A Good Critique of the Medical Model is Hard to Find

I was optimistic about reading this critique of the medical model of mental illness by professor of clinical psychology Peter Kinderman, in part because it is written by someone with experience in the field and in part because it is published on Scientific American, which I trust.

However, while the article makes a number of good points that I will discuss later, it starts off immediately with such a tired and oft-debunked misconception that I almost quit reading after that:

The idea that our more distressing emotions such as grief and anger can best be understood as symptoms of physical illnesses is pervasive and seductive. But in my view it is also a myth, and a harmful one.

I’ll say it again for the folks in the back: nobody* is trying to medicalize “distressing emotions such as grief and anger.” They are medicalizing mental patterns (which can include cognitions, emotions, and behaviors) that are not only very distressing, but also interfere with the person’s daily functioning. It’s kind of like how some stomachaches are minor annoyances that you wait out (or take a Tums), and some land you in the ER with appendicitis. Therapists and psychologists are not concerned with the mental equivalent of a mild cramp.

In general, people don’t end up in my office because they get pissed off when someone cuts them off in traffic; they end up in my office because they are so angry so often that they can’t stop physically attacking people. They don’t end up seeing the psychiatrist down the hall because they get jittery and uncomfortable before a job interview; they see the psychiatrist because they feel jittery and uncomfortable all the damn time, and they can’t stop, and they can’t sleep, even though they rationally know that they are safe and everything’s okay.

I understand that it’s more difficult to grok differences in degree as opposed to differences in kind, because Where Do You Draw The Line. Yes, it would be easier if mentally ill people had completely different emotions that had completely different names and that’s how we knew that they were Really Mentally Ill, as opposed to having emotions that look like more extreme or less bearable versions of everyone else’s. (Sometimes, from the outside, they even look the same. “But sometimes I don’t want to get out of bed either!” “But sometimes I feel sad for no reason either!” Okay, well, you might be depressed too. Or you might find that those things have no significant impact on your day-to-day life, whereas for a person with depression, they do.)

But it really doesn’t help when you’ve got mental health professionals obfuscating the issue in this manner.

As I said, Kinderman does go on to make some really good arguments, such as the fact that psychiatric diagnoses have poor validity and reliability. This means that they don’t seem to correspond that well with how symptoms actually look “on the ground,” and that different diagnosticians tend to give different diagnoses to the same cases. However, these are criticisms of the DSM, not of the medical model. I’ve felt for a while that we should move away from diagnostic labels and towards identifying specific symptoms and developing treatment plans for those symptoms, not for some amorphous “disorder.”

For instance, suppose I’m seeing a client, Bob. After getting to know each other for a few weeks, Bob and I determine together that there are a few issues he’s particularly struggling with: self-hatred and feelings of worthlessness, guilt, difficulty sleeping, lack of motivation to do anything, loss of interest in things he used to enjoy, and frequent, unbearable sadness. Traditionally, I’d diagnose Bob with major depression (pending a few other considerations/differential diagnosis stuff) and move on with treatment. But without these often-invalid and unreliable diagnostic labels, I just skip that step (although I might let Bob know that “depression” might be a useful word to Google if he’s looking for support and resources). Instead, Bob and I look at his actual symptoms and decide on treatments that might be helpful for those particular symptoms. Cognitive-behavioral therapy might help with Bob’s self-hatred, feelings of worthlessness, and guilt. Behavioral activation might help with his lack of motivation and interest. Certain dialectical behavior therapy modules, such as distress tolerance, might help him cope with sadness in the meantime. Antidepressants might very well help with all of them!

Because mental healthcare doesn’t treat disorders; it treats symptoms. Whether that mental healthcare is medication, therapy, or some combination, the ultimate goal is a reduction in symptoms.

I can see how the medical model makes this seem bad when it isn’t. In traditional healthcare, treating symptoms rather than getting to the root of the problem is downright dangerous. If someone has headaches and you give them painkillers without diagnosing their brain tumor, they’re in serious trouble.

However, we haven’t yet developed great ways of figuring out what “the root of the problem” is when it comes to mental symptoms, especially since there often isn’t one. It’s almost always some complicated tangle of genetics, early childhood stressors, interpersonal patterns learned from family, sociocultural factors, and so on. All of this affects the brain in fundamental biological ways, which further drives the symptoms.

Thankfully, that’s not as much of a problem as it would be with a physical health condition. If you only focus on symptoms and don’t treat the underlying cancer or diabetes or whatever, it will slowly kill you. But if you successfully treat the symptoms of mental illness, you will make the person’s life much better no matter what originally caused the symptoms. There won’t be anything silently killing them in the background, and good therapy teaches people the skills to avoid future relapses of their symptoms.

Sometimes the root cause of mental illness is, as Kinderman points out, a social problem. Poverty, social inequality, and other issues contribute heavily to mental illness. But since you can’t solve those issues from the inside of a counseling office, all you can do is help your client as much as possible. I do this every day, and believe me, it feels weird and gross at times. But what else can I do? Until our fucked-up society decides to come in and take a seat in my office, I can only work with my clients as individuals. (Otherwise I would have a very different job and it would not be therapy.)

Kinderman argues that treating mental illnesses as diseases is wrong because of these social factors that contribute to them. I understand his concern, because he (and many other people) treat “disease” as synonymous with “thing that is entirely biologically based.” So, the medical model feels like an erasure of the complex and valid social dynamics that contribute to what we call mental illness.

But I don’t think of disease that way at all, and I’m betting most doctors don’t either. Social factors contribute heavily to physical illnesses, too. People who are living in poverty or who are marginalized by the healthcare system in other ways are much more likely to have all sorts of physical health problems, and the results tend to be more severe for them. Stress, which includes the stress of poverty, racism, and other social problems, makes everyone more vulnerable to illness. Eating well and exercising enough, two very important factors when it comes to physical (and mental) health, are not equally accessible to everyone. Heart disease and diabetes may have biological origins, but they do not happen in isolation from societal factors, either. Just like mental illness.

You might argue that physical illnesses and mental illnesses differ in that physical illnesses are more heavily caused by biological factors and mental illnesses are more heavily caused by social factors, and I might agree. But again, that’s a difference in degree, not kind. Both types of illnesses affect us physically and mentally.

Another good argument that Kinderman presents is that the medical model may not help reduce stigma, and there’s research to back this up. Kinderman writes:

Traditionally, the idea that mental health problems are illnesses like any other and that therefore people should not be blamed or held responsible for their difficulties has been seen as a powerful tool to reduce stigma and discrimination.

Unfortunately, the emphasis on biological explanations for mental health problems may not help matters because it presents problems as a fundamental, heritable and immutable part of the individual. In contrast, a more genuinely empathic approach would be to understand how we all respond emotionally to life’s challenges.

So, that’s important and deserves highlighting.

However, I think the issue of how best to reduce stigma against mental illness is slightly separate from the issue of how best to help people with mental illnesses feel better. (There’s a school of thought in the disability community that disabilities [including mental illnesses)] “hurt” only because of the stigma and prejudice against people who have them, and I’m not particularly equipped to engage with that here except to say that it makes me angry in a way I can’t possibly explain. It completely invalidates how awful and wretched I felt because my symptoms hurt unbearably and not because of anything anyone else said or did to me as a result.)

When it comes to what people with mental illnesses actually find helpful, for some it’s the medical model and for some it isn’t. In her piece on mental “sick days,” Katie Klabusich writes about how freeing it actually was to see herself as “sick” when she needed to take a day off due to her mental illness:

I’d realized that not only is it alright for me to think of the dysthymia as the illness that it is, it’s necessary. If it were a south-of-the-neck illness, I wouldn’t have had the conflict about it. Yes, I’ve worked when I had a virus and shouldn’t have. (See the stats on service industry staff who work when they’re sick; we’ve all done it.) But my thought process would have been totally different. I certainly wouldn’t have needed the Ah ha! moment to know I had the flu. So why didn’t I realize I was sick?

Our culture impresses upon us that we SUCK IT UP and GIT ER DONE when our “issue” is “just mental.” Except . . .


It turns out that what happens in my head has a real—not imagined or exaggerated—physical affect on my other bodily functions. That list of symptoms from a dysthymia flare? They’re worse than the flu. Full-blown body aches and exhaustion alone are enough to make just sitting up nearly impossible. What work Idid do last week was all done from bed. Including writing this.

Others may not find that way of thinking helpful, in which case, they should absolutely abandon it in favor of whatever does help.

I want to end on a cautionary note about this whole idea of the medical model “pathologizing” “normal” emotions, because the alternatives I sometimes see offered to the medical model seem far, far worse about this. While Kinderman seems to argue sensibly for a more “psychosocial” approach to mental healthcare and a reduction in the use of medication (which I disagree with, but at least it’s sensible), others turn entirely away from scientifically validated treatments into “holistic” or “alternative” treatment. In many of these communities, “positive thinking” is seen as the only treatment you need, and anything that strays from the “positive” (like, you know, the negative emotions that are a normal part of almost any mental illness) is actively preventing you from recovering. There’s a very victim-blamey aspect to all of this: if you’re unhappy or sick,” it’s your own fault for not thinking positively enough.

I’ve had clients from these communities in counseling, and it’s very difficult to get any work done with them because they only ever want to share “positive” thoughts and feelings with me. As it turns out, medical model or no, they have completely pathologized any sort of negative emotion–including, in fact, the totally normal negative emotions that all of us experience all the time.

Yet it’s those evil psychiatrists who don’t want anybody to be sad or angry ever. Okay.

Some critiques of the medical model are quite valid and very useful. Others seem to rest less on evidence and more on a general sense of unease about the idea of thinking of mental symptoms as, well, symptoms. Kinderman even implies that it’s unethical. But “makes me uncomfortable” isn’t the same as “unethical,” as we all know. Unless I see evidence that this conceptualization is harmful overall, I see no reason to throw it out.

That said, if you’re a mental health provider and you have clients who are clearly uncomfortable with this model, maybe don’t use it to explain their conditions to them, since it’s unlikely to be helpful. All of these labels and diagnoses and explanations should serve the client, not the other way around.

And if you’re a person who experiences some significant amount of mental distress and you can’t stand thinking of it as an illness, then don’t! You don’t have to think of it in any way you don’t like. I hope you’re getting treatment of some sort that works for you, but at the end of the day, it’s actually none of my business.


*Yes, there are probably some bad psychiatrists out there who think that grieving at the loss of a loved one is literally a mental illness. There are also surgeons who leave crap inside of people’s bodies or amputate the wrong limb. I see these as roughly analogous.


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On “Obvious” Research Results

There is a tendency in my social circles sometimes to dismiss social science results that seem “obvious” and aligned with our views with, “Well, duh, why didn’t they just ask a [person who experiences that type of marginalization/trauma/adverse situation].”

I’ve seen it happen with studies that show that fat-shaming is counterproductive, and studies that show that sucking up to abusers doesn’t stop abuse, and probably every other study I’ve ever written about here or posted on Facebook.

To be honest, I’m often having to suppress that initial response myself. It is infuriating when we’ve been saying something for years and now Science Proves It. (Of course, science doesn’t really “prove” anything.) It’s especially annoying when some of the some of the same people who deny my experiences when I share them are now posting links to articles about research that says that exact thing, without any apology for disbelieving me.

At the same time, though, I try to separate my frustration from my evaluation of the research. In reality, the fact that a result seems “obvious” or “common sense” doesn’t mean that the study shouldn’t have been conducted; for every result that aligns with common sense, there’s probably at least one that completely goes against it. Considering the fact that negative results have such a hard time getting published in psychology, there are probably a ton of studies sitting around in file drawers showing no correlations between things we assume are correlated.

Moreover, research is important because it helps us understand how prevalent or representative certain experiences are, and listening to individuals share their stories isn’t going to give you that perspective unless you somehow manage to listen to hundreds or thousands of people. (Even then, there will probably be more selection bias than there will be in a typical study, in which the subject pool at least isn’t limited to the researcher’s friends.) I will always believe someone who is telling me about their own experience, but that doesn’t mean that I will assume that everyone who shares a relevant identity with that person has had an identical experience. That would be stereotyping.

So, sure, to me it might be totally obvious that people who make creepy rape jokes are much more likely to actually violate boundaries–because I’ve experienced it enough times–but my experience may not have been representative. It is very much still my experience, and it is very much still valid and I have the right to avoid people who make creepy rape jokes since they make me uncomfortable, but it isn’t necessarily indicative of a broader trend. (Of course, now I know that it probably is, because multiple studies have strongly suggested it.)

The weirdest thing by far about the “Why didn’t they just ask a [person who experiences that type of marginalization/trauma/adverse situation]” response is that, well, they did. That’s literally what they’re doing when they conduct research on that topic. Sure, research is a more formal and systematic way of asking people about their experiences, but it’s still a way.

And while researchers do tend to have all kinds of privilege relative to the people who participate in their studies, many researchers are also pushed to study certain kinds of oppression and marginalization because they’ve experienced it themselves. While I never did end up applying to a doctoral program, I did have a whole list of topics I wanted to study if I ever got there and many of them were informed directly by my own life. The reason researchers study “obvious” questions like “does fat-shaming hurt people” isn’t necessarily because they truly don’t know, but because 1) their personal anecdotal opinion isn’t exactly going to sway the scientific establishment and 2) establishing these basic facts in research allows them to build a foundation for future work and receive grant funding for that work. In my experience, researchers often strongly suspect that their hypothesis is true before they even begin conducting the study; if they didn’t, they might not even conduct it.

That’s why studies that investigate “obvious” social science questions are a good sign, not a bad one. They’re not a sign that clueless researchers have no idea about these basic things and can’t be bothered to ask a Real Marginalized Person; they’re a sign that researchers strongly suspect that these effects are happening but want to be able to make an even stronger case by including as many Real Marginalized People in the study as financially/logistically possible.

As I said, I do completely empathize with the frustration of feeling like nobody takes our experiences seriously until they are officially Proven By Science. I also wish that people didn’t need research citations before they are willing to accommodate an individual’s preferences for the sake of inclusivity or just not being an asshole. (For instance, if I ask you to stop shaming me for my weight, you should stop doing it whether or not you have seen Scientific Proof that fat-shaming is harmful, because I have set a boundary with you.)

However, if we take individual experiences as necessarily indicative of broader trends, we would be forced to conclude that, for instance, there is an epidemic of false rape accusations or that Christian children are overwhelmingly bullied in the United States for their religious beliefs. Certainly both things happen. Certainly both things happen very visibly sometimes. Both are awful things that should never happen, but it is, in fact, important to keep in perspective what’s a tragic fluke and what’s a tragic pattern, because flukes and patterns require different prevention strategies.

I’ll admit that a part of my discomfort with “well duh that’s obvious why’d they even study that” is because I don’t want the causes I care about to become publicly aligned with ignoring, ridiculing, or minimizing science. We should study “obvious” things. We should study non-“obvious” things. We should study basically everything as long as we do it ethically. We should do it while preparing ourselves for the possibility that studies will not confirm what we believe to be true, in which case we dig deeper and design better studies and/or develop better opinions. I find Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Litany of Tarski to be helpful here:

If the box contains a diamond,
I desire to believe that the box contains a diamond;
If the box does not contain a diamond,
I desire to believe that the box does not contain a diamond;
Let me not become attached to beliefs I may not want.

Even if your experiences turn out to be statistically atypical, they are still valid. Even if it turns out that fat-shaming is an effective way to get people to lose weight, guess what! We still get to argue that it’s hurtful and wrong, and that it’s none of our business how much other people weigh. Knowing what the science actually says at this point is the first step to an effective argument. Knowing what the possibly-faulty science is currently saying is the first step to making better science.

Being Extra Nice To Abusers Doesn’t Stop Abuse

[CN: abuse]

So I’m reading this Washington Post article about some recent research on abusive bosses and come across this perplexing bit:

But the researchers also found something they didn’t expect. They predicted that acts of compassion and empathy—employees who assist bad bosses by going above and beyond, helping bosses with heavy workloads even when they’re not asked—would be negatively linked with abusive behavior. In other words, such acts of kindness might help lessen future rude or abusive behavior.

The study, however, found that wasn’t true. “Abusive supervisors didn’t respond to followers being positive and compassionate, and doing things to be supportive and helpful,” said Charlice Hurst, an assistant professor at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business who was a co-author on the paper. Their findings, she said, seem to “clash with common sense.”

To put it mildly, these findings only clash with common sense if you’ve never been abused or bullied. If you have, then you know that abuse is not about persuading people to do nice things for you. It’s about controlling them: their feelings, their thoughts, their self-esteem, their experiences, their behavior, even the course of their lives. It is also about asserting power publicly to control bystanders as well.

That’s why bullies and abusers “win” almost no matter how you respond. If you lash out in anger, they get to use their higher status to get you in trouble for your anger. If you cry, they get to ridicule you. If you ignore it and walk away, they get to paint you as a coward–and, regardless, they still get to influence bystanders even if they haven’t influenced you. If you start being extra nice to them, then they reap the benefits of your niceness while reinforcing their dominance over you. The only way to “win” in an abusive situation is to find a way to get out of it entirely and never look back, and that’s exactly what abuse is designed to prevent you from doing.

And in the event that a boss is deliberately choosing to be abusive in order to elicit “supportive and helpful” behavior from you, then behaving in a supportive and helpful manner would only reinforce the abuse*. It would be like feeding scraps to a dog that begs at the table, except that dogs that beg are at worst annoying and bosses that abuse are at worst life-ruining. I am absolutely horrified at the idea that people are advising victims of workplace abuse to perform “acts of compassion and empathy” towards their abusers, because if anything, that’ll only teach the abusers that abuse is an effective method of getting people to kiss your ass.

The article continues:

In the paper, the researchers say one explanation may be that bosses just see all that extra work as part of the job, something academics refer to as “organizational citizenship,” and therefore don’t feel the need to treat their employees any better because of those efforts.

I submit that it’s not that at all, but rather that people who abuse, whether they do it in a school or their home or their office, do it because they reap some psychological reward from it. Why would they give that reward up just because you did some of their paperwork?

One might protest that this is making it seem like there’s nothing that victims of workplace abuse can do to stop the abuse. Indeed, the article notes that the researchers have so far “only discovered what not to do” to stop abuse, and nothing to do to stop it.

While that might aggravate those who believe strongly in a just world, it makes complete sense. Abusive situations are abusive precisely because they involve a significant imbalance of power. The person with less power does not have the capacity to influence the situation significantly. If they did, they probably wouldn’t have been abused in the first place. And the thing about having relatively little power is that you can’t just decide one day to have more power. That’s not how power works.

That’s why telling victims of abuse and other power-based acts of violence (such as sexual assault) to prevent that violence is not only hurtful and condescending, but also totally useless. That’s why comparing abuse and sexual assault to other situations, like stolen bikes, doesn’t work.

The researchers in this particular study seem to have wised up a lot about abusive dynamics over the course of their research. Co-author Charlice Hurst says that in order to prevent workplace abuse, “Companies have to create cultures where abusive supervisors are not acceptable, and they have to implement policies for employees to report being bullied.” In other words, the responsibility for preventing bullying rests on the shoulders of those who have more relative power within the workplace, not those who have less. The way to stop bullying is to implement reforms at the systemic level, not at the individual level.

(And no, before anyone jumps in with “but some employees are just terrible and rude and bad at their jobs, so shouldn’t they improve,” that’s completely irrelevant. The solution to a bad employee is to tell them how to improve and if they don’t, fire them. It’s not to abuse them.)

While victims of abuse do not have much control over the abuse itself (unless they manage to extricate themselves and leave), they do have some control over their emotional reaction. It is very important that I said “some.” I didn’t say “complete,” or “a lot.” And that control can include, for instance, going to therapy to learn coping skills. But the reason I bring this up is that “passive-aggressive retaliation,” one of the reactions the researchers showed to be ineffective in terms of stopping abuse, was also shown in a different study to be effective for a different purpose: helping employees cope. In sum, “Employees felt less like victims when they retaliated against their bad bosses and as a result experienced less psychological distress, more job satisfaction and more commitment to their employer.”

Of course, retaliation of any sort can be dangerous, you know your situation best, take all psychology reporting with an appropriate grain of salt, et cetera. I’m hesitant to do some sort of “coping with abuse” advicepost because I don’t want to come across like I’m condoning abuse or being fatalistic about it, but on the other hand, 1) abuse happens and 2) it’s already been demonstrated numerous times that you cannot prevent your own abuse. Using whatever coping strategies work for you seems like a good idea.

I hope that studies like this one bring more awareness to the psychology community about the dynamics of abuse. Too often, psychologists fall into the trap of focusing overly on individual factors (like what abuse victims can/should do) as opposed to structural factors (like what communities/systems can/should do). This causes them to make ridiculous assumptions like “it’s just common sense that being nice to an abuser would make them stop abusing!”

It makes sense that only someone with more power (whether individual or collective) than an abuser can make them stop abusing, although that may not always be sufficient. If an abuser holds such absolute power in your workplace that nobody and nothing can hold them accountable, you’re going to have issues with abuse no matter how nice the abuser’s victims are.


*I want to be very clear here that sometimes being extra nice to an abuser feels like the only safe thing to do, in which case you should do whatever makes you feel safe first and foremost. I will never pass judgment on the ways in which individuals choose to cope with their abuse. However, I also don’t think we should advise people to do things that seem like they’d make abuse worse, so, that’s what I’m getting at here.


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Other People Have It Worse

[CN: bullying, sexual assault]

I had a client recently who spent most of his childhood as a target of relentless bullying and physical violence at school. Now, he says, “It’s not that big of a deal. I had a home and a loving family. Some people had it much worse.”

I said, “The worst thing you’ve ever gone through is the worst thing you’ve ever gone through.”

What I mean is that whatever it is that happened to you that still makes you burst into tears or wake up from nightmares or shudder in horror, that’s still (one of) the most difficult thing(s) you’ve ever lived through. The fact that the things that make other people burst into tears or wake up from nightmares or shudder in horror seem worse to you doesn’t change that.

Besides, it’s not so easy to rank suffering. Even if you could rank potential traumas from worst to least worst, someone else’s ranking might look totally different. (There are people who feel that they’d rather die than be gay, and there are happy gay people.) And the ranking might change completely if the hypothetical becomes real. Many people might think, “I could never live through ____,” until ____ happens. Then it sucks, and yet they live. Often they even thrive. And something else becomes The Worst Thing.

So, in fact, one of the people who’s survived one of the things you think about when you think “other people have it worse” might be thinking the same about you. Who’s to say who is right?

When I worked with survivors of sexual assault on a hotline, I noticed that almost every single one of them expressed the belief that others were the “real victims” while they didn’t really have it “that bad.” The women who had faced “attempted” rape said that the women who had “actually” been raped had it “worse.” The women who had been raped by partners or friends said that the women who had been raped by strangers had it “worse.” The women who had been raped by strangers said that the women who had been physically injured during the rape had it “worse.” The women who had been physically injured during the rape said that the women who had contracted an STI or become pregnant had it “worse.” And on and on it went.

In fact, some women who had been raped by strangers thought, “At least I didn’t get raped by someone I loved.” Some women have found it less traumatic to be raped by someone they hadn’t wanted to have sex with at all than by someone that they agreed to have sex with, who then violated their consent by lying about having put on a condom or by doing something else that they hadn’t consented to.

Everyone seems to think that 1) someone else’s experience was objectively worse, and 2) that this means that their own experience “shouldn’t be that big of a deal.”

So either everyone’s trauma is valid, or no one’s trauma is valid. And the latter doesn’t make any sense.

The purpose of reminding yourself that “others have it worse” is ostensibly to build perspective and remind yourself that yours aren’t the only problems in the world. That’s an admirable goal and a worthwhile perspective. However, I think that a certain amount of healing needs to happen before that’s feasible or healthy. It’s okay if there’s a period of time during which you feel absolutely certain that nobody has ever suffered as you’re suffering. And it’s okay if the cause of that feeling is a broken-up relationship or a failed class or even just a spectacularly shitty day. It doesn’t have to be a Real Approved Trauma™.

I think many people feel that they have a moral imperative to always Keep Things In Perspective and make sure that their feelings are in line with some objective ranking of bad things. But the way you feel in the aftermath of a bad thing doesn’t have to be your final say on the matter. It doesn’t have to Mean Anything besides the fact that your brain is doing brain stuff. It doesn’t have to be a feeling you “endorse.”

Of course, many people also believe that if you can somehow fully convince yourself that others do in fact Have It Worse, it will hasten your healing. I’m sure that’s the case for some people, but it doesn’t really seem in line with what I’ve observed in my own experiences, friendships, and professional work with people. Rather, it seems that people heal through acknowledging what happened to them and feeling the feelings that it brings up. There’s a reason why “Wow, that sounds really hard, I’m sorry” does a better job of comforting people than “You know, others have it worse.”

If there value in contemplating the struggles of others as part of your own healing process, I’m convinced that it doesn’t lie in chastisingly reminding yourself that Others Have It Worse, but in letting yourself see how similar those struggles really are. Don’t jump to the classist assumption that people in the “Third World” are necessarily dying of AIDS or hunger while silly privileged you is crying over a breakup. Read some lovesick poetry written by a teenage boy in Ethiopia. And, not but. Replace “This sucks but others have it worse” with “This sucks and I bet other people have to deal with it too.” Countless other people have survived this and you will too. Doesn’t make it suck any less, but it does mean there’s hope.

Emotions are relative, which is why the worst thing you’ve ever experienced feels like the worst thing in the world. But that’s a feature, not a bug. The fact that emotions are relative is what allows us both to cope with persistent adversity and also to keep reaching higher for happiness rather than becoming complacent.

It also means that there isn’t much use in trying to figure out who’s suffering more. Rational!You can choose to care more about global poverty than rare feline diseases that kills some pet cats (I think that would be a wise decision), but the rest of you is still allowed to grieve when your cat dies because of a rare feline disease, and while you’re grieving, you’re allowed to care much more about rare feline diseases than global poverty. If nothing else, think of it this way: the sooner you let yourself feel your feelings, the sooner you can be back to your rational, poverty-prioritizing self.

But besides that, I think that allowing ourselves to feel our own feelings also helps us to be more compassionate to others, including all those people we think are suffering so much more.


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What We Can Learn From the Reproducibility Project

I have a new piece up at the Daily Dot about the Reproducibility Project and why psychology isn’t doomed.

The Internet loves sharing psychology studies that affirm lived experiences, and even the tiniest ticks of everyday people. But somewhere in the mix of all those articles and listicles about introverts, extroverts, or habits that “make people successful,” a debate still lingers: Is psychology a “real science?” It’s a question that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Last week, the Reproducibility Project, an effort by psychology researchers to redo older studies to see if their findings hold up, discovered that only 36 of the 100 studies it tested reproduced the same results.

Of course, many outlets exaggerated these findings, referring to the re-tested studies (or to psychology in general) as “failed” or “proven wrong.” However, as Benedict Carey explains in the New York Times, the project “found no evidence of fraud or that any original study was definitively false. Rather, it concluded that the evidence for most published findings was not nearly as strong as originally claimed.”

But “many psychology studies are not as strong as originally claimed” isn’t as interesting of a headline. So, what’s really going on with psychology research? Should we be worried? Is psychology a “hopeless case?” It’s true that there’s a problem, but the problem isn’t that psychology is nonscientific or that researchers are designing studies poorly (though some of them probably are). The problem is a combination of two things: Statistical methods that aren’t as strong as we thought and a lack of interest in negative findings.

A negative finding happens when a researcher carries out a study and does not find the effect they expected or hoped to find. For instance, suppose you want to find out whether or not drinking coffee every morning affects one’s overall satisfaction with their life. You predict that it does. You take a group of participants and randomly assign half of them to drink coffee every morning for a month, and the other half to abstain from coffee for a month. At the start and at the end of that month, you give them a questionnaire that assesses how satisfied each participant is with their life.

If you find that drinking coffee every day makes no difference when it comes to one’s life satisfaction, you have a negative result. Your hypothesis was not confirmed.

This result isn’t very interesting, as research goes. It’s much less likely to be published than a study with positive results—one that shows that drinking coffee does impact life satisfaction. Most likely, these results will end up gathering figurative dust on the researcher’s computer, and nobody outside of the lab will ever hear about them. Psychologists call this the file-drawer effect.

Read the rest here.

When Someone’s Negativity Makes You Uncomfortable

Ever since I got depressed and started paying attention to this stuff, I’ve been talking about the unintentionally-dismissive ways in which people often respond when someone shares something negative that they’re dealing with or feeling: “It’s not that big of a deal,” “Oh, cheer up!”, “Look at the bright side,” and so on. Something I’ve had to deal with in particular on Facebook is people making inane and inappropriate jokes in response to serious personal things that I post, which, I’m told, they do in order to “lighten the mood.”

Luckily, I’ve found a lot of great resources to help explain this to people, such as this book and this article. One form of pushback I’ve gotten is this: “But what if people make these types of comments/jokes because they’re uncomfortable with hearing the negative stuff?”

Well, yeah, that’s exactly why they do it. In most contexts, we’re still not used to honesty about negative life stuff, and it’s uncomfortable and awkward and weird, and so the automatic response is to deal with that discomfort by shutting the negativity down.

That said, there are different types of discomfort. There’s “this isn’t the social norm, wtf” discomfort, and there’s “this is crossing my boundaries” discomfort. Sometimes, though not always, they overlap.

When I post something on my own Facebook, that’s not violating anyone’s boundaries, because it’s my own page. (Obviously you can think of some extreme examples of this, such as if I used my Facebook to post a sexual comment about someone else.) Anyone who doesn’t like what’s on my Facebook generally can unfollow or unfriend me, or, if it’s not that big a deal, just ignore and scroll past the post. You can also do this amazing thing:

Didja know you can hide posts from your Facebook feed by hitting that down arrow in the top right corner? Now ya do!

Didja know you can hide posts from your Facebook feed by hitting that down arrow in the top right corner? Now ya do!

The mere fact that a post is visible in your feed does not obligate you to respond to it, not even if the post is very sad! I get a lot of comments like “Well I just felt like I had to say something because you were so sad.” No. Me being sad does not obligate a response from you. This type of thinking is bad for you–because it forces you to interact with things you don’t want to interact with–and it’s bad for me, because it causes people to make insensitive and inappropriate remarks to me when I’m already struggling. This type of thinking isn’t good for anyone, and that’s why I generally encourage people to try to avoid thinking of social interactions or relationships in terms of “obligation.”

And yeah, it’s totally possible that constantly seeing posts that bring you down and make negative feelings come up for you totally isn’t worth it, but as I said, that’s why unfollow/unfriend/hide post exist. I frequently unfollow and/or hide posts from people when they’re making me feel bad for no productive reason (for instance, something that I find really hard to deal with is violent rhetoric, and that’s my own boundary to responsibility for).  Sometimes, to be quite honest, someone’s post makes me feel sad and jealous and so I just hide it so that I don’t have to be reminded of it. Is this cowardly and “immature”? I mean, maybe? But it’s a hell of a lot better than commenting on the post with “meh I wish I had a job :(” or “well I’ll probably never get engaged, lol, so, congrats to you I guess.” I don’t have to spend 100% of my social media time actively Working On Myself, you know. Likewise, you are totally free to just hide my depression stuff from your feed if it’s unpleasant.

Situations in which someone asks “How are you?” and receives a “too”-honest response are a little thornier than Facebook feed management. On the one hand, you would be forgiven for assuming that if someone asks how you are, they want to know how you are. On the other hand, it is also currently the case that people use these sorts of questions as greetings or smalltalk and that they do not expect a treatise on all your current medical or financial or occupational or relational woes just because they said three words. If you don’t realize that someone didn’t mean to show that much interest and tell them anyway, I think that’s forgivable, because not everyone is always able to understand and navigate these unspoken assumptions. But if you’re reasonably certain that the person doesn’t actually want to know all these details and would be uncomfortable to hear them, it’s kind of creepy to give them anyway with the justification that “yeah well they technically asked.”

I usually handle these situations by being light on the details unless prompted. “How are you?” “Ugh, honestly, it’s been pretty stressful lately.” At that point, the person can say, “Oh no, what’s going on?” or they can say, “Damn, that sucks! Well, hope it gets better soon!” The ball is in their court, and nobody has to hear more than they’re comfortable with.

Situations in which the person doing the venting is the one who initiates the interaction can be even trickier, which is why I wrote a whole post about it. But to sum it up, basically, ask people for consent before dumping really serious stuff on them and definitely provide trigger warnings if you’re going to discuss things that are likely to be triggering for those who have dealt with them too.

There is definitely something very passive-aggressive about saying “Oh, cheer up, it’ll be fine!” when what you really mean is, “Actually, I’m not really comfortable listening to this, so I’m going to end this conversation now.” And yeah, the latter doesn’t sound like a nice thing to say. Yeah, it might hurt the feelings of the person who’s telling you the negative stuff. But it’s actually a much kinder thing to say than a dismissive remark that shuts the person down and makes them feel like they don’t even have the right to be upset about whatever it is they’re dealing with.

Worse, they may not actually get the message that you’re uncomfortable hearing about their problems. They may tell themselves that you’re just trying to make them feel better the best way you know how (because that really is why a lot of people say this sort of stuff!) and therefore feel really confused about whether or not you’re someone that they should come to when they want to talk about stuff. On the one hand, talking to you about stuff feels bad. On the other hand, you’re acting like you want them to feel better, so you must care, right?

Setting boundaries sometimes hurts feelings. There’s no way around this because you cannot control other people’s feelings, and there is no award for for Best At Being Passive Aggressive So As To Avoid Directly Hurting Feelings (And Instead Only Hurting Them Indirectly). (Even if there were, is that an award you want?) If you are uncomfortable hearing someone talk about their problems and are therefore unwilling to do it, it is in everyone’s best interest–especially theirs–for this to be clarified as soon as possible.

(And should you find yourself on the other side of that and having someone tell you that they can’t listen to you anymore, remember: you don’t have to like it or be happy about it, but you do have to respect their boundaries.)

This is one of those moments when I say, 1) your boundaries are always valid and it is okay (even good) to enforce them, and also 2) it might be a good idea to do some introspection about why you have the boundaries that you have. Yes, sometimes we need to set limits on what sort of emotional support we can offer others because we need to make sure that people aren’t depending on us in ways that we can’t be depended on, or that people aren’t triggering things that we’re still dealing with ourselves.

On the other hand, sometimes we’re uncomfortable hearing certain things because it’s outside of our current social norms and we have some unexamined ideas about what’s “appropriate” and what isn’t. For instance, when I have an automatic negative reaction to hearing someone say that they’re really worried because their job doesn’t pay them enough, is that because I need to avoid listening to such things for the sake of my own well-being, or because some part of me still believes that it’s “impolite” to openly talk about things like money (especially not having enough of it)? That’s not a trick question, because it could actually be either or both. Right now, as I’m dealing with my own job search and my own fears of making too little money, it could very well be that I need to step back and not be in conversations like these. Or it could also be that I have these leftover beliefs about talking about money.

It’s crucial, I think, to learn how to critically examine your own responses and the boundaries that you set up around those responses without assuming that those responses and boundaries are therefore illegitimate. You can critically examine where your boundaries come from while still maintaining them at least until you figure it out!

So if every time someone says something negative about their life, your brain is going “no stop get away this is bad ugh ugh,” that’s a response to consider examining, because a lot of the time that comes from some very unhealthy social norms we have about what people should do when they have a mental illness or other emotional difficulty (just keep it to themselves and suffer alone, or put a positive spin on it that may not be authentic at all). In the meantime, you still get to get away if that’s what you want to do.


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Don’t Tell People How (Not) To Feel

[Content note: mentions of abuse, transphobia, & racism]

The more I do this–this writing/activism/therapy thing that I do–the more I’m coming to believe that there is almost never anything to be gained by telling people how to feel, or how not to feel.

In fact, I worry that doing so is at best neutral, probably manipulative, possibly cruel, and at worst abusive.

The most obvious examples provoke little disagreement from the social circles I move in–for instance, telling a person with depression to “cheer up,” telling a person with anxiety to “calm down,” telling a person who is angry to “stop being so angry,” telling a person who has suffered trauma to “just get over it.” These are all examples of telling people how to feel, or how not to feel, that most of us would recognize as wrong.

But the message that folks seem to get when we talk about this isn’t “telling people how (not) to feel is wrong,” but rather, “don’t tell people with mental illness/trauma history to get better because they can’t just do that on the spot.”

But what if they could? What if the cause of the emotions was something other than mental illness or trauma? Then would it be acceptable to tell them how to feel?

I think some people would say yes, at least in certain situations.

Emotions and morality are all bound up in our minds. We associate certain emotions with certain moral acts and other emotions with certain immoral acts (which with which may depend on one’s social group). Although there may be a correlation, of course, it’s probably not nearly as strong as people assume. Moreover, it’s much easier, in my experience, to change your behavior than to change your emotions. Even if you are neurotypical, but especially if you are not.

So we start to point to certain emotions, which we consider “markers” of certain immoral acts, as the problem. It’s wrong to feel angry or resentful when a potential romantic partner turns you down. It’s wrong not to be angry about injustice. It’s wrong to feel happy during a time when other people are sad. It’s wrong to fail to feel sad when Objectively Sad Things (like the loss of a loved one) happen.

I would argue that none of those are actually wrong, though. It’s wrong to guilt-trip, manipulate, or punish someone who doesn’t want to date you. It’s wrong to do absolutely nothing to make the world a better place despite having the ability to do so. But you can feel resentful at someone who rejected you without ever mistreating them, and you can actively make the world a better place without ever feeling angry about injustice.

It’s ironic that we use emotions as a proxy for actions when they are so much more difficult to change. You can change them, of course, but only with time and effort, and almost never right in the moment. Happiness is pretty easy to kill, as I was reminded very directly after Obergefell v Hodges came down, but it’s rarely replaced with the feelings that were intended to replace it. When people kept suggesting that anyone who feels happy after that decision is a terrible person who doesn’t care about other issues and naively believes that The Fight Is Over, I wasn’t suddenly full of fiery anger on behalf of all the LGBTQ folks who continue to face marginalization (including, by the way, myself). I just felt sad and defeated, and very condescended to.

Nevertheless, despite my happiness at the Supreme Court’s decision, I’m not done fighting. My actions speak louder than my happiness that particular day.

More importantly, though, I worry about the ramifications of assuming that we can and should tell people how to feel. If you tell someone to calm down or cheer up or get angry and they immediately comply, I’m not sure that that’s a healthy process. I’m not sure that it’s ultimately a good thing if people are able to change their emotions (or convincingly pretend to) as soon as someone demands it. To me, that sounds more like an abusive situation than anything else.

I’m also concerned because, once you learn (as many of us do at some point or another) that others are better than us at knowing what our emotions ought to be, that process of adjusting your emotions (or emotional expressions) to their expectations becomes par for the course. Certainly someone can claim that their particular reason for telling you how to feel is Very Important and For A Good Cause, but everyone claims that, including abusive people. Many people in my life could say that it’d be For My Own Good if I could just stop feeling sad on command. Many people have a vested interest in keeping us from being angry, or expressing our anger. Once you get in the habit of “correcting” your emotions at others’ request, it’s going to be, well, a habit.

Moreover, when people believe that it’s their emotions, and not their actions, that are problematic, they often try to push away and suppress those emotions because they are Wrong. They may even succeed for a while, but ultimately, this sort of project inevitably fails. (I’ve been there.) Suppressing Wrong emotions prevents self-awareness, which is exactly what you need to make sure that you don’t hurt people because of your emotions. Telling people their emotions are Wrong is not only ineffective, but counterproductive.

You might think that if you tell someone that their emotions are Wrong, they will immediately say, “Wow, you’re right, I will call a therapist and set up an appointment right away.” Wouldn’t that be nice. But that’s not how it works. Even if there’s a strong indication that someone probably needs to go to therapy, if you stigmatize them that way, they’ll probably believe that 1) the therapist would stigmatize them that way too, and 2) they’re a terrible person who doesn’t deserve help.

Unfortunately, I notice this a lot in people who are trying to figure out how to deal with romantic rejection, especially men. They hear that people (especially men) who get upset when they’re rejected do terrible things, and they hear that feeling upset is as much a problem as the actual doing of the terrible things. And I get that the message gets diluted a lot when we’re trying to deal with horrific shit like Elliot Rodger, but thankfully, the vast majority of people are not Elliot Rodger. Feeling upset or even angry when you get rejected is normal. You can work on it with a therapist (or with some helpful online advice) if you want, but what matters is how you act. That’s what makes you who you are.

What about emotions that are Truly Awful? What if someone is disgusted by trans* people? What if someone is terrified when they see a Black man approaching on the street?

To be honest, I don’t really know what to do with these emotions (and I’m perfectly willing to admit that I don’t know). Here people can make a convincing argument that these emotions actually do lead to actual harm done to marginalized people, which is true. Here, again, the problem is the actual harm done to these people and not what goes on in someone’s head, but what goes on in someone’s head is undeniably related to the actual harm done to these people!

Then again, these emotions don’t come from nowhere. They, like many emotions, come from thoughts or ideas. Those thoughts or ideas are, “People ought to be either Men or Women” (where “Men” or “Women” means “as traditionally defined by cissexist assumptions), “Black men are dangerous,” and so on. There’s no use in telling people not to be disgusted by trans* people and not to be afraid of Black men unless we address the ideas that are prompting those feelings. As someone who has experienced lots of such shifts in feelings over time as my understanding of power, privilege, and oppression has evolved, I can attest to this.

In sum, I don’t have all the answers on this, but I’m starting to believe that it doesn’t really do any good to police people’s feelings, even when they seem like the wrong feelings.


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Irrational Feelings are Still Valid, and Valid Feelings Can Be Irrational

Kate recently wrote about how sometimes, viewing your emotions as unjustified or irrational can actually prevent you from taking action to make them better. On the other hand, simply accepting all emotions as “valid” can also leave you with no way of trying to change them. To try to resolve this issue, she proposes a distinction between “local validity” and “global validity”:

Local validity is about noticing and responding to your current emotions as if they’re real emotions that are happening to you. Global validity is about reflecting about the trends and patterns of emotions and how well you think they’re grounded in a realistic view of the world.

Irrational and invalid aren’t the same thing. We can go wrong when we believe that any emotion that’s irrational must therefore be invalid, but we also go wrong when we believe that any emotion that’s valid must also be rational. (I think the latter error is made less often, but it’s true that some people feel that because emotions are “valid,” they must simply accept them as they are.)

In social circles where rationality is very highly valued, it can become difficult to tell others about how you’re feeling when you think that your feelings are irrational. Sometimes we fear judgmental responses from others (“But that makes no sense! Of course I don’t hate you! How could you possibly believe something like that?”). Other times, we may trust that people will be supportive, but we still don’t want to come across as someone who has a lot of “silly” or “irrational” feelings.

In this way, sometimes, people in social circles that have more traditional approaches to relationships and communication are at a slight advantage. For instance, suppose Sally is in a traditional monogamous relationship with Bob. Sally might feel totally comfortable telling Bob that she’s jealous when Bob spends time with his friend Susie. Sally might even feel comfortable expressing anger about this.

Of course, the resulting conversation might not necessarily be productive–Bob might just agree not to spend time with Susie anymore, or he might react angrily and tell Sally that she’s being “crazy.” But in my social circles, we often wouldn’t express feelings like Sally’s at all. We feel that being progressive/feminist/polyamorous/rational/whatever means we shouldn’t feel jealous when a partner spends time with a friend (or another partner), because that’s irrational, and therefore that feeling should be ignored rather than brought out into the open.

And so a lot of us end up trying to ignore or cope with these feelings alone. Where Bob might hug or kiss Sally and reassure her that he loves her, we get ice cream and Netflix. (Or maybe that’s just me. Seriously, I am Extremely Bad at this.)

The difference is that many people in traditional monogamous relationships treat jealousy as normal, even healthy, even a sign that you really love someone. Expressing jealousy in the context of these relationships can be a completely acceptable thing, like telling your partner that you’re annoyed that they didn’t tell you they’d be home late, or that you’re sad that they can’t spend the holidays with you and your family. I don’t want to borrow traditional monogamous folks’ ideas about jealousy necessarily, but I want to borrow their norms about expressing it and expecting your partner to hear you and respond lovingly to you even if the jealousy is “irrational.” (Yes, yes, #notallmonos.)

But as Kate’s example shows, this tendency to conflate “irrational” and “invalid” doesn’t just apply to relationships and decisions about whether or not to tell others how we’re feeling. I have a hard time engaging in self-care practices that help if I don’t feel like there’s a “rational” reason to feel the way I’m feeling.

For instance, if someone was mean to me or I had an awful day at work, I acknowledge those as “good” reasons to feel bad, and in response, I might ask friends for support or spend some money on something that brings me joy.

But if I’m feeling bad for reasons I think aren’t “good,” such as being jealous of someone or completely randomly, then I don’t feel like I have the “right” to ask for support. I don’t feel like it’d be justified to take time off of my responsibilities to do something pleasant to improve my mood. So I just sit there and suffer through it.

In a blog post, Malcolm writes about how it can be useful to “step outside” of one’s own feelings. To help someone else do that, you might ask them, “What feelings came up for you during that?” rather than “How do/did you feel?” The latter question makes people identify with a feeling in ways that the former doesn’t. To say that sad feelings came up for me feels different than saying that I am (or was) sad. He adds:

Our sociolinguistic context is full of maxims like “that’s just how I feel” or “I can’t help how I feel” or [INSERT OTHER EXAMPLES]. We don’t necessarily take them seriously, but they add to the confusion of what someone might mean when they say “I feel X”. A bunch of questions you could (mentally or verbally) ask in response:

do you endorse feeling X? do you think that feeling X makes sense?

would you like me to address (my reassurance, etc) towards the feeling, towards its causes, or towards you as the experiencer of the feeling?

is that all you’re feeling?

how do you feel about having that feeling?

do you see a way out of the feeling or does it feel all-consuming or inevitable?

Questions like these, when asked of yourself, can make it a lot easier to communicate feelings that you think are irrational. For instance: “I don’t endorse this feeling, but I’m jealous about your date with ____.” “I know this doesn’t make sense, but I’m sad about leaving for vacation tomorrow.”

And on the flip side, when people share feelings like these with us, I think it’s important not to jump too immediately to “Your feelings are valid” or “It’s okay to feel that way.” Those are very important and worthy sentiments, but for many people (such as me), they can contribute to a defeatist sort of attitude: “Well, I guess it’s ok that I’m just going to feel depressed every time a friend succeeds at something I haven’t, since that’s a valid and okay way to feel.” Often, “valid” starts to mean “unchangeable.”

Here, Malcolm’s example question, “How do you feel about having that feeling?” can be very helpful. If someone says they’re ashamed or embarrassed or having difficulty accepting that this feeling is even happening, validation can be very helpful. But if they say they’re frustrated by having to deal with the feeling, or they understand where it’s coming from but still wish it weren’t happening, then validation can unintentionally send the message that they should just accept it.

Some of this, I think, is a question of where someone is in their own process. Years ago, I was unable to fully acknowledge my depressive feelings because I didn’t understand that I had depression, and kept trying to convince myself that I “should” be happy given all the good things I had going for me. At that point, if someone had told me that sadness/depression is a valid feeling, that might’ve been a revelation.

Nowadays, I’ve basically accepted the fact that I have depression and that that brings with it depressive feelings. At this point, reminders that my feelings are “valid” are pretty much useless. I want to change them! And in order to change them, I have to understand how they’re irrational, how they’re set off, how to counter those automatic processes, and basically how to tell myself a better story about my life.

Ironically, both of these counterproductive processes can happen for the same person. Sometimes I refuse to treat my feelings as valid simply because they’re irrational. Other times, I have trouble changing irrational feelings simply because I’ve accepted that they’re valid. Depression feels so real that changing it seems impossible. But it’s not.


Note that I intentionally avoided getting bogged down in what exactly “rational” and “irrational” and “valid” and “invalid” mean. If this post doesn’t make sense to you, we’re probably working from different definitions, and that’s okay. Another blog post, another day.


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How to Motivate Yourself To Read Books


I read a lot.

A lot of my friends have recently been asking for advice about reading. Specifically, they say that they really value reading (books, generally) and have always seen themselves as people who read, but lately they can’t seem to motivate themselves to do it. This causes a lot of cognitive dissonance.

Usually people have one or both of these problems: 1) motivating themselves to actually pick up a book and read it, and 2) maintaining their focus on that book rather than getting distracted by other things, such as social media or articles online. Although these are slightly different issues, I’m addressing both of them here because some of the same suggestions might help for both.

Some people cite various factors that they think have contributed to the problem with reading, such as: 1) the prevalence of distracting technology, 2) being out of school and no longer being required to read all the time, and 3) being more used to reading short articles online rather than books. While I think that working out what causes difficulty with reading can be useful for you, I also think that the problem can be resolved without that. (See also: solution-focused brief therapy.)

Since I’ve had some of these issues myself and have developed a few practices that help, I decided to put together a blog post for reference for folks who have these issues. I also asked friends what’s worked for them, since this is such a common problem in my social circles, and incorporated their recommendations.

This isn’t “advice” per se; some of these might work for you and some of these might not. If you already know that the problem isn’t [thing] and a given suggestion addresses [thing], there’s no reason for you to try it (except curiosity, maybe). Some of these cost nothing to try, and others cost money. Some address the activation energy problem, and some address the focus problem. Some may feel bad to you, like you’re “giving up” on something important. If it feels awful, you don’t have to do it, but also consider that it might be worth readjusting (at least temporarily) your expectations for yourself.

1. Try reading something easier/simpler/more fun, at least at first.

A lot of people say they have trouble motivating themselves to read books, but what they really mean is Big Serious Books. If you really wish you could just pick up a book already, forget about Tolstoy or David Foster Wallace for now, and pick up a YA novel, a comic book, or something else that’s easy for you to get into. Online fanfiction works too. Saga is an amazing comic book series with big political themes, lots of diversity, beautiful art, and an engaging, suspenseful story. Peeps is a YA vampire novel, but it’s nothing like Twilight. Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is, well, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

This seems to work for a lot of people. My friend Nicole says: “When I can’t motivate myself to read, I approach it like I approach exercise–start off with some easier reads to get the momentum going. Definitely doesn’t work for everyone, but when I pick up some Harry Potter or even a Sweet Valley High book (only Judy can judge me), I’m at an easier entryway for reading than if I went 0 to Dostoyevsky.”

This is in some ways one of the hardest suggestions to implement because, I’ve noticed, a lot of people have a lot of shame and stuff around what they read. It’s difficult to feel like you’re Really Reading if you’re reading a comic book or a teen vampire story. But are you comprehending words on a page? Are you making predictions and feeling empathy for a character and wondering what made an author write it the way they wrote it? Then you’re reading.

If you really can’t get past the potential embarrassment of being seen with one of these books, you could buy a protective cover for it, or use an e-reader (more on that later).

You might find that as you (re)develop a reading habit, it becomes easier and easier to read harder and harder things. Tolstoy will always be there for you when you want him.

For me, this suggestion translates as reading fiction rather than nonfiction. Like quite a few like-minded people, I often feel that reading fiction is “silly” and “useless” compared to reading nonfiction, but I often find nonfiction difficult to get into and focus on. When I can’t get myself into nonfiction, I try to overcome that feeling and read some fiction instead. First of all, reading something is better than reading nothing. Second, it’s not even true that fiction is silly or useless; I absolutely learn about the world from it and get writing ideas from it and such.

Although most of my friends say that they have no trouble reading things online and feel that they have replaced books with blog posts and articles, if that’s not the case for you, then blog posts and articles might be a stepping stone to more “serious” reading.

2. Get comfortable.

When I’m having trouble focusing on a book I want to be reading and I can’t figure out why, I do some body scanning. Often I realize that the problem is that I’m physically uncomfortable and it didn’t even make it into my conscious awareness.

Note that this might be true even if you think the problem is that you’re getting distracted by your phone or whatever. I often automatically check my phone when I’m physically (or mentally) uncomfortable as a way to cope with those feelings in the moment. While this can be extremely useful when I have to be there and need to distract myself from my discomfort, it’s not as useful when you need to focus on reading, and when it’s actually possible to resolve the discomfort.

Figure out which reading positions are most comfortable for you. I like to have back support and a surface that is neither too hard nor tries to swallow me. My favorite places to read are hammocks, couches, armchairs, and those lounge chair things they have at the pool, as long as it’s not the hard plastic ones. Unfortunately, reading in bed is not usually something I can make comfortable for long periods of time, and neither is reading at a computer while sitting in some sort of chair. Regardless of what your favorite reading positions are, if you’re doing it for a while, make sure to get up regularly and stretch. Otherwise you’ll find yourself getting stiff and cramped and therefore distracted.

Other factors play into comfort, too. One friend says she reads on her computer using Kindle for Mac, because reading on her computer means that she doesn’t have to turn the lights on–and lights trigger her migraines. In college, I had a Snuggie so that I could stay warm while still being able to flip the pages.

3. Remove distractions.

Assuming that you do have a problem with getting distracted by things, see if you can remove them. If it’s noise, find a quiet place or use earplugs (they’re pretty cheap at any drugstore). If it’s technology, put it in another room or turn it off. I like to go outside with my books and leave other stuff inside.

Sometimes people don’t do this because they assume that if they “really” wanted to read, they’d be able to do it even with the iPhone right there. But that’s not really how motivation/focus works. Most humans like to move in the direction of least effort, at least when we let our automatic impulses take over. You love reading, but you also love Facebook, and Facebook is just easier. That doesn’t make you wrong (or Facebook evil). It’s just a thing that you might need to acknowledge and plan around.

4. Try an e-reader.

Money permitting, e-readers (or e-reading apps on phones) can really help. That’s the thing that worked best for me, and the suggestion I got most often from my friends who say it worked for them. For some people, e-readers are physically more convenient and easy. For some, it’s that there aren’t other distractions on it (like there are on a phone). For other people, on the other hand, reading on a phone is great because it allows you to read in situations where you otherwise might not have been able to. I used to read e-books on my phone while waiting for clients to show up at work.

Those of you who commute on public transit may also find that e-readers/phones resolve a lot of logistical challenges. When I first moved to New York, I had a hell of a time trying to hold onto a pole on a crowded train and a bag or two and a book with pages I needed to flip. Within a few months, I got my Nook, which can be held in one hand and has conveniently-located buttons that flip the pages without a need for another hand. I happily read for hours each week while standing on trains and holding onto poles.

The cheapest current Kindle is $80, and you can even pay for it in installments. It’s probably even cheaper if you get it used. If that’s still not affordable for you but you do have a smartphone, Kindle and Nook both make free apps (and there are probably others). Your local public library might have e-books available for borrowing. Even the one here in my little Ohio suburb has that now. A friend also recommends BookBub as a way to find cheap and free ebooks.

5. If you have to drive a lot, try audiobooks.

Personally, I dislike receiving information in audio format, but some people say this works for them, especially when they have to commute by car a lot. This is also great if you feel like you can’t justify the additional time spent on reading because you have so many other things to do. This way, you’re not expending any extra time on it, just making better use of the time you already have.

6. Make it social.

Reading is generally a very solitary activity, and it’s difficult to spend hours isolated from other people doing something that’s not easily shared with them. So see if you can make it shareable.

Traditionally, people made reading social through book clubs. If that’s an option for you, try it. Note that book clubs need not be in-person/geographically proximate–online book clubs can work a lot better if it’s difficult to find people nearby who share your interests, or if going to in-person events is stressful.

However, there are plenty of ways to make reading social besides book clubs. For instance, you can post book reviews on sites like Goodreads or on Facebook. You can share what you’re reading on social media, and often friends will get excited along with you or discuss the book with you if they’ve read it too. I love to post quotes on Facebook and Tumblr, especially from nonfiction books (but often from fiction too). It helps me feel like I’m doing something good for people by spreading the knowledge I’m getting, and it also gets me some positive reinforcement from people for reading. Everybody wins.

I’ve written before (to a small amount of pushback) that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with using this sort of reinforcement to motivate yourself to do things you know are good for you to do. You are not weak or silly or shallow if the encouragement and positive feedback of people you care about helps you do things. Yes, there are downsides to this, but it’s also the way humans work. Be self-aware and use it to your advantage.

7. Take books everywhere.

Take books everywhere you go, even if it’s a situation where people might make fun of you for having a book. (When I used to hang out with friends who were slightly less cool than my current friends, they’d make fun of me for having a book. They’d be like, “What, did you think I’d be that boring?” I’d be like, no, but I thought, what if you were late and I had to wait for you? What if you went to the restroom for a while? What if you needed to leave earlier and I wanted to stay at the coffee shop by myself? That’s to say nothing of public transit.)

If you always have a book, you might find yourself turning to it in those everyday boring situations. In line at the post office. In the doctor’s waiting room. In the train. On your lunch break. At the bar, waiting for your friends to show up. Boredom can be a great motivator.

E-readers help with this, but I’ve been doing it with paper books for as long as I’ve been able to read.

8. Make a habit of browsing bookstores and libraries.

When you’re in a bookstore or a library, there’s really only two things to do: find books, and read books. As a kid I used to walk out of the library with huge towers of books because I couldn’t bear to leave such interesting things in place. I wouldn’t always read all of them, but the excitement of finding something cool in the stacks is its own motivator.

When you find an interesting book, try reading the first chapter (or part of it), not just the jacket copy. If you don’t like it, you haven’t spent that much time. If you do like it, check it out or buy it, and then you’re already hooked and motivated to keep going.

This is also very fun to combine with #6. Make it social. When I was in high school and there wasn’t much else to do, my friends and I made bookstore trips constantly. Nowadays, I like to take people I’m dating (or thinking about dating) to bookstores. You learn a lot about someone that way, and plus it’s fun, and plus it encourages you to read.

Although there’s definitely something special to me about bookstores and libraries, browsing books on Amazon can have some similar effects, especially since it’ll show you similar books to what you’re looking at. I’ve definitely gotten lost in that particular rabbit hole for a while.

9. Graph it, chart it, log it.

This goes along with #6 (making it social) given how social media is these days, but for me, graphing and charting and logging things is also its own reward. I’d imagine the same is true for other nerdy types.

I like recording what I read with Goodreads, and I also use an iOS app called Hours to track how much time I spend reading each book (along with other productive things I do).

But my favorite book-tracking thing by far is this chart created by my friend Malcolm. Malcolm’s aim in creating and using this chart was to encourage himself to read more, but unlike other book-tracking mechanisms, this one tracks the time you spend reading, not the number of books you finish. Sometimes people start books they don’t end up liking but then they don’t want to put them down because sunk cost fallacy + it feels like you get no “points” for a book you don’t finish. This chart acknowledges all the time you spend on books (including audiobooks), whether or not you finish them.

You can see my own version of Malcolm’s chart here.

Some people also find success with HabitRPG, a cute webapp that treats to-do’s and habits as a game and also has an optional social component.

10. Do a little at a time.

For many people, motivation is all about that first push, and then the rest comes easily. Don’t think of it as “I need to read War and Peace.” Think of it as, “I need to read a chapter of War and Peace.” Or even a page. You might find that once you start reading you keep going naturally, or you might not. In that case, you can gradually raise your page goal rather than diving head-first into reading 100 pages a day or whatever.

DailyLit is a website that can help with this by emailing you installments of books each day. HabitRPG, which I mentioned above, can also help, because you can set a daily goal like “read five pages” and see what happens.

Mark Reads, which a few of my friends recommended, is another way to read in installments. In this series, Mark reads books out loud a chapter at a time and reviews them. My friend Suzanne says, “It’s like an online book club led by the kindest, most hilarious person who is never ever prepared for the next twist in the book he’s reading.

11. Shift your assumptions.

Reading is an act that’s all tangled up in things like class, race, gender, and neurotypicality. Sometimes we expect impossible things of ourselves, like reading dozens of dense books each year and being able to regurgitate all their plots or facts on demand, and that leads to a lot of shame that makes reading even more difficult. Sometimes we devalue certain ways of reading (audiobooks, ebooks, social reinforcement, with frequent breaks to check a phone) or certain types of texts (YA, “women’s” literature, fanfiction). Many of us remember our parents or teachers telling us to put that crap down and have held onto those ideas into adulthood.

Yes, I do think that there are ways to evaluate and judge literature, but I also think that what you think is “good” depends entirely on what you need. Recently I read a short self-published novel called Robins in the Night. It was not particularly well-written; it needed a lot of editing and a lot of the stylistic choices seemed stilted or incomprehensible to me. But it was a retelling of the Robin Hood story in which Robin Hood is actually a queer trans woman who stands up against the unjust treatment of a Black man, and at the moment, that’s exactly what I needed to read, “quality” notwithstanding. I recommend it.

As you pursue your reading goals, I recommend keeping some (re)frames in mind:

  • The perfect is the enemy of the good./Reading something is better than reading nothing.
  • Only you get to decide which books are “good” or “impressive” or “valuable” for you.
  • Work with your brain, not against it. If positive reinforcement from your friends helps, use it. If you can’t read for ten minutes without checking your phone, consider figuring out what’s going on with that, but in the meantime, read for ten minutes at a time and take breaks to check your phone.
  • Try to get rid of “should”‘s. Should you read long serious novels? Should you read without an e-reader? Should you be able to read for long stretches of time without taking a break? Should you read quickly? Should you remember everything you read? Should you find nonfiction interesting enough to hold your attention? Maybe, but who cares? Do what you can and what feels right.

What has worked for you? What engaging books do you recommend to someone who’s having trouble picking up a book and staying with it?


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When Someone Sets Boundaries With You and You Feel Like Crap

Reflecting on some experiences I’ve had with setting boundaries, I wrote this earlier today:

A crappy thing for which I have no solution:

Someone unintentionally makes me uncomfortable or hurts my feelings. I let them know. They apologize/etc. Then I immediately see a post from them in my feed about how they’re a terrible person because they hurt people and they were just trying to be nice/funny but they hurt someone so they’re horrible. I try to convince myself that this *isn’t* a passive-aggressive attempt to make me feel guilty, because that’s a crappy thing to assume about someone, but it itches all the same.

The thing is, one of the biggest reasons why most people have such a hard time setting boundaries is because they fear hurting people. They are desperately trying to avoid that exact “I am a terrible person” reaction. Obviously, OBVIOUSLY I would never say that you should not use your own Facebook to vent/post about your feelings, which is why I said I have no solution to this. But all the same, this is instant feedback of a sort (“Your boundary-setting makes me feel like a terrible person”) and it speaks volumes.

I was almost tempted here to ask for feedback: Do I need to be nicer when I set boundaries? Maybe I do. But I’m not asking for feedback because I know it would never end. “Yes, you need to be nicer.” “…yup, still a little nicer please!” “You know, you could really stand to be just a little bit more nice.” “Actually, what would be nicest of all is just shutting up.”

People constantly remind me that I hurt them when I set boundaries, so the only way I’ve been able to set boundaries as someone with depression and a lot of feelings and a lot of empathy is to systematically train myself to stop caring if I hurt people (in this specific circumstance). And it feels monstrous. But the alternative is much worse, and in the alternative, ALL the cost is paid by me. Every cent of it. And I have been there, and I’m never going back.

As I said, I don’t have a solution, but I do have a request: if someone setting a boundary with you causes you to immediately jump to “I am a terrible person,” please try to work on that. Probably most people with that reaction (oh hey, including myself!) are already working on it, so I don’t want to come across as condescending or patronizing. But I really feel that interpersonal things would be easier for all of us if fewer people had this automatic reaction.

I could say a lot more here about how that sort of reaction is actually self-protective and serves a purpose for the individual despite feeling like crap in the moment, but I’ll save that for some other time, because the most important thing is that other people’s boundaries are *not about you*; they are not a referendum on whether or not you are “a good person” (there is no such thing), they are not a punishment to you, they are not a weapon used to intentionally hurt you. They are about the safety and comfort of the person who sets them.

In response, someone asked me a question:

Can you give some examples of how to handle boundary-setting better? I realized halfway through reading your post that I respond similarly to “I’m a terrible person” but I have no idea where to start to fix it. How do I not feel terribly?

I responded on Tumblr, but wanted to expand on that response here.

But first I want to also expand the question. The person asked, “How do I not feel terribly?”, but I think there’s another important question to address, which is, “How do I respond properly?” I realize that’s not what they were asking and don’t mean to imply that they should’ve asked that question additionally/instead; just that it’s interesting and important to address. But more to the point, these things are related. The same things that will help you feel better in this situation will also help you respond better, but when you can’t make yourself feel better–and sometimes you can’t–responding well might be the best you can do.

So what follows are some general thoughts about what to do when someone sets a boundary with you and you feel like shit.

1. Why do you feel like shit? Being told that you’ve hurt someone or made someone uncomfortable can kick up lots of old hurts and fears, especially for those of us who have depression and anxiety. These may be particular to you and your own experience, and that’s for you to uncover on your own. But more generally, there are two broad cultural messages that many of us learn that make it very difficult not to have strong negative emotions when someone sets a boundary with us:

  • The idea that there are Good People and Bad People, and only Bad People hurt people (on purpose or by accident). This idea is wrong and harmful and needs to go away. This idea also drives us to dismiss claims that someone we consider a Good Person has hurt someone. Either they aren’t really a Good Person, or they must not have really hurt anyone. The latter is easier to accept, so that’s what we do. In this case, when faced with incontrovertible evidence that you have hurt someone’s feelings, even by mistake, you may conclude that this means you are a Bad Person. It doesn’t.
  • The idea that we must intuitively/magically divine others’ needs and boundaries, and if we can’t do this, then we are Bad At People or Bad At Life or otherwise A Failure. Guess culture contributes to this, I think. So does ableism–some people’s brains make it especially difficult to read subtle cues from others, and we tend to assume that the problem is with these people and their brains, and not with our society and our expectations. So in this situation, if someone is having to set a boundary with you, you may feel that it means you have Failed at intuiting their boundaries and therefore had to be told. In fact, verbally setting boundaries should be considered the default. It is rare to know what someone’s boundaries around everything are, even if you know them quite well.

Understanding that these cultural messages are not necessarily accurate or useful to you is a good first step in learning how to react less negatively when someone sets a boundary with you.

2. A good practice when something happens that causes strong emotions is one that applies to many interpersonal situations, whether or not they involve boundary setting: before responding in any way (to the person directly, elsewhere online, etc), take some time just for yourself to process how you’re feeling. Name the feelings to yourself. “I feel angry that they told me to stop doing this.” “I feel depressed and worthless because I did something wrong.” “I am a piece of shit because I hurt a friend.” Name the feelings even if you feel ashamed of them.

This is a little more complex than the standard “breathe in and count to ten” advice. Yes, that can help you not respond automatically in a way you’ll regret, but it doesn’t necessarily help you understand or deal with what you’re feeling.

3. Intentionally think about how these emotions may impact your response. “I’m really angry, so I might yell at them.” “I feel really upset and self-destructive, so I want them to make me feel better.” Thinking about this will help you make sure that your response is what you want it to be, not what jerkbrain is yelling at you to do. It will also help you understand why you’re feeling pulled towards a particular response (yelling, shutting down, crying, ignoring the person, etc).

4. Give yourself permission to be upset/angry, even if you wish you weren’t. Being upset/angry isn’t the problem; lashing out at people or making them responsible for your feelings is. Make a pact with yourself: “I get to feel absolutely however I feel about this as long as I make sure that I’m treating people the way they should be treated.”

5. If talking to people tends to help you feel better, consider reaching out to a friend (not a friend who’s involved directly in whatever it was that made you upset). Explain to them that you’re not asking for reassurance that you did nothing wrong; rather, you’re asking for reassurance that you’re still a good person even though you did do something wrong.

This is important because sometimes our friends care about us so much that they take “sides”: “Wow, what an asshole, what’s their problem, you didn’t do anything wrong!” This might feel good to you, but it doesn’t help you treat others well.

It might help to share with them the fact that you’re doing all this work to make sure that you still respond appropriately when called out for crossing a boundary, so that they can give you some positive reinforcement for being awesome and handling this in such a good way.

6. Practice encouraging yourself to feel gratitude towards the person who set the boundary with you. This may feel out of place right now, but I find that it helps me reframe things. “I’m glad that [person] felt comfortable enough with me to let me know I was crossing a boundary.” “[Person] helped me learn how to treat them better, that’s awesome.” If this person is doing you a kindness by setting a boundary with you, then you can’t be a terrible person, because if you were, then you wouldn’t have such great friends who help you be even better!

7. Ask yourself, what is the function of feeling like a terrible person when someone sets a boundary with you? That may sound like a weird question, but it’s one I think about a lot both as a therapist and as someone working through depression. Automatic emotional responses often have a defensive function, even if they feel very bad.

Sometimes, the automatic “I’m a terrible person” response has the function of allowing you to avoid engaging with the situation fully. If you’re a terrible person, well, obviously you’re just going to fuck up and trample all over people’s boundaries and there’s nothing to be done about it. If you’re a terrible person, then you don’t deserve this friend anyway and you might as well cut them off now that they’ve set this boundary. If you’re a terrible person, then you deserve some sympathy right now rather than having to respond to this person who’s just made you feel so bad.

Understanding this dynamic won’t necessarily make you stop feeling “I’m a terrible person” in response to things like this. We can’t always choose our feelings, though we can shape them with practice.

If you realize that your automatic responses are serving the function of allowing you to avoid difficult situations like this, you may feel even more crappy and guilty than you felt before. I’m sorry if I’ve added to that. But you can also use this knowledge to reframe future automatic responses in ways that help you move through them. “My brain is telling me that I’m a terrible person to help me avoid this challenging situation, but I want to face this situation instead and deal with it like the sort of person I want to be.” You can tell yourself that your brain’s just trying to look out for you and keep you safe, but it’s not doing so in a very helpful way right now.

In conclusion, shitty feelings happen, self-awareness helps, and your automatic emotional responses don’t have to determine the actions you ultimately choose.


For some more general emotion management advice, Olivia has a great series on DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) skills on Teen Skepchick. Although DBT was originally developed to treat Borderline Personality Disorder, it’s extremely useful for many people, including those without any diagnosable mental illness, because it teaches basic adulting skills that most of us are never taught. If you have a bit of money to invest in this effort, I recommend this workbook.


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