As both a clinical psychologist and an ordained minister, Thema Bryant is urging readers to acknowledge traumatic parts of their past and move toward healing and wellness in her new book, Homecoming: Overcome Fear and Trauma to Reclaim Your Whole, Authentic Self (TarcherPerigree, March 15).
Bryant, who is the 2023 president-elect of the American Psychological Association, draws on personal experiences with sexual assault and racism as well as her work with others who have experienced trauma as she explores the multiple layers of grief. She then offers spiritual practices and other steps that can lead to a greater sense of empowerment, gratitude, and purpose. “Homecoming begins with truth-telling to yourself,” Bryant tells PW.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What does the book’s title mean?
Homecoming is the journey back to yourself. It's an important reminder for those who have experienced stress, trauma, and oppression: that authenticity and healing are the core of their identity. They learn to recognize: ‘Those experiences affected me, but they don't define me. My wellness and authenticity are actually where I am at home.’ Some people grew up with childhood trauma and don't remember a self before all the toxicity began. So, whether it is a return to ourselves, or feeling like we never got to connect with and develop a self, homecoming is possible.
What is toxic positivity, and how does it block homecoming?
Toxic positivity is when only "positive" emotions and thoughts are acceptable. At its root, this can be well intentioned. We know that gratitude, for example, can be helpful in combating depression, so therapists will recommend creating a gratitude journal. But while what people call positive psychology can be helpful, it can also create censoring, stress, silencing, and lying. If someone is grieving the loss of a loved one and people say to them, "Well, just be grateful," that assumes that because I'm grieving, I'm not grateful for the time we had, which is a lie. In healing, I need to have access to the full spectrum of my emotions. To require that people only feel joy and gratitude is dehumanizing. It does not give space or room or permission to honor their humanity.
There is so much talk about self-care; why do you encourage it as a communal activity?
The over-emphasis on “self-care” sometimes means the lack of acknowledgement of the importance of people showing up for each other. If you have a single mother of three who is not being given a livable wage, even though she works very hard, and you say to her, "You just need to take better care of yourself," is problematic and missing the context of her life. Community care can look like spending time with other people, and advocating for other people. So many people are looking for community and connection. At the same time, I do advocate for self-care. To me, it's not an either/or. We need to be intentional about nourishing ourselves and also be intentional about the nourishing that takes place in relationship and in community.
How can we begin to use the concept of homecoming to process the grief and trauma of the past two years?
With the pandemic, we are dealing with a sense of powerlessness. This is in parallel with racism, whether it is anti-Black racism, anti-Asian racism, xenophobia, the treatment of immigrants, or attacks facing the LGBTQ community. It is volcanic and people are struggling. So this resource is timely and intentionally holistic. It's important if we're going to say homecoming, that in your homecoming, all of you— every part of you—is welcomed in this space. Not only the intellectual part of you, the spiritual part, the creative part, the emotional part, the political part of you—every aspect is welcome. When you're really at home, you don't have to leave parts of you at the door.