Tuesday, February 7, 2012

When We Dehumanize Ourselves

The last post discussed what happens to us when we dehumanize other people. This post is going to focus on how often we choose to dehumanize ourselves. There are a couple of reasons I chose to write them in this order even though so much of this blog has focused on the need to care for ourselves first and foremost. After all, as I was reminded at the MindfulLawyer Conference, “the heart pumps blood to itself first.”

I chose to write about dehumanizing others first because honestly, it has been more in my face, so to speak. Daily I have witnessed people who ostensibly care deeply about others speaking in awful ways about people because of those peoples’ actions. But then I realized that we can only begin to dehumanize others when we have learned to do it to ourselves just like we can only truly care about others once we have learned to care for ourselves.

So, why do we dehumanize ourselves? It is a coping mechanism. It allows us to not endure the full impact of the emotional world in which we find ourselves. On many levels this is necessary. At the most recent conference I attended this past weekend, a lawyer stood up in the room and said his job is to be a lawyer, not his client’s bff (and yes, he said b-f-f). And he is right; we need to step off the emotional roller coaster that clients (or friends and family) want us to ride.

But it can also cause us pain. When we dehumanize ourselves and turn off our emotional centers, we train ourselves to do just that. When we tune out the pain, we are also training ourselves to tune out the joy and happiness. We are creating new samskaras, or patterns, of how to interact with people. This time, however, they are about tuning people out, so we can protect ourselves.

It can be scary to meet your clients, or anyone, where they are emotionally. It means being vulnerable. It means sometimes feeling their pain. But it also means that we remember how to emotionally connect to ourselves as well. Bringing ourselves back to this state of humanization reminds us how to humanize others. It helps us empathize with them and not be dull to their pain.

At the end of the day, we are all in this world together. Thus, dehumanizing ourselves and dehumanizing others are, in many ways, the same. They are defenses to protect us for recognizing that people we think are awful are also human, and to protect ourselves from feeling the pain that others experience. But these mechanisms also keep us apart from people and ourselves. We are less able to experience joy and happiness, less able to laugh, and less able to fully experience all that life has to offer.

There are certainly days where tuning out is necessary. But when we make it a practice, we only bring long-term harm to ourselves. I cannot claim to be an expert in dealing with this. My new job forces me to confront this not on a daily basis, but on an hourly one. But what I have realized, in this job and before, is that when we choose to separate consciously, we can consciously return, as long as sometimes we are willing to go to the place of connection, even when painful. I notice my life start to become a crazy mess when I tune out and dehumanize myself without realizing it. When I finally do realize that I have done it, I realize how difficult it is to come back to a place of joy. But the realization helps, and each time it gets easier. It is about creating the patterns of humanization.

Do you notice when you do this? What do you do about it?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.


  1. Hello Rebecca.

    I agree with you. In this day and age, it is very easy to simply shut down our emotional centers to try and distance ourselves from fear and pain – and not only do we do it through patterns of habit such as those you spoke of, but also with drugs. Billions of dollars a year are spent to keep people comfortably numb. The only way to really transcend our fears is to feel them and face them.

    I think you are spot-on about self-dehumanization as self-protection. Although I wonder how many people would be willing to admit that. So many people wear the mask of a tough-person persona (clearly necessary in some situations, but certainly not as a lifestyle) and actually believe that is who they really are.

    I took me a long time to understand that in order to really empathize with another’s pain that I had to first come to terms with my own. Before that, anyone else’s pain WAS my pain, which meant it was contaminated with all of my own thoughts and judgments about it. I could hardly bear to hear tragic stories without taking it all on - emotionally and physically.

    Through yoga, I peeled back all of the layers and found all of the hurt, worry, and fear that belonged to me and then I dealt with that. Only then I could I open up completely to another and offer authentic compassion from the perspective of an objective witness. I can feel their pain, but without attaching to or identifying with it.

    When I taught massage therapy, my students were always asking, “How do I not take on other people’s stuff? Do I need to create a protective shield around myself?” To that I always answered, “Know what is yours and anything of theirs will be obvious. Your best protection is self-awareness.”

    And when we are fully-aware, we most certainly recognize the devil we see in others, is the one we do not see in ourselves.

    1. Wow Jesamine, thank you. That is so, so beautifully said. And yes, when we know what is ours, it is much easier to see what belongs to others. That is a difficult, but vital, skill to learn. And the prescribed as well as self-medication we see around us is one of the most painful things I see. When I read you say drugs, my first thought went to illegal ones, and then I realized you meant prescribed. While they destroy us differently, they both close us off to who we truly are, and that is often the most difficult. Thank you for your beautiful comment.