“Us” All “Thems”

“Us” All “Thems”

Who’s outside your circle?

The Practice:
“Us” All “Thems”


By “us” all “thems,” I mean finding common ground with every person – especially those you fear or are angry with or who are simply very different from you. These days this practice is more important than ever.

For most of the past 300,000 years, our human ancestors lived in small bands of about 50 people in which they survived by being good at caring about and cooperating with people inside the band – with “us” – while also being good at fearing and aggressing upon people outside their band: “them.” And for 2 million years before that, our hominid ancestors lived and evolved under similar pressures.

That’s a long, long time. And during the last 10,000 years, as agriculture produced food surpluses that enabled larger groups, this same tribalistic pattern has repeated at bigger scales. While there are heartening examples of people extending themselves to strangers, most of us are vulnerable to the ancient drumbeats of grievance and vengeance – now amplified to a thunder by modern technologies like social media.

And it’s not just in our politics. You can see the “them-ing” of others as you walk down a street in the rapid sorting of people into like-me and not-like-me. You can see it in office politics and family discord. The in-group and out-group, the casual dismissals, the turning away in anger, the easy disdain. You can see your mind moving so quickly to reduce another person to a 2-dimensional figure as you invest in your own position and identity – even when that person is your beloved mate.

You also know what it’s like to feel “themmed” yourself. To be ignored, discounted, used, attacked, or tossed aside. Not good at all.

To “us” others is to see our common humanity – to recognize that we all want pleasure and fear pain, that we all are frail, that we all suffer and die, and that each of us will be separated one way or another from everything we love someday. As you see this fact and the deep, deep ways we’re like each other, a wary tension in the body eases. Then you see others more clearly and can be more effective with them, even those you oppose fiercely. And when you don’t feel needlessly threatened, you’re less likely to be needlessly threatening.

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Take a little time to know what it feels like to be “me” . . . to be part of an “us” . . . to see those who are “them.” Then be mindful of when your mind is “us-ing” or “them-ing” other people.

They can be quite subtle yet consequential, those moments when we look away, lose empathy, stereotype, discriminate, cast out, or punish. When you notice that you, like me, are “them-ing” others again, try to stop fueling this process; step back, climb back down the ladder of anger; see the bigger picture, the larger whole that contains you and the other person in a single “us.” Help it sink in that you can still stand up for your rights and protect those you care about without dehumanizing others into “them.”

As you move through your day, see similarities between yourself and others. For example, when you see a stranger walking down the street, take 20 seconds to really look at them and get a sense of “Wow, they’re like me. Their back hurts like mine, they love their kids as I do, and they too have felt joy and sorrow.” Try this in particular, with people who seem very different from you and with people who belong to groups you may mistrust or fear or dislike. Notice what this practice feels like for you – probably heart-opening, calming, and actually strengthening.

Also, imagine a kind of circle that includes you and others you like . . . and then gradually widen that circle in ways that feel genuine to you . . . gradually including people you know but feel neutrally about . . . including people you don’t know but are like you in some ways . . . then including people who are unlike you . . . . eventually including people you don’t like, perhaps who have harmed you or others, knowing you don’t have to approve of them to recognize our common humanity. Take your time with this, drawing on compassion for yourself and others, and expanding the circle only as it feels true and right for you. Be aware of a softening in yourself as you do this, a releasing of defensiveness and righteousness, a widening of your perspective. Rest in how this feels, and enjoy it.

You can also play with the sense of being an “us” to others. Start with those who naturally include you, and notice what this feels like. Then you could try this with people who may not initially see their common ground with you – and as appropriate, you could do little natural things to establish similarities and connections, like finding out if you both have children or that you both have a sarcastic sense of humor, or simply that you do not wish each other harm.

It’s often in these simple ways that bridges build among us, circles widen, and we come to live together in peace.

Know Someone Who Wants to Include Others More?

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Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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