Posts by drmsmichelann

Postpartum depression: Not just for moms

I haven’t written about it much on this blog, but I had really bad Postpartum Depression (PPD) for about 1.5 years after having my daughter. PPD has a significant chemical component, but it’s also behavioral and situational:

  1. Your life has changed forever and that throws your self-concept into question, especially if it wasn’t built on being a mother.
  2. You are seriously sleep deprived, dehydrated, exhausted, and tired of a tiny person being attached to you in some way all the time.
  3. Everyone tells you what to do and how you’re doing it wrong, forever. You are already grappling with the reality that you have no fucking idea what you’re doing and you will be failing, forever.

This is a potent cocktail. But the thing is, there are other times in our lives when we have very similar experiences, minus the hormones. Getting my PhD was one such experience.

I didn’t blog much in between finishing my degree and getting my current job. This is because I was in an increasingly deep depression with a garnish of anxiety. For me, depression is always almost over. Any minute it’s going to lift and I’m going to feel normal again, so I avoid the fact that I’m actually a hot mess and may remain that way for some time. My blog during my PPD is always, it’s getting better! And reading it now I’m like, “Girl, it’s really not. Buckle in.” But when I look at the circumstances surrounding writing my dissertation and getting my PhD, it looks awfully familiar:

  1. I was recovering from stress-induced sickness, drug side-effects, and emotional upheaval.
  2. I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to get a job and start paying off the massive debt I had accrued and would run my family’s finances into the ground.
  3. There was no roadmap for success and I had no experience trying to get work as a qualified PhD.
  4. People say stupid shit like, “so you’re going to go to school forever” or “what are you going to do with a PhD in that?” or “Academia is really competitive” (Thanks, Captain Obvious).

So basically, my mental and physical health took a big hit due to crazy high stress, which made me have to take steroids (which are hormones), which further screwed up my mental and physical health. And I was transitioning to a new career/life phase and had no bloody idea what I was doing. Um.

So why am I thinking about this right now? Because many of my graduating students are freaking out about what life is going to be like on the other side, while getting hazed by their elders for not knowing what they can’t possibly know yet. I’ve found myself giving them very similar advice to what I was given a lifetime ago about post-performance letdown. We get all amped up for this one big moment, and then (if you’re a singer) you go eat a big meal, drink a bunch of wine, and fall facedown in your bed and wake up the next day wondering why everything is awful. I had a shrink who was a musician, and he said we need to be as deliberate and gentle with ourselves after a big event as we are before.

I do not always take this advice, but I dispense it freely and try to remember it when I’m facing the end of a cycle. So students, if you are graduating have fun, celebrate, and then remember to work some extra self care into your routine after the excitement is over, because that is when shit often get real. Take naps. Go running. Anything to compensate for the endorphin crash. Post graduation I ended up working out almost every day because I could literally burn off my anxiety that way. Netflix binges are totally cool, but make sure you are doing something that keeps your body running optimally because that will help your mind. I also ended up increasing my medication, and decreasing it after things leveled out. This is totally okay.

While using PPD as a diagnosis for post-graduation yuck is technically incorrect, it works symbolically. You have essentially birthed a new version of yourself. That self is insecure, unsure, excited, and exhausted. So set up some mechanisms and safety checks now so you can check in with yourself later and evaluate how you are doing. Life change is hard, and some people can be dicks when you are feeling vulnerable and worn out. Take care of yourself and don’t let the assholes get you down.

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Kids These Days: Why “Get off my lawn” is not a viable position for GenX

I have had multiple conversations with fellow Gen-Xers over the last few years about Millenials; some students, some peers. We seem to fall into two categories on this topic: Millenials are amazing, or, Millenials are the worst, get off my lawn!

I am disappointed with my demographic – GenXers with a lot of privilege.  I am also disappointed with myself. Like many of my generation, we pushed at the boundaries of what was considered “good” work and meaningful life. We created new industries, new technologies, and new ways to connect and relate to each other. We didn’t start the post-modern crisis, but we were the first generation born into it, and it shapes the way we see the world, still. Just as many Boomers have difficulty seeing beyond a deconstructive viewpoint on any system (for fear that it will create dominance and control) we have a really hard time seeing beyond our entrenched, non-joiner-ist, post-modernism. As a result, many of us opted out. We opted out of public service, leadership, and the responsibility to push our society forward. So while we recognized how uninclusive 2nd Wave Feminism could be and rallied around pluralism, sexual freedom, and intersectionality, Roe v. Wade, one of the hardest fought battles of the generation before us, was eroded and degraded on our watch. This happened at the expense of those that fought to be included in the bigger tent of 3rd Wave Feminism: women of color, sex workers, poor women, gay women, and trans women. Those of us with privilege may have defied social norms, but we did not challenge laws. Not the way we should have. Far more of us should be in Congress, and in the Governors’ offices, and in the courts.

Every generation has its strengths and failings. But there has been a reckoning, and many of my cohort are failing the test. For example, instead of doing the painful business of interrogating our sexual experiences, we deride the #metoo movement and call our younger sisters and brothers weak. I’ve cringed to watch men of my generation act as apologists for peers who have been called out for sexual harassment, assault, and abuse. And I’ve been enraged by women my age who have done the same. I’ve confronted the callousness of some of these conversations, and I’ve seen others do so increasingly.

I have taught the youngest and oldest of the Millenial cohort. I have never seen evidence of the accusations lobbed at them by my increasingly curmudgeonly peers. They are not narcissistic, entitled, lazy, or hyper-sensitive. I’ve seen those traits in students my own age or older far more frequently. I’ve also sadly watched my cohort be inflexible, judgemental, and belittling towards our younger sisters and brothers. I’ve had to check those same traits in myself. As if we weren’t belittled, judged, and misunderstood by the generations before us! As if we never thought, “I won’t treat young people the way I’m being treated.” But judgment is a comfortable place to sit. It requires no effort; no movement. It also assumes that we have nothing to learn, which is absolutely ludicrous.

The world is changing faster than we could have imagined in our most dystopian nightmares. We grew up knowing that the world our parents created for us was supposed to be an idyllic utopia of social equality, but was instead fraught with injustice, instability, and massive contradictions. We puzzled our way through, and eventually made our own sense of the world, partially through creating new systems of connection (because the internet) and partially through our unwillingness to subject ourselves to the paradigms which with we were presented. Eventually, we flourished. We are parents, business owners, and creatives. We are good at horizontal connection because we found both pre- and postmodernist assumptions about hierarchy to be innately flawed.

Now we are middle-aged. Many of us are comfortable with the lives we have built for ourselves, and uncomfortable when younger people point out how we continue to uphold oppressive systems through our inaction. This is not a good look on us. We need to listen and learn from the generations who did not have to resolve the post-modern conflict but instead grew up in an increasingly interconnected and global world. They innately understand that we live or die together as a species, not just in our little groups. My students are so culturally and racially diverse that I doubt it even occurs to them to be frustrated that they have to compete with others of multiple races, cultures, and identities. It’s how the world is.

Gen-X has a role to play. We can be translators and mediators between younger people, with whom we share some cultural and social experiences and older generations who are really struggling to understand the explosion of identities and terms for people they never knew existed. When a millennial calls out a baby boomer for not being intersectional enough in her feminism, we can do two things: opt out in frustration, or build a bridge between the world we reacted to, and the world we created.

I am as late to the plate as the vast majority of my demographic, but I’m willing to take up the challenge. Listen. Be a bridge. Lead from compassion instead of defensiveness. And take on the biggest challenge of aging with fervor – humility.

Kids these days: A series

I’m going to start a new series of musings on my experiences with the cohort of students I teach, sometimes in contrast with how I see others react to them. This happens on the national stage, in academia, and amongst my colleagues. I am increasingly concerned about how we treat, talk to, talk about, and judge young adults. We seem to be moving from a youth-oriented culture to a youth-deriding culture, and I’m not loving it. I have deep affection for my students and a great deal of empathy for their struggles.

This seems to come into conflict with messages I get from other middle-aged to older adults about the failings of these young people. Why so judgy? Why must we assume that young people have nothing to offer, that we should disregard their interests and values, assuming that ours are superior?

We’ve been watching Brene Brown’s videos in my classes and having some discussions about them. I have a whole slew of mixed feelings about her work, but she’s compelling and as someone from a quantitatively biased background, makes a really compelling case for humanizing the study of emotion. One of her favorite phrases is “wholeheartedness,” which she uses to describe the quality that people who can deal with vulnerability and stress and shame have. It’s part resilience, part empathy, part humility, as close as I can see. I am not an un-neurotic person, but when it comes to teaching, I believe I am wholehearted. I want nothing more than to give these young people a fraction of what they give me. I want to offer them some of the support and acceptance and encouragement that I wish I’d had from adults when I was their age. And I want them to feel seen and appreciated for all their badassery. Most of all, I want to learn from them. I want to leave the world to a generation that is less defensive and closed-minded and judgemental than the ones who currently seem to find them so lacking. We don’t need more of that right now, we need a whole lot less of it.

Further thoughts on becoming

becoming

  1. any process of change.
  2. Aristotelianism. any change involving realization
    of potentialities, as a movement from the lower
    level of potentiality to the higher level of actuality.

http://www.dictionary.com/browse/becoming

Teaching upper-division traditional undergraduates after teaching adult undergraduates for the first six years of my teaching career has been a rapid but fascinating transition. Adults are more experienced, more fixed in personality, and generally more mature. They are also not students by identity; they are procuring an education for some specific reason. To them being a student isn’t a transitional identity on the way from child to adult.

I loved teaching my adult learners. I discovered very quickly that teaching people around the same age and phase of life as me meant taking a humble approach. Nobody calls bullshit faster than a fellow GenXer.  I saw myself as a facilitator of learning, a knowledgeable peer, within a system that demanded some kind of performance report (grades) but where I encouraged my students to be critical customers of what the institution was selling them.

I was also told by my older colleagues that to be informal or vulnerable with traditionally aged undergraduates was to cede all authority and power and risk disaster. This was one of the reasons I shied away from applying for these positions. But needs must, and upon graduation, I realized that I just needed a damn job and I would have to face the unknown.

When I was very suddenly (and at the last possible minute) offered a full time teaching load at a public university, I had to get over myself and jump in. I flailed around a bit at first. Fun fact: people 20 years younger than me do not get my cultural references or laugh at my lame jokes. I was unprepared, as the process of getting me integrated into the university’s systems and thus gaining access to basic materials took literally up to the moment I started teaching my first class.

But I decided that I would not stray too far from the approach that had proven so successful in my career so far. I stayed humble. I was honest about struggling to catch up. I asked for student feedback. I paid close attention to what seemed to engage my students and what caused them to tune out. If anything, over the last two semesters I have become far more authentic than I was at my old position. I give impassioned speeches about things I think are important. I try to be as real and authentic as possible. I make space and time for my students to talk about issues that affect them. I give them room to figure out how they feel (first) about what we are learning and then what they actually think. Not what they should think.

I’ve learned that these young people are far more aware, awake, and stressed out than I was at their age. My mostly femal and non-white students have faced both structural and personal hurdles that I can only imagine. They are generous with me and each other, and they blossom under the smallest bit of care.

There is a discussion in education about the moral failings of adults who never learned to be human. That the mad dash to the top of the hierarchy, which has been mostly only available to a small percentage of elites and incredibly high performers, has led to a moral vacuum in our society. This has led to generations of leaders who don’t know how to be human, only how to win.

My students are some of the even smaller population of high performers from modest backgrounds. They carry the pressure of their communities, their families, the internal pressure to meet expectations they are not even aware they have internalized, and all of this at a time in their lives when they should also be living. Having relationships and breaking up and making mistakes and learning what it means to be human and flawed.

I have intuitively realized that this vacuum is forming within them, and have fit my classes, and to some extent myself, to give them a few moments each week of becoming instead of achieving. I talk about my flaws. I remind them that every time I point out passive voice in thier writing that I speak from years of trying to stop doing it myself. I tell them that I don’t care what they remember from my class, as long as something captured their imagination and led them to consider some experience or conundrum from a new perspective. I don’t care if they remember which theorist did which study, I care if they understand how history and society and colonialism and privelige and oppression will always be preserved and propogated through science if continue to believe that scientists are purely objective by nature.

When I was a singer, the most memborable, transcendant moments were when instead of me singing the music, God sang the music through me. When I stopped being the focus and became the vessel.

Teaching is not exactly like that, but it is a highly intuitive process, where I have to constantly remember to get out of my own way and get out of my students’ way. To help them trust their inner urgings and encourage them to find their voices. When I feel the energy and help shape it into something that is welcoming and safe and accepting of vulnerability. If for just a moment one of these exceptional people can feel a connection to who they truly are, rather than what they hope to do, I’ve witnessed something sacred. I might not know it’s happened, but I get an email or a visit a week or month or hour later and find out that something clicked and they moved into themselves more fully.

There is nothing better. There is nothing more sacred to me than moving closer to who I am and helping these amazing young people remember what that feels like, before it’s been too many years to recall.

This is what it is to have a calling.

 

The Process of Becoming

water-lilies-bud-pond-green-99548.jpeg

“No mud, no lotus.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

I am in a very different place than I was at this time last year. Last year, the momentary high of finishing my PhD had worn off and I was terrified that I would never get a real job and consign my family to even more financial strain as my student loans came due. It sucked, and evolved into depression and panic attacks, mediated only by a lot of time at the gym and meds.

This particular week last year I was booked to speak at SXSW Interactive on behalf of a political group I had been working with. It was exciting, but I was hit with some of the most profound exhaustion I have ever felt. SXSW is like the Ironman of conferences, and I had a platinum pass, which meant I could go to EVERYTHING. Instead, I went to as much as I could, but spent a lot of time sleeping and guzzling coffee to get through one more session. The FOMO was insane. I later figured out I was having some mild anemia, probably a result of too many steroids (thanks, Austin spring). The repeating rounds of oral and injected steroids did not fucking help.

After it was over I crashed super hard. I had one job interview until I was hired at my current institution in August. I had no idea how to run my life, what opportunities to pursue, or how to pull myself out of a deepening emotional ditch.

A year later, I am teaching my second semester as a full-time lecturer at a major institution. We didn’t have to move, I make twice as much money as I did as an adjunct and I have great benefits (which means our income is that much higher). My kid is now eight, which is insane, and we have a pretty good life. I’m pretty happy and I’m doing something I know I’m good at and I get a lot of appreciation for it. From my students, who are the ones who matter.

But teaching full-time to 10x the number of people I was used to for the last 7 years is a huge adjustment. The first semester was this terrifying and exhilarating marathon. I didn’t have huge expectations for myself other than getting through and not fucking up too badly. It turns out I did really well and formed the beginnings of a good relationship with my students, who spread the word and now I have a whole lot more students.

So I was blindsided by how hard this semester has been. I am starting to realize that the reality of lecturing is still a bit on the contingent/adjunct side of the equation (in spite of the fact that I currently teach full-time) and that fucks with my sense of safety and worth.

Also, 120 students is a lot harder than 90, it turns out, if you don’t know to adjust your workload. I’m learning. Managing TAs can be tricky. Some just fit, and others take some real work. I’ve never really been someone’s boss before, even in this limited sense.

I’m teaching two courses that I taught last semester, and they are going great. I’m also teaching my first course in my PhD knowledge area, and that has been harder. I think I was butthurt by the fact that I didn’t know All The Things and had to learn a lot from the textbook alongside my students. I finally sucked it up and realized that I really know a whole fucking lot of things, and that means I can frame the new stuff I learn in a really fluent and dynamic way. Duh. Really, I should just be enjoying filling in some of the gaps. The very nature of a PhD is these huge looming gaps always following us around and telling us we don’t know enough. Also, the one textbook I read in HD in my PhD was painfully badly written, so I only retained the stuff I thought was really important. The book I’m using in my class is fantastically written, so I can provide thoughtful commentary instead of having to slog through it. I should really flip both of my writing flags, but who the hell has time to record two lectures a week? Me at some point, I guess.

So I did the damn thing, and I did it well, and now I’m looking at the long haul and wondering some things:

  • How do I replenish my mental, emotional, and creative energy? I feel valued by my students, no lack of fulfillment there, but it’s a whole lot of energy out and I haven’t figure out how to recharge my batteries yet.
  • How do I navigate the tricky political waters of a gigantic school with a million competing silos and a nebulous path for teaching professors? I’ve given this a lot of thought, but not a lot of time and energy. I missed 4 days of classes from being ill (not that I don’t teach when I’m sick goddamn it) and barely have time to sleep and eat, let alone strategize and network and show up at the stuff where I could meet the right people.
  • How do I meet bare minimum requirements for health? I’m eating slightly better than last semester. But running on caffeine for performance energy has a high cost and I need to, again, figure out some better ways to get my body and mind rested.
  • How do I keep my research alive in some form? I have determined that I may not have the constitution for regular publishing, at least as I currently have been trying to do it. I spent a good chunk of my life being told why I suck by people I don’t respect, and I’ve hit my lifetime limit. Getting some papers rejected while I was in school (while having to take all kinds of bullshit during the PhD process) was just the fucking end. Ideally, I would love to find someone with whom to co-publish studies, but the whole no time/energy thing is inhibiting that search.
  • I still have a lot of intellectual fire, and I want an outlet for that. I’ve been thinking about a podcast, or trying a poetry slam, or…something? I’ve become a pretty decent speaker when I’m talking about something about which I feel really passionate. It happens the most in my Ethics class, but I have my moments in all of them. How can I develop that? How can I get my writing voice back? Is blogging where I should put that energy, or should I try a vlog or podcast? Inuhno.

What do I want to talk/write about?

  1. Online psychology, particularly online discourse.
  2. Mythological and symbolic imagery in our culture, particularly tv and movies.
  3. Patriarchy’s dying gasps.
  4. Education and how to make it suck less.
  5. Why the internet isn’t always evil.
  6. Fatness and what hating on it does for people.
  7. Mental illness, stress, and resiliency.
  8. The ethics of teaching.
  9. The psychology of teaching.
  10. What does social cohesion look like in our era?
  11. Pushing back on generational hazing.

I don’t know what I am building yet with all this, or what I will build, or if I have already built something of immense value and I keep being all future oriented and not paying attention to what I’m doing/is happening right now. Probably the latter. My therapist said I was looking at success through a patriarchal lens (money, prestige, structural dominance) rather than a matriarchal (connectedness, healing, strength of bonds). She’s right. I’m a matriarchal badass. Maybe I need to sit with that and take the summer to just chill the fuck out. Float around. Write. Sleep. Record some lectures. Watch my kid be a kid for just a little while longer.

Is internet addiction a thing?

It’s complicated. (this was originally written in response to a student discussion)

The conference I attended last summer had a keynote speaker whose work is on gaming addiction. Essentially, gaming addiction affects the same part of the brain as gambling addiction. As with gambling addiction, a person can participate in the activity on a regular basis and not be addicted, while another person will be.The deciding factors in gaming addiction from a behavioral perspective are 1) Can you control the behavior? and 2) Does the behavior have a significantly negative affect on your life?

One of the problems with understanding this issue is how freely we use the word “addiction.” I am not addicted to chocolate unless I can’t stop eating it, I’ve drained my bank account buying fancy chocolate, am experiencing negative health affects, and my chocolate consumption is affecting my relationships. But often we say, “I am addicted to chocolate!!!” when we really mean, “I really like chocolate.” So when we talk about the compulsion to engage with social media, the compulsion alone is not addiction, it’s just a reaction–one that we should perhaps be conscious of, but not a harbinger of chocolate or internet related-doom.

As a internet researcher and heavy user of internet technologies, it is clear that we don’t have many examples or visible research on healthy self-regulation of social media consumption. This makes it hard to decide when to limit ourselves. As noted, we get a dopamine hit when someone says something nice or likes a post. We also can experience a cortisol reaction from a negative post, depending on our personal history and how direct and violent the wording is.

All this is to say, yes, social media can be problematic, especially if you have impulse control issues (which means all adolescents), but it is yet another expression of human ingenuity and frailty, like many inventions that came before.

So long time no write

So, I got a job. An awesome job. That is consuming my life in the best possible way. I am a full time lecturer at a major university, and I teach upper division human development classes and one leadership and ethics class. I get to do all the stuff I like, but way more of the time, for more money, and fabulous benefits. It’s all kind of crazy. I’m almost through my first semester and am planning for spring. I will be back to posting soon, as I’ve felt the need welling up, and I have many things to day. So many things.

Live(ish) blogging SXSW: Keynote with Cory Booker

I’m co-hosting a meetup at SXSW Interactive on behalf of Pantsuit Republic Texas, who I volunteer with as a digital psychology and content consultant. Lucky me, I get a platinum pass, which means I can go to everything I can get to – music, technology, film, and everything in between. It’s kind of a cross between a conference and a festival on steroids. The last time I went was 2004.

This morning I picked up my badge and hightailed it to the first major speaker – Senator Cory Booker.

I’ve been aware of him for a while, though not as long as I should have been. He’s been an outspoken opponent of legislation and appointments that infringe on human rights. He’s also a straight up mensch.

He started with an impassioned speech about love. He pointed out that tolerance is a lame goal, because we tolerate a cold. Loving our country, loving the children of others, loving those with whom we disagree is the path to healing.

Damn.

He told a story about an activist who he worked with in the projects of Newark. An older black man who lived in poverty, but was totally present for the people he was trying to help. He was a mentor for Booker. Booker said that his mentor lost his sight as he aged. When he would visit him in the rest home, he’d say, “Hey, it’s Cory” and his mentor would say, “I see you.” Those words, along with “I love you” were his last words to Booker.

Booker seems incredibly present. He sees all the problems, all the crap going on, but he also sees it in the larger picture of human history and human nature. I found what he said really affirming.

I’ve had a hard time in life at times. I struggle. I’m also crazy privileged, which can lead to guilt over not doing enough. But something in what he said affirmed my stubborn need to see the glass as half full. No matter how shitty things seem to be, I can usually turn it around to something hopeful. Yes, the internet is a cesspool, but I found a way to study the cesspool and find evidence that people are not as broken as they seem. I’m attracted to learning about the way people grow from breaking, rather than why they break and how to fix them.

The other thing Booker said that I found inspiring was in answer to a question I posed (we could pose questions online through an app and then he read them on a teleprompter or something). I asked how to turn digital activism into real world activism. And instead of talking about calling senators and marching, he talked about community service. It really struck me. I feel like I’m not doing enough as an activist, which is partially from the knowledge that what I do won’t stem the tide right now. But I know from my teaching that I can make a huge difference in one person’s life, and that’s real.

So how can I take those skills and use them more in the community? What can I do that is small and simple and makes a real difference in a person‘s life instead of worrying about the big political picture? Not that political activism isn’t important, but Booker doesn’t see a difference between political activism and community service. He’s got a point.

The Long Game

This is going to be a long, difficult few (I hope) years. If, like me, you are committed to human rights, equality, compassion, scientific advancement, and social healing, we need to take very, very good care of our bodies, minds, and spirits if we are to persevere.

There are many articles on activism burnout, activist self-care, and internet induced trauma or stress. I’ve included some links at the bottom*. However,  I have a few of my own nuggets to offer.

*More good articles keep coming out, so I’m going to be updating this periodically.

Mental Health Care
For many of us, current events are seriously triggering. They may bring up traumatic events from our past or just scare the bejeezus out of us, affecting our physical and mental health. Either way, this creates a lot of strain on the psyche. If you’re feeling extra stressed out, or being extra grouchy to your loved ones, consider finding a therapist.

Therapy doesn’t have to be expensive, but it does take time and commitment. Good therapists are worth the cost, but they also often supervise people who are fulfilling their hours for licensing. The soon-to-be-licensees charge far less than fully licensed therapists, and are usually compassionate, highly competent people.  Google stuff like “sliding scale therapy my area” and see what comes up. Or, ask your friends for referrals. If your bestie sees a full price therapist he or she loves, said therapist may have people he or she supervises and recommends. If you’ve never had therapy, it can seem daunting. But trust your gut, and audition those shrinks until you find one you feel safe and comfortable with.

If you already have a therapist, great! Still feeling extra wiggy? You might consider a talk therapy group. They are supervised by a licensed therapist and have different dynamics than individual therapy. It might be your cup of tea. I find a combination of both works best – I see my individual therapist twice a month and attend group therapy weekly. If I’m having a rough time, I increase the frequency of the individual therapy.

In times of stress, the line between body and mind (which isn’t really there in the first place) becomes blurred. Our stress affects our body. Our tired bodies increase our stress. I’ll warrant you already know to eat, move, and rest. But a relaxed body can only do so much under a constant barrage of psychological pressure. Which leads me to,

Mental Hygiene in the Internet Age
Yes, you’ve read lots of listcicles about how not to explode your brain on the internet. Many of them are quite good. I’d like to talk a bit about what goes on in your body and mind when you get too wrapped up in the conversations and clickbait.

When people get really stressed out or traumatized, they can experience dissociation. This is a sense of being outside one’s body, or detached from an overwhelming emotion or experience.  When we experience this in proximity to another person, we may become aware that we are freaking out because we see some reflection of our reaction in the other. We may have some sense that our body isn’t functioning normally – we need to sit down, or our hands shake. But when it happens on the internet, we may not notice the physical symptoms. You know how sometimes you get so wrapped up in whatever you’re doing on your computer that you forget to stretch, or pee, or eat? It’s like that, but with feelings. We may not notice that we’re experiencing and acting on strong emotions until later.

Before I started my dissertation, I took a class in phenomenology and writing. The simple definition for phenomenology is the study of a phenomenon through the experience of the subject. So, since I was interested in aggression, I studied my own experience of it as both an aggressor and target. I learned that aggression is very physical. When I explored my strongest memories of feeling aggression or having it directed at me, the memories were mainly of physical sensations. Hot sensations if I was angry. Cold sensations if someone attacked me. All emotions have some physical sensation associated with them, which may be different for each person. But anger is especially vivid.

And then I tried to figure out how it felt when I was engaged in conflict on the internet. I realized that I tuned out my physical sensations when I was online (even think about the nature of that phrase – on line. Like we are somewhere else) and by extension, my emotions. I had to start training myself to pay close attention to how my body felt when I was involved in intense online conversations, or reading articles that brought up strong emotions.

I was hyper-aware of this when I was working on my dissertation research. (Just a quick reminder – my dissertation data was comment threads on YouTube and other social media outlets. Imagine.) I created a bunch of rules for myself that I still try to follow.

  • Don’t read the comments after 6pm
  • Don’t read the news after 6pm
  • Avoid reading triggering stuff first thing in the morning (I’m looking at you, Facebook)
  • Get enough sleep and food if I’m going to be engaging with difficult material
  • Spend time outside

Some of this may fit with the listsicles, but I do it for very specific reasons: I can’t engage with my data in a rigorous way if I’m triggered. If I’m feeling strong fear, anger, or conflicting feelings, I can’t observe myself very well, let alone others. I think this applies to activism as well. I can’t call my senators, or try to engage in dialogue with someone I disagree with, if I’m freaky. Freaky = stressed out, tired, fearful, or angry.

Summary: The body will always tell us where we’re screwing up. The internet tends to temporarily deafen us to our bodies.

Your list will fit your schedule and biorhythms. I tend to get most anxious at night, so I try to avoid fear inducing stuff when it is dark. I also have a young kid, so I have to cram my sleep into the hours before 6am. (Terrifying news tends to inhibit sleep.) Left to my own devices, I’d sleep different hours. Both of these things inform what kind of hygiene I impose on my activism, online and otherwise.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  1. What time of day am I most likely to be anxious?
  2. When am I calmest or most energetic?
  3. What websites do I feel relaxed after reading?
  4. What websites do I feel anxious after reading?
  5. What kind of physical activities do I like to engage in?
  6. What helps me feel grounded and peaceful?

After answering these questions, consider how you normally spend your day, and if it minimizes the time you feel unstressed, or maximizes the time you spend feeling anxious or unhappy.

I am not suggesting that we avoid all pain or stress. First, that’s impossible. Second, it’s still impossible. But we must be present in our lives, to ourselves, and to our loved ones in order to spend our energy wisely in activism. So consider stepping away from that looming conflict on Facebook and spend some time outside instead. You will have more energy and focus, and we need you for the fight ahead.

Resources:
Activist Burnout Is Real – And You Probably Need to Read These 4 Ways to Manage It
How to #StayOutraged Without Losing Your Mind
What Kind of Activist Are You? Free Five Minute Journaling Exercise!
How To Avoid Being Psychologically Destroyed By Your Newsfeed


Untangling the Threads: Is there a cure for liberal infighting?

So if you read my blog or know me at all, you know I spent the last couple years doing academic research on aggression on these here interwebs. I eventually chose to look at my data from a psychological (psychodynamic) perspective, wherein I examined the potential motivations for peeps to engage in said aggression. This proved enlightening, as it underscored what psychodynamic theorists (Freud, Jung, Vaillant, among others) have been saying for over a century: everybody has issues.

Rather than trying to decide the validity of anyone’s arguments, instead I looked for cues (clues) about what kind of stuff was going on unconsciously. The use of sarcasm, for example, demonstrates the writer’s tendency toward middling defenses like displacement or isolation. Name calling and violent language are less mature, most often indicating projection or in more extreme cases, acting out.

So why am I talking about this? Shouldn’t I be working on my book or something?

Probably.

I have a confession. I originally planned to concentrate on online aggression among women, and use a Jungian Feminist framework. But I was so very put off by the rigidity of the feminist perspective in the Academy. Like for reals.

It’s hard to sort out. It’s been hard for a while. I started acquainting myself with mainstream-ish tomes of feminism like The Beauty Myth, The Chalice and the Blade, Women who Run with Wolves, and The Feminine Mystique before I started my PhD. I excitedly signed up for a Feminist Theory class my first semester. And then backed away slowly.

Part of this was because I’d never been asked to think about my privilege before. Like ever. I now consider this kind of pathetic and sad on the part of my previous 3 degree-schools, especially the one where I got a master of Leadership and Ethics. The fuck didn’t we talk about Marx and structural inequality? Why didn’t we read Gareth Morgan at the very least? In retrospect, I feel like the whole ethics thing was watered way down.

I digress. Anyway, it’s painful and confusing to face one’s own privilege. Especially when one’s professor refuses to let anyone in the class of diverse women who are less aware of the basics of feminism than I (and I am woefully ignorant of anything beyond pop-feminism at that point), talk to each other and relate on an interpersonal level. Because The Man.

So it turns out my prof was a real-life Radical Feminist From The 70s ™ and REALLY really didn’t want anybody having feelings or sharing or any of that shit. Because THE MAN. It was kind of like being a beginning initiate into a religion and having someone tell us we weren’t real Christians/Muslims/Jews unless we believed the most rigid, dogmatic version and didn’t question or discuss anything. It kind of sucked.

But, on the other hand, I was beginning the lifelong process (at 42) of confronting my ample privilege and recognizing that (a) that didn’t mean I was incapable of deep suffering and (b) there are certain types of shit I will NEVER face that many other people do daily, because structural inequality. Stressful and humbling, but necessary. Said teacher’s approach to presenting this information? Unhelpful, cryptic, and censoring.

Eventually, I wove the parts I grokked in with my self-concept because I gave up on the idea of perfection or being “finished” with growth. Especially as I progressed through my PhD and became more embedded in the developmental perspective which is: We develop. Forever. Then we die.

Also, teaching brought with it many difficult but enlightening lessons about my blindness to the views and experiences of others. I’ve learned to welcome them, as much as I dread fucking up and none of my students telling me that it’s really time for me to pull my foot out of my mouth.

Okay, so the nowadays.

The nowadays is full of crazy. The Rad Fems (who I find less and less rad) are policing the language of Fucking Everybody. Fucking Steve Martin (not known for his feminism anyway) gets drummed off Twitter for saying that Carrie Fischer was pretty to him before he knew her as the badass she was. Horror.

This then leads to the anti-fems saying “I fucking told you so all feminists are the suck!!?!!”

Gaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh.

This is not unlike some of the interactions I’ve watched/participated in recently as I’ve tried to get involved in progressive activism. “I have this opinion about this thing.” “Your opinion is ignorant/hurtful/stupid.” ALL BRAINS EXPLODE.

I find myself trying to moderate, calm people down, and mostly failing. People are scared. They’re on the defensive. They’re traumatized. They’re extending the trauma by bringing it online, the perfect place to get further traumatized by some random person who just does that.

So how do I make sense of all this crazy? How can I help the causes of civility, civil rights, open communication, the defense of the constitution, and other little things like that?

Well, I think I need to retreat back to my comfy place of the intrapsychic (psychological) perspective for a bit. Bear with me.

Academics and others often break the human experience into three levels:

  • Structural/Social/Macro – Society and its rules and norms.
  • Interpersonal/Relational/Meso – Relationships  between people.
  • Intrapsychic/Psychological/Micro  – Our internal worlds.

Here’s where I think we are screwing up.

On the structural level, as a hyper educated upper middle class white lady, I need to listen to the experiences of people who face far more discrimination, bigotry, and oppression than I ever have or will. I need to understand that I cannot walk in their shoes, and pretending that I can is delusional. I also (and this is the really tough bit) need to recognize my collusion with the forces of oppression if I am not actively fighting them. Ouch. That part is hard and sometimes makes me feel ashamed or guilty. It also motivates me to grow and contribute to positive change.

On the interpersonal level, I have relationships with lots of people who have many different experiences. My black friends may be relatively privileged; some of my white friends may come from deep poverty. My gay friends may have a great deal of social status or very little.  We relate based on shared experiences, interests, etc. Each relationship is unique; we make up the rules as we go along. The structural stuff may have a lot of impact on the quality and depth of our relationships, or very little. For example, my skinny friends may say stupid shit about their diets, or complain about feeling fat in front of a fat person; I decide whether I want to give them information about oppression of different body types, or just let it go.Ultimately, it’s between us how we navigate this stuff in the context of our relationships. I believe that in some relationships ignoring these kinds of things will erode existing intimacy; in others it’s not that important.

On the intrapsychic level, we are all the fucking same. We have the same range of emotions. We have the same fears and hopes. We fear death, loss, sickness. We desire love, safety, connection. Culture has some effect on what we value and how much, but our basic psychological material is the same. Structural inequality and privilege affects the kinds of trauma that might be primary in our lives–or not. It depends. I think the main thing that comes from oppression is a lack of safety, but it’s not unique to structural inequality. It can come from a history of mental illness (also a form of inequality in cultures that don’t treat it like ours), or a loss of fortune, or a contentious divorce. Each person’s deepest, darkest fears are their own, no matter how they measure up to anyone else’s.

So here’s where I think stuff goes haywire. Here are some terms that have been thrown around historically and lately on the internet:

“angry black man”
“white fragility”
“rabid feminist”
“oversensitive liberal”
“crazy woman”

What do these phrases have in common? They all reference emotion. Emotion is not structural. It’s not even interpersonal, really. We trigger emotion in others – we don’t cause it. Emotion is intrapsychic. Freud imagined emotion coming from the viscera – literally from the guts. Emotion cannot be interrogated like privilege. It can’t be controlled by others (much as many would prefer it that way). Emotion lives in our bodies and must be processed through the body and the mind.

We can’t process this stuff structurally. Not really. Yes – recognizing the social systems that allow certain kinds of behavior by certain people but not others is super important. But it doesn’t heal. And the thing that really worries me is the amount of shaming I see people doing to each other online. Not because the targets will suffer forever, but because it’s just another way of avoiding feelings and by extension, relationship. Feelings are not structural. Structures may inform what feelings we cling to or avoid, but that’s it. At the core, like I said, it’s the same set of basic human emotions. The end.

So if I use the language of social justice to shame someone for being angry, or sad, or fearful, am I educating them? Am I helping my cause? Prolly not.

I tend to think about this in terms of parenting. There are certain times when I can’t avoid hurting my kid’s feelings. She needs to know if she does something destructive. And her wails of “You hurt my feelings!” don’t fall on deaf ears, but I don’t back away. On the other hand, if I’m angry, tired, sad, or otherwise freaked out and I yell at her or say something hurtful, that’s on me. Even if she did something annoying, I’m responsible for responding disproportionately. She needs to know that I’m fallible, and that I’m not too attached to my authority to admit when I’m wrong. She needs to know that I wasn’t coming from a loving place, and that I’m sorry.

So when another professor explained structural inequality to me in a way that, while compassionate, still made me feel uncomfortable and guilty–that was okay. I needed to sit in that place for a while. She was coming from a good place, not a destructive one.

But as I watch these clusterfucks play out online, I see a lot of traumatized people using the language of social justice to beat other people over the head. (And just FYI, it’s not relegated by privilege. It’s equal opportunity verbal abuse.) And that just seems self-gratifying and defensive to me. It comes out as sarcasm, ridicule, name calling, and verbal attacks. In fact, it shows the same kind of immaturity and general projection as the conservatives who are parading their victory over progressives as if they won a football match. If I was doing research on this stuff, it would all end up in the massive data dumping ground of projection and displacement. And while those are human behaviors, they are not righteous, they are not generative, and they are not, above all, compassionate.

Compassion can’t happen when we’re acting out of our lizard brains/hindbrains/Id. Compassion only happens when we can face our own fears, anger, and shames, and then open up to other people and see them as sharing the same human strengths and faults.

If we try to battle our feelings out based on structural high ground, we won’t move.

Early in my relationship with my now husband, I read  Men are From Mars etc. etc. It’s not a lengthy or particularly deep tome. But I got something profound out of it nonetheless. Whether it’s gender, or background, or culture, we’re are often very different from our partners. It behooves us to learn to communicate with them in ways they understand. I distilled it down to one question, that I think applies to the current discussion:

“Do you want to be right, or do you want to have a positive outcome?”

Because for reals. Which will it be?