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Dehumanizations

Updated: Jan 6, 2022


I am pretty pro at justifying to myself that I am right - no matter what it is I am doing, saying, or feeling.

It is a super-power really.

Like all superpowers, it has good and not-so-good sides.

On one hand, I can decide I am right about someone acting out because they are hurt. I can choose to really see them and seek to understand that hurt. In that space, I create connection, empathy and potential. I get to be right about someone moving through pain and about that pain not being about me. Which can be a really big lifesaver when the situation is especially intense or the other person is not acting in a particularly rational way.

On the other hand, I can also choose to be right about the other person being a total knob. I can decide they don’t care, don’t have feelings and don’t deserve my patience. I can selectively remove their ‘human traits’ (the feelings, thoughts and characteristics that would have me empathise because I am able to see those things in myself) and instead play up the traits that allow me to label the person as I like. Traits that allow me to pretend the other person is unfeeling and somehow ‘less human’. This can be really useful because the less human someone is the less like me they are. When someone is ‘different' from me I can allow myself to believe that they do not deserve the same experience of life that I do. That makes it easier to dismiss poor treatment of them and justify denying them the same experience of life I expect for myself.

Welcome to dehumanisations.

Most of us will engage in this behaviour at some point in our lives. Unfortunately, it happens MUCH more than many of us would like to admit.

I see it often when people discuss celebrities, using language that suggests financial status and fame are invitations for a human experience that does not include privacy or being talked to with respect. I don’t know about you, but my financial status has ZERO bearing on whether or not I deserve my privacy when I am not on camera or doing my job. It is also not an invitation for people to commentate on how I look or what I ‘should’ or ‘should not’ be doing in my spare time. It does not mean that I am above human frailty, immune to hurt or not allowed to be flawed in the same way as someone with less money than me. It is not ok to touch me without my consent, spit at me when I walk by or pin your morals or expectations on me (and then decide I should be treated poorly as a result of not meeting those standards…even if YOU fail to meet them yourself).

Similar dehumanisations can be recognised in the dismissal of the poor or the homeless. I cringe when I hear “they chose” to be like that, “why don’t they just get a job”, etc.

Ouch.

But dehumanisations can be much less obvious. Calling someone a narcissist is a dehumanisation I also hear often in my coaching. Tossing a label on someone is a great way to suggest they do not deserve the same human experience as me and therefore does not deserve to be treated well. It is an invitation to those around me to also act with less humanity towards that individual.

Which is not ok.

So what do we do?

The fix is shockingly simple, yet can feel emotionally quite heavy. It comes in two parts. The first is called ‘gracious attribution’. Simply put, gracious attribution is when we seek to see the best in whatever is before us. My husband’s friend and co-worker, Casey, would say “Imagine people ‘complexly”.

The second is ‘emotional openness’. Emotional openness is when you allow yourself to see the feelings underneath the offence. This means that when you encounter anger you may also see the pain that lies beneath. When you are faced with what appears as laziness, you might also see feelings of hopelessness, loss, heartache or fear.

Gracious attribution + emotional openness = compassion.

Allowing yourself to see someone’s inner child, their pain, their challenges - forces you to see how much LIKE YOU they are. Seeking to truly feel into the experience of another person’s life is a deeply affecting experience. Especially when you allow yourself to imagine ALL of what may lie beneath the surface. Not just the part you see. Why? The more we can align with the experience of another, the harder it is for us to judge them harshly or exclude them from simple common courtesy.

If we were given the ability to see the childhood, challenges, hurts and pains of just about anyone we encounter..we would be much less inclined to leap to such conclusions as ‘they are lazy’, ‘they asked for it’, ‘they don’t deserve’ or ‘they are a burden’.

Your boss may turn from being an uncaring asshole to someone devastated by the death of their sibling/parent or struggling with feelings of worthiness. They could be suffering chronic pain, going through a nasty divorce, or fighting to keep the company afloat.

The point is, you simply don’t know.

Avoiding dehumanizations is a choice. Choosing to see others as equals is an opportunity for growth and a necessary step in creating a future where we exist in harmony with others. It is how we will create relationships that flourish instead of flounder, and demonstrate to our loved ones, co-workers and friends that we not only see them but are willing to acknowledge their experience of life worthy in the same manner as we consider our own.

We all have the power to make a difference in the world. Challenging and changing our own dehumanizations may be our first step in doing so.

xo

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