What to do with guilt and fragility.

A beginners guide

By Erin Brown

Guilt can be an unfortunate although natural reaction to learning about one’s own privilege. It's not very actionable or useful, but it seems an understandable part of discovering for the first time, or again a new layer of the systemic power structures that you benefit from. If you’ve not been forced to face these things before, this can feel overwhelming. Privilege lends itself to a serious lack of identity development in that area. The very privilege that allowed you to not confront systemic abuse also created a version of you that has very little tolerance for learning about it, which is called fragility. 


I've seen suggested that the best thing to do with these feelings is to deny them. Push them down somewhere you put ugly feelings you don't enjoy. But to me, this messaging plays right into the conditioning I've been handed about every other difficult feeling. I don't actually believe you can ignore what comes up. I don't believe you can tuck away unpleasantness and not suffer physically. But, what you do with these feelings does matter. Who you share them with, what space they take up, when they are prioritized and by whom: that's worth addressing.  



1) Keep in mind your feelings aren't the point. If you are a white person reading about police brutality, for example, and feeling helpless and guilty, do not add those feelings to the commentary on the piece. Your feelings of helplessness reading an article on a subject are not equitable to the person experiencing terror. Just reading your position is emotional labor, and possibly derailing of the entire conversation. It’s asking for your feelings to be centered in a place they do not belong. The more entitled you have felt in the past to insert yourself everywhere, the harder this will be to grasp. So ask yourself before you add your two cents somewhere: Do my feelings need to be centered here? If not, don't insert yourself.  


2) Sit with the discomfort. It’s actually pretty whack to be raised and systemically miseducated in such a way that learning accurate history and how present systems uphold the same abuses creates such discomfort. But that is the reality. So in order to be actively anti-oppression, we have to build up a thicker skin. The discomfort gets easier if you allow for it. It comes and goes quicker. You begin to feel less fragile and less thrown off. You'll be stronger. But as you sit in the discomfort of new information or guilt about it, make sure your feelings are directed toward your own miseducation and not the person providing you with accurate information.  


3) If it's not about you, it's not about you. Cultural critiques are not personal character attacks. It's ridiculous to request 13,987 prefixes be written to everything a person writes just to avoid someone taking it personally. "Not all men, not all white women, not all straight people" etc., are not necessary additions to pieces examining the conditioned problematic behaviors of a group. If it's not about you (i.e., you don't exhibit the behaviors being discussed) then it's not about you. No need to make sure the writer knows you believe yourself to be an exception.  



Some days I feel a little fragile when reading another article about white women ruining feminism. I take a deep breath, remind myself I'm fully capable of receiving critique (and I'd better be if I mean to be a leader in any way) and go back to read again. It is always better to actively stand against poor behavior in those with whom you identify than to ask that they not be criticized.  


Take what you can from the piece, share it if you believe it's valuable for people in your life, and move on without centering yourself.  


4) Process with appropriate people. If you need to process feelings of guilt, overwhelm or moments of fragility, talk to other people who share your positionality and have the energy for it. Sometimes dealing with emotions requires external processing — just don't take it to an inappropriate party. I've heard this explained like a funeral. If your coworker passes away and you need to process your grief, you don't call the widow. Be mindful of the position you are putting someone in when asking to work through this with you and make sure you are doing so with someone who has the emotional energy to do so. 


It takes time and emotional energy to become less fragile around issues where you experience privilege and lack accurate information. Make room for your own thoughts and process your feelings, but be sure to do so in spaces that are appropriate. It is possible to give yourself room as your lens expands while not centering your experience where it doesn't belong.


Erin Brown

is an author, international speaker, and poet from Lawrence, Kansas. Her work focuses on women and autonomy. It includes themes of positive body image, eradicating rape culture, addressing white feminism, honoring the power of our voices, self-care over martyrdom, reproductive justice, intersectional thinking and inclusive leadership. With an activism history approaching two decades, the only thing she is sure of is how much more she has to learn.