“That totally happened to me, too!”: The Urge to Relate

A lot of what happens in therapy should only happen in therapy. (I’m looking at you, folks who oppose trigger warnings because “exposure is very important for overcoming trauma.”) But a lot of other things that happen in therapy are very applicable to the rest of our relationships and interactions. One of those is the tension between normalizing someone’s experience and validating it.

Normalizing someone’s experience essentially means helping them feel that their experience is normal. Short of memorizing statistics, the easiest way to do that is to relate what they’re telling you to something that’s happened in your own life. This is a very common conversational move. Someone tells you about a bad breakup and you say, “Oh, I totally went through something similar recently. It can be really hard.” Someone tells you their NYC subway horror story and you respond with one of your own. (We all have an arsenal of those.)

Validating someone’s experience is a more complex conversational move. To validate means “to demonstrate or support the truth or value of.” In the context of therapy or supportive conversations between friends, validating someone’s experience means letting them know not only that you believe them when they say that it happened–which can be particularly important when someone discloses, say, sexual violence or mental illness–but also that you affirm this as an “okay” thing to talk about or think about. The opposite of validating is to say “That’s not that big of a deal.”

Obviously, you can both validate and normalize someone’s experience in the same conversation. Therapists frequently do both.

However, the way of normalizing that we most frequently use in casual settings–relating someone’s experience to our own lives and selves–can get in the way of that.

For instance, someone says, “I’m having such an awful time getting out of the house this winter.” If you immediately jump in to say, “Oh, me too, it’s so awful, I couldn’t even make myself go to my friend’s birthday party because it was so cold out,” you may succeed in helping them feel like it’s okay to be having this difficulty, but you may also miss an opportunity to affirm the fact that their own unique experience is legitimate and difficult for them.

I get this often with fatigue. I try not to talk about being tired very much because I don’t like “complaining,” but sometimes I do mention it, and people usually jump in immediately to talk about how tired they are and how they only slept four hours last night and so on. But the thing is…my tiredness is a little different. I sleep at least 8 hours almost every single night, and have been for years. If I let myself, I would sleep 10 or 11 or more hours. I don’t know what it means not to want to sleep. Every day I daydream about coming home and going to sleep.

Of course my friend’s experience is also legitimate, and it sucks to only get four hours of sleep and feel shitty. But for them, not feeling tired as often as simple as finding the time to sleep enough. For me, absolutely nothing I have been able to try without medical intervention has helped.

So when I mention being tired and people immediately jump in to relate, I feel like I can’t talk about how extensively awful it is for me, because everyone feels tired! Feeling tired is normal! That’s just how life is! (Deal with it!)

On the other hand, some things feel bad not just in and of themselves, but also because of the shame and isolation that surrounds them. Mental illnesses are often like this because few people know a lot of people who are open about it (though that may now be changing). When I was first diagnosed with depression, I didn’t know even one other person who was (openly) diagnosed with it. I thought everyone else had it together and I alone was a failure. I saw the statistics on how common depression is, but they did nothing for me. What helped was to start meeting other people who struggled with it. Depression still sucked, and still does, but I no longer had to carry the burden of Being The Only Person In The World Who Can’t Even Be Happy.

How can you tell what someone needs in a given moment? How do you know if it’ll be more helpful to normalize their experiences, or to validate them?

Often there isn’t really a way to tell. In sessions with clients, I rely a lot on intuition and previous experience. But there are some things that people say that can serve as hints as to what they might need from you.

For instance, when people say things like, “I can’t believe I’m having trouble with something so simple,” or “I’m such a failure; I can’t even find a job,” or “Nobody else has all these problems,” that can be a sign that normalizing might be helpful. It can reassure them to know that other people do have trouble with these supposedly simple things, or that other people do actually struggle a lot with finding a job, or that other people do have these same problems. Sometimes what the person is dealing with really is shitty, but it feels a lot shittier than it has to because they think they’re the only one who’s so pathetic and incompetent as to have that problem.

On the other hand, when people say things like, “I know it shouldn’t even be a big deal, but–” or “Everybody probably deals with this but–“, pay attention to those but‘s. The part after the but is the part they have trouble accepting as valid. Everybody deals with it! It’s not a big deal! Therefore, what right do I have to even complain about it?

When someone says things like this, sharing your own experience and relating to them might not be as helpful. What they really need to hear at that moment is that their unique version of that probably-common problem is worthy of paying attention to and talking about. They might know perfectly well that other people have similar problems, but it still feels bad and that’s the part they want to hear acknowledged. Yes, everybody hates winter, but here’s how it sucks for me. Yes, everyone is tired, but I almost passed out after climbing a few stairs. Yes, I know you probably miss your family too, but I just really really miss mine today.

“Common” problems are easy to relate to. Most of us have had bad breakups or manipulative family members or really exhausting days. But rushing to relate your own experience closes off the possibility of learning more about their life. When you feel an urge to share your own experience, instead, try asking more about theirs and seeing if your experience is still as relevant as you thought.

With certain types of issues, relating your own experiences can also easily come across as one-upping even when you don’t mean it to–although, to be real, sometimes that’s exactly how people mean it. Please don’t one-up people. There’s no need. There is not a limited quantity of sympathy in the world, so there is no need to compete for it.

You might also accidentally relate to only a very small part of what they actually said, leaving them feeling misunderstood or unheard. For instance, if I share a story about a classmate saying something very hurtful and ignorant about queer people, and you share a story about a classmate saying something very inaccurate about cell biology, you may have missed the fact that the relevant part of my story wasn’t “a classmate said something silly” but rather “a classmate made a homophobic comment in class that impacted me personally.”

The urge to relate to someone’s experiences comes from a lot of places, I think. It’s a common way of trying to show someone that you understand. Showing someone that you understand them is a common way of earning their trust, respect, and affection. It indicates that you have things in common.

In therapy, of course, things are different in that the focus should always be on the client and their needs. But therapists do sometimes share stories from their own lives, and the purpose is slightly similar to how it works in casual conversations between friends–it’s a way for therapists to signal understanding of their clients, and also to let them know that they are not alone in some of their experiences. Sharing a personal story can be more powerful than simply saying something like “You’re not alone in that,” because it gives something more than a reassurance: it gives evidence. (Anecdotal, but still.)

Yet both in therapy and in life, sharing one’s own experiences can get in the way of fostering a better, deeper understanding of another person. It can also make it difficult for them to tell you more about their experience, because you’ve now turned the conversation back to yourself. It can seem very disingenuous if it’s clear to the person that you don’t actually understand very well at all.

And while we often tell ourselves that we relate to others in order to make them feel better, there sometimes is some selfishness in it. We want to prove to others that we “get it” so that we feel better about ourselves and our ability to understand and connect with people. A natural impulse, but that doesn’t make it necessarily helpful or productive all of the time.

I see this often in conversations about injustice. A marginalized person shares an experience they have had with discrimination or prejudice, and a person who is categorically unable to have the same experience nevertheless tries to relate something from their own life. Sometimes they relate an experience of being treated badly in a way that has nothing to do with their societal position, and sometimes they relate an experience that has to do with another dimension of identity.

There are definitely some important similarities in the ways in which many different marginalized groups are treated, but that doesn’t necessarily always mean that we can relate. The presumption of understanding can easily get in the way of actual understanding when a white woman assumes that her gender helps her understand someone’s experience of racism, or when a gay man assumes that his sexual identity helps him understand a trans woman’s marginalization. I mean, maybe it does, in a few limited ways. But we should always strive to learn more before assuming we “get it.”

I think a lot of people experience the urge to relate. I’ve definitely felt it. For instance, once a friend of mine who is Black was sharing some experiences of racism they had had, and I suddenly noticed a little gear turning in my brain trying to generate similar experiences from my own life that I could share. I thought, wait a minute, I never told my brain to do that! That wouldn’t be helpful right now. How could I listen fully if part of my brain was so busy trying to connect my friend’s experience to my own? How could I even come close to understanding their experience if I was already biasing that understanding by thinking of my own interpretations of my own experiences, which had nothing to do with racism?

This, I think, is what drives a lot of the confusion and miscommunication that happens around issues like race and gender. For instance, suppose a Black woman is telling me about how her coworkers and supervisors always assume she is angry and hostile when she isn’t. I start thinking about times when I have been assumed to be angry and hostile, and how that hurt, and how I dealt with them. Maybe I dealt with them by adopting a more friendly and cheery approach, and that helped. Awesome! I’m going to tell my friend about My Experiences and What Worked For Me!

Except that What Worked For Me is very unlikely to work for someone who is not white. As a white woman, I am not automatically assumed to be angry and hostile no matter what I do, generally speaking. So adjusting my demeanor, even though I felt that I was behaving appropriately before, might help change others’ perceptions of me in a substantially helpful way. A Black woman can be as painfully polite and deferential as she possibly can and yet she’s still likely to face that sort of stereotyping. Maybe if I’d listened rather than spent all that brainpower thinking about my own life experiences, I would’ve understood that.

(See also: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.)

Likewise, when I talk about feeling threatened by a man in public and men jump in to tell me that I should’ve Just Punched Him or Just Told Him To Fuck Off, they are thinking of their own experiences and how they might’ve reacted in that situation (for better or worse). A man who decides to Just Punch a man who is being offensive to him may end up getting hurt in a fistfight, but the consequences would be much more severe for me if I tried the same thing.

(See also: “Just call the police!”)

So, what do you do when someone shares an unpleasant experience and you have no idea whether or not relating something from your own life might be useful?

Here are some scripts:

  • “Do you think it might help to hear about something similar I’ve dealt with?”
  • “I’ve gone through something that sounds a lot like that. Feel free to ask me more about it if you want, or to just talk about your own stuff.”
  • “I know this may not necessarily fix the problem, but something that helped me with that was _____.”
  • “That sounds really hard, but you’re not alone in dealing with that.”

Alternatively, it’s almost always a good idea to ask them more questions (with the caveat that they don’t have to talk about it more if they don’t want to) so that you can understand what they’re going through better.

In social work school, we learn a lot about the importance of being very aware of what’s going on in our own heads as we’re trying to help others. That’s useful for any sort of interpersonal situation. It’s a good idea to go into these types of serious conversations with an awareness of what you’re bringing to the table, including your own needs and desires and biases. Many of us want to feel competent when it comes to understanding and helping our friends. That’s commendable, but it too easily turns into a search for affirmation from people who are busy trying to share their own troubles.

Don’t let your need to demonstrate your understanding get in the way of actually understanding.

Why Subtle Sexism in Tech Matters

[Content note: sexual harassment, bullying]

I wrote a Daily Dot piece about tech sexism.

When we think of a “hostile workplace environment,” we often think of the blatant, obvious things—like inappropriate touching, overtly sexual comments, and the implication that the boss needs “a favor” before you can get a promotion.

But for women in tech—an industry that has been making the news lately for its poor representation of women, many of whom are leaving Silicon Valley in droves—it’s the more subtle things that push them out.

For instance, Tracy Chou, now an engineer at Pinterest, says of a previous experience: “The continuous pattern of all these people treating me like I didn’t know what was going on, or excluding me from conversations and not trusting my assertions, all these things added up and it felt like there was an undercurrent of sexism.”

Women of color particularly face the “double jeopardy” of raceand gender. For instance, almost half of black and Latina women working as scientists report being mistaken for janitorsin their workplace. Such comments send a subtle message that they don’t belong in the lab or the office.

It’s easy for those who are not targeted by such comments and behaviors to dismiss them as “not such a big deal” and to tell women to “grow a thicker skin”—or, of course, to deny that they happen at all. However, that betrays a lack of understanding of social psychology.

Here’s an analogy that may be familiar to many men working in the tech sector: school bullying. While some bullies use overt physical violence against their targets, many do not. It’s the mean note passed to you in class. It’s the way people roll their eyes or turn away or whisper exaggeratedly as you pass in the halls. It’s the backhanded compliments: ”Nice shirt. Did you get it at Goodwill?” “Wow, you actually managed to get a date to Homecoming!” It’s the comments and pranks that are just a little too cruel to be a joke between friends.

When children who are being bullied try to tell teachers or other adults, these authority figures often either deny outright that there is a problem or assume that unless physical violence is happening, that there’s no real danger. (Even then, many adults are reluctant to get involved.) Confronting bullies, of course, is useless. They often gaslight their victims: “We were just joking around!” “What’s the problem? I was trying to give you a compliment!” “Of course, we want you to hang out with us!”

I see similar dynamics going on in tech and other STEM fields. Women give examples of how their male coworkers create a hostile work environment, but those with the power to change things deny or ignore the problem. Meanwhile, women know what they’re experiencing, and their bullies know exactly what they’re doing.

Read the rest here.

Stop Telling Jessica Williams What To Do

In a Daily Dot piece, I wrote about why people (looking at you especially, white feminists) need to stop telling Jessica Williams what to do and diagnosing her with things.

For many fans of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, disappointment at the news that Jon Stewart will soon be stepping down as host was overshadowed almost immediately by excitement at the idea that 25-year-old Jessica Williams, the show’s youngest-ever correspondent, might take over. A Change.org petition asking Comedy Central to hire her as hostquickly gathered over 14,000 signatures.

Williams responded graciously, thanking her fans for their support but letting them know that she will not be hosting the program:

At that point, everyone collectively said “Aw, too bad, can’t wait to see more of your work!” and left Williams alone. I’m joking, obviously. That’s not what happened, because if there’s anything we love to do in our society, it’s telling women—especially women of color—what to do. Bonus points if we demand that they perform for us the way we want them to. Instead, Ester Bloom wrote a piece for the Billfold in which she armchair-diagnosed Williams with “impostor syndrome,” what Bloom describes as “a well-documented phenomenon in which men look at their abilities vs the requirements of a job posting and round up, whereas women do the same and round down, calling themselves ‘unqualified.'” Bloom argued that Williams was displaying “clear symptoms” of the syndrome and that she should get to “the best Lean In group of all time.” Williams responded on Twitter:

To her credit, Bloom then apologized, adding to her post:

I wanted to state officially and for the record, as I have on Twitter, that I was wrong. I was offensive and presumptuous; I messed up, and I’m sorry. Williams should not have had to deal with this shit: my calling her a “victim” of anything, my acting like I know better and could diagnose her with anything, all of it.

So what happened here? How did Bloom go so self-admittedly wrong?

Read the rest here.

Interpreting Sexism in Science Fiction

[Content note: mentions of sexual assault]

I was reading one of Peter Hamilton’s books, Pandora’s Star, and enjoying it to a certain extent. It’s not exactly my favorite sort of science fiction–there’s a little too much about the exact velocity of the spacecraft and how its wings function, but I can deal with that. Then, a few dozen pages in, I read the following passage:

‘You’re under arrest for theft.’

‘You’ve got to be fucking joking! I said I’d help you. That was the deal.’ He turned his head to try to look at her. The weapon was jabbed into his jaw.

‘There is no deal. You made a choice.’

‘That was the deal!’ he yelled furiously. ‘I help you, you get me off this rap. Jesus!’

‘You are mistaken,’ she said relentlessly. ‘I didn’t say that. You committed a crime. You must face the consequences. You must be brought to justice.’

‘Fuck you, bitch. Fuck you. I hope your terrorist blows up a hundred hospitals, and schools. I hope he wipes out your whole planet.’

‘He won’t. He’s only interested in one planet. And with your help, we can stop him from damaging it further.’

‘My help?’ The word came out as a squeak he was so shocked. ‘You stupid bitch, you can suck me and I’d never help you now. We had a deal.’

At this point I just got too depressed to keep reading. Centuries into the future, and we’re still at “Fuck you, bitch.” Still.

Now, I’m sure many Hamilton fans will want to explain to me that the policewoman was indeed being a total bitch and she tricked Sabbah into accepting a deal that wasn’t what he thought it was and really doesn’t a man have a right to be angry when he’s getting arrested and manipulated into helping with a police investigation?

Okay, sure. But if she were a man, it would’ve been “Fuck you, you lying piece of shit, I’m not helping you.” Or “Get the fuck off me before I kill you.” But no–because it’s a woman, we get “Fuck you, bitch” and “You stupid bitch, you can suck me and I’d never help you now.” Because it’s a woman, we get references to sexual assault or exploitation. Because it’s a woman, Sabbah somehow has the presence of mind to imagine himself getting a blowjob even while he’s trying to protect his life and freedom.

And so I didn’t want to read any more. This book is nearly a thousand damn pages long, and I’m really not interested to see what happens when the tables turn–as they inevitably do in space operas–and Sabbah gets to take his revenge on the policewoman. (On the very next page, she graduates from “bitch” to “superbitch.”)

The thing is, I read for pleasure. That doesn’t mean that the experience of reading is always a happy one, of course. Things in books may make me sad or scared or angry, but I tend to be glad I read the things I’ve read and to feel like I’ve gained something from the experience. When books include sexism, racism, sexual assault, or other shitty things, that usually means that I come away from the book with some sort of additional insight into the problem, a possible way forward, a better-articulated critique, something.

With science fiction, especially, I read to see a glimpse of a different world, a changed world. Science fiction at its best isn’t just about evolving technology, but evolving humanity. Pandora’s Star takes place in the year 2380. If it’s the year 2380 and our society still hasn’t progressed past “suck me, bitch,” well, I give up.

Whenever I write about this, legions of my (mostly-male) fellow science fiction/fantasy fans rush in to inform me that I’ve misinterpreted everything, that the author was just trying to be “realistic” (as if it’s even meaningful to speak of “realism” in a universe in which spaceships travel faster than light, or in which talking dragons co-exist peacefully with humans, or whatever), that the author was actually “critiquing” the sexism or whatever it was, that the author is in no way a sexist because he is not condoning this type of behavior, just illustrating it.

Well, I actually don’t care whether or not a given author can be classified as “a sexist,” because I just find that particular question boring. I don’t know if Peter Hamilton is “a sexist.” Probably not.

As for whether or not it’s a critique, readers may disagree. Everyone always wants to know how to tell whether or not an author is representing oppression in order to critique it, but I don’t think it’s necessarily possible to give a list of criteria. You tend to know it when you see it if you’re used to thinking critically about literature.

For instance, reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was often uncomfortable and distressing. It was difficult to read. But I never felt that Atwood was condoning the sexism and rights violations of the society she described. There were a few ways this was made clear–the fact that the protagonist was trying to escape, the way that the authority figures were described, the epilogue.

Likewise, her Imperial Radch trilogy, Ann Leckie depicts a deeply classist, xenophobic, and imperialist society, but then has her protagonist try to fight on behalf of marginalized people. And even though other characters may disagree or claim that the protagonist is naive, this is represented as a Good Thing To Do.

China Mieville, whom I’ve written about before, manages to include all sorts of grotesque, graphic, and cruel injustice in his books without ever coming across like he condones it. In his first novel, King Rat, the protagonist Saul encounters a homeless woman while on the run from both the police and a fantastical villain who’s trying to kill him. Lonely and desperate for human interaction, Saul finds himself talking to her, hoping that she’ll set off to explore the city with him:

‘Do you want to go to sleep, Deborah?’

‘What do you mean?’ Her voice was suddenly suspicious, even afraid. She almost whined in her trepidation, and bundled herself up into her sleeping bag. Saul reached out to reassure her and she shrank away from him in horror and he realized with a sinking feeling that she had heard such a line before, but spoken with different intent.

Saul knew that the streets were brutal.

He wondered how often she had been raped.

Here we basically have a man encountering the idea of Schrodinger’s Rapist for the first time. Rather than indignantly lashing out at the woman for assuming that such a nice guy as him would ever do such a thing, as many men I encounter on the internet do, Saul immediately apologizes, gives Deborah more physical space, and explains what he actually meant. Later on in the book, as he prowls the nearly-deserted streets at night, he sees a woman walking alone and sits down against a wall until she passes so that she won’t be afraid of him.

In this way, Mieville subtly takes a stance on an issue that is still considered controversial. Had his protagonist reacted differently, a very different message would have been sent:

‘Do you want to go to sleep, Deborah?’

‘What do you mean?’ Her voice was suddenly suspicious, even afraid. She almost whined in her trepidation, and bundled herself up into her sleeping bag. Saul reached out to reassure her and she shrank away from him in horror and he realized with a sinking feeling that she had assumed that he might rape her.

Saul was hurt, infuriated. All his life he had tried to treat women well, just as his father had always taught him to do. And yet over and over again they assumed the worst of him, no matter what he did. He felt so alone and isolated. All he’d wanted was to show her the city as he saw it, but she had pushed him away.

Honestly, I probably would’ve put down a book like that, too.

Mieville incorporates these sorts of moments into his fiction, and that makes it pretty obvious to me that his novels are critiquing sexism, racism, sexual assault, etc rather than condoning them. And it’s entirely possible that later in Pandora’s Star, Hamilton takes a brave stand against calling women bitches, but I doubt it, considering that both the main characters introduced thus far are men, women have barely appeared at all, and no analysis of gender or sexuality or inequality, period has occurred.

Which is fine. Not every novel needs to take an anti-sexist stance. And I don’t need to read every novel.

Even when an author means to be critical, the result is sometimes still too close to home for some. Maybe for male readers, that Hamilton passage might be a moment of, “Oh, wow, sexism is a thing.” But I have already had that moment. My entire life is that moment. Plenty of men have called me “bitch,” plenty of men have threatened to assault me, and a few men actually have. I don’t need a reminder or a wakeup call. I don’t need this in my novels that I read for fun.

That said, everyone’s boundaries are different. At risk of sounding cliche, some of my good friends like Peter Hamilton’s books. I don’t think Peter Hamilton is “a sexist.” I don’t think you are “a sexist” if you like Peter Hamilton. I do think that my male friends who recommended these books to me without reservations should think about whether or not they remembered that the book has gendered slurs, and if not, why not, and if yes, why they didn’t warn me.

I also think that fans of authors who “casually” incorporate sexism in this manner should think critically about these works. (Remember, “think critically” is not synonymous with “dislike.”) What literary purpose is being served? If these passages are meant to characterize the person as “a sexist” or “a very bad man,” is this position actually supported by the rest of the novel? In what direction is this fictional society moving, and do the characters seem satisfied or dissatisfied with these trends? (You can learn a lot from how a character responds to, say, a new law defining nonconsensual sex with an AI as rape, or to the fact that a spaceship captain is a woman.) Are characters able to fling sexism around without any repercussions? How do other characters respond to the sexism? Who is the reader meant to sympathize with? Who succeeds? Who fails? How or why do they succeed or fail? (I think a lot about the epilogue of The Handmaid’s Tale.)

And, finally, I would like men to stop telling me I’m wrong when I’m uncomfortable with something that happens in a work of fiction, and to stop questioning my decision when that discomfort means that I need to put the book down.

A Case for Strengths-Based Diagnosis

[Obligatory disclaimer that I am not (yet) a licensed therapist and that the following is my personal opinion, informed by practice and academic study.]

Recently in a class on adult psychopathology, my professor was discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the text used to diagnose mental illnesses and categorize them for the purposes such as research, insurance billing, and sharing information among professionals.

One of the weaknesses he mentioned was one I’d actually never heard before: that the way the DSM diagnosis is written and shared does not include any space for also “diagnosing” the client’s strengths.

At first, this seemed irrelevant to me, not in the sense that thinking about your client’s strengths is not important, but in the sense that I didn’t see how it matters for a diagnosis. It almost seemed a little patronizing: “Yes, you have major depressive disorder and social phobia, but hey, at least you seem like you’re pretty resourceful and good at expressing yourself!”

But then I rethought that.

Here’s an example of a DSM-V diagnosis:

296.35 (F33.41) Major depressive disorder, early onset, recurrent episode, in partial remission, with atypical features

300.4 (F34.1) Persistent depressive disorder, early onset, with atypical features, with intermittent major depressive episodes, without current episode, moderate

V62.89 (Z60.0) Phase of life problem

It’s honestly difficult for me to imagine looking at this information with anything other than relief. For me, diagnosis has always meant one thing first and foremost: You’re not a terrible person; you just have an illness.

But to other people, seeing something like this can communicate a whole lot else. You’re sick. You’re fucked up. There is nothing redeeming about you. You can’t do something as simple as not being so sad. This is especially true when someone is already predisposed to interpret information about themselves in a negative light, because, well, that’s what mental illness always does.

In that moment, it can be really helpful to have confirmation–not just from a friend or loved one, but from a professional whose job it is to assess you–that you do have strengths and positive qualities.

So, here are some reasons incorporating strengths into diagnoses might be a really good thing.

  1. Giving hope and affirmation to the client.

Just like it can be nice to go get a dental checkup and hear, “You’ve been doing a great job at preventing cavities, but you need to floss more consistently in order to keep your gums from getting irritated,” it can be nice to hear, “Based on what you’ve told me, I believe that you’ve had a major depressive episode for the past few months. However, you’ve clearly been very good at reaching out to friends and family for support, and it sounds like you have a lot of people rooting for you to get better.”

Therapists and psychiatrists say “nice” things like this all the time, but writing it down as part of a diagnosis might be symbolically meaningful. To the client, that communicates the fact that their strengths are just as important as their diagnosis–important enough to be written on the form or in the chart. It shows that their mental healthcare provider, whom they might feel shy around or even judged by, does see them as a whole human being with strengths as well as a diagnosable illness.

  1. Providing possible avenues for treatment.

A psychiatrist may diagnose a client and then refer them to a therapist (therapy combined with medication tends to be more effective than either in isolation). Now what? The therapist can look at the diagnosis, or ask the client what it is, and proceed from there.

What if the diagnosis included something like, “Client reports that volunteer work helps them distract themselves from symptoms, and that writing in a journal has occasionally been helpful”? The therapist now has some potential ways to help the client. Or the diagnosis might include, “Despite severe symptoms, client shows a high level of insight about the possible origins of their depression.” The therapist now knows that lack of self-awareness isn’t the problem–symptom management might be.

I continue to be amazed that none of my therapists ever asked me if there’s any way I could incorporate writing into my depression recovery, or if there are any ways I’ve been incorporating it already. Writing is my life. Usually I’ve either said as much in therapy, or I haven’t because nobody ever asked me what I like to do or what makes me feel good. Why not?

  1. Reducing negative bias from providers.

I can’t make definitive statements without more research, but based on what I understand about bias, I can imagine that consistently viewing a client as “major depressive disorder with atypical features and moderate persistent depressive disorder” does things to one’s perception of that person. Not positive things.

It is difficult (if not impossible) to effectively help someone you view as deficient or weak. First of all, your likely pessimism about the person’s recovery will almost certainly be perceived (and possibly internalized) by them. Second, any roadblocks that come up in treatment will likely be interpreted as “resistance” or “not really wanting to get better” or “not being ready to do the work of therapy.” In fact, maybe it’s that your approach isn’t actually helpful to them. Third, without a conscious awareness of the person’s strengths and assets, what exactly are you using to help them recover? Therapy isn’t about “healing” people so much as helping them discover their own resources and help themselves. If you don’t even know what those might be, how could you possibly help the client see them?

Many therapists try to think of their clients’ positive traits in addition to their “negative” ones. However, formalizing and structuring this process as part of a diagnosis might make it sink in better, and become more embedded in one’s general impression of a person. The questions we generally have to ask while diagnosing someone are fairly negatively oriented–”Do you ever have trouble falling asleep? How often? To what extent does this impact your daily life?”. What if we also asked, “What helps you sleep better? How do you cope with being tired after a night of insomnia?” Maybe that can help shift a therapist’s perspective of this person from “insomniac” to “person with difficulty sleeping, who has reached out to friends for help with daily tasks.”

  1. Preventing provider burnout.

I dislike talking about my work because people are consistently amazed at it in a way that annoys me. “How could you deal with hearing these awful things?” they ask. “Isn’t it really depressing to work with all these people?” It isn’t, because thanks to my training, I’ve internalized a strengths-based perspective. When I think about the people I’ve worked with, I don’t see poor suffering depressives and trauma victims. I see resilient, determined individuals who are working to overcome their challenges in the best ways they can.

I think that some people in this field burn out because they can only see the suffering and the oppression and the unfairness of it. I also see those things, obviously, because they’re sort of a big deal. But if that’s all you see when you sit with a client, not only will that be reflected in your treatment of them, but it’ll also impact your own ability to persevere.

If every time a therapist made a diagnosis, they had to intentionally remind themselves of the client’s strengths, that might go a far way in helping them remember that there is hope and everything is not absolutely bad.

As I’ve mentioned, plenty of mental health professionals already incorporate a strengths-based perspective into their work. But this is more common in areas like social work, where diagnosis is rarely used and actually often criticized, anyway. I certainly don’t remember any of my psychiatrists or PhD-level therapists spending any time asking me about my strengths or coping strategies. They gave me my diagnosis, and that was mainly it as far as assessment goes.

One might argue that strengths assessment has no place in the DSM because it needs to be standardized and reliable. However, reliability may be a problem for the DSM regardless, meaning that different professionals assessing the same client may disagree in their DSM-based diagnosis.

One might also argue that the DSM is “about” mental disorders, not “about” a client’s overall set of traits or strengths. I’ll grant that. Regardless, I think that formally incorporating individual strengths into clinical assessments in therapy and psychiatry may be helpful. May be.

Occasional Link Roundup

Oh finally, we’ve made it to February. Maybe one of these days I can start voluntarily going outside again!

Did you know I have a Google+ page? Now you do. If you’re one of those rare people who actually follow posts on there, now you can follow mine.

1. Stephanie and others are organizing a new conference: Secular Women Work. It’s being funded through Kickstarter. If you can, please help them out. I’m really excited about it and have already bought my ticket.

The Secular Women Work conference is a celebration of the work of female activists who create and run projects and communities in the secular movement. And there is no better way to honor their work than by using their expertise to help us all become better activists.

At Secular Women Work, you will find workshops: both hands-on exercises to develop your skills and facilitated group discussions where you can share challenges and solutions with other activists. You will find panels on specialist topics, with panelists who can help you broaden the horizons of your activism. And when you’re ready for a rest, you’ll find speakers who will entertain and inspire you with stories and lessons from their own work. In between it all, you’ll find a conference full of other activists who want to make a difference in the world.

2. An absolutely fucking brilliant post about “overdiagnosis,” as it applies to autism (and, in my opinion, to many mental illnesses):

Adopting labels to get help isn’t “overdiagnosis”; it’s an understandable and rational response to inflexible institutions and their refusal to deal in subtlety or individuality. The word “overdiagnosis” implies that there’s something more at stake than nonsensical hoop-jumping. It blames the wrong people for the wrong problem.

[…]Getting outraged about “misdiagnosis” misses the point; it blames clinicians and parents and autistics. But our current knowledge does not support the idea of drawing a bright line. It supports the idea of measuring individuals along many dimensions and providing them the individual supports they likely need based on what we know. The need for a bright line comes from politicians and bureaucrats, and those are the people who should catch flak. Why are we complaining about clinicians and parents for “drawing the line in the wrong place” when many people aren’t interested in this stupid line-drawing exercise in the first place?

3. Franklin explains why rules are not necessarily in polyamory:

If a person loves you and cherishes you, and wants to do right by you, then it’s not necessary to say “I forbid you to do thus-and-such” or “I require you to do thus-and-such.” All you really need to do is communicate what you need to feel taken care of, and your partner will choose to do things that take care of you, without being compelled to.

On the other hand, if your partner doesn’t love and cherish you, and doesn’t want to do right by you…well, no rule will save you. The rules might give you an illusion of safety, but they won’t really protect you.

4. Lis discusses talking about racism in therapy:

The course I hated most in grad school was taught by a professor who said, “If your clients talk about the outside circumstances that keep them down and make their lives horrible, about how they’re so hard done by, they can’t ever take responsibility for their own lives.” It was supposed to be a course on marriage and family therapy, which is a topic I love a lot on its own; but most of what I learned was about the use of institutional power, from a rich moderate liberal white guy who thought that talking about inequality of any kind was actively harmful to therapy.

I try to remember him even now because he was respected in his field and by his colleagues. He’d run programs in schools and military bases, taught therapists-to-be, received all the marks of approval from his profession, and thought that if a therapist let their client talk about experiencing racism or sexism, they were sabotaging the therapy. I try to remember him because I have to remember that when I meet a new client, that client has no outside indicators that I’m not exactly like him.

5. Why you don’t need to feel bad about yourself when you’ve acted immorally:

Feeling bad about oneself does not make one a better person. Sometimes we seem to think that it would be worse to do something wrong and not feel guilty, than to do something equally wrong but feel guilty about it, as if guilt makes us morally superior, as if it could purify us or redeem us in some way. It is unclear to me how guilt could have such effects. How bad one feels about oneself does not seem to be very relevant; what is important, instead, is repentance or regret: the desire to have acted differently, the intention to repair the damage done, and the determination that in the future one will not act similarly. While regret focuses on action (e.g., I did something wrong), guilt focuses on oneself (e.g., I am a bad person). Repentance is useful: it motivates one to remedy wrongs and not fall into the same mistake again. Guilt is impractical: by keeping the focus on oneself, it contributes to the reification of our negative qualities (e.g., I am selfish), and becomes an obstacle for imagining oneself differently, and for changing one’s behaviour, since we seem to adapt our behaviour to the idea that we have formed about ourselves.

6. Eve Rickert asks: Can you really negotiate your rights away?

There’s a reason domestic violence prevention websites have lists of your rights in relationships. It’s because the places you tend to see rights violations tend to be abusive relationships. It’s because rights violations tend to lead to abuse. Do abuse victims “consent” to be in their relationships? On the surface, perhaps it looks that way, but that is rooted in a victim-blaming, “why doesn’t she (he) just leave?” mentality and a serious oversimplification of the psychological dynamics of abuse. Abuse relies on tearing down your partner’s sense of self and personal agency to the point where consent is really no longer valid. And it doesn’t take physical violence to make a relationship abusive.*

I believe that if you’ve come to a place in your relationship where someone has negotiated any one of their rights away, that relationship includes coercion, and that invalidates consent. Staying doesn’t mean your partner’s not hurting you. The fact that your partner submits to you doesn’t mean you’re not being an abusive asshole.

7. Jonathan Chait has blown up the blogosphere; Anne Therault responds:

Rather than understand how trauma works, or recognize that trigger warnings are, in fact, about giving people the choice when and where to engage with potentially upsetting content, Chait prefers to patronizingly pooh-pooh the whole idea. Instead of recognizing that most people use trigger warnings as a way to facilitate the “controlled exposure” to trauma experts recommend – because, again, trigger warnings give readers the choice to make sure that they are in a safe space and a healthy mindset before engaging with potentially triggering content – he prefers to believe that anyone who asks for a content warning is a mewling infant who should just get over it already.

How nice that Chait has never found any content upsetting enough to require a trigger warning; one supposes that makes him an expert on the subject.

8. Kate critiques that research study about ‘foods containing DNA‘:

Tricking study participants is a time-honored tradition of psych methodology, but you have to trick them effectively, and I’m not convinced this is anything but a gotcha question. If you ask people to support or oppose a governmental policy and then bury one non-policy question in a bunch of actual policies they might have heard of, you are not actually doing excellent science. You are creating a popular Facebook graphic.

9. On Tumblr, The Unit of Caring has another good response to Jonathan Chait:

Basically every problem Chait identifies can be reframed in a competing-needs framework. Some people don’t want to be exposed to conversations about whether police officers can tell if a rape victim is lying, as came up in my Psych seminar last week. That conversation could cause them to relive one of the worst experiences of their lives. They want to not take part in it. On the other hand, intellectual inquiry really does demand we conduct studies on whether police can tell that sort of thing, and debate how to inform juries about the results of those studies, and debate which advice for improvement at detecting liars really works. Both these needs are valid. Both are legitimate. And both can be met.

Chait thinks he’s found people who want to shut the discussion down entirely, or at least people whose discursive tactics are causing the discussions not to happen because others don’t understand which comments will make them into targets and so they don’t talk at all. He’s calling this ‘political correctness’. What I’m seeing is a community that used to only meet one need – intellectual inquiry – now frightened that it has to choose between that need and the needs of its vulnerable members.

10. Homa Mojtabai at McSweeney’s lists ‘Reasons You Were Not Promoted That are Totally Unrelated to Gender‘:

I’m not sexist and this organization is not sexist and I have to say you’re developing a little bit of a reputation as a troublemaker. Five years ago we promoted a woman who happens to be black –- I mean, African-American… or maybe just African, I can’t remember –- and that proves that we are tolerant and committed to diversity.

11. Lindy West was amazing on This American Life:

Trolls still waste my time and tax my mental health on a daily basis, but honestly, I don’t wish them any pain. Their pain is what got us here in the first place. That’s what I learned from my troll.

If what he said is true, that he just needed to find some meaning in his life, then what a heartbreaking diagnosis for all of the people who are still at it. I can’t give purpose and fulfillment to millions of anonymous strangers, but I can remember not to lose sight of their humanity the way that they lost sight of mine.

12. It is okay and understandable not to want to hear a lot of details about someone’s sex life:

In summary, dear Letter Writer, I don’t think there is anything wrong with you for being leery when “Friend Who Was A Lot To Take At Times” becomes “Friend Who Brings Up Sex In Every Conversation” with you. That’s a volatile combination. It’s okay to create some distance – redirect him, change the subject, say “Hey did you see where I changed the subject back there?” and see how he reacts. Your comfort matters here, as does your consent. A good friend is not going to want to make you squirm about this.

13. Julian Sanchez makes the point Jonathan Chait should’ve made instead:

It doesn’t take any very fearsome campaign of intimidation for a group’s self-correcting mechanisms to break down. Imagine an argument where someone invokes a spurious or unfair accusation of (let’s say) racism or sexism as a cudgel to close down a conversation. Maybe many other members of the accuser’s ideological in-group (“allies”) themselves perceive it as unfair, but life is short and people are busy—what’s the incentive to chime in and say “hey, wait a minute”? Pretty weak even in the absence of negative feedback. And as anyone who’s watched these arguments play out is well aware, questioning whether such a claim is fair or reasonable in a particular instance is going to be read by some observers as denying that sexism or racism are problems at all.  (I recently, rather gently, questioned whether one specific document from the Snowden cache should have been published, then had to expend a whole lot more words insisting that I am not, in fact, a shill for the surveillance state.  Anyone who knows my privacy writing understands why this was slightly surreal.) You end up having to explain and justify yourself to all these folks whose good opinion you care about, and who needs the hassle?

Iterated over time, though, that means the people who do object in particular cases are increasingly from out-groups: People who really don’t care about racism or sexism or think they’re serious problems.  Now the incentives are even worse for in-group members. Because now being the one to say “hey, wait a minute” in a particular instance doesn’t just mean conflict with an ally, it means associating yourself with those assholes.  Increasingly the objections are coming from people who just don’t care about the good opinion of the in-group, many of whom are expressing those objections in actively racist or sexist terms.  So now anyone voicing reservations has to do all sorts of throat clearing (I did it instinctively at the start of this post) to avoid the ever more statistically reasonable heuristic inference that any pushback is coming from those repulsive quarters. If you’re the only ally pushing back, hey, maybe you’re not an ally at all, but secretly one of those assholes.

You end up with team “x is the problem” and team “x is not a problem,” and ever fewer people prepared to say “x is a problem, but maybe not the most useful lens through which to view this particular disagreement.” When teetotalers are the only ones willing to say “maybe you’ve had one too many,” because your friends are worried about sounding like abstemious scolds, the advice is a lot easier to dismiss. Which is fine until it’s time to drive home.

14. xkcd has a perspective on today’s events:

What have you read/written lately?

Facebook Needs a “Sympathy” Button

My latest piece for the Daily Dot is about the challenges of expressing sadness and loss on Facebook as it’s currently set up.

If you’ve ever posted some sad news on Facebook, you might’ve watched as the status received a few likes followed immediately by comments such as, “Liked for sympathy” or “I’m only liking this out of support.”

It’s not surprising that a gesture meant to stand on its own needs a little explanation when the post in question is negative rather than positive or neutral. “Like” is an odd verb to use when someone’s talking about their recently deceased pet or a crappy day at work, but a thread full of identical comments reading “Sorry to hear that” seems almost as awkward.

Many people still think of social networks like Facebook as places where people primarily share things like news about job offers and impending moves, BuzzFeed articles, and photos of food, babies, and animals. However, that view is out of date. Depending on your social circle, Facebook may also be a place to vent about health troubles, share articles about crappy things going on in the world, and seek condolences when loved ones pass away.

Commenting and “liking” may no longer seem sufficient as responses. Mashable writer Amy-Mae Elliot suggests a “sympathy” button as an addition to Facebook:

‘Sympathy’ is the perfect sentiment to cover what Facebook lacks. It can mean a feeling of pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune, and also an understanding between people—a common feeling. It would be appropriate for nearly every Facebook post that gears toward the negative, from sending ‘Sympathy’ if someone loses a loved one to saying ‘I sympathize’ if someone’s in bed with the flu.

Clicking the ‘Sympathy’ button would let your Facebook friend know you’ve seen his post and that he’s in your thoughts. And unlike the fabled ‘Dislike’ option, it would be difficult to hijack or abuse the notion of sympathy.

It’s not as snappy as a “like” button, and it doesn’t have an easily-recognizable symbol that can go along with it, but it would make it easier for Facebook users to engage with negative posts.

The “like” button isn’t the only way that Facebook’s design subtly encourages positive posts and discourages negative ones.

Read the rest here.

How to Get Away with Rape

[Content note: rape & sexual assault]

My latest piece for the Daily Dot is about excuses people make when accused of rape.

In 2013, two then-students at Vanderbilt University, Brandon Vandenburg and Cory Batey, allegedly raped an unconscious female student on campus. They used a cell phone to capture footage, which also shows Batey urinating on the victim and using racial slurs.

Unlike most accused rapists, Vandenburg and Batey are now on trial. As the trial opened this past week, the defense team made some interesting comments about Batey’s culpability.

Batey’s attorney said the football player from Nashville was influenced by a campus culture of sexual freedom, promiscuity and excessive alcohol consumption that contrasted with the manner of his upbringing.

The atmosphere “changed the rest of his life,” and Batey was too drunk at the time to deliberately commit a crime, he added.

The reasoning seems to be that Batey has been somehow wronged by this university and its campus environment in a way that is relevant to the matter of his innocence or lack thereof. (The question of whether or not being drunk should influence culpability is a separate one that I will leave to a separate article.)

This seems like a convenient way of obfuscating the issue. Of course Batey was influenced in all sorts of ways by his environment. We all are. That’s the nature of being a social species. But ultimately the burden of making the decision falls on the individual making it, and part of being an adult is accepting that responsibility.

This got me thinking about other bad and illogical excuses people make when accused of rape.

1) “I’m the real victim here.”

Usually this means “victim of a false rape accusation,” but clearly Cory Batey and his lawyers didn’t have that option–there was video evidence. Instead, Batey is the victim of “a campus culture of sexual freedom, promiscuity and excessive alcohol consumption that contrasted with the manner of his upbringing.” The implication seems to be that none of this would ever have happened if Batey had not found himself (well, chose to place himself) in such a campus environment.

I’ll be the first to endorse the claim that many college campuses have unhealthy cultures, and this can impact people in all sorts of ways. (Not necessarily negative ways—some people respond to these environments by becoming passionate activists for a better culture.)

Short of some horrific and science fiction-esque brainwashing scenario, you can’t force a person to rape someone.

However, short of some horrific and science fiction-esque brainwashing scenario, you can’t force a person to rape someone—or to urinate on them, for that matter. Batey’s peers and environment may have suggested to him that this sort of behavior is OK, but it is not too much to expect an adult to be able to make their own decisions about whether or not to rape someone, especially if that adult’s upbringing contrasted so greatly with this campus culture.

That said, buried deep within the obfuscation and rationalization that Batey’s lawyers are presenting here is actually a nugget of truth that anti-rape activists have been repeating for years: Many campuses have a really unhealthy and dangerous climate when it comes to things like binge drinking and sexual assault. Acknowledging this and working to change it, however, does not mean excusing those who commit rape.

2) “She was asking for it.”

This is, of course, entirely self-contradictory. If someone was actually asking for you to have sex with them, then it was not rape. If someone was not asking (or consenting) to have sex with you, then it was rape. If someone makes a rape accusation, then that means they were not asking. The only way to actually “ask” to have sex is to, well, ask for it—not to drink alcohol, not to dress sexy, not to dance or flirt with you, and not to make out with you.

We hear this excuse a lot with sexual harassment, too, not just assault. The reason I used a female pronoun is because this is typically only applied to female survivors. Why? Probably because (white, conventionally attractive) women are presumed to be so irresistibly appealing that men cannot possibly restrain themselves—therefore, those women were “asking” for whatever it is the men did.

But we didn’t ask for you to have such poor self-control that you cannot keep yourself from catcalling or raping us. And, more to the point, rape is typically a premeditated act. It has nothing to do with irresistible urges.

Read the rest here.

#FtBCon Preview!

FtBCon3_hangoutbanner

FtBCon 3 is almost upon us! Now’s the time to stock up on enough cheez-its and Diet Coke to get you through the weekend. Or maybe that’s just me.

Here’s a preview of the stuff I’ll be hosting or participating in this weekend. All times are Central.

Friday, 1/23, 5:30 PM: I’ll be co-facilitating a panel called “Treating the Brain: Skeptics Talk Therapy and Therapists.” It’s exactly what it sounds like. We’ll be talking about the experience of therapy from a skeptical, secular perspective. Don’t miss it!

Friday, 1/23, 8 PM: I’ll be hosting a delightful panel called “Kumbay-Ahh-Ahh-Ahhh!!!: Building a Community Around Shared Sexual Interests,” facilitated by Neil Wehneman. Learn how to make a sexuality-based community successful, safe, and fun.

Saturday, 1/24, 10 AM: I’ll be a participant on a panel about the psychology of trolls. I finally get to talk about that study on trolls and personality traits that came out this past year.

Saturday, 1/24, 11 AM: I’ll be hosting a special episode of Kelley Freeman and Gordon Maples’ video series, “Secular Start Up.” This is part of the Secular Student Alliance‘s FtBCon track, and Kelley and Gordon will be discussing how to successfully connect secular campus groups with local community groups.

Saturday, 1/24, 1 PM: Continuing the SSA track, I’ll host Pete Zupan’s Secular Safe Zone training. I’ve completed this training before at an SSA conference and found it full of really useful, practical advice about supporting young secular people that you may interact with through work or school.

Saturday, 1/24, 4 PM: FtB regular Sastra will present her talk, “The Little People Argument: The Difference between Respect and Forbearance, and Why It Matters,” in which she makes the case against the “live and let live” approach to non-extremist religion.

Saturday, 1/24, 8 PM: Scott Lohman will speak on the humanism of Star Trek, and how science fiction as a genre is able to explore more taboo ideas than other genres.

Sunday, 1/25, 12 PM: I’ll be on a panel with some really cool people (Wesley Fenza, Chana Messinger, and Franklin Veaux) called “Reasonable Relationships: How Does Our Skepticism Influence our Romantic or Non-Romantic Relationships?” We get to apply cognitive biases to our love lives!

Finally, Sunday 1/25, 3 PM: I’ll be on a panel called “Did You Remember Your (Love) Life Vest? Polyamory in the Deep End,” which is a sequel to the previous FtBCon polyamory panel. This time, we’re making it 200-level.

And at 7 we’ll all get in a hangout together and shoot the shit like we always do.

There’s a lot of awesome stuff at FtBCon besides the sessions I’m involved in, though. Check out the full Lanyrd schedule here.

I hope you join us!

Feminist Bloggers Cannot Be Your Therapists

[Content note: mentions of sexual assault and suicide]

I’ve been thinking more about Scott Aaronson. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about what he struggled with during adolescence, and about the (in my opinion, misguided) notion that feminism could have possibly been of any help to him.

The battle cry I’ve heard from men since Aaronson’s now-infamous Comment 171 was published is that feminist writers and activists need to be more mindful of situations like Aaronson’s when we choose our language and strategies. There seems to be a collective yearning for acknowledgement that the usual feminist rhetoric is not only unhelpful for people in the teenage Aaronson’s frame of mind, but actively harmful to them. There is one piece of this that I fully agree with, that I will get to later. But for the most part, I continue to feel a sort of frustration and exhaustion, and I think I’ve finally figured out why.

I wrote in my previous post on the subject that I feel that we (women) are being given all these male traumas and struggles and feelings to soothe and fix, as we always are. But now I understand why exactly I feel like we’re such an inadequate receptacle for these things.

Let’s look at some of the most salient parts of Comment 171:

I spent my formative years—basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s—feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified. I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison. And furthermore, that the people who did these things to me would somehow be morally right to do them—even if I couldn’t understand how.

You can call that my personal psychological problem if you want, but it was strongly reinforced by everything I picked up from my environment: to take one example, the sexual-assault prevention workshops we had to attend regularly as undergrads, with their endless lists of all the forms of human interaction that “might be” sexual harassment or assault, and their refusal, ever, to specify anything that definitely wouldn’t be sexual harassment or assault. I left each of those workshops with enough fresh paranoia and self-hatred to last me through another year.

[…] Of course, I was smart enough to realize that maybe this was silly, maybe I was overanalyzing things. So I scoured the feminist literature for any statement to the effect that my fearswere as silly as I hoped they were. But I didn’t find any. On the contrary: I found reams of text about how even the most ordinary male/female interactions are filled with “microaggressions,” and how even the most “enlightened” males—especially the most “enlightened” males, in fact—are filled with hidden entitlement and privilege and a propensity to sexual violence that could burst forth at any moment.

Because of my fears—my fears of being “outed” as a nerdy heterosexual male, and therefore as a potential creep or sex criminal—I had constant suicidal thoughts. As Bertrand Russell wrote of his own adolescence: “I was put off from suicide only by the desire to learn more mathematics.”

At one point, I actually begged a psychiatrist to prescribe drugs that would chemically castrate me (I had researched which ones), because a life of mathematical asceticism was the only future that I could imagine for myself. The psychiatrist refused to prescribe them, but he also couldn’t suggest any alternative: my case genuinely stumped him. As well it might—for in some sense, there was nothing “wrong” with me.

[…]And no, I’m not even suggesting to equate the ~15 years of crippling, life-destroying anxiety I went through with the trauma of a sexual assault victim. The two are incomparable; they’re horrible in different ways. But let me draw your attention to one difference: the number of academics who study problems like the one I had is approximately zero. There are no task forces devoted to it, no campus rallies in support of the sufferers, no therapists or activists to tell you that you’re not alone or it isn’t your fault. There are only therapists and activists to deliver the opposite message: that you are alone and it is your privileged, entitled, male fault.

It’s worth reading the entire thing, and reading it carefully. (Aaronson’s defenders are correct that some people have been making accusations of Aaronson that are directly refuted by things that he said in the very same comment. Let’s not do that.)

Here’s what I thought. If someone came to me and said that he earnestly believes that he will be “expelled from school or sent to prison” if a woman finds out that he finds her attractive, and that he has “constant suicidal thoughts,” and that his daily existence is characterized by “crippling, life-destroying anxiety,” I would not recommend that he read Andrea Dworkin or attend a sexual assault prevention workshop. I would recommend, gently and tactfully, that he go see a therapist.

I would do that because these are very serious issues. They are serious enough that, when a client tells me that they have “constant suicidal thoughts,” there is an entire protocol I’m required to follow in order to ensure that they are safe and receive appropriate care if they accept it.

I will not speculate about what mental illness Aaronson could have theoretically been diagnosed with in his adolescence; I oppose such speculation and it’s actually irrelevant. I don’t need to diagnose him to say that he had serious issues and could have really benefited from treatment. (However, I may reference some diagnoses in what follows, not to suggest that Aaronson had them but to show how mental illness can interact with other life circumstances.)

Maybe Aaronson didn’t think to seek therapy as an adolescent, because therapy and mental illness are still quite stigmatized and would have been even more so when he was younger. Maybe nobody close to him noticed or cared what was going on, and therefore did not encourage him to seek therapy. Maybe the psychiatrist he asked to prescribe castration drugs did not pause to consider that a teenager seeking castration is a red flag, and that maybe he should refer him to a colleague who practices therapy. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

But why aren’t we talking about it now? Why are people blaming feminism–the feminism of the 1970s or 80s, no less–for failing to cure what appeared to be a serious psychological issue? Why are people claiming that the solution now is simply for feminist writers and activists to be more compassionate and considerate towards male nerds like Aaronson, as though any compassion or consideration could have magically fixed such a deeply layered set of deeply irrational beliefs?

This troubles me. If I ever start claiming that, for instance, I’m a terrible person and deserve to literally die because I’m queer, or that I cannot be in the same room with a man without literally having a panic attack, I sincerely hope that people advise me to seek mental healthcare, not to read feminist literature.

Lots of helpful things can harm a small subset of people because of that subset’s individual traits. For instance, there are a lot of PSAs about washing your hands to prevent the spread of disease and things like that. But some people have OCD and wash their hands compulsively, to the point that they’re hurting themselves physically and having trouble accomplishing daily life tasks because they have to wash their hands so much. I can imagine these PSAs being extraordinarily unhelpful to them.

We also often hear about the importance of donating to charity. Most people could probably donate more to charity if they wanted to. However, some people compulsively donate so much to charity that they harm themselves or their families. I can imagine this being exacerbated by someone telling them how important it is to donate to charity. Perhaps they feel they are never good enough.

I can see how feminist literature might have functioned in a similar way for Aaronson. The truth is that most men are about as far away from his mindset as you can get. Some are even the opposite extreme. Most men spend very little time thinking about how their behavior impacts women. Most men need to spend more time thinking about it. But how could he have known that these feminist books were not for him? If they were to put on the cover, “If you’re a great guy who does not hurt women, you don’t need to read this,” well, no man would ever read it. They all think they’re great guys who do not hurt women, even though some of them rape women.

Neurodiversity is an axis of privilege/oppression. People who suffer from mental illness or whose brains are set up differently from what is considered the “norm” (such as people with autism) lack privilege along this axis. They have difficulties because our society is not made to accommodate them. However, if these people are white, or male, or straight, or cisgender, or so on, they still benefit from the privileges afforded to people in those categories.

For instance, despite all his other fears and anxieties, Aaronson did not have to live in constant fear of being sexually assaulted, because he is male. He did not have to live with a significant risk of being harassed or brutalized by the police, because he is white. He did not have to deal with having people constantly refuse to identify him as the gender he identifies as, because he is cisgender. He did not have to struggle to physically access places he needs or wants to go, because he is able-bodied. Of course, he still faces some risk (in some cases fairly negligible) of all of these things, because having privilege doesn’t shield you from everything.

However, as a person who was (apparently) neuroatypical, Aaronson did have to live with “crippling, life-destroying anxiety.” He did not appear to have access (even if it’s just because he didn’t know to ask for it) to mental healthcare that could have helped him. He was forced to spend years feeling horrible. If he told people how they felt, they may have blamed him for it, because victim-blaming is a key component of our society’s oppression of neuroatypical people. Had he lacked some of the other privileges that he had, such as race and class, he may not have been able to access the apparently-useless psychiatrist that he did access.

Aaronson claims that he did not have “male privilege” because he did not feel that he had it. I’ve addressed arguments like these before. He presumably did not feel privileged because on one very salient and relevant axis, he certainly was not.

But otherwise, having or not having privilege isn’t actually dependent at all on how you feel. You have it or not. Men on the street hurl sexual obscenities at you or they do not. Cops stop you and slam you to the ground for no reason or they do not. You are allowed to marry someone of the gender(s) you’re attracted to or you are not.

Aaronson might be interested (or not) to know that many feminists are busy fighting to ensure access to mental healthcare for everyone, and an end to the stigma that prevents people from seeking help. But maybe that’s irrelevant now.

As I mentioned earlier, I am taking one piece of Aaronson’s (and the many others who have echoed him) criticism to heart. Namely, feminist materials need to be better at specifying what to do rather than just what not to do. Now is a good time for a reminder that I offer a workshop on this exactly, with a light-hearted tone and lots of audience participation and definitely no yelling at men that they are horrible awful creeps no matter what they do. I am far from the only person who offers such materials, but it would be cool if there were more. That said, anyone claiming that feminism does not offer this at all has quite clearly not done their research. Andrea Dworkin and some random shitty college sexual harassment training are not the only resources feminism has to offer.

(Some things that I have read along these lines [“these lines” meaning, roughly, “affirmative resources that help men and others conduct their sexual/romantic lives ethically without shaming them]: Charlie Glickman, Doctor Nerdlove, Yes Means Yes (the book and the associated blog by Thomas Macaulay Millar), Pervocracy, Franklin Veaux. If you don’t like any of these, create your own!)

But even then, your average casual feminist blogger or columnist cannot take responsibility for fixing the problems of someone who apparently sincerely believes that speaking to a woman will get him sent to prison. Or someone who is literally unable to talk to a woman because they have so much social anxiety. These are issues for professionals to deal with. Professionals can affirm. They are there to hold your feelings and make you feel comfortable and supported. They can teach social skills. They can help you examine maladaptive and irrational thoughts. They can help you learn how to cope with anxiety. That is what therapists are for. They are imperfect, but they are trained for this. I worry about placing this responsibility on every feminist with a blog.

Aaronson claims in his comment that “there are only therapists and activists to deliver the opposite message: that you are alone and it is your privileged, entitled, male fault.” I’m not sure if this comes from experience or is purely the creation of his mind with the biases that it had at the time. If Aaronson went to see a therapist and that therapist shamed him, then that therapist is wrong and does not deserve the title. (I’m not trying to do a No True Therapist fallacy here; I’m just pointing out that shaming people is against our ethics and if you cannot not shame people then you should not be a therapist.)

If Aaronson did not see a therapist, perhaps because he was afraid that they would shame him, then that’s unfortunate. And I don’t blame him. But I still think that we should be encouraging people with such pronounced irrational beliefs to seek therapy, not feminist literature.

No wonder I was so frustrated when I wrote that earlier post. I felt like feminist writers are being asked to do the job of a mental healthcare professional.

~~~

A few relevant points that I did not have time to expand on here, but may in the future:

  • Part of the reason that a lot of what Aaronson read/watched was so shaming towards men was probably because it was shaming towards sex and sexuality in general. Especially those college sexual harassment trainings, some of which are woefully retrograde. It’s important to remember that stigma/shaming around sex is something that is so entrenched in our culture that it’s bound to show up all over the place, even, yes, in feminist literature.
  • Aaronson claims that all the feminist literature he read confirmed his belief that straight men are awful and violent. While this may be so–I haven’t read Dworkin and don’t intend to–I have also personally watched men respond to materials that were not at all whatsoever shaming of men by claiming that they were being shamed by those materials. This seems to be a very common bias. They expect to be shamed by feminist materials, so they feel shamed by them.
  • I have seen dreadfully few discussions about how everyone–especially non-/anti-feminist men and women–perpetuate toxic ideals about masculinity. It’s usually not feminist teenage girls slamming shy nerdy boys into lockers and publicly humiliating them, is it? We should talk more about that. Unfortunately, most men dislike talking about toxic masculinity, because they think that “masculinity” is synonymous with “men,” and perhaps also because they have bought extensively into this ideal and appreciate the privileges it affords them.
  • There needs to be a space where we can say, “Wow, that is really awful, I’m sorry you felt that way and had to live with that, but I need to point out that your interpretation of things was inaccurate.” Because right now, it’s looking to me like anyone who includes the latter part of that sentence is accused of hating men or lacking compassion. If I read a Richard Dawkins book, came away with the idea that Dawkins believes that all religious people should be put to death, and therefore started to fear for the lives of my religious relatives, I would want someone to try to explain to me that I had misinterpreted the book. It would not be compassionate at all to allow me to continue believing that Dawkins was calling for my relatives’ deaths. It is not compassionate to allow Aaronson to believe that feminists want him to never, ever so much as kiss a girl. (A moot point now, but it wouldn’t have been earlier.)
  • It is also entirely possible that all the feminist literature that Aaronson read was woefully inadequate. (I disagree, and wish he had picked up bell hooks, but let’s grant it.) Feminism is, like every other field of study, constantly advancing and finding new ways to analyze and advocate. The feminist literature of the past decade or so focuses a lot more on helping men than the feminist literature of the 1970s and 80s. But feminist activism still consists mostly of women, and when men join in, they often try to speak to us about our own issues than to other men about men’s issues. And women, naturally, will focus first on issues we primarily face, some of which are life-threatening. Men, please, don’t stand around and lament the fact that feminists are not addressing your problems. Familiarize yourself with feminist principles and join in.