Mutual Support for Self-Improvement

Mutual Support for Self-Improvement
By Wade Lee Hudson

Love, altruism, spirituality, partnership, community, and cooperation thrive when humans feel safe. These feelings also emerge in response to disasters when we tap reservoirs of compassion and restore faith in humanity. 

But when we’re afraid, we become angry, selfish, materialistic, domineering, individualistic, and competitive. Economic insecurity inflames those emotions.  Social conditioning, mainstream media, TV, movies, political rhetoric, and highly competitive schools reinforce these negative tendencies.

Supportive, joy-filled communities that provide safety help us rise above our negative emotions. Families, extended families, close friendships, neighborhoods, churches, synagogues, mosques, sanghas, community-based organizations, and workplaces nurture growth. We can use fear and anger to stop injustice, spread positive emotions, and help each other become better human beings. 

Intentional commitments strengthen self-improvement efforts. Wedding vows and mission statements illustrate the value of placing commitments in writing. These affirmations remind people of their commitment, help them hold each other accountable, and spread their values to others. By adopting clear, written policies, organizations can encourage their members to support each other with their self-improvement. 

In Self Care for Broadsheet, a rural PA newsletter, Penn Garvin wrote:

There is self care of oneself and there is also self care of the movement. Self care of the movement means that we look closely at (1) how we treat each other (2) how we support each other (3) how we give each other permission to rest, relax and have fun (4) how we hold each other accountable for saying what we do and doing what we say (5) how we model a movement that those not presently involved in are drawn to be a part of and (6) how we come through this difficult period of time better and not bitter. With all else we have to do it may seem difficult to also do this work of self care. However, in order to build a strong and lasting movement, it is critical to all the other work we do. 

MUA, Mujeres Unidas y Activas declares a commitment to “a double mission of promoting personal transformation and building community power for social and economic justice” and works to achieve that mission, in part, by “empowering and educating our members to provide mutual support.” Toward that end, their activities include peer counseling and support groups.The values affirmed by MUA include:

  • Compassion that enables us to understand the situation of each woman with patience and comprehension and offer support and companionship without creating dependency or encouraging victimization.

  • Learning at our own pace and level, developing new abilities so that we can excel as individuals and as an organization, and constantly reflecting and evaluating so as to improve ourselves and our work.

It’s unclear, however, whether all of their members including staff set aside time to intentionally provide mutual support, or whether the staff merely facilitates clients to do so with each other. 

Conditioned by the System (which teaches and encourages everyone to climb social ladders, look down on and dominate those below, and look up to and submit to those above), political activists often reinforce fragmentation, drive away potential recruits, and undermine their effectiveness. Deep-seated, divisive impulses, inflamed by our hyper-competitive society, weaken grassroots political power. 

But most manuals, workshops, and related podcasts don’t propose organizing open-ended mutual support for self-improvement. Most grassroots political organizations don’t even clearly encourage their members to help each other grow personally (though they may use “trainers” to develop certain attitudes and skills). And very few, if any, regularly set aside time for all of their members to support each other with their efforts to become better human beings (and, thereby, become more effective activists). The result is that activists often become addicted to activism and neglect self-improvement. 

If political activists and their mentors discuss mutual support for self-improvement at all, they typically only:

  • affirm the informal, spontaneous, natural human support that emerges from personal relationships that form during the course of activism;

  • rely on the sense of personal liberation that can result as a by-product from activism;

  • leave it on the shoulders of individuals to “be the change” and cultivate joy (many spiritual teachers and psychotherapists do the same);

  • relegate mutual support to private, personal relationships, which limits the range of feedback (though many activists only have one or two close confidantes), and;

  • hope to encourage interpersonal compassion by setting positive examples. 

All that is well and good, but it’s not sufficient. More intentional efforts are needed. 

The need for inner work is compelling. Subjective gut reactions, emotions, beliefs, norms and values shape behavior. The roles we play and the masks we wear shape our inner experience. Habitual thoughts and feelings call for careful self-understanding. If activists pause long enough from their activism to engage in critical self-examination, they can unlearn oppressive aspects of the System’s conditioning. This work requires being vulnerable and acknowledging mistakes. As Van Jones said, “We need to be more confessional and less pro-fessional.” As we change ourselves, we can better change the world, which, in turn, changes us. 

Not everyone suffers from the same weaknesses, but most of us are often burdened with many of the same problems. Though most people are good people and want to do what is right, far too often, personally, we:

  • Are arrogant.

  • Are convinced we have the complete answer to specific questions.

  • Believe we pretty much have it all together, have matured as much as we can, and are coping well enough.

  • Fail to adequately empathize with others and don’t try to better understand those who disagree with us.

  • Are unable to see many sides to the same issue.

  • Live in issue silos and echo chambers. 

  • Gain meaning for our lives by assuming we’re superior human beings and don’t appreciate everyone’s essential equality.

  • Don’t recognize the advantages we’ve had.

  • Are rooted in an identity that’s based on how well we climb social ladders.

  • Stereotype people who live elsewhere.

  • Focus on the outer world and neglect the non-material, or spiritual, world.

  • Avoid critical self-examination and don’t work enough on our self-improvement.

  • Fail to acknowledge mistakes and resolve not to repeat them.

  • Don’t relentlessly pursue the truth, “connect the dots,” and fall victim to ignorance.

  • Engage in too much short-term thinking and not enough long-term thinking. 

  • Aren’t ready to pay the price required for personal transformation.

  • Minimize our own responsibility and scapegoat others.

  • Dwell in ideas and abstractions, aren’t pragmatic, fall into dogmatism, neglect our feelings, are not present, and fail to develop our emotional intelligence.

  • Assume some one person must always be in charge.

  • Are too selfish and too concerned about our self-interest or our family’s.

  • Are too ambitious and care too much about winning at any price.

  • Don’t care enough about what’s best for the nation, the planet, and all humanity.

  • Are afraid to fail.

  • Lack self-respect, feel we have to prove ourselves, and believe that being widely recognized as very successful is terribly important.

  • Proceed with lives of quiet or not-so-quiet desperation, or find a comfort zone and choose to stick with it.

With our social interactions, we:

  • Defer to those who have more status, power, education or income.

  • Objectify people and the environment. 

  • Are judgmental and disrespectful toward others and ourselves.

  • Allow unconscious bias to lead us to react to others based on their skin color, gender, or other arbitrary physical characteristics.

  • Are insensitive to how our actions offend others.

  • Identify with and respect members of our “tribe” and demean “the other.”

  • Discriminate against people who have less education or income.

  • Let our anger get the best of us.

  • Use shrill rhetoric that alienates people, lecture too much, and talk more than we listen.

  • Are mean to friends as well as foes. 

  • Are dishonest and hypocritical.

  • Demonize opponents with abstract labels and debate the accuracy of those labels rather than focus on their (concrete) actions and the impact of those actions.

  • Resort to name-calling and personal attacks, ignore our common humanity, and forget to “love our enemies.”

  • Fail to empathize with our opponents and acknowledge that if our parents raised us in similar ways in similar conditions, we too would likely act in similar ways.

  • Inflame emotions, distort reality, and undercut rationality.

  • Are unwilling to compromise.

  • Care too much about building our own organization and neglect cooperating with like-minded organizations.

  • Are blindly loyal to and submit to some people, dominate others, and relate to few as equals.

  • Follow leaders because when we do so we have fewer decisions to make.

  • Label others, place them in boxes, and keep them there.

  • Are unable to agree to disagree and still communicate fruitfully.

  • Since challenging top-down structures can cause conflict, lead to frustrating failure, or subject rebels to punishment, we choose to totally avoid the risk.

Most people are aware of these weaknesses, want to work on them, would appreciate support from others with these efforts, and would like to support others with their efforts — if this mutual support is provided in a safe setting, in a respectful manner. But few community-based organizations provide such opportunities.

People are guarded for good reason. Those who hold authority can punish if they don’t like what they hear or see. Even good friends can be mean. Feelings can be disruptive. So we build walls to protect ourselves. Being secretive becomes a habit. Fear that we can’t handle hostility and criticism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, a downward spiral. 

Some social activism deals with some of these issues. These efforts include conflict resolution, restorative justice, active listening, nonviolent communication, and popular education projects. But these projects generally focus on behavior, do not directly nurture self-improvement, and aren’t conducted within the framework of a politically active organization.

Personal and spiritual activists do deal with the personal world. These efforts, which include unlearning racism and self-help, spiritual, and psychotherapy projects, focus on inner experience. But they also generally don’t do so within the context of a political commitment to improve public policy. They reinforce individualism and don’t directly advance systemic transformation, as is needed.

Very few, if any, political projects nurture open-ended, intimate, mutual support for whatever issues their members want to address. Even less common are projects that do so with a commitment to systemic transformation. Members of existing organizations -- such as activist organizations, human service agencies, book clubs, and other similar groups -- might use any number of possible methods to support each other with their self-improvement.

Intentional, open-ended mutual support for self-improvement could be based on a modification of the core elements of the Twelve-Step Program, with autonomous local groups meeting regularly. Groups would be free, non-commercial, self-regulating, and open to anyone. People elsewhere could easily adopt the method and identify with each other as a member of the network, so this method could spread widely without much training. It would simply involve admitting that one can use support, a commitment to examine past errors, and a willingness to listen to others. If political activists conducted such groups, their similar experiences would help establish common ground. Team members might, for instance, simply report briefly once a month on how they’ve been working on their self-improvement. Talking about feelings in this way can help clarify feelings and reinforce commitments. This approach would differ considerably from top-down training sessions, which are common (and provide professionals with considerable income and life-long careers).

Everything is connected. The crisis we face is comprehensive, so the solutions must be comprehensive. We can integrate personal, social, cultural, economic, environmental, and political transformation to advance systemic transformation. Activism in each area can reinforce activism in the other areas and lead to a mutually reinforcing upward spiral that establishes a new central purpose for our global society: to serve humanity, the environment, and life itself.

Mutual support for self-improvement can contribute to this transformation. How to strengthen ourselves and become more open and intimate is not easy. There’s no magic bullet. The first step is to recognize the need. Then perhaps we can develop intentional ways to support each other and advance systemic transformation. 

Or maybe not. What do you think?