Examining White Privilege: What’s the Fear?

Dickinson student Leda Fisher asks the question “Should White Boys Still be Allowed to Talk?” in her opinion piece in the college’s daily news publication, The Dickinsonian.  Reportedly, Ms. Fisher indicates that she has received overwhelming support in response to her piece.  However, the backlash and negative comments have been swift and brutal, including calls for her expulsion.  The opinion piece has gone viral, which presents the opportunity to explore why her comments have pushed so many buttons.  Specifically, examining the role of higher education, exploring constructs related to power, and the impact of cumulative rage are issues for further consideration.

The Role of Higher Education

We expect colleges and universities to value freedom of speech, to support the development and expression of thought, and to expose students to new ideas.  However, these priorities come with challenges, including the challenge to listen while feeling uncomfortable. The evidence about white male dominance in the classroom and other life settings is clear.  Being silenced, mansplained, and not having room for diverse views are routine characteristics of school and work environments for women and people of color. It is unclear why Dickinson students would not be glad for the insight that Fisher provides about her experience, and appreciative for her courage in putting such a perspective out there. Further, as a woman of color at a majority white school, why would her vulnerability not be supported? Supporting vulnerability is also the role of students in higher education.

Power

Feminism, since its inception, has been acknowledging and understanding power.  Contemporary feminist theory speaks about the definition of power as “the capacity to produce change “ (Jean Baker Miller, 1991), and notes that power itself is not bad/wrong/evil.  In fact, there is an understanding that power is what helps us make decisions about our lives and move us forward. The distinction is made of the difference between “power over” which speaks to how one uses their power to impact themselves and others;  and the “power with” approach, where we can share in the capacity to produce individual, organizational, and collective change. “Power with” does not necessarily mean that you lose anything; it means that you gain the perspective and respect of others. As this understanding deepens, it promotes mutual benefit.

The question to those of us who are white is, can you sit quietly and really listen to the experience of someone else?  Can you share power? Just as being heard and having a voice is critical to healthy psychological development, the experience of not having a voice is also a critical experience in one’s life.  Suppressing your voice for a moment so that you can listen to another does not make you weak. It makes you vulnerable in the best possible way. It helps you to grow in your understanding of another person’s experience, and it gives you knowledge which will undoubtedly help you in future interactions with those similar and different from you.

Some of the response to the op-ed seem to focus on a perspective that Fisher is “being racist” for making generalizations about white boys, and that such generalizations are “just as bad” as the racism experienced by people of color. She has subsequently responded to this accusation with the prevailing definition of racism which speaks to systematic efforts to marginalize others based on race.

Yes, Ms. Fisher makes generalizations and it is understood that the generalizations do not apply to 100% of the white male population.  But she is naming a prevalent and universal experience a Why is it so difficult to see the position of power and privilege that white boys occupy?  I speak for myself, and not for Ms. Fisher, but it is understood that it is not your fault that you have such privilege.

It is understood that you did not ask for it, and you may not even be fully aware of it.  But you experience your privilege in most life situations. You may not even realize that there is another way to behave in the classroom that does not involve your constant contributions. Rather than defending yourself, why not take a moment for reflection and observation?  If you have privilege, you have a responsibility to understand that you have it and use it to ensure all voices are heard. This is your real power.

Rage

I suspect that part of the negative reaction may be related to the clearly articulated rage Ms. Fisher expresses in the opinion piece.  Women, and especially women of color, are not supposed to express anger, let alone rage. Again, what is the issue with listening? Awareness means knowing that the issue of women experiencing rage is occurring throughout the United States right now. There is a growing body of literature about it (ie “Good and Mad” by Rebecca Traister). The style and flavor of anger will unfold as it chooses. We may not like the way it sounds and the way it makes us feel. But we must listen.

Welcoming the contributions of students like Leda Fisher make all of us more aware, more attentive, and more self-reflective.  The journey of self-reflection is life-long, and being open to the sometimes painful but inevitable growth that comes with engaging in another person’s experience is one of the ultimate goals of higher education and beyond.

Fearless: How One Financial Expert Faced Her Fear Of Public Speaking

Pamela Yellen and Richard Branson

When you are on a collision course to face your fears in order to achieve your future career goals, what will you do? Do you run and hide, drag your feet and hope things will blow over, or will you dawn your Super Woman cape and address the elephant in the room?

Today’s woman wears many hats and it should come as no surprise that with all of the role-changes, fear and anxiety can be a bit challenging for some. Add to that a career path that is rooted in public speaking and you could have a recipe for disaster as the challenges faced with respect to public speaking are high. Communication, in general, tends to be challenging for women on both a personal and professional level for various reasons, but why do we seem to struggle a bit more with public speaking?

Sweaty palms, a racing heart, or feeling like a frog is lodged in your throat. Those psychosomatic symptoms can be a real bummer and many women never achieve their full potential due to their overwhelming fear of public speaking. To shed light on this common problem, we turned to financial expert and two-time New York Times bestseller, Pamela Yellen, who knows all too well about overcoming the fear of public speaking.

We wanted to know how someone who had garnered enough support to raise $25,000 in funds for the American Cancer Society and was fearless enough to dawn a gold-sequined leotard while riding on an elephant struggled with fear and anxiety that almost halted her career pursuits. “You can be a risk taker and still be afraid to get up in front of more than a couple of people.”

Despite the risks Pamela has taken in her life, it wasn’t until she decided to go in a different direction and develop a more professional career as a financial services consultant and public speaker that she was prompted to deal with her “paralyzing stage fright.” Once she conquered her fears, she went on to help others face their fears relating to financial security and grace us with Bank on Yourself: The Life-Changing Secret to Growing and Protecting Your Financial Future and The Bank On Yourself Revolution: Fire Your Banker, Bypass Wall Street, and Take Control of Your Own Financial Future.

To help quell her fears and set her on the path to success, Pamela got busy and ushered in the help of a mentor. When asked if she felt like the mentoring approach and feedback would have set her on a different path had her mentor been a female, she chuckled, “I guess we’ll never know, but I will tell you that I was a bit intimidated by him and he was a very strong, demanding, no-nonsense kind of guy. I think maybe I needed that [approach] at that time.” She also acknowledges her abilities to develop and lead people to reach their potential, developing strategies to avoid foreseeable obstacles, and her natural curiosity to challenge conventional wisdom as key strengths that have contributed to her success.

So what do you do when all eyes are on you and it seems as if the world is judging you? According to Pamela, “You can choose are you gonna sit there and stand there and worry about what they’re gonna think about you or are you going to focus on the fact that you have value to give them.”

Having a clear focus is important when taking on any task, especially something as intimidating as public speaking.Once you choose to change your focus to the value that you bring to your client or an audience, you can begin to approach public speaking differently. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you will never have a nervous moment again. Pamela stated she “still gets plagued by a lack of confidence every now and then” but despite a few hang-ups, she has still persisted and has been quite successful in pursuing her goals.

Speaking of womanhood, we would be remiss not to address the obstacles faced by women in addition to the generalized fear many have regarding public speaking. How does one persist when it seems like the odds are stacked against women? Being a woman has made her somewhat of an easier target for negative criticism and has been a cause of hesitancy along her journey.

Given many of the patriarchal norms and stereotypes assigned to women that continue to shape much of society, it’s easy to see how despite all of her success, remnants of fear and anxiety can still rear their ugly heads. There is little doubt that being a woman presents its own set of problems when speaking out and sometimes against the status quo.

When asked about her thoughts on being a woman in such a male-dominated field, Pamela stated, “people attack me regularly because I go against the conventional financial wisdom.” She also offered an inspiring quote from her mentor, Dan Kennedy, “It’s been so profoundly powerful for me ‘If you’re not offending someone by noon every day then you’re not doing much.'” Despite her critics, like a true superhero, Pamela still persists and we are thankful for it.

Switching gears, the interview would not have been complete without garnering some financial advice from the guru herself. Money and financial security or lack thereof can be a great cause of fear and anxiety for anybody. Understanding that a large part of overcoming fear or anxiety involves doing something different, rather it be challenging yourself or learning something new. Pamela’s book encourages you to do both.

With no regard to socio-economic status, age, or income, Bank On Yourself allows consumers to achieve their goals and take control of their financial situation by avoiding Wall Street while challenging financial institutions and their tactics.

While different groups have benefited from Pamela’s books, advice, and financial expertise; by far the group that has benefited the most has been the baby-boomer generation. “I think a lot of baby boomers and women have benefited from my books because the baby-boomers are the ones or the group that no longer has guaranteed pensions from their companies and they’re basically on their own to save for their own retirement.” For those still reeling from the Recession, looking to recover from slow economic growth, or gain financial freedom Pamela advises “if you’re not comfortable with the idea of never being sure that you’ll have you know a certain amount of money for retirement you need to look at safe and guaranteed methods of saving for retirement.”

Rather it is public speaking, finances, or career guidance; no matter how successful, when it comes to certain things, fear and doubt can set in, and if left unaddressed will find a permanent home in our lives. To learn more about some of these safe financial methods and get a free and safe wealth building report, you can visit www.bankonyourself.com.

White Nationalism and The Co-Opting of Fear

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It used to be easy. The label of racist, sexist, or homophobic was a silencer on the weapon of the tongue. When a person stated views that were out of the politically correct spectrum, they paid a price professionally and publicly. However, with the rise of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee, there no longer appears to be a price for publicly embracing racist language and ideals.

Many have suggested the real problem, White Supremacy–that overt hatred for any non-white people–was institutionalized and invisible. White supremacy was lumped into the institutional mix with discrimination, prejudice, and inequality. Our policies, beginning with the civil rights act of 1964, set a precedent for addressing the institutional barriers to minorities. By 1988, the United States was addressing the individual white supremacist with censorship. But, silencing a sentiment has only resulted in the search for a new voice.

It has long been the recruitment tactic of white supremacist groups to focus on fears spawned by whatever “other” was present in a certain region. On the frontier west, the other was the Native American. In the cities, the other was the Blacks. In the southern-western border, the other was the Mexicans. But, something happened on a Tuesday night in November 2008, the worst fear came into the homes of many who had previously been silenced. It was no longer just a generalized fear of the other. It was the removal of an iconic White institution handed to a non-white. The fear moved from being offensive (in both ways) to being defensive, even despairing. Recruitment was no longer to mobilize. It was to defend against the further collapse of the Real America. Fear of the other became fear for the loss of a (White) way of life.

Empathy & Choice Architecture
The co-opting of fear changes the White Supremacist into the White Nationalist. The White Nationalist is not an institutionally-supported purveyor of hatred toward another race or creed. The white nationalist is a genuinely concerned individual who desires the best for his children and his people. Even if you are shouting for rights against the establishment, you are now the only one shouting. The rhetorical technique of the white nationalist is to claim victimization. And guess what, empathy demands that we listen.

This could be one reason for the inadequacy of our categorizations these days. The simple determination of whether a person is racist, sexist, or homophobic was never adequate as a basis for tolerance and appreciation of diversity. But, it worked in an institutional context to describe policies that systematically discriminated against specific groups based on some ethnocentric ideal.

As the unit of analysis moves to the level of the individual, categorizations will not be useful. Each individual is unique which comes with a unique set of concerns. Having children or not, levels of education, life goals, family connectedness, and a host of other characteristics form the profile of each person. Their choice architecture is built from this individualized profile, in the context of their immediate and social environment, impacted by the interactive effects that form their perception of self and the reality in which they live.

The good news is that we can mathematically map this complexity in operational research. Those may be two words that you are not comfortable applying to social science issues or social activism, but math and research are critical to interventions that promote dignity and worth of each person. It is more evident now that labeling the oppressor and demonizing the group runs counter to progress. What we have missed is that the need has shifted from the institutional level to individual level in the co-opting of fear.

The Empathy Standard
Let us first begin with a clear understanding of empathy. Empathy is defined as an ability to feel as the other feels. It is often distinguished from sympathy, which is to feel for a person. Empathy is more holistically to be distinguished from prejudices. Prejudices are characteristic means of self-protection or self-defense. More holistically, empathy is the ability to see the choices of the other as reasonable.

This definition allows social workers to work with clients whose behaviors have proven reprehensible while valuing the dignity and worth of each person. Even more importantly, this definition of empathy enables social workers to track the mechanism employed in the choice behavior. Once the mechanism is understood, the decision points can be disrupted with new information, intervention, influence, or insight. The disruption offers an expanded choice set and may result in new behaviors.

Without empathy-inspired dialogue on a topic, prejudices turn to anger and an insistence on being heard. Without empathy expect violence, disrespect, and self-promotion over others as less-than.

The Co-Opting of Fear
Which is more powerful, hatred or fear? Hatred can motivate many intentional destruction of things that are disliked. But, fear creates more things to rail against from imagined visions of even unreasonable things that may be. Supremacy groups have long used fear as a way to recruit new members. This was more of an institutional approach that reached out to individuals. It provided a target for the generalized sense of despair and hopelessness felt by the impoverished. It galvanized and educated that generalized sense into a frenzy of hate. That was the utilization of fear.

Utilization of fear was defined by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1960:
“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” LYNDON B. JOHNSON, 1960, remark to Bill Moyers, “What a Real President Was Like,” Washington Post, 13 November 1988

We see the results in a speech by Hillary Clinton. It typically takes some version of the following form:

Let’s be honest, for a lot of well-meaning, open-minded white people, the sight of a young black man in a hoodie still evokes a twinge of fear. And news reports that poverty, crime, and discrimination evoke sympathy, even empathy, but too rarely do they spur us to action or prompt us to question our own assumptions and privilege (June 20, 2015 speech to US Conference of Mayors).

The problem is that we, as social activists or individual citizens, have not fully understood the fallacy of that “twinge of fear.” This lack of understanding is what Jeb Bush is saying he wants to work against, “I don’t think Barack Obama has bad motives,” He said on the debut of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, “We have to restore a degree of civility.” Bush should have stopped there.

The co-opting of fear means that you are no longer dealing with institutional “other sides” of any argument or system failings. The interactions are now personal. Many in the Colbert audience noted the shift. Immediately after Jeb Bush uttered “I don’t think Barack Obama has bad motives,” a few in the audience began applause. Bush continued before the applause took hold finishing with, “I just think he’s wrong on a lot of issues.” The applause stifled. Bush turned what sounded like a conciliatory, constructive tone into a personal attack almost immediately. He could have talked about “his policies,” or better “I disagree with the Affordable Care Act,” or even better, “The Affordable Care Act has 12 provisions that limit patient choice.” In a policy discussion, the policy should reasonably be central, not the individual discussants.

Over years of political correctness, hidden resentment, and what Elisabeth Young-Bruehl calls psychologizing-sociology rhetoric has moved to individual characterization. Fear generalized at the institutional level has moved and morphed into fear personified at the individual level. The co-opting of fear has reduced policy failures to personal failures. Governance has been reduced from a sociological construct to the “liking” of one personality over another. Speaking your mind and refusing the politically-correct response is heralded as honesty and courage however ignorant and erroneous. A quick example can be shown in polls. According to a CNN poll back in 2013, 46% of people asked were against Obamacare. Only 37% were opposed to the Affordable Care Act. Same law. But, reducing policy to a “do you like this person” question creates different choice behavior.

This causes a fundamental shift in the way we work to support tolerance and move toward the celebration of difference. No longer are people simply misinformed and their generalized sense manipulated by the institution. Many are now genuinely, and individually fearful for their livelihoods, their children’s opportunity, and their freedom. Imagined or not, this new reality does not respond to institutional changes. In fact, the institutional actions to level the playing field and erase the majority advantage are seen as further disenfranchising the individual.

The Empathetic Solution

Now, that reality is individual rather than institutional, the only solution is empathy. It is to see the complaints of each individual as valid and worthy of our attention. The empathy solution ensures that each individual is heard. It maps their process of reason, and compares their experience to what our policies intended. Without this empathetic analysis, by denying the voice of those who perceive themselves to be eventual minorities, we others become oppressors. People who feel silenced and who fear extinction will revolt in discontent.

They will rally behind someone successful who speaks the fear, gloom, and despair that they feel. And, others will support this movement. Their support is not because they know the origins of supremacy and ethnocentrism that birth the movement. They support because they are empathetic to–they see as reasonable–the cries of people who have been silenced and hushed because their views were not politically correct. They support because they are tired of having to clean up their language to express overreaches and erroneous implementations of laws meant to create equality. Empathy, my fellow social workers, is not based on our agreement with the other. It is our ability to see their reason and continue the often uncomfortable conversation toward a comfortable resolution.

Co-opting Fear to Influence Policy Making and Political Discourse

White_only_-_Detroit_1943

The challenge in American race relations is both historically complex and steeped in a flawed rhetoric. However, there is also another element–a segment of the population called White Nationalists asserting they are the victims of reverse discrimination and racism. Many Americans may share or empathize with their concerns for the “real America” and the intentions of the founding fathers being dismantled and threatened.

This co-opting of fear changes white supremacy to white nationalism, and it negates the typical responses to prejudice and discrimination. It no longer works to identify the “racist” and silence them rather than solicit empathy on their behalf. Denying a voice to anyone is proving the point that they are being censored no matter the danger of their rhetoric. Intervening requires that we educate ourselves on basic definitions of prejudices, racism, religious persecution and fear-based reactions in order combat the white nationalist assertion of the mythical reverse discrimination.

I first heard about Evan Osnos’ article in the New Yorker from his appearance on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. The article reminded me of my years teaching a course entitled Christian Perspectives on Ethics and Diversity. In the course, I decided to challenge and inform the student’s understanding of the deeper motivations behind prejudice. Along the way, I learned that prejudices are not one, but they are plural. What struck me as I went back to read Young-Bruehl again in the context of #BlackLivesMatter, Donald Trump’s rhetoric and the Osnos article is that we must fundamentally change in our approach to addressing prejudices. I knew it back when I was teaching the course, but I didn’t have the social events with which to explain the change.

Beyond Discrimination, Defining Ethnocentricism & Orecticism
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, in her 1996 work Anatomy of Prejudices, presents a number of findings that inform our discussion of discrimination. First, prejudices is not “prejudice” but “prejudices” in the plural. They are characteristic mechanisms of defense–attempts by individuals to protect themselves from “the other” and the unknown.  Second, four main prejudices exist: sexism, racism, anti-semitism, and homophobia. Third, these prejudices are motivated by a constructed character trait either hysterical, narcissistic, or obsessional.

Ethnocentrism is a term used to describe how people may view others only through their own lens and experiences. Every event is viewed in relation to its impact on the ethnocentrist or his/her group. Every achievement is judged in relation to the achievements of the ethnocentrist. Every statistic is evaluated with the ethnocentrist group as the reference point, the baseline, and/or the norm. What better way to maintain self-concept and personal safety than to consider yourself the standard by which others are judged?

Orecticism is another term you may or may not have heard before. According to Young-Bruehl, orecticism is the projection of set of characteristics a person believes he/she “sees” exhibited by a person or group. It doesn’t matter whether people are observed exhibiting characteristics that contradict the orecticist view, the orecticist still “sees” what he/she desires to see. To view people in this way maintains the self-concept and personal safety of the orecticist. They maintain safety by compartmentalizing individuals and groups into behaviors the orecticist believe individuals or groups will display.

Analysis
An orecticist-homophobe maybe different from an ethnocentric-homophobe which may require a different approach when dealing with each. You care about the difference because, as a social worker, you don’t have the luxury of summarily dismissing uninformed views. You have the professional skill, informed by your ethics, to intentionally address the lack of knowledge and identify the roots of the issues to assist with behavior modification. Consider also for the orecticist, you are assessing for the reason behind the fearfulness. Identifying the fear is your key to promoting new choice behavior.

The orecticist-homophobe would view homosexuals as sexual deviants that are an abomination. He/she would want to separate society from these deviants. He/she would probably express physical sickness or emphatic disgust when the topic of homosexuality is introduced. This reaction is based on an unreasonable fear, but it is founded on a reasoned approach to self-protection. It is an attempt to be safe.

The ethnocentric-homophobe would view homosexuals as having some difference in their makeup than normal heterosexuals. He/she would probably agree that more research needs to be done to determine if there are any brain abnormalities in homosexuals or is it the way they were raised. He/she would probably say that he/she can be unbiased when evaluating a homosexual for a job. However, they are unaware their own bias rests in their view of themselves as the standard as opposed to creating an objective standard.

If you were to ask both whether they agree with adoption by homosexual couples, they both would say NO. If your intention was to work to convince them that adoption by homosexual couples is a community good, you would have to persuade them each in a different way. You would need to address the mechanism that is operant within their logic. You would need to see their behavior choice as reasonable.

The Requirements of an Intervention 

In order to counteract prejudices as characteristic mechanisms of defense, you would need to map the mechanisms similar to the analysis above. However, once the mechanism is mapped, we have another challenge. The ethnocentric person may be able to see that he or she is not the center of the universe. Social interaction, family relations, or critical events may shake the individual out of their isolated experience. With enough evidence the ethnocentrist, even though using him or herself as the standard, may allow for the failings of others because “we are all human” and “nobody’s perfect.”

The orecticist does not have as simple a path to inclusiveness. The orecticist is fearful, and unreasonable so, that the “other” is attempting to subvert, supersede, or otherwise diminish him or her by any means necessary. The other, in the mind of the orecticist, will resort to trickery, lies, and all manner of deceit in order to reach his sinister goals. Evidence provided to the orecticist only confirms his/her views. Those attempting to convince them are part of the problem, confused, brainwashed, or complicit in the deception. The orecticist will never see groups of others or institutions as safe. They can only connect with close individuals, even those who represent the group, because they have proven safe, “different from others,” or “for a [other], you are okay.”

Now, add these dynamics to the co-opting of fear. The co-opting of fear is the by-product of fear-based rhetoric that motivates people to do things because they fear some negatively reinforcing outcome. For example, we lock our doors fearing that someone may come into our houses uninvited. Though no one came in the time we left our keys in the door, we are convinced of “better safe than sorry,” and lock our doors as a precaution. Now, it seems perfectly reasonable to lock your doors. Some have applied this same logic to a number of social issues such as immigration. Orecticism co-opting of fear explains why Donald Trump can call Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, yet lead in most national polls. Calling him “racist” or other names will not change his support base thereby nurturing an environment where it is reasonable to fear immigrants.

The solution will have to be local and include person-to-person engagement in order to challenge personal ideology and beliefs. However, for some, any institutionally-based intervention will only be seen as a subversive attempt at deception.

To combat this, Social activist must organize more individual-based interactions such as story sharing and project-based civic work to help with personalizing vulnerable individuals and groups to change behaviors and increase compassion. Even then, understand that orecticist co-opted fear will only say, “Okay, Ahmed is okay. But, I’m still worried about those Muslims.” The orecticist will always fear groups, government, institutions, religious organizations, etc. We must be careful in not isolating and dismissing these types instead of identifying way to engage their point-of-view.  However, this should be one strategy in a multi-faceted approach to combat oppression and discrimination of vulnerable individuals and groups.

What is Superhero Therapy?

Superman-couch

Did you ever want to be a Superhero? Did you ever wish that you could possess magical powers, like Harry Potter, or travel around the world in a time machine, called the T.A.R.D.I.S. with an alien who calls himself The Doctor? What if you could, in a way?

Many of us wish we had some kind of magical or extraordinary abilities, and many of us strongly identify with fictional characters, like Batman, Superman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, characters from Harry Potter, Firefly, and many others. Recent research findings suggest that identifying with fictional characters can actually be extremely beneficial as it can teach us empathy, remind us that we are not alone in our painful experience, inspire us to eat healthier, and allow us to better cope with difficult life transitions.

The goal of Superhero Therapy, therefore, is to help patients who identify with a particular fictional character to use that relationship with that character in order to identify and process their own experiences and feelings, as well as to encourage them to make meaningful changes in their lives. Thus, the goal of Superhero Therapy is to teach us how to become the very magical Superhero-Jedi that we need in order to become the very best versions of ourselves. Superhero Therapy refers to using examples of Superheroes, as well as characters from fantasy and science fiction in research supported therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).

Why Superhero Therapy?

Many people have a hard time identifying their own thoughts and emotions, either because it’s too painful, or they’ve never thought about it. I see many patients with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including active duty service members, Veterans, and non-military civilians. I find that a lot of the time when I ask my patients how they felt at the time of the traumatic event, or even about which emotions they are experiencing in the present moment, many state that they aren’t sure or do not wish to answer.

However, discussing how a specific character felt at a given moment can be helpful in understanding our own emotions. For example, in the Defense Department’s recent efforts to assist Veterans with PTSD, they’ve contracted an independent company, Theater of War, to put on theatre plays for Veterans with combat-related themes, based on Ancient Greek plays. One of these plays, Ajax, for example, tells a story about a character struggling with his symptoms after the war and eventually committing suicide. Veterans and their spouses who saw the play reported that the play helped them understand their own emotions by relating to the characters. One Veteran in particular was moved by the play, stating: “I’ve been Ajax. I’ve spoken to Ajax.”

Talking about fictional characters’ emotional experiences might seem safer than talking about our own, so with my patients, that is where we often start, later drawing parallels to their own feelings and subsequently switching over to focusing on those. For instance, many service members and Veterans I’ve worked with strongly identify with Superheroes, in particular, Batman, Superman, and The Hulk. Let’s take a look at Superman.

Superman (real name Kal-El) is a comic book character who is an alien from another planet, Krypton, who was sent to Earth as a child. His Earth name is Clark Kent, and while in the Solar System, including Planet Earth, he appears to have superhuman abilities: he possesses super strength, super speed, he can fly, he can fight, he has X-ray vision, and many other cool powers. It is no surprise that Superman is a role model to many service members and Veterans, who believe him to be invincible. The phrase or a variation of the phrase I often hear in this population is “I wanted to be Superman… I failed.” This is a common response many people have, harshly judging their own experiences of having PTSD. This is a common dialogue I’ve engaged in with many of my patients:

Patient: “I just feel like such a failure.”

Therapist: “What makes you say that?”

Patient: “I wanted to be like Superman, you know? Strong.”

Therapist: “And now you don’t feel that way?”

Patient: “No, I have PTSD.”

Therapist: “And what does that mean about you?”

Patient: “It means that I’m weak.”

Therapist: “Wow, that’s harsh. Let me ask you this, did Superman have any vulnerabilities?”

Patient: “No.”

Therapist: “No?”

Patient: “Well, there’s Kryptonite…”

Therapist: “Right. What is it and what does it do?”

Patient: “Kryptonite is this radioactive material from Krypton, where Superman was born. It takes away his powers and can kill him.”

Therapist: “So Kryptonite makes him vulnerable?”

Patient: “Yes.”

Therapist: “And does this make him any less of a Superhero?”

Patient: “No, of course not… Oh, I see what you mean, that having PTSD doesn’t mean I’m not Superman.”

This is an example of how cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) could look when using Superhero examples in session. CBT is a type of therapy that looks at the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, which are bidirectional, meaning that they affect one another. In the example above, the patient’s thought: “because I have PTSD, that means I’m weak, and I failed in being Superman” is affecting his feelings (making him feel more depressed) and is affecting his behavior (for example, not wanting to socialize with others).

Some of the thoughts we have might not be 100% accurate, often leading to some painful emotions, and maladaptive behaviors. By challenging the validity of the thoughts (testing to see whether or not the thought is accurate), we can get out of the maladaptive loop. A CBT therapist’s job is to teach a patient how to implement the skill of challenging their own thoughts, to change the maladaptive behaviors in order to help the patient recover, as well as become their own therapist, to be able to help themselves in the future.

The other type of therapy that lends itself nicely to Superhero Therapy is acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). I often describe it as Superhero Training, as ACT teaches us to become the very Superhero (or witch/wizard, vampire slayer, Jedi, or any other title that seems most helpful) that we wish to be by following our values, (the most important things to us, like family, friends, creativity, altruism, spirituality, and others), and by facing whatever dragons show up along the way (thoughts, feelings, personal stories we tell ourselves, such as “I’m a failure” or “I’m not good enough”) and practicing the Jedi-like skill of mindfulness.

Let’s take a look at how Harry Potter can be used in therapy to teach us some of these skills. Briefly, Harry Potter is a young wizard in training, whose parents were killed by Lord Voldemort, an evil wizard. Harry and his friends, Ron and Hermione, are studying magic at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. When Lord Voldemort and his followers, the Death Eaters, start to come back to power, aiming to exterminate all non-magical humans (called Muggles), as well as all Muggle-born witches and wizards, it is up to Harry and his friends to stop them.

In the first book of the Harry Potter series, Harry, Ron, and Hermione find out that Lord Voldemort is attempting to come to power by trying to steal the Philosopher’s Stone, which grants immortality to its owner. In trying to stop him, Harry and his friends have to undergo a series of dangerous tests. One of them, the Devil’s Snare, is a magical plant that uses its tentacle-like branches to suffocate the person that touches it.

The Devil’s Snare presents a great ACT metaphor of acceptance and experiential avoidance: the plant seems to respond to tension levels, the more one struggles with it, the tighter its grip and the more likely it is to choke them. This is experiential avoidance, trying to escape the present experience, and just like the Devil’s Snare, in most cases, the more we try to escape, the deeper our struggle becomes. However, if we stop struggling and are willing to experience this discomfort (acceptance), then we are more likely to survive – when Hermione lets go of the struggle with the plant, for example, the Devil’s Snare releases her.

Here is how Superhero Therapy using ACT can look in a clinical setting. One of my clients was struggling with panic disorder and was too scared to go to places where a panic attack might take place and where escape might be difficult (this is called agoraphobia). The patient (let’s call her “Lucy”) stated that as a result of her fears of getting additional panic attacks she had to drop out of college, move back in with her parents, was unable to spend time with her friends, was unable to volunteer in a community theatre, which was something she really enjoyed, and essentially put her life on hold. While she did not have many panic attacks when staying at home, Lucy’s life became constricted, based solely around her anxiety disorder. Lucy stated that she would not be willing to go to unfamiliar places until her panic attacks went away completely and she was absolutely sure that they would not happen again. Her thoughts, such as “if I go out, I will have a panic attack” and “I’m weak” prevented her from living the kind of life she wanted.

In our sessions together we talked about the Harry Potter series; her favorite character was Harry’s friend, Ron Weasley. She said that she identified with Ron because of his fear of spiders. While Lucy herself did not have a fear of spiders, she stated that she could relate to Ron because “he knows what it’s like to be really scared, he gets so overwhelmed by spiders that he can’t even move. That’s exactly how I feel.”

In discussing Ron in therapy, Lucy was able to identify that as scared as Ron was of the spiders, when it was really important, specifically, when Hermione was Petrified (turned to stone) by an unknown monster in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Ron (as well as Harry) followed the spiders into the Forbidden Forest in order to get the information needed to save Hermione and other Petrified students. This is a great example of the ACT concept of values. No one who read the books can deny that Ron was terrified when he followed and interacted with the spiders. He was probably also doubting his own abilities and might have had many insecure thoughts, such as “I will fail,” or “I’m not good enough,” or maybe even “I’m a coward.” And yet, despite his fear he was able to follow through, he was willing to experience whatever terrifying emotions and thoughts showed up in order to save his friend, showing true courage and heroism.

I will never forget the first time that Lucy and I drove around her block as a part of her facing her fears. She was trembling and was saying that she did not think that she could do it. However, she got behind the wheel, tightened her Gryffindor scarf, and turned on the engine. It took less than 5 minutes to go around the block and when we were finished Lucy was ecstatic. She was in tears, she was laughing, and saying, “I can’t believe I just did that!”

Lucy and I continued working on taking “superhero steps” in her valued direction and practiced driving to a movie theatre and other locations. Lucy still gets anxious sometimes but just like a true Superhero that she is, she courageously goes out with her friends, she’s back in school, and has even traveled abroad with her family.

I always say that the bravest people I know are my patients. It takes a lot of courage to experience overwhelming, and at times, incapacitating, anxiety, to come to treatment, and to face our fears. Many people believe that fear is bad, something that needs to go away for us to live a normal life. However, fear can actually be quite advantageous. In a recent Doctor Who episode, Listen, we learn that fear can be a Superpower. Doctor Who is a British science fiction TV show about an alien, who calls himself The Doctor. The Doctor travels around the universe in a time machine, called the T.A.R.D.I.S. (which stands for Time and Relative Dimension in Space) and saves those in need.

The Doctor is over 2,000 years old, and seems to know a thing or two about fear. His take is this: Fear is a Superpower. Fear causes the release of adrenaline, which makes us think faster and fight harder, suggesting that we don’t need to run away from fear, fear might actually be helpful.

The bottom line is that running away from fear and not living our lives according to our values isn’t helpful, whereas learning how to face our fears in the service of what’s most important to us, that’s what being a Superhero is all about.

The Sport of Coming Out

Ian-Thorpe1

Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe is the latest in a long line of sports “stars” to come out as gay in an interview with celebrity interviewer Sir Michael Parkinson. It seems to be a sport in itself these days: to play professional sport and reveal that you’re gay. Perhaps a better sport might be to place bets on who will be next. David Beckham? Too good to be true.

But the real question — or the bigger conversation we’re not having — is about the “casual homophobia”, as Kath and Kimactor and out lesbian comedian Magda Szubanski puts it, in sport that stops people like Thorpe coming out — or never having to “go in” in the first place. In the Parkinson interview, he said keeping his sexuality secret was good for his career. He didn’t know if Australia wanted its champian to be gay. The lie was convenient and increased his maketability. He didn’t want to be gay.

It seems this “casual homophobia” is alive and well in more places in society than sport. I would say that there are many people — not just sportspeople — who keep their non-heterosexuality secret because it’s good for their career, they don’t know if their parents and friends want them to be gay, it’s more convenient and easy, socially, to be seen as straight — so no, they don’t want to be gay.

Which begs the question, how far have we come in liberal society, not to mention conservative pockets (religion, Russia etc), in the fight for human rights around sexuality, among other non-normative characteristics like gender (binary and non-binary), functional diversity, even race and ethnicity?

Not as far as we’d like to think, I’d suggest.

Australian Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson was in NZ recently and, according to the NZ Initiative, “argued that human rights are supposed to be sacrosanct principles, and criticised the expansion of human rights from their classical liberal origins.” Freedom, Wilson believes, is “the fundamental human right.” Anything more are social aspirations, which “come at the cost of freedom. While they may be worthy goals, they should not automatically be given equal status to the classical human rights.”

I agree with the Commissioner and have been saying a similar thing, to half-deaf ears it often feels like, in my work on labeling and diversity. The more grounds we add to the list for which we can be accused of unlawfully discriminating upon, the more we highlight difference. The more we highlight difference, the more scrutiny it attracts. The more scrutiny, the more at risk we become of being excluded by others’ prejudice. The more at risk we are, the less fredom we have.

Gay rights did nothing for Ian Thorpe — in fact I would almost say it did him a diservice. I’m not saying that gay rights are wrong or bad or shouldn’t have happened, nor that they haven’t improved the lives of some people. But, as Tim Wilson points out, gay rights come at the cost of the freedom to not have our sexuality put under scrutiny.

I was telling a friend a few days ago that, when I was seventeen, some thirty years ago, on the cusp of homosexual law reform but a decade and a half before gay human rights legislation was passed, I wore a badge at school saying, “How dare you assume I’m heterosexual”. Not out then, when people asked whether I was meaning I wasn’t straight, I clarified that the point of the messagee was the emphasis on “assume.” Now, whether I had automatic immunity from homophobic slurs due to my unique function, I’m not sure, but I’m also unsure I’d feel as comfortable wearing that badge as a student at school now.

Why not? Because the scrutiny of sexuality would put me at risk of other students’ prejudice. I’ve heard stories that it’s harder to be queer at schools today than it was decades ago, simply because kids are more aware. Such is the shadow of liberation; such is the cost to freedom.

I titled this post “The sport of coming out.” Perhaps it could be more aptly titled “The cost of coming out,” or even “The sport of catching someone coming out.”

How far have we really come?

 

5 Tips For Overcoming Anxiety

I received a question on how to deal with anxiety in the form of a comment on an Instagram photo that I posted recently, and the question came from a graduate student studying to be a counselor. Many of us who seek to help, do so because we too have many things to overcome.

images (43)In response, I compiled a list of practical things that help with overcoming anxiety. Some of this comes from my own personal experiences, some comes from experiences in working with people who struggle with extreme anxiety and some comes from interviewing my biological mother, who has also struggled with anxiety of her own. She now helps people improve their wellness as a quit smoking coach. The following information is not medical advice, but is my opinion and shared opinions of others who I have interacted with.

No matter how severe your anxiety is, I believe that continuing to seek knowledge is the most important thing in reaching a higher level of mental wellness. Props to you for being here and in search of your own progress! With hope, dedication and focus, overcoming anxiety is possible.

  1. Desensitizing

    When dealing with anxiety related to a specific social situation, professional setting, or conversation, I personally use desensitization techniques. This means that I psych myself up in preparation for the situation and I force myself to be uncomfortable.  This generally opens the door for a negative experience, but it also creates the opportunity for me to learn and gain first hand experience as to how bad a situation really is. It also alleviates the fear of the unknown, which is often the culprit behind hatred and avoidance.  However, desensitization is definitely not the best option for everyone due to the extreme toughness that it takes to force yourself to be uncomfortable.

  2. Create a Chronically Balanced Life

    For me, anxiety often stems from a lack of balance. An imbalanced diet, physical activity, sense of safety or even imbalanced to-to lists are major precipitating factors when it comes to feeling anxious. If you are chronically anxious, what could be a better way to fight anxiety than to establish chronic balance and stability? If anxiety stems from having an imbalance, identifying and correcting that imbalance can and will diminish the frequency and severity of anxiety.  This method is effective mostly because it is not a way to “treat” or “get rid of” the anxiety, but instead it prevents it from getting bad to begin with.

  3. Take Care of Your Body

    When we get busy with school, work, relationships, and life it is very easy to let this slip. We focus on helping others or fulfilling duties that when we have time to ourselves we cope by doing mind-numbing things such as watching TV and sitting on the computer doing nothing for hours. Focus on creating a chronic pattern of exercise

  4. Eat Fresh

    This can be done with simple changes such as forcing yourself to plan meals ahead of time and using fresh produce.Keeping simple snacks like peanuts, almonds, and bananas wards off the hunger between meals. Eating small amounts every 2-4 hours during the day improves metabolism.  Buying local adds to the experience. Salads with grilled chicken, fresh fruit, beans, etc. are great. Peanut butter is awesome. If you are overwhelmed with the idea of thinking about what to eat, try to picking a few of these and sticking to them, alternating a few times each week or every other week. consistency is key. Cutting soda, excessive coffee, and processed foods will greatly improve your health and energy level. In turn, you are more focused and less likely to be stressed out.

  5. Treat Yourself Like a Queen/King

    Keeping a nice environment with essential oils like Lavender and also drinking chamomile tea helps. Cutting out people who disturb a calm environment is something you deserve. Take time to bathe with the lights dimmed and scents in the air. Using oils is less toxic than candles. You probably spend time focusing on other things so spend time focusing on yourself.  Taking the time to set a plan for how you will respond to stressful situations that cause you anxiety is a great way to ward off attacks. Deep breathing, yoga, etc are helpful.

There is no one thing, it is a lifestyle that facilitates being conscious and aware at all times. You may also want to check out my blog about overcoming a fear of abandonment.

Is the Wonder of Diversity Getting Lost in the Fear of Being Wrong?

In my twenties, I used to run disability awareness workshops mainly for people working in disability services. I had an assumption and an agenda — they were wrong and I was there to show them and tell them how to be right.

Over the years, I’ve met people who had been in those workshops. They’ve told me they’d never forgotten the workshop and how scared of me they were.

Young male looks scaredI often reflect on this and while I find slight mirth in the thought that I was that scary, I realise that it wasn’t the best way to approach my mission. In fact, I had a startling “ah-hah” moment, which made me change what I did and how I did it forever.

I realised that the groups I worked with sat there feeling judged and admonished by me. Then, left feeling that they’d done their penance and went back to doing the same old things. I also realised that, of course, I couldn’t change other people. They needed to want to change.

Loosing the sense of responsibility to change people was a huge relief. But losing the arrogant assumption that I was right was even more powerful because I needed to admit to myself that I was wrong.

I see this dynamic — you’re doing something wrong and I’m here to show you the right way — a lot in the area of diversity. Whether it’s gender, culture, religion, sexuality, age or disability, diversity awareness seems to often be about creating guilt for thinking saying and/or doing the wrong thing. Once you’ve realised you’re wrong, you get the right pill. Then you have no excuse to get it wrong again.

So you leave with fear of doing, saying, or thinking the wrong thing, because you’ve been wrong-proofed. Of course, you do get it wrong again, even though you know the right thing, so what does that make you? A stupid bigot? An insensitive moron? An unconscious oppressor?

Well no, actually. It makes you human. In Kathryn Shultz’s TEDTalk, “On being wrong”, she says:

“1,200 years before Descartes said his famous thing about ‘I think therefore I am,’ this guy, St. Augustine, sat down and wrote ‘Fallor ergo sum’ — ‘I err therefore I am.’ Augustine understood that our capacity to screw up, it’s not some kind of embarrassing defect in the human system, something we can eradicate or overcome. It’s totally fundamental to who we are.”

Now, when I work with people about understanding diversity, I ask why we don’t do diversity very well. After a bit of discussion, the words “scared” or “fear” inevitably come up. “What are we scared of?” I ask. Usually people say, “difference”, “not knowing what to do”, or “feeling uncomfortable”.

What I pose to them is that we’re scared of being wrong. We’re either scared of being wrong about the other person (embarrassment), but more often, I suggest, we’re scared about being wrong about us. Accepting somebody’s reality, belief systems, or customs causes us to question our own reality. If we concede that somebody else’s world is as legitimate as ours, we may need to question whether our own is as right as we’ve been led to believe.

To truly explore and embrace the wonder of human diversity, it has little to do with finding answers about other people. What it requires of all of us is the willingness to realise we’ve been wrong about ourselves … and to be ok with that.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QleRgTBMX88[/youtube]

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