Listen. Do you hear a part of you wanting to tune out the pain that our nation seems to be breathing right now? There is a segment of white people who see the issues of race in our country and know that it calls for a response from them, but they freeze. They stay on the fence because if they really listen to the pain of the Black community they might feel inadequate, helpless, and ashamed. They want their apology to make everything better immediately. At times, I have been guilty of falling into this category. The thoughts go like this: “Maybe if I’m just a little more polite, stay really calm, and just mind my own business or work really hard to not make a mistake, things will get better.” But if we do not listen now, when will we?
Pursuers and Withdrawers
This pattern of behavior is classic withdrawing and resembles the same type of withdrawing that can be seen in marriage relationships. When working with couples in counseling from an Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) model (Johnson, 2019), it typically becomes clear that there is one person who is the pursuer in the relationship and the other is the withdrawer, which creates a conflict cycle. Here is how this can play out. The pursuer is hurt by something the withdrawer does and lashes out in anger. This anger masks the pursuer’s vulnerable emotions. The withdrawer only sees the anger, does not want to escalate the situation, and so pulls back. When the pursuer senses the other retreating, this can feel like abandonment, betrayal, or insensitivity, and incites more anger from the pursuer. As a result, the conflict continues to escalate and intensify with each new incident. But the underlying need(s) that the pursuer’s anger is trying to advocate for goes unmet.
Recognizing Withdrawing Behavior
For the purposes of this article, I will focus on the withdrawer position, though this is not fully representative of EFT in practice. (If you want a fuller understanding of EFT and conflict cycles, read “Zero to 60” and “How Do We Repair?”) Withdrawing behaviors take a variety of forms such as leaving the conversation, distracting oneself, shifting the blame, or apologizing quickly and profusely. Even attempts to “be better” can be withdrawing behavior if they are out of fear of being fully present with others’ pain and ultimately to avoid shame. Oftentimes, I hear withdrawers say something along the lines of “I’ve heard this so many times. How many times do I have to apologize?” They just want the anger to stop, but pursuers are more likely to hear that they have to rush through their anger. Yes, anger used recklessly is damaging too. Nevertheless, as is said in the EFT world, the pursuer is still “bleeding out” and needs you to bring the first aid. This first aid means connecting to the pursuer’s emotional pain through empathy, reflection, and an attentive presence.
So to those in the white community who are feeling inadequate in light of the recent tragedies, do not run from your feelings of inadequacy. Cheapening reconciliation by rushing to a cure lacks effectiveness because the pursuer cannot yet trust the change. Or worse, how we try to fix can actually do more damage if we do not understand the scope of the problem yet. Just because you think your intentions to fix are good does not mean that this will be received with enthusiasm. Instead, come ready to set aside how you think the Black community should feel. Listen. Listen to more than words. Listen to more than anger. Listen to tears. Listen to pain. Listen to sighs and groans. And when you are tempted to wriggle out from under the pointed finger, listen some more. Mourn with them. Then together, take steps towards visible change.
To Learn More:
Johnson, S. M. (2019) Attachment theory in practice: Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) with individuals, couples, and families. New York, NY: Guilford Press.