Psychology For Gryffindors

This should work if you’ve read canon Harry Potter or Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, and is some blending of the two. You can probably make sense of it with one or the other, but let me not fail to remind you that Methods is here and you should read it.

Psychology for Gryffindors

If we conduct good research—that is, research that uses large sample sizes and ethical methods and avoids statistical handwavery, we are doing it properly, and we will be able to improve the world. The scientific method is a self-correcting mechanism, and we can rely on it to give us correct answers about the world. (Ignoring this bit and such.)

Psychology for Ravenclaws

If we conduct careful research—we can learn new things about minds and people and model them better. We can figure out where our brains fail and how and why and who doesn’t fit into those models. Brains are cool, and technology is advancing, and we can know more. Of course, it’s not entirely certain how to conduct this research best, and methods and methodology are complicated, so we need to do investigation of that as well. (ManyLabs is your friend.)

Psychology for Slytherins

If we conduct targeted research, we can model people and groups better, and get them to make different choices. We can sell them products we wish to see and prevent them from developing common mental illnesses and make them avoid things like smoking and unhealthy foods, except when we want them to choose those things, in which case, we’ll be very good at making them ignore all other impulses.

I was trying to think of a way to make Asch’s conformity experiment more humanly significant. I was dissatisfied that the test of conformity was about lines. I wondered whether groups could pressure a person into an act whose human import was more readily apparent, perhaps by behaving aggressively to another person, say by administering increasingly severe shocks to him.


The first thing to realize is that there are no easy solutions. In order to have civilization, you must have some degree of authority. Once that authority is established, it doesn’t matter much whether the system is called a democracy or a dictatorship; the common man responds to governmental policies with obedience, whether in Nazi Germany or democratic America.

[Stanley Milgram, as interviewed by Carol Tavris]

See also: Phillip Zimbardo. (And the Ravenclaws respond.)

Psychology for Hufflepuffs

You can use research to help people! There’s so much information out there about what works and what doesn’t, and it’s waiting around to improve lives. Mental illness is stigmatized and can be hard and lonely and nobody should have to go alone. Psychology gives us the tools to improve our world.

In striking contrast to the enormous corpus of psychological research concerning the impact of biases and heuristics on human judgment is the paucity of psychological research on debiasing (Arkes, 1991; Larrick, 2004). It seems fair to say that psychologists have made far more progress in cataloguing cognitive biases (see Krueger & Funder’s, 2004, list of 42 such biases) than in finding ways to correct or prevent them.


If one accepts the dual propositions that ideological extremism is a significant contributor to inter- and intragroup conflict and human suffering and that confirmation bias and its cognitive cousins (naive realism, bias blind spot, false consensus effect, insider perspective) are significant contributors to ideological extremism, the central research question becomes: ‘‘Can scientific psychology promote human welfare by debiasing the general public?’’

[Lilienfeld et al, 2009, Give Debiasing Away]

And just because, psychology for cynics

We are hampered by many factors, but perhaps the most annoying has been the existence of ‘‘pop psych,’’ a massive amalgam of pseudo-expertise that has shadowed the legitimate field for more than a century (Benjamin, 1986). The public has no way of distinguishing empirically based findings from the ramblings of self-proclaimed experts, and there is no easy solution to this problem. One sad result is the ever wavering and often negative image that people have of both clinicians and behavioral scientists. In its early years, Psychology Today  may have been the best corrective the field ever had for all the pop psychology; in its current form, the magazine is probably harming psychology’s name more than helping it.

[Epstein, Giving Psychology Away: A Personal Journey]

Boring, Small Things, That Made My Mental Illness Less Bad

apps apps appsBuying cheap or free apps for my smartphone. 

It took some work, and plenty of the apps were used for a few days or a week and then discarded as unhelpful or useless, but at a grand total of 99c spent across six or seven apps to find two gems (Self-Help Anxiety Management and Recovery Record) that massively improved my quality of life? Well worth it.

Sometimes the apps were mental illness specific, for anxiety or meal-tracking. But I also use Annoyster to send me random alarm reminders, (“Therapy is helpful and worth going to,” reads my most recent one. “Eating mindfully is a new habit I’m developing.” and “Have you had a glass of water recently?” have been previous alarms.) Fitocracy* to gamify exercising without obsessing over calories burned, and PepperPlate to make menus for the week.

Fidget rings and other fidget objects

Having something to play with or occupy your hands in conversation can help with dermatillomania, trichtillomania, nail biting, and a host of other nervous/anxious habits. Fidget/spinner rings are especially nice for professional situations–where you can’t pull out buckyballs or rubberbands, etc. A friend and I bought gorgeous, matching ones, and I’ve toyed with mine during interviews, therapy, and particularly boring lectures. Almost immediately after purchasing, I ended up with long enough fingernails to paint–I wasn’t biting or tearing at my nail beds constantly.

Even if you’re not the anxious type, I recommend them as a way to get respite in a conversation or interaction. More socially acceptable than looking at your phone, they give me something to focus on when I need a few seconds of space or distance. Here are some on Etsy, and cheaper variants on Amazon.

Though I haven’t used it personally, some friends use what I know as massage putty, but I’m sure the expensive stuff could be replaced with some cheap, dollar store putty. Build hand strength, make weird shapes, copy newsprint.  Rubik’s cubes are favorites of my friends, though I’ve never picked up the appeal.

Books, books, books

Books can add up in cost more than a phone app, but honestly, if a single book is cheaper in time and money than therapy….it’s well worth it. Though I’ve had access to free therapy for years now, books have been where I developed coping strategies, learned to recognize failure-mode patterns of thinking, and have me the words to explain what was going wrong in my head. And these haven’t been highly technical books–I’d just wander into the psychology section of a bookstore and find the ones that seemed to be less about spirituality and bad tropes and more about science, particularly ones that talked about coping strategies, evidence-based therapy, or didn’t rail against medication on the back cover.

Finding people with other mental illnesses. 

I actually don’t seek out people with eating disorders–it can put a real strain on me if we’re not at similar levels of recovery. But spending time around people who are used to having bad brain days that make socializing hard has taken a lot of the pressure of social interactions. I wasn’t trying to hide my coping mechanisms, and I got praise and reward for little victories (I ate a snack! I decided not to go to the gym today and felt good about it!) that wouldn’t mean much to a neurotypical observer.

*For over a year, I’ve encouraged friends and, well, strangers on the internet to use Fitocracy for their non-shamey system. Recently, the emails from the site have been all about weight loss and fat burning. I’ve solved this by disabling all emails, but the trend from site-for-people-who-want-to-feel-good-about-exercise to site-for-people-with-also-some-guilt is annoying. 

Counterintuitive Underreactions and Overreactions

I love Pride and Prejudice but this is the image in my head for Bad At Serious Conversations.

The quality of not reacting in an upset way to new information has been on my mind recently. People seem to tell me things regularly—a driving force, if not the initial impetus behind my career choice–and something I’ve noticed as a skill is knowing when to react strongly to emotionally-loaded information…and when to treat an offhand remark like a plea for help.

That is, how do you decide when the reaction to–

“Yeah, sorry I’m late on this piece of the project–I had some friend trouble last week–but what if we scheduled a meeting on Tuesday and went over this section right now?”

–should sound like:

“Oh, that sounds [expression of sympathy], I’m so [sad/apologetic]! [Tell me more/how have you been handling it]?”

And when the appropriate response to–

“Yeah, I’ve had some struggles with depression and repeated hospitalizations meant I had to take an extra year of college.”

–is best phrased as:

“Oh, okay, [brief smile] [topic change, offer of ice cream, return to task at hand]”

My initial impulse was to say that a good heuristic is “the weirder/more emotional the information, the more noncommittal the response” But this breaks down very quickly. For one, I hang out in a social group that is almost definitely breaking my Weird and Emotional Information Disclosure alarms. Casual references to hallucinations and depressive episodes are par for the course, and dissecting how one feels about a surprise phone call is the norm.

Each time I try to break down exactly how I decide which of these to do in what situation–because sometimes ‘I had some friend trouble’ is an offhand aside, and ‘struggles with depression and repeated hospitalization’ does call for processing and discussion of current feelings–my brain comes back with ‘well, it was obvious in the situation!’ Thank you, brain, for that helpful contribution.

And then there’s another complication: what if in attending to this; in trying to figure out when to be noncommittal about Serious Things and take parenthetical remarks as openings for Deep Conversations, you do more harm? If you maintain even mediocre relationships, it seems high-risk to play around with how you respond to disclosures. If the learning curve means messing up a few times in large ways, you might be better served by not accidentally tanking your friendships.

And these interactions can and do make or break relationships and friendships. I can hear it now (in part, because I have heard it before):

“I confessed my deepest secret to her, and she just asked if I still wanted to go bowling!”

or, from my own life:

“Every time (this is only slightly hyperbolic) I offhandedly mention that my parents recently divorced, everyone thinks it’s The Worst Thing In The World, and I have to convince them I think it was a good idea. And then when I say I’m glad, everyone assumes I had a horrible home life. Now I just never mention it.”

At the same time, filing this as a skill that some people have and some people don’t, and one for which there is no ability to intentionally jump from one camp to the other just grates on me. Most of my social skills are learned, and I pick up new ones best from explicit instructions and scripts that I, over time and testing, adapt. They’re social skills, after all, not social I can just miraculously do it and you can’t so pbthhh.

So….how? Accept that straining some friendships is the price for being a slightly better friend overall? Try some other heuristic for how to react? What do you do?

Monday Miscellany: SkepTech, SATs, State-of-the-Art Prosthetics

I re-emerge! I have survived finals and am (impatiently, nervously) waiting on answers from grad school. This week involves vacationing in Boston and the reanimation of my blogging.

1. Every year, my college runs an Eating Disorder Awareness Week. And every year, I avoid the student union like a plague during the Eating Disorder Awareness week. I find the idea of everyone focusing on talking about loving their bodies overwhelming and triggering as hell, and know most of my friends with eating disorders do the same–avoiding an event that’s supposed to be about supporting their conditions. So, are there other benefits to be gained from the Week? Are we, perhaps decreasing stigma? Or preventing people who might be at risk for EDs from developing them? Yeah, no, probably not.

2. On April 4th through the 6th, I’ll be in Minneapolis, attending/speaking/running SkepTech. I attend a number of skeptoatheist conferences year to year, and SkepTech is one where I expect to attend and learn entirely new things from the speakers. Talks I’m anticipating: The Game Theory of Firefly, medical technology and making evidence-based funding decisions, and hearing all the interesting discussion on creating effective sex ed on the panel I’ll be moderating.

3. Forget the emotional burden of deciding to seek therapy–narrowing down who is a good therapist for you is hard. Here’s some advice.

4. And speaking of therapy and mental illness, yet ANOTHER excellent response to the question Are we pathologizing normalcy? Next, I’d like to stop having to constantly answer it. 
As a sidenote, if anyone has high quality books that critique psychiatry or clinical psychology, please refer me. I’ve read American Psychosis (good, but focused on institutional care and deinstitutionalization), am reading Listening to Prozac (mostly because anti-psychiatry people always open by asking if I’ve read it) and was utterly unimpressed by Book of Woe.

As a psychiatrist, I see this as the biggest challenge facing psychiatry today. A large part of the population – perhaps even the majority – might benefit from some form of mental health care, but too many fear that modern psychiatry is on a mission to pathologise normal individuals with some dystopian plan fuelled by the greed of the pharmaceutical industry, all in order to put the populace on mind-numbing medications. Debates about psychiatric overdiagnosis have amplified in the wake of last year’s release of the newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the so-called ‘bible of psychiatry’, with some particularly vocal critics coming from within the profession.

It’s true that the scope of psychiatry has greatly expanded over the past century. A hundred years ago, the profession had a near-exclusive focus on the custodial care of severely ill asylum patients. Now, psychiatric practice includes the office-based management of the ‘worried well’. The advent of psychotherapy, starting with the arrival of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis at the turn of the 20th century, drove the shift. The ability to treat less severe forms of psychopathology – such as anxiety and so-called adjustment disorders related to life stressors – with the talking cure has had profound effects on mental health care in the United States.

5. Part of my job currently involves assessing surveys about religion and nonbelief; it’s lovely to see Pacific Standard talk about how careless survey questions and reporting can lead to unhelpful information.

6. This is an excellent summary of why engineering psychology is important. Pretty prostheses are not the most functional prostheses.

It’s easy to watch video clips of dexterous and dynamic prostheses and think, who wouldn’t want that? But there are plenty of circumstances in which prescribing such a device would be a misunderstanding of what a patient really needs. In one study that explored the needs of amputee farmers, the researchers interviewed a man who was given a myoelectric arm—something that is not only expensive, but also completely unsuited for farm work. Myoelectric devices cannot get wet or dirty, two things that are nearly guaranteed during a day of farming. The farmer in question simply kept the arm in his closet—a $100,000 device sitting there gathering dust.


Monday Miscellany: Puns, Purple Line, Pets

Screen Shot 2014-02-24 at 8.03.37 AM1.  Watch out friends, “that’s ambiguous news!” might be my new favorite exclamation. Leah on the Congressional Budget Office.

2. I’ve a hunch that this exchange (excerpted at right) from A Moment of Innocence will make some large portion of my readers go all starry-eyed.

3. The What Happens After Game, a coping strategy via Mitchell.

4. A list of weird psych experiments. I’m pretty unnerved by what the footsie experiment implies…and unnerved that I can say “unnerving footsie experiment” and mean it.

5. Today in catering to my exact interests, someone’s made a map of coffee shops by their proximity to Chicago’s public transportation. I can personally vouch for everything off the Purple Line.

6. A thoughtful discussion of owning and pets and pet diets for vegans and vegetarians.

7. Open adoption is the most common standard in adoption services now. (The author claims 95%, when I worked in adoption services I was told around 85%). This piece from The Atlantic is a warm story of what that can look like.

8. A self-experiment in noticing confusion. Linking to this not because it was new to me, but because it’s the sort of psych-ish-somewhat-related-articles I enjoy finding on Less Wrong.

9. This is a well written article on eating disorders and relationships. I wish I didn’t have an instinctive recognition for this excerpt:

The authors also highlight literature arguing that women with eating disorders may also avoid sexual encounters due to psycho-social factors including self-consciousness and/or anxiety, body shame, and low sexual satisfaction. Perceptions of sexual intimacy may be lower for women with anorexia and bulimia, and while this may improve with recovery, sexual difficulties may persist.

10. Punning fuckery, biology edition.

Adoption: Legality and Journalistic Hype

So, there’s this article in The New Republic. Meet the New Anti-Adoption MovementThe surprising next frontier in reproductive justice. And I, being the sort who dutifully reads any instance of Someone Wrong On The Internet that crosses my field of vision, clicked.

It’s not bad. The title, fortunately, seems to be butchering the aims of the actual movement, which might be better represented as The Ethical Adoption Movement That’s Not Actually All That New. They’ve got some goals I strongly admire–preventing manipulation of distressed and pregnant parents, encouraging expectant parents to consider that adoption is a life-long process for everyone involved, promoting open adoption, and preventing agencies from lying to pregnant parents about abortion. Admirable, yeah?

Reported with a dangerously dramatic brush? Also yeah. For instance, take this:

They want, among other things, a ban on adoption agencies offering monetary support to pregnant women. They want to see laws put in place guaranteeing that “open” adoptions (where birthparents have some level of contact with their children) stay open. They want women to have more time after birth to decide whether to terminate their parental rights.

A ban on monetary support? It sounds like it would prevent bribing parents. It probably would! However, it would also prevent (as The New Republic’s wording stands) adoption agencies from providing expectant parents with maternity care, prenatal vitamins, assisting them in maintaining housing, etc. Do you know how to dramatically increase the health and functioning of a fetus–particularly one in poverty? Maternity care and vitamins. It is true that unethical agencies do some seriously sleazy behavior in pursuit of convincing expectant parents to choose adoption, and TNR’s article does cite that. (Paying for college in return for a child? No good, very bad.) But a ban is excessively absolutist.  Create ethical guidelines that protect parents; don’t prevent agencies from serving children and families.

But what about the idea of a mandatory wait before terminating parental rights?

I’m in favor!

….for a nuanced and careful definition of ‘more’.

The article fails to note that these EXIST. See: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia. That’s only the states that require forms terminating mothers’ rights to be filled out at least 48 hours after birth–many of the rest require at least 24 hours. Only two states, Alabama and Hawaii, allow the rights of the person who gave birth to be terminated before the child is born.

Map of 72+ and 48 hour wait post-birth for termination of birth parent rights, minus CA, which I forgot, and will fix ASAP. (Many of the blank states have <48 hour waiting periods)
Map via

That being said, saying “there should be a mandatory wait after birth before signing final papers” is COMPLICATED (and already exists in places, which the article entirely fails to address)

For instance, in Illinois, like many of the states listed, the wait is 72 hours, or three whole days. This sounds like a good idea in practice: the person who’s given birth is less likely to be under the influence of drugs, slightly less tired or emotionally exhausted from labor, and has met the child they just birthed.

Except, that it’s also true that 72 hours is longer than the time a parent with an uncomplicated birth would stay in the hospital. (Average stay for regular vaginal birth, 48 hours) Which means:

Option One: Birth parent has to go home with the child. Can you say huuuuuge stress on them if they want to continue with adoption and later have to give the child to the adoptive family? Also, sending an unwanted child who cries at all hours of the day, needs constant care, and will die of neglect or bad care is a risk. Babies are entirely dependent on their caregivers. This is especially there are compounding issues like postpartum depression or substance abuse. In theory, Child Protective Services should step in or catch those cases, and place the child elsewhere. In practice…

Along with this, working class birth parents (general PSA that most people over-estimate the number of parents who put children up for adoption who are teens, impoverished, or in their first pregnancy. I was one of them. Please don’t assume you’re the exception.) need to work or find alternate care for their children. That’s expensive. (Particularly, say, if a total ban on financial support from adoption agencies is enacted)

Option Two: The prospective adoptive family goes home with the child and with some legal decision-making capability over child’s care, (in IL, my understanding is that the agency in question holds Power of Attorney) but papers that terminate the rights of the legally-defined birth mother aren’t signed.

This is a massive legal and emotional risk, and some families just won’t do it. Sometimes families do it, and then the birth mother decides not to sign the papers–upon reflection, they decide to parent. (20-30% of expectant parents who select adoptive parents for their child go on to parent themselves instead.) In cases like that, the adoption agency has to call the family and request that they bring the child back, as it’s not theirs. NOT pleasant for anyone.

Not Really A Standard Option, But Let’s Talk About It: Placing the child in a nursery or some other form of care until papers are signed. There’s one agency in the entire U.S with an in-house nursery, and even then, many birth parents don’t want to put their ,  child in the care of strangers in a location that may be tough to access while they make their final decision. 


Waiting periods: a good plan, in theory. I support them! Parents should sign stuff when not under the emotional strain of birth. However, really long ones are emotionally overwhelming and complicated, and just blanket advocating for more time is a dangerously simplistic position.

In the comments, please follow these guidelines for increased accuracy:

1) if someone is pregnant and considering adoption, they are expectant parents (because not all expectant parents give choose to give birth)
2) If someone has given birth, presto! Birthparent.
3) Strong preference for gender-neutral terms when referring to the person who has given birth. Trans men and nonbinary folk give birth, adopt, and otherwise parent kids.

[Sunday Assembly Chicago] Talk Notes, Citations, Oddments

[General version of what I’m saying at Sunday Assembly Chicago today. Yes, the footnotes start at 2. I edited and didn’t want to go fix all superscripts at 6 am this morning.]

Good morning!

I’m Kate Donovan, and in about two sentences, I’m going to stop talking. I’m going to smile (see?) and stare pleasantly back at you, but I won’t speak for thirty seconds. I ask you to wait, without checking your phones, and urge you to notice how comfortable or uncomfortable you are.


You probably tolerated that because I’ve been asked to speak today. I was introduced, I’m standing up here in front of you, and my name’s in the program.

I spoke clearly, said what I was going to do, and I’ve been practicing doing this for the past two weeks, so I wouldn’t accidentally combust from the awkward slowly congealing in this room.

And it was palpable, wasn’t it? Some of you fidgeted, tried to guess how much longer. I spent about half that time counting down.
20 seconds.
….okay, now I can talk.

The first iteration of this talk didn’t have that introduction. I was going to walk up here, smile at you, and stare for thirty seconds. In the end, I changed it. I was too afraid that you would think little of me, or that someone, assuming I had stage-fright, would try to rescue me.

Because that is the human impulse, isn’t it? To fill the spaces? In research into conversations, a conversational lapse was three seconds. I just made you sit ten times longer–an order of magnitude longer.

We’re susceptible to what Cialdini called the click, whirr2. Conversational silence? Fill it. We do it more quickly than we can recognize that it’s bothering us. For those of you in the audience who choose your words slowly, you might recognize what I’m talking about easily–you take a break to pick the next sentence and and someone else steps in for you. If you’ve ever had or have a stutter, people will try to give you words as you work on them.

Sitting with silence? Uncomfortable.

Think back to the beginning; hold on to that discomfort for a little while longer–we’re going to play with it.

What does it feel like? For me, it’s a pressing feeling of wrongness, the sort that feels like “do something, do something, do something” It’s not that things are uncomfortable, it’s that if I don’t do something right now, I’m failing.

And unfortunately, that do something impulse is actually what leads me to pick the Wrong Thing.

I’m going to borrow an example from Allie Brosh here. She writes in her fabulous book/blog about her experience of telling people about being depressed…and describes it like a conversation about dead fish with tenuous connection to reality.

Allie: My fish are dead.
Person: Oh, but have you looked over here?
Allie: But they’re dead.
Person: Let’s keep looking!
Allie: Looking is for lost fish. My fish are dead.

This is, well, a hyperbolic example. It’s emotional incongruence. Allie says something she feels is sad/negative/not good, and Person responds with something far too offbeat. Allie wants acknowledgement that her fish are dead–Person is uncomfortable with dead fish, so opts to start a search party of possibly-lost-but-definitely-not-dead fish.

Let’s pull a different example from the same story. Allie is suicidal. She’s decided she needs to tell someone about it. And so she does. And suddenly the person is SO UPSET AND ISN’T THIS AWFUL. And Allie finds herself comforting the person, who is so uncomfortable with her suicidalness that they have to show it and Allie just needs them to stop showing it, but argh.

And, not-unreasonably, we chuckle at the let’s-make-a-map-and-find-those-fish person. Of course the fish are dead, mapmaker, we say. Except, it’s quite likely that the mapmaker was sitting with similar discomfort to us five minutes ago. They’d heard something terrible (Allie had depression/her fish were dead!) and they wanted to fix it! Right then! Because they loved Allie and depression is bad and they didn’t want Allie to be in a bad place!

Similarly, the person Allie told about being suicidal felt bad. You don’t react flippantly to someone wanting to kill themselves, do you? That’s upsetting! So they got upset.

Okay, so, you’re always going to lose right? Someone tells you something sad like being depressed, and you’re too upbeat. Someone tells you something sad, you’re too sad in response. And how the heck were you supposed to know that the right response to a suicidal person was to be noncommittal and the same person’s depression needed a sad response?

There’s a solution! And it involves science! (I didn’t want to wander off onto this track in the talk, but while this sounds gimmicky, it replicates over3 and over4 and over5 and is taught as a microskill to therapists Aren’t footnotes fun?)

Instead of reacting in the way that removes your discomfort, take a deep breath. You might have to sit with it, at the price of seeming more empathetic

Mirroring. Are they taking long pauses between words? Try that in return. Pitch? High? Low? Do what you can to match it.

[A demonstration exists here–it stretches the abilities of my creative punctuation use to convey.]

What about their hands and legs? Posture? Do they have both hands on the table? In their lap? Legs crossed? Make like a mirror and match. In fact, the nonverbal part seems to convey empathy and caring even more strongly than verbal. Lean forward a little.

(A single exception–arms crossed over the chest–you likely don’t want to mimic the universal body language for “I’m deeply uncomfortable.” I usually go for loosely cupping my opposite forearms, which sounds extraordinarily weird. In practice, if you can’t picture that, I look like I’m cradling something.)

And look, it will probably feel a little stilted and weird to do, like acting a part. Remember the discomfort at the beginning? We’re still sitting with it in the pursuit of serving others. In fact, you might consider being even more explicit about it: “I’m not sure how you feel about this. Do you want me to offer advice? or commiserate with you? because this situation sounds like it would make me pretty upset”. There’s an important distinction there–I’m not performing or showing that upsetness at the person–putting them in a position where they’ll click, whirr into comforting me–I’m telling them what my current picture of their emotions is, and then letting them correct me.

[personal anecdote I’m going to leave off this blog]

Okay! But what if you have a slightly different problem. You’re getting overwhelmed by people and charities and everyone else who wants to tell you about their problems or have a serious discussion over dinner or just have the amount of money you would have spent on a cup of coffee.

And who says no to these things? (or, at the very least, a guiltless no?) One of my favorite writers, a Chicagoan who goes by the nym Captain Awkward writes about how “No” is a full sentence. And it is. It’s just a nearly impossible sentence to utter in isolation.

You’re supposed to want to help grieving friends, right? Give to charity? Support ill relatives? The thing is, I’m totally on board with social pressure pointing in this direction. I want people to do these things! Except that I want them to do these things in ‘enough but not too much so that they burn out’ increments, and also not feel resentful and guilty.

Burnout, that feeling of emotional exhaustion–not being able to find any well of empathy or caring or energy to dredge up investment in others–isn’t, as many people conceptualize it, from having lots of contained crises. While those will certainly exhaust you, they’re the terrifying spice of life, as it were. What overwhelms people, we’ve found, is the chronicity of stress. Of having people lean on your day in and out. And once emotional exhaustion has set in, it’s near impossible to give yourself the space to recover. It’s too easy to feel guilty from stepping back…and then there you are, without many emotions left but bone-deep tired and guilt.

But that discomfort! That do something do something do something!

I’m going to ask you to sit with it again.

You’ve got a friend who’s had a traumatic breakup and wants to talk. A relative who’s collecting money for a charity that supports an illness they’ve had.

Do something do something do something! Say yes! Write a check! Spend hours listening!

Deep breath.

Yes, by all means, do something! But do something effective that gives you emotional range to spare for yourself, for the next friend with a life crisis and that other charity you care more about, or next month’s rent.

Create an emotional buffer. Be nice to your future self, and arrange for some space. That charity Cousin James wants to tell you about? You’re really busy, but could he send you an email? You want to talk to work friend, but you’ve been having a really overwhelming week–what if they scheduled an hour to tell you all about it over coffee next week?

The goal here isn’t to give you space to ignore the email or never hear about the breakup–it’s to get space in a way that sounds like “I want to hear about you in ways that mean I can serve you best”

You can sit with that discomfort. You did it for me fifteen minutes ago, for far longer than it takes to ask for an email, mimic the posture of the person across from you, squash your impulsive emotional reaction, schedule coffee for another day.

We’re here at Sunday Assembly, nonreligious but waking up early and inconveniencing ourselves with the CTA here because we want to create an intentional community. Let’s make it one that keeps us coming back, that nourishes one another without burning out, that says, you’re hurt? Let me sit with you.

And on that note, I’ll ask you to pause with me for a hair longer.

Thank you.

[ack. I fiddled with the ending up to the last minute. Will update afterwards.]

General Notes: There were a LOT of things I couldn’t fit into 15-20 minutes, including:
-More thoroughly discussing ego depletion
-forced choices in response to distressed people you want to help
-I didn’t even consider trying to make a talk that covered all the above and this, but effective altruism. I’m also wildly underqualified to discuss, but it’s easy to find information. Google away!
-possibly some of the above stuff I’d planned to talk about, who knows–this was prepared ahead of my talk

Other Sources for This Sort of Thing:

Real Social Skills
Captain Awkward


2. Cialdin, R. B. (1984). Influence: The psychology of persuasion. New York, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

4. Feese, S., Arnrich, B.,  Troster, G., Meyer B., & Jonas, K. (2011) Detecting posture mirroring in social interactions with wearable sensors. In proceeding of: 15th IEEE International Symposium on Wearable Computers (ISWC 2011), 12-15 June 2011, San Francisco, CA, USA

5. Trout, D.L., & Rosenfeld, H. M. (1980) The effect of postural lean and body congruence on the judgement of psychotherapeutic rapport. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 4, 176-190.

6. Maurer, R. E. & Tindall, J. H. (1983). Effect of postural congruence on client’s perception of counselor empathy. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 30, 158-163.

Linehan, M. M. (1993). Skills training manual for treating borderline personality disorder. New York, New York: The Guilford Press.
(specifically the Interpersonal Effectiveness Handouts)

Antonides, G., Verhoef, P.C., & van Aalst, M. (2002). Consumer perception and evaluation of waiting time: A field experiment. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 12, 139-202.

Maslach, C. (2003). Burnout: The cost of caring. Englewood, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.


Losing at Brain Games

[TW: ED]
Small post today, because I’m feeling contemplative.

I had something confirmed for me last week–that I have an unusual presentation and persistence of eating disorder/disordered eating* symptoms, given all the treatment, work, time I throw at it. In short, standard and adapted-for-me coping mechanisms and approaches for my anorexia tendencies (henceforth anorexia!brain) trigger my bulimic/bingeing tendencies…and coping mechanisms for bulimia!brain trigger my anorexic tendencies. Having both aspects isn’t terribly unusual, but that I split the difference so equally means that I never have an obvious choice about which eating habits to encourage. On days or weeks when I managed to eat properly, I’m balancing on a tightrope of tolerating the anorexia!brain and the bulimia!brain.

Which made this quote from Allie Brosh especially poignant:

For me, motivation is this horrible, scary game where I try to make myself do something while I actively avoid doing it. If I win, I have to do something I don’t want to do. If I lose, I’m one step closer to ruining my entire life. And I never know if I’m going to win or lose until the last second.

Replace ‘motivation’ with ‘eating’ and you have a summary of my mental calculus in sixty-two words.

Take this: It’s 3pm. I’m hungry.

Do I:

Eat an apple? After all, responding to hunger is important, and eating snacks is a skill I need to teach anorexia!brain.
On the other hand, this may lead to:
-I ate food at an unreasonable hour! All is lost! I’m uncomfortable and upset about this and now I want to binge.
-I ate food as a snack, and now maybe I can/should skip dinner.

So should I skip the apple? After all, dinner is more calories, and if eating the apple might trigger a binge or mean I don’t eat dinner, perhaps I should go for a solid option of a meal in a few hours?
On the other hand:
-I almost never feel hunger, and I need to learn to respond to it. Not to mention needing to get used to snacking. Teaching myself to ignore hunger didn’t exactly do good things for this whole eating disorder business.
-If I skip this snack, I might be so hungry at dinner that I accidentally overeat or trigger bingeing.

If I ‘win’ and eat enough food but not too much, anorexia!brain beats me up for eating, and bulimia!brain beats me up for the bingeing impulses I’m ignoring.  And so I spend cycle after mental cycle, trying to figure out which brain I can cope with when, how to trigger the least severe options, and only finding out if I’ve succeeded at the very last second.**

And nearly everyone else?

They just eat the damn apple.

*I don’t quite meet criteria for an eating disorder because I ‘win’ at feeding myself properly enough, but it fucks up my functioning and eats my willpower and brain enough that the distinction isn’t terribly clear. 

**A rough estimate, from the few times my brain has spontaneously clicked to non-ED (glorious weeks, those were) has me spending about 50% of my motivation/willpower towards eating properly. 

Science Meets Social Services: Helping Effectively

Used with permission from Sunday Assembly Chicago

This Sunday, at a bright and sunny hour, I’ll be speaking at Chicago’s Sunday Assembly. I’m testing out a new talk, a little lighter on the psychopathology research, and a little heavier on staying sane while serving others.

From the release:

Donovan will discuss our world of grieving friends, social inequality, and thousands of charities competing to tug at our heartstrings. With so many important causes, it can feel impossible to do “enough” without getting overwhelmed. What can research from psychology, sociology, and related fields offer us about helping our fellow humans—without losing our sanity?

The details are on the event page.

Eating Disorders: The Stories We Tell

[This is a repost of a piece I wrote a year ago on Teen Skepchick. I’ve started therapy specifically focusing on disordered eating, with a goal of leaving college in a Mostly Functional state, and was reflecting on past experiences. I still live by the ballet studio, and I’ve stopped in once, to pick up a schedule. I’ve never gone back.]

When I committed to writing in the Teen Skepchick Eating Disorders series, I said I’d write about personal experiences. After all, I do already. It wasn’t going to be too hard to do it again, right?

But that’s not true, and it never works like that. I told this story yesterday. Unexpectedly. I’ve never told it in its entirety before. It is, ultimately, why I quit dancing.

[I’m going to put a big neon TRIGGER WARNING on this right now. I’m about to be pretty blunt about anorexia nervosa and anorexia athletica tendencies. I’m going to tell a story about things I’ve done, and if that’s going to make you feel bad, then please stop reading. Take care of yourself.]

I was a dancer, you see. Not a hobby dancer, not something I squashed into the occasional afternoon. By the time I graduated high school, I was spending around twenty hours a week at the studio. My feet changed shape. I damaged my knee. I wore leotards daily, compared the merits of my preferred pointe shoe (Grishko 2007, medium shank, 5X wide, size 6.5), and for a while, I wanted to be a professional dancer.

There’s a number of reasons I couldn’t do that, and I made the decision to pursue psychology at school with no regrets. I never thought I’d stop dancing. It would always be something I loved, one of my favorite things about coming home.  Over my first Christmas home, and my spring break, I threw myself back into the schedule. I’d take a full set of classes, waking up miserably sore for the first few days, until my muscles settled back into their place.

The inevitable happened–my ballet friends improved and were more powerful and flexible and talented each time I returned. We no longer spent most of our free time together, and they had grown closer as I’d been gone. We talked about summer, when I would be home for months, able to train properly again–to feel like I was part of the company. I was excited.

I came home mid-June, to find a small part waiting for me in a show. I was overjoyed. I wasn’t the too-old returning student; I was back in my old place. The show was fancy: excerpts from Swan Lake and Don Quixote and Carmen the troupe would perform at a country club. Several dancers had been commissioned for the show–hired on contracts to train and perform just for the occasion.

They spoke Spanish, their first language, together, and knew each other from past shows at other studios.

I speak Spanish. Actually, that’s not quite true–I speak it quite poorly. Years of high school reading drills and an immersion class in my junior year have assured that I understand it quite well, and I used to read entire books in the language.

So, it was a few days of adjusting to the Cuban accent and speed of speech before I started picking up on bits of what the guest performers were saying. It was a few days later when I heard “lift your fat ass”. A few weeks until I heard them complaining about how I never managed to get better. How sad it was to watch me. And then my brain adjusted and I could hear it nearly every day we rehearsed. I got better at hearing the jabs, and I started hating myself more. In the single studio, every time I stepped onto the floor to rehearse, everyone could see me. It was constant oversight. I couldn’t focus on my dancing. I was perpetually listening and trying to translate and trying to pretend it didn’t bother me.

I stopped eating, again. After more than two years of maintaining an average intake of >1,000 calories per day, I wasn’t doing it anymore…and I was slipping into anorexia athletica. I had a gym membership, and suddenly I was spending two hours lifting and pressing and running, a few more hours in the ballet studio, and spending the rest of the day in work or an internship.

On good days, I’d eat a sandwich and drink a few cups of coffee. On bad days it was half a sandwich.

I became a good deal skinnier, though never to the rock-bottom I hit in high school–when I actually qualified for the very narrow dictionary-and-DSM-definition of anorexia nervosa at 75% of my recommended body weight. Just like in high school, people told me how pretty I was looking.

Two months of sweaty gyms and barres and mirrors later, the costumes for our show arrived. There had been an order mixup. The only costume available to me was an extra small. We tried them on over our ballet clothes, all in the middle of the studio. Mine didn’t even fit over my hips.

The show was that weekend, and I dropped out gracefully, citing a work schedule conflict that really, would just make iteasier if I didn’t dance after all. It was no trouble at all.

I haven’t danced since that summer. Not once. I’ve put on the clothes, the shoes, found an empty room and played the music for plies….and I just couldn’t.

I don’t call myself a dancer anymore. I talk about how I used to dance. I cut my hair short–I no longer needed it long enough to put up for a performance. Sometimes it overwhelms me. I can’t hear music without seeing choreography, and that’s been true for as long as I remember. But I no longer see myself performing the pieces. I’m too heavy to be lifted by a partner, you see. No one’s going to want to lift my fat ass.

I went home last summer and I worked at the same places. I went to the studio twice. I said hi, I hugged everyone. We socialized a bit, and I plead errands. I drove to the closest Starbucks and cried.

This year, I live by a ballet studio. I walk by it each day–it’s impossible to avoid on my way to school. The girls slip in, black leotards and elbows and knees and bobby pins. When I come home from my night classes, I can hear the music bouncing off the mirrors and wood floors.

I grieve.

For anyone concerned: I’m in treatment and therapy. Every Thursday, I get to talk and feel a little bit better. 
This also isn’t a story about what causes eating disorders. I had one before this story takes place. Ballet didn’t cause it. Comments about my body didn’t cause it. What they did do is make it so much harder to accept that it was okay to gain back the weight I had lost.