Y'all remember the show Girlfriends? It was my first introduction to what my 20s could possibly look like with my closest friends. For me, it was a nice dream for little ol' me to look forward to when I grew up. Now that I’m grown, honey, adulting is not a joke. There are many responsibilities to have, mistakes to make, and breakups to recover from. It is a struggle but a beautiful one. Today, there are a few shows that still highlight amazing Black women living their lives and navigating the ups and downs with their day-ones by their side.
These are the types of shows that remind us that while we all have our not-so-good moments, our girls are there for support, making life just a little bit easier. If you haven’t heard, there's a fairly new Amazon Prime series, created and executive produced by Tracy Oliver, called Harlem. This series is a comedy narrated by a character named Camille (played by Meagan Good) and includes her three best friends as they navigate their 30s in Harlem, N.Y.
One of the three best friends is Tye, a queer woman who left the corporate world and created her own dating app for LGBTQAI+ people of color, and she's played by the vibrant and loving actress, Jerrie Johnson. I figured it was only right to have a chat with Jerrie for an exclusive xoNecole interview and get to know the woman behind the Harlem series' tech entrepreneur.
xoNecole: [In 'Harlem'], we definitely see Tye's development throughout the show in her portrayal of what it looks like to show up for yourself and your friends. What's an important lesson you’ve learned about showing up in your own personal life?
Jerrie Johnson: Well, I’m a very drop-everything-for-someone-who-is-going-through-something type of girl. Literally last night, I was preparing to wash my clothes. My friend was having some issues and I felt she wasn’t in the best headspace. I got dressed, met up with a couple more of our friends, and we all went down to Brooklyn to see her. Now, mind you, I live in Harlem. People ain’t just hopping over to Brooklyn any given day. Now the thing with [my character] Tye is, she's really good at setting boundaries.
She mentions in a scene that she is not comfortable to share her business contact with her friend. For me, I would have been quick to text it for my friend without even thinking about it. Not to say that what Tye did in that moment was wrong or right. It’s just something that I am incorporating into my life now. Showing up for people differently than they show up for you doesn't make you a bad friend. You may not always be able to just get up and go to Brooklyn when your friend is in trouble. So, I am learning to show up by setting more boundaries.
"Showing up for people differently than they show up for you doesn't make you a bad friend. You may not always be able to just get up and go to Brooklyn when your friend is in trouble. So, I am learning to show up by setting more boundaries."
The show also talks about the trope of being a strong Black woman. There's a moment where we see Tye not wanting to be seen as weak by her friends. Are there moments during your day where you put self-care at the top of your to-do list?
There have been multiple moments in my life where I have learned to prioritize self-care. One example is when I was in undergrad, I was in a lot of activities. The amount of things I juggled with the amount of time I had still baffles me to this day. This was around the time of the Michael Brown incident, and I personally couldn’t even get out of bed. It was probably a combination of exhaustion and depression. There is a thing that happens with my body when I am exhausted. I start to lose my voice, so when that happens, I [know I] need to slow down.
What is real for me is that I like to show up 100 percent in every room I am in, but sometimes I have to gauge the amount of energy I can realistically give. I say to myself, 'Alright Jerrie, we only have 20 percent to give right now.' My body has been trained to go to that 100 percent level, but I have to reel it in and only give the 10 out of the 15 percent or just the 20 percent.
Admittingly, there is a guilt that we, as Black women, feel when we practice the act of self-choosing. What advice do you have for other women who struggle with saying the word “no”?
When a person first starts to create boundaries, guilt is a normal response, so don’t feel guilty about feeling guilty. I would say the first thing you should do is forgive yourself for the moments that you didn’t put yourself first. The second thing I would say is to recognize what the [reason] is for feeling that you cannot set boundaries. I am one of eight children—seven who are still alive—and I grew up in a household where my mom didn’t hug me. My mom didn’t come to my shows or give me that kind of support others seek from their parents.
Because of that, I overcompensate support and do not want people to feel the way I felt growing up. I leave myself on the line for others more than I should. It’s really about healing those childhood traumas to understand why we do the things we do. We like to celebrate people who are caregivers and people-pleasers. There is nothing wrong with tending to other people’s needs, but if it means leaving yourself in the dust, then it does turn into something that’s not okay. Lastly, empower your 'no.' Be proud of your 'no.' Practice saying 'no,' and revel in that good feeling you get after you say it.
"There is nothing wrong with tending to other people’s needs, but if it means leaving yourself in the dust, then it does turn into something that’s not okay. Empower your 'no.' Be proud of your 'no.' Practice saying 'no,' and revel in that good feeling you get after you say it."
In the series, we see how important it is to have a sense of community as you navigate through life. How important is it for you to have your main tribe or crew?
Growing up, I didn't really have a clique nor was I ever a cliquey person, so, when I was in undergrad, I yearned for that. You hear the stories from other people stating that they have been friends since their freshman year of college or they go on vacations together—you know, stuff like that—and I didn’t really have that. Now I have friends. But most of my friends already have their friend groups, and I’m like the plus one. So to be a part of the group now, with the friends I mentioned before, allows me to really appreciate adult authentic relationships. It is near and dear to my heart.
Life isn’t always easy, especially when you are juggling a career in the entertainment industry. When you feel overwhelmed, or you don’t feel at your best, how do you usually handle it?
Well first, I listen to a ton of Abraham-Hicks videos and that gets me in my bag! Then I like to listen to a playlist of my favorite songs that I know are going to get me out of the funk. I also try to write things out since I’m a writer as well. But if there’s any resistance to the first few things, I practice tapping, and I recite affirmations for myself. I will say things like, "I am feeling really unbalanced right now, but I love and accept myself." After that, I feel so much better.
Let's talk about the importance of wellness and self-care again. How has practicing self-care helped you become a better person as well as a better actress?
My favorite type of self-care is watching my campervan shows. I like to light my candles and maybe indulge in some vegan ice cream. I love HGTV, interior design videos, and I am obsessed with watching people create their own campervans and go off the grid. I think, when it comes to self-care, when we do certain things because it works for other people and it doesn’t necessarily work for us, we get further away from our true essence. If my first instinct is to go on YouTube and watch a campervan video, I can’t judge myself for it. I can’t say, “Jerrie, you can’t watch a campervan video for self-care. That is so weird. You should be taking a bath instead, or [to] do some yoga.'
If I end up doing yoga, I know deep down it’s not my truest desire. My philosophy is to always follow my desire. If I do what I desire for self-care, when I get a script or I’m on set, I’m not judging my instincts or desires for my character, either. It just helps me not to put restrictions on Tye or any other character I play. People do weird things. I know I do weird sh*t all the time and that’s okay. If I were to put limitations on Tye, it would have closed the box of all the possibilities there are for her to be.
"My philosophy is to always follow my desire. If I do what I desire for self-care, when I get a script or I’m on set, I’m not judging my instincts or desires for my character, either. It just helps me not to put restrictions on Tye or any other character I play."
What is your motivation to keep working toward your goals?
I do this for my hood n****s. I feel like I haven’t seen a lot of people just doing it for the 'hood. Because I have transcended into different areas in my life, people assume that I have this certain way of living, but in reality, when I go back home, I go back to the 'hood. My main goal is to really heal the 'hood. There are so many things I have learned from where I came from.
We are so used to being consumers and there are people who still do not know how to economize or capitalize off of their gifts. We can really branch out into fields that we didn’t think were possible, similar to what Tye is doing in Harlem. We are so used to having limited resources, [so] we have been forced to be creative in so many different ways. I don’t care to make things for rich people. I care to be an inventor or a creator for my people in the 'hood that are trying to find a way to be better but keep getting pulled back into the same cycles.
What does success mean to you versus happiness?
I think success and happiness are directly correlated. I feel like success for me is living in my authentic truth. Success for me isn't attached to any worldly possession. All of that comes and goes. I’m interested in figuring out how I can elevate the human species, spreading light and joy, and getting to the truth about what our purpose is. When I reach that level of seeing the results of my manifestations, then that is what happiness means to me. I am able to share the information I have learned to others. I want everyone to know everything that I know.
Reflecting on where you are in life right now, what would you say to your younger self?
I would say that everything is going to be alright. Don’t be so hard on yourself, and allow yourself space—room to breathe. I didn’t have the luxury when I was growing up to not be in survival mode. People would also say I was "too much" of something. So I would internalize that and be cautious about how I came off to people. I didn’t want people to criticize or judge me for simply trusting my own instincts. I'd encourage her to give herself grace and to understand that she is not responsible for other adults' feelings or behaviors. In my adult life, I have been reparenting myself.
I would [also] say to my younger self, I love you. There are so many people who love you and will love you. Everything will happen for you and don’t be stressed out about the how or when. Celebrate the now!
For more of Jerrie, follow her on Instagram here.
Featured image by Cecile Boko
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'K' is a multi-hyphenated free spirit from Chicago. She is a lover of stories and the people who tell them. As a writer, 9-5er, and Safe Space Curator, she values creating the life she wants and enjoying the journey along the way. You can follow her on Instagram @theletter__k_.
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The Unhealthy 'Unconscious Contracts' We Make With Our Parents (And How To Break Them)
I’m a quotes kind of girl. Unapologetically so. I think I like them so much because they’re a way of packing in a lot of wisdom and insight without giving an entire speech (or writing an entire article). And if there’s one quote that I know I use at least three times a week, it’s “Adulthood is surviving childhood.”
It’s not a good thing either because, basically, what the quote is saying is a lot of us experience so much trauma as children that many of our adult years are actually spent trying to figure out how to survive it all. In fact, I recently read a Guardian article entitled, “Survivors of childhood trauma often grow up believing they are unworthy,” which had a line in it that summarizes a lot of why I do what I do for a living: “Jane now understands that she was conditioned as a child to see toxic relationships as almost normal.” I’m here to reprogram a lot of counterproductive stuff that a lot of us don’t realize we are doing…as best as I possibly can.
And yes, believe it or not, a part of the reason why we get into then tolerate then endure the oftentimes pure suffering of unhealthy relationships with other people — personal and professional, romantic, platonic and familial — is due to something known as unconscious contracts. Boy, when I first learned about unconscious contracts and what they entail, it was like I had a new way of helping to free up so many people from their hamster wheels of dysfunction with other individuals.
Okay, but I’m getting a little ahead of myself. If you already feel drawn to or even triggered by the intro of this article alone, please set aside some time tonight or this weekend to dive into what it means to sign an unconscious contract, how it typically ends up working against you, and what you can do to change it ASAP.
What Is an Unconscious Contract?
I like giving credit where credit's due, and when it comes to the entire concept of unconscious contracts, one of my instructors taught it to me. She said she learned it from a neuroscience educator by the name of Sarah Peyton.
The gist of an "unconscious contract" is it's an agreement that you made, oftentimes in order to get through living with your toxic parent (or parents), that ended up being an unhealthy habit or approach to dealing with other people as you grow and develop into adulthood (you can watch an intro video about it here that is pretty damn enlightening if I do say so myself).
According to Sarah and her findings, a lot of our full dependence on our parents (especially our mother since she's usually the primary caregiver), as far as communication goes, happens around four months of age and, without us even noticing it, we find ourselves figuring out what needs to be done in order to get along with them — even if it's ultimately to our detriment.
An article that dives deeper into all of this is "When Relationships Fall Apart: Conscious and Unconscious Agreements in Relationship." The authors speak on the fact that a conscious contract is an agreement where both parties know the commitment that they are getting into, while an unconscious contract is usually unspoken, although what transpires is one person decides to suppress their thoughts, feelings, and needs in order to make another person happy (or it at least makes getting along with them easier to do).
Now I'll already tell you that if you read this and thought, "Isn't that just compromising?" you just revealed that you are someone who definitely needs to continue on with this piece because, no, suppression is not compromise; suppression is you denying a part of who you are in order to keep the peace — or avoid abuse — and there is nothing compromising about that. It is destructive and definitely the kind of "unconscious contract" that you need to break…immediately if you can.
Before I break down how to do that, let's go a bit deeper into all of this.
How an Unconscious Contract Affected Your Childhood Development
Last fall, Newsweek published an article entitled "Why Adult Children Are Cutting Off Their Parents More Than Ever." Now for the record, no parent is perfect, and since some people like to throw around words like "toxic" as if they are confetti, let's look into some signs that you definitely had a toxic parent as a child/teenager — and that you may still have one now:
- They didn't respect your privacy/boundaries
- They pressured you to agree with them even when you didn't
- They were harder on you than they were on other children (especially outside of the home)
- They found a way to make everything about them
- They wouldn't let you ask questions for clarity (and/or they lashed out when you did)
- They were controlling
- They didn't shield you from trauma (and they oftentimes caused it)
- They used religion to justify their toxic behavior
- They used you as a makeshift therapist/counselor (told you too much information)
- They were verbally and/or emotionally and/or physically and/or sexually abusive
- They were emotionally unpredictable
- They weren't supportive (or you felt like they were competing with you)
- They kept you walking on eggshells
- They deflected from taking accountability for their mistakes (or poor choices)
- They either used guilt or withheld love in order to get their way
If any of this resonated with you, yes, on some level, you are a survivor of a toxic parent — again, not an imperfect parent; more like someone who put you in a position where you dealt with some level of trauma on a consistent basis. And because it's a parent's job to help you to become a holistically healthy individual, when the opposite happens, it can stifle you on some level.
For instance, I grew up with parents who didn't know how to respect a boundary or take accountability if it hit them square in the face. I don't even have the time to get into how deep it all went. For now, I'll just give one example of how it played out in my adult years — recent ones. One parent was so toxic that they really should be in prison. Because they're not, they had the nerve to email me acting like they were doing me some favor by leaving me alone…like I had told them to do for almost two decades now, that they still had moments when they would disrespect the boundary. And where did they get my contact information? From the other parent. WILD. Not you out here enabling my abuser.
Boundaries are limits, and limits (when they are not used to weaponize or manipulate) are put into place to keep us safe. People who don't respect your boundaries are unsafe individuals.
When I think about how my boundaries were constantly being dishonored as I was growing up affected me all through those years. One way is I didn't know how to set healthy boundaries with other people. As a result, I had some of the most toxic female friendships known to man (no joke). Another result is I had a tendency to be controlling to certain other people too. Control is what was modeled to me (suffocatingly so), all the while being told that it was love, and so… that's what I thought it was.
I had written an "unconscious contract" with my parents that allowed them to railroad my space, my body, and my feelings. My needs were basically the "rent" that I had to pay to live in their home and have my basic material needs met. And so, I thought that's what relationships looked like — that I had to go above and beyond while overlooking what I deserved in order to keep people around, OR I had to control the narrative in some way as a way of expressing my "love" to them. And I lived just like this for many years.
How an Unconscious Contract Affects Your Relationships Now
Before the end of the year is out, I'll be finishing my third book. One of the things that it's going to touch on is just how emotionally abusive one dynamic with a certain guy was. I'll give you an example. One time, I helped him put on an event. I got him the venue for free. I made the programs. I set up the slideshow. I ran the slideshow. He didn't pay me a dime. Because the venue was about an hour away and we left unbelievably late (in separate cars), I asked him if he would stay on the phone with me because I was sleepy. He yelled at me, told me that I needed to find someone else, and hung up. And the next day, what did I do? I texted him to make sure that he was okay. AMAZING. He never apologized, even when I brought it up. Instead, he deflected and justified his behavior. Also AMAZING.
In hindsight, I know this is the fallout from unconscious contracts that I had "signed" with my parents, several of them. Something in me thought that if I just loved that man enough, eventually, he would stop mistreating me. Yet, I know him well enough to know that he has his own unconscious contracts that need to be broken, so while I was over-giving, he was over-hustling. He also was being ungrateful and narcissistic (and narcissism is also oftentimes the result of a traumatic childhood; it's a cryptic way of protecting oneself). Yeah, because I still had some "live contracts" going on, folks were able to get away with all kinds of stuff.
I'll give you another example. I have a girlfriend who keeps picking materialistic and shallow women as friends (check out "7 Signs Your Friendship...Actually Isn't One"). Her mother was exactly that way. It's wearing her out now because she feels like all she has in common with her circle is shopping and, inconsequentially, debt. Yet, until I introduced the concept of unconscious contracts to her, she didn't realize that all she really had in common with her mom — and the only time her mom ever really spent quality time with her — was when money was involved (including her mom feeling entitled to her money in present time).
Again, adulthood is surviving childhood. So, take a moment and think about the list that I provided as it relates to whether or not you had a toxic parent. Where the points apply, ponder what your adult relationships look like these days. Where are there patterns? Where are there mirror reflections of the relationship that you had with your mother and/or father and/or caregiver? Where do you see the same kind of unhealthiness…even now?
When we're children, we are innocent and a blank slate. We rely on our parents to show us how we are to see ourselves, along with how we are to live out our lives. So yeah, without some serious inner work (and oftentimes therapy), the contracts that we became a part of as children will continue in our adult world — that is, until we break them.
What Can You Do to Break an Unconscious Contact
I already know — this is some pretty heavy stuff (which is why I implied at the beginning that it's not exactly lunchtime reading). Yet you know how the saying goes, knowledge is power, and if you could relate to any of this, how freeing is it to get to some of the roots, to receive confirmation that you're not crazy (sis, you're not) and then be provided with tips on how to get up out of these, what seem like lifelong binding agreements, that are not serving you (and never really were)?
Okay, so now that you know what an unconscious contract is, how you found yourself being a part of one, and how much damage they ended up doing, what can be done to break the contract? Good question.
A PDF that I was given (via Sarah Peyton's site) is what my instructor shared with me. I have edited it a bit so that it can make a bit more sense (if this is your first time hearing about unconscious contracts):
Step 1. Determine what the contract initially was.
“I (your name), ________________ , solemnly swear to you (parent/caregiver),___________________
to (whatever the self-defeating behavior was) ________________________ in order to protect you/honor you/survive, no matter the cost to myself. “
Step 2. Was the vow heard? (In order to feel validated in this exercise, you should get someone you trust to serve as a representative to act as the parent/caregiver you are speaking to.)
“Parent or caregiver, did you hear this vow?”
“Parent or caregiver, do you like this vow?”
Step 3. Can the vow be released? If so, release it.
If yes, the representative says, “I release you from this vow and I revoke this contract.”
(If the vow cannot be released, like your parent lives with you and they are still doing the behavior, you may want to seek therapy to figure out what boundaries need to be set up, especially if your parent tends to go full gaslight or full denial whenever you bring trauma or their past mistakes up.)
Step 4. Create a blessing to break the unconscious contract.
The representative says, “And instead of this vow, I give you my blessing to...(create the blessing)”
In a perfect world, you could talk to your parent about all of this, and no representative would be needed — yet honestly if that were the case and your parent was truly self-aware, apologetic, and willing to make amends, they would probably approach you first about the harm that they caused. That's why a representative can be helpful. They are symbolic, and while you may never get this kind of release from your actual parent, the validation and affirmation that comes from the exercise may be enough for you to fast-track your way to healing and to feel stronger in saying "no," setting limits and requiring that your needs be met from your parents — and to offer up consequences when that is not the case.
This is an exercise that can reduce fear and stagnation so that you can start to get on with how to have healthier relationships with others moving forward.
The Benefits of Ending Unconscious Contracts…and Creating New Ones
A wise man once said, "My word is my bond." That said, to tell you the truth, the only way that breaking an unconscious contract is going to work is if there is integrity behind your words. You need to identify them, vocally acknowledge them, and have your representative acknowledge you/them. You need to receive the blessing, and then, what I recommend is setting up a new contract — this time between you and yourself.
For instance, if your childhood unconscious contract was all about you walking on eggshells, the new contract needs to say something along the lines of, "I will no longer put my own feelings and needs aside whenever I feel bullied or even dismissed. My voice matters, especially when it comes to what directly affects me, so I will speak up when necessary." Whew. Can you see how empowering that is?
It can't be said enough that there is plenty of data out here to support the fact that at the age we are traumatized, oftentimes we remain right there emotionally until we heal — and healing can include breaking our unconscious contracts. Only, in my opinion, it's not enough to break one…you need to then replace it with another; otherwise, you could find yourself slipping back into what's familiar…even if you know it's not what's better/best for you.
This really is something that I could go on for days about because it’s the kind of topic that is so freeing once people are able to apply it in their own world. For now, I’ll just say that contracts are binding agreements. Yet, the good thing about unconscious contracts is you can let yourself off of the hook, knowing that you, as an adult, now have the space to live as you wish. You don’t have to “go along to get along” in the midst of super crazy, super counterproductive, super toxic ways.
You can write new contracts — ones that will strengthen you, validate you, and give you the kind of life that YOU want to live. Not the one that your toxic parent(s) made you think you had to settle for.
So, what unconscious contracts are you going to break today?
What new ones are you going to put into motion?
There’s no time like the present to start fully living YOUR life.
Amen? Hallelujah. For real.
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Featured image by Vladimir Vladimirov/Getty Images