In the wake of the hate crime in Buffalo, NY, I am sickened by how normal this kind of news has become. I know these types of attacks on BIPOC communities is nothing new. I also know, as a European-American, hetero, cis, able-bodied woman living in an affluent suburban town, that my own journey of awakening and reckoning continues amidst this backdrop of hate and the systems engineered to sustain it. I know where I'm situated and from here it feels like the hate is more explicit, more divisive and more permissive. And at this stage of my journey, I am more alert to the language, more able to decode the messages, and more intolerant of its intent.
As a trained psychotherapist, I want to take a look at this teenage murderer and his racist motive to eliminate those who he deemed a threat to his whiteness aka his assumed superiority. I want to apply the lens I use with my own clients, who are dealing with their own fears, anxious thought patterns and compulsions to control their environments. I want to apply a psychological point of view because the rhetoric around replacement theory that circles this mass murder (and others), while illuminating, fails to drive home the point that these assailants were acting out of fear. And treating fears is what therapists, like me, are expected and trained to do.
During a recent session, I used a phrase that I have used many times: "Don't confuse feelings for facts." We can feel sweeping, intense, passionate, overpowering emotions about all manner of things. In the height of those emotions we can believe our feeling state to be reality. We can lose sight of the truth when we experience such raw emotion. We can feel so deeply that we have physiological responses like weeping, shaking uncontrollably, vomiting or passing out. Using this lens, I believe the murderer felt so deeply that he armed himself, took aim, and killed innocent people. In my estimation, the distance between a panic attack and a murderous act isn't much. Those reactions both fail to make the critical discernment between what one feels to be true from what one knows to be true.
The assailant in Buffalo, NY, as is true of many others, felt threatened by the presence of black and brown folks. Larger, national, politically supported and media-savvy narratives that suggest his difficulties in life were the result of being pushed out, deprioritized and replaced by BIPOC communities, aided his sense of threat. Further, with the aid of replacement theory and the many systems built on white supremacy, he took his feelings of rage, isolation and most importantly fear, and accepted as fact that black folks were to blame. He confused feeling pushed out with actually being replaced. He didn't examine the census data or read the history of the shrinking middle class. Instead, he feared for his way of life, he believed the fears and he acted.
What do we do when this mistake of confusing feelings for facts is not just being made regularly, but it is being coopted by people in power to maintain their hold? What do we do when feelings are treated as facts to such an extent that facts and truths have become debatable?
Going back to the recent client in my office, she heard me loud and clear when I said: "Don't confuse feelings for facts." She quickly understood my intervention technique and recognized how her anxiety was driving the thoughts in her head and creating a lens through which she was seeing various situations in an overly negative and pessimistic light. It only took a moment for her to pull back and see her thoughts for what they were: unfiltered, unprocessed reactions to feeling threatened by the unknown, the unfamiliar, or the uncontrollable. Once she gained the slightest bit of perspective, she remembered her agency, she regained her self-compassion to have such feelings in response to everyday life, and she realigned with her ability to problem solve.
What would it take to intervene in the life of that 18 yo man in custody in NY, not to mention the countless others like him burning with rage and believing their own anxious thoughts? Could they too be reminded not to believe everything they think? Could they instead honor the normality of fearing the unfamiliar and uncontrollable as part of the human experience and not the result of an organized replacement plan? Could they regain agency to direct compassion to those fears so that they could be expressed productively rather than destructively reacting from a place of disempowerment? What if that man, like my client, could have taken those mental steps back and managed to see the difference between his heightened emotions and the facts of the day?
My belief in change, whether that be emotional, behavioral, or relational, allows me to be a psychotherapist. I want to believe that change on a societal level is equally possible. I want to believe that we can intervene in the attempt to champion replacement theory as fact and expose it as the manuscript of fear that it is. Don't confuse feelings for facts. I pray we learn how to implement this intervention on a grand scale and soon.