Connecting with our common humanity

“I found another meditation that helps me relax: ‘Meditation for b*tches that don’t know how to meditate’- it has deep breathing and everything in it!” a client once told me victoriously. 

We’re all human. Some of us are messy. Some of us are as clean and tidy as an Ikea showroom. We have our dark and twisty sides (thanks Shonda Rhimes). We’re filled with love, empathy, compassion and care. We swear. We do things differently. We use tech (which may include wheelchairs and mobility aids) to do our everyday occupations. We ask for help. We reach our goals. We beat ourselves up. We have a hard time saying no. We make mistakes, failing forward. We practice self-compassion. We learn. We go to therapy. We celebrate our accomplishments and joys. We laugh with friends. We hold our shoulders tight, feel piercing in our chests, and clench our teeth.  We make space for joy. We get creative. We dance, sing, or hug it out. Our ideas and knowledge come from and are shaped by each other. We’re all doing the best we can with what we’ve got – and we’re all carrying something with us. We’re all human. 

Within the therapy space, there is an inherent power dynamic in the relationships between health professionals and people who seek our services. In private practice, what and how we communicate with funders influences the services that a person has access to and so it is our responsibility to accurately share what people need. With this power in this context, it is up to us to use our toolkits to serve people the best we can. Power is finite – it cannot just be handed out willy nilly – we cannot empower people without giving up some of our own (Isabel Jordan, personal communication, 2020). When we connect with our common humanity, we can step down and share power with clients in the therapy space and act with humility. People can take charge of their lives, health and wellbeing, and we can idea-jam and come up with useful, brilliant possibilities together that may have otherwise been out of sight. We can truly work together.

Image Description: Two people (blue outline) talking (speech bubbles with hearts) about meaningful occupations including: learning (puzzle graphic), coffee (steaming cup logo), art (palette and brush), home-based occupations (home logo), exercises (weights logo), hiking (hiker logo), and theatre (drama faces logo)

The existence of medical- or healthcare-related trauma, especially when feeling safe is a basic need for wellbeing (see Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), is terrible. Sometimes people (including me) have had experiences with health professionals where health professionals act as if they have a ‘God-like complex’, condescending, egoist and dismissive, reinforcing the power divide between people who deliver and people who seek health- and wellbeing-related services. Sometimes it gets to the point where people are left out on decisions that directly affect their homes, their lives, and their health and wellbeing entirely. This “holier than thou” attitude that behind our badges and name tags we are “gods”, “heroes” and “angels” who know and do best is toxic – it does harm. It is reminiscent of ‘White Saviour’ narratives, the racist stories that white people swoop in and save the day (Cammarota, 2011) and which we learn as early as the Babar days (Mangan, 2018), as our health professions are predominantly White (and across intersectionalities, generally more socially privileged as far as our current society is concerned). We need to get over ourselves and recognise that we are mere mortals and we don’t have all the answers – and that our answers may not always be the right answers, depending on a person and the context of their life.

Rapport is the fuel for feeling safe, worthy, seen, and valued within a therapeutic space. While we look for possibilities within a person, their occupations, and environments, through our occupational theory lenses, alone, we can only ever learn and discover so much. For occupational therapy interventions to be effective – as Bronnie Lennox-Thompson (2020) puts it “so that their lives look like their own – and not a facsimile of someone else’s” – people need to feel comfortable and safe sharing their knowledge of their lived experience and empowered in choices for their health and wellbeing. When we first meet, we are strangers – how comfortable is it to tell a stranger all about your life, hopes, vulnerabilities, and dreams? Connecting with our common humanity is an action we can take as part of our therapeutic use of self to contribute to an experience of safety and trust (Taylor, 2008). 

Connecting with our common humanity can also help us with burnout prevention. In their Mindful Self-Compassion Program, Drs. Kristin Neff & Christopher Germer (2019) include connecting to our common humanity, such as owning that our mistakes are human, as a self-compassion practice, or a way of being kind to ourselves for our wellbeing and for moving forward. When we fall behind our work, or maybe we aren’t doing things at our full usual capacity, we can have compassion for ourselves because we are only human. During COVID, when we experience COVID burnout or “virus fatigue”, this is especially important. We can recognise that it’s okay for us to feel what we feel and adjust our sails to support our wellbeing. 

a decorative image of a diverse group of people. Diversity in skin colour, disability/ability, gender, sexuality, religion and potentially other factors such as class

Another way of looking at our common humanity is looking at how our profession, as a whole, reflects and connects with the humanity of the world. What the world largely sees is Occupational Therapists as white, upper middle class, colonial, currently non-disabled, heterosexual, “healthy” cis-women – with the rest of our selves marginalised and hidden from view (Beagan et al., 2012; Bulk et al., 2017). Our theories are riddled with this lens, even when bringing in knowledge from multiple sources and ‘grey literature’, whether we transparently take note of our lenses or not (Kiepek, 2020). It is important to recognise how our views shape our knowledge, that we have blindspots, and call out our biases when sharing (Kiepek, 2020), however, that alone can only help us grow the profession so far. 

We can and need to embrace and expand the diversity of our profession- so that we actually reflect the beautiful diversity of humanity openly, with love. We have a shortage of disabled occupational therapists, of BIPOC occupational therapists, of LGBTQ+ occupational therapists. Some people fear the impact of disclosure on their professional practices and they float along to pass within the “norms” and some people are actively discriminated against when they make a disclosure (i.e. Beagan et al., 2012; Beagan, 2006; Bulk et al., 2017). These parts of ourselves aren’t just our identities – they are our communities and cultures (Beagan et al., 2012; Laura Bulk, personal communication, 2020); they are parts of the joys and eugh-moments we live in life. But what would our theories, our programs, our practices, and our services look like if we came together more? Would they be the same? We have the choice to celebrate and embrace our diversity as we move our profession forwards – so let’s do it!

When we are seen, and when we see ourselves, as humans, reflecting the full spectrum of humanity, we can build bridges that support wellbeing, create cool things, and we can grow as a profession that truly serves people towards occupational justice. When we have conversations within and beyond our occupational therapy and science circles, we can improve our understanding of each other – our shared ideas and our unique perspectives – and reconcile with each other across cultures. When we look out our windows, we can realise that some of the changes that we wish to see in the world are already starting to happen, that other people are thinking about them too, and look for ways to support each other and nurture and grow these possibilities. We can grow and promote health, wellbeing, and belonging, together.

Stay Tuned for future blog posts related to Reflecting The Diversity of Humanity within the Health Professions. We would love for people to contribute your own perspectives on what possibilities could be there and what could happen if our professions better reflected the diversity of humanity (across disability, gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity, age, class, socio-economic background, and more). We can currently only afford to accept volunteer submissions and recognise that this would be a barrier and could decrease the diversity of perspectives that are shared.

Author: Anna Braunizer

Twitter: @ABraunizer

Bio: Anna is an Occupational Therapist who writes from the lens of a White, middle class, highly university-educated, colonial, immigrant, bi, currently non-disabled, cis-woman in Canada. 

Recommended Further Reading and Viewing

To Disclose or Not Disclose by Georgia Vine: https://notsoterriblepalsy.com/2020/04/03/to-disclose-or-not-to-disclose/ 

From Patient to Practitioner – Ryan McClure: https://www.lgpersonaldevelopment.co.uk/2020/08/28/from-patient-to-practitioner/

Disability Visibility: Stories from the 21st century – edited by Alice Wong – find it at your local bookstore or online

Lavalley, R., & Johnson, K. R. (2020). Occupation, injustice, and anti-Black racism in the United States of America. Journal of Occupational Science. DOI: 10.1080/14427591.2020.1810111

Alone in the Ring – https://rbtcollaborative.ubc.ca/news/featured-project/mar-8-2019-alone-ring

OTalk- Occupational Therapy and Ableism: https://otalk.co.uk/2020/08/11/otalk-18th-august-2020-occupational-therapy-and-ableism/

OTalk – Improving Disability Representation in OT (UK Focus): https://otalk.co.uk/2020/08/23/otalk-25th-august-2020-improving-disability-representation-in-ot-otalk-series-uk-focus/

AHA moments for North American Occupational Therapists and Physiotherapists with disabilities and allies – sign-up at https://tinyurl.com/AmCan-AHA

NOTPD – Network of Occupational Therapy Practitioners with Disabilities and Their Supporters – notpd.org

References (we recommend reading these too)

Beagan, B. (2006). Experiences of social class: Learning from occupational therapy students. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 73 (4_suppl), 1 – 9. doi:10.2182/cjot.06.012

Beagan, B., Carswell, A., Merritt, B. K., & Trentham, B. (2012). Diversity among occupational therapists: Lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer (LGBQ) experience. OT Now, 14, 11-12. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/290587222_Diversity_among_occupational_therapists_Lesbian_gay_bisexual_and_queer_LGBQ_experiences 

Bulk, L., Easterbrook, A., Roberts, E., Groening, M., Murphy, S., Lee,M., Ghanouni, P., & Jarus, T. (2017). “We are not anything alike”: Marginalization of health professionals with disabilities. Disability and Society, 32, 615-634. 

Cammarota, J. (2011). Blindsided by the avatar: White saviors and allies out of Hollywood and in education. Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 33, 242-259. doi:101080/10714413.2011.585287

Germer, C., & Neff, K. (2019). Teaching the mindful self-compassion program: A guide for professionals. New York, NY: The Guildford Press

Kiepek, N. C. (2020). Innocent observers? Discursive choices and the construction of “occupation”. Journal of Occupational Science. DOI: 10.1080/14427591.2020.1799847

Lennox-Thompson, B. (2020, September 28). What do occupational therapists add to pain management? [blog]. Retrieved from https://healthskills.wordpress.com/2020/09/28/what-do-occupational-therapists-add-to-pain-management/ 

Mangan, L. (2018). Bookworm: A memoir of childhood reading. London, UK: Square Peg

Taylor, R. R. (2008). The intentional relationship: Occupational therapy and use of self. F.A. Davis.

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