ACA Blog

Pat Myers
Sep 27, 2010

The Case of Two Kinds of Self-Focus

It was one of those hectic stressful workday mornings. This day found me struggling to leave home on time with a cat reluctant to come inside and a new puppy resistant to a few hours of life in her crate. My frustration levels increased as it seemed I was stopped at each traffic light and crawled along behind the slowest of drivers. Arriving at work only added to my foul mood when I realized my tardiness caused me to lose out on all the close parking spaces therefore necessitating the need to trudge first down and then back up a very long hill. My ever deepening sense that life was out to get me found affirmation in my overflowing email inbox. I didn’t even attempt to stop the groan and one of those deep long suffering sighs at the 37 messages waiting for answers. What had I done to deserve such a maddening day? At the height of my narcissism and self-pity I was snapped back into reality with an article by Pilar Hernández-Wolfe.

As I was mired in my own ridiculous self-pity with nothing of substance to complain about, people in the world were experiencing real life crises of violence, torture, rape and murder. While I was complaining about minor inconveniences, Dr. Hernández-Wolfe was writing that she sees as one of her “… scholarly and social responsibilities… to make visible the ways in which human rights activists affirm life, peace, and community by examining their altruistic behavior” (p.2). I’m complaining about a traffic light and Dr. Hernández-Wolfe is talking about the social responsibility of human rights.

This fascinating article quickly provided me with a much needed proverbial slap in the face and profound amazement for the positive strengths of humanity. Hernández-Wolfe found that suffering (real suffering not my morning’s absurd idea of suffering) paired with psychological processing has a potential to lead to a stronger sense of self, increased empathic awareness of other’s suffering, and an improved sense of responsibility to others. Instead of the myopic focus that had filled my morning, people who truly faced trauma were more committed to improving life conditions for others. These resilient individuals were more intent on sparing others pain and committing to making sure that horrific situations changed.

Martín Baró found that in circumstances of politically based trauma (such as war) survivors can develop a sense of mission and hope. Hope is “reconstructed” (p.4) through understanding a social network that simultaneously maintains human suffering and supports healing. While sense is made of the trauma during this reconstruction process a deconstruction of “oppressive societal ideologies” (p.4) occurs that promotes the individual’s and the community’s ability to seek change. In other words hope for a better life is sustained.

By this point in the article I was completely astonished at the remarkable resilience and strength of humanity and embarrassed at my own selfishness. Rather than a bleak and depressing discussion of the worst of humanity, this article details concepts such as resilience and how “pain is transformed in a positive manner beyond survival” (p.5). A constructive outcome of the fear that can result from victimization is a process of self-affirmation and reclamation of personal strength. A positive outcome of indignation and outrage can be the ending of the silence and denial that are partners to victimization. All the participants in this study sought meaning in their trauma beyond the traumatic act itself. Included in the psychological outcomes of these participants were an increased understanding of the relationship between their own personal privilege and oppression and an involvement in giving voice to the voiceless.

A strength of this response to life after trauma included the view that these harrowing experiences could be “seen as an occasion for healing and as a celebration of life, justice and culture, which can survive against all odds” (p.17). Hernández-Wolfe quotes one participant, who I believe expresses the courage and hope of the human spirit. This woman, who had been witness to her father’s murder, stated “In the end, this was about not letting them win my soul by taking away my capacity to love and trust, and turning around their ignorance and hatred and reaffirming my commitment to what I believe and to my people” (p.10). As a woman living in relative safety I believe that I lose pieces of my own soul by focusing on my daily minor inconveniences escalating them in magnitude and importance. It leaves me wondering if those who have experienced such horrors are made of something stronger and braver than I can ever imagine or strive to be.

Hernández-Wolfe, P. (2010). Altruism born of suffering: How Columbian human rights activists transform pain into prosocial action . Journal of Humanistic Psychology

Patricia Myers is a counselor, an associate professor of counselor education, and doctoral student.

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