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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Is Passion Necessary?

Lately I’ve been finding the idea that your work should be your passion about as oppressive as the idea that work should be boring well-paid drudgery or that you should pick your career based on what your father and his father and his father’s father did for a living.

I’m not even talking about the fact that only certain fortunate people even have the privilege of being able to choose to do something they love, although that’s also something that the Do What You Love crowd ignores.

I’m talking about the fact that when we accept the idea of your work being your passion, we accept unfair treatment of workers as a reasonable price to pay.

Whenever I mention (in some relevant context) that my field is underpaid, the response is often, “But at least you get to do What You Really Love!” They’ll sigh, and add, “I wish my work actually made a real difference. Instead I just sit in an office and move people’s money around.”

When I talk about the difficulties of living on a low salary and the lack of institutional support for the self-care our employers all patronizingly insist we prioritize, they say, “Well, that’s a small price to pay for getting to Follow Your Passion.”

(Actually, my work isn’t my passion. My passion is reading books and spending time with people I love, but nobody’s monetized that yet.)

I do love and enjoy my work, but I also really get a kick out of being able to pay off my student loan debt, take the occasional vacation, be allowed adequate time off to do all those Adult Things that can only be done during business hours, have my own apartment, and not worry about money all the time. That would really be fulfilling. You could almost say I have a passion for it.

The idea that Your Work Should Be Your Passion seems empowering on the surface. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone could get paid to do something they really love? How great would it be if you could spend most of your day actively making the world a better place, or whatever it is you care about most?

But if your work is your passion, then it won’t matter so much that it doesn’t pay that well…right? If your work is your passion, you might want to miss your kid’s sports game or musical performance so that you could stay a few hours late and keep working. And if you want to, surely it’s not too much to expect you to.

If your work is your passion, but suddenly you’re asking to work remotely or part-time because you just had a baby, maybe you’re just not that into your work anymore and your job should go to someone who’s more passionate.

If your work is your passion, then “attitude” matters more than actual competence. “Passionate” people are more fun to work with and we assume that they’ll be more dedicated to their job, so we hire people who are “a good fit for the company” rather than people who have a proven record of getting shit done.

Which leads into the other way that this emphasis on passion becomes counterproductive and ultimately harmful: the idea that “passion” is ultimately the reason people succeed.

Erik Devaney breaks this myth down in his article about passion and work:

Ultimately, the role passion plays in a person’s success depends on the context of that person’s unique situation.

For some folks, the road to success is smooth and straight, and being smart and hardworking and passionate can help those folks travel down that smooth and straight road even faster.

For others, the road to success is full of hurdles and potholes, and even if they’re just as smart and hardworking and passionate as the folks on the other road, they’ll never be able to catch up.

Life, as we all know, isn’t fair. But that doesn’t mean that the folks with the unfair advantages get to decide how everyone else thinks and feels.

Besides the fact that people with relatively little privilege face roadblocks that no amount of passion can overcome, this idea that passion is what makes for success also masks the often massive amount of practice and skill-building involved. And that, ironically, is easier to do than to force yourself to feel passionate about something you’re just not passionate about. Changing behavior tends to be easier than changing feelings, and pretending that your feelings are other than what they are can be counterproductive. Ferrett writes:

“Look,” I said.  “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to stay in better touch with your friends.  But what you’re doing is this fucked-up equation where you go I miss my friends == I need to use the Internet == I want to use the Internet.  And because you think the only way to do something is to be the sort of person who wants to do it, you’re psyching yourself up to be something you’re not.”

“…this is like the way you hate exercise, isn’t it?”

“Fucking loathe it.  Went for a hard twenty-minute workout on the elliptical this morning.  Hated it every step of the way.  I realize I hate exercise so much I literally have to do it right after I wake up, because if I hold off until my brain comes online I’ll manufacture good excuses why I don’t have to work out all day.   I can only get exercise because I’ve acknowledged that I fucking hate doing it.”

You can, in fact, do things you’re not passionate about–even things you dislike–in order to achieve something you do really care about. You may not be passionate about playing scales on the piano for hours, but you’re passionate about the beautiful music you’ll create as a result. There’s no point in obscuring the fact that becoming a talented pianist requires more than just PASSION, but also a lot of rather boring hard work.

Many people would argue that if you don’t enjoy doing something, you shouldn’t choose it as your job. But that comes from the idea that Work = Passion and that things you’re not passionate about can never be things you’re good at and would be satisfied doing for money so that you can spend that money doing the things you are passionate about. In fact, the entire concept of being satisfied with your job rather than LOVING your job seems all wrong.

But it’s not. I know people who have pretty boring but acceptable jobs, who then go home and enjoy not worrying about putting food on the table. Instead, they do their hobbies, take vacations, spend time with their families, and donate to causes they care about.

The problems endemic in our approach to work were not caused by the idea that passion is mandatory, nor will they be fixed by taking a more reasonable view on passion’s role. (And they won’t be entirely fixed by better vacation policies or workplace discrimination laws, either.) Unfortunately, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

However, it pains me to see progressive folks perpetuating the myth that passion should be central to work. That makes it too easy to disregard unfair, exploitative, or even abusive working conditions. It asks people to accept receiving less than a living wage because getting to do What They Love ought to somehow make up the difference.

Loving my job doesn’t pay the rent. Loving my job won’t help when my job has taken over my life to such an extent that I can’t care for myself. Even if I love my job, it’s not the only thing in the world that I love.


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The Perils of Facebook as a Hiring Tool

My new post at the Daily Dot is about Five Labs, an app that analyzes your personality based on your Facebook profile.

Some employers already try to use Big Five personality tests to assess prospective hires under the assumption that certain traits make good employees. At Jezebel, Hillary Crosley suggests that Five Labs could eventually become a hiring tool:

The tool is still in the beginning stages and isn’t a hardcore hiring weapon yet, but it’s clear how it could be. It could also poses problems because who you are online might not be who you are in an office setting. Maybe you’re awesome at work, but you like to go home and be crazy on the Internet? Technically, non-friends can’t see what you post on Facebook—but let’s be honest, the Internet is open to whomever is interested enough to crack your code.

That last sentence raises some concerning and frankly creepy implications. While it’s generally a good idea not to put things on the Internet (under any privacy setting) that would be particularly deleterious if they were to become widely known, we also shouldn’t consider it ethically acceptable for employers to hack into interviewee’s private online accounts in order to test their personalities.

I’d also question the hiring skills of any employer who’s that desperate to access a potential employee’s Facebook; their education, references, certifications, past work experience, and interview should really be sufficient.

As Crosley points out in her piece, most people do not behave the same way at work as they behave elsewhere. This is normal. In fact, this is preferable. I don’t think I would be effective at work if I acted the way I do at home or out with friends, and I also don’t think I would have any friends if I acted with them the way I act at work.

The expectation that many employers seem to be operating from when they stalk potential hires’ social media accounts is that people should not only leave their personal lives out of the office, but also take their work lives out of the office to everywhere else.

This is dismaying, but not surprising, given that the U.S. seems to have a uniquely work-obsessed culture. For instance, Americanswork more than residents of any other industrialized country, and they take the least vacation time. The U.S. also lags behind other comparable countries in terms of laws regulating sick leave and parental leave.

Being expected to take your office self home and into your online life isn’t nearly as bad as not being able to take paid leave to take care of your baby, obviously. But the two could be symptoms of a general cultural inability to recognize that it’s healthier to work to live rather than live to work.

Read the rest here.

Confidence Is Not the Solution To Gender Inequality

My latest piece in the Daily Dot discusses research on the double bind that women have to navigate in the workplace, and why I’m so fed up with all the demands that women Just Be Confident and Ask For What You Want at work:

Women face a classic double bind: if they confirm female stereotypes of gentleness, communality, and physical attractiveness, they are liked more but presumed less competent. If they disconfirm female stereotypes and act confident and assertive, they are liked less and presumed to have poor social skills. Both being liked and being considered competent is vital for getting hired, retained, and promoted.

These effects are especially pronounced in domains that are considered traditionally “male,” which would include most of the types of fields that everyone’s always wringing their hands about female underrepresentation in: law, business, politics, science, and technology, to name a few.

Another study suggests that interviewers evaluating women who behave in a more stereotypically masculine way emphasize social skills more than competence in their hiring decisions, but when they interview men (or women who are more stereotypically feminine), their hiring decisions hinge more on competence and social skills.

Since we already know that women who are more confident and less feminine are perceived to be lower on social skills, this seems like a convenient way to penalize them in hiring decisions.

In a study published in Research and Organizational Behavior, researchers Laurie Rudman and Julie Phelan described the multiple ways in which women who act contrary to female stereotypes face backlash in the workplace.

For example, women are constantly being exhorted to self-promote so that supervisors and managers notice their skills. However, while women who self-promote may be considered more competent, they are alsoconsidered less likeable and are less likely to be hired. In another study, men who used an “assertive style” in their job application materials weremore likely to be hired than women using an identical strategy, and the actual job applications were identical except for the fictional applicant’s gender.

Once hired, women continue to face this double bind over and over again.

Read the rest here.

For the record, I did not choose the headline or the header image, and I apologize if either is offensive.


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Promoting Mental Health in the Workplace

[Content note: mental illness, including eating disorders]

This post was requested by Kate [not FtB!Kate], who donated to my conference fundraiser. She wanted to hear my opinion on mental health in the workplace and how employees and employers can foster a culture that values and promotes mental health. She had some of her own suggestions, which I’ve incorporated into this piece with her permission.

Work is often a concern for people who suffer from mental illnesses. They might worry, for instance, that their struggles will impact their work performance, that coworkers or employers will find out that they have a diagnosis and stigmatize (or even fire) them, or that offhand comments at work could trigger eating disorder symptoms.

I wrote about this topic much more generally in this piece, which was about how to prioritize and promote mental health in one’s community. Workplaces are particular types of communities, so a lot of this still applies. At the same time, workplaces present particular challenges to promoting mental health, as well as particular capabilities that might help.

Note that I’m writing this as a person with a mental illness, as a person who works, and as a person who observes human behavior. I’m not writing this as someone who’s ever been a manager or a supervisor, so while I can speak to what I would like to see from managers and supervisors, I don’t have firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to be one. If you have that experience and you’d like to weigh in in the comments, feel free to do so.

For employers/managers/supervisors

1. Ensure that the assignments you give your employees and the culture you foster in the office encourage and allow employees to take good care of themselves.

Every workplace that expects people to skip lunch or sleep less than 7 hours a night is a workplace that is detrimental not only to physical health, but mental health as well. Sleep deprivation can dangerously exacerbate many mental illnesses, and having to skip meals can cause people with eating disorders to relapse. Obviously this is unavoidable with certain jobs or when a big important project is nearing completion, but it’s avoidable with most jobs most of the time.

(At the same time, recognize that this is a problem with American culture at large, and companies feel pressure to pressure their employees in this way because if they don’t, a competitor will, and it’ll reap the profits.)

2. Make sure that new employees understand the health coverage they’re receiving under the company’s benefits plan, especially as it pertains to mental health.

Explain in as little legalese as possible what the coverage includes and doesn’t include, and where they can go to find more detailed information or look up specialists in their area. In my experience, many people are worried that if they see a mental health professional using their employer-provided insurance plan, their employer will somehow have access to their medical records. Emphasize that it’s none of your business as an employer what your employees do with their health insurance and that providers cannot disclose such information to you without a patient’s consent. For extra points, give a short overview of HIPAA.

Going over this information not only improves the odds that employees are able to get the mental healthcare they need, but it shows that you’re comfortable discussing mental health with employees and that your company thinks it’s important.

3. If you choose to have health-related contests at the office, focus them on fitness goals or healthy eating, not weight loss.

Personally, though, I’d avoid these altogether because many people consider health a personal matter and feel pretty uncomfortable about having to discuss it publicly and competitively. Even if the contest is optional, keep in mind that people will feel a strong social pressure to join in. Who wants to be the only person in the office who doesn’t seem to care about staying in shape?

In any case, framing weight loss as an intrinsically healthy and positive goal is harmful and counterproductive. You can weigh little and be very unhealthy, and if you lose weight in an unhealthy way, you’ll probably gain it back anyway. A better way to structure a health contest is by encouraging participants to achieve goals that are proven to be healthy and doable.

4. Make sure employees understand the policies and processes about taking time off for medical reasons (and remember that mental health is a medical issue).

It’s especially important to find a way to emphasize that mental health is just as important as physical health, and little gestures make a big difference. For example, you could say something like, “If you know in advance you’re going to need time off, like for a physical or a therapy appointment, you can submit the form to me at at least a week’s notice.” That provides important information while also implicitly conveying the fact that you consider therapy to be a legitimate reason to leave work an hour early.

For employees

1. Consider your own mental health when choosing responsibilities to take on at work.

It’s understandable, especially in this economy, to try to impress your boss by offering to do as much as possible and overworking yourself. However, good mental health should be seen as an investment. If you take good care of it, you’ll ultimately be more productive than if you neglect it and burn out.

This applies to all those little volunteer opportunities that aren’t directly job-related, either. If you have social anxiety, it might be a bad idea to offer to organize a social outing for the office. If you have an eating disorder that makes it really stressful to choose food to buy, it might be a bad idea to offer to bring snacks for a meeting. You know yourself best.

2. If you feel safe and comfortable, let your boss know about mental health issues that may affect your performance and how you plan to deal with them.

The “if you feel safe and comfortable” is the key part. I’m absolutely not suggesting that everyone can and should come out about their mental illness to their boss, since I know that in many cases that’s a really bad idea. (It shouldn’t be, but it is.) But personally, I know people who did this and found it really helpful because they were able to work collaboratively with their boss to make sure that they can get the time off they need and that they can fulfill their responsibilities rather than having to keep it a secret and try to solve potential problems on their own. Disclosing also makes it possible to receive any accommodations you may need, which brings me to:

3. Educate yourself about laws related to mental illness and the workplace.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is obviously a major one, but so is HIPAA, which I mentioned earlier. The definition of “disability” in the ADA is intentionally quite general, but mental illnesses are included: depression, anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, and so on. Title I of the ADA concerns employment. There’s a lot of useful information in there; for instance, an employer cannot ask you in a job interview whether or not you’ve been treated for mental health problems, or which medications you’re taking. Keep in mind that the ADA only applies to businesses with 15 or more employees, however. Here’s another useful article about it.

For everyone

1. When someone asks you how you’re doing, be honest (within reason).

In the piece I linked to earlier, I wrote:

This is something I’ve been really making an effort to do. This doesn’t mean that every time someone asks me “What’s up?” I give them The Unabridged Chronicles of Miri’s Current Woes and Suffering. But I try not to just say “Good!” unless I mean it. Instead I’ll say, “I’ve been going through a rough patch lately, but things are looking up. How about you?” or “Pretty worried about my grad school loans, but hopefully I’ll figure it out.” The point isn’t so much that I desperately need to share these things with people; rather, I’m signaling that 1) I trust them with this information, and 2) they are welcome to open up to me, too. Ending on a positive note and/or by asking them how they are makes it clear that I’m not trying to dump all my problems on them, but I leave it up to them to decide whether or not to ask more questions and try to comfort me, or to just go ahead and tell me how they’re doing.

At work, there are obviously different standards than in other communities, or with friends and family. But even at work, there’s room for honesty and mutual support.

2. Be mindful of using language that relates to mental illness.

Casual usage of diagnostic terms (“That’s so OCD,” “You’re being delusional,” etc.) hurts people with mental illnesses by trivializing their conditions and turning them into the butt of a joke. It also makes it more difficult for people to disclose mental illnesses because it keeps people from taking them seriously. If “ADHD” is what you call it when you can’t focus on a boring project and someone tells you they have “ADHD,” you’re not going to think, “Oh, this person has a serious condition that makes it neurologically impossible for them to focus on a task unless they get treatment.” You’re going to think, “Oh, come on, they just need to close Facebook and get focused.”

3. Remember that talking about dieting and weight loss can be very triggering for people with past or current eating disorders.

Fat talk (as it’s called) is so ingrained in our culture and communication patterns that it’s hard to imagine that it could be such a serious issue for someone. But anecdotally, it seems that eating disorders in particular are very easily triggered by offhand remarks like “Ugh I need to work off this cupcake” or “My thighs are huge.” Even when not actually triggering, these comments encourage unhealthy behavior and create a social norm of dieting and preoccupation with weight loss.

I sometimes dread being around groups of women who are not my friends because more likely than not, I’m going to hear these comments. And it’s not like you can avoid your coworkers. So if you must do it, try not to do it to a captive audience.

4. Respect others’ privacy when it comes to mental health issues.

Just as you should never out an LGBT person without their permission, you shouldn’t discuss someone’s mental health with others at the office. Although I generally encourage people to be open about mental illness if they feel they can be, that has to be on their terms, not someone else’s. If you’re concerned that someone’s mental health problems are causing them to be unable to do their work, do the same thing you’d (probably) do anytime a coworker isn’t pulling their weight: talk to them about it in a kind and considerate way rather than going straight to the boss.

(An exception to this is if you’re worried that someone may harm themselves or someone else. In that case, please call 911. )

When it comes to structural issues like ableism and stigma, no community can be an island, unfortunately. There will not be stigma-free workplaces until there is a stigma-free society. But the more power you have in a workplace, the more influence yo have over its culture.

Thank you to Kate for her donation and for this prompt. 


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It’s Okay to Lean Out of Silicon Valley

I have another Daily Dot article. This one’s about the the guy who wrote an article saying he doesn’t want his daughter to work in Silicon Valley. I talked about why he’s probably taking it too far but also why the counterargument–demanding that women sacrifice themselves to make sexism go away–is misguided.


Arguably, you can’t change an industry simply by leaving it. You’d think that women fleeing Silicon Valley in droves would get the men running it to realize that they’re driving women away, but the Valley’s almost religious adherence to the theory of meritocracy will prevent that from happening. If women aren’t working for us, they’d think, that’s just because they’re not good enough—or strong enough. And that’s assuming anyone notices or cares about the lack of female representation to begin with. Therefore, women who want Silicon Valley to change should occupy it, not leave it.

But this view, too, often puts the onus on women to expose themselves to sexist microaggressions and harassment for the greater good. The idea that women (or, at least, feminists) “should” force their way into spaces like technology, business, and politics to “fix” the sexism within places the needs of others before the needs of those women, especially since any complaints they make about the sexism they encounter are likely to be met with, “Well, you knew what you were getting into.” Ironically, the expectation that women always put their individual needs last is a key component of sexism.

Furthermore, it’s not necessarily the case that getting more women into a given space makes that space friendlier to women in general. As Segan points out, women who want to work in Silicon Valley are expected to demonstrate the same stereotypically masculine traits as men are—with, of course, the added double bind that feminine women are considered incompetent while masculine women are considered unlikeable. Neither incompetence or unlikeability is a huge help when it comes to getting a job.

Women who do manage to break into and succeed in Silicon Valley are likely to be women who gamely laugh at sexist jokes and brush off harassment in the office—and expect other women to do the same. AsAshe Dryden describes, women who speak up about sexual harassment in the workplace risk retaliation, such as firing. Success for a woman in Silicon Valley therefore seems to depend partially on keeping quiet about the mistreatment she encounters, and the easiest way to keep quiet about mistreatment is to not view it as mistreatment at all.

Read the rest here.

As a sidenote, this Daily Dot gig is really making me write more, which is great.

Unpaid Internships Are Exploitative

It’s that time of year when many people my age are starting to desperately look for summer internships so that they can eventually be qualified for an entry-level job and aren’t screwed and broke forever.

Too real? Maybe a little.

In many fields–journalism, politics, film, social services, and even many areas of academic research–paid summer internships are the exception, not the rule. Being paid to work full-time is the exception.

It is very difficult, almost impossible sometimes, to explain this situation to people in different fields, people who had paid summer internships starting with their freshman year of college, who got recruited and hired in the middle of their senior year, who started with a comfortably middle-class salary and good benefits in their first full-time job. “Just find a paid internship, then!” they advise me, unhelpfully.

Those of you who have never had to navigate this hell will just have to believe those of us who have.

People who otherwise support living wages (or, at least, wages) bend over backwards to justify unpaid internships. One frequent justification is that they provide valuable experience that looks very good on one’s resume. While that’s true, so do most (paid) jobs. Jobs look excellent on a resume and you often learn a lot from doing them. That doesn’t mean it’s reasonable to ask you to do them for no pay.

Unpaid internships are exploitative. I won’t go as far as some do and call them slavery or indentured servitude, but they’re exploitative all the same. Sure, nobody’s “forcing” people to intern without pay, but if you can’t get a job in the field without it, you’re as good as forced.

“Just choose another field” isn’t an answer. An excellent writer who can’t get a job in journalism because they can’t afford to work for free doesn’t necessarily have the skills to get a job in computer science. And why should only rich people be able to work in journalism, politics, activism, entertainment, or social services? (Don’t even get me started on the dangers of having only rich people working in journalism and social services.)

Sometimes people defend unpaid internships by saying that they did one and found it very fun and educational. That’s nice. I don’t mean that sarcastically; it really is. But that doesn’t make it non-exploitative. Enjoying something–finding it useful, even–does not mean that thing is not part of a system that devalues young people’s work and shuts the gates to certain professions to all but those with lots of resources.

I’ve also had people tell me that unpaid internships are great because that’s how they got jobs afterwards. Right, that’s the problem.

Unpaid internships, at least when run legally, can easily be rationalized as “fair.” The idea is that your supervisors expend a lot of time on educating you and don’t really benefit from your being there, at least not nearly as much as you benefit from being there. What does that sound a lot like? Yup, college, which most people who have to do unpaid internships have already done or are doing (and paying a lot for). Except that college students are often eligible for federal financial aid or scholarships from their schools. Very few sources of aid are available to unpaid interns. (College, by the way, is still vastly unaffordable and exclusionary.)

Sometimes unpaid internships offer academic credit in lieu of payment. However, it seems pretty rare that this credit can replace coursework and facilitate early graduation, and as I just noted, the financial support available during the academic year is often unavailable during the summer.

Regardless, in many cases unpaid internships are illegal–anytime there isn’t a substantial educational component. (Anecdotally, that seems to be most of the time.) I’ve heard people be like “Yeah well internships like that are illegal,” as though that matters. (It’s similar to how people try to use “Yeah well rape’s illegal” as an argument against rape culture.) What intern is going to completely destroy their career prospects and spend a fortune they don’t have on suing their employer? Nobody*. Employers know this.

Unpaid internships don’t just suck because it sucks to work without pay. They also suck because they keep important professions full of the sorts of people who can afford to not have to support themselves until their mid- to late-20s. That also means that they’re a self-perpetuating problem, because until more politicians, journalists, activists, social scientists, and social service workers take on this issue, it’s not going to get better, and the people who succeed in these fields tend to be people who didn’t have all that much difficulty working for free.

(We spend a lot of time in my social work program talking about how it’s still not diverse enough, especially not socioeconomically. Of course it’s fucking not. The cost of attending Columbia’s MSW program is $70,000 a year, plus all the unpaid internships it took to get accepted in the first place.)

I don’t know how to fix this problem. Right now, all the parties involved are acting pretty rationally. Of course organizations, especially non-profits, will opt out of paying their interns, cash-strapped as they often are. Of course interns will accept unpaid internships, knowing that’s their only shot at a job someday, although it’s often still not enough. Of course graduate programs and employers will choose applicants who have relevant work experience, even if it was unpaid, over those who spent their summers working as baristas and lifeguards and babysitters. Of course, of course, of course.

I do know that fixing a problem begins with recognizing that it exists. Recognize that unpaid internships are exploitative.


* Not actually strictly true anymore. Some interns have been filing lawsuits. Unfortunately, this seems to lead employers to stop offering internships altogether rather than to start offering paid ones.

Also, read Sarah Kendzior’s fantastic take on unpaid internships.

Also also, I’m going to give a shout-out to two organizations that offer paid summer internships despite being nonprofits: the Secular Student Alliance and the Center for Inquiry. If you know of other secular/progressive organizations that do the same, leave them in the comments.

Some Fucks I Will Try Not to Give in 2014

I came across Chantielle MacFarlane’s list of fucks she refuses to give in 2014 on Medium. By fucks she refuses to give, Chantielle means anti-resolutions of a sort: rather than trying to do something or change something, she wants to stop caring about or trying to change things that she’s realized don’t really matter or aren’t worth making an effort for.

I know I’m about to sound silly, but this is revolutionary. It is still difficult in our culture, especially for a woman but really for anyone, to say, “I am good enough.” I don’t need to be perfect. I don’t need to keep lifehacking and self-improving. Maybe I have goals I’m still working on, but I do not need to keep trying to level up on every single conceivable attribute.

After I read the post and shared it widely and argued with some rando who called Chantielle “selfish” for not wanting children (can someone please explain this convoluted reasoning to me?), I thought about the things that I care about way too much and want to stop caring about, or the things that I’ve been half-heartedly trying to change and have now decided it’s time to give up on. Here is my own list of fucks I don’t want to give anymore, but since I’m a little less optimistic than Chantielle in this regard, I’ve called it “Some Fucks I Will Try Not to Give in 2014.”

1. Wearing nice/cute shoes.

I came to New York in August with my prodigious shoe collection that I have nowhere to put and thought, Wow, I finally get to do cool fun things and wear all these shoes. LOOOOOL. The first half of that definitely came true, but most of the shoes are now stuffed under my bed or in the storage space above my closet because it’s just not happening. And I know everyone does that thing where they wear comfortable shoes to take the subway and walk to where they’re going, but bring nicer shoes to change into while they get there, but honestly, hauling around an extra pair of shoes is a pain in the ass. I need the space in my bag for books.

So yeah, I’m not really going to give a fuck about this anymore. I love my walks through the city, whether they last five minutes or five hours. I’m not going to let cute shoes ruin them.

2. Obsessing over whether or not I am qualified/talented enough to do a given thing.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who does this, but the first thing I do upon hearing of (or, in fact, being offered) an opportunity is to conduct a thorough mental inventory to decide whether or not I am qualified to accept this opportunity. Yes, even if it has already been offered to me. Hello, impostor syndrome! I live in fear of agreeing to do something, doing it poorly, and never being offered any opportunities ever again because the world has finally learned how utterly talentless and undeserving I actually am.

The last straw that made me put this on my no-more-fucks list was a recent incident in which a friend recommended me for a radio show about social work that she had been interviewed on. One of the show’s staff emailed me and asked if I’d like to be interviewed. I asked for some more information about the show, and she replied with a brief description and mentioned that previously the show has interviewed authors, community organizers, etc.–basically, professional social workers.

I immediately started drafting an email saying that I was very thankful for the invitation, but that it seems that I’m not exactly qualified to be a guest on the show because the other guests are all professionals and I’m just a student who hasn’t really done anything worthy of talking about on a radio show.

I was about to hit send when I noticed a line in the email that I’d completely missed the first time I read it–the one that said that the show’s producer had seen my blog and liked it, and was therefore interested in having me on the show.

And that’s how I nearly said no to a cool opportunity because I didn’t even realize that my writing could make me a worthwhile radio show guest and that that, in fact, had been communicated to me by the person who invited me.

Even after that, though, there was still a part of me that was like…really? You’re interviewing published authors and actual people with actual jobs and then some random student with a blog? But ok, they said they wanted to have me on, and I wanted to do it. (So I will in fact be doing it later this month and will post a link when it’s up.)

Then I started wondering how many other opportunities I had thrown away in the service of Making Sure I Never Seem Too Confident Or God Forbid Full Of Myself. I’ve had offers to be a staff writer for various online outlets, I’ve had people ask me to submit posts to well-known blogs and websites, I’ve had people ask me if I’d be willing to come speak to their secular group. I’ve somehow managed to ignore or deny most of these. And those are just the opportunities that straight-up landed in my lap. I have no idea what I could accomplish if I actually pitched articles to websites or asked for opportunities myself.

I don’t think 2014 will be the year I stop abhorring the very notion of self-promotion (for myself, not for others), but it can definitely be the year I stop giving a fuck about whether I’m good enough to do things that people invite me to do, and just fucking do them.

3. The fact that I am not particularly invested in pursuing serious relationships at this point

Over the past year and a half I have accomplished a previously unprecedented state of being: I don’t care if I’m single. I even kind of like it. At the same time, I’m open to the idea of getting into a serious relationship at some point soon, and there have even been a few people I would’ve wanted one with, but I’m a passive coward (that’s another story, though).

But over the second half of 2013, in a feat of meta that few could even aspire to, I found another thing to worry about now that I wasn’t worrying about being single: the fact that I’m not worrying about being single. Yes, I’m concerned that I’m like never going to have a relationship again (let alone ever get married or have children) because I just can’t be arsed to do anything about getting one. And while I’m happy to be single now, I’m not sure I still want to be single in 10 years.

A lot of the worrying came from watching my close friends make major life decisions based on people they’re romantically involved with: where to move, which jobs to take, whether to be polyamorous or not, and so on. I was happy for them, but I also couldn’t see myself ever doing such a thing. I want to live where I want to live (here) and do what I want to do and be polyamorous. Maybe–I thought with a deepening horror–I am way too selfish and uncompromising to ever have a serious relationship again.

Well, if so, then so be it. I will not leave my beloved city for some guy, I will not give up my weekends of reading and exploring the city because I’m expected to see the exact same person every weekend. If I find a way to have a serious relationship without feeling like I’m giving up my life, that would be wonderful, but for now I’m going to try to stop giving a fuck about the fact that I’m not pursuing one and give myself permission to be cold or selfish or inflexible or whatever the hell I constantly accuse myself of being. (Not that those accurate are even accurate.)

(Please do not leave any patronizing comments about how This Is Just How Young People Are and When You’re Older You’ll Understand About Relationships.)

And besides, I now own a makeup bag that I take everywhere I go that literally says, “New York is my boyfriend.”

4. Whether or not my Facebook posts could possibly be making someone feel bad or annoyed

I spend way, way too much time carefully curating Facebook lists that I use to selectively hide various Facebook posts from various people. Some of this is for my own good (as in, I don’t want a given person to see something because I just don’t want them to know it), but most of it is to prevent anyone from feeling in any way bad.

The reason I hide all of my political stuff from anyone I know on my friends list who’s conservative isn’t because I have a problem with the conservative comments they would leave, but because then I would argue with the comments and then they would feel bad. The reason I hide most of my personal stuff from most people on my friends list isn’t because I don’t want them to know it (wow so I went on an expedition to Union Square and its bookstores, again, big deal), but because I don’t want them to feel annoyed at seeing random personal babble from someone they don’t know well or haven’t seen for a long time.

To some extent, this has done wonders for my peace of mind and ability to enjoy Facebook. But on the other hand, sometimes there are bugs in the system and those bugs are WHAT IFFFFF SOMEONE SEES THIS AND FEELS BAD FOR FIVE SECONDS UNTIL THEY EITHER KEEP SCROLLING OR HIDE ME FROM THEIR FEED OR UNFRIEND ME.

I’m so, so tired of giving a fuck about this.

5. Whether or not I’m about to arrive at the subway station just as my train is pulling away.

The trains go every 5 minutes. I will survive. Enough said.

6. Whether or not anyone is going to care about the blog post I’m currently writing.

Slightly similar to #4 above, I often obsess over the fact that I may post something on my blog that people don’t care about and will be annoyed that they saw in their feed reader until they mark it as read and move on and forget that such a thing was ever written.

Luckily, as you can see, I’m already making fantastic progress on not giving a fuck about this, because I’m writing this post, hopefully with the intent of publishing it after it’s done.

And I seriously had this thought that I should put a little note at the top about how this is a silly personal post and if you come here for the Super Srs Feminism Discussions then you should skip it, but then I thought, my god, so someone will waste five seconds until they realize they don’t care. It has fuck in the title, for heaven’s sake.

As someone who writes independently, I can not only put “fuck” in a blog post title and also in the post itself (fuck fuck fuck fucking fuck), but I can also not care how many people read my post or how many times it is shared on Facebook/Twitter/Reddit/Tumblr/Pinterest (yes, that’s happened). I’ve done a great job of not caring about this thus far, so my concern with posts like these isn’t so much “But what if nobody likes it?” as “But what if someone is annoyed that I wrote it?”

Well, it’s time to stop giving a fuck about that, because as a feminist atheist woman with an attitude, every word that emerges from my keyboard is going to annoy someone. This sentence is probably annoying. Sorry. (Not really sorry though.)

7. I can never go home again.

I cannot go back to my childhood home. Sure, I can visit for a few days at a time, but I can’t go back. There is nothing for me there except crappy old memories and awkward smalltalk with strangers. I will never spend summers with my siblings at the pool again, I will never go biking with my parents every weekend again, I will never be forced to help my dad rake leaves again, I will never drive past my old high school and stop to hear my old marching band practice again.

The time I spend with my family from now on will be limited by how many plane tickets I can afford and how many vacation days I can eke out. And that’s if I’m lucky to be able to afford any plane tickets and have any vacation days at all.

Shortly before the New Year I actually had a legit depressive breakdown over these hard facts.

In 2014, it’s time to try to get over it and stop giving a fuck. So this is adulthood. Nobody gets to see their family all the time who isn’t fortunate enough to have grown up in a place they love and can get a job in.

8. Trying to fit all of my possessions into the proper storage spaces.

Ever since I moved here I have been waging a war against my room and its paucity of storage space. I won the latest battle by spending too much money at Bed Bath & Beyond and installing some sort of rudimentary storage system into the bottom half of my closet.

However, the uneasy cease fire between my room and me will not last long, as inevitably my mom will buy me even more clothes, I will buy even more books, and/or somebody will buy me the keyboard piano I have been desperately wanting for years.

(No, I’m not going to throw or give away my things. I paid good money for them and I value them. Fuck that.)

9. It will be a long time (if ever) until I have a job I like, a sense of financial security, and a comfortable living space.

Knowing and accepting the fact that I have made two choices–moving to New York and getting a degree in social work–that, together, make it nearly impossible to have all of the above three things and to have any of them any time soon has been a struggle this past year.

It’s hard to find people who understand, because people seem to either sanctimoniously preach at me about how some people have it so much worse and anyway I should be focused on Making A Difference rather than affording an apartment in which I don’t have to leave all my stuff lying all over the floor and call the super every few days because something is broken, or they roll their eyes and patronizingly tell me that I should’ve gone into software development or finance and then prattle about how they would never accept a job offer that doesn’t include a relocation package.

To both of those types of people, I pretty much have only two words left to say: That’s nice.

In my life now, lots of seemingly contradictory things are true. I’m passionate about making a difference, but sometimes I wish I could have an apartment building with a laundry room and maybe even a little gym. I think being a therapist would be really fulfilling and awesome, but sometimes I wonder if it might’ve been better to get a boring job that pays a lot of money and use that money to make a difference outside of the office. I don’t care about having “status” in the financial sense, but it would be so amazing to be able to take my possible future children to see other countries, to visit their relatives in Israel and Russia. I don’t need a lot of money to be able to live comfortably, but I also hope to spend my life in one of the most expensive cities in the country, which is rapidly growing even more expensive. I refuse to ever marry “for money,” but when I think about spending my life with someone who makes as little as I will, all I can see is a once-beautiful relationship torn apart by financial stress.

Yes, it’s easy to say that money doesn’t matter as long as you’re “making a difference,” but some really wonderful things do require money. How will I visit my family? How will I see my amazing friends and partners in other cities? How will I donate to causes I care about? How will I make sure I’m healthy? How will I continue my education? (Yes, some of it can be free, but much of it can’t.) Money.

It will take me a lifetime to figure this out. It will also take a while to decide whether or not Making A Difference is worth not having enough money to do anything with my life but that. (All I can say is, it’ll have to be an amazing job if it’s all I’ve got going for me.)

But for now, I hope that in 2014 I can at least make some progress towards not giving a fuck about any of this. I have time to figure it out, and it doesn’t have to be right this damn minute.

Here’s to a year of much fewer fucks. (Of the not-fun kind, that is.)

On Being A Bit Of A Stereotype

It’s not exactly a secret that social work is an extremely gendered profession. About 86% of MSW students are women, and the percentage of licensed social workers who are women varies by age from 100% of those who are 25 and under to 75% of those who are 65 and over. This should come as no surprise. Social work requires excellent listening skills, lots of empathy, willingness to work for little money and advancement opportunity–traits and interests that women are socialized to have.

Of course, I have thought it all through and realized that gendered expectations played absolutely no role in my decision to study social work and that I, unlike the rest of these people, am going into it simply because this is Who I Really Am. And frankly, I’m offended that you’d even think that I’m going into this field for bullshit reasons like that. I chose it completely on my own.

Just kidding! It never works like that. Of course gender plays a role.

Ironically, the story starts with me being the exact opposite of who I supposedly needed to be. For most of my childhood, adults were always telling me that I was immature, selfish, insensitive, blunt, and socially inept. That I never put anyone’s needs before my own. That I never appreciated the people in my life enough.

So for a while I didn’t understand how it could be that as a young adult, I’ve suddenly become the opposite of that. When did this miraculous transformation happen? Why didn’t anybody tell me?

Of course, kids change as they grow up, and qualities like selfishness, insensitivity, and, obviously, immaturity are sort of hallmark traits of childhood. Maybe I really was all of these things. Maybe I was even all of these things more than most children were. Hell if I know.

But here’s the thing. Although nobody ever sat me down and was like, “You need to become more sensitive and empathic and self-sacrificing because you are female,” I nevertheless got that message for a number of reasons. First of all, when boys did something insensitive or immature or socially inept to me, I was informed that “boys will be boys.” (This is a dangerous thing to tell children for all sorts of reasons.) Second, I knew plenty of boys, and none of them were ever being exhorted to be more sensitive and to consider others’ needs before their own. (If anything, they were being exhorted to be less sensitive, which is also a problem.)

So it’s quite likely that I’ve become the way I am now partially as a way of compensating for those (perceived or actual) flaws, and that this way of compensating just happens to be perfectly aligned with certain gendered expectations about personality traits and career paths.

Well, now what? Should I abandon my dream job because it’s feminine? Am I a bad feminist unless I force myself to study math or science instead? Should I cultivate a persona of not giving a fuck about people?


Sometimes when you realize that you’ve been doing something largely because it’s gendered, you lose the impulse to do it. For instance, even though I still like makeup, I wear it very rarely now that I realize that I only felt expected to spend time and money on it because, well, I’m female. However, realizing that being female probably played a huge role in my career decision hasn’t dampened my passion for it at all. It really depends.

Leaving aside for now the fact that I’ll be able to do more for individual women and for women’s rights as a social worker than I could in most other jobs, to claim that I now need to realign my personality to make it non-gendered would be to, well, miss the point of feminism.

In a previous post about feminist criticism, I wrote:

For me, the most important insight that feminism has given me is that we do not live, love, consume, and decide in a vacuum; we do so under the influence of society. That doesn’t mean we don’t have “free will” (and I do hate to get into that debate), but it does mean that we might not always be aware of all of the reasons for which we want (or don’t want) to do something. We will probably never be able to disentangle ourselves from the influence of society, and that’s fine. What’s important to me is to be aware of what some of those influences might be.

I think a lot of people are reluctant to admit that things like gender roles have played a part in their choices because people like to think that we have Complete Total Free Will. While that’s arguable (just please don’t do it on my blog because I find it so damn boring), I think it’s best to view sociocultural influences as just that–influences, not determinants.

For instance, nobody would think it controversial to assume, say, that they enjoy spicy food because that’s what they were always served at home growing up, rather than because there is some intrinsic aspect of their being that “naturally” prefers spicy food. Nobody would be appalled if you suggested that maybe the reason they can’t stand nasty Chicago winters is because they spent the first 20 years of their life in Florida.

With choices a bit more loaded than what food you eat and what weather you like, though, it gets tricky. Why does anyone prefer any particular occupation? We like to think–unless, that is, we are blatantly choosing a career for its status or earning potential–that occupational choices are indicative of Who We Really Are Deep Down. The first question adults ask each other is often, “What do you do?” A question that we often ask children is, “Who do you want to be when you grow up?” Note the particular construction of that question as it’s often asked: What do you want to be, not What do you want to do or What job do you want to have. In some ways, I think, this reflects the fact that we view a person’s job as a reflection of who they are as a person, not necessarily as a reflection of a lot of complicated factors including who they are as a person, what opportunities they had growing up, what they were encouraged to do by friends, family, and communities, how much money they could afford to spend on education, and other factors that are external to your own unique personality traits, skills, and interests.

Of course, on some level, everyone knows this. It’s not like people don’t realize that a lot more goes into choosing an occupation than just personal characteristics. But it’s one thing to admit to yourself that you can’t really be a doctor because you can’t afford the education, and another to admit to yourself that you don’t really want to be a doctor because you have, to some extent, internalized gender stereotypes that make that choice seem…wrong to you.

So, let me reiterate: there is nothing intrinsically “wrong” with being affected by gender roles or with admitting (to yourself or others) that you’ve been affected by gender roles. You are not a bad person if you’re affected by them. It’s not a sign of “weakness” in the sense that strong people resist gender roles and weak people cannot resist gender roles. There are probably many factors influencing one’s willingness and ability to resist them, and I doubt that whatever the hell “strength” even is has much to do with it.

I do think that being honest with yourself is important, though, and I think critically examining your own preferences and desires makes you more self-aware and interpersonally effective. And only you can do that for yourself. If I meet a woman who wants to be a model or a man who wants to be a football player, it’s categorically not my place to presume that they’re choosing these paths because of gender roles. I might suspect so, because it’s a fairly likely (partial) explanation, but people know themselves best.

They don’t always know themselves very well, but they still know themselves best.

In a post about women who change their names to their husbands’ after marrying, Kate Harding responds to those who claim that this is still a feminist choice:

Look, you’re a feminist who, in this particular case, made the non-feminist choice. That’s all. I assume it was the right choice for you, or you wouldn’t have done it, and that’s fine! But feminism is not, in fact, all about choosing your choice. It is mostly about recognizing when things are fucked up for women at the societal level, and talking about that, and trying to change it. So sometimes, even when a decision is right for you, you still need to recognize that you made that decision within a social context that overwhelmingly supports your choice, and punishes women who make a different one.

There are parallels between this and my career choice. I recognize that, as a woman, social work is a much easier choice than it would be for a man, or than it would be for a woman to choose engineering or pro sports. (Of course, it’s a very difficult path for other reasons, but that’s not what I’m talking about.) Social work is a profession to which women who wanted to work in mental healthcare have historically been relegated because they were not allowed into professional psychology/psychiatry. That doesn’t make it any less a good choice for me. It’s just something I want to be mindful of.

[blogathon] Shit People Say To Future Therapists

Today’s my blogathon for the Secular Student Alliance! I’ll be posting every hour starting now until 6 PM central. Don’t forget to donate! To start, you get a rant!

Sometimes I wish I’d kept my career plans a big secret. Maybe if I had, I wouldn’t constantly be having conversations that go like this:

Me: “Wow, I just don’t understand this person.”

Them: “You don’t understand a person?! But you’re going to be a therapist! How can you be a therapist if you don’t understand people?!”

Me: “Sometimes I just don’t have the energy to listen to someone talking about their problems.”

Them: “But you’re going to be a therapist! How could you run out of energy to listen to people talking about their problems?”

Me: “Huh, I really don’t know what you should do in this situation.”

Them: “But you’re going to be a therapist! How could you not be able to give me advice?!”

I understand why people sometimes feel compelled to say these things. I think they stem largely from a misunderstanding of what therapists do and also from what therapists are like as people.

Firstly and most glaringly, these comments are amiss because, clearly, I am not yet a therapist. I have many years of training to go. So the fact that I have not yet developed certain skills that I will need is not, in and of itself, cause for alarm. Either I will develop them over the course of my training, or I will fail to develop them and I will realize that I need to pursue a different career (I have a few backups). But I doubt that that’s the case.

For now, I am trained in just a few specific things: active listening, conflict resolution, sexual health, referring callers to mental health resources, and a suicide prevention protocol known as QPR. That’s it.

I don’t think people realize that while there probably is a certain “type” (or more) of person who becomes a therapist, we’re not born being able to do these skills. We develop them through training and experience. Nobody would ever demand that an undergraduate in a premed track be able to diagnose them with diabetes or cancer. Why should I be able to fix someone else’s emotional troubles?

Second, I think people have this view of therapists as calm, self-assured, eternally tolerant saints who always understand everyone and never feel frustrated with anyone and never tire of listening to painful and difficult things. The reason people have this view is probably 1) this is how good therapists typically behave in therapy sessions, and 2) this is how therapists are typically portrayed in the media, even though there are many styles of therapy that don’t look like this at all. Some are even confrontational!

But that’s not really how it is. Therapists get bored. Therapists get annoyed. Therapists get frustrated. They get overwhelmed and exhausted from listening to people. If they are good at what they do, they don’t show this in therapy–like a good dancer doesn’t show the pain they feel, or a good salesperson keeps smiling and being enthusiastic. Sometimes people doing their jobs have to act in ways other than how they feel. This is normal.

But for therapists, it’s especially important to be mindful of these feelings in oneself rather than trying to tamp them down, because otherwise they can affect how the therapist treats their client. In traditional psychoanalysis, this is called “countertransference,” and while psychoanalysis is quite outdated, the term is still used by respected therapists like Irvin Yalom.

So, personally, if a therapist told me that they neeever get bored or frustrated or annoyed with their clients, that would be a red flag. Nobody that I’ve ever met is such a saint. I would probably conclude that this person is either trying to make themselves look good, or–worse–that they’re not very aware of the negative emotions they sometimes experience during their work.

Of course, I might be wrong. Maybe some people really are like that.

Another misconception is that therapists “just get” people or “just know” the solutions to their problems. This is also false. While therapists are probably more perceptive than the general population, that only really helps when it comes to understanding how a person is feeling, not why they feel that way or what might be the best way for them to change how they feel, as there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to this.

That understanding, if it ever happens, happens after a period of time during which the therapist has gotten to know their client, learned a lot about their background, and started to discern their patterns of thinking. That thing you see in the movies where a therapist “just knows” what’s wrong with you after ten minutes? Nope.

It’s also worth pointing out–as callous as it may seem–that once I become a therapist I will be doing this for money. I will expect to be paid for doing it. When I’m not at work, doing work for free will seem like…not the best use of my time. While I’m sure that I’ll always enjoy listening to my friends talk things out and try to help them feel better, being expected to do so just because I happen to be a therapist is unfair.

I will not be the same person with my friends and family as I am with my clients. This is normal and okay, and it’s the case for basically anyone who has a job that involves working with people. If you want to avoid needlessly annoying and frustrating your friends in the helping professions, try not to expect them to essentially work for free and to act saintly and perfect while doing it.


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