Emotional Labor: What It Is and How To Do It

Ages ago, I read this fantastic piece about practical things men can do to support feminism. Almost every item on the list really resonated with my experience, and this was one of the most resonant:

2. Do 50% (or more) of emotional support work in your intimate relationships and friendships.

Recognize that women are disproportionately responsible for emotional labour and that being responsible for this takes away time and energy from things they find fulfilling.

Since this was just a list, that’s all it had to say about this very important topic. As I shared the article and discussed it with others, especially men, I realized that many men don’t actually know what “emotional labor” means. That, I think, is part of the problem.

I kept meaning to write a piece that explains the concept, but life happened, and I forgot. Then I read this brilliant thing:

We are told frequently that women are more intuitive, more empathetic, more innately willing and able to offer succor and advice. How convenient that this cultural construct gives men an excuse to be emotionally lazy. How convenient that it casts feelings-based work as “an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depths of our female character.”

This, in turn, spawned this great Metafilter thread in which people discuss their experiences with emotional labor. And, that, finally, led to this Ask Metafilter thread, which addresses the very question I initially meant to address: what is emotional labor and how do you know if you’re doing your fair share of it?

If this topic interests you, I encourage you to read these resources, because they’re extremely useful and accessible. I wanted to highlight some of the contributions to the Ask Metafilter thread here.

The original Ask Metafilter post:

# Partnered Life

* Am I checking in with my partner to see if they had a rough day?
* If so, am I stepping up to make their life easier in other ways (cooking, cleaning, etc.)?
* Am I open and clear about my wants, and not forcing my partner to guess/drag it out of me?
* Am I contributing constructively to planning of meals, events, trips, etc?
* Am I actively trying to make my presence feel safe for my partner?
* Do I try to do nice things for my partner without being asked (flowers, treats, etc.)?
* Do I take care of my own administrative life (paperwork, bills) without needing to be repeatedly reminded?
* Am I supportive of my partner’s decisions, big and small?
* Am I respectful and validating of my partner’s emotions?
* Am I vocally grateful when my partner goes out of their way to do something nice for me?
* Am I nice to my partner’s family [if that’s a thing they want]?

# Friend Groups

* Do I work to coordinate peoples’ schedules so that we can have a nice picnic/party/board game night/etc.?
* When planning an event, am I conscious of possible interpersonal conflicts?
* When planning an event, do I take into account different peoples’ preferences for food, beverages, music, etc., so that no one feels excluded?
* Do I actually have everything prepared in advance for an event I’m hosting, or at least clearly and fairly delegated?
* If there is an imbalance of emotional or physical labor occurring, am I willing to risk social awkwardness to improve the lot of those negatively affected?

# Third Party Relationships (Familial & Otherwise)

* Do I remember to make phone calls and visits to people I care about and want to have relationships with?
* Do I remember to send cards to people I care about?
* Do I send thank you notes to people to acknowledge their emotional labor for me?
* Am I actively sensitive to and supportive of people who are experiencing a difficult time (death of spouse/child/pet, etc.)?

User phunniemie adds:

I’d add “am I going to the doctor regularly” to what you have.

I hear a lot of guys (I take it you are a dude) complain (complain, or even just mention offhand) all the time about x, y, or z weird body thing that they have going on, but 9 times out of 10 (actually more, but then we’re getting into fractions) when I ask if they’ve talked to a doctor about it their response is no, or it’s not that big a deal, or they can’t because they don’t have a doctor despite living in the same place for 5+ years. So now they’ve involved me in concern for their Problem Freckle but have no ability or intention to manage it themselves.

Make sure you’re taking care of yourself and being proactive about your healthcare (physical and mental) so that the women in your life don’t have to feel like your nurse.

WidgetAlley adds:

Huge one for me, especially in reference to mental illness or trauma or disorders: are you doing your own emotional work?

This means asking for support and accommodation for your feelings and your illness if you need it, and negotiating with your partner about your needs, but also not making your problems their problems. If you have depression or past trauma, tell your partner– don’t make them guess. Ask them to make reasonable adjustments to their behavior and interactions if you can, or if you’re not sure what you need, just keep them in the loop as much as you can.

And then, do your own work and get to a doctor, a therapist, or another appropriate person who can help you in a solid professional context. It’s reasonable and sane and wonderful to ask for support and love and reassurance, but don’t make fixing your own internal workings your partner’s problem any more than you can help it.

wintersweet adds:

Do I pause to observe the context (my partner’s body language or current activity, what’s been happening today, etc.) before I involve my partner in something me-focused? (Whether that’s a request or a touch or whatever.)

Am I answering my partner’s bids?

Am I taking responsibility for my own reminders by putting things in a calendar app or whatever reminds me to do things?

Am I aware of all the unseen work involved in things like meal preparation*, and am I educating myself so that I can share the work?

HotToddy adds:

How often am I saying knee-jerk defensive things like “I forgot,” “I’m trying,” “I’m doing my best,” “It’s not a big deal,” vs “Oops, shit, I’m sorry, let me [take independent action and come up with my own fucking idea for how I can finally make this change that you’ve repeatedly told me is important to you and that I’ve said I would do but still haven’t].

RogueTech adds:

Am I difficult as hell to work with and expect everyone to work around it because I present as male?

E. Whitehall adds:

Are you interrupting your partner unnecessarily? Is their busy-ness less valuable to you than a question you could likely just Google instead of interrupting them? Consider whether you really need to ask them, specifically, right now, about this particular thing. Consider whether you’ve actually looked for answers. Have you googled? Have you checked the most likely places? Several times? Have you actually reached in and looked with your hands for whatever you’ve lost?

There are a lot more great examples in the thread, but this should give you some sense of what emotional labor is.

You might notice that some things in the thread sound like “bare minimum for being a decent friend/partner” type things, such as respecting and validating others’ emotions. Others sound like things that aren’t necessary (or even desirable) in every relationship. The important thing is that there’s a balance. If you and your friend or partner have the kind of relationship where you share household responsibilities and expenses, for instance, it’s unreasonable for your partner to always have to remind you to do your duties when they never need a reminder from you.

Of course, it’s easy for people to look at these lists and immediately start doing this thing: “Well, but, my partner’s so much better at planning things than I am, so of course they plan all of our social events as a couple” or “Well I have a mental illness and my friend doesn’t, so I can’t always be expected to remember to ask about their day the way they ask about mine.” Okay. This isn’t a be-all end-all list, and different people’s situations have their own particular needs and restraints. I encourage you not to get too hung up on any particular item on the list, and instead focus on the concept itself.

The point is that, for the most part, women are expected to do a lot of these sorts of things in relationships and friendships, and men are not. It may well be that men are on average objectively worse at them than women are, but that’s only because they’ve never been held responsible for these things and therefore haven’t developed the skill. Most men have gone their whole lives hearing that women are “naturally” suited for these things and men are “naturally” not, so why bother working on it? Gender essentialism doesn’t exactly foster a growth mindset, and many people don’t realize that things like communication skills and empathy can actually be improved to begin with.

After reading these articles and threads, I started to understand my frustrations with my male friends, roommates, and partners much better, because these imbalances have touched every single relationship I’ve ever had with a man. Male partners have consistently ignored glaring issues in the relationship so that I had to be the one to start the difficult conversation every single time, even though they supposedly had as much of a stake in the relationship as I did. Male roommates have made me beg and plead and send reminder texts to do even the most basic household management tasks. Male friends have tried to use me as a therapist, or drawn me into worrying about their physical health with them while refusing to see a doctor even though they had insurance.

Well-meaning men of varying roles in my life have consistently ignored my nonverbal cues, even very visible ones, forcing me to constantly have to articulate boundaries that ought to be obvious, over and over. (For instance, “Do you see how I’m intently reading a book right now? That means that I’m very interested in the book and am not interested in having a conversation right now.” “Did you notice how I’m hunched over with my arms folded over my stomach and a grimace on my face? This means that I’m in pain and probably not in the mood for cheery small-talk!” “Pay attention to how I’ve got huge headphones on and am staring at my computer screen and typing very quickly. This is why I didn’t hear a single word you just said and now is probably not a good time to chat about your day!”)

This is why being in relationship with men, even platonically, is often so exhausting for me. As much as I love them and care for them, it feels like work.

Like all gendered dynamics, of course, this isn’t exclusive to male-female interactions and the imbalance doesn’t always go in the same direction. It can happen in any relationship, romantic or platonic, serious or less so. I’m pointing out the gendered dynamic here because it’s so extremely prevalent and so very harmful, but if, for instance, you’re a man realizing that you’re doing the bulk of the emotional labor in your relationship with someone of whichever gender, you still have a right to try to sort that out.

I strongly suspect that the emotional labor imbalance underlies part of the problem men often say they have with forming and maintaining friendships with other men. When neither of them is able to rely on the other person to do the emotional labor, relationships fall apart. In friendships and relationships with women, men are able to trust that we’ll handle all that messy feelings stuff.

I also suspect that this underlies the fear and anger with which some men respond to women’s emotional unavailability. That’s not to excuse the manifestations that these emotions often take, but to explain them. I empathize with this, because it must be terrifying to feel like you can’t deal with your own stuff and the person you thought was going to help you is refusing to. It must be especially terrifying when you don’t even know where the feelings are coming from, when you can’t even tell yourself, Okay, this is scary because I’ve never had to do this for myself and now it’s time to learn how.

It would be like if you’ve gone your whole life having fully prepared meals just suddenly appear in front of you whenever you’re hungry (or whenever you say the words “I’m hungry”), and suddenly you’re being told that not only will the prepared meals not be provided anymore, but now you have to go out and hunt and gather for yourself. Whaaaat.

Emotional labor is often invisible to men because a lot of it happens out of their sight. Emotional labor is when my friends and I carefully coordinate to make sure that nobody who’s invited to the party has drama with anyone else at the party, and then everyone comes and has a great time and has no idea how much thought went into it.

Emotional labor is when I have to cope, again, with the distress I feel at having to clean myself in a dirty bathroom or cook my food in a dirty kitchen because my male roommate didn’t think it was important to clean up his messes.

Emotional labor is having to start the 100th conversation with my male roommate about how I need my living space to be cleaner. Emotional labor is reminding my male roommate the next day that he agreed to clean up his mess but still hasn’t. Emotional labor is reassuring him that it’s okay, I’m not mad, I understand that he’s had a very busy stressful week. Emotional labor is not telling him that I’ve had a very busy stressful week, too, and his fucking mess made it even worse.

Emotional labor is reassuring my partner over and over that yes, I love him, yes, I find him attractive, yes, I truly want to be with him, because he will not do the work of developing his self-esteem and relies on me to bandage those constantly-reopening wounds. Emotional labor is letting my partner know that I didn’t like what he did sexually last night, because he never asked me first if I wanted to do that. Emotional labor is reassuring him that, no, it’s okay, I’m not mad, I just wanted him to know for next time, yes, of course I love him, no, this doesn’t mean I’m not attracted to him, I’m just not interested in that sort of sex. Emotional labor is not being able to rely on him to reassure me that it’s not my fault that I didn’t like the sex, because this conversation has turned into my reassuring him, again.

Emotional labor is when my friend messages me once every few weeks with multiple paragraphs about his life, which I listen to and empathize with. Afterwards, he thanks me for being “such a good listener.” He asks how my life has been, and I say, “Well, not bad, but school has been so stressful lately…” He says, “Oh, that sucks! Well, anyway, I’d better get to bed, but thanks again for listening!”

Emotional labor is when my friend messages me and, with no trigger warning and barely any greeting, launches into a story involving self-harm or suicide or something else of that sort because “you know about this stuff.”

Emotional labor was almost all of my male friends in high school IMing me to talk about how the girls all go for the assholes.

Emotional labor is when my partners decide they don’t want to be in a relationship with me anymore, but rather than directly communicating this to me, they start ignoring me or being mean for weeks until I have to ask what’s going on, hear that “I guess I’m just not into you anymore,” and then have to be the one to suggest breaking up. For extra points, then I have to comfort them about the breakup.

Emotional labor is setting the same boundary over and over, and every time he says, “I’m sorry, I know you already told me this, I guess I’d just forgotten.”

Emotional labor is being asked to completely explain and justify my boundaries. “I mean, that’s totally valid and I will obviously respect that, I just really want to understand, you know?”

Emotional labor is hiding the symptoms of mental illness, pretending my tears are from allergies, laughing too loudly at his jokes, not because I’m just in principle unwilling to open up about it, but because I know that he can’t deal with my mental illness and that I’ll just end up having to comfort him because my pain is too much for him to bear.

Emotional labor is managing my male partners’ feelings around how often we have sex, and soothing their disappointment when they expected to have sex (even though I never said we would) and then didn’t, and explaining why I didn’t want to have sex this time, and making sure we “at least cuddle a little before bed” even though after all of this, to be quite honest, the last thing I fucking want is to touch him.

Although these discussions cause it to have a negative connotation, emotional labor is not inherently bad. In any healthy, balanced friendship/relationship, the participants are all doing some amount of it, though the total amount varies based on the type of relationship and the needs of those involved. Emotional labor becomes bad when certain people are expected by default to be responsible for the bulk of it even though we’d rather be focusing on other things if given the choice. It becomes bad when it’s invisible, when it’s treated as an assumption rather than as something that the participants of a relationship intentionally discuss and negotiate together.

What might that look like in practice? Here are a few examples:

“I’m struggling with depression right now and am also extremely busy with my dissertation, so I’m not going to be able to do X, Y, or Z in this relationship. Instead, I’m going to make an extra effort to do A and B. Is that okay for you?”

“If we’re going to be living together, I need to make sure that we both do an equal share of X. Does that work for you?”

“I know you’ve had to give me a lot of reminders lately to do basic things for myself and for our household. I’m working on getting better at remembering on my own by [setting reminders on my phone/bringing this up in therapy/starting medication/cutting back on some stressful things]. While I work on this, are you okay with continuing to remind me? If you don’t feel that things have gotten any better in [timeframe], will you let me know?”

“I’ve noticed that you manage a lot of our interactions with my family. I feel like you get along a lot better with them than I do, so maybe it makes sense that you’re the one who plans our get-togethers, but is this okay with you? Do you need me to take more of an active role in this?”

“I’ve been the one who initiates the majority of our plans together, and while I always enjoy seeing you, I need some clarity about this. If you’re not that interested in spending time with me, I need to know. If you are, I’d really appreciate it if you sometimes invited me to do things, too.”

Remember that one way in which imbalances in emotional labor manifest themselves is that it always ends up being the job of the person who does the bulk of it to start these conversations and to let you know that they’re overwhelmed by the amount of emotional labor they have to do. End that cycle. Be the person who brings it up and ask your partner if this is okay for them. Remember that a lot of people who are doing the bulk of the emotional labor, especially women, might initially try to claim that it’s okay when deep down they feel that it isn’t. Leave room for them to change their minds as they feel more comfortable with you, and don’t pull the “But you said before that it was fine” thing.

I absolutely recognize that this work is not easy. If what I’ve described sounds exhausting and overwhelming and maaaybe you’ll just let your girlfriend/friend/etc deal with it instead, I get it. It is hard. But it would be a lot easier if that labor were distributed more fairly. Emotional labor isn’t a silly fluffy girl skill. It’s a life skill.

It’s hard, too, because most men have been intentionally deprived of the language and tools to even think about these sorts of issues, let alone work on them. That’s why so many men don’t even know what emotional labor is, and why they have no idea what to do when they feel really bad except find a woman and outsource the labor to her–often without even realizing why they’re doing what they’re doing. As I said before, this sounds absolutely terrifying and I do not envy men in this regard.

But you can’t get better at what you don’t practice. Start the tough conversations. Pause before speaking and intentionally observe your partner’s body language. Ask yourself, “What could I do to make life easier for her? What things is she doing to make life easier for me, without even being asked?” Spend some time listening to your own emotions and learning to name them before rushing to either unload them on someone else or drown them out with something that feels better.

I do not exaggerate one little bit when I say that if more and more men learn to do these things, we can change the world.

~~~

Although I chose to examine gender dynamics here because that’s what I feel most qualified to talk about, it’s very, very important to note that imbalances in emotional labor also happen along other axes. In particular, people of color often do emotional labor for white people, especially in conversations about race. Just as I was finishing this article, a friend on Facebook posted this poem, which illustrates this dynamic.

~~~

Update: Maecenas, who started the Ask Metafilter thread, has compiled it into this really useful google doc.

~~~

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Trigger Warnings, Microaggressions, and the War Against “Over-Sensitivity”

My newest piece at the Daily Dot examines the backlash against “over-sensitivity” online.

A group of Columbia University students have ignited the latest battle in the online war over trigger warnings by asking professors to include them before teaching classics that feature detailed rape scenes, such as certain Greek myths. Predictably, their own classmates have responded with insults and thinly veiled rape threats in the comments sections of the Columbia Spectator story.

Lest it seem that these students are asking for some extreme and unreasonable accommodation, consider this: Have you ever had a friend invite you to see a movie and asked them to warn you if the movie has graphic violence in it? If so, congratulations, you’ve asked for a trigger warning. It’s unlikely, as Michael E. Miller writes in Post, that trigger warnings are a “treatment [Greek myth] never had before.” Surely someone has at some point handed their friend a book of Greek mythology and said, “Watch out though, there’s kinda a lot of rape in there.”

The outrage over trigger warnings (in college syllabi and elsewhere) is just one example of the online backlash against supposed “over-sensitivity.”

Microaggressions, which have long been discussed in academic circles but recently made more well-known by college students’ awareness campaigns, are another frequent target. National Review referred to the effort to reduce microaggressions as “thought police.” Reason advised voters to be “less sensitive” to microaggressions. The Atlantic offered some helpful advice: “Instead, let’s focus on acts of aggression that are far from micro.” The message seems to be that what you don’t think about can’t hurt you.

When I read any one of these many panicked screeds, what I see on the surface is fear that things that have always functioned a certain way (i.e., college classrooms, corporate offices, online comments sections, and casual conversations) will no longer be able to function that way. Now we have to be “sensitive.” Now we can’t make lewd comments about a female colleague’s body. Now we can’t ask an Asian classmate which “type of Asian” he is.

But it goes deeper. People are worried that they’ll have to care about all these problems they never even knew existed, that they’ll be seen as bad people if they do not care, and that they won’t know all the right words to say and will say the wrong words instead. And that’s a real fear.

But it’s a fear few want to acknowledge, because it’s so deeply uncool to admit that you care what people think of you. So instead, it becomes about how college students are So Whiny And Coddled These Days and how will we ever be able to have a conversation if we have to be So Sensitive all the time?

Read the rest here.

The Importance of Self-Awareness for People Who Want to Change the World

I gave this talk at Sunday Assembly NYC last weekend. A bunch of people have asked to see my notes and slides, so here they are! That’s why this isn’t really in blog-post format. Here are the slides.

[At the beginning, I asked how many people in the audience volunteer their time to a cause they care about, and/or donate money to a nonprofit organization. Not surprisingly, it was most people in the room.]

Why do people engage in altruistic acts like volunteering time or donating money? Here’s a partial list of reasons:

  • Community building: for instance, we might donate or volunteer when there’s an emergency in our community, or when someone in our social network is doing a crowdfunding campaign.
  • Social pressure: for instance, we might donate when a canvasser asks us to and we feel bad about saying no.
  • Religious or moral obligation: maybe not applicable to most people in this room, but some people do altruistic acts because they believe their religion obligates them to.
  • Social rewards: when we volunteer for reasons like resume building or making friends, those are social rewards
  • And, finally: because it feels good! This is the one I’ll mostly be talking about here.

Some people claim that altruism stems entirely from one’s values and ethics, and that emotions have nothing to do with it. They may also claim that doing good things because it makes you feel good makes those things less good, which makes it unpopular to admit that you like how it makes you feel when you act altruistically.

This view is more about the sacrifice made by the individual doing the altruistic act, and less about the actual positive consequences that that act has. It comes from the belief that anything that feels good is inherently suspicious, possibly morally bad, and a barrier to being a good person–a belief I’d associate more with religion (specifically, Christianity) than anything else.

But there’s nothing inherently bad about doing things because they feel good. In fact, we can harness this feature of human nature and use it to do more good! But in order to do that, we have to learn to be aware of our motivations, whether we like them or not.

Before I get into that, I also want to note a practical aspect to this: if we allow activism or charity work to make us feel bad rather than good, we’ll burn out, lose hope, and stop trying. It might be prudent to encourage each other and ourselves to feel good about altruistic acts. Of course, self-care is really important anyway, even when it means taking a break from activism or quitting it altogether. But that’s a topic for another talk.

Let’s look at some research on altruistic behavior. Keep in mind that these are just a few examples of a vast number of different studies and methods; studying altruism scientifically has become very popular.

Empathy, which is the ability to see things from someone else’s perspective and imagine how they might feel, is a predictor of altruistic behavior. However, as we always say in the social sciences, correlation is not causation. The fact that it’s a predictor doesn’t necessarily mean it causes it; maybe engaging in altruistic behavior also enhances our ability to empathize, or something else is impacting both variables. But it does seem that the two are related.

Relatedly, brief compassion training in a lab can increase altruistic behavior. Compassion training is basically just practicing feeling compassionate towards various targets, including people you know and people you don’t. Even after a short session of this, people were more likely to do altruistic things.

People who perform extraordinary acts of altruism, such as donating a kidney to a stranger that you’ll never see again, may have more activity in their amygdala, which is a brain region that (among other things) responds to fearful facial expressions. It’s difficult to say for sure what this means, but it could mean that altruism is driven in part by automatic neural responses to someone else’s fear.

People who volunteer for “selfish” reasons, such as improving their own self-esteem, tend to keep volunteering for the same organization for a longer period of time than those who say they volunteer more for purely ethical reasons. Keep in mind, though, that this doesn’t necessarily mean that the “selfish” volunteers volunteer more overall. It’s possible that the ethics-driven volunteers have less of a motivation to stay with the same organization–after all, many people and causes need help.

Unsurprisingly, spending money on others makes people feel happier, and the happier they feel as a result, the more likely they are to do it again, creating a feedback loop.

It works similarly with donations to charities, even when they involve a simple money transfer without much of a human element. Donating to charity activates brain regions linked to reward processing (usually associated more with getting money than giving it away!), and in turn predicts future giving.

What does all that mean?

Basically, seeing people suffer may make us more likely to engage in altruistic acts to try to help them. Seeing people suffer is painful for most people, and helping them is a way to ease those negative emotions. Doing nice things for people can make us happy, which can make us even more likely to do nice things for people again. The implication of brain structures such as the amygdala suggests that it’s not all about higher-order values and beliefs, but also basic, automatic brain processes that we can’t necessarily control. But of course, our values and beliefs can in turn influence our brain processes!

If we do altruism for “selfish” reasons, like having a sense of belonging or feeling good about ourselves, we may choose things that feel best rather than the ones that do the most good.

One example is voluntourism–when people travel for the purpose of volunteering to build houses, for instance. I have no doubt that many of these programs do a lot of good, but they have also been criticized, including by the communities they’re trying to help. For example, sometimes houses built by college students who have never done a day of manual labor in their lives aren’t necessarily very well-built. And often, these programs don’t actually empower the target communities to thrive on their own, leaving them dependent on charity. But these programs feel very rewarding to the volunteers: they’re intense, they build strong social bonds, they involve traveling to a cool place, and they make people work hard physically and get stronger. No wonder so many people love them.

Another example is in-kind donations. Again, sometimes very helpful, but often not. Organizations that do disaster relief often ask for money instead of goods, because then they can use it for whatever’s most urgently needed. They may desperately need medicine, but keep getting t-shirts instead. Giving them money rather than clothes allows them to buy what they need. Donated goods may also not be practical for the area in question–for instance, TOMS shoes, which is where you buy a pair of shoes and another gets sent to an impoverished child overseas, may not actually be very practical in communities where people walk miles each day over unpaved roads. While they’re very cute and comfortable, they may not last long. But, of course, organizing a clothing drive or buying a pair of shoes probably feels a lot more rewarding than sending a boring check.

Here’s one more study to help illustrate how this plays out. In this experiment, researchers showed one group of participants a story about a starving girl and asked them to donate to help her. Meanwhile, another group of participants saw the exact same story, but this time with accompanying statistics about the broader implications of starvation and how many human lives it takes. You might think that the latter group would give more money–after all, they have even more of a reason to donate.

Instead, they donated much less.

Why? From the NPR article:

The volunteers in his study wanted to help the little girl because it would make them feel good and give them a warm glow. But when you mix in the statistics, volunteers might think that there are so many millions starving, “nothing I can do will make a big difference.”

The participants in the second group, the ones who saw those dismal statistics, felt bad. They felt so bad that they no longer wanted to give money.

And likewise, we may choose forms of giving that feel best, which means “sexy” causes, issue affecting people emotionally or geographically close to us, and causes our friends are doing. We may not even realize that’s how we’re choosing. A little self-awareness can go a long way.

It’s difficult to hear criticism of one’s activism or charity work. It’s especially difficult when our motivations include social acceptance and self-esteem. This is especially important in social justice activism, where you may be working with or on behalf of people who are directly impacted by things you’re not.

I often get angry responses when I try to constructively criticize men who are involved in women’s rights activism. They’ll say things like, “How dare you tell me I’m being sexist, I’m totally an ally!” Their need to feel accepted makes it impossible for them to hear even kind, constructive criticism.

There are other, smaller-scale ways in which we help people all the time–listening to a friend who’s going through a hard time, giving advice, or, if you’re a counselor or therapist like me, doing actual counseling.

Sometimes, people–even therapists–do these things because they want to “fix” people. Seeing people in pain is hard and we want to make their pain go away–not just for their sake, but maybe for our own, too.

But if that’s our motivation and we’re not aware of it, we may give up in frustration when people don’t get “fixed” quickly enough. We may even get angry at them because it feels like they’re refusing to get fixed out of spite. As someone who’s struggled with depression for a long time, I’ve lost friends and partners this way.

As I mentioned, I’m also a therapist. Most therapists, especially at the beginning of their careers, have a supervisor. A supervisor isn’t just a boss or a manager–it’s a mentor we meet with regularly to process the feelings we’re having as we do our work, and to make sure that our motivations and automatic emotional responses don’t get in the way of that work.

Most of you aren’t therapists, but you can still learn from this practice. Supervision is therapy’s version of checking yourself before you wreck yourself. If you’re supporting someone through a difficult time, it might be helpful to talk through your own feelings with someone else.

[Here we did a small group exercise, though I also made sure to give people the option of just thinking about it by themselves if they don’t like discussing things with strangers. The exercise was to think/talk about these three prompts:

  • Think about a time when you volunteered, donated money, or did some other altruistic act, and found it very rewarding. What made it feel that way?
  • Think about another time when you did an altruistic act and didn’t find it very rewarding at all. Why not?
  • Think about a time when you were trying to do something altruistic, but your own emotions or personal issues got in the way. What was that like?

Afterwards, I asked for audience members to share their experiences with the larger group and we talked about how all of those experiences relate to the themes I’ve been talking about.]

In conclusion: Selfish motivations can inspire a lot of good actions. There’s nothing wrong with that! However, being aware of those motivations rather than denying their existence can help you avoid their potential pitfalls.

If we truly care about helping others, we should try to do so in the most effective and ethical way possible, and that means being willing to ask the tough questions about what we do and why.

~~~

Here’s the blog post this was partially inspired by.

“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.

Therapists Can Be Wrong

Therapists, like many professionals who work directly with clients, need to present themselves confidently in order to be effective, even when they’re not feeling very confident. It can be difficult for therapists to admit that they have or could be wrong, or that they don’t know everything. Like doctors and teachers and others, therapists worry that acknowledging their own limitations will erode their credibility and trustworthiness. When your livelihood depends on people finding you credible and trustworthy, that adds to the aversion of being wrong and admitting mistakes that virtually all of us already experience.

Yet we have to learn how to admit and accept that we are sometimes wrong–not only because it’s a foundation of accountability and ethical practice, but also because clients can often see through that facade, and they won’t like what they see. It’s difficult to trust someone who will never–can never–admit that they’re wrong.

This was going through my mind as I read one of my required texts for school, Psychiatric Interviewing: The Art of Understanding“Psychiatric interviewing” is really just a term for the process of therapists asking their clients questions, so the book covers a lot of very important ground. While I’ve found it useful so far, a few things irk me about it.

For instance, the author has a strange preoccupation with labeling clients using the article “the” in a way that implies uniformity. The text is laden with references to what “the paranoid patient” may do or how “the guarded patient” may behave in an interview. This type of language is not only dangerously vague (who qualifies as “the paranoid patient” as opposed to “a person who has some paranoid thoughts”? Who gets to make that determination, and using which measure(s)?), but stigmatizing to therapy clients and a potential source of bias for therapists. If you’re a young therapist who reads this book and gets all these ideas about what “the paranoid patient” may do, you may project these assumptions onto every client you work with who struggles with paranoia or expresses thoughts that seem paranoid to you. Assumptions are not necessarily a bad thing–and may even be useful in some cases–but you need to be aware of them as you work. Thus far in my reading of this book, it has not provided any cautionary notes about making assumptions. Even in my classes, in which we are often told not to make assumptions, provide little if any guidance on learning to actually notice these assumptions in practice.

Shea also recommends a few other techniques that I find excessively presumptuous. Take this example dialogue from the book:

Pt.: After my wife left, it was like a star exploded inward, everything seemed so empty…she seemed like a memory and my life began to fall apart. Very shortly afterwards I began feeling very depressed and very tearful.

Clin.: It sounds terribly frightening to lose her so suddenly, so similar to the pain you felt when your mother died.

Pt.: No…no, that’s not right at all. My mother did not purposely abandon me. That’s simply not true.

Clin.: I did not mean that your mother purposely abandoned you, but rather that both people were unexpected loses.

Pt.: I suppose…but they were very different. I never was afraid of my mother…they’re really very different.

A lot of therapists, especially those in the psychodynamic tradition, are understandably attracted to the idea of making this sort of “insight.” As Shea points out, when you get it right, it can build a lot of trust because the client feels understood in a very special way. It feels good to feel “smart” and insightful, to be able to read people like that. It can remind us that there really is something special we can do as therapists that others cannot. It probably doesn’t hurt that this, the therapy-via-Sudden-Brilliant-Insight, is usually the only kind we see represented in the media.

But a lot of the time, there really isn’t enough information to reach this conclusion. Therapists may make these leaps based on hunches, but that doesn’t mean there’s data to back it up. Sometimes the client will tell you so, but I think that a lot of the time, they will say, “Hm, I suppose you might be right,” because you are an authority figure and they want to believe you have the answers.

From the information given, you can’t reasonably jump to the conclusion that the client felt similarly when their wife left them and when their mother died. Those are very different types of loss, and even similar types of loss–two breakups, two deaths in the family–can feel very different.

Certainly there can be conceptual similarities between losing a spouse to divorce and losing a parent to death. It might even be worthwhile to explore them, but the therapist need not assume they felt “so similar.” If I were the client, I would’ve liked the therapist to say something like:

Between this and your mother passing away, it sounds like you’ve been dealing with a lot of loss. I’m wondering if losing your wife is bringing up any memories of losing your mother.

This resonates with me; it might not with other clients. That’s why sometimes the more important thing as a therapist isn’t what you say, but how you respond once you realize you’ve said or done something that strains the connection between you and your client. In this case, a responsive therapist might say something like:

I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make assumptions about how you’re feeling. Can you say a bit more about how this loss feels different for you?

The client is the expert on their experience.

But instance, in the dialogue, the therapist doubled down on the (mis)interpretation, attempting to justify their response to the client’s disclosure. This leads the client to double down as well, justifying to the therapist why the losses feel different. They shouldn’t have to justify themselves that way.

Here is the thought I had, as both a provider and a consumer of mental health services, when I read Shea’s example dialogue above:

The failure mode of Brilliantly Insightful Therapist is Arrogant, Presumptuous Therapist.

Now, I don’t know if Shea is arrogant or presumptuous; I don’t know him but I would hope he isn’t. I do know that refusing to acknowledge missteps and misunderstandings can lead one to across that way, though. And that’s exactly what Shea refuses to do both in the dialogue itself and when he analyzes the dialogue for the reader:

Needless to say, this attempt at empathic connection leaves something to be desired. The patient’s attention to detail and fear of misunderstanding have obliterated the intended empathic message, leaving the clinician with a frustrating need to mollify a patient who has successfully twisted an empathic statement into an insult of sorts.

This probably infuriated me more than anything else in this text. Here, the failure of the interaction has been blamed entirely on the client. Shea has assumed that the client has taken his statement as an “insult” when there is no evidence of this; the client is merely correcting the therapist’s misinterpretation. It reminds me of how, often when I tell people they’ve made inaccurate assumptions about me, they respond by shrieking about how “upset” I am and how I take everything as an “insult.” Correcting someone is not the same thing as being “insulted.”

If this situation is “frustrating” for the clinician, then, I can only imagine how much more so it must be for the client.

There is no room, in this approach, for any acknowledgment that the therapist’s interpretations might simply be wrong. No room for the possibility that it’s not the client’s personal characteristics (“paranoid,” “guarded,” “histrionic”) that made this interaction fall flat, but the therapist’s presumptions and subsequent refusal to step back from them.

I discussed this particular example because it’s what came up in my reading, but it’s hardly the most egregious thing of this type that happens. Therapists who cannot conceive of the possibility that they’re wrong not only fail to help their clients, but can actually hurt them.

Since there are probably a lot more therapy clients (or prospective therapy clients) reading this than there are therapists, I want to be clear about why I wrote this. It’s not to discourage people from seeking therapy, but to arm them with the knowledge and language to advocate for what they need from their therapists, and to find therapists that suit their needs.

That last part is important. Some people may want a therapist who makes bold interpretations and takes that authoritative, explanatory sort of role. Personally, I think conducting therapy in this sort of way opens practitioners up to all sorts of bias and errors, which is one reason I want to avoid it both as a client and as a therapist. But if that’s the approach that resonates with you, then it’s likely to work a little better for you, because the most important factor is the client-therapist relationship.

Aside from that, the reason I write about problems in mental healthcare is the same reason I write about problems in feminism or atheism–to hold my own communities accountable. Anecdotally, I know that this sort of thing makes it difficult for some people to benefit from therapy, or even to want to access it to begin with. I’m not the only person who dislikes having an authority figure tell me things about my life without bothering to find out if their assumptions are even accurate.

I trust people more when they admit their mistakes.

 

How To Get People To Care When It’s Not Personal: On Rob Portman

I’m going to talk about Rob Portman now even though that bit of news is pretty old at this point. (Hey, if you want to read about stuff in a timely manner, go read the NYT or something.)

Brief summary: Portman is a Republican senator from Ohio (yay Ohio!) who used to oppose same-sex marriage but changed his mind when his son came out as gay. He said, “It allowed me to think of this issue from a new perspective, and that’s of a dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have — to have a relationship like [my wife] and I have had for over 26 years.” Portman is now the only sitting Republican senator to publicly support equal marriage, although there are other well-known Republicans who do.

To get the obvious stuff out of the way first, I’m very glad to hear of Portman’s change of heart. Really. Each additional vote for marriage equality matters, especially when it’s the first sitting Republican senator to do it. That’s cool.

However, this really doesn’t bode well for our politics. Most legislators are white, male, straight, cisgender, rich, Christian, and able-bodied. Unless they either 1) possess gifts of empathy and imagination more advanced than those of Portman or 2) have family members who are not those things, they may not be willing to challenge themselves to do better by those who aren’t like them.

Some identities are what writer Andrew Solomon calls “horizontal” identities, meaning that parents and children typically don’t share them–these include stuff like homosexuality, transsexuality, and disability. So there’s a decent chance that a given legislator may have someone with one of these identities in their family.

But other identities are “vertical,” meaning that they tend to be passed down from parents to children, whether through genetics, upbringing, or some combination. Race is obviously vertical. Class and (to a lesser extent) religion tend to be as well. How likely is an American legislator to have someone in their family who is a person of color? How likely are they to have someone in their family who is impoverished?

In fact, some of the most pressing social justice issues today concern people who are so marginalized that it’s basically inconceivable that an influential American politician would know any of them personally, let alone have one of them as a family member–for instance, the people most impacted by the war on drugs, who are forever labeled as ex-cons and barred from public housing, welfare benefits, jobs, and education. It’s easy to go on believing that these people deserved what they got–which they often get for crimes as small as having some pot on them when they get pulled over by the cops for no reason other than their race–if you don’t actually know any of these people. (Well, or if you haven’t read The New Jim Crow, I guess.)

Even with horizontal identities, though, relying on the possibility that important politicians will suddenly reverse their positions based on some family member coming out or having a particular experience or identity isn’t really a good bet. First of all, coming out doesn’t always go that well; 40% of homeless youth are LGBT, and the top two reasons for their homelessness is that they either run away because of rejection by their families or they’re actually kicked out because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The fact that one of your parents is a prominent Republican politician who publicly opposes equal marriage probably makes you even less likely to come out to them.

And even if the child of such a parent comes out to them and nothing awful happens, people still have all sorts of ways of resolving cognitive dissonance. To use an example from a different issue, pro-choice activists who interact with pro-lifers have noticed a phenomenon that’s encapsulated in the article, “The Only Moral Abortion is My Abortion.” Basically, when some pro-life people find themselves with an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy, they sometimes find ways to justify getting an abortion even though they still believe it’s morally wrong in general.

Similarly, if you’re a homophobe and someone you love comes out to you as queer, that absolutely doesn’t mean you’re going to end up supporting queer rights. You might end up seeing that person as “not like all those other gays,” perhaps because they don’t fit the stereotypes that you’ve associated with others like them. You might invent some sort of “reason” that this person turned out to be queer, whereas others still “choose” it. You might simply conclude that no matter how much you may love someone who’s queer, it’s still against your religion to give queer people the right to get married.

Of course, when it comes to marriage rights, it’s not really necessary for that many more Republican lawmakers to suddenly discover that the queer people in their families are human too. The GOP will begin supporting equal marriage regardless (or, at least, it will stop advocating the restriction of rights to heterosexual couples), because otherwise it will go extinct. That’s just becoming the demographic reality.

However, equal marriage is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to abolishing a system that privileges straight people over queer people, and most of those causes aren’t nearly as sexy as equal marriage. Just look at the marketing for it: it’s all about love and beautiful weddings and cute gay or lesbian couples adopting children. Mentally and emotionally, it’s just not a difficult cause for straight folks to support. Who doesn’t love love?

The other issues facing queer people aren’t nearly as pleasant to think about. Who will help the young people who are homeless because their families kicked them out for being queer? Who will stop trans* people from being forced to use restrooms that do not belong to their actual gender, risking violence and harassment?

And, to bring it back to my earlier point: how likely are any Republican senators to have family members in any of these situations?

I don’t think Portman is a bad person for failing to support equal marriage until his son came out. Or, at least, if he’s a bad person, then most people are, because most people don’t care enough about issues that aren’t personally relevant to them to do the difficult work of confronting and working through their biases. And anyway, I don’t think that this has anything to do with how “good” or “bad” of a person you are (and frankly I hate those ways of labeling people). It’s more that some people are just more interested in things that don’t affect them personally than others.

Our job as activists, then, is to figure out how to get people to care even when the issue at hand isn’t necessarily something they have a personal connection to, because that won’t always be enough and because defining victims of injustice by their relationships to those who you’re trying to target has its own problems (which doesn’t necessarily mean we should never use that tactic, but that’s for another post).

I’m still trying to figure out how to do that, but I do have my own experience to draw on. As a teenager, I didn’t care a bit about social justice, but I did care about culture and sociology and how the world works. In college, I started to learn how structures in society affect individuals and create power imbalances, and I found this fascinating. It also brought into sharp relief the actual suffering of people who are on the wrong side of those imbalances, and before long I was reading, thinking, and writing about that.

Although nobody intentionally argued me over to this worldview, the courses I took and the stuff I read online seemed to take advantage of my natural curiosity about how society works, and eventually they brought me into the fold.

If you have any stories to share about how you started caring about an issue that doesn’t affect you personally, please share!

Inside the Mind of a Serial Rapist

In case it’s not obvious, MASSIVE TRIGGER WARNING for this entire post and all outgoing links. Even if you’re not a survivor, you’re going to find a lot of this extremely uncomfortable and upsetting so please take care of yourself.

r/AskReddit, a section of Reddit in which people can ask each other questions, recently had a post with this title: “Reddit’s had a few threads about sexual assault victims, but are there any redditors from the other side of the story? What were your motivations? Do you regret it?

Reddit has what I would call, bluntly, a woman problem. Reddit’s users are 74% male, first of all–the highest percentage of all the well-known social networks. Many of its subreddits, such as r/MensRights, r/Atheism, and, of course, r/AskReddit, are notorious for general misogyny, rape apologism, and, at times, even tacit (or not-so-tacit) approval of violence against women, pedophilia, child pornography.

So, nobody familiar with Reddit will be surprised at the kinds of stories and comments that this AskReddit thread has attracted. However, it’s worth talking about for several reasons, which I’ll explain later.

The thread has nearly 13,000 comments as of this writing, so I couldn’t possibly read them all. (I’m pretty sure I’d lose my mind long before I finished, anyway.) However, there’s one particular comment that I want to examine:

First off, I must say, I was at a dark and horrible place in my life, that I’ve since grown from. I’m ashamed of the person I was, if the people who I’m close to now knew who I was, I would be ruined. I’m known for being a great guy, friendly and easy to get along with, a community/political activist, a fervent volunteer in the community, and a person who rises through the ranks quickly due to successes at work. That was my mask, and I was good at it, so good that maybe I convinced myself along the line that was who I could really be, and that may of helped me change, and stop doing what I did.

I’m somewhat remorseful for what I did to those girls, but I don’t think I could ever face them to apologize. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I had this certain insatiable thirst that brought me to do what I did. I didn’t know how to stop, and just when I thought maybe I could, I’d find myself back in my pattern, back on the hunt.

Several things immediately jump out at me. First of all–and this will be a common theme throughout the post–this person seems very invested in his positive self-image, despite his supposed remorse. He makes sure that we know that he’s known as a “great guy,” that he’s friendly and easy to get along with, etc. Second, although he says he’s ashamed of who he was back then, the rest of this suggests that that’s mostly because he wouldn’t want to be found out. The creepiest part is definitely this: “I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I had this certain insatiable thirst that bought me to do what I did.”

The post continues:

I’m a good looking guy, and I can get girls pretty easily. I’m currently married to a beautiful woman that I met during this time of my life (not someone I raped, but someone who knew my mask during this time). So, anyways, after a while it became boring to go after the sluts and sorority girls that would easily throw their cunt after you. I wanted the thrill of the chase, and that’s what led me to forcing myself on girls. I would find attractive girls that were self-conscious about their looks….Hopefully a girl who was a bit damaged, had a shitty ex-boyfriend, or family issues, came from a small shut in town, that sort of thing. So, when I showed interest in them they’d be completely enamored, they’d almost be shocked that a popular, good-looking, and well liked guy would be talking to them.

Note that, once again, he mentions his good looks and that it’s easy for him to “get girls” (present tense). His misogyny becomes apparent in his language here (“sluts and sorority girls that would easily throw their cunt after you”).

The man then describes how he would meet these girls and invite them over to watch a movie. His need to have total control over the situation is very apparent: “They would come over, and I’d always make sure it was real cold in the room, cold enough so that when we started watching the movie I’d say something about being chilly, and grab a big fleece blanket for the both of us.”

After kissing and putting his hands under their clothes (without consent, obviously):

It was then that I could turn around and get on top of her. The girls usually didn’t know how to respond. Some of them were into it, and those nights were usually consensual and boring sex, sometimes followed up by a few more nightly visits before getting the boot. However, the great nights were the ones who squirmed, ones who didn’t want to give in. I’d have to shush them down, and try to work on them slowly enough so they didn’t know what was going on until it was pretty much already happening. I’m a muscular guy, over 6′ around 200 lbs. and most of these girls may have been 125-130, really tiny and easy to pin down. To be honest, even remembering it now, the squirming always made it better, they didn’t want it to happen, but they couldn’t do anything about it. Most girls don’t say no either. They think you’re a good guy, and should pick up on the hints, they don’t want to have to say “no” and admit to themselves what’s happening.

[…]Some girls left after about 15 minutes after. Some girls would stay until the morning and then leave. A few tried to call back, maybe blaming themselves for what happened or something. I never worried too much about being caught. Everyone knew me, and I worked with the police a lot, with administrators, and campus officials. I was on first name basis with the Chancellor and the President of Student Affairs, so if anything came down to a he/she-said I figured I’d be in the clear.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is rape culture: the fact that this man knew he was unlikely to be brought to justice because he was so respected and popular at school, the fact that he admits that some of the women probably blamed themselves, the fact that he knows that they don’t say no out of fear and not because they consent.

The man later edited the post to explain that he had answered questions posed by commenters and that he was deleting this account (it had been made only for this purpose, though, anyway). He also added this:

Let me leave you with this message, you never know who someone truly is, so be careful. I’m going back to my main account to do normal reddit looking at cats and posting pictures of bacon, and I think it’s kind of funny that no one will ever know if the person they’re talking to on reddit, or someone who moderates their subreddit, is me on my main account… just food for thought.

Most of the comments to his post were very angry, and many were basically homicidal. One person said, “You are why my daughter will be armed, to deal with filth like you.” The man responded, “Teach your daughter to be a strong willed, independent woman, and hopefully she’ll never attract the type of filth I was at that point in my life.” In other words, even though he claimed to be “remorseful,” he admits that he sought out “weak” women and seems to believe that it’s women’s responsibility to be “strong willed” enough for men like him to leave them alone.

In the midst of the angry comments, though, there were many that seemed steeped in admiration–or, at least, respect. References to the OP’s “bravery” were common. Here’s one: “Thank you for sharing. This is what I came to this thread for. You are brave to talk about it. Here is an actual look into how the predator feels.” Here’s another: “I just wanna say, thank you for posting this. It seems that every other guy in this thread is trying to guilt shame you but I’m pretty sure a total of none of them could possibly empathize with you.” And another: “I admit you are a really smart guy. I bet you know it yourself and probably are ashamed of it since you used it to do this. You are also really brave for sharing this story and being here to take the generic ‘fuck you’ from the mass.”

There seems to be some confusion on the part of these commenters about what “brave” means. What’s brave is getting up the next morning after you’ve been raped, and getting up every day after that. What’s brave is telling people about your sexual assault, knowing full well that they might ask you what you were wearing and if you’d been drinking. What’s brave is trusting another person sexually after an experience like that. Using a temporary, anonymous account to tell some people on the internet about what a Big Manly Man you are is not “brave.”

As a survivor of something much less horrific than what these young women went through, but scarring all the same, I can’t see the telling of this story as “brave.” Perhaps that’s just my bias talking.

Also disturbing is the fact that many of the commenters refuse to believe the story. One even asked the OP if he’s “a female IRL trying to make a point with this.” Others laugh it off. Their disbelief reveals their privilege. Most women will tell you that there is nothing unrealistic about this story, because they have either been victimized by men like this, escaped them narrowly (as I did), or have friends who did.

Finally, and unsurprisingly, several commenters jumped to the man’s defense, explaining how “difficult” it is to be a man and to interpret women’s signals and to get women to sleep with you, period. One comment:

This isn’t rape. This is the story of a guy who studied and played the game well. He went after certain girls and worked those angles to get laid. Some people will feel this is underhanded, sleezy, wrong. Others will praise him.

[…]These girls aren’t victims. OP’s behavior may be considered unethical, immoral, and wrong but that’s only moral constructs perceived by others looking at OP. I’m not a player these days but those of you blasting him for rape need to read some player’s books and websites. He did exactly why most players do.

[…]Overall OP isn’t a rapist, he’s a player who feels bad about how good he was at the game.

Another: “What the hell. You’re NOT A RAPIST! The didn’t say no. They wanted it. You’re a player. Actually, they should thank you because that’s probably the only sex those girls will get. You gave them a life experience and you should be proud about it.” And this: “I’ve been told this by female friends – girls purposely put up a bit of a fight before sex to not seem easy, even if they want sex, and they enjoy the back and forth and having the guy ‘try’.”

And one more:

Not defending his actions, but nearly every 19 year old college kid with a dick and a heartbeat is trying to get laid, and EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM has some sort of game plan they employ to coerce women into advantageous situations that their female counterpart might not want to be in, or otherwise find themselves in. Whether its through physical force or mental manipulation, some game plans fail miserably and some work every time. Some guys are obviously better than others at getting what they want, and some of course cross the line.

There’s many, many more where all of these came from. There was also the comments from rape survivors, to one of which the OP responded with some explanation followed by, “Anyways, fuck off you twit.” (How about that remorse?)

I should point out that this particular man’s post, and the responses to it, are unusual for several reasons. Most of the other people who disclosed having committed sexual assault (including some women) were more remorseful and generally did it only once. Some told stories of having nearly done it but stopped themselves. And the comments on those posts are much less condemnatory, and more full of apologism and praises of the rapists’ “bravery.”

Jezebel has a post about the thread and why we should listen to the rapists’ explanations. The article makes a good point in that the thread shows many of the reasons why rape happens and goes unpunished, and the cognitive fallacies that rapists subscribe to.

However, the article fails to note the negative consequences of sharing these stories on a site like Reddit. As I mentioned, Reddit users have a tendency for rape apologism. Many of the people who confessed having committed or attempted sexual assault said that they felt terrible for what they did, but commenters told them not to feel bad. The stories of backing off rather than raping elicited lots of “Congrats, you didn’t rape her!” comments–as if that’s something worthy of a gold star. One comment to such a story reads, “Shitty situation, man. Good on you for realizing what was up and pulling yourself out of that.” Another: “You aren’t a rapist, or close really, don’t beat yourself up about it.”

In other words, men (they were almost all men) who come to this thread with genuine remorse receive dozens of comments patting them on the back for not going ahead and sticking their penis into an unwilling woman–all the other nonconsensual stuff they did leading up to that, apparently, doesn’t really matter. (Although some of these commenters insist that the women couldn’t possibly have been hurt that much by it because they weren’t “actually” raped, I can speak from experience and say that attempted rape (or rape threats, or sexual harassment) can be traumatizing too.)

Furthermore, some of the apologism is directed at men who did actually commit sexual assault, and it really scares me that these men are getting the message that what they did was “not rape.”

It’s taken me a while to write about this because it’s been difficult to come up with any takeaway other than aisfa;ifja;sdfjas;df. However, now that I’ve had a chance to think about it, I think there are a few things to glean from this.

  1. Rapists usually know what they’re doing. Although there’s a pervasive myth that rape is caused by “miscommunication” (generally, women not being “clear” enough about not giving consent), this thread and this fascinating study show that this is completely false. They know what they’re doing, most of the time. But they don’t really care. They think they “can’t stop” because having a penis just “makes” you do these things. They convince themselves that the woman would say no (or say it louder) if she really didn’t want to do it. And so on.
  2. Rapists aren’t necessarily identifiable. None of the men in this thread seem like your stereotypical stranger in a dark alley type. Many of them have the ability to be very personable and likable, and they use this ability to their advantage. (This is, by the way, a symptom of psychopathy.) So, not only is the standard victim-blamey advice for women to avoid revealing clothing, bars, parties, etc. wrong, but it’s also ludicrous to suggest that women can avoid sexual assault by avoiding “certain types” of guys. Some victimizers (of any gender) certainly do give off a creepy vibe, but not all do.
  3. Sexual assault prevention is a very, very complicated thing, and I don’t think it’s as simple as “telling rapists not to rape.” As boys and young men grow up, they learn a series of messages about gender and sexuality, just like women do. If you’re interested in this, I’d recommend reading Brad Perry’s piece in the fantastic book Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape. The piece is called “Hooking Up with Healthy Sexuality: The Lessons Boys Learn (and Don’t Learn ) About Sexuality, and Why a Sex-Positive Rape Prevention Paradigm Can Benefit Everyone Involved.” (Holy shit that’s a long title.) You can read it here. The piece focuses on teaching sexuality to boys in a way that prevents rape and promotes a healthy approach to women, dating, and sex. Unfortunately, right now our country is still besieged by abstinence-only sex education, which promotes rape culture in a million ways that I don’t have room to discuss here.
  4. Despite all the comments that “well everyone knows rape is bad” and therefore we should stop shaming rapists, it’s clear that there’s a sort of doublethink going on here. Yes, almost all people, except the most psychopathic perhaps, know that rape is “bad.” But many convince themselves that things that are definitely rape are not. Cognitive dissonance does scary things to people sometimes–they want what they want at all costs, but they don’t want to believe that they’re Bad People (i.e. rapists). Nope, they’re just “playing the game,” or the victim “should’ve said no (louder),” or “she wanted it anyway.”

So no. Even decades after the start of the modern women’s movement, not everyone knows what rape is. And that’s how we know that our work is not yet done.

All I know is that we need real sex education, and we need it now. We need to start it early. We need to stop believing that teaching kids about safe and healthy sex will “make” them do it. We need to stop teaching them gender roles that put women into the role of sexual gatekeepers, always needing to push their male partners off rather than being asked for consent first, and men into the role of aggressors, always needing to coerce their female partners or face losing their masculinity.

Mostly, though, we need to teach empathy in general. Because that’s lacking in our society in every possible way.

And this needs to happen now.

Note: This has been really difficult to write for many reasons, but I felt that I needed to do it. There will be extra comment moderation. Anyone who comes on here to explain to me how I “don’t understand” these men and their actions will be sent on their merry way. Thank you.

Empathy and Leadership: Why Romney Would be a Terrible President

What do we look for in a presidential candidate? Political experience, intelligence, charisma, and confidence are probably high up on the list. Good looks and an adherence to Christianity clearly don’t hurt either.

But what about empathy?

What terrifies me the most about the scant possibility of a Romney presidency is not the fact that I disagree with his political ideology. Rather, it’s Romney’s seemingly complete lack of empathy.

This thought first occurred to me back when the “Seamus incident” made the news a few months ago. But one can easily argue that the incident doesn’t exactly prove that Romney is a heartless robot–after all, the victim in question was a dog, not a human, and who really knows how the dog felt anyway?

Slightly less ambiguous is this new bit of insight into Romney’s past:

Friedemann entered Stevens Hall off the school’s collegiate quad to find Romney marching out of his own room ahead of a prep school posse shouting about their plan to cut Lauber’s hair. Friedemann followed them to a nearby room where they came upon Lauber, tackled him and pinned him to the ground. As Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors.

This is what Mitt Romney did to a classmate at his boarding school when he was a senior. The classmate, John Lauber, was presumed to be gay and wore his bleached-blond hair long–at least, until Romney decided to do something about it.

According to the Washington Post, this story was remembered and corroborated independently by five of Romney’s former classmates. Romney’s response:

“Back in high school, I did some dumb things and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize for that…I don’t remember that incident,” Romney said, laughing. “I certainly don’t believe that I thought the fellow was homosexual. That was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s, so that was not the case.”

I think it’s interesting that, despite claiming not to remember this incident, Romney nevertheless seems to file it into that large category of Dumb Things Teenagers Do. We all have those things, of course. For me, it was writing bad poetry and crushing on unattainable guys. For more typical teenagers, it’s probably something like getting really drunk when their parents are out of town and throwing up all over the Persian rug.

For the teenage Romney, though, it’s assaulting a fellow student because he’s (ostensibly) gay.

(Incidentally, Romney’s campaign has apparently been trying to get other former classmates of his to speak up in support of him. Good luck with that.)

It’s easy to make the argument that this happened decades ago and that Romney is probably a Completely Different Person now. Perhaps. But one writer on Mother Jones, discussing what “Romney the teenager” can tell us about “Romney the man,” says:

Romney the man has denied, and repeatedly denied yesterday, even remembering this incident. Sure, it was half a century ago, but he led a posse of his friends, tackled John Lauber in a hallway, dragged him into a bathroom, and then chopped off his hair while he struggled in terror. Even if you grant that this kind of extreme behavior was more common in a 1960s prep school than it is today, it’s really not the kind of thing you’d forget.

 

At least, you shouldn’t. So either Romney has done this kind of thing so often that the Lauber incident just blends into all the others, which suggests a far more vicious childhood than he’s owned up to, or else he remembers it just fine and is simply lying about it.

Furthermore, Romney has made his position on LGBT people clear more recently, too. As Governor of Massachusetts, he abolished a group looking into the issue of bullying and suicide in LGBT teenagers. One of his spokespeople outed a transgender woman running for political office in the same state, ending her career. Romney has also signed the National Organization for Marriage’s pledge, stating that he would support a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and donated $10,000 to that organization to support Proposition 8 in California. Of his stance on gay marriage as governor of Massachusetts, Romney has said, “On my watch, we fought hard and prevented Massachusetts from becoming the Las Vegas of gay marriage.”

So, while we can be reasonably sure that Romney wouldn’t physically bully anyone these days, I’m not so sure that his ability to empathize with people different from him has evolved at all.

Unfortunately for us–if Romney gets elected–empathy is essential for good leadership. (A U.S. Army Colonel makes that case very persuasively in this Washington Post column.) By definition, leaders are in a place of privilege compared to those they lead, so if they want to know how best to serve the people who elected them, they must be able to understand them and their lives.

For instance, take bullying. It’s one thing to take a stand against bullying because you were once bullied yourself, and another thing entirely to understand the harm that bullying does to individuals, families, communities, and society as a whole, without having experienced it firsthand. Since presidential candidates tend to be male, white, wealthy, Christian, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, and so on, they are unlikely to have experienced things like bullying firsthand. That is why having empathy is essential if they are to understand this increasingly politicized issue.

For a politician, being empathic doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be a bleeding-heart liberal; it just means you have to be able to understand how people different from you actually think, feel, and choose. You could still, for instance, choose to limit government spending for economic reasons while acknowledging and genuinely regretting the fact that your choices may hurt some people. You could propose and support ways of solving issues like social inequality without increasing government spending.You could understand that poor people are not always to blame for their own predicament, even if you don’t think that bringing them out of it is the government’s job.

You could recognize that you disagree with gay marriage because of your religious beliefs, but understand that not everyone shares your beliefs and not everyone should have to live by them. You could disagree with gay marriage because of your religious beliefs, but realize that gay and lesbian teenagers still deserve protection from bullying.

You could, in other words, be a Republican with a heart.

In short, having empathy doesn’t mean being politically liberal. There are plenty of liberals who seem to lack empathy, and there are–hopefully–conservatives who have it. But Romney isn’t one of them. And that, much more so than his politics, is why I really hope he’ll never be President.