Understanding our unique place in the world

by | Nov 30, 2023

Understanding our unique context in the world can be beneficial in navigating the complexities of our society and the challenges we face.  

When thinking about our unique context in this world we can consider our family, cultural, economic, religious, and political backgrounds, as well as factors like race, gender, sexuality, and ability. We are likely at least partially aware of how these factors may have placed us at an advantage or disadvantage in our lives, but we may have spent less time considering the full picture and how the intersection of all these factors has shaped our beliefs, thoughts, emotions and behaviours.

When considering our context, for our sense of balance and well-being, it is important to consider the areas where we face disadvantage as it is to consider where we may enjoy advantage, safety and ease. Taking this balanced perspective can allow us to have a deeper level of self-awareness, identify and recognise where we need support, and possibly create a sense of gratitude for what we do have despite the challenges we may face. 

Breaking it down

We can begin to understand our context through the lens of the different levels of disadvantage, inequality and injustice that we may witness or experience, as well as how factors, like race, gender, socio-economic or geographical factors may give us an advantage and contribute to our feelings of safety, security and wellbeing.

These different factors encompass individual beliefs and values, interpersonal actions and language, institutional policies and practices, and cultural norms and values. Recognizing and understanding these contributing factors is important in getting a better understanding of ourselves and how we experience and interact with the world and those around us.

Individual

feelings, beliefs, values

Both witnessing and being personally impacted by inequality and injustice affect our beliefs, values, and emotions. Living in a society that benefits some and disadvantages others can make it hard not to internalise these messages. If certain groups of people are consistently portrayed as inferior, or less deserving, or the visibility of certain groups is suppressed, it shapes both our conscious and unconscious perception of ourselves and others. This can lead to feelings of shame, guilt, invalidation, and self-doubt, which can affect our self-esteem and mental health. On the flip side, we may also have blindspots or consciously or unconsciously believe that we are entitled or more deserving if we are part of a privileged group. 

Our environment can also shape our values and beliefs. For example, if we live in a culture that values individualism over community, we may start to see ourselves as individuals rather than members of a larger society which contributes to feelings of isolation and disconnection. Similarly, if we are taught that success is measured solely by wealth and status, we may prioritize those things over other things, even if they don’t align with what we truly believe and value.

These internalised beliefs and misaligned values can affect our behaviour and decision-making without us realising. By understanding how our world shapes our feelings, beliefs, and values, we can begin to question them and work towards a better understanding of ourselves and others.

Interpersonal  

actions, behaviours and language

The interpersonal level refers to actions, words, and attitudes that contribute to either supportive or harmful behaviour towards individuals and groups. This encompasses all of our relationships in how we treat and are treated by others. This can be influenced by social factors such as race, gender or ability, but it also encompasses interactions within family, social and community dynamics.

In the negative, these interactions can take many shapes, such as hurtful comments, bullying, harassment, discrimination as well as different types of abuse, abandonment and neglect. It can also be more subtle and include invalidation, making harmful assumptions or intentionally or unintentionally excluding others. Harmful interpersonal interactions occur in personal relationships, community and social settings, and the workplace. 

The trauma and unmet needs we may have experienced in interpersonal relationships can have a significant impact on our mental health and well-being. If we have experienced the impacts of things like inequality, injustice, abuse or neglect we may struggle to assert ourselves in certain situations due to fear of harmful consequences such as abuse or abandonment, or a fear of being undervalued, invalidated or misunderstood. We may have trouble trusting others and developing intimate relationships. We may be fearful, anxious or avoidant in certain situations which can impact us personally, socially and professionally.

Furthermore, if we have either intentionally or unintentionally contributed to the harm of others through our actions, behaviour or language, we may have deep feelings of guilt or shame that can be hard to understand and process.

This can be a lot to come to terms with, particularly if we have been harmed or have harmed others on multiple levels. In this context, we may also want to identify if and where we have felt safe, supported and cared for in our interpersonal relationships. This can help us identify where we can seek out safety and support, and also help us recognise where we could strengthen or seek more of these supportive relationships and networks.

Institutional  

our systems: education, health care, public policy, hiring practices, media

Institutional oppression refers to the unfair treatment and exclusion of certain groups by organisations and institutions that hold power like the government, healthcare, businesses, and schools. It can be hard to spot if we are not aware, but it has serious consequences. Examples include laws, rules, conditions and cultures that limit opportunities for education, jobs, and healthcare based on factors like race, gender, and other factors.

Experiencing institutional oppression can have a devastating effect on our mental and emotional well-being. It can make us feel powerless, helpless, and hopeless, which can lead to depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a loss of trust in authorities.

Furthermore, if we experience oppression we can feel isolated and marginalised, which can make it feel more challenging to develop meaningful connections.

If we find ourselves indirectly contributing to the harmful treatment of others because we benefit from systems that disadvantage others, or work within organisations that do not align with our values and ethics this can lead to feelings of guilt, shame and dissatisfaction that also impact our mental health and our relationships with others.

Again, balancing out our perspective by identifying where and how these systems, while imperfect, may at the same time provide us with a level of support, security or safety. This can be challenging if you have been deeply harmed or excluded by institutions. If this opens up a wounded place for you, give yourself compassion and understanding and consider seeking out support from someone who will be able to understand what you’ve experienced.

Societal/Cultural 

collective ideas about what is “right.”

The way that our culture conditions our belief systems can be difficult to identify and untangle because it unconsciously shapes our reality on such a deep level.

Harmful cultural interactions occur when the beliefs and values of the dominant culture promote unequal treatment, exclusion and prejudice of certain groups. When we feel excluded from the dominant culture or are not able to express our true identity without fear of judgment, rejection, discrimination or being harmed, it can lead to a sense of isolation, marginalization and a fractured sense of self. This can have a negative impact on our mental health and well-being, and make it difficult to develop a positive and compassionate relationship with ourselves and others. It can also lead to feelings of shame, guilt, and self-doubt, which can affect our self-esteem and sense of self-worth. 

If we can identify and question the overarching beliefs and values that drive our culture, and decide for ourselves if they align with what we truly believe in and value, we can begin to lead more authentic and fulfilling lives. It can feel challenging to step outside of cultural norms. Seeking out relationships and community with people who align with your values and beliefs can help with feelings of isolation and can foster closer and more fulfilling relationships.

Can understanding our context improve our mental health?

By recognizing how our unique context shapes the way we experience the world, we can better understand the impact that these experiences have on our beliefs, thoughts, emotions and behaviours.

While it comes with challenges, understanding our context can help us become more aware and develop a more positive and compassionate relationship with ourselves and others. We can also cultivate qualities of acceptance and gratitude that can improve our mental and emotional states.

We can learn to recognize how we have internalized harmful beliefs, self-judgments and judgments of others and work to challenge and reframe them. We can build a more resilient and empowered sense of self, and with the right support, work towards living more fulfilling and meaningful lives. We can also develop a deeper sense of empathy for others which can transform our relationships.

Transformation through understanding

The world can feel harsh and cruel, but exploring the different ways we can experience harm and harm others can help us understand and identify where we have the most power to affect change. 

The below graphic illustrates how and where transformation can happen:

The Awareness Training Institute and the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley

Our Circles of Control

Developing an understanding and awareness of the factors that contribute to our distress and the distress of others can give us insight and awareness, but when these factors feel outside of our control we can feel frustrated and powerless. This is where identifying the areas we do have the ability to influence and control can help us to direct our attention and feel more empowered.

Our personal sphere of control

On the personal level which includes our thoughts, beliefs, values and behaviours we have the ultimate power to affect change. By becoming more aware of all of the factors that have shaped our unique perception, we begin to realise that how we perceive the world through our belief system is extremely subjective.

The awareness of how unique and personal our lens is has the power to open up our minds and our hearts to multiple realities. We can more easily understand and accept why others don’t share our beliefs or seem to understand what we’re going through. We can become less judgmental and more compassionate and forgiving with ourselves and each other by recognising that the beliefs that form our perception of reality have all been unconsciously shaped by our unique interaction with our personal, interpersonal, systemic and cultural influences and interactions.

​​Your beliefs become your thoughts,

Your thoughts become your words,

Your words become your actions,

Your actions become your habits,

Your habits become your values,

Your values become your destiny.”

― Gandhi

This quote from Gandhi perfectly illustrates how transformational examining our belief system can be. By becoming aware of all of our factors of influence we can become more aware, accepting, curious and open to new perspectives. Furthermore, by identifying what we truly value, we can make choices that align with these values and lead richer and more authentic lives.

Our interpersonal sphere of influence

On an interpersonal level, we have the power to influence others through our actions, behaviours and language. We often underestimate our ability to make our unique mark on the world by simply being our authentic selves, advocating for ourselves and others, and demonstrating qualities such as self-awareness, accountability and compassion. We can do this in our intimate relationships, family, social circles, workplace and larger community.

This is where leading by example and ‘being the change you want to see in the world’ holds the most power. If we want to live in a fairer, more compassionate world, we can start by first and foremost displaying those values in our interactions with with others.

Our external sphere of concern

On the systemic and cultural level, we face many things that impact and concern us, that we may have a small amount of power to influence, but little power to single-handedly change or control.

It may be helpful to accept that in many cases, we will likely face setbacks and resistance when trying to change harmful and dysfunctional systems and deeply ingrained cultural beliefs. Change on this larger scale takes time, it is almost never perfect, and it is rarely linear. There are times when we feel positive momentum and times when we feel things may even be getting worse. It is a reality that is hard to accept, but when the outcomes are out of our ultimate control, we have to find ways to navigate without becoming cynical or overwhelmed with despair.

This acceptance does not mean we should not make efforts and believe in positive change. Instead, we can let go of our attachment to outcomes and expectations and understand that even if things fall short of our desired outcome, along the way we still have the power of influence to touch the hearts and minds of the individuals we interact with. This letting go and positive reframing can help in managing feelings of disappointment and despair when we witness setbacks and a lack of progress at institutional, cultural and global levels.

The challenges we may face

Deepening this understanding and awareness of ourselves and the world can also be incredibly challenging. Feelings of anger arise, memories can resurface and we can feel triggered. There is also a sense of grief and loss that comes along with understanding how our past and our present have been impacted by our context in this world.

Feelings of guilt or shame may also arise if we become aware of how, through a lack of awareness, we may have either intentionally or unintentionally harmed others. These feelings, while deeply uncomfortable, must be met with compassion and forgiveness. If we understand that from the moment we are born, we have been consciously and unconsciously shaped by our environment, we can transform feelings of internal blame, shame or guilt into compassion and a willingness to change.

Our sense of justice may also increase and we may feel more passionate about changing the world we live in. This can be both rewarding and challenging as we may face disappointment and frustration when our vision or our efforts do not create the change we want to see. We may also feel overwhelmed and that life and the world we live in are just too much to bear.

For our own well-being, it is important not to become overcome by feelings of powerlessness and despair. While being told to be positive or look on the ‘bright side’ can feel incredibly insensitive when we are battling feelings of injustice, it is still true that if we can direct our attention to things that uplift us and give us hope, we will be better placed to navigate the ups and downs of our journey as well as support and connect with those around us.

All of these feelings are valid and need our attention. It is important to seek help and find ways to connect with others who can understand our challenges and who may have shared similar experiences. Support groups or seeking the help of a well-matched therapist counsellor who will be able to understand and support you through this journey can be beneficial. 

Finding ways to create a sense of inner balance and refuge, regardless of what is happening around us can help greatly with the challenges we face. Seeking support, mindful meditation, self-reflection through journaling, spending time in nature, and applying self-compassion are ways that we can improve our well-being and respond to life’s challenges with increased resilience. 

Conclusion

The experience of being human can indeed be painful. Ultimately, no two people in this world have the same experience. However, If we open our minds and our hearts to ourselves and each other we can foster connection, support and shared understanding. Understanding our unique context can assist us in understanding the unique context of others. We can become more compassionate, less judgemental and more aware within our relationships with ourselves and others.

Sources: https://msw.usc.edu/mswusc-blog/diversity-workshop-guide-to-discussing-identity-power-and-privilege/

The Awareness Training Institute and the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley

 

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