Co-Creating Compassionate Spaces in Your Therapy Practice

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In this recorded webinar Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan talks with Ani King about co-creating compassionate spaces in your therapy practice as a part of providing inclusive therapy to clients.

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan (she/her) is a licensed clinical-community psychologist, Executive Coach, People, Culture, and Systems consultant with more than three decades of experience in healing and leadership. Her company Freedom Flow Solutions, LLC focuses on reducing stress and promoting resilience at work, in community, and at home. She serves as Co-Chair of the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Committee for the Co-Op School, an independent school serving pre-school-8th grade families. A professional performing artist and transformational coach, her areas of expertise include workplace stress and resilience, diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, trauma and recovery, leadership and management, professional growth and development. As a nonprofit leader, she assesses organizational culture and collaborates with diverse stakeholders to design, implement, and evaluate programs. Dr. Nicholson Sullivan brings an embodied compassionate approach to coaching leaders and their teams. She partners with them as they release white supremacy culture/high performing individual, team, and organizational strategies that lead to dehumanizing self and others, and embrace high achieving sustainable freedom practices that honor collective humanity with ease and effectiveness. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

Webinar Transcript

Speakers: Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan, Ani King

Ani King 0:06
Oh, they added a well notice there. But is that a voiceover? Yeah, that must be. That actually makes sense. Because for a variety of reasons, especially, I think, like accessibility reasons and so on to I bet that it gets picked up better by transcripting, and so on. And yeah, we’ve got about a minute before the hour starts.

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 0:33
I’m like renaming myself if that’s okay. Absolutely.

Ani King 0:36
I’m about to do the same thing, actually.

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 0:40
It’s very long. Let me do it this way, given the context. We will see, I guess for some folks, it’ll all show up.

Ani King 1:04
Just set this up. But I use this zoom for a variety of things. So you never know. So we are at the top of the hour, I’m going to kick us off while people are coming in, just so that we don’t lose any time. So folks, thank you so much for joining us today. I’m here with Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan. And we’re here to talk about co creating compassionate spaces for a variety of people. Real quick, I just want to mention that this webinar is sponsored by integrative Life Center that’s ILC and you can check them out at integrative Life they do a ton of great work with recovery spaces for folks in sex addiction and other areas. I again, I’m Ani King. I’m the Chief Operating Officer here at all counselors and extremely excited to bring another installation of our inclusive therapy series. And I’m very, very excited to be here with Dr. Nicholson Sullivan today. Would you mind telling us a little bit about you and your backgrounds?

Ani King 2:07
You know, and anything that you want to share about yourself with the audience?

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 2:13
Sure, and I will try to keep it short. My name is mo Nicholson Solomon and I am a licensed clinical community psychologist which there aren’t a lot of programs that that train us in clinical community anymore. What that means is that I am trained and understood to understand what’s happening intra, intrapersonally so our thoughts and emotions, our physical sensations, as well as understanding how the contexts we live in our relationships, our communities in organizations and businesses, our social political policies, our time and space, values and beliefs shape that and sort of this dynamic between the two.

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 2:59
I am the CEO of freedom flow solutions, we reduce stress and promote thriving at home and community and at work. And I personally, just to share that a bit. I grew up in a place called Deerfield, Illinois, the village of Deerfield. So I’m a Midwesterner, grew up in Deerfield. And I always tell folks, you know, because part of the conversation we’re having today, right is about social identities. I always tell folks, I went to more bar and Bat Mitzvahs than baptisms. Though I grew up in a family where we are our religious beliefs and practices were baptisms. I grew up as my sister and I were told we were the first black children to go to our public school. And we stayed in Deerfield from the time I was in first grade till I graduated high school. So I grew up the whole time. By the time I got to go to high school, I was one of three black children in a class of 300. And I left your field high school and went to Howard University.

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 4:00
Now, there’s been a saying that, you know, if a bison will always know, let you know that they’re bison. And you know, with our vice president Kamala Harris, there’s no way like now more people know about my alma mater and people I was asked once on what’s the most life changing experience that I had, and I and I always say, you know, I went to Howard University and got my entire life. That’s where I met my partner, and have very, very close friends. From there. So I went to went to Howard. And, you know, what I bring to my practice, is that experience of being in these different contexts and sort of, what does it mean to be in community? What’s the impact of when you don’t feel so included? Or you don’t feel or you’re included? Right? There’s this distinction being made between equity, inclusion and belonging, you’re included, but you don’t necessarily feel like you belong? And sort of how do we start to co create, I’ve always been fascinated with organizations that really lean in to create experiences are co creating experiences where people feel seen really seen heard. And one of and this quote from Freud actually has become more recently, which is all how bold one becomes when they know that they are loved. And so when I, when it’s outside of family and relationships, right, we get a little funky about that word love. But in some other context, it means directed attention, it means seen and heard. So Oh, how bold what risks we take, what joy we get to have when we understand fundamentally, somebody who’s got our back that we’re saying that we’re heard that we’re accepted, fully for who we are. And so that’s always been an I’ve had a lot of fun. Now, I have a theatre arts background, I have a contemplative mindfulness of ancient wisdom practices passed through all generations, through generations and multiple cultures background and so I bring all of that, to co create experiences with people.

Ani King 6:01
That sounds amazing. And it’s funny because, uh, thinking about, like, That’s such a great quote from Freud and I have such mixed feelings about Freud and so many things.

Ani King 6:13
Right? You know, that idea of like, especially in a therapeutic space, how that sense of belonging is so absolutely important. For me, it manifests a lot as being a queer person. And, you know, looking for somebody when I was finding a therapist, where I didn’t have to explain what it meant to be, you know, queer in my own context. And then being able to talk with my therapist about those deeper level things, instead of doing that labor of educating somebody about here’s who I am. And here’s why it’s important. And here are the ways that you can be most respectful of me. But instead, being able to know I’m in my space. So I would, I love that quote. And I love the way you talk about just that experience of love and joy when you know that you’re supported even know where you’re supposed to be.

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 7:00
Mm hmm. Absolutely. And right, I have mixed feelings about Freud too. And honestly, the whole discipline of psychology, my primary, it’s my primary, professional, and profession. I’ve looked to leave at many times, I always say, you know, if I if I had another career would have been being a lounge singer on a cruise ship, because I love to travel. And then of course, la pandemia, the pet you write these pandemics really shift that as an option. Oh, yeah, like my avoided fantasies. But this piece around, you know, what I’ll also say is it right, like, when we have these experiences, where we don’t feel belong, you know, there’s a lot of languaging, and psychology, and quite frankly, frankly, in all of the healing disciplines, I was gonna say, mental health, but it’s really all of the healing disciplines, that actually undermines belonging actually invites us into hierarchical relationships where one of us is the expert, right? And the other, you know, isn’t. And this, this piece of collaboration is such a huge piece of that conversation. And most of us, there are two things that happen, most of us are trained to think individually, and not about individual or ecological psychologists is sometimes what’s called what you just named queer in my context, right, like this piece of, there’s me as an individual. And then there’s the context, a lot of us aren’t necessarily haven’t had those opportunities, where we’ve had to be very intentional about seeking opportunities to learn about, like, how context shapes our, our development, and then we also often are trained to see it through problem focused, also trained to see it as hierarchical, and all of those things don’t necessarily serve us. Well. That

Ani King 9:04
That makes a lot of sense. I think, I’m really curious in terms of the issue of hierarchy, you know, when you’re collaborating to build these spaces with like, with your client, and also assume with other people just in general, because, you know, no spaces, always an individual space, you know, how do you, I guess, kind of just approach that from the start?

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 9:27
Sure. So you know, it takes practice. One is that I’m going to share a few imagery images for this. You know, my, my client these days is actually organizations. And part of the reason for that is because in my experience as faculty in different programs, and in my experience as a therapist, and you know, for about seven years a little bit more than seven years, about 10 years of my career, I worked with torture survivors. And asylum seekers, right who were coming to the United States Seeking Safety from all over the world. And I noticed that my colleagues across the country in programs that are working with refugees and asylum seekers often talked about, like, people assume it’s hearing the torture narratives, that’s the hardest part of the job. And that certainly has an impact. But honestly, it’s my relationship with our co workers. That is a lot more, a lot more challenging. And so how do we, you know, do that and, and, and that space, and I spend a lot of my time in that space, working with our clients who identify as LGBTQ, and we’re seeking safety in the United States because of that social identity. And that, that the nature of being persecuted by their government, that requires a lens that is beyond the individual. So I think one place to start is with its with, you know, when we’re talking, it does come into this space of social justice. And I think visually, sometimes it’s much easier to get it when we see it visually. Right. So some folks, some of these terms, or even these images, you may have seen something like that there’s a very popular image that actually is problematic, because the people aren’t the same size. Yeah. The graphic designer I worked with had to be very intentional about like the same size, there’s also sort of this eraser that shows up in a lot of imagery. So right, so in any quality is you’ve got this system, right, which is the fence. And there are people who like the system is designed to support them and give them a bigger view and wider perspective. And they’re getting resources to support them in that. And then equality is you give people the same resources, but you haven’t shifted the system. And in equity, you actually customize resources, so that each person gets what they need. And equity is also about power and power dynamics. Like when I say that, I don’t mean the innate power that all of us come into this life with with this breath we breathe. So that’s another thing that is fundamental. And I’ll get to that in just a moment. But equity is, and this is often what is really helpful as a therapist, whether we’re working with individuals, whether we’re working with families and couples, children or adults, this notion of equity, that there is a power dynamic that is embedded in all of our systems from the way we do insurance to the diagnosis to you know, if you have a child, matriculating through public or private schools in this country, you know, I remember seeking services for my my son, and even though I am a licensed psychologist, first of all, what I navigated as a psychologist in that context, was it there was an inequity, right, because of my identity as parent because of my identity as a black woman. And so I had people, like I literally had somebody in the first meeting from the school asked me if I understood what a diagnosis was, and this is 15 years,

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 13:28
my husband had to put his hand on my knee to keep me grounded, you know, just kind of popping up out my body Bible strategies, right? So Oh, man peace around really understanding that with these titles licensed clinical social worker, right. With the Si, si a DC, you know, what I’m saying? We’re all of these titles, there is a inherent, there’s a system that is designed to give us more power, and access. It’s really privilege. And so it is our responsibility to understand that from the get right. And then to be in like, so in this diagram, we would be right this. This, I don’t know if you can see my pointer, but we will be using the shorter ladder side, right. And our clients may or may not be here, right. And depending on the context, it ships, right, because in the context of their lives, in the context of their communities, our clients are on this left side of the image. And we are actually on this, this this right side, we’re really more resources to be able to see and understand parts of this context or have access to resources. Right. And then in the Justice mindset, it this is when we’re really talking about being in the question of how do we shift the system? Yeah, yeah. So this is just like one of the first places in my opinion to start is understanding equity understanding Justice. And then it starts to invite us to ask questions like, how do I use my power? How do I use my privilege, right? And remembering that we all so here comes to compassion? Starting with compassion. I know you’re trying to ask another question like No, not at all.

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 15:15
The other piece of this is, because this second word, and I know I’ve used it already, but I’ll get there. So if we have a brain, we have bias. If we have a brain, we have bias. I think so much. So many of us. It’s not malicious. It’s conditioned as jasleen said, doula says it’s not malicious, it’s conditioned, we are conditioned by the contexts that we live in. And I might show you that image later. To have bias, that is the way our brains work. And we are also conditioned to criticize ourselves and others. And, and, and to be incredibly mean. The value of the critique, and again, I would argue, the more time you’ve spent in academic spaces, the meaner you are to yourself, the more critical that background noises, right, the more biases we have towards particular models or ways of seeing trauma or ways of seeing complex trauma, or whatever the word is, right? We’re, if we have a brain, we have bias, if we have breath, we have power. If we have breath, in our bodies, we have power. So one of the ways that we’ve been conditioned, and I think this is endemic, again, I keep coming back to trauma, because that’s kind of like by my home that’s like my specialty area. We are, we’ve been conditioned to think that these external experiences that have happened to us things that have happened outside of us have taken away our innate capacity to choose our agency. Right? And we’ve forgotten that no matter what is happening external to us, we always get to choose, right, if even if we think about our healthcare system, or a mental health care system, a lot of folks it’s a surprise to them. When I think from that equity and justice lens, and I say, you know, you can go schedule a couple of phone calls. More, right, you’d like you get to choose, you don’t have to stay with a provider. That’s not a good fit for you. And you don’t even have to explain no complaining or explain just huh. Yeah, no. respectful past always an option, right? Because most of us have been conditioned. That that’s resistance. Okay, call what you Well, I’m out, you know what I mean? Like, yeah, but the conditioning of the system is to forget, is to get that choice.

Ani King 17:58
And that’s a, in a support group that I attend, we were talking about there somebody asking, you know, hey, this person that I started seeing is the only therapist that I’ve been able to find in my area who takes my insurance or this or that, but they won’t use my pronouns. And they tell me that I’m too focused on that. And so it was a lot of us being like, yeah, that’s not the right therapist for you, and you should find somebody else. And then kind of helping understanding like, it can feel like you only have this one option, especially when you really are looking for help. And maybe it was a lot of effort to find that help. But if that’s not help, then you don’t have to stay. You don’t have to sit there. You don’t have to be re traumatized and other ways on a weekly basis to try and get help with something else.

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 18:49
Yes, exactly. Because that’s what happens in these contexts. Right? That is that that that we are conditioned out of remembering that our clients and ourselves always get to choose, you know, if I go back to my upbringing, I’m not I’m not the Christian, my mama raised me to B. But I spent, you know, I spent my summers with my grandparents and my, my grandparents were, you know, the of the generation that migrated? You know, from the south to the north, and we’re in the Baptist Church. And then we became part of the AMA church, because it was the closest church that had black people in it. And there’s a song though, right? Like this, this joy that I have the world didn’t give it to me. Yeah, love that I have the world and give it to me. Write this piece that I have the world and give it to me. The world didn’t give it the world can’t take it away. Yeah. Right. And so this gets into another area that I just want to touch on a little bit like one of the things right that we both were like, you know something about the name Freud is blue like woo makes me I got a physical reaction to that. Part of it is because what became a psychology and psychiatry when it came into the American context, and sort of one of the things that’s happened over time is the sort of disconnection between disciplines. Mm hmm.

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 20:12
And sort of this, this, you know, I think we are actually in a time now where people are starting to understand that, that for some of us therapy, talk therapy EMDR is, is a path for others of us, it’s actually being in community, playing music and community doing theater in community, that’s our healing path. And that it, there’s also sort of this both and P. So that’s part of what part of where that choice comes in. Another part of where that choice comes in, when we talk about insurance is, it may take a little bit more effort. And there are resources, particularly in this season, where you know, virtual this virtual life ain’t going nowhere. Now, whether or not the licensing catches up with that I will not be on that soapbox is a different story. We shouldn’t have a whole other conversation about. And it’s it’s like, just being just having the mindset of I get to choose or creating space in ways big and small, to remind ourselves and our clients, you know, I asked you a question, for example. And then I can say, you know, and let’s remember, no is always an option. respectful past is always an option. That’s just like one of those subtle ways of reminding people you get to choose, but you can set a boundary even with me, right? I’ve been in this in a circle of women, black women born and raised in New York. And you know, New York culture, I had somebody once say, you know, New Yorkers are kind, they’re not nice. The rest of the country is nice, then that kind

Ani King 21:52
And we’re from the Midwest. So I feel like I feel that in my body that we’re polite, but we’re not necessarily kind, we’ll be like you okay? And if somebody says, Yes, we’ll just walk on. Instead of, you know, that, that kindness of Hey, I can tell that you’re not okay. Or I can tell that you need this. And so I’m just going to step in, and do what I can in this moment. And I might maybe lecture you a little bit or yell at you a little bit. Like, are you standing out here without shoes on and like here’s some damn shoes? Right, right. But it is that kind of that I think that Midwestern, but also the rest of the country that’s like, Oh, well, I don’t want to get involved or I don’t want to annoy somebody or I don’t want to do

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 22:35
right. It is a very external way of moving about. Thank you Ani because you just you just helped me understand some things. Right? It’s it’s we’re all we’re invited, like if our if our center is here, right, if we’re resting here, most of us have been conditioned to be here.

Ani King 22:53

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 22:54
And then we’re whipped around by the external. And it’s, this isn’t a critique, right? There’s no shame here. This is survival. Yeah. Right. Many of us, and I like to call them. So one word that that drives me crazy that if you use it, I just invite you to leave it right here today, we can have a ceremony for it is the word minority. It is inappropriate. I do not understand why it keeps showing up in major media outlets and like expert conversations. That is some BS. And I’m very proud of myself for saying it like that. Because the word minority inherently invokes small Yes, little less than n isn’t. It is a context issue. Right? So if we reflect back to what I said about growing up in Deerfield, I may have been met the criteria of quote unquote, minority, but then I step on how we’re University’s campus. And now what am I?

Ani King 23:52

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 23:53
I’m saying. So it is just one of the most dehumanizing and problematic words that I think continues to show up in this diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging space. Please let that go. Thank you. How are you? You’re, but then there’s right like this. And I’m trying to remember of why I got to that, but right, so it’s fine. Another word? Oh, here it is. Because I was talking about identities. So I use the I don’t, I don’t use the language marginalized, oppressed? Because there’s something about that languaging and minority that the other goes, don’t get me because there is there is a way that honors like, there’s the truth of enslaved people, for example, with my ancestors, the truth of First Nation, people in the eraser at the same time, right, but you hear with people who are of Asian descent, they this word, model minority, right, those are all incredibly problematic. So I prefer the language of resilient identities because for me, that language honors the path that my ancestors have walked including my ancestor who was kidnapped from continent of Africa with his sister traffic through the state of Virginia, sold to Mississippi bought land within four years of being a master of the Emancipation Proclamation. Right? So it includes that whole journey that that ancestor had. And that what it took for me to be sitting here with a PhD. You know, living in the limmat Bay land, Brooklyn, New York, you know what I’m saying? So I love the language of resilient identities under estimated identities, undervalued identities, over estimated identities, overvalue. So that’s another place is really being intentional about the language that we use. Because these, this is where you start getting into privilege. So bias comes with our brain power comes with our breath. privilege comes with context.

Ani King 25:49
Yeah. And I love that. You know, when you said resilient identity is like, that becomes a that’s a language about the person, not language, that is against the person, I don’t have great, like, you know what I mean, it’s not a great way of saying that, but using words like minority and this and that like that invites paternalism, that invites the idea that if you are not a part of a quote unquote, minority that then you are larger than you are, you know, I mean, which ties right into that that privilege, but that idea of instead of it being okay, looking at, you know, moving through that path of Okay, what is equality? What is equity? What is justice, it’s instead always kind of reaffirming the, okay, if I have certain privilege than I am bigger, I am larger, I am more important. I am more this and does not lend itself to even a conversation about justice, because it’s not that about the person and what they need. It’s still centered on. Okay, this is how I feel because I’m uncomfortable with not being centered in this conversation.

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 26:56
Yes. And it dehumanizes. Everybody, right? Because therein comes, disconnect therein comes, isolation, therein comes attaching myself, and in my self worth to this external stuff. Yeah. Right. Like what then what becomes of you when the titles that and as you know, we’re nobody cares what your title is, what your degrees are? Right? What becomes the

Ani King 27:25
I’ve worked in, you know, situations where people like, well, I don’t care about titles and like you might not because you don’t have to, but everybody who works for you who’s going to eventually maybe have to get another job or put a resume together, that has a real world impact on what they get to do next, how they are represented on that piece of paper. And if you are able to say, I don’t really care about titles, then that means you probably don’t have to do the resume song and dance that everybody else who works for you, right?

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 27:54
Check your privilege

Ani King 27:56
like I know you think that you’re being really cool. And like, I don’t care, everybody is awesome. Like, yes, but is everybody paid the same as you? Does everybody have the same ability to move through space that you do? And the answer is always No.

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 28:10
And that’s the equity question. Right? Like, if if you’re saying that there’s a there’s a, there’s a blindness that that for me brings up like, oh, there it is the equivalent to I don’t see color, you don’t see color, because you have to see, my title doesn’t matter. Because for you, that’s that’s it. That’s that equity thing. That’s that. Also in this setting? You’re the most powerful person up in here. Yeah, but your title actually matters a lot. And that starts to make me worry. Yeah, about whether or not you are in this question. I call this the Ben and Jerry’s. Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Yeah, a friend of mine does a lot of social justice work with organized with community organizers. She said they sit with the question, How do I use my privilege? So that it creates access? If I am denying and dismissing are blind to my privilege and not open to the I don’t know what I don’t know. That’s kind of dangerous. And it keeps me from being in this true question of how do I use my privilege? Like, let’s go, let me because the moment I asked them, I’m acknowledging that those fences, that fence is wonky, that fence is not equal. And then I really am setting again, it allows me to sit her myself, which makes it easier for me to pivot to move. And then to create space. Yeah, or co create space without denying my capacity to choose in that my capacity to choose and these jacked up systems actually has an impact. Everybody, yeah. And without dishonouring the dignity and humanity of people who have underestimated identities in the context, right. Yeah, absolutely. So the ways that this can show up, I’m going to stop my share and Make this a little bit easier for me to see the slides there. There’s, I’m trying to come back and see something. I’m going to do a practice because it’s, yeah, I’m going to do a practice because we’re halfway through. And this is like one of my favorite things. And it’s key to this relational piece of things. So I’m not going to attend so much to the context, I trust the people. If you are more curious about that, then there’s more, you know, there’s a lot of information out there about about that, I’m going to take a deeper dive into, into compassion.

Ani King 30:40
I’m, I’m excited that you are just from our preliminary conversation when we were, you know, talking about setting this up, and you were talking about, you know, the difference between empathy and compassion, and, like, moving along that that really resonated Justin that so I’m excited to see, you know, how that how that, you know, connects with folks who are watching either right now or later on, because I think that that was something that really clicked something into place for me. Hmm.

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 31:11
Great, thank you. And you said something earlier that I think also brings us right here, which is paternalism right? So there’s right like that paternalistic way of being is because so many of us have been conditioned into sympathy and empathy, as the way of being in relationship and particularly to being in relationship across difference. So what I’ll invite people now to do is to get something to draw with. So it could be, you know, some of the options I have on me are like a whiteboard, because remote schooling, so I got a whiteboard, and I got these dry, erase their markers, right, that’s an option. Maybe you’re a crayon person, maybe your paint person, I don’t know, if we have time to get that paint action fully on. Maybe you are a pencil and pen person, this is not a jury thing. I’m not showing my images, right? We’re not doing that. It’s for you. But I would and I would like for you to let me just be quiet for just a moment, give me a little time to gather your paper, something to draw on something to draw on.

Ani King 32:17
Sounds good. I’ve got my trusty pen and eternally folded piece of poorly printed on paper.

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 32:28
Great. And now I’m going to invite you to draw an image of the definition that is on the screen, we all have our own definitions of these words. I’m going I’m going this isn’t these definitions are intentional. So I’d like for you to draw an image that reflects the definition that I’m going to walk through which is on the screen. Okay. So when we’re talking about relating to people from a sympathetic stance, this is a natural response. If we look at other animals and animal kingdoms, we can see sympathy, right? It is feeling sad, or sorry, in the English language, it’s Oh, um, so usually it’s Oh, I’m so sorry. Right. And sometimes it’s not just what we say it’s our nonverbal, like, we all know that’s a part of being human too. Sometimes it’s our energy just like the vibe we admit. It’s hierarchical. And this hierarchy is that power privilege piece, right? So it’s, it’s there’s a there’s a hierarchical privilege thing that’s happening, and it’s based on it undermines collaboration, resilience and thriving, thriving difference being collaboration, right is with at work colleagues, I work with you, I don’t work for you, you don’t work for me. Resilience is the capacity to move through a thing. thriving is the capacity to move through. So the example would be like the pandemic resilience as I move through it, right. And I get back to my my level of functioning before the pandemic thriving is that I actually grow it’s like I used to say, COVID, I still say COVID is fertilizer, right? So thriving, is I’ve taken this, you know, roses, if you lean a little bit closer, as Andre 3000 says a little bit closer, it’s a little booboo.

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 34:08
That’s like that’s what thriving is right? In sympathy. And sympathetic stance undermines that, because the person who was who’s got this invoking this privilege difference is, isn’t is seeing the person as the sum of their pain. That’s all they’re saying about them, their oppression, their marginalization. They’re the ways in which they’ve been harmed because of their identity or the ways in which they’re vulnerable to harm. Right. And then that’s this is what invites that over responsible because I don’t even see your innate capacity to choose. I don’t even see your resilience. So like when I worked with asylum seekers, it was like, part of what I would say sometimes was like the fact that they’re sitting in the corner of Bellevue Hospital in New York City. And they started their journey like in Ukraine, right? in Gambia, the fact that they sit up in here and asylum seekers, or folks who come to the US, and it’s not because the US went somewhere and gave them resources, right, it’s they made away. So the fact that they’re sitting here means they got some resources that you might like, if I’m coming to them from sympathy, I don’t even recognize that they have resources individual or in their community, like, I’m gonna block their opportunity to even access resources or tap into that innate power that comes with the breath.

Ani King 35:34
That makes sense, that’s almost like assuming they just sort of teleported here. And now here are these like collection of problems to solve, and it doesn’t say, okay, there was a lot that had to happen for this person to get there. And they had to use a lot of their power, whether it was limited by someone else, or not to make those choices to plan for what they have planned for, and all of that effort. And like, that’s not a small thing. And to ignore, that really minimizes the person so much.

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 36:04
Yes. And it’s, you know, I heard you to bring it a little bit more home, I heard an interview recently that made me cringe on the radio, and they were talking to someone who grew up in the foster care system. And when they aged out, they were just put out the system, because that’s what happens in this country. Right. So when I think about that narrative, or survivors of abuse, or people who’ve been kicked out of their families, and had to create their own families because of their sexual orientation, or their gender identity, it’s, you know, it can sound like, right, and people not understanding the fact that I’m on the radio giving an interview. Yeah, God, I’m saying like what it took for me to be sitting in your office for therapy, after I’ve been human trafficked in the US. Yeah, right. Or after I have gotten sober, or I’m on my sober journey. The fact I’m sitting here means miss me, which

Ani King 37:10
I heard somebody once say that sympathy is like the Disney version of a feeling. And I never who or I would attribute but and I think it was just in conversation, but it takes the real story. And it makes it smaller, and it makes it less real and more palatable to people who have not had that experience because of more of a concern about whether or not they can consume the story, then concern for the person story itself.

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 37:40
Yes, yes. And sometimes it can also nurture that person not doing what they’re more than capable of doing for themselves. So it can undermine that. So draw a picture. drew my picture, if you haven’t already drew it, okay. So then we’re going to move on to empathy. Now, empathy is interpersonal skill, and particularly if you’re a licensed therapist, most of the programs that were trained in and this is why I start I have an affinity now for organizations is because some, like, we need to change the way folk are trained. Whether it is it as you’re getting our degree as we’re getting our degrees or for those continuing education units that many of us are required to do to maintain our license.

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 38:29
Right. So empathy usually gets centered. And honestly, in the context, diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, empathy, in my opinion, makes us vulnerable to microaggressions.

Ani King 38:42
That makes a lot of sense,

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 38:44
from our privilege Ani. And here’s why empathy is an interpersonal skill. It is it does require us so what you were saying was beautiful about like this Disney thing, because what’s underneath that in sympathy is you’re denying the experience, you’re not even really acknowledging what the person saying to you. So the skill and empathy is I hear you, right? And sometimes it’s a physiological resignation, like you can feel it and people talk about this, like there are people who step into a room and shift the energy like it’s electric. And there are other people who, who what they’ve been through is so in the way they navigate that they’ve forgotten they have choice so it may be incredibly heavy and I’m not trying to put this at an individual level right? I’m never never trying to excuse organizations and and relationships and context for the ways in which they perpetuate harm. I want to be incredibly clear about that.

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 39:35
So we acknowledge and name other people’s experience and I do think that’s what when we when we start to get tap into you know, Happy Pride and, and the narratives that become available and Tulsa and the narrative that becomes available, equips us to better acknowledge other people’s experience, right? Sometimes it’s what we feel in our body But here’s where we start to get in trouble with empathy. And empathy is really about trauma time travel. Mm hmm. We, the person shares their story. And we pop out because we’re extra specialists Midwesterners and our be niceness, we’re tracking what’s outside of us. And sometimes it’s a way to avoid what’s showing up inside of us. Right? It’s easier to rescue somebody then is to deal with my own stuff. And then we go time traveling. And then we speak from that place we’ve traveled to our bodies are physically here with the person, but we’re time traveling back. We cannot put ourselves in other people’s shoes dot period. I remember having a training and it was this module on the day that Kentucky decided to charge folks with property damage to the neighbor of Breonna Taylor, but not for taking Breonna Taylor’s life. And that’s what I got this right here, I cannot put myself in the shoes of Brianna Taylor’s family, it doesn’t matter how many identities we share, and what and then it becomes dangerous. Because there’s a couple of things that happen here. It’s fatiguing for the empathetic person, and you become vulnerable because you’re kind of reliving your own stuff to center in your own experience. Yes, that reminds me of the time bit when and here’s where the microaggression comes. Oh, that’s like, that’s like when I hold up, wait a minute. If you why, there’s nothing that’s coming out of my mouth that’s like that time when you as a white person, you are, you know, you know, if you are a there’s just nothing and if you don’t identify as white because there are some ethnicities where they were people are white body, but they don’t necessarily identify as white. And you typed in you anytime you are time traveling into your family’s trauma, there’s a way in which when you speak from that you are denying dismissing and minimizing my experience as a true picturing your own.

Ani King 42:09
I mean, even when somebody talks you through things like how to be empathetic, the whole exercise, at least in the experiences that I’ve had is about, okay, now picture, if something like this were to happen to you, or think of a time when x happened to you. And even for folks who are trying to be a little further ahead in that it’s the you know, and understand that it might not like ever relate. But it is still you are asking somebody when you were saying employ empathy, it is really at the heart of it saying, Okay, now center yourself so that you can understand this a bit.

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 42:44
Exactly, exactly. And this kind of blew up for me with a white colleague who I hired. And to do these trainings, this is one of the key modules in the training in my sort of standard program. And she quit. Hmm. And she, her identities were, you know, a white body race, and an ethnicity. And you know, I’ll say Italian, Irish, right? Like, an ethnicity that became white in the US to survive, right? And what she said was like, my people need to be empathetic. And then here came the microaggression, I have a friend who is black with a PhD, and when he’s running in New York, people don’t see that PhD, all they see is that he’s a black man. I’m sorry. I don’t know if any I know y’all just met me. But what you also know is that I’m black with a PhD. So here I am with a white woman. Right? What I will say is this, you we can have empathy at the, at the level of emotion. That’s when I think it’s appropriate.

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 44:00
Once you start to get into the storytelling, that’s when the microaggressions start to happen. And honestly, it’s a survival skill of fighting against the discomfort that the privileged person feels ashamed that they feel as somebody who has a different social identity is sharing the impact of having a not having privilege in that context, right. And so to manage my shame, I’m gonna say we’re all human. And I’m gonna come with that American melting pot mentality, instead of that Canadian Mosaic, which allows us each to be our own beautiful, delightful selves, and I’m gonna try to get you to melt then I’m gonna try to melt into you like, Huh, and then I say Dumb, dumb stuff. Or I shouldn’t say dumb stuff. It’s not malicious, it’s conditioned. I say something that causes harm and causes pain. Because I am actually, I’m not sitting. I’m not sitting with Ouch. I’m not sitting. Oof. I feel guilty. I’m not sitting with this is overwhelming and I don’t know what to do. I feel like I have to do something. And so then I got to show you, and we swap stories. The other thing that happens with empathy is, if I’m if even when I’m resonating any emotion, then it’s like, oh, yeah, I know what it’s like to feel sad. Oh, yeah, I know what it’s like to feel angry. Oh, yeah, I know what it’s like to feel hurt. But here we go. And this is all we’re doing. Right? Again, it’s not right or wrong, good or bad. It’s just in the context of cultivating inclusivity and belonging, it may cultivate inclusivity. Right? belonging, like, I won’t go through that. But like belonging, that sense of you seeing and hearing me isn’t necessarily cultivated. Right? Because

Ani King 45:53
it’s all you know, sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt. As this I wonder if I know that it is a longer conversation. But if you could give folks who are listening, an idea of what the difference between inclusivity and belonging are. And again, I know that that is a very long conversation. Oh,

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 46:10
it’s not it’s an I always mix up analogies and metaphors. So the one that I’ve heard that resonates with me the most is diversity is having different people in the room, right, inviting me to the party. equity is creating access, so I can actually get in. So you didn’t just invite me. But you gave me access, you don’t have any standard on some line having to drop names you don’t you know, you’ve created a ramp if if I have some mobility challenges, right, equity is access power access. Inclusion is you asked me to dance, belonging, you play my music? Yeah. So there are a lot of environments where there’s diversity, there may be some equity. There’s some inclusivity, right, you’re invited to the meeting, you are asked, you know, you’re there. belonging in that sort of meeting, or let me see if I can do a therapy analogy, right, like you are, you have a broad, you know, you have clients about different backgrounds, you’ve actually done some studying and practice in the space inclusion, you’re accessible, right? Whether it’s, you accept my insurance, or you are priced at a point, or you are located in a place where it’s easy for me to get to you. Inclusion is I’m not the only one. So that’s a little bit of overlap with the diversity. But inclusion is also like, you’re listening to me. So if I tell you that CBT is not my jam you, you have the capacity to provide something else. I’ll say that, and then belonging is you here. When I first started training, and this used to be called cultural competence, now we’ve moved more towards humility. And that no humiliation, but just humility, understanding that we don’t know what we don’t know, in the cultural competence framework. It was this is what black people do. This is what Jewish people to this is for Caribbean people do. Right? That’s inclusivity. But it’s not belonging. Belonging is this is what some black people do. What do you do black woman? Yeah. What have your families practices Do you want to carry with you? And what of them? are you liking? That ain’t my jam, that’s so much, right. That’s probably how it could get tailored, that’s off the top of my head, right? Like to a to a therapeutic relationship, you create space for curiosity and compassion, to really get an understanding of my lived experience. And it’s not about right, there’s like a Audrey Lorde quote about like, if I define myself for myself, right? I’m not defined by my relationship to you and your privilege. Yeah, right. I’m not I’m not, you know, non white, black. There is a subtle thing, but it’s different. You know, what I’m saying? That’s, that’s the distinction. And you also understand that because we as, as beautiful individuals are uniquely shaped by our unique contexts. And those contexts are dynamic. And we’re also shaping those contexts, that even if I have a twin, my lived experience is unique from their experience. Yeah. So draw this picture of empathy.

Ani King 49:43
And thank you for walking through that. I think that it’s helpful for people to kind of understand that distinction. And some of it I think, is the, you know, I was thinking about the difference between having a conversation with somebody who uses an acronym versus saying, so you as a black woman, how do you feel about that? Because I know that it is actually relational, to where you sit as a person, or instead of just saying so as somebody who is a part of the LGBTQ community, but being approached by somebody, especially for me in therapy, who says, okay, so as a non binary person or as a queer person, and who understands and has made that effort to understand that the language is important, and that an acronym is never a replacement for understanding how a person identifies themselves and acknowledging that whether it’s comfortable to start are not

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 50:37
right, and even acknowledging it, right? So there’s two pieces in there, one of it is the language and the other is the curiosity. And being open to the possibility that there’s something else is possible. But something else is here that I don’t know, something, right? Like just the curiosity and the creation of the space for something else, versus sort of like this closed piece of like, right, to your point of assuming that there’s this grocery route, or assuming that you’re going to be representative, right? That’s where you start. Again, that’s why I say empathy makes us real vulnerable to those microaggressions. Because they set us up to assume one that we can put ourselves into other people’s shoes, and to, to kind of come back to ourselves and center our, our experience and not listen and not be curious.

Ani King 51:32
Right? Absolutely. And I think the you, what you described is humility. That’s a really important piece. And I think you were the first person again, when we were talking about setting this up that I had to use her to use that and it really like it. I sat with that for a really long time. Because it made so much sense in a, okay, like this is that next, like, this is where you move towards, like maybe start with, okay, I’m trying to be empathetic. I’m a person who very like that vulnerable to fatigue, like absolutely, like when I try to practice empathy, it is a struggle not to immediately center myself, and then I get exhausted, because now I’m pulling my own feelings in my own traumas, or my own this into that, and I’m no longer present for the person who needs me, I am entirely within myself at that point,

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 52:23
all of that all of it, especially that time travel, I am no longer present. Right? Because I’m caught up in all of my stuff. Right? And, and therefore, I’m not present to what’s possible, when there’s so this is sympathy. This is like if I was right, yeah, this is empathy. And it’s really here. Right? This, let me talk about compassion. Did you draw your empathy I did. So compassion, right, there is this piece there is empathy, there is a place for that practice of noticing and attending to what shows up for you.

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 53:08
But it’s, it’s what I call the in the window of power. So in trauma world, we call it the window of tolerance, what I call as the window of power, and I’m that in the interest of time, I’m not going to go to this slide, but it’s when we’re in our window of power. There are different people have talked about this, this is an in positive psychology, mahali chicks, the mahali. Right calls it flow, right? When we’re in our window of power, we have this sense of physical and emotional safety, connection, belonging, and agency, again, the our capacity to choose, we’re more likely to give people the benefit of the doubt, we are able to be curious and creative, right? And it’s easy, and it’s dynamic, our contexts shape when our windows are open, and we feel all this access and flow. And when they start to close and for some of us if we’ve navigated a lot of trauma in our lives, or abuse or, or abuse of power and privilege, right? We we may kind of get stuck with our windows closed and sort of stuck in fighting, fighting against fleeing and avoiding freezing and numbing out over controlling under controlling acquiescing bracing and enduring that was my favorite bracing and enduring a freezing, right. And we forget that we get to thrive now I’m saying a whole lot in in all the big constand be unpacked. So let me just talk just a little bit more on this window power. My mama didn’t call it that she called again on her last nerve. So all y’all have some phrase similar to get know your last nerve that you know what the window of power is. Now when we are in a compassionate stance, we are in our window, we’re nowhere near our last nerve. Right? And we expand like when we time travel, we’re time traveling and we’re kind of using that as an opportunity to expand and return again to our window of power. It may be for some of us who would do contemplative practice. We put our feet on the floor, and we let our eyes fall on Windows and exits, right? It may be that we take a breath, we may have some of us, I have a client who has like, some personal items that when her eyes fall on it, or when she touches it, right, it helps ground her in the present moment or connect them to spirit, whatever your jam is for getting you into that window. This too is an external switch. So you are acknowledging your own, and you’re able to acknowledge the other person’s, but it’s not based on identification. So I come to the EIB with a human rights lens, because so much of this stuff is dehumanizing. And I come to it with the question of how are we behaving? How are we behaving with each other? Because when we’re truly from a compassionate space, and there’s a Lila Watson quote, that that really gets this, like, if you’ve come to save me, right, like, I’m gonna totally mess it up. But it’s like, I’m not interested in that go away. That’s that’s sympathy, right? That what gets in the way of a compassionate stance is the ways that we’ve been conditioned to in Olympics of suffering. The right I’m going to get to those slides a minute, but compassion is not based on on identification, compassion is, I am fully aware of my capacity to choose and your capacity to choose. And when you forget, I am able to remind you, so there’s a giving and receiving and there’s just an ease and effectiveness. I’m not getting fatigued, because I trust the you are more than capable. Right? Now, what that might sound like, is right for the individual level. It’s how am I feeling? What do I need? This is Christie Urban’s work, what can I do? Right? At the listening level, this is just some of the questions that you could ask, like, How are you feeling? And you could ask it, a lot of people have that beautiful mosaic wheel, you can have people stamp it out in this virtual life or start to name naming emotions is usually the first step of any healing practice naming physical sensations, because that’s the wisdom that restores our humanity, right to get about this cognitive life, on an expand, right, what do you need? Right? When moment I’m asking you, what do you need? That’s me inviting you to remember that, you know? And you know, better than me, how can you What can you do? Right? And then how can I support you?

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 57:28
So, in the visual for me on that empathy, we’re here, right? passion, you may be here, but I’m able to say, Oh, I see that you’re hurting. I see this is I can hear your pain, I can see your pain. And I see that your mother is here, I see that your best friend. Like is, is in your you were talking to your best friend. I see all the things you went through to be sitting in my office? Mm hmm. Yeah, that’s saying like, when we’re in a compassionate space, we have a greater capacity to name and recognize we’re not abandoning people, and we’re not victim blaming or saying solve your own issues. And in some ways, we are remembering and really taking on supporting people and remembering who they really are, that the world and give it to you the world can’t take it away. And I am here to remind you, and there may be some resources that in my privilege I have access to. So an example that I like to give is, when I worked at the at the program, you know, those are some of the more challenging experiences in the group because there was accountability that like my clients, were not gonna let me forget, right? Like they would hold me accountable. Get you get Joe ish together, you didn’t set a thing as problematic, right? So we were sitting there one day and the client who was leaving the group, because she said, Yeah, the time I spend here, which I’ll talk about your pain is time that I could be in this motorcycle club that I just learned about. So I’m out. And by the way, this program that’s for you know, I feel marginalized in a program for marginalized people. Yeah, that’s some that’s some feedback, right? I saw the feedback. And I said, Oh, ouch. Tell me more. Right? That’s me not getting on. Like, oh, I the empathetic response would have been like, Oh, I remember. You know, I as a black woman, I felt marginalized in spaces to know that’s empathy that ain’t doing that for her. And it’s not listening, really deep listening. She said, I feel Marvin marginalized in your program. Right.

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 59:37
So the compassionate response was Tell me more. Well, there’s nothing hanging on the wall that reflects my community. Well, I wasn’t doing it intentionally. At the time, I had the privilege of sitting on the leadership team of this program. So I went to the leadership team and I said, Hey, I got this feedback that folks in my my group feel marginalized and program for my blood flow. And the response I got was a defensive, sympathetic response. Well, those were gifts. Right? And they were very much like we rescue and save people mindset. And so I brought it back in my naivete, I would have checked it in the moment. I wasn’t there yet, in my journey. I said this, what they said, and don’t you know, the next meeting, the participant came in with the biggest rainbow flag I’ve ever seen. That’s right. But in that, how can I support you? I want to be want to be in the pride march in New York City. How can I support you get the resources to support? Like, what do you need? I want to be in I want to walk down that, that that street, I want to walk out that that I want to go to Stonewall, right? Like, how can I support you get get t shirts, so we can all be seen and recognized as one community when we walked out that and have 1000s of people? Right? Like, that’s what compassion looks and sounds like and let me be very clear, I mess this up all day and all night. But it’s helpful to have it’s easier, I think, to to have something to live into something to orient around. And these four questions, I think, are actually pretty simple to practice. How are you feeling with uni? Where can you do time? Oh, it’s three o’clock. And I will just put this up in there. The Olympics of suffering, minimizing Oh, the minute minimizing the your own experience denying your own experience, I can’t complain about my job, because there are people who don’t have jobs. I can’t complain about this experience. I had a microaggression because I know clients who are aggressed against different ways, right? It’s that dehumanizes yourself this comparison thing. And this whole thing, we’ve already talked about the paternalism so they’re sure I can’t handle my discomfort with

Ani King 1:01:48
Yeah, I can’t handle being uncomfortable. So I’m going to try and save you and then it is about me. It’s not really about trying to help somebody else. It’s about how do I not feel ? Excuse me? How do I not feel bad? How do I not feel less uncomfortable in my own self? And that’s then that’s not saving anybody? It’s just savior syndrome across the board.

Dr. Melba Nicholson Sullivan 1:02:10
Exactly. And most of us as therapists and counselors, this mindset is deeply rooted in our training. Go rescue save these poor people, we will sit we will, we will give you extra money to go live in certain communities and work with these poor children are these poor, right? Like all that is saved your central save yourself? Yeah, you get yourself What do I need? What can I do? Right? What? How am I feeling emotionally physically? What do I need? What can I do and the same? And when you The more you do that with yourself, the easier it is to do that with a client. What do How are you feeling emotionally? what’s shown up in your body? Is there constriction is that he, when you think about this, what can you do? Because with your breath comes the power to choose. And how can I support you? that honors the wisdom that sits in each and every seat and comes with the breath of life and it cultivates belonging, you see and hear me you’re creating the space to see and hear me?

Ani King 1:03:18
Absolutely. Folks, I just want to say thank you so much to Dr. Melba, Nicholson, Sullivan. This has been such a fantastic conversation. I’m going to pause the recording in a second. And we’ll chat for a minute but anyway, folks, if you have any questions that you think of feel free to email me on ani at all counselors dot com and feel free to come check us out at we have the series running all summer. So I would love to see as many people as possible to come and learn from folks like Dr. Nicholson Sullivan and the many other people who are helping us out. Thank you so much.

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