The Women’s March vs. Pro-Life

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This Saturday, I participated in the Women’s March in Philadelphia. Since the march, I’ve seen a lot of backlash for its exclusion of anyone supporting the pro-life agenda. As far as I could tell, there was no one policing who could and could not attend the march. Anyone that wanted to could simply walk up and join the crowd. However, the platform of the march was explicitly “pro-choice” and therefore intended for those that share this perspective. I also believe that a pro-life organization was declined partnership with the march. This makes sense to me, as the pro-life message is in direct contrast with a primary principle of the march: women’s reproductive rights, and the right to make our own choice about our bodies.

For many of us, reproductive rights are inalienable from women’s rights – and one intention of the march was to demonstrate how many people share this specific perspective. The backlash has inspired me to share a little bit about why I see reproductive rights as a fundamental aspect of women’s rights, and why I think organizations like Planned Parenthood are crucial for women, and for our country in general.

Pro-choice Planned Parenthood demonstration holding two signs

No one wants to be in a position to get an abortion, but it’s an important option to have. I’m comfortable sharing that I’ve depended on planned parenthood for next day contraception because my primary birth control method failed. This was despite my loving/involved family, my private school education, my involvement with the church throughout my adolescence, and my decision to wait until I was 20 years old and had been in a committed relationship for a year before I had sex.

It was a difficult moment, that I’m neither proud nor ashamed of, but I am extremely grateful I had this option. I’ve been granted the ability to postpone motherhood until a time when I feel I can be the best mother possible, and offer the best life for my children. I’ve been able to continue pursuing my education, and will be receiving my doctoral degree this spring. I’m no longer with the man I was with at that time, who ended up cheating on me several times. Instead I was able to date, discover who I am, discover what was important to me in a partner, and am now engaged to a better partner than I could have imagined.

Without this contraception, it would have taken much longer to pursue my education  (if possible at all), as raising my child would have become my primary responsibility. Without a degree, I’d be unlikely to find as well paying of a job. Without a well paying job, I most likely wouldn’t be able to afford living in the neighborhoods with better school districts, meaning my child might not have access to a quality education. Due to earning less money, I might have to work more hours to make ends meet. Longer hours at work would mean less quality time with my child, especially if I continued trying to pursue my education on my off-hours. Less time with my child means I’d have less opportunity to talk with them about values, decision making, and healthy sexuality.

Studies have shown that children from lower income households are exposed to about 250,000 words in the span of one year, compared to about 4 million words that children from higher income families are exposed to – putting them at an average 2-year disadvantage in language skills when entering school. This is partially due to their parents’ additional stresses and limited time.

Maybe I would have tried to make things work with the father, and stayed in an unhealthy relationship. Maybe we would have broken up anyway, leaving me to raise my child as a single mother. The child (at best) might have seen their father occasionally, as we never lived in the same state and wouldn’t have had the means to move and live independently. It’d be more difficult finding time to date, or finding another man my age interested in a woman with a child, meaning I’d likely be living in a single income household for longer; another barrier in my ability for economic mobility.

Sad woman sitting in the corner of a room, head on the knees, face is hidden, black and white

This is how my life could have been very different without reproductive rights. This is even with all my privilege of growing up in a middle class white neighborhood, private school education, and religious involvement. Unfortunately, many young women haven’t had the same privileges. Their mother’s are working several jobs to make ends meet, and aren’t home to have conversations about healthy sexuality, or protect them from risky situations. They might not have fathers around to model respectful behavior towards women, and help foster their self-esteem. They’re less protected from increasing cultural messages (including those from our president) that their sexuality is the most valuable thing they have to offer others.

When they fall for a boy (similarly deprived of positive role models) who makes spontaneous and irresponsible decisions… the boy can walk away. However, without reproductive rights, the girl is left to bare the responsibility for the rest of her life. She’s left to try to do better than her own mother, until she realizes that her own mother was doing the best she could, and the cards are stacked against the girl to do any better. She might begin to notice how many other girls in her neighborhood are in the same situation, and that their daughters eventually find themselves in the same situation, and it might begin to dawn on her why it’s so difficult for anyone in the neighborhood to get out. Then it might dawn on her how women’s rights are so inextricably connected to human rights, social justice, improving poverty, decreasing crime, public health, and accessible quality education.

Don’t get me wrong, I know some mothers are able to overcome all these barriers, make the best of a difficult situation, and do a wonderful job raising their children. They are absolute heroes – but because of how difficult and important this task is, I don’t think any woman should be forced to take it on without deciding it’s what SHE WANTS. I also understand that a woman can choose to follow through with her pregnancy, and then decide to give her child up for adoption. Expecting a woman to carry a child in her womb for 9 months, give birth, and then give that child away also seems like an extremely unfair physical, practical, and emotional toll to force upon a woman, without her ability to choose. I am very much pro-life, in that I think if a woman wants to follow through with a pregnancy, she should have as much support available as possible. I simply don’t think she needs the government to make that decision for her. To me, a fundamental element of female empowerment is acknowledging that NO ONE is better able to make a life changing decision for a woman than the woman HERSELF.

This is why, for many of us, reproductive rights are inseparable from women’s rights.

* I understand the argument that an unborn child is a human too, and also has rights…. I really do… but there simply isn’t a clear agreed upon point at which an embryo is a person. Hopefully, however, there’s no debate that every already born woman is definitely a human, so it seems reasonable that our human rights should take precedence.

** Let it be known that I have no official affiliation with the Women’s March and cannot speak on behalf of any of the organizers or protesters. This post is intended to simply share my take on the issue.
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Debate Isn’t a Dirty Word

Business challenge

When a tragedy such as the Orlando mass shooting occurs, an inevitable rise in debate follows. The debating can get nasty, and just add to the negativity of an already overwhelmingly awful event. I wish this wasn’t so.

I love a friendly debate. Probably to a fault, I’ll carry on a debate long past the time when most people become uncomfortable. Recently I’ve found myself in some lengthy facebook-commenting debates, and while I definitely don’t think Facebook is the ideal forum for such discussions, I’ve appreciated the exchanges. What I’ve noticed however, is that it makes other people uncomfortable. In these situations and many others throughout my life, I’ve been encouraged by friends and loved ones to “just let it go”, or “just drop it”. I’ve even carried on debates to the point that the other person involved gets upset, leaving me feeling confused and ashamed because I never intended to offend anyone.

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The truth is, I have a really hard time walking away from a debate, and I admit it probably has something to do with ego, but there’s definitely more to it than that for me. I find it interesting how uncomfortable debate makes people, and I think it’s a shame. I think it contributes to lack of progress on a lot of issues.

We feel uncomfortable when our thoughts and beliefs are challenged. It feels threatening, as if people are insulting who we are as a person. It’s natural, but it shouldn’t be this way. We are not defined by our ideas so long as we’re willing to be flexible in them. Therefore, a challenge to your beliefs shouldn’t be felt as a personal attack, and yet we get so defensive. When we get defensive, we get emotional, and we stop using reason to uphold our beliefs and start using more drastic measures like abusive language or even behavior to tear down the other person.

Another possibility is that we “just drop it”. We “just drop it” because we want to avoid the discomfort of disagreeing, or being challenged, or maybe because we’re accepting/assuming that the other person will never change their mind. But maybe you’ll change your mind. Would that be so terrible? If we “just drop it” then we lose the opportunity of following any conflict through to a resolution.

The reason why I seldom “drop” a debate is because I embrace the discomfort of having my beliefs challenged. If there’s a valid reason why I should think differently, I want to hear it! If I “just drop it” I might never get to hear that reason, and then how can I be confident in my beliefs? Discomfort is a signal to me that I’m emotionally tied to my beliefs, and I should look carefully to see if my emotions are clouding my judgement. Few of us are experts on all of the relevant issues that come up for debate. I’ll be the first to admit I have opinions about issues that I haven’t researched exhaustively . So I try to be open to influence.

I never want to make someone that I’m disagreeing with feel offended, and I never mean to attack you as a person. If I’m critiquing your ideas, it’s not to make you look bad, it’s only because I’m trying your ideas on for size and seeing how they fit within my reason. I’m challenging your opinions, because I’m curious. I don’t understand or agree with your perspective, but if it stands up to challenge, maybe I will. If we want to find our common ground, we might need to explore an issue completely.

So that’s my little explanation/disclaimer to why I rarely back down from a debate, even though it probably makes me look like an a-hole. I think a debate ideally ends when one person is convinced, or both sides have exhausted their arguments and agree to disagree (or when the food is delivered to the table, cause ya know, priorities). I think it would do a world of good if we all learned to tolerate our discomfort with conflict, detach our identities from our beliefs and our emotions from our reasoning.

As I discuss in other posts about healthy communication being key to a healthy romantic relationship, so too is healthy communication key to a healthy nation. As I encourage couples;

  • Let’s address issues, while avoiding blame and criticism.
  • Let’s share about our differences and try to understand each other without vilifying the opposition.
  • If the emotional intensity of a debate gets too high, let’s take a break until cooler minds can prevail and we can get back to the issue at hand. L
  • et’s entertain the possibility that we could be wrong and be open to influence.
  • Most importantly, let’s remember to focus on where we can find common ground and work from there.

If we can shift our perspective about differences of opinions to opportunities instead of attacks, then I think we might actually get somewhere.

Response to “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing”

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Ok so I’m on a roll with the “response” posts, but one particular blogger had me fired up late last week. Last Thursday xoJane.com published the article “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing”. When I first saw the article I was intrigued. While I thought the title was exploitive click bait, I thought maybe what followed would offer a provocative personal perspective about mental illness. Or I thought maybe it would be a reflection on how relief can sometimes be a complicated and even more painful aspect of grief.

But I was wrong. The article that followed was a string of shallow and callous judgements that begged the question of how it made it past an editors desk. XoJane later removed that article and apologized, though the author has not apologized. You can still see the original post here.

As someone who works with the mentally ill and has loved ones with mental illness, I was not only angered and offended, but also disappointed by the lost opportunity a explore a challenging but worthy issue. Let me try to explain what I hoped the article might be, and point an angry finger at what it actually was.

As a sibling of someone with severe and chronic mental illness, I’ve watched first hand the pain caused by mental illness to the individual and everyone that cares for them. The value of living such a painful life is a worthy conversation, not because anyone with mental illness is better off dead, but because the conversation brings light to the suffering that goes ignored or stigmatized. I’ve watched my brother go through hell. I’ve watched my parents’ lives turn upside down in their exhausting efforts to help him. I would be lying if I said there weren’t moments, when things were really bad, when somewhere deep in the darkest corner of my mind would it be better if he wasn’t here? became a thought. The times this has happened, shame and pain immediately follow. Shame for my own weakness and difficulty merely observing the pain that my brother somehow finds the strength to endure every day. Shame for my narrow sightedness that my parents’ unconditional love is a burden and not a triumph. After the shame, comes immediate gratitude for my brother, everything he teaches me with his experience, and everything his presence on this earth offers us. Our society has become so motivated by pain and discomfort avoidance, that we often forget pain precedes growth; pain precedes strength – and that must make my brother and others with mental illness some of the strongest people in the world.

As much shame as I have associated with that thought, I think that maybe it’s worth sharing. Sometimes our mind goes to a terrible place without asking our permission first. It’s human. It’s a product of the pain caused by mental illness, and the helplessness felt by anyone who cares, which is a result of such insufficient treatment and support. So maybe others have had similar experiences/thoughts, and similarly judge themselves. Maybe instead of judging ourselves we could share our experiences, lean on each other for strength, and try to make some change.

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This is the complicated emotional experience of someone whose life is touched by mental illness. You, Amanda Lauren, are not one of these people.

Your article didn’t mention any pain you experienced at a result of this person’s struggle. At most you described inconvenience and annoyance in response to what sounded like mere personality differences, not pathological symptoms. If you’re going to make the dubious argument that life with mental illness isn’t worth living, talk about homelessness, talk about insufficient treatment, talk about stigma, talk about being the victim of violence… Don’t talk about having a messy room and lack of a boyfriend.

You admitted to not even giving this girl a thought for years before you decided to add her to your Facebook feed solely for your entertainment. Based on some concerning behavior and posts about her diagnosis, you draw assumptions that she died lonely, unhappy, and a burden to her family, while simultaneously judging her family for allowing this to occur (as if it were something they had control over). You wrote an article assigning value (or lack thereof) to a person’s life that you weren’t even involved in.

If your point is that your former friend’s life was a tragedy best ended, you need to take responsibility for that tragedy. You watched and judged someone who needed help, and did nothing. Now she is dead. You can try to justify your behavior by backwards reasoning that she’s better off dead – But no, she’s not.

Now you not only need to take responsibility for how you treated your former friend, but the message you sent to everyone suffering with mental illness by publishing that article. The first step is taking responsibility for whatever mindset is at the root of such callousness. Seek some help Amanda Lauren. Don’t worry, you’ve cause some people some pain, but you’re not a lost cause.

Response to “Staying Hot for My Husband”

In a recent article , Blogger and newlywed Amanda Lauren posited that “staying hot for my husband is ESSENTIAL to a successful marriage”. Not sure what data Amanda is basing this advice off of, but as a relationship researcher, and woman with a brain, I feel obliged to respond.

Makeup routine of beautiful young woman.

Some points that I think you’re trying to make are valid:

  1. Sex is an important part of a relationship and is related (correlationally) to happiness. (See research here)

“While sex can’t make a marriage, it can break it. Having that physical, intimate connection is very important… And if my husband wasn’t turned on by me, we couldn’t have that essential intimacy.” – Amanda Lauren

BUT you don’t need to be a super model to have great sex, and relatedly, being attractive does not mean you’re great at sex. Furthermore, intimacy is a lot more than sex.

  1. How we feel about our own looks is important for our self esteem, and self-esteem is important for our happiness. And YES it’s helpful for a relationship when the people involved are happy people.

“Feeling good ultimately allows me to be a better, happier and more considerate partner. I see the look on my husband’s face when I come out of the bathroom, ready for a night out, or the way he checks out my butt on the way to Pilates class. Having an attractive wife makes him happy. They say “Happy wife, happy life,” but I’m happiest when my husband is happy.” – Amanda Lauren

The important distinction here is that how we feel about ourselves matters for our self-esteem. The more our self image is dependent on the feedback we receive from others, the more insecure we’re going to be no matter HOW objectively hot people might think we are. For instance, when I’m 70 years old I hope to look into the mirror and feel great about myself. Not because I look “hot” for a 70 year old, but because I see the reflection of a wise accomplished woman who makes shit happen and gives no fucks.

  1. Attractiveness is one way to offer value to a mate.

“All relationships require work, and working on myself is doing the work I need to do for the sake of my relationship. Even if I’m running 15 minutes behind on date night because my hair isn’t straightening, my husband can’t complain if he’s swooning over me.” – Amanda Lauren

Attractiveness is… well, attractive. Therefore you can leverage it to a certain point in your search to secure a mate. However, your looks are one small aspect of the self, and therefore one small way to offer value to another person. Other people might offer value with their financial stability, or their social resources. At a deeper level the value you offer to your mate could be your humor, your insight, your kindness, or intellect.

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Sure, I hope that my partner finds me attractive, but I also believe my looks are the LEAST valuable asset I offer to others. Therefore in the list of qualities that I devote my energy towards, keeping up my looks is not at the top. If you’re prioritizing “staying hot” for your husband, your implying that this is the most value you offer him. If this is the case, hate to break it to you, but your most valuable asset is a depreciating one.

In conclusion:

Physically attractive women are a dime a dozen. Beauty is no accomplishment and certainly doesn’t secure you a high quality relationship (just ask the many supermodels and actresses that have been cheated on and/or gotten divorced). Set a higher standard for yourself. Don’t focus on “staying hot for your hubby”. A woman with compassion, patience, humor,  insight, and intelligence is a true treasure to hold on to. Real men know that.

“If men can’t help but be visual creatures, I need to oblige.” – Amanda Lauren

Men should be offended by the statement “men are visual creatures” degrading them to less evolved creatures as if their ability to see somehow overrides their human capacity to think, feel, and discern. Guess what, we’re all visual creatures, in that we all have eyes, and behind our eyes are brains capable of complex reasoning and deep emotional experiences.

My partner lets me know when I look nice, but it’s obvious what really turns him on. He’s ready to pounce on me when I’m speaking about something I’m passionate about, or when I’m making him laugh, when I’m more focused on the status of the world than the status of my eyeliner, when I’m rushing out the door for our next adventure rather then waiting back to finish straightening my hair.

I felt strongly about writing a response to this article, because Amanda Lauren isn’t the only one spreading the idea that if woman wants an enduring happy relationship, she better stay “hot”. This message is scary for women who are already under pressure of unrealistic societal expectations, but furthermore this message is degrading. Women of the world, there are so many other reasons you’ll be loved than how “hot” you are.

Everybody likes to look nice, but the woman I’m trying to be usually has much bigger things on her mind, and has a man that does too.

Stop Categorizing Other People… and Yourself!

We live in a world that loves to categorize things. It’s the human brain’s little trick for sorting through a lot of information efficiently; “It’s either this, or it’s that”. While categorization can be helpful, there are some negative consequences, especially when applied to human experience. For example, we tend to sort other people into various categories, i.e. male/female, gay/straight, nerd/jock, etc.. This type of black and white thinking not only limits our ability to understand another person’s experience, but often times it can make it difficult to understand our own experience as well. We feel pressure to fit into rigidly defined categories that society has laid out for us, and as a result we might mitigate unique parts of ourself and our experience that don’t fit so neatly into these social boxes. People might hide or play down the parts of themselves that blur the lines so they can fit in and identify more closely with a certain group, all the while feeling fundamentally different. The point of this post is to highlight some examples of areas that we need to challenge our categorical perspective, so that we can all relate better to each other as unique and diverse individuals, rather then members of separate homogenous groups.

Sexual Orientation

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 10.20.08 PMWe generally think of sexual orientation as identification with a certain category (gay, straight, bi), but this can cause a lot of people confusion when trying to understand their own sexual feelings and experience. A healthier way to consider sexual orientation would be to think of it as a point on spectrum with strict heterosexuality and homosexuality representing the extreme end points of the scale. It’s actually rare that someone would fall on an extreme end of this spectrum. Maybe you’re mostly attracted to the opposite sex, but you can recognize when someone of the same sex is attractive. Maybe members of the same sex even show up in your fantasies from time to time, but you don’t necessarily ever feel inclined to act on those fantasies. The point is, whatever your experience may be, it has a place somewhere along this scale.

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Sexual Fluidity

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 10.25.26 PMTo add to the dynamics of sexual experience is the fact that sexual orientation isn’t necessarily a fixed trait. For many people, who they are attracted to evolves throughout their life. This concept can also be represented on a spectrum with complete sexual fixedness on one end and complete sexual fluidity on the other. Someone who has always been attracted to one sex (be it same or opposite sex) for as long as they can remember and never experienced periods or moments of attraction to the other sex, would be a very sexually fixed person. A more sexually fluid person might have periods of being exclusively attracted to one sex, but has also had periods of being exclusively attracted to another sex, and maybe also periods where they felt attracted to both sexes. In other words, wherever you fall on the sexual orientation spectrum discussed above, you don’t necessarily remain on that one point of the spectrum, but might move around a bit over time.

Research shows that women tend to be higher in sexual fluidity, and therefore are more likely to change sexual orientation throughout life. However, it’s unclear how much this is affected by different societal gender norms. For example, it’s generally considered more acceptable in our society for a straight women to experiment with other woman (e.g. making out with another girl at a party), than it is for a straight man to experiment with another man. The take home point is that there is a lot of gray area when it comes to our sexual preferences, and it’s totally normal to not fit into our society’s rigid categories.

Gender

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 10.22.03 PMA related area where society attempts to squeeze us into dichotomous categories is gender. Our society has established ideas of what it means to be a man and we call it masculine. We have established ideas of what it means to be a woman, and we call it feminine. However no man is strictly masculine and no woman is strictly feminine. The reality is that a woman can identify with any masculine trait(s) and it does not make her less of a woman, and the same it true for men. Therefore we can again consider these traits on a spectrum where regardless of your biological sex you may lean towards masculinity or femininity but still identify with traits of either gender. Right in the middle of this scale would be androgyny, which research has actually shown to be connected to many positive traits. In other words, it’s actually best to embrace positive characteristics associated with both genders. If we embrace this spectrum perspective of gender as a society perhaps we will be able to show more compassion and understanding for those who feel they identify more with the gender opposite of their biological sex. Perhaps individuals would not feel so conflicted and confused when their experience doesn’t seem to match what society prescribes for their sex. Perhaps we would all feel more able to explore and embrace our most genuine selves without pressure to conform ourselves to gender norms.

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Relationships

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 10.33.28 PMSexologist Jessica O’Reilly applies the spectrum perspective to relationships in this TED Talk, where she explains Dan Savage’s concept of “monogamish relationships”. She suggests that strict monogamy doesn’t seem to work for many people (as evidence by high divorce rates), however she states that the opposite (strict polygamy) doesn’t work for many people either. She encourages us to open our mind to the many possibilities in between monogamy and polygamy, and define fidelity in our relationships on our own terms. For example, maybe you and your partner do not have sex with others, but flirting is ok, or bringing a guest player into your fantasies/dirty talk is enough to keep things exciting. Whatever it may be, the spectrum perspective opens up the opportunity to have an honest conversation with your partner about wants and desires that might lay outside of society’s standard definitions of relationships.

Mental Health

Once you understand that most traits exist on a spectrum rather than in categories, you can begin to apply it to many areas of life. Even our typical understanding of mental illness has been defined by categorical diagnoses, and as a clinical psychologist in training I’m all too familiar with the problems inherent in trying to fit a unique person with complicated psycho-social issues into a strictly defined diagnosis. There is actually a current a push in the field of psychology to describe mental health conditions on spectrums rather than categories. An example is the transition from separate diagnoses for Aspergers Syndrome and Autism, to Autism Spectrum Disorder, which recognizes that individuals may experience symptoms of Autism to various extents and thus present in very different ways. In terms of other disorders, the presence or absence of one symptom can currently make the difference between whether someone qualifies for a diagnosis or not. Would it not make more sense to describe a person as “having the following depressive traits” or “falling above average on the depression scale”, rather than depressed or not depressed?

Take Home Point

The underlying point here is that few things in life are black and white, and it does us a world of good to look for the gray areas. It’s particularly dangerous to apply black and white thinking to other people, because we rob ourselves of what we can learn from the idiosyncrasies of others. Furthermore, let’s think about what we lose when we subconsciously apply black and white thinking to our own identity. What parts of life, what parts of our self, have we not explored because they seem to conflict with the labels we’ve applied to ourself? How can we meet our full potential, if we hold ourself to the confines of categories? So periodically check in with yourself… are there any areas where you’re not allowing yourself to explore the full spectrum of life?

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Justice for the Mentally Ill

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That’s my brother Brennan. He’s the most creative person I know. A gifted artist. Talented musician. Amazing sense of humor. Brennan was the best big brother a little girl could have asked for. Some of my favorite childhood memories were of Brennan “reading” to me, but making up his own (infinitely more entertaining) story to go along with the pictures on each page. During the holidays, I used to whole heartedly believe I had my very own special elf who would leave me notes and treasure maps to little presents hidden throughout the house – all Brennan’s work. He was always up for a game of make believe anything, and any pretend world was exponentially enhanced once Brennan’s magically creative mind got involved.

Brennan had his first psychotic episode when he was about 18. Since then, Brennan has been on every antipsychotic medication that’s out there, in and out of hospitals, living on and off the streets. On his best days, Brennan is still a shadow of his former self. It’s hard for him to engage in conversation, as he’s distracted and tormented by voices in his head. A naturally sweet natured person, paranoia often makes him become combative and disrespectful to his loved ones. He has periods of abusing substances, because they work better than his prescriptions at providing relief from his painful symptoms. It doesn’t really occur to Brennan to change his clothes, brush his teeth, or cut his nails, making it all the harder for him to fit in with society. It’s been over 10 years now, and Brennan continues to struggle, and it’s certainly not for a lack of a family that cares about him. Unfortunately, a loving family isn’t nearly enough to treat schizophrenia, and the type of care that Brennan really needs simply does not exist. Brennan is one of many.

A large part of the problem is that Brennan is not compliant with his antipsychotic medication. In fact, about 50% of those with schizophrenia are non-compliant with their medication for several reasons.

Medication doesn’t help everyone equally.
For some people, medication is a gift that enables them to function and even thrive in society. However, there are some with treatment resistant illnesses, for whom the medications available simply don’t do much. My brother for example, continues to hear voices in his head all day, every day, with or without medication. Medication helps him function to an extent that his loved ones can notice a positive difference, but not quite enough that he can notice a positive difference.

Unwanted side effects.
Not only do the medications available not always work, but they often cause side effects that lead individuals to stop taking them. Side effects can include movement disorders, weight gain, sexual dysfunction, and more. Brennan complains that his medication makes him feel “doped up”, like “a zombie”, and unable to think clearly.

Maintenance.  
The symptoms of schizophrenia (and other similar disorders) make it difficult for many individuals to care for themselves. Simple activities of daily living such as bathing, brushing one’s teeth, and even eating can go ignored. Remembering to take medication daily is yet another responsibility that’s difficult for someone with mental illness to maintain. Without help/supervision, many with schizophrenia simply won’t remember to take their medication regularly. Some medications are becoming available in monthly injections, but many people are not open to being injected with a month’s dose of medication for all the other reasons discussed.

Psychosis.
It is the very nature of schizophrenia to not have good insight into how mentally ill you are. In other words, many are resistant to taking medication because they don’t believe they are sick. In my brother’s case, the less medicated he is, the less he believes he needs medication. Many with schizophrenia also experience paranoia, making it even less likely that they will listen to the advice of medical professionals or their loved ones.

As Brennan is an adult, he cannot be forced to take medication against his will. So when he stops taking his medication, our family is left with no choice but to stand by and watch him slip into complete madness, waiting for him to deteriorate enough that he can be involuntarily admitted to an inpatient psychiatric unit. For that to happen Brennan has to be an imminent danger to himself or others, which essentially means he must have already hurt himself/someone else, or verbalized a specific plan to hurt himself/others. He’ll be inpatient just long enough to stabilize his medications (maybe a week or two at most), and for him to assure everyone he’s not going to hurt himself or anyone else. Then he’s released back home, where we know it’s only a matter or time before the same cycle repeats itself all over again, like it has for the past 10 years. Like so many other families in our position, we are put in the position of trying to reason with a psychotic person to stay on their medication. We can try to make medication compliance a condition of living at home, but in his psychotic state Brennan often decides that living on the street is the favorable option – leaving my family to worry that he’ll be attacked, freeze, get arrested, etc. In fact, Brennan has been brutally attacked while living on the streets.

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I share Brennan’s story because I want to put a face to a need that our society must address. Brennan is one of many chronically mentally ill citizens for whom there is inadequate treatment and support available. My family is one of many, trying our best but failing to provide our loved one with the care they need and deserve. The severely mentally ill often cannot advocate for themselves, and so they go underserved and underrepresented. Analogous to the modern day leper, so many like my brother are ostracized, stigmatized, and ignored, making about 25% of the homeless population due to no fault of their own, merely their unfortunate genetic predispositions. We as a society cannot continue to ignore the needs of our fellow humans with mental illness.

Why do so many individuals with mental illness go untreated? Why are so many left to roam the streets?

“Aren’t there places for people like that?”, I’m sometimes asked.

“Not really, no.”

A Little History Lesson

When you think of mental institutions, scenes from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest might come to mind, but psychiatric hospitals weren’t always such dreadful places. Psychiatric hospitals are rooted in an early 19th century movement called moral treatment. Prior to this, the “insane” were often put in shackles, isolated from society, neglected, and subjected to tortuous “treatments”. Moral treatment was based in the idea that mental illness could be treated by providing a therapeutic environment. The leaders of the moral treatment movement had chains and shackles removed from their hospitals,  banned physical punishment, and replaced dungeons with sunny ventilated spaces that patients could walk about freely. Employees were carefully selected to deliver humane treatment with a balance of empathy and authority. Retreats where patients functioned as small communities emphasized a balanced routine of rest, talk, and manual work. In hospitals in the US, attendants would read to the patients, talk with them, and go on regular walks with them. Recovery rates with moral treatment were showing promise, and many countries began passing laws requiring local governments to build mental hospitals.

What the eff happened?

By the early 19th century these mental hospitals were growing in size and number, eventually becoming large out-of-town institutions. Economic and social changes caused these institutions to become grossly over-populated and far too understaffed to adhere to the individualized moral treatment philosophy. Eventually little to no therapy of any kind was being provided, and these institutions essentially became inhumane warehouses for the mentally ill.
institution.afterpartychatIn the mid 20th century anti-psychotic medications began to come on the scene and successfully treat many individuals with severe illnesses like schizophrenia. The populations in mental institutions began to drop dramatically as many patients were able to return home. However by this time, attention had already been called to the terrible conditions, and there was a movement to reform the asylum based mental-health care system. The anti-psychiatric movement gained popularity along with the counterculture movement of the 60s, and pushed for total de-institutionalization. The anti-psychiatrists emphasized the individual rights of the mentally ill (such as the right to deny treatment), and criticized psychiatry for pathologizing/diagnosing those who thought/acted differently. The majority of psychiatric hospitals around the world began to close, and the few that remained significantly decreased the amount of beds available and the duration of stay.

So what now?

The new answer was community-based mental health treatment – a system based on the idea of getting the mentally ill treated and integrated back into society, as opposed to isolated and neglected. Sounds like a great idea, but unfortunately the follow-through has translated into a shortage of space in psychiatric hospitals, leading to pressure to quickly release patients. Patients are “stabilized” until they no longer present a threat to themselves or others, then they’re referred to outpatient services from an array of different providers such as case-managers, psychologists, psychiatrists, community mental health centers, nursing homes, workshops, etc.

Without the asylums, centrality of mental health care was lost, and the treatment efforts of the new system are often disjointed and inadequate. I currently work in community health care, and I’ve seen the system truly help many people recover from their mental illnesses. However, there is a portion of the population most in need for which the system is inappropriate and unhelpful, yet there’s no other option for them.

Flaws in the System

No long-term treatment
The current system does not seem to adequately address the needs of chronically and severely mentally ill. There are those for whom no amount of group therapy or medication will enable them to completely care for themselves. Often responsibility for the long-term care of mentally ill falls back on their families or other unofficial caregivers, but societal changes (economic change, rise in divorce, rise in women entering the workforce) makes this a challenge to say the least. Families are undereducated about their loved one’s illness, and under equipped to provide the care and supervision necessary, causing stress and conflict within households, only adding to psychological distress. Thus many individuals, such as my brother, are frequently rehospitalized, and many end up living on the street or in jail.

Imminent harm to oneself or others
In order for someone to be involuntarily admitted for treatment, they must pose an imminent threat to the safety of themselves or others. In other words, they must have already acted violently against themselves or someone else, or verbalized a specific plan to hurt themselves or someone else. I understand the importance of strict criteria when it comes to taking away anyone’s freedom, especially considering the days when someone could be sent to a mental institution against their will simply for being nuisance. However, the criteria of imminent harm poses problems. All too often by the time a person is dangerous enough to be involuntarily committed, it’s too late. A clinician or family member might have a strong suspicion that an individual is a risk to themselves or others, but their hands are often tied as long as the person denies any plan to harm.  Many individuals who truly want to act out a plan to hurt themselves or someone else know enough to keep their mouth shut.

Right to deny treatment
Within the same issue of the right to deny treatment, is the right to deny medication. Philosophically I understand the dangers and the violation of human rights involved in forcing an individual to take a medication they don’t want to take. However, a problem arises when it comes to illnesses such as schizophrenia, in which the very organ needed to make a responsible decision about treatment is where the disorder lies. We wouldn’t put the burden of making treatment decisions on someone with dementia, and allow them to choose to wander the streets. Yet we expect someone with schizophrenia to choose whether or not to be treated, and allow them to go homeless as if it’s their responsibility to change their situation.

This highlights part of the problem, that schizophrenia and similar mental disorders are still stigmatized almost as character flaws rather than medical conditions. But my brother didn’t choose to become mentally ill. Brennan already had all his rights to normal happy life taken from him through no fault of his own, and rather than receiving sympathy and support from society, he is ostracized and neglected.

What’s the answer?

Our culture needs to stop turning a blind eye to our fellow citizens with mental illness. Mental institutions were shut down due to inhumane conditions, but so many of the residents were left to live on the streets. At least the institutions provided a roof over their heads. Much of the inhumanity present in the institutions was due to overcrowding and understaffing, but with modern anti-psychotic medications the number of individuals who remain chronically and severely mentally ill has decreased. The individualized therapeutic environments that began with moral treatment did benefit patients, and should be revisited as long-term treatment options for the chronically mentally ill. The chronically mentally ill don’t deserve to be locked away in isolation, nor do they deserve to be banished to the streets. They deserve to participate as members of a community that supports their mental health. A community that does not view them as a burden, but as individuals capable of long term growth and recovery. They do not deserve to be passed from one program to another, but to be able to work within a stable system that’s working for their stability.

I don’t know the person Brennan would have become if he never developed schizophrenia, and honestly, I try not to think about it. I do know that Brennan has contributed to my life immeasurably even with his diagnosis, but that he still has much more offer this world. I know we won’t get to see the full impact of Brennan’s human potential without a therapeutic environment that suits his mental health needs. Brennan is one of many.

Things to Remember Should I Have a Daughter

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1. She has to learn from her own mistakes, she can’t learn from yours.

2. Tell her your mistakes anyway. Not so she can avoid them, but so she learns it’s ok to make them, and so she knows that you’ve been where she is.

3. Help her develop her femininity and masculinity from an early age. Play sports with her as much as you play dress up with her. Teach her how to apply mascara, and teach her how to change a tire.

4. Honor all the ways she is different from you. She was put on this earth to be her, not a mini-you.

5. Encourage her to question everything, even you.

6. You’re not her friend. You’re her mother.

7. Have all types of music playing, all the time. Give her the gift of rhythm through osmosis.

8. She has to date some assholes before she can appreciate a good man (or woman). Let it happen. The more disapproval you show, the less she’ll want to share with you.

9. Take her camping. Take her to the beach. Take her to the desert. Drown her in nature.

10. Help her think through things, offer your perspective, but resist telling her what to do.

11. Meditate with her. Make it part of her routine like taking a shower or brushing her teeth.

12. It’s ok if she wants different things for herself than what you want for her.

13. Raise her to make her own decisions, and then trust the ones she makes.

14. Develop an interest in her interests. If she’s into video games, pick up a controller. If she’s into yoga, start stretching.

15. Show her both sides of every story. Expect her to develop her own opinion, not just parrot yours.

16. Fill her world with a variety of powerful women. From Eleanor Roosevelt to Laura Croft. Mother Teresa to Lady Godiva. Elizabeth Bennet to Katniss Everdeen.

17. Never yell at her for crying.

18. Help her cultivate an appreciation for healthy living, but never critique her appearances. She’ll get an abundance of that from everyone else in the world, it should never be from you.

19. Make sure she knows how to indulge in chocolate, without a damn thought about calories.

20. Try your best to resist complimenting her on her looks, and even on her intelligence. Compliment her on her hard work, her perseverance, and her kindness.

21. Make dirty jokes. Let her know sex is a safe topic.

22. If you’re anxious about something, she’ll learn it’s something to be anxious about. Don’t sweat the small stuff, so she doesn’t either.

23. Read to her, and then read with her.

24. Let her explore. Let her go wherever she wants to go, and let her know you’ll be there when she returns. But give her mace to take with her.

25. Don’t let her take herself too seriously. Tease her regularly.

26. Admit when you’re wrong, and when you don’t know something. Teach her its ok to not know it all.

27. Remind her to look up. At the stars. At the clouds. At the leaves. Just look up and remember how tiny we are.

28. Develop an interest in her friends. If she finds something lovable about them, you can too. It’s in your best interest for her friends to feel comfortable with you and welcome in your home.

29. Dance with her. On a Tuesday. In the afternoon. In the kitchen. Teach her to cha-cha.

30. Always treat others with respect, treat yourself with respect, and demand respect from others. You’re the model from which she’ll learn how to treat others, how to treat herself, and how to expect others to treat her.

31. Expose her to many possibilities, but then sit back and watch her become whoever it is she wants to become with warmth and acceptance.

32. Take care of yourself so a) she learns to take care of herself, and b) she learns she doesn’t have to take care of you.

* Special thanks to my mama(s), for passing many of these blessings along ❤

I plan to keep adding to the list, so let me know what you think I missed!

The Social Psychology of Ferguson

Witnessing the dialogue sparked by the events in Ferguson, MO, I just feel so so sad. Sad to see people pointing fingers at each other, sad to hear overly simplistic assessments of a complex situation, sad to see people citing other crimes by other people as if it validates or invalidates what’s happened in anyway. Mostly it makes me sad to see people pushing away from each other, rather than coming together. It makes me sad, but I also understand. Having an education in social psychology, I can appreciate the complex factors that come together to create situations like this. This knowledge makes me feel far less judgmental, and far more empathetic when something like this happens. That’s why I truly believe that social psychology should be a required and fundamental aspect of every person’s education.  So for what it’s worth, I thought I would write a little crash course in social psychology to give some perspective on the events in Ferguson. Let’s first look at some of the ways prejudices are perpetuated and affect our behavior.

Confirmation Bias

To save energy, our brains take shortcuts (called heuristics) to quickly navigate the overwhelming amount of information presented by our environment. One shortcut our brains make is to seek information that supports the beliefs we already have. It takes less mental energy to continue believing the same thing, than it does to re-evaluate and adapt our beliefs. This is called Confirmation Bias and is one of the main ways that stereotypes and prejudice persist. For example, if I’m convinced Asians are terrible drivers I’ll notice every time a terrible driver happens to be Asian, but I’m not on the look out for all those Asians who aren’t causing any trouble on the roads. We find what we already believe.wpid-photo-jul-19-2012-1059-pmIf I think a black man is likely to be a criminal, my belief is reaffirmed every time I hear a story about blacks committing crime, but I give less weight to experiences that contradict my belief (i.e. all the black people around me every day not committing crimes). If I believe cops are racist, I’ll pay more attention to accounts that prove me right, and overlook instances of police officers treating people of different races with respect.

In-group/Out-group Bias

Back in our tribal days it was important for us to be able to quickly differentiate between “our peeps” and “outsiders”. So another energy saving trick our brains play is to categorize people into In-groups (groups I belong to) and Out-groups (groups I don’t belong to). Due to the homogeneity effect, we overestimate how similar members of out-groups are to each other, and recognize more individual differences between members of our in-group. It’s probably not surprising that we also tend to regard our in-groups with more positive attributes than out-groups, but you might be surprised by how arbitrarily we can make these attributions. For example, one researcher split strangers into two groups based on a coin flip, and participants still reported liking their groups members more, assumed they had nicer personalities, and were better workers (Tajfel, 1981). thMuzafer Sherif’s famous Robbers Cave Experiment was intended to examine the influence of group membership. He randomly assigned 22 white middle-class boys in summer camp to one of two groups. The two groups were separated from each other and encouraged to bond with members of their own group. The two groups were then brought together to compete in various activities for prizes. Before long the two groups engaged in name calling and taunting… then in vandalism and theft… then in such aggression that researchers had to physically separate them for two days. When asked to describe each group, the boys would describe their group favorably and the other group derogatorily.


Many other social psychology studies have demonstrated how easily we identify with a certain group, and develop biases in favor of our groups and against other groups. Think about the hatred some sports fans have towards fans of opposing teams. If identification with something as superficial as a sports team can cause such bias and result in extreme behaviors like rioting, think about the influence of something as personal as the color of your skin. Consider how much your perspective of any situation might be affected by who you see as part of your in-group or part of an out-group.

Fundamental Attribution Error

The Fundamental Attribution Error refers to the social psych. finding that we are prone to disproportionately attribute a person’s behavior to innate character traits, and underestimate the influence of the situation. In a study by Jones and Harris (1967), participants were told to read articles for and against Fidel Castro. Even when participants were told that the authors were assigned to write for or against Castro based on a coin toss, they still rated authors of the pro-Castro articles as having more favorable opinions of Castro. In other words, they were unable to fully consider the situation, and couldn’t stop themselves from making assumptions about the authors’ personal beliefs. Social experiments have shown that we’re more likely to attribute our behavior to the situation, but other people’s behaviors to their personality. So when I cut people off in traffic it’s because I’m really in a rush, and it’s not something I would normally do – but when someone else cuts me off in traffic it’s undoubtedly because they’re characterlogically a big d-bag. th-1We are more likely to make attributions consistent with our own prejudices. For example, an analysis of over 50 studies showed that when men failed to accomplish a task, it was assumed they didn’t work hard enough. When women failed it was assumed the task was too hard for them. Thus interpreting the same situation differently due to a bias that women are innately “less able” than men. We are also less likely to consider the influence of the situation on members of out-groups. So when a white cop shoots an unarmed black man – If I more strongly identify with the white cop, I’m more likely to consider how the situation influenced his behavior, but attribute the black man’s behavior to his character. If I identify more strongly with the black man, I’m likely to consider how the situation influenced his behavior, and attribute the cops behavior to his character. In reality, the situation influenced both of their behaviors more than I probably realize.

Group Dynamics

In the good ol’ days before ethics boards, Philip Zimbardo wanted to study how much the behaviors of prisoners and prison guards were influenced by innate personality, but ended up conducting one of the most important studies of group membership, power vs. oppression, and the influence of situation. The Stanford Prison Experiment involved a make-shift jail in the basement of a campus building, and 24 “psychologically stable and healthy” middle class male participants. Zimbardo randomly assigned participants to be a “prisoner” or a “guard”. Guards dressed in a uniform, carried batons, and wore tinted glasses to prevent eye contact. Prisoners were given identification numbers, smocks, and a chain around one ankle. stanford_prison_experimentThe study was supposed to continue for 2 weeks. After 6 days the experiment had to be called off, because the situation had gotten out of control. After the first day, prisoners revolted against the guards’ authority by refusing to follow directions, barricading their cells, and cursing at the guards. Guards then attempted to assert their control over the prisoners with increasingly sadistic methods. They attacked prisoners with fire extinguishers, stripped them naked, made them do push-ups (while they sat or stepped on their backs), refused to let them use the bathroom (instead making them defecate in a bucket in their cell and refusing to empty it), removed their mattresses, and put them in solitary confinement. One prisoner had to be released from the study due to a mental/emotional breakdown involving disordered thinking, uncontrollable crying, and uncontrollable rage. spic63If such chaos can unfold after only 6 days of otherwise equal people being assigned roles of power vs. oppression, think about the consequences extrapolated across centuries. If 6 days of having your rights taken from you can cause someone significant emotional distress, what’s the effect over generations? If 1 day of make-believe guards asserting authority over you can cause average people to revolt, how do you expect people to act when it’s a part of their every day lives?

Crowd psychology

This subject can easily fill an entire book, and involves many social psychology phenomena in combination, but the point returns to the power of the situation. Groupthink causes the a desire for conformity and cohesiveness in the group to overpower rational thinking and behavior. People experience de-individualization, and thus anonymity in crowds. groupthinkDiffusion of responsibility means the more people involved, the less responsibility any one person feels. The less responsibility any one person feels, the more they’re likely to do (or not do) things congruent with their morals. Group polarization is the tendency for groups to think and act in more extreme ways than individuals. So if the individuals that make up a group wanted to rebel, together they are going to be extremely rebellious. If the individuals that make up a group wanted to be punitive, together they are going to be extremely punitive. It’s worth mentioning that uniforms also de-individualize, particularly helmets, visors, glasses, masks, shields – things that are covering a person’s face and thus their identity. When our identity is concealed, we feel less inhibited and less personally accountable for what we do.
police-300x180

Fight or Flight

This is not a social psychology term, it’s a biological term. When we feel threatened past a certain point, our reflexes kick in and our bodies decide to either fight or flee. When this happens, the emotional center of our brain is on autopilot, and is not taking the time to consult with the rational part of our brain about whether or not we are making good decisions. The reason it’s important to include this in the discussion, is because it’s another way a situation affects our behavior. If I’m in a situation where I feel I’m in danger or my life is being threatened – whether it’s because someone I think is a criminal is coming towards me, or someone with a gun is trying to overpower me – my body reacts before I can think about what I’m doing.

The situation does NOT absolve personal responsibility

But before we pass judgements, I think it’s important to remember that we are all susceptible to the influence of the situation, and that other people’s behaviors are influenced by the situation more than we tend to think. People of all races commit crimes against all types of people for all types of reasons. In my opinion, none of these crimes justify the existence of any of the others. But the situation is such that white people experience power and priveledge daily, while black people and other minorities experience oppression and discrimination daily. Thus, in interracial conflicts white people’s behavior is often influenced by  power and privileged, and black people’s behavior is often influenced by oppression, and the behaviors of both parties are influenced by biases.

The character of any individual involved in such events usually has less impact than you probably think. I don’t know officer Wilson, I don’t know Michael Brown, and I don’t know exactly what happened that day. Chances are that both Wilson and Brown are people who have done some very good things and some bad things. Chances are that depending on the situation, they’d both be capable of doing terrible things that they would regret, and that weren’t in line with their character. Chances are that they both had beliefs and engaged in behaviors that were influenced by biases, sculpted by the environment that they grew up in. None of which changes the fact that what happened is terrible, and tragic, and representative of a much bigger problem than this singular event.

While I have some understanding of why people behave the way they do, and have my own opinions about what behaviors are right and wrong, I hate seeing the country divided rather than united against the situational factors that underlie such events. As far as I’m concerned, the events of Ferguson are the product of a society that we all participate in, and thus we all share some of the responsibility. Instead of pointing fingers, how about living our lives in such a way so as to reduce the devisions between us, and increase solidarity of the only true race – the human race.

To me, a large part of the puzzle is increasing our awareness of our own biases, as awareness is the first step to change. To that effect, I hope this helped a little.

Be Grateful.

All upset feelings are a consequence of desire.
This isn’t a new idea. Good ol’ Siddhartha figured this one out like a gazillion years ago.

Man-i-want-happiness

#buddhadroppinknowledgealldayerrday

Every time you’re feelings down, pause and identify what it is you want that you’re not getting. More money? More things? True love? Power? Better abs?

Consumerism has us constantly focused on the ways our lives could be better, and it’s a hamster wheel to no where. Because we find what we look for. If you’re looking for ways that your life could be better, I guarantee you will always find something, and so you’ll never be satisfied. In some ways that’s ok… because it motivates us to grow. But if you think trying to filling in those gaps is going to make you happier, you’re very wrong.

Unless you're this easily please tarsier.

Unless you’re this easily pleased tarsier.

Many social psych. studies have found something that increases overall well-being more than money, power, looks, etc.:

An Attitude of Gratitude.

One study had a group of people journal once a week for 9 weeks about 5 things they were grateful for, and compared them to a group that journaled about 5 burdens in their life, and another group that just journaled about whatever the hell they felt like. At the end of the 9 weeks, the gratitude group had better health, exercised more, reported more joy and happiness, were more optimistic about the future, and felt better about life in general (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). This study’s cool because it’s not just correlational – In other words it’s not just that happier people are more grateful, but when people were randomly assigned to be more grateful, they became happier.

Desire is focused on the deficits in life, while gratitude is focused on the abundances in life. Part of the problem is that desire is also future oriented. It’s about gaining something so that you’ll be happier than you are now. But we don’t live in the future. We never get there. We live in the moment. Gratitude orients you towards the present. What is there to be thankful for right now?

“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”
~ Meister Eckhart

So once you’ve identified the desire that’s at the root of your negative emotions, remind yourself that achieving it probably isn’t going to affect how happy you are – you’ll eventually just find something else to desire. So try to check yourself, and challenge yourself to switch perspective. Take a moment. Look around. At any given time there are a million things to be thankful for. Try to name 5. The warm clothes on your back. The tasty hot coffee in front of you. The fresh air filling your lungs. The sound of a child laughing. Wet kisses from a wagging dog. The master piece of blue sky, soft clouds, fluttering leaves, and rippling water that God’s laid out for you every. damn. day.

Challenge yourself to open your eyes and find the things to be grateful for…

I guarantee you’ll find them.

The Key to Success: Self-Awareness

Psychology nerd that I am, I’m constantly wondering what makes the difference between those that thrive and those that struggle psychologically. Even more important is the question of how to help those who struggle to build psychological strength. Many years of pondering over this, drawing from personal experiences, college/graduate courses, dozens of books and articles… I’ve come to this belief:

Self-Awareness is the single most important and advantageous tool you can have to find success in any area of life.

It seems to me that developing any other skill or quality must begin with some level of self-awareness; making self-awareness the necessary foundation upon which all other psychological growth can be built. As far as I can think, self-awareness is key in improving any area of life that you might be struggling with. Lets first consider a few of these areas so I can really sell you on the importance of self-awareness, and then we’ll talk about how you can develop it.

Mood

If you’re having problems with depression, anger, anxiety, etc. self-awareness is the first step towards improvement. Ideally, you want to be able to regulate your mood in a way that allows you to go about life as harmoniously as possible. This doesn’t mean that you never feel sad, frustrated, or angry. It means that you:

1. Recognize your emotions

2. Process them

3. Manage them without being overcome by them 

h65A4F673Self-awareness is first needed to recognize what specific feeling you are experiencing, and what triggered that feeling. Simply being able to put a label on an emotion can greatly decrease that emotion’s power over us. In fact brain imaging research has shown that labeling emotions decreases activity in our amygdala (the part of our brain that sends us into fight or flight) and increases activity in our prefrontal cortex (the more advanced and rational part of our brain), making us less emotionally reactive (Lieberman et al. 2007). Identifying an emotion also helps us recognize what may have triggered it. Understanding why we are feeling a certain way helps us feel more in control, and keeps things in perspective. There’s a big difference between “I’m sad” and “I’m sad because the holidays make me miss my mother”. In the second statement, the problem is defined, and defining the problem is the first step to solving it.

Self-awareness then goes hand-in-hand with processing and managing emotions. The very act of processing emotions means being in touch with how we are experiencing our feelings in the present moment, rather than being unconsciously swept away by them. It’s the difference between noticing that you feel extremely angry, noting the thoughts and sensations of anger (racing heart, rising body temp, tense muscles, thoughts of violence), and making a choice to self-soothe, vs. going into a senseless rage before you even realize you’re angry and only being able to reflect after you’ve already reacted.

38805176In order to self-soothe you need to be aware of what positively effects your mood. Maybe you realize that you always tend to be in a better mood after you exercise, or talk to a certain friend, or practice a favorite hobby. With self-awareness you can make a mental map of negative psychological triggers to avoid, and positive coping skills to utilize.

Focus/Motivation

Self-awareness is also the first step in improving your motivation, because the enemy of motivation is distraction. Between advertisements, emails, facebook, text messages, twitter, Netflix, etc., etc., etc., we are constantly bombarded with distractions to the point where it’s often difficult to realize we’ve become distracted.We sit down to do some work – next thing we know we’re on youtube looking at videos of cats and 2 hours have disappeared.

UnknownOne important facet of self-awareness is being able to recognize when our mind has wandered, where it has wondered to, and how to redirect it. Being able to direct your focus increases your motivation because your mind remains centered on the task at hand, and your ultimate goal. Mastering this ability will allow you to increase your productivity and utilize your time in a conscious purposeful way, giving you an advantage over the majority of your attention-divided peers.

Career

So many people agonize over finding the perfect job that will leave them excited to wake up every morning and go to work. Well the first step to finding work you love is knowing what you love, and that’s easier said than done. The next steps are knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are, knowing what motivates you, and knowing the type of working conditions that you thrive in. Obviously, this all requires self-awareness.
Here’s a pretty good TEDx Talk discussing the importance of being a “self-expert” in order to find and do work you love:

Some people work best with ironing out details while others work best with big picture ideas. Some work best under pressure, while others do their best work in a relaxed environment. Knowing yourself and being able to listen to your own internal cues is necessary for finding work that you’ll love, as well as doing the best work possible.

Relationships

You cannot fully love someone until you fully know them, and you cannot fully know someone else until you fully know yourself. Without self-awareness we are quick to blame others for our own negative experiences. We don’t take the time to understand the other person’s subjective experience, because we’re too busy reacting to our own. At the same time, without self-awareness we avoid taking responsibility for our own contributions to relational problems.

Take for example, a woman who constantly nags her significant other for not spending enough time with her, calling him neglectful and cold. She doesn’t consider that her constant nagging has a profound effect on her significant other’s behavior, making him feel inadequate and driving him away. Self-awareness could help her understand that she nags because she feels insecure, which is then exacerbated when her significant other distances himself, creating a cycle. Self-awareness could also help her recognize ways that she can self-soothe when feeling insecure, turning her back into a person her significant other looks forward to spending time with.
demotivational-posters-nagging
There are many more ways that self-awareness plays an important role in relationships. I’ve already touched upon self-awareness in this post on communication and defensiveness. I plan on writing a separate post soon, diving even deeper into self-awareness and relationships, so stay tuned!

Ok I Get It, Self-Awareness Is Good! Now What?!

Once I started to think about how big a role self-awareness played in happiness and success, my next quest was to figure out how it can be developed. Is self-awareness just an innate trait that people are either born with a high or low capacity for? Or is there some way people can learn to become more self-aware, and if so how can I help them? My search lead me to look into Mindfulness Meditation. Click the link to read on!