Join Hands, Sign a Petition, Raise Your Voice: Social Action as Therapy

In the weeks following the Presidential election, many of the clients I work with have come into therapy expressing shock, anger, dread, and an aching sense of powerlessness. “Why didn’t I see this coming?” “Will I lose my right to be married?” “Have you heard about the increase in hate crimes?” “Does this mean the country hates me?” “Does the truth even matter anymore?” GLBT clients express concerns about hard-fought rights being stripped away, women voice anger and fear at having sexual assault minimized, people of color recount the increase in hate crimes, and others wonder how their own deeply held values could be dismissed by the majority. Such questions and fears have many feeling energized to “do something” yet feeling lost about what actions will really make a difference. 

what can we do?

Sometimes the “doing something” is to simply give ourselves time and space to notice our feelings, to talk about our reactions and to explore how the election might parallel other experiences of power and privilege in our lives. Spending time with friends, family and allies who share similar world-views and values can be reassuring, and even allowing ourselves to turn off the news and social media for awhile is a completely valid way of coping with the overwhelm. But at other times, taking part in social action (marches, protests, candlelight vigils, petition and letter-writing campaigns) is what we need to feel connected and strong.

does it even matter?

Someone recently asked me if I thought protests, marches or petitions ever really change the minds, hearts or actions of those in power. The optimist in me said “Yes!”, although I’m also well aware that many people in power will never be swayed by the picket signs outside their office. But social action has benefits beyond changing the views of those in power. The very act of engaging in collective action can provide a profound opportunity for growth and healing for those participating. For the woman who has been sexually assaulted, the experience of marching with a group of other women in a Take Back the Night march can be incredibly empowering and return to her a sense of strength and safety. For the newly out gay man with an unsupportive family, participating in a letter-writing campaign for GLBT rights offers him a first experience of standing up for his rights, and reminding him that he is not alone. For the Muslim immigrant, witnessing neighbors speaking out against Islamophobia can ease some fears and help him identify supportive allies. Will these actions change the views of those in power? Maybe, maybe not. But are they transformative and healing? Yes. Definitely yes. 

The night after the election, dozens of neighborhoods in Oakland and more throughout the country held small candlelight gatherings on street corners. Some groups sang old protest songs, some organized future actions and signed petitions, some held hands and helped their children process their worries, and some just gathered to chat. It was a simple way to honor our grief and anger, to feel less alone, and to remind ourselves that our values and hopes would not disappear so easily. In the weeks since the election, there have been numerous ways to participate in collective action, each one offering a chance for healing in a variety of ways: 

speaking up to power:

Have you ever had the experience of speaking up even though it’s scary? It can be an odd combination of terrifying and empowering. Finding ways to speak your truth, no matter how small, while knowing you have a group of allies, can grow your courage and sense of agency.

finding your tribe:

Participating in collective actions, either in “real life” or on-line, connects us to others who share our values and passions. For those who may be isolated or targeted because of their identities or views, finding like-minded allies can be an incredible source of strength. 

offering hope to others:

For many people, speaking up or engaging in public forms of protesting aren’t an option because of the fear or reality of retaliation. If you are able to speak up, even in small ways, you just might be creating a ripple effect of hope for others. Take a listen to how Harvey Milk describes this:


a note about self care and activism:

While this post advocates for participation in various forms of social action, I’d like to remind you that even Wonder Woman needs a break. No one person can address all the social ills of the world, and it is essential to prioritize time for some restorative forms of self care as well. Make sure you rest, eat well, and set aside time for the more frivolous and enjoyable aspects of life. I'll write more about restorative self care in future posts.