different behaviour when we become conscious of the patterns we’re observing? What do we see in terms of systemic values in action, and how do we become aware of where we reflect those internal values outwardly, inside and outside of the system? What do we think or feel about the values we’ve internalized, and the somewhat instinctive behaviours that enact them?

We encourage clients to observe their relational systems for a while and ponder their observations once they get clear somehow of the provocative circumstances. It’s damnably difficult to make decisions about change processes while one is sitting in the discomforting fire of an actively-provoked mindset, so gaining some kind of minimum safe distance is also part of the process. With observation and distance, we gain space to make decisions and consider how best to enact changes in our own behaviour within those systems.

That’s when things get REALLY complicated.

As soon as we introduce change in our own behaviours, we invariably destabilize a carefully-balanced system of expectations and assumptions. As soon as we start to behave in what appear to our relational counterparts as unpredictable or opaque ways, they will (in clinical, formal parlance) lose their shit. Harriet Lerner, in much of her writing on the dance of connection and intimacy, refers to the “CHANGE BACK!” pressure that is the common result to one person differentiating within, or from, a system. For the person struggling to differentiate, the challenge lies in being what feels like the ONLY person who seems aware of the behaviours in operation to enforce compliance and conformity to systemic values and expectations.

We often hear relational partners lamenting in therapy about one or the other making “arbitrary decisions and changes” that are disrupting the longtime stability of their status quo. One person’s attempts to carve out and defend the new boundaries that define their individuated space from the systemic collective will, quite often, be perceived as excising themselves from said system. Especially in family and intimate relationships that have never experienced healthy boundaries, ANY boundary will be met with resistance when others encounter it by running into it unexpectedly. It’s about as pleasant as running face-first and full-tilt into a brick wall you didn’t expect to find blocking the previously-open thoroughfare. (Why yes, I do speak from some personal experience there; why do you ask? Also: Ow.)

Individual clients who are themselves trying to differentiate, trying to change themselves, struggle with how to do so while remaining within a system: how do I not alienate my partner? How do I not cut-off from my parents? How do I not estrange my children? How do I become more of the person I see myself as being, while still honouring those relationships I want to be part of, but who may not have signed up for this kind of upheaval?

These are challenging questions for any relationship to navigate. When we’re trying to change how we engage in dysfunctional systems, the pressure to stay in and confirm, to engage in the safe herd patterns, is often overpowering, and can become harsh or toxic in short order. When we “become woke” to systemic values or individual enactments of those values within a system, especially once we begin to change how we interact with those others, our tolerance for those behaviours also drops quickly, and sometimes dramatically. We may not feel safe calling them out, so we find new ways to deflect them, or remove ourselves from engagement arenas. We will be challenged at every turn, and the sicker the system, the harsher the judgments and emotional penalties. The greater the perceived cost of differentiation, the greater the risk of capitulation.

“Being woke” to systemic (dys)functions means needing to make a hard choice about our place within those systems: maintain silence and implied or complicit support for those systemic behaviours, or take a stand against them, either in terms of our own engagement with them, or attempting to introduce change across the system. When clients confront this decision point, we discuss as many options as we can identify: we do a risk/return, ROI-type analysis; we talk about the scope of change the client desires for themselves. We talk about consent, especially if their differentiation attempt involves introducing expected change on others in the system, and how to shape conversations that invite others into that change process, rather than dropping arbitrary changes.

And we spend a LOT of time sifting through the frustrations and disappointments of integrating their own observations and newfound (hard-won) perspectives into relational systems that don’t want to be as woke to those challenges as the clients are. We discuss the desire to have partners “want to change for the better as much as I do”, and how that can add a lot of pressure and tension to a relationship, to a partner who maybe isn’t so keen to wake up. It’s a lot like Morpheus and Neo discussing whether to take the red pill or the blue pill, to stay asleep in Wonderland or to wake up and see how deep the rabbit hole goes; we can only choose for ourselves, we cannot force someone else to take the pill with us.

When we look at the risks of being woke versus remaining asleep, some people make the wistful remark of wishing they could “go back” to the simpler times, before they became aware of just how much of their systemic life makes them unhappy or dissatisfied. They talk about feeling exhausted with the effort of maintaining vigilant observational posts, of defending those nascent boundaries from the pressure to “CHANGE BACK!” I gently disabuse them of the notion that we even CAN go back. At the end of the day, we can’t unknow what we know, no matter how much we wish otherwise. We have to integrate new perspectives and understandings gained from observation into every decision we make going forward; mindful self-awareness and awareness of the systems in which we operate can never be unseen. It’s the cost of being woke: once we see the “violence inherent in the system”, we either consciously choose to do something about it (or ourselves in relationship to it), or we have to willfully choose to do nothing, and then what does that say about us? Will that be something we can live with?

Being woke isn’t always a blessing. It can mean loss and distance or disconnect, but it also creates new opportunities to examine the people we chose to be, and the decisions we make, or values we enact, in becoming that person. It allows us perspective to examine and selectively maintain or jettison systemic values that we determine are no longer welcome or applicable to who we choose to be. We create inviting space to examine our behaviours within relational contexts and ensure we are congruent within ourselves, and work to improve our willingness and ability to communicate what’s going on within our new internal processes to those important relationships outside our heads.

And once we learn how to wake up in our close or intimate systems, it becomes harder to turn off the observing capacity in broader systems. Many of us become sensitive, sometimes, to the oppressive factors in broader systems, and find the same kinds of decreased tolerance and/or increased motivation to do *something*, even on a small scale, to push back against the dysfunctional aspects of those systems, and to wake up others as we go. (I freely admit, part of why I became a therapist when and how I did was, in part, to help wake people up so I didn’t have to be out here by myself… but that’s a story for another day.)

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