Intentionally choosing to thrive in your current life is revolutionary. I say this because we (and our ancestors before us) live in a time and a society that often seems to be full of hate, fear, and distress. Living in this type of environment causes us to unintentionally get into “survival mode”- which puts limits and constraints on the potential and quality for our lives. When we live in a racist or otherwise oppressive society, it often means that we also live in constant fear and anxiety for our livelihood. We are encouraged to become smaller, different, or told to be less threatening. We then begin to internalize these messages from society, and even encourage our children and loved ones to live in fear, with anxiety, and with limitations.
This sick and limiting cycle is often the result of intergenerational experiences of racial trauma. If you have not read Dr. Joy DeGruy’s “Posttraumatic Slave Syndrome” or even just watched some of her YouTube clips on this phenomena, you should! Dr. DeGruy has done an excellent job at explaining and characterizing the exact effects that extreme racism and oppressive conditions have had on Black Americans. The unfortunate part is that these conditions persist, and so do the effects. Fortunately, many psychologists and other mental health professionals are finally catching on to the fact that racial trauma is real and needs further research and study.
Racial trauma can be understood as a subset of trauma, as it specifically addresses traumatic experiences that are related to race, racism, and race-related stressors. Therefore, racial trauma can be defined as racial experiences of real or perceived threat or danger. These experiences can be directly experienced or the witnessing of someone else’s experience. This can also be triggered by hearing about the racial experiences of others. These racial experiences often cause feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, fear of safety, and perceived shortening of life expectancy (i.e. “I may not make it to 25 years old.”). Racial trauma rarely involve a single event, and is more likely to be a culmination of racial experiences, resulting in insidious and chronic stress. These racial events include individual racist events, consequences of institutional racism, effects of cultural racism, daily microaggressions, and perceived racism.
It would be difficult to find any person of color who lives in America and has not experienced some sort of racism, or race-related stressor. Therefore, it is likely that many of us experience and are impacted by varying levels of racial trauma. Likewise, it is common to encounter individuals who have experienced other traumatic events at some point in their lives. More frightening is the idea that there are many people of color who experience racial trauma, in addition to other non-racial traumas. This means that there are even more disturbing consequences for their lives.
Knowing this information about trauma, racial traumas, and knowing the conditions of the society in which we live, I want to us turn our attention to thriving. “The art of thriving” explains the manner in which one chooses to push toward a life of optimal health, wellness, and one that exceeds beyond merely surviving. While we may not always have control over the systemic or external conditions that surround us, we do have control over the following:
"The Art of Thriving"
Live in “what is…” not “what if.”
It’s important for us to learn to build our lives around what is, rather than what if. Many of us are notorious for living a life of what if- “What if this happens,” “What if that happens,” “What if this doesn’t work,” “What if this goes wrong.” The problem with what if is that it leads to infinite possibilities, most of which never happen. Entertaining multiple what ifs leave us feeling anxious, emotionally distressed, and can lead to depression, as we begin to feel hopeless about the future and out of control. Today, start to put more energy into what is happening right now. What is happening right here, right now, in this very moment? Practice living in the present moment, because every moment of life truly should be enjoyed in the present.
Celebrate the wins.
When we live in a world and society full of oppression, chaos or toxic energy, it’s very easy to notice the negative things happening. Sometimes it’s a lot easier to find the negative than the positive. So, where are the wins? Today, start to be intentional about finding the wins. Moments of peace, joy, laughter, etc. are not distractions. They are necessary to find and incorporate balance in our lives. We all need some wins and we need to get really good at finding them. Find your balance between happiness, joy, humor, and a healthy dose of awareness in what is happening in the world.
Feed and nourish yourself.
We must get into the habit of feeding and nourishing ourselves with holistic wellness and care, i.e. self-care. Our physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual selves need to be fed and well nourished. When we are well fed and nourished, we are then better able to sustain the stressors that come into our lives. It’s like a protective bubble or protective shield. When we are physically fit, emotionally healthy, have positive relationships, have good role models, when we feel good about our jobs, etc., negative things don’t impact us as much. Today, figure out in what ways you can begin (or continue) to feed and nourish yourself (this may help!).
Strengthen your sense of agency.
When you are marginalized or oppressed, you become accustomed to feeling like external factors have a very unfair, unjust and controlling influence on your life. Yes, there are many things that are out of our control and have the power to influence our life in negative ways. This compromises our ability to develop our own sense of agency- the belief in the choice and control we have in our lives. So, thriving comes with strengthening this sense of agency. We tend to have a stronger sense of well-being when we feel that we have control over our own lives. Today, find a way to take back your agency by noticing what you do have control over in this moment of your life. Tap into the choices you have or the moments where you can take control over your life. Steer the direction of your life in your favor. Don’t give away your agency to the ills of the world.
Live in accord with your values.
Whenever I have a client who is having trouble redirecting their life, I always encourage them to tap into their values. What do you value? What matters to you? What is important to you? What principles do you live by? How do you want to be remembered? What do you want your legacy to be? Our values are important because they guide our actions, influence our behaviors, drive our perceptions of the world, and have a lot of impact on the decisions we make. Today, figure out what it is that truly matters to you by getting to the core of what you value in this life.
Do what makes you come alive.
As Howard Thurman once said, “Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that. Because what the world needs most is people who have come alive.” Instead of figuring out what you can do for the world, do what makes you come alive. Do the things that you are extremely passionate about, the things that bring you happiness and joy- because this is the very gift that you need to give to the world, society, and your community. This is what the world and those around you need to see so that they, too, will feel encouraged to come alive.
Read more about healing from trauma here…
If you enjoyed reading this, also listen to Ep. 3 “The Art of Thriving” and Ep. 17 “Should we watch videos of police brutality and Black death?” of ‘A Different Perspective’ Podcast.
The information and resources I’ve created are dedicated to anyone who’s ever doubted their abilities to succeed; for anyone who wasn’t able to attain higher education, even if they desperately wanted to; for anyone who has at one time believed they couldn’t go to school because they didn’t know anyone else who has; for anyone who’s light was dimmed by the expectation of failure. I hope this ignites that flame inside of you to push against these odds and continue on in this journey.
Recently, I received an email from a college student asking for tips and advice on how to get into graduate school. This is a question I receive often! I’ve actually been quite surprised at how often I get asked about the process of attaining education, particularly graduate school. This general topic comes in a close second to questions that I receive about psychology and mental health. Because of that, I decided that it is probably time for me to go ahead and offer this type of information in the form of a written piece and additional resources. So with that being said, I have been hard at work gathering and structuring lots of information that I believe pertinent to one’s process of securing acceptance into graduate school (i.e. "The Timeline," Grad School FAQs, Grad Psychology FAQs, ‘A Different Perspective’ podcast episode 15 and episode 16).
Graduate school changed my life. That’s why I often get so passionate about why I believe more of us should attend graduate school, if we are able. I pride myself on being a 1st generation college student. Neither my mother nor my father were able to attend college. In fact, they both were part of the first generations in their families to graduate high school. I am always so proud of my parents for working as hard as they did to make sure that I (and my brother) were able to attend college. With that being said, going to college has its challenges when you are one of the firsts. In fact, research shows us that 1st generation college students often have unique barriers and difficulties that stem from this very position of being the first. We often see higher rates of mental health challenges, academic difficulty, social isolation, and even higher dropout rates among the population of 1st generation students. The research has shown us that having a family member who has previously attended college offers several protective and beneficial factors that help to improve college adjustment and success.
Research and statistics on the challenges of being a 1st generation college student remind me of why I (and many other professionals like me) feel a deep responsibility to ensure that more members of our communities are able to have access to the very thing that has the potential to ensure a markedly improved quality of life: education. Honestly, I’m extremely lucky to have even considered going to graduate school because prior to my attending undergraduate college, I had little awareness of what graduate school even meant. I was lucky to have met one Black woman who, at the time, had recently been accepted to graduate school for psychology. She and I talked in depth about this process and why she believed it was a great next step for her, and why I should consider doing the same. In those seemingly small interactions, this woman had expanded my perception of the future immensely and that is what sparked my desire to pursue graduate school. Seeing her as a model and example for what was possible made it so that it was also possible for me to do the same. I am forever grateful and indebted to her for that life-altering experience.
Graduate school connected me to a number of amazing individuals, who have motivated and inspired me to give back to my community, enrich myself with knowledge, and to value my own talents and gifts. Because of those mentors, I now feel like a gatekeeper to my profession and have an important responsibility to ensure that many others are able to join me on the other side.
Overall, my experience of choosing to attend graduate school is one that I would choose again and again. I realize that graduate school is not something that everyone will want or need to do, but if you are contemplating whether you should consider graduate school, I suggest reflecting on the following questions:
1. Why do I want to pursue graduate school?
Graduate school is a huge time and financial commitment that one must be 100% sure about before committing. Determine why you want to pursue graduate school and feel confident about this before committing.
2. How will I finance my graduate education?
Yes, graduate school is expensive and requires a clear financial plan for how you will finance your education. Many programs provide scholarships and financial assistance. Other programs will require the need for employment, academic loans, or outside scholarships. Many graduates take part in loan repayment programs upon completion of their graduate programs. Don’t let the cost of graduate school discourage you. Instead, put some extra consideration into how to make this work for you!
3. What do I passionately see myself doing in the future?
If you do not feel passionate about the field that your degree will prepare you for, then you might want to reconsider whether pursuing this degree is the right decision. Find what you are passionate about and make sure that your pursuit of graduate education will get you there.
4. How will I keep myself motivated and energized during graduate school?
Graduate school is a journey and will require your ability to keep yourself motivated and energized during this long haul. Figure out how you will sustain the energy to keep going.
5. How will I take care of myself during graduate school?
Graduate school takes time, energy, and will break you down if you allow it too. Make sure that you develop strong self-care skills and boundaries around your health before you begin your graduate program.
If you still feel ready and passionate about moving forward with graduate school after reading those questions, consider reading “The Timeline” so that you are prepared for completing your graduate school applications.
Have questions about graduate school? Read through Graduate School FAQs.
Have questions specifically about pursuing graduate school in psychology? Read through Grad Psychology FAQs.
I know a lot about trauma. Over the past few years, I have been lucky to have learned so much about trauma, in all its forms. Learning about trauma has served several purposes for me. At one point in my career, I worked closely with traumatized youth, many of which were children of color and had been physically assaulted, emotionally abused, neglected, homeless, sexualized, and harmed in ways one could hardly imagine. I don’t do that type of work anymore, but I’ll always be grateful for those experiences. More recently, the role trauma has played in my professional life has helped me to better understand all the ways that Black people and communities have been impacted by trauma. The answer to this question is remarkably profound, as our community has been impacted by many forms of trauma (i.e. single traumas, complex traumas, collective traumas, racial traumas, intergenerational traumas-similar to Dr. DeGruy’s theory of ‘Posttraumatic Slave Syndrome’).
The layers and depth of our trauma are real and I found myself digging deeper and deeper into the layers. I don’t think I was alone in this. I noticed a collective “call to action” in the Black community to unearth the truth regarding all the ways in which we have been harmed throughout our history. Many of us were learning more of our history by reading and teaching others. We watched Root. We watched videos of police brutality. We performed spoken words of our pain. We listened to Kendrick Lamar, A Tribe Called Quest, and Solange. Even our artists, athletes, and beloved celebrities were in on the awakening. It was actually a magical time. We all collectively became conscious and “woke up”. No one could take that knowledge and awareness from us. We are a much better people for this awakening.
I continued to dig deep into the understandings of our traumas and pain, until I realized that with anything, balance is needed. I noticed myself moving in a direction that also elicited a different type of pain. In the world of clinical psychology, we call it secondary or vicarious trauma, which occurs when one becomes traumatized by the witnessing or secondary experiencing of a traumatic act. In my studies and deepening understandings of trauma, I became moody, emotional, and I had difficulty relating and socializing with people who did not look like me. I felt worried about the well-being of my family, friends, and community because we were Black. I did not feel safe. Again, I was not alone in this, as I also noticed a wave of collective re-traumatizing as we all worked to increase our awareness of our trauma and pain. I noticed more students of color come into my office, with complaints of symptoms of posttraumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) that was brought about by their own new awareness of their world. Very quickly, our awakening had turned into something painful and difficult to manage. This led me to wonder: What does healing look like for Black people?
Ironically, I know that many of us are reluctant to shift our focus from trauma and pain to healing. I understand that for some, contemplating that sort of shift in focus can feel like one is “selling out” or that we aren’t able to handle the pressure of staying awake. Being conscious is like wearing a badge of honor or declaring some sort of prestige. It’s something that many of us brag about because we know just how difficult it is to keep your eyes open to the injustices of the world. But like many things, our concept of wokeness and consciousness needs to change, and instead should include an aspect of wellness. Instead, our awakening should be necessitated by essential self-care and wellness so that we are able to sustain our new found knowledge, insights, and education about ourselves, our history, and our community.
Imagine a world in which Black people were consciously aware of our history, struggles, pain, while also keenly aware of the value and need for healing and taking care of ourselves. Imagine what it would be like for us all to start taking our healing and wellness so seriously, that it has no choice but to greatly impact our children and their children. We will be better parents, better leaders, better teachers, better friends, and better people. We will be better to ourselves. The healing will be exponential, as the impact of our growth and improvement begins to impact the lives of others around us. I get excited when I consider the power and strength that may come from our community as we begin to make this important shift to healing. For me, this does not seem unattainable or impossible. I believe it is possible for us to begin to shift our focus to healing, so that we can begin to experience life in a much healthier and well-adjusted way. We deserve this. We need this!
Our healing must be holistic, meaning that it must encompass every and all aspects of health and wellness. In my clinical work, I frequently teach others about the eight domains of wellness- physical, emotional, social, environmental, spiritual, occupational, intellectual, and financial. Being aware and giving attention of all eight of these areas of wellness will ensure that we are achieving healing and wellness holistically. A great way to begin approaching holistic healing and wellness would be to ask yourself the following questions:
In what ways can I enhance my (insert each aspect of wellness here) health?
Where can I establish more healthy boundaries in my life?
What brings me joy?
What will move me forward in life?
What is good for me?
What does it look like when I take care of myself?
Another great way to begin approaching holistic healing and wellness would be to take part in the #21DaysofSelfCare challenge. This is a challenge I created to help myself and others jumpstart a self-care journey. It teaches you about all eight domains of wellness and how you can begin to incorporate these aspects into your life now and for the future. You can learn more about the #21DaysofSelfCare challenge here.
It would be hypocritical for me to ask you to challenge and commit yourself to healing without doing this for myself. So what does my healing look like now?
So what will your healing look like? How will you begin the shift from trauma to healing in your life? Let me know here, here, here, or here and please encourage others to join us in this collective move toward healing.
Want to hear more about trauma and its effects?
Listen to Ep. 8 of 'A Different Perspective' podcast.
*Subscribe to the podcast, on iTunes, Google Play, or Soundcloud.
Dr. Amber Thornton
Clinical psychologist with a passion for family, community, culture, and diversity.