Health

17 Things Black People in America Are Feeling, According to Therapists

If you’re a Black person living in America, there’s a strong chance systemic racism and police violence aren’t foreign concepts. Police brutality has been a public health issue for decades, and victims like Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, and Sandra Bland might still be fresh in your memory. So, while the more recent string of police and racist vigilante killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain might bring up a host of emotions, they probably aren’t surprising. More unexpected, however, is that in light of these killings, the country seems more willing than ever to contend with how racism impacts Black lives. (And that can also trigger all sorts of interesting feelings for Black people.)

George Floyd’s killing started “a national and international crisis,” Myisha Jackson, L.P.C., tells SELF. And, as she points out, many of us can’t rely on our normal coping mechanisms. Maybe the friends who usually offer you support are also too taxed emotionally, or maybe the new coronavirus pandemic has robbed you of the coping tactics you’d normally use. Whatever the case, if you’ve found yourself grappling with a wide range of emotions, we’re here to tell you that whatever you’re feeling is valid. Below, several therapists share the most common emotional themes they’re hearing from Black people in America. We hope this list helps you feel a bit more comfortable with your emotions, but remember, there’s no playbook for this moment. You’re allowed to feel whatever is coming up.

1. You’re angry.

Anger is a useful and healthy emotion. In fact, it seems like an overwhelmingly appropriate reaction to videos and stories of people killed by police and white supremacists without justice. Still, if you find yourself angry, it’s crucial to allow yourself to feel it. “Don’t try to block out your feelings,” Jackson says, adding that many of her patients want to resist coming off as a stereotypical “angry Black person.” But, as James Baldwin said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” So, if nothing else, you’re in good company.

2. You’re grieving.

Grief can include many emotions, including anger, sadness, numbness, and a host of other feelings. But, ultimately, it is elicited by the loss of something or someone important to you. Each of these deaths is a loss, and grief is a valid reaction. “This was already a challenging time, and there has been grief that comes from the impact the pandemic has had on Black communities,” Cicely Harshom-Brathwaite, Ph.D., tells SELF, adding that you might be experiencing grief on multiple levels. Your sense of loss may also stem from “knowing that at any moment we can be killed,” Harshom-Brathwaite explains. In short: Grief is a reasonable reaction to being Black in America right now.

3. You’re tired, burnt out, or downright exhausted.

As we’ve mentioned, the recent string of violent deaths is happening along with a pandemic that disproportionately impacts Black people—that alone is enough to cause burnout. What’s more? Racism and police killings aren’t new. “My older clients might have been born during Jim Crow—when the schools were integrating, or when people were fighting for the Voter Rights Act—and they may be like, ‘Okay, here we are again,’” Kimberly Lee-Okonya, L.C.S.W., tells SELF. But even if you weren’t alive during the Civil Rights Era, the effort it takes to thrive in a Black body could leave you feeling exhausted. “Many Black clients are tired of having to explain why Black lives matter. They are tired of these acts happening over and over again, only to seemingly fall on deaf ears. They are tired of worrying about their safety and the safety of their loved ones,” Bianca Walker, L.P.C, tells SELF. It’s wonderful that so many people are activated and energetic, but if you’re sluggish or downright exhausted, you’re allowed to rest.

4. You’re overwhelmed.

Now might be a good time to gently remind you that big issues like police violence exist among all of the mundane (and major) stressors of your daily life. You might have responsibilities at work to deal with. You could have health concerns, or—if you’re raising children—you might be wondering how to discuss these topics with them (in addition to wrapping up at-home learning). Several therapists mentioned that clients are feeling overwhelmed by all of the competing priorities and tensions around them. It’s also not uncommon to feel a mix of emotions, which could leave you feeling overwhelmed. If you’re struggling to pinpoint exactly what you’re feeling, Harshom-Brathwaite suggests using an emotion wheel to help you put language around exactly what’s coming up for you.

5. You’re anxious.

If you’re anything like me, anxiousness might be one of your predominant emotional reactions. In fact, many of the therapists I chatted with mentioned it. There are myriad reasons you can be feeling anxious right now, but Jackson points out all of the uncertainty that exists. “People are worried about what the future is going to be, whether these officers are going to be charged,” Jackson explains. “They’re wondering if justice is going to be served this time, and what is going to happen next.”

6. You’re relieved to see so much support.

For so long, Black people in America had to manage their emotions privately, but it seems the movement is more intersectional than ever. As a result, “people are feeling relief that [other] people are acting out,” Jackson explains. “It’s not just Black people who are upset.” Jackson also mentions that many clients in interracial relationships are finding comfort in protesting and participating in the movement together. So if you’re feeling relieved by the amount of support from non-Black allies, you’re in good company.

7. You’re a little skeptical of all these allies.

Harshom-Brathwaite says some of her clients are side-eyeing allies and processing that in therapy. While many of her clients do feel encouraged by the public fervor, there is the sense that some people “wonder what actually is going to change,” Harshom-Brathwaite explains. Skepticism is a healthy and reasonable response, and time will help you discern which allies are committed to uplifting and protecting Black lives long term.

8. You’re empowered.

If you look around at all of the outrage and feel stronger than ever, you’re not alone. There are so many voices speaking out against injustice and, if you’re finding your voice and purpose during this time, that’s great news. Feeling strong and capable is such an important component of fighting for justice.

9. You’re a little jealous and experiencing FOMO.

Along with the common feeling that you might not be “doing enough,” many of the therapists I spoke to said that it’s not uncommon to feel a twinge of jealousy or fear of missing out on the action. Perhaps you were part of other movements that didn’t benefit from widespread public sympathy. Maybe you’re unable to participate in IRL protests, or maybe you’re finding it hard to connect with the current moment. Whatever your reason, it’s okay to be a bit envious of the ways other folks are engaging in activism right now. It’s also perfectly fine to take a moment to reflect on how you want to participate going forward. This fight is long, and the opportunities to donate, show up, and shift culture are abundant.

10. You’re joyful.

If you find, amidst all of this, that you’re experiencing joy, please lean into that experience. “Joy in the face of difficulty—or even the face of times that are not difficult—is really claiming and standing in what is deeply meaningful and beautiful,” Harshom-Braithwaite explains. “Experiencing joy is saying, ‘I can still go and engage in public action, and I can come home and giggle with my friend. Both can coexist … because I am multifaceted, and I have a right to claim all the facets of my human experience—my Black human experience.’”

11. You’re numb, apathetic, or even annoyed.

When it may seem like everyone is reacting strongly to discussions about race right now, apathy and numbness might feel inappropriate, but there are a few things to keep in mind. For starters, everyone processes emotions differently, Jackson says. “Don’t feel bad because you don’t feel it, and don’t let other people make you feel bad because you’re not as upset,” she says. There is no one way to grapple with police violence, and not having a strong emotional reaction is well within the normal range of feelings. It’s also quite reasonable to be confused over why this particular moment has opened the outrage floodgates. “Apathy [is somewhat common] as some people rightfully believe that racism and social justice issues are, unfortunately, nothing new,” Siobhan D. Flowers, Ph.D., tells SELF. “And there [could be] annoyance that it took a Black man being murdered in such a horrendous way for these issues to gain traction again, as they should have always been in the forefront.”

12. You’re scared.

Even though public attention might be encouraging, Harshom-Brathwaite says that fear is a common reaction to being Black in America right now. “The horror of seeing our bodies being harmed and our people being killed is really painful,” Harshom-Brathwaite says, adding that some fear might be related to how normalized these images can become. You might also have “concerns about the desensitization that occurs when we see these images over and over again,” she explains.

13. You’re dealing with older memories this has triggered.

Let’s be real: Black people have been dying at higher rates due to police violence for generations. “This was going on in the 60s, and here we are again,” Lee-Okonya says. “When we see people who look like us, we might start to think about, ‘Well, that could have been me or that could have been my dad, my brother, my son.’ That’s secondary trauma,” she explains.

14. You’re hopeful about the future.

Much like those who are feeling empowered, it’s encouraging to see more people taking responsibility for dismantling systemic racism. “If you’re watching or attending protests, what you see is such a wide swath of society feeling involved, feeling like this pertains to them, and feeling like they care,” Margaret Seide, M.D., tells SELF. “Young people, old people, people of all colors, all religions, are feeling like this has something to do with them, and they are willing to get involved even at the cost of risk to themselves their safety.” You no longer have to shoulder the burden of racism alone. This is a good reason to feel hopeful.

15. You are struggling with guilt or shame.

While guilt and shame aren’t pleasant emotions, several therapists say they’re common right now. “There’s guilt in many forms,” Harshom-Brathwaite says. “There’s [possible] guilt if your health situation doesn’t allow you to go out into the streets in protest, even though you would want to.” There might also be guilt if you’ve been more quiet or inattentive to police brutality before, she explains. Even if you have been attentive to systemic racism, shame might arise because these killings imply that Black lives can go neglected and ignored. “These events continue to be a reminder of not being good enough, not being seen, and not being heard,” Vernessa Roberts, Psy.D, tells SELF. Grappling with feelings of guilt and shame is a normal byproduct of a society steeped in racism and anti-Blackness.

16. You’re still very concerned about COVID-19.

All over the country, states are seeing rises in new cases. This might cause you to worry about hitting the streets right now, or you might be dealing with the new coronavirus in your own life or family. It’s totally fine if managing your health is a priority right now. Let go of any lingering guilt you might feel, and focus on the ways you might support Black lives in a way that feels safe and comfortable to you.

17. You’re feeling literally anything else.

This list reflects some of the more common concerns that Black therapists are seeing, but almost everyone we spoke to says that there are countless emotions it’s normal to feel right now. If you’re dealing with emotions that aren’t on this list, know that your feelings are valid. “Sometimes, we need to remind ourselves that we are entitled to our feelings—every single one of us,” Chante’ Gamby, L.C.S.W., tells SELF. “If someone is still unsure of this, I would recommend reaching out to trusted supporters who can validate those feelings while you work on internalizing that belief for yourself.”

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