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The stories that define us

by jocelyn Townsend 9 months ago in incarceration
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How cultural myths define who we are and the power of compassion.

Compassionate1 is a word that often gets thrown in my direction. It happens often; so often it actually scares me. I’ve known myself my whole life and as much as I’d like to say I always act compassionately, in honesty, I cannot. I recognize, if not fixate on, my short comings so I have wondered why this word became a descriptor of me. I've even wondered if it was due to the fact that I am a small woman? Will the descriptor change when I stand up for myself or others? Am I still compassionate when I walk away from abusers or hold systems accountable; or does my compassionate disposition disappear the moment I show a different face of humanity?  

Describing others is challenging because personalities and expressions are not static, just as genes are not limited to a single expression, traits such as emotional lability can shift within a lifetime. They are environmentally influenced. We are a part of the environment and thus our actions are environmental influences.

As we judge, depict or describe others we create a soundscape that can influence perceptions [of others], or else [others'] self-perceptions. Can I see myself as harmful, if I only receive accolades? In some cases descriptions become prescriptive or else we experience a divide in our self-esteem.

Yet despite the variability and depth of each person, it is human nature to prototype2 and stereotype3 because we like to simplify. Why? Paul Bloom, a Yale psychology professor, researches human behavior. He explains that stereotyping is based on some truth. Arguably, we do it because it is economical. The faster we can make snap judgements about one another, the more energy we save. This works in two ways by focusing our attention and assessing danger.

Stereotyping focuses our attention by limiting who we turn to for a particular need. Paul exemplifies that with the stereotype of the elderly being frail, we may choose to not ask them to move a couch [particularly if there is a younger person nearby].

The second way we use stereotypes helps us to define “danger” to conserve life energy or maintain living. I don’t entirely agree with this, but the argument goes: stereotypes help us make snap decisions, for example if someone is acting aggressive on the street, I can use the prototype of aggressive behavior to inform my decision about where to walk. I argue that this is can be harmful when stereotypes about individuals are created by discriminatory systems. We may cross the street when we see a person screaming at another, fine. However, we cross the street when a person is racially profiled or otherwise profiled in harmful ways. These people are undeserving of the violence caused by social ostracism. When this happens, stereotyping itself causes danger. No one is ever a single attribute or event, it’s too reductionistic4 and capacity of humanity is that of abundance and diversity. 

Stereotyping's downfall lies in how they are created and sustained. Their maintenance depends on who gets to write and tell the story. In our society, in order to write and publish you literally need to be the literate and liberated. Thus, the accessibility of education to you, your level of control in granting educational degrees and ability to publish authorizes or restricts your power to maintain stereotypes. 

‘Authorize’ is the right word in the context of storytelling, as it is the author, editor and publisher who owns the story told about you and their story defines how you are received. Finally, reception impacts how we self-perceive because our self-understanding is in part made up of how other people react to us. 

How Stories and Stereotypes interact with Recidivism 

The impacts of narrative on recidivism is  that of the self-fulfilling prophecy5—when we routinely treat someone or a group of people in a particular way, we elicit the very behaviour we judge them by.  

The storytellers are potters, sculpting people like clay; our face in the world isn’t necessarily the one we hope to be seen as, but rather of social interpretation, projection and is of how much we accept, reject, or react to that social expectations and how we hope to be perceived. Whether a stranger’s anxiety is met with compassion or fear depends on the stereotype or assumptions we hold. Our assumptions or snap judgements are significantly influenced by social narratives. How we respond to those social narratives depends on how strongly one holds to their own self-concept in the face of conflicting social narratives—a daunting task that requires saint like capacities. 

Those that have been to prison often become defined by the assumptions others hold for someone who has partaken in crime, because having one’s story be heard when behind bars is nearly impossible. Systemic factors, such as how confidentiality is used stops people who are convicted from sharing fully, if at all. This can be dangerous, particularly for the wrongly convicted but also for those convicted based on provocation and exposure to extensive violence. We cannot make social change occur if we limit our understanding of what contributes to criminality. 

The Myth of Fight-or-Flight and Stereotyping

A cultural myth of the west is that our [parasympathetic] nervous response is limited to fight-or-flight6. This myth limits out our reality. When combined with Bloom’s statement that stereotyping is used to assess danger it perpetuates feelings of threat, fear and danger.

In addition to a fight-or-flight response which is activated by adrenaline and cortisol, several neurotransmitters and hormones impact how we respond to stress including oxytocin, serotonin, estrogen and testosterone. Thus, despite our folk stories, stress responses include compassionate care—tend-and-befriend8and sexual attraction9.

we profile 'danger' then the people who meet that profile image will make us anxious, activating the parasympathetic nervous system--flighting or fighting. While those profile images may have some truth, such as there is truth that certain implicit facial expressions can insinuate certain feeling and behaviour, it is not the only truth and no one being profiled is profiled for minute expressions.

Furthermore, if we maintain these myths as finite truth, the cultural story held towards those that have served time then we never address the cultural story as a myth. If we state that those not impacted by incarceration should flee, as they have likely been profiled as someone not to fight with then the memory of the crime becomes prescriptive of who that person is—thus the world gets divided—those that have done crime and those that have not. Criminal history becomes a tool for othering7. Additional harm is done, as those that do grow can better address the struggles of those trying to change.  

If, however, we interpret nervous response as a reason to fear, provoking fight-or-flight, fear can still be divided into two subcategories: real and imagined. Real fear10 occurs when a present threat to our wellbeing is in occurrence, this includes to systems of oppression—hence the fear of our oppressors is justified. Imagined fear11 is instead rooted in past trauma regardless of current safety, such as the startled response one might have at loud noises.  

For imagined fears, it is easier to see the options in how the nervous system plays out because so much of modern-day therapy has influenced our response to general anxiety. To respond with a compassionate internal dialogue that says, “Oh, phew, it was just a balloon popping” rather than berating oneself with statements such as, “Why am I always such a wuss?” would be considered psychologically healthy. 

Being charged with crime or not is not what makes someone dangerous, particularly if they took accountability and did their time. I argue that those who get away with crime having had all available resources to make better decisions but are consciously choosing not to are more dangerous than those found guilty. People who work within the law to exploit others or deflect from their misdoings show less consideration and remorse than those who take accountability or commit crimes based on extensive trauma. 

Thus, dangerous people may be best defined by a lack conscientiousness and consideration for others to a reckless degree, and an inability to perspective take along with an unwillingness to learn than by cultural myths. The benefits of this definition of dangerous people is that it asks us to be critical of who and what is accountable for the crime. To reduce danger we should act antithetically to the definition of dangerous people.

Rather than the victim being responsible—victim blaming12—because they didn’t fight back, they didn't say no or they were wearing a low cut shirt, a culture valuing conscientiousness and consideration changes our assessments of victims—are they alright? What do they need? How can we make situations safer? Furthermore, rather than perpetrator being defined by the past, one is judged by whether or not their conscientiousness and consideration has expanded. If change has occurred, this also enables victims to heal. In order to do this we need spaces that are dedicated to rehabilitation and not punishment.  

Why then does our culture support punishment rather than conscientiousness, consideration and compassion? If the three Cs were cultural expectations, society would be very different. Well, the notion of what type of power would have to be changed. Living in a culture founded on the myth of fight and flight, we confuse the notion that power means "power over" rather than "power with". That stated, people tend to be happier, better connected and more content when they feel empowered by their community. To get to this place compassion needs to flow from a source that has the power to change, share, and heal.

Power and the flow of compassion

For a positive change in stories of stereotyping, compassion would first need to stem from those with the power to oppress, as those in this position can choose instigate fear or allot resources. That choice is not available to all in systems of hierarchy. For example: if admitting to a crime results in a punishment that does not rehabilitate and uses fear—traumatization—to control, people are less likely to admit faults. With those in positions of power upholding common humanity13—the notion that we are all capable of great goodness, great healing and great harm, power is then shared. This does not mean omitting restrictions on freedom. Our humanness is accepted, our esteem therefore bolstered and rather than reactivating fight and flight in response to accountability, accountability would more likely elicit tend-and-befriend. 

When many people think of those in prisons, they do not focus on the time that person has spent in contemplation, or whether the behaviour was circumstantial. Most people don’t consider the person as a whole but in fragmented parts—and usually at their worse. They think of how the story was told by the press or by oppressors, sometimes the stories are just, other times they are not. Many do not ask about the changes, hopes, and fears that the person may have been through.  In fact, we likely see them as a criminal before seeing them as a person. I see three immediate downsides to this, though enlighten me if you see more, self-fulling prophecies, stigma, and our response to defying social expectations.

The self-fulfilling prophecy alludes to Cooley’s looking glass self14: “I am not who I think I am, I am who I think you think I am.” There is danger here in the form of felt stigma15. When you know the negative stereotypes associated with the spaces and situations that have defined your identity, your self-esteem plummets as self-esteem is based on social liking and acceptance. Thus, the fear of being found out becomes real because the consequences are harmful. Even more so, if you alleviate yourself of the stigma associated with your history—a brave act of self-compassion—you often spark retaliation—defying negative social expectations can then be dangerous. This is why women do not speak up. Shame is still a thing we culturally struggle with processing, which is why we justify ourselves. To see someone process their shame when we have not been given the resources to heal is enervating, but also not the fault of the person who processed. 

When the Story Does Not Fit 

Are we allowed to write our own stories? That depends on where we are. Thus, our emotional safety16 depends on the groups and spaces that allow us to be seen as we know ourselves; or else our willingness to be un-phased by the reactions of others needs to be high enough so we do not shift based on how others treat us—a saintly, if not impossible, disposition. The criminal ‘justice system’ thus not only impacts those that are labeled guilty, by self-admittance or trial, but also for those that are labeled as victims. The stories attached to our labels impact what is told to us and about us. 

When a cultural stereotype is widespread, myths becomes made—and the line between make-belief17 and a belief-made18 thins. The only lingering notion that the something about the way we are living isn’t the right way or the only way is the residual queasiness and discomfort of trying to fit in a pair of pants two sizes too small. It’s a tight squeeze! I can do it! Sort of.  Again, no one is only one thing and the shrinkage caused by stereotyping and profiling not only neglects the roots of the story, but it inhibits the diversity of the character. 

Take gender as an example. Gender dichotomies19 define universal traits as masculine and feminine. In fact, until recently, expressive traits20 defined by their passivity and emotionality were labelled ‘feminine’ and instrumental traits21 defined by their ‘fix it’/phlegmatic nature were labelled ‘masculine’. The impacts on our culture becomes detrimental as we then stereotype people by appearance or defiance of a construct: an instrumental woman is stubborn, an androgynous girl is unpredictable, a boy that cries—a ‘sissy,’ and a man with emotions cannot exist. I question these notions and the necessity of limiting culture to authoritarian myth, but who am I to question authority? Or better yet, who am I to get answers?  

So then, what happens if you are man and the fear becomes too much and you are not exposed to the language needed to dissect your feelings? What if you are a woman and an activism? That depends on where you live, but regardless, the words that will be thrown at you or that you might think of when you wonder how others receive you. Taking the pants you were given off when they are two sizes too small will get you some looks, especially when done publicly. 

Safety in compassion Culture 

If we define someone as dangerous based on features, or based on a (or several) past action, things get sticky. Particularly if we do not believe in a growth mindset22 — that hope for growth permits people to change opposed to holding them captive to a trauma or danger story. Note that this does not apply to all behavioural dispositions, my dyslexia is unlikely to go away though there are worse and better days, but to the ones related to a malleable nervous system and hormonal balance.

On the other hand a growth mindset results from a belief in change that is stronger than the stories that have negatively defined us. When in hoards, growth mindset is a pillar to resilience. It sighs, “this too, you shall overcome; we will overcome—not alone but together”. One is lifted above adversity, though it takes accountability on their end, to overcome one’s own behaviour. It is upheld by a culture that values accountability, practices forgiveness and willfully elicits kindness out of catastrophe.  

This sort of compassion is bigger than one person. It requires both a village and a village perspective on humanity, compassion givers burnout so those who bear witness in their communities have a duty to act. If there has been harm, we the bystanders are responsible to be moved by it in order to hold the direct victim and perpetrator in healing.  This offers a different perspective on safety. Safety is then an emergent of compassion culture23 the deep trust in hope, an allowance for grief, sadness and even rage and then choosing to trust that while we do not promote harm, it happens and healing is not just needed in the receiver of that rage but in the perpetrator and the causes of a crime and within the circumstance that permit harm.  

Cyclical Compassion 

“Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy until there is peace and joy for you too.” --Frederick Buechner 

Assuming that is true, maintaining compassion depends on the support of others, as to live in someone else’s skin can be both personally rewarding and emotionally taxing... and research agrees. While compassion benefits everyone, those who are compassionate receive more benefits than those they attend to. That stated, compassion burnout24 is a common experience amongst caregivers and the non-profit sector when they are not given compassion in return.  

Interestingly, symptoms of burnout include: apathy, irritability, rage, and frustration. Thus, those with the greatest capacity to care also hold great capacity to harm—the empathic to apathy paradox25—where caring without receiving care in return results in devaluing cares. This goes back to Cooley’s looking glass self14... if our caring nature isn’t regarded with reciprocity, something about it must be worthy of abuse, and this relationship that had the possibility of interdependence (leaning on each other) now becomes a pattern of codependence, a maladaptive and pervasive tendency to perpetuate harmful behaviours such as coping mechanisms because it provides a benefit to you.  However, if interdependence is seen as dependency... and dependency is seen as weakness... then care, in this way, does not benefit us. It instead gets rejected and stigmatized by the cultural myth which has been ascribed to it. We become contemptuous, saddened and depleted. Furthermore, the skepticism to kindness leaves the giver depleted if there is nothing to replenish them. This is how we drive out kindness in our world.  


These are the contagious detriment of trauma stories—my antagonist can never be my friend and if I antagonize from indignation—from the anger of grief—I too am stigmatized because victims cannot fight back and so if they do, they were never a victim, but a liar. These are the harmful narratives perpetuated by cultures of oppression. However, to quote Maya Angelou—love liberates, though love cannot be only sourced from one person, that too limits and stereotypes the giver. It is the cultural expectation of compassionate action that maintains health by seeing humanity as a multifaceted and plainly human. This is the basis of compassion culture. We forgive those that take off their pants in public because they are two sizes too small or better suited to shorts. 

for the addendice and references please visit


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jocelyn Townsend

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