It’s been a tough year but change is coming.
I can feel it in my bones. I can see it on the horizon.
The longest day of sunlight all year, the summer solstice, is just around the corner.
And it’s Pride Month! We get to celebrate and honor the progress made to uplift and support the rights and culture of our LGBTQIA+ community.
And Juneteenth is coming! We get to celebrate and honor the day our African American brothers and sisters were free from slavery in the U.S. in 1865 (at least on paper).
Both celebrations speak about the strength and power of the human spirit to step into the light of love to impact positive change through the richness of our diversity.
And although I am a white immigrant woman who historically identifies as heterosexual, replacing division with diversity and inclusion for all humans is a lifelong commitment for me. I will not only march to support my fellow Black and LGBTQIA+ humans but will stay committed to my activism and anti-racist work until I take my last breath.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t have biases—I’m still a work in progress.
Sometimes, when people with different beliefs and values than me act in ways that take me out of my zen, I secretly think, “Hell is other people!”
It’s easy to fall into the trap of attributing our dysregulated internal state to others, inadvertently contributing to a fear-based/power-over culture.
So, let me give you my two cents on why we need to add the idea that “hell is other people” to the list of toxic myths that burn us out and why busting this myth may change things for the better, individually and collectively.
Once upon a time, my bias got the better of me.
Many moons ago, when I was a leader for a healthcare organization, I took my employees to a nice sushi restaurant to celebrate their success.
All was going well until two team members started arguing over whose religion was better and who should reform or else they’ll go to hell. One was Protestant and one was Catholic.
The discussion got pretty heated, and soon, the whole table felt the tension, and the vibe shifted from fun to uncomfortable and awkward.
After several failed attempts to make them stop, I started to feel angry. And that’s when my horn bias showed up to bite me in the ass. I lost my cool and looked at them both in contempt, and sarcastically said:
“Have you heard what the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre says about what ‘hell’ is? Hell is other people! And based on how you two are acting right now in the middle of our team-building dinner, I couldn’t agree more with him!”
Horn bias is a cognitive bias predisposing us to treat a person unfavorably based on a characteristic they share with someone whom with we’ve had a negative past experience. For example, if an Asian man cheated on me in the past, I may find myself unfavorably judging another Asian man as a cheater without any evidence that he is.
Biases have a sneaky way of justifying the actions they lead us to and, at the time, I probably would have defended my reaction by telling you:
>> Religious people have damned me for how I live my life over and over and over again, like questioning why I march at LGBTQIA+ pride parades in different parts of the world.
>> I was oblivious to my bias then, so it controlled me like a puppet.
>> It was easy to default to “Hell is other people,” considering how my employees’ behavior poisoned the whole team event.
But I can now see how this idea is more harmful than helpful and can cause unnecessary problems.
The Many Destructive Faces of the idea that “Hell is Other People”
From a 30,000-foot view, this false belief can be seen as an umbrella for many destructive ways of relating to one another that have brought us to the brink of chaos.
They’re rooted in prejudice and bigotry, and lead to discrimination.
You can spot them by their ending -phobia (meaning to fear in Greek) or -ism. Here are some examples: homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, sexism, classism, ableism, anti-Semitism, and racism.
Although unconscious prejudiced conditioning gives birth to all these phobias and -isms, it’s important to note that they’re not all created equal.
Racism is a disease that we have failed to find a cure for in over 200 years that unfolds at the individual, but also institutional and structural levels. Dismantling racism beyond equality requires equity. We must address how we will level the playing field for the injustices that continue to disadvantage Black lives in America, whether we’re talking about housing, education, voting, health, or legal protection.
It also requires us to expose how we’ve historically failed to recognize and take a stance against policies and structures perpetuating racism. Ignorance of the 13th Amendment and the mass criminalization of Black Americans and our inaction against them are insidious ways we’re part of the problem, not the solution.
As much as I can tell you how discrimination, sexism, or xenophobia contributed to my burning out, my struggles don’t hold a candle to what our fellow Black humans are dealing with.
Dismantling racism, for me, is a matter of justice, but for Black people in America, it’s a matter of life and death.
So, please know that while I include racism under the umbrella of the myth “Hell is other people,” I don’t want in any shape or form to minimize the importance of equity, of leveling the playing field, and how much Black lives do matter.
However, based on scientific facts, I want to draw one common thread among all -isms and phobias. By clumping all these toxic ways of being into one space, we can see their destructive nature from a different angle and explore what we can do to begin deconstructing them.
The One Thing that Doesn’t Discriminate Against Us
Following the death of George Floyd in May 2020, several national medical associations released warnings pointing to racism as a serious public health concern.
Floyd’s death was one of countless Black people killed every day for absolutely no reason.
But as we all witnessed in despair the last 8.46 minutes of Floyd’s life, under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin, many of us couldn’t help but wonder: What have we missed, ignored, or turned a blind eye to that has allowed such devastating misuse of human power?
Countless studies have shown that witnessing any hateful act or crime devaluing human life affects the entire community’s well-being. And this is beyond the well-known direct impact on the well-being of people of color who are disproportionally targeted and devalued.
Specifically, discrimination and racism increase the risk of mental, physical, and emotional health problems, including depression, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and even death.
Because there’s one dimension of -isms and phobias that don’t discriminate between us, whether we’re black or white, man or woman, gay or straight:
Yes, the stress of division and polarity between us disproportionately impacts the well-being of marginalized communities. Still, it also increases secondary traumatic stress, higher co-morbidities, and lower life expectancy for all of us, and it “saps the strength of the whole society.”
Any idea that casts a group of us as inferior or superior, based on our differences, is driven by fear. And while fear is an invaluable emotion, when we let it drive our actions, we run into trouble.
Our brain’s fear circuitry runs on an outdated operating system, the reptilian (limbic) brain, devoid of rational thinking. That’s our stress response or fight/flight/freeze response.
When we operate under our fight or flight response for too long, beyond the long-term consequences to our health, all our executive functions go offline. We don’t have access to our critical thinking, emotional intelligence, creative problem-solving, or relational skills.
When you make people afraid, you can get them to do anything you want because they no longer have access to their higher mind, and their energy is depleted fighting imaginary enemies. The January 6, 2021, United States capitol attack remains a dreadful day I will never forget and one of the most worrisome signs of the dis-ease of our fear-based culture.
And guess what else happens when we remain stuck in a sustained activation of our fight or flight response?
We burn out.
This predicament begs the question:
What are we Fighting About?
I hope you can see that looking at each other as the enemy because of our differences (aka thinking that hell is other people) comes with devastating consequences, individually and collectively.
And here’s the craziest part of this sad, common, human story.
The completion of the human genome project has uncovered that we’re 99.9 percent the same genetically!
In other words, all the -isms and phobias that have brought us to destruction are essentially mind constructs. We’re fighting over the 0.1 percent of our differences, depleting our energy, and keeping ourselves stuck in fight or flight mode, where we’re physically, emotionally, and cognitively impaired.
No wonder change isn’t coming.
Change requires skill, power, and energy, which we don’t have when we’re shifted to fear-based fight, flee, or freeze mode. So, where do we even begin to change the trajectory of humanity?
The Antidote to the Toxic Myth that Hell is Other People
I wish I could tell you that I have discovered a secret magic pill that can instantly update our conditioning and dissolve all the mind constructs that make us look at each other as the enemy.
But I can’t. And I’m not a diversity, inclusion, equity, and equality expert.
Even writing this piece has been a challenge for me.
With every word I write, I’m worried I may say something that will offend someone.
But as a burnout prevention and recovery coach, here’s what I can tell you: the three guiding principles of the myndzen stress management framework help me stay on the path of upgrading my conditioning.
Here’s what I guide my mind to focus on to replace conditioned ways of thinking:
As Socrates has wisely said, only when you “know thyself” can you live a life of virtue.
In a practical sense, I choose to explore my thoughts, patterns, and behaviors and challenge myself to pinpoint unconscious beliefs, ideas, and biases that stand out like bad weeds.
Harvard’s implicit project tests have helped me understand the biases hiding below my conscious awareness and bring them to light.
I’m also focusing on bringing to awareness how any signs of devaluing human life impact my body in terms of tension and increased heart rate, which indicates that I’m hi-jacked by neurochemicals of stress (whether I read about them in the newspaper, hear someone make a racist comment, or entertain any biased thoughts that may come up).
Bringing awareness to what dysregulates me allows me to boost my ability to regulate my nervous system and return to my calm, responsive state.
When we realize that our silence, action, or inaction have been part of the problem, it’s easy to fall into a shame spiral. However, our brain perceives shame as a threat to our self-concept, which can keep us stuck in fight or flight mode even longer.
Acknowledging and owning our unconscious biases isn’t about seeing ourselves as a “bad person.” It’s more about recognizing that our environment has conditioned us, and we choose to be responsible for how this conditioning is harmful.
We all have a unique definition of this popular yet abstract value. For me, it means I am open to experimenting with new ways of thinking.
Once I recognize that the world views I’ve inherited are not conducive to my inner peace and my ability to contribute to the smaller and bigger community positively, I can change them.
How? By challenging unconscious thoughts that come up.
There are so many unfair, misleading, and untrue stereotypes that I’m sure we’ve all heard. Here are just a few that come to mind, although the list is endless):
>> Asian people are bad drivers
>> Black people are lazy (or angry)
>> Gay people are promiscuous
>> Jewish people are stingy with money
>> Women are too emotional for leadership positions
Have you ever caught yourself thinking these stereotypes when under pressure? And if so, how can we relate to such destructive thoughts to change things for the better?
>> We can challenge them with non-judgmental curiosity, perhaps asking ourselves:
>> Where have I heard this?
>> What is this thought about?
>> How is this impacting me and my relationships?
>> How do I feel about it? (Shame? Guilt? Self-judgment?)
And then we can break the silence by no longer keeping quiet when we hear any comment or joke based on a phobia or -ism, in fear of poking the bear, regardless of who says it, whether they’re a family member, friend, or our biggest client.
Only when we expose how we’ve contributed to creating this destructive chasm between our fellow humans can we take corrective action to close it.
I don’t know how we got here, but the current state of humanity is heartbreaking.
Awareness, compassion, and accountability are more important now than ever.
Never before have we been so eager to find a way out of endless suffering and step back into feeling stable, peaceful, and free to enjoy this little adventure we call life.
Considering the socio-political, economic, and health threats on our lap in our post-pandemic life, joy may seem like a joke. Anxiety and depression have quadrupled over the last few years. And substance abuse and suicide rates have also increased at alarming levels).
However, from a different perspective, this moment is an incredible portal to awakening.
It’s our opportunity to recognize that projecting our internal discomfort on one another, viewing each other as the enemy, and hurting one another sits at the root of what has created this culture of fear that has brought us to the brink of chaos.
Not all will awaken at this time. But we can pause, bring awareness to the pain of our common humanity story, and listen to what our heart tells us is benevolent, authentic, and ecological without judgment or shame. We may then realize an undeniable truth that Ibram Kendi has summarized beautifully in his book, How to be an Anti-Racist:
“Ultimately, our story is about the basic struggle we’re all in: the struggle to be fully human and to see that others are fully human too.”
We need each other to rise from the culture of divisiveness and fear we’ve created, to re-imagine and rebuild our lives and the world we share.
When you and I remain grounded in our healing path and embrace the power of our commonalities and diversity, we can be the change we want to see in this world. Then, we may realize that love has been in front of us all along, right below the fear.
And only then can we tap into the joy and strength of belonging and community that can defeat any destructive element that may come our way.