Some far left sociocultural norms and habits of thought contradict what we know about healthy relationships and emotional regulation.
As a psychologist, I sometimes ponder how cultural trends relate to personal growth and mental health. One such current in my Seattle community of late is Wokeism.
What is Wokeism? Wokeism is not just caring passionately about marginalized people, nor is it simply a desire to examine history with honest eyes, nor is it Critical Race Theory, though the critics often confound the two and they are undeniably related.* Early Critical Theorists like Kimberlé Crenshaw sought new ways of analyzing barriers to human flourishing. Specifically, they examined how powerful individuals and tribes shape social institutions to preserve their own advantage. These critical theorists produced a set of constructs, terms, and approaches for identifying and correcting these patterns.
Wokeism, as I am discussing it here, is a derivative blend of ideology and pop culture, amplified by social media. It sorts people into tribes of oppressed and oppressors, assigning each of us an identity based on our intersecting memberships in groups—with race and sex at the forefront. These identities are seen to define us; and individuals are sometimes treated as proxies for others who currently or historically share their tribal tags—“straight white male” for example, or “queer woman of color.” In an effort to redress old wrongs, social rank inverses historical hierarchies.
Through certain kinds of corporate DEI trainings or practices like trigger warnings, calling out, de-platforming, and punching up, or constructs like white fragility, woke activists shine light on disadvantage and wounds that can flow from “isms” – racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and so forth. The objective is to create societal change that ushers in a new era of equity. The high-level goals, in other words, are noble. as are advances in rights and equality in society and under the law.
What’s the Problem? In practice, the concepts and habits of Wokeism also play out not only in social movements but also in individual personalities and relationships, with conscious or unconscious goals that may be less noble and less healthy. As people instinctively attune to new inverted social hierarchies, some create competitions for social status based on victimhood. Individual relationships can get structured around factors that may aid societal change but are toxic interpersonally: a litany of insults or harms, coupled with frustration, anger, resentment or debts owed. Blaming other people—or the system—can become a habitual response to frustration or disappointment; anger and resentment, a chronic mood state.
Woke people who by accidents of birth (sex, race, etc.) are designated as oppressors, especially straight white males, cannot take this route to legitimacy. But they can gain standing or status as allies, assuming a position of contrition for the sins of their tribe while unquestioningly supporting the oppressed. In doing so, some internalize a sense of chronic shame or even self-loathing.
Given these dynamics, it shouldn’t be surprising that some activists develop habits that can be hard on psychological and relationship health. We know from decades of research that certain kinds of emotional regulation and habits of thought promote individual mental health and positive relationships. Some of the psychological and social dynamics that characterize Wokeism run in the opposite direction. In the rest of this article, I will try to lay this out in specifics.
On Emotions and Reason
Wokeism elevates intuition, emotion and narrative (lived experience), which are associated with female and indigenous knowledge—sometimes in contradiction of rationality and scientific inquiry, which are seen as “Eurocentric masculinist” ways of knowing. “This idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated,” professor Phoebe A Cohen at Williams College told the New York Times recently.
But evidence-based approaches to mental and interpersonal health (for example, cognitive behavioral therapies, acceptance and commitment therapy, cognitive processing therapy, or dialectical behavior therapy) seek a balance between emotion and reason. These approaches improve wellbeing in part by offering alternatives to irrational thoughts and what psychologists call “emotional reasoning.” One goal is to see rather than be our emotions. Feelings are framed as messages that have been shaped by our personal and ancestral history. They may reflect important here-and-now realities, but often they don’t. Applying reflection and reason can help us to tell the difference, freeing us to make life choices that are not dictated by past traumas or current emotions.
The elevated status of emotions, storytelling and intuition in Wokeism can be seen as a course correction away from excessive trust in rationality (which—to be fair—can often be a thin veneer over “motivated reasoning”). Alternately, woke scorn for rationality and empiricism, dubbed “white male ways of knowing,” can be a means to equalize power between more educated people and those who have had less access to education (women, minorities, people who live in poverty). In other words, it can be an attempt to improve humanity’s knowledge base by reintegrating intuition and emotion or an attempt to subvert traditional dominance hierarchies. Either way, at the level of individual mental health, the pendulum swing sends some disempowering messages.
In each of the pairs of statements below, the first represents a woke approach to social justice. The second represents an approach from evidence-based therapy.
- WOKE SOCIAL JUSTICE APPROACH: Feelings are reality. If a member of a traditionally oppressed tribe (someone female, queer, disabled, or black, for example) feels violated, they have been violated; if they feel threatened, they must be be protected; if a member of a traditionally powerful tribe feels ashamed, they should. We shouldn’t question another person’s feelings if they are from a traditionally oppressed tribe.
EVIDENCE-BASED THERAPY APPROACH: I am not my feelings. My feelings are one indicator of what is real and important, and they are worthy of attention. But they can be wrong or simply out of proportion.
- WSJ: Unless we are straight white males, being asked to examine our assumptions is invalidation.
EBT: Being asked to examine my assumptions is something I should seek. It is a sign of respect for my strength, integrity and capacity for self-reflection.
- WSJ: People who genuinely respect us will accept what we say about ourselves or our tribe as truth. For those who are not white and male, it’s insulting to have people doubt or question our memories or interpretation of events.
EBT: People who respect me will listen to my experiences and self-perceptions but also will challenge me. They will validate my feelings but won’t always assume those feelings and the story I am telling myself are the final word on reality.
- WSJ: For those who have been wounded or who feel wounded, people and situations that trigger strong negative emotions are harmful. Classes, books, public art and such should provide trigger warnings. Schools should cancel speakers who make students feel triggered.
EBT: My sense of threat—even getting emotionally flooded–may or may not signal real danger.
Trauma causes us to overgeneralize and get triggered by superficial similarities. Staying away from triggers lets the past define me and may make me less resilient. One way to know I am getting healthy is that external people and situations lose their power to trigger me.
Woke social justice theory downplays individuality. Instead, it emphasizes continuity of group identity, treating individuals as proxies for victims or victimizers, past and present. This collective or tribal identity often gets elevated above individual values, behaviors, or life history. Identity isn’t what you have done; it is how you were born.
By contrast, developmental psychologists see individuation as a key part of forming healthy adult identity. Beginning in early childhood, each of us carries internal representations of our parents and other caregivers who in turn carried internal representations of their own caregivers. Ancestral survival mechanisms and traumas get encoded in our bodies and minds. But individuation means forming a self that gets to choose which of these old messages, beliefs and habit patterns to carry forward. It means discovering that I am not my parents or other ancestors (or my peer group). Their hopes, beliefs, habits, sins, traumas, wounds, and coping mechanisms don’t have to be mine. I do not even have to be my old self if I don’t want to. We humans are a highly social species, and individuation always exists in tension with belonging. But we are most free to live according to our own dreams and values when we differentiate the me from the not-me.
Consider, then, the contrasts in the following statements.
- WSJ: We are born into intersecting tribes of oppressors or oppressed, and these inherited memberships define us. We cannot get away from them regardless of how or where we live or which parts of ourselves we embrace.
EBT: I have the power and right to choose my tribes, my family, loves and loyalties—or to reject tribal ties in pursuit of something that better fits my nature. My own preferences and actions define me.
- WSJ: When bad things have happened to our tribe; that is the key to who all tribe members are—victims.
EBT: Bad things have happened to my parents and grandparents and me; but they don’t have to define me. I do best when I embrace the ways that I can chart my own life.
- WSJ: People who have victim identity shouldn’t be seen as victimizers even when they destroy property or harm others. Lashing out at members of oppressor tribes is justified, righteous punching-up. Collective guilt means this is true even if the oppressor is individually less powerful than the oppressed.
- EBT: People who harm others very often have experienced similar harms themselves. Often the goal of therapy is to break the cycle. Being a victim doesn’t prevent you from victimizing others.
- WSJ: If our ancestors and other members of our inherited tribe did horrible things, we are guilty of the harm they caused and undue advantage accrued whether or not we personally participated or benefited. This guilt never goes away.
- EBT: I am not responsible or guilty for my parent or ancestor—no matter how awful he or she may have been. Since power and responsibility are two sides of the same coin, if I didn’t have the power to change what happened, I’m not guilty for it. I am responsible to examine where I might continue to play out hand-me-down patterns that harm me or others, and I am responsible to use my own power to correct old wrongs and break these dynamics where I can.
On Agency and Causal Attributions
To avoid false equivalencies and victim blaming, Wokeism encourages external focus rather than introspection on the part of victims. If something bad happens to me or someone like me, I look at outsiders, the role they played, and what I want them to correct rather than interrogating any errors I might be able to correct. There is good reason for this. All too often, vulnerable people have gotten blamed for their own struggles or outright victimization at the hands of people who are more powerful. Correcting patterns of injustice that have gotten embedded in culture and law requires that we focus on broad patterns external to the individual.
But a focus on the roles of other people or society to the exclusion of my own options and errors can create a mindset that serves social change while simultaneously harming the individual. The question “Why?” easily becomes an accusation rather than an expression of curiosity and a prompt for careful analysis. The scramble to blame someone, preferably some member of another tribe, is a very common normal part of elevated tribal identity, “Who is guilty?” “Who owes something?” “Who deserves to be shamed or shunned or punished?”
By contrast, in thriving individuals and relationships, problem analysis is forward facing, less about guilt than about fixing things. Certainly, deep violations and wounds often require deep processing. People who do harm need to take responsibility and make amends. But the goal is moving toward a better future, whenever possible in relationship to each other. Questions like What happened? How? and Why? are subjects of genuine curiosity, providing the raw material for solutions.
Simple answers to complicated problems can be worse than no answers at all. To steer the direction of our lives we have to understand the complex causality that governs our wellbeing. That includes factors that are in our own control as well as those that are not. But as Wokeism seeks to correct victim blaming it can create a pendulum swing that erodes individual sense of agency.
- WSJ: When members of traditionally oppressed tribes feel stuck, thwarted, violated, or pain, we should assume that somebody or some group outside the tribe is to blame.
EBT: Causes are complicated. When I experience frustration, injury or pain, there may or may not be someone to blame. Getting rid of self-blame doesn’t mean there has to be a guilty party. Sometimes seeking to pinpoint blame just severs relationships or distracts from solving problems.
- WSJ: Since other people caused our injuries, our afflictions will be healed only when other people change. Our role is to call them out, stop them, and demand redress or punishment.
EBT: Even when a person or system has harmed me and needs to be stopped or served justice, they won’t be the ones who make me healthy and whole again. Even when I have truly been violated, I can nurture myself. My challenge is figuring out what parts of flourishing are in my power and how to move forward.
- WSJ: If someone hurt us, they were aggressive or micro-aggressive and we are free to aggress back. Intentions are beside the point.
EBT: Whether someone hurt me deliberately, through a pattern of carelessness, or by accident matters. Understanding motives is key to being effective in creating change.
- WSJ: All interactions are competitions for power. Our collective injuries and the collective guilt of other tribes are core to our power.
EBT: I am much more than my scars and wounds. I can recognize the weight and severity of past injuries—even serious traumas–and still center my power in my strengths and accomplishments.
On Conflict and Disagreement
Wokeism broaches little dissent because disagreement is commonly seen as moral failure—racism, sexism, homophobia, or broad indifference to injustice. This leads the woke to call political centrists like Sam Harris or Stephen Pinker as enablers of the “far right.” A person is either an ally or against us. The price of connection is agreement.
By contrast, relationship coaches and counselors often encourage a very different approach to disagreement, one rooted in humility. Former pastor and counselor Jim Henderson teaches three practices for bridging across relationship differences: I will be unusually interested in others; I will stay in the room with difference; I will stop comparing my best with your worst. Even when arguing passionately, we carry some degree of awareness that we have been wrong, may be wrong now, or will be wrong at some point in the future. We recognize that our information is partial, we have biases and blind spots, and that even issues that are morally tinged can be complicated.
- WSJ: Disagreement about social issues mean that the less woke person is either morally tainted (i.e. sexist, homophobic, transphobic, racist, etc.) or ignorant. The options are to educate, fight or shun them. Publicly shaming or shouting down people who refuse to see how wrong they are is right and righteous.
EBT: People are complicated, misunderstanding is easy, and reality is rarely a forced choice between two all-or-nothing options. Instead of mindreading (assuming I know what another person thinks), I should ask enough questions to test my initial assumptions.
- WSJ: “Agreeing to disagree is for things like what kind of pizza tastes best.”
EBT: Decent people won’t always agree with me. It’s OK to lean into the areas where our values and goals do align. “Remember, you can only be influential if you accept influence. Compromise never feels perfect. Everyone gains something and everyone loses something.” –John Gottman, father of evidence-based marital therapy
- WSJ: I should surround myself with like-minded people. “Viewpoint diversity” is just a right-wing excuse for giving airtime to people with damaging ideas.
EBT: Each of us carries only partial truths; other people represent different parts of reality. I can learn something from almost anyone. Listening carefully in the presence of disagreement is key to deepening my knowledge and effecting change. It is also key to healthy friendships and partnerships.
On Relating to Other People and Outside Tribes
One element of woke orthodoxy is that interactions are competitions for power. Members of disadvantaged tribes often assume others are acting to oppress—scanning for and calling out micro-slights that provide confirmatory evidence. In some communities this functions much like religious signalling; members gain status with each other for being particularly quick to denounce transgressions.
Marital therapists, game theorists, organizational consultants and ancient wisdom traditions vary in their terminologies and rationales, but virtually all give relationship advice that runs counter to Wokeism. They generally suggest that we start with a set of positive expectations about other people, make opening overtures that are generous or friendly, seek positive interpretations of their behavior, deliberately overlook small slights, be slow to anger or to escalate conflict, form mutually-beneficial alliances where possible, and move to a posture of defense or aggression only when these fail.
Social activism and psychotherapy are two very different endeavors.
Liberal and progressive approaches to social activism differ in important ways, as I have discussed elsewhere, and not all promote the thought patterns described above. Woke theory creates more challenges than most when it seeps into the therapy office because the worldview it prescribes is all-encompassing and evangelistic, akin to some religions. This worldview encourages harm inflationand promotes habits of mind that can run counter to psychological and relationship health.
To learn more about these patterns, check out the now-iconic list developed by the father of cognitive psychotherapy—Aaron Beck’s list of Cognitive Distortions. Beck’s list includes all-or-nothing thinking, discounting the positive, emotional reasoning, labeling, overgeneralization, and more. Decades of research confirm the mental health benefits of challenging these patterns. If a therapist can’t help you to do that, or—worse—if their own beliefs and passions lead them to actually implant or reinforce cognitive distortions or solidify a victim identity, your therapy may do more harm than good.
Free speech advocate Greg Lukianoff, who has struggled with a personal history of suicidal depression, and psychologist Jonathan Haidt make the sobering case that some pathogenic habits of thought are becoming endemic on college campuses. Columbia linguist John McWhorter examines how group dynamics can mimic totalizing religious movements like Evangelicalism. These patterns not only trap individuals in depression or conflict, they weaken civil society by feeding mutual mistrust and recrimination, in-group conformity, out-group alienation, and widespread cynicism or despair.
I think we can do better, not by retreating into the bigotries and ignorance of the past but by continuing to move forward—toward modes of thinking and engagement that work at the level of both society and the individual.
*Just as Christianity has roots in Judaism, which has roots in earlier pagan religions, Wokeism does have roots in academic Critical Theory, which in turn has roots in the (yes, neo-Marxist) Frankfurt School of philosophy, but it is neither of these things.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.