On Privilege, Shame and the Harm of the Hero Complex Dynamic


At the Intersection of Trauma and Marginalized Identities


People I encounter often avoid talking about privilege as if it is a bad thing. It is as if it is something you should be ashamed of. I think many people are confused about healthy shame versus unhealthy shame. Healthy shame is the shame that you should feel because you took advantage of someone knowingly or perhaps you knowingly caused harm by doing something to someone that you could have had control over. It has a purpose for your well-being and for society and that is to help you manage your behavior and make choices that don’t harm people. Unhealthy shame is the shame we feel because we inherited or took on a burden that isn’t ours. It doesn’t have a positive function for yourself as a whole or society as a whole. If you are white for example, it isn’t redeeming for you to take on the burden of the history of slavery or ongoing systemic racism (a.k.a. White guilt). No one asked you to do that. In fact, when you do so, it does more harm than good. It does harm and is not real accountability.  It isn’t a shortcut for examining your actions and how they affect others.

Photo by Valeria Boltneva: https://www.pexels.com/photo/three-chunks-of-baklava-on-plate-with-tea-spoon-10038711/

So privilege is something you have because you were born into a situation you couldn’t help and didn’t ask for.  Privilege in itself isn’t bad. In fact, in all honesty, for people who have more privilege than me, it must be nice. In some ways for myself personally it is nice, for example, that I have an education, that I have a body shape that I like and is generally acceptable by society, that I am mostly able-bodied, that I have access to resources that help me heal. I am grateful that I have those privileges even though I don’t look down on people who don’t have those same privileges. I can hold these feelings simultaneously.  There are many other ways I lack privilege in terms of my transness, inability to mask, being Asian, being neurodivergent. But that’s beside the point. But while we’re here, what comes up for you when I talk about my marginalized identities?

Privilege is not something that it is healthy to be ashamed of. In fact it can be useful. For example, we can use our privilege to help other people who don’t have the same privileges. That brings me to another point, when we use our privilege to help others, it shouldn’t free us from doing our own work or from being accountable for our actions. When we feel unhealthy shame about our privilege, it becomes a barrier to taking accountability. What people tend to do is bargain with the above. We paint ourselves as heroes and get stuck in a false self image that we don’t back up with our actions when we don’t do the work to heal unhealthy shame.  That’s where the hero complex comes from. The hero complex dynamic is a huge source of harm that people with privilege can do for the people they intend to help. 

The hero complex looks like this:

Someone in a helping role helps someone with less privilege than themselves.  And maybe because of some unconscious bias they accidentally say something that is harmful to that person.  The person  speaks up or sets a boundary to try to protect themself from harm.  The helper gets defensive or refuses to take accountability for their actions because they can’t deal with their shame and their self image is shattered.  They might deny what they said or did (gaslighting) or refuse to acknowledge privilege.  The person with less privilege experiences both the harm and the lack of validation or accountability of their experience and nothing gets resolved.  If this happens enough, and it often does, marginalized people internalize that harm and it affects their beliefs about themselves.


Ableism and Neurodivergence


Ableism is the belief that some people’s bodies are more fit than others and are therefore superior. It is the foundation of racism, sexism, allism, homophobia, and transphobia. Ableism as it applies to neurodivergence is the belief that people must act according to some arbitrary social rules in order to have social value and that people who don’t, regardless of whether they try to do good things for others, or regardless of how kind they are to others, have less value than people who are able to fit into these social standards.

People think, “if only you tried harder, if only you tried to heal, that you would be able to fit in and then you would be worth something in my eyes.” Neurodivergence doesn’t work that way. Many aspects of neurodivergence do not change much as a result of therapy or healing trauma. In fact, some aspects of behavior, that are more natural to neurodivergent folks may be seen as authentic and beneficial for them to accept rather than to try to change. And indeed even for those things that we may try to change, the best way to do that is through acceptance first, before change. 

Many people are harmed by the people they love the most because of ableism. People will say many things in response if you call them out. They may attack the person who says these things out loud and suggest that they are being combative or defensive or even sinister or that they are hiding behind neurodivergence or that they don’t really want to heal.  Many people who are neurodivergent, whether they are formally diagnosed or not, will  internalize these things about themselves. Many of these things people might have changed if they could and even sought to change in the past.  Therapists may even inadvertently contribute to this kind of trauma if they don’t understand neurodivergence. 




My name is YanLin.  As a neurodivergent person, I have dedicated the past 20 years of my adult life towards understanding mental health, trauma, relationships and oppression. I have worked through much of the trauma that needed to be healed. I recognized these things in others before myself. And it is mainly as an advocate for others that I wish to speak up so that others do not have to suffer in these ways. 

How to Navigate Therapy When You Fear Loss of Autonomy 

By YanLin Tso


As both a therapist and a neurodivergent person who has sought therapy, I recognize  an unusually strong desire for autonomy and a fear of losing my autonomy in therapeutic settings. I write this article as a continuation of my previous blog article on PDA. I  also want to affirm that having a sense of autonomy is a legitimate need that anyone in therapy needs to feel they have at all times.  If a therapist is unable to affirm your right for autonomy then you can and probably should make the choice to go to a different therapist.

On the other hand, it is possible that the fear of loss of autonomy comes from a tendency to fawn to authority figures.  


In the framework of Internal Family Systems, we may have a fawning part as a  coping mechanism that likely arose in reaction to a parent or caregiver who wasn’t able to affirm your autonomy.


Fawning is hard to control as it is part of a trauma response.  It is not fully voluntary.  




Fawning tends to look like being overly agreeable or easy in someone’s presence, and at times even idolizing the person.  It can become apparent when we realize that over time or when we are outside of the situation we feel really differently about the person or interaction.   It suggests that there is a need for resources for self-regulation at the beginning or potentially throughout sessions.  It may be important for clients to take a really active role, potentially more than usual in steering the therapy.  The danger in fawning is that it can hinder progress in therapy and leave you vulnerable to potential abuse.

The difficulty is that there are moments when we might need to allow the therapist to take the lead in certain ways.  However, it is important for you to realize that it is okay and often necessary for you to have boundaries around when and how that happens.  You can ask your therapist to ask for consent prior to initiating specific work, for example.

It may be important to express your fears about loss of autonomy specifically to your therapist.  And a therapist can help make room for all of your parts to be in the room, even the parts that feel things that might be inconvenient to the therapy itself. 

How to identify and reduce burnout to improve mental wellness


Do you find yourself dreading your day to the point that you find it hard to get up in the morning?  Most people at some point in their lives will experience burnout.  In fact, given that we have all been in some form of lockdown due to the pandemic for over a year, we all are probably experiencing some degree of it now.  

Here are a few other signs of burnout:

  • You have poor boundaries with other people or work life balance
  • You take on too much responsibility for things that are not yours to take.
  • You find that your overall worldview has become more negative
  • You are feeling more anxious than usual about responsibilities.
  • You don’t care for yourself or take breaks even when you can.

© An even smaller heading.

By Yan Lin Tso, LCSW

What can you do about ?  The first thing you can do is interrupt the cycle.  Take care of yourself starting with your body.  Take time to rest and do the things that help to restore your sense of well-being.  That means that you may need to set boundaries between your life and work or with people in your life who may be draining your energy.  Seek out positive influences in your life, whether it be people who are supportive, positive media, nature or enjoying the arts.  You can limit your exposure to negative media. Give yourself time to recover.

Once you have recovered, take time to re-examine how you can take more time for yourself.  This doesn’t have to take a lot of time.  Mainly you probably need to creat structure in your day.  You can start by taking better care of your body’s basic needs more regularly.  That means eating well, staying hydrated, getting enough rest and exercise, taking stretch or wellness checks throughout the day. 

How about your emotional wellness?  Do you feel you have enough social support?  You may also wish to take stock of your boundaries.  Are you overworking?  Do you find that people in your life value your efforts? If not, ask for what you need, even if that means time away.  


By Yan Lin Tso, LCSW


Burnout is a physiological issue that has to do with having sustained stress that you have been unable to fully recover from.  As you begin to recognize the signs of burnout it is important that you seek mental wellness resources to help guide you in the process of recovery.

If you find that you frequently experience burnout, you may need to speak with a therapist who can support you as you make the changes in your life you need to prevent it. 




How to work with internalized racism to improve mental wellness


How to work with internalized racism to improve mental wellness

Tell me about a time when your beliefs about people of your own race limited what you believed to be your potential in this life? 

So many of us stumble into the stereotypes we have been marinating in our entire lives.  

Maybe you felt your opinion mattered less because of how often you have been dismissed or devalued.  Maybe you believe the work you do is worth less than that of a white person because society tends to devalue it.

Feeling angry? Yes, that’s good!! Anger is a good emotion to have because it allows us to externalize the stereotypes that have affected us.  How do we work with internalized racism?  

Recognize it.  No need to feel ashamed.  It is almost inevitable that someone with a marginalized identity would internalize it, because we grew up as a minority with a majority group in power. 

Assign responsibility where it is due.  Who told you that you were inferior?  To, whomever said that to you, that’s on them.

Next, acknowledge your feelings about the stereotype or belief.  It is good to get angry, good to express rage in a non-destructive way.  Let it out!

When we recognize our own agency to move beyond limiting beliefs, then we own our power.  Stand up, fight back!  You are your own advocate and now you get to throw off those limiting beliefs and take your power back!!

by Yan Lin Tso, LCSW. 


“Pathological Demand Avoidance” from the perspective of an Neurodivergent Person


YanLin Tso, LCSW


Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) has been described either as a type of neurodivergence within itself or associated with other types of neurodivergence (abbreviated here as ND), such as autism and ADHD. What is PDA? It is defined in Wikipedia and elsewhere as a greater than usual refusal to comply with requests and expectations.  In children, it can be associated with Oppositional Defiant Disorder.  I agree with other professionals that it would be beneficial to rename it as the “pathological” descriptor isn’t necessarily accurate or helpful.  I suggest referring to it as simply Demand Avoidance.

Woman holds up hands as a refusal or boundary.

What does Demand Avoidance look like?  Sometimes it manifests as refusal for what someone externally might deem as a “reasonable request.”   Other times it manifests as something that someone avoids doing because they believe it is something they “should” do in order to get what they want. 

What PDA is not.  It is not general defiance towards authority figures, it is not resistance to treatment, it is not laziness, it is not a fixed character trait that cannot be changed and it is not necessarily animosity towards a caretaker (unless a caregiver is doing something that makes it reasonable for a person under their care to be defiant).  It is not necessarily pathological either. 




Could PDA be a way of coping with ableism?

Many ND people, whether diagnosed or not, have had the experience of having someone expect them to be able to do things that they cannot do, or they are expected to be able to do things in the same way that neurotypical people do.  But people who are neurodivergent by definition, may think or experience the world differently.  Thus they may have their own ways of doing things that work best for them.  It is this misunderstanding that can lead people to believe that they are just being difficult, lazy, irresponsible or that they are somehow inferior because they cannot or will not do what is being asked of them. ND people tend to internalize this type of feedback, believing that they are inferior in some way, thus it can be a trauma that is the result of internalized ableism. 

Demand Avoidance can be positive,  as a means of self advocacy.  If one is trying to work with someone who displays Demand Avoidance, it is possible that they are not able to do what you are asking them to do in the way you are asking.  It is possible that they are having a reasonable response to someone who is trying to take away their autonomy or a similar projection based on past experiences.  It is also possible that this behavior is a barrier that gets in the way of their goals and it is treatable.



Reality Redefined.

For the latter situation, I suggest an Internal Family Systems (IFS)  approach. If you aren’t familiar with this framework, see Richard Schwart’s book, called, “No bad parts.”  In the context of IFS, we can view Demand Avoidance as a part, specifically as a protector that helps the individual avoid the feelings that they have historically experienced as a result of not meeting the expectations of others. Perhaps they experienced feelings of shame, inadequacy, or guilt.  In the IFS framework, we can view the part as having the positive intention of helping someone to not have to feel these difficult feelings.  Likewise, neurodivergent people often internalize the authoritative part that says what we “should” be doing and have a demand avoiding part that responds to that part.  In treating Demand Avoidance, in the IFS framework, we would help the client to flesh out the parts and understand the needs of the parts. 

Perhaps the therapist and the Self would try to help the part(s) that are being protected. Then we might find boundaries or an appropriate role for the protector part so that it does not need to be exiled and it operates in a way that is beneficial to the whole Self.  


YanLin Tso, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Autistic Person




What is Somatic Experiencing?

Somatic Experiencing differs from talk therapy because it is experiential, but unlike other trauma therapies, it can help you to be present with difficult feelings in a way that isn’t overwhelming.

Somatic Experiencing is a relatively new approach to working with trauma-related mental health concerns, such as relationship issues or anxiety, via addressing how trauma manifests in the body. It acknowledges that trauma is stored in the body and that it can be resolved with proper support to reduce triggered reactions and patterns of defense in the nervous system.

What do SE sessions look like?

My sessions can start out like traditional talk therapy, in the sense that I would want to find out what you are looking for from a therapist and what goals or objectives you might have.  After we discuss your goals, I will want to assess your capacity to stay present in the body as we all have different comfort levels.  I might do that by leading you through a grounding exercise or exercises that can be used to practice being present in the body.  We will explore individual resources that help you to stay present with the difficult emotions you experience.

For more information, see https://traumahealing.org/se-101/.