For the most part, they were strangers who had no idea they were hurting me where I’ve been hurt before. These ‘shadow wounds’ didn’t leave visible bruises. Too often hidden, these injuries burned from being cut open and stung from being rubbed with fresh salt. One was happening over email; I couldn’t not respond without jeopardizing my work or figure out how to respond in a way that felt truthful. Another happened when I was asked to perform my vulnerability in front of people who have either made me feel invisible or overexposed me. And more. All in the same day.
I’m speaking in vague terms not to avoid the specific systems at hand (e.g., systems of white supremacy—intellectual theft, expectation of emotional labor, etc.) but to focus on the feelings that came out of this pain and how I tried to deal with them.
Because these shadow injuries had physical manifestations too. When I slept close to “enough,” I still felt disproportionately drained. When I showed up the way people expected me to, I still felt shitty. Which made me feel confused and disoriented. When someone appeared almost perfectly nice on the surface, I thought they were being low-key dismissive. Which made me wonder whether I was being hypersensitive or even delusional. Continually doubting my own sense of reality made me feel plain nauseous.
These are familiar feelings and reactions. If my inner pessimist is sure they’ll come again, another part of me hopes to be better prepared. From that day, I tried to take note of how I was trying to heal. Would those methods help protect or sustain me again? What happens after someone rubs salt in an old wound?
One. I recognized I was hurting.
In trying to move past pain, I sometimes try to forget that letting myself feel it, if just for a moment, is important. Otherwise, it feels like I’m just burying it, encouraging these shadow wounds to fester and come back more volatile and unwieldy to cause me more pain.
I tried to locate where I was feeling hurt. Using my sense of my touch, I found nausea in my throat and all the bones and flesh in my hips constricted. I was gripping the muscles underneath my toes and felt my neck straining to remain upright.
I tried to remember some basics. Was I hydrated? Fed? No? Take care of yourself, Benedict.
Two. I made receipts.
I wrote out what happened. For my own record keeping, I tried to categorize what energies people were tapping out of. The accounts ‘appropriation of intellectual labor without acknowledgement’ and ‘outsourced emotional development’ were drawn from heavily that day.
I connected those moments to previous transactions. This process made me feel many things.
Initially, I definitely felt more nauseated than I had before recognizing these patterns. I wasn’t surprised to see the same kinds of interactions happening again and again. But seeing the repetition over time is usually a dizzying realization. Deep breaths, please.
At some point, I felt resigned. Maybe I'm too sensitive to these shadow injuries. At least I’m aware. More obviously, the structure of feeling is so broken that being treated these ways is inevitable. I recognized that this had happened again and would likely happen again. It might not hurt less next time but I may not be as surprised.
Though the act of writing took more of my time and energy, spending it allowed me to let something go. Curled up in front of my words allowed my throat, my hips, my toes, and my neck to feel cared for. If ever there comes an opportunity where it feels reasonable to self-advocate, I know I'll be prepared.
Three. I compartmentalized.
I put these moments in their boxes and put the boxes away.
This can be dangerous. Compartmentalizing trauma can encourage a level of cognitive dissonance that might not be any better to live with than not acknowledging trauma feelings at all. When left unchecked in the past, shadow injuries have clouded my sense of self. It used to feel like I was constantly jumping through hoops and making quick changes to keep up with the disparate dimensions of my life.
Lately, my feeling is that having an ‘integrated self’ is nearly impossible when embodying multiple identities that have been historically and presently dismissed by dominant society. I accept that I can’t always speak up, that being strategic about making change sometimes means waiting, that taking care of myself means choosing to not engage just yet. Whether these choices make me more or less complicit in these patterns of erasure isn’t a simple question to answer. It’s important to ask myself what makes me feel safest.
I made sure to carve separate spaces where these feelings could breathe and expand to their fullest extent. In small moments with friends who know how to listen, or in thinking of my body in motion, the words vibrating from my throat and sweat seeping out of my pores made room for these spaces to expand into their own being. These moments are sacred.
Four. I strategized for the future.
When I felt ready to think in these terms, I started thinking tactics.
Is there a way I can avoid these interactions? Maybe I can end a relationship that I don’t need. Maybe I can’t quit my job but I can steer interactions away from a sensitive topic. Maybe I can check my feelings at the door and play the game.
Sometimes when this is possible, when I tell people what they want to hear, it just makes me feel gross. I can plot for the long game, the exit. To find the balance of being true to myself and maintaining my livelihood, effective communication that clarifies boundaries sometimes require bold statements.
Sometimes it has to be subtler. Finding these words sometimes needs more reflection, different circumstances. At a certain point, I decided to pause. Not to forget but to honor my own boundaries.
Five. I worked on a project of self-love.
I try to always have one of these in tow. Whether that’s a drawing, a little dance by myself, a song, a series of words, the thing that I make and the process of making it have been healing and generative.
These are little moments of liberation. The stakes are low—I’m just gonna shake my hips, draw random colors in random shapes, admire the curves of my handwriting, craft a series of beautiful things that reaffirms I’m more than my mere presence. These actions celebrate my creativity, my capacity to make things for myself, for people I care for, for the sake of creating the world around me. It’s not in service of anything in particular. It’s just to be.
And at the end, I have a little something: a sloppy drawing full of energy, a poem, a memory of a groove. Sometimes, it’s a cathartic kind of something that’s in direct conversation with the icky feelings I’m responding to. Sometimes, it’s a light something, with substance in its wit, its beauty, or a quality with no name.
* * *
This isn’t a prescription but a snapshot. It isn’t perfect. I probably didn’t do this in order. I definitely didn’t go through these stages only one time. I hopped around feeling and making things, went back for the receipts and strategizing, and tried again and again. But even the process of organizing these little things I did, things that were at least a little bit helpful, reminds me that I've grown. I’m not trying to fetishize my resilience. I’m just acknowledging wounds happened. They will happen. Maybe I can find little bit of light out of their shadows.
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The background of the illustration is colorblocked unevenly in rich shades of blue, green, orange, and purple. There are curved black lines everywhere, sometimes overlapping, forming organic shapes. On the middle of the right side the words "IT'S OK" appear in all caps. Shapes that look like water droplets are on the bottom of the image.
About Benedict Nguyen:
Benedict is a writer, dancer, and arts advocate living in NY.