What is my lane?

One of the most important things I’ve grappled with as a teacher is how to be empathetic, caring, and supportive to students while not crossing ethical boundaries. My work in Trauma-Informed Pedagogy (TIP) has been a big part of this, as have my studies of pedagogy, psychology, sociology, leadership, and ethics. But it goes back even further—when I was an undergraduate voice student and later a young professional opera singer, most of the voice teachers I interacted with were super fused with their students in one way or another. They gave relationship advice, screamed at us, critiqued our bodies, and in some cases, had intimate relationships with us. This happened across the field also with conductors, directors, and other people in positions of authority.

I sometimes joke (but not really) that I got a degree in leadership and ethics because my former career had none. This is an oversimplification—what we often had was leadership in the absence of ethics. The “artist temperament” was used to gloss over things like psychological abuse, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. I witnessed many instances of highly effective, but totally unethical leadership in my first career. A talented conductor can still be an asshole and a sexual predator. A seasoned director can produce an amazing show and also be a cruel sociopath. They’re not mutually exclusive and they don’t cancel each other out. But we didn’t have HR departments watching for violations of statutes like the ADA, or the Civil Rights Act, or Title IX. We should have—but we didn’t.

I left opera because something was deeply wrong with the field and my growing awareness of this wrongness made it impossible to stay. While some of my experiences with singing were transcendent, it didn’t change the fact that it was mostly dehumanizing and awful. Auditions just sucked. Singing for a bunch of people whose job was to disqualify me, over and over again, sucked the joy right out of me. Being in a field where it is perfectly acceptable to be discriminated against for your beauty, size, height, race, and many other things that have nothing to do with your voice and musicianship was just ugly and demeaning. Having to explain to my voice teachers that emotional abuse was 1) unacceptable and 2) ineffective, got really old after fifteen years. Don’t even get me started on sexual harassment. It was so normalized that it barely registered on my radar. Decades later, in the wake of #metoo, I had to take a hard look at many of my experiences and recognize that they were often coercive and nonconsensual.

So a good part of the rest of my life (age 30 on) has been centered around figuring out who I am, what I’m good at, and what my lane is. There’s a lot of crowing about “staying in your lane” on social media or directed at artists whose opinions differ from their fans or whatever, but I mean it in a different way. Here are the big questions I’ve been asking myself over the last 20 years:

  • What am I really gifted at?
  • What makes me feel fulfilled?
  • What are the healthy limits around my assigned roles (such as mother, wife, teacher, and friend)?
  • What do healthy boundaries look like when I have a lot more power than the people I work with? (What are the ethical limits to my relationships with students? To my child?)
    • How do I support my child without diminishing or parentifying them?
    • How do I support my students but not attempt to take responsibility for problems I am not qualified to handle (drug addiction, eating disorders, mental illness, traumatic events)?
  • Where is the line between support and caring, and crossing into territory that needs to be handled by someone in a different lane, like a therapist, or nutritionist, or doctor? How do I hold that line compassionately?
  • How do I hold space for other people’s emotions and experiences while making sure my own boundaries are healthy and not fused? (If I experience secondary trauma from hearing about a traumatic event, how do I manage that?)
  • Where do I have the right to speak authoritatively and where do I not? (I piss off a very small percentage of white dudes each academic year who think that talking about the developmental effects of family child separation or racism is somehow not based in the science of my discipline. It is, but I am not an authority on many things and should not speak to them authoritatively. )
  • How does my positionality—my privilege and place in society, limit or increase the ways in which I should take up space?
    • When am I ethically obligated to speak out?
    • When am I ethically obligated to leave space for others to speak out?
    • When should I give up my space to others so they can be heard?

All of these questions have come up repeatedly during my academic teaching career. I’ve done a whole lot of ranting about the empathy gap among my colleagues, but some of that comes from our utter lack of training. College teachers are not taught how to teach. We’re not taught the ethics of teaching (and grad school is at least exploitative and often abusive so we don’t have good examples). We’re not taught to recognize how our privilege affects how we perceive our students’ struggles. We’re definitely not taught how to handle student trauma or crisis. K-12 teachers do certifications and ongoing education, but we are assumed to have everything we need because we know a bunch of stuff about one area of scholarship. We’re not taught how the ADA, Civil Rights Act, and Title IX affect our students and our jobs, beyond surface-levelˆ mandated training. So it’s somewhat understandable that my colleagues balk when I talk about understanding and responding to student trauma. Nobody told them that was part of the job—but it is.

I’ve gone about finding the answers to these questions in a variety of ways. I’ve talked to my therapists about things like processing secondary trauma and holding healthy boundaries. I’ve studied psychological theories that help me understand how and when unhealthy fusion and transference happen and how to avoid it. I’ve studied and explored many spiritual paths to understand what makes me feel centered and fulfilled. And I’ve studied ethics and leadership to understand the responsibilities that come with power. Most recently, I’ve learned about social justice, intersectionality, and the history of oppressions in the US in an attempt to better serve my diverse students and community and to minimize the harm I can thoughtlessly cause with my privilege. I’ve also leaned on my TAs, who are often from different backgrounds and have different knowledge areas. I still have to be aware of power distance—because I am their pseudo-employer—but recognizing that people with less status may have more experience or knowledge than I do in a given area has saved my ass many a time.

This is not a checklist for perfection. In fact, I think humility is possibly the best trait to cultivate if you have the ability to influence others. If you are in a position where you teach or parent or treat or manage other humans, you need to cultivate humility. I have fucked up on all of these things many times. But if I had fucked up, rationalized it, and moved on, I would have continued to do harm and I would be an unethical jerk. Unfortunately, those of us driven to learn all the things, like academics, or be the best at things, like artists, often resort to defensiveness rather than recognizing that we don’t know everything and our power gives us many opportunities to cause harm. The challenge of fucking up is recognizing that it is also an opportunity for growth. I know one more thing that I didn’t know before, and I can choose not make that mistake next time.

Early in my teaching career, I was having adult undergraduates build personal websites for a career development course. I required that all of them put good headshots on their home pages. One student kept avoiding it. I tried to explain that it was really important, but she avoided discussing it with me. We became friends after she graduated, and one night over cocktails, she told me it was because her culture doesn’t think it’s okay for a woman to put her picture on the internet, and her family would judge her. It had never crossed my mind that it was a cultural thing. It should have, but it didn’t, because I am super white and just didn’t think to ask. Now I do. I have my students do LinkedIn profiles with photos, but I also give them a pass on it if they tell me they don’t want to include a photo for any reason. So for the low, low price of apologizing to my former student for being an idiot, I learned something that positively affected all my future students.

When I taught people my own age, I would respond to overtures of friendship if I was interested and I was no longer their teacher. As I moved to traditional undergraduates, it became clear this would not work. There is too much power distance between a 45-year-old professor and a 20-year-old undergraduate. This doesn’t mean that my relationship with all my students ends when they graduate—I remain available to those that are interested, but in a mentorship role, not a friendship role. We chat over zoom about career stuff, they update me on their grad school admissions, or sometimes just ask for advice. While with adult undergraduates I had to prove my worth as an authority figure in their age range, with traditional undergraduates I have to break down some of the power distance in order to engage them fully in the material, but not to the extent that I pretend I’m one of them. I think of my role as “weird professor aunt” rather than “weird peer with specific knowledge.”

I figured all of this out on my own, and with the help of my own good professors, therapists, and friends. I learned by example, both good and bad, and I learned from my many, many mistakes. Parenting, too, is an endless exercise in humility, guilt, joy, pride, and frustration. Our society makes a huge mistake by discounting the experiences of parenthood on the workplace. I was a far less empathetic person before I had a kid and had to face my daily failures. I used to freak out every time I had to teach attachment theory because I was sure I had totally fucked up my kid. I was also far less forgiving of myself and others. Eventually, I realized that nobody does parenting perfectly because there’s no such thing. You’re different people and sometimes you don’t mesh. And sometimes you have to pass the ball to another person. When my kid was having anxiety after a couple of really scary life events, I got them a therapist because I knew that helping them work through the trauma was not something I could do on my own.

The same thing applies to my students—I’m a caring, responsible adult, but I’m not a doctor, psychiatrist, therapist, or nutritionist. I have a list of those people to refer them to when needed. And I have my own people for when I need the same help.

Anyway, I think this is the beginning of a larger body of work. I think knowing your lane is the heart of what I’ve tried to do and be in the second half of my life, and I think it can be helpful to others. How have you learned what your lane is? And how have you learned what it isn’t?

TIP and CRT: What they are and why they matter.

So this happened:

Trauma-Informed Pedagogy:
“Trauma-informed pedagogy adapts the trauma-informed care framework from health and human services for the practice of teaching. Trauma-informed approaches to teaching strive to understand how various forms of trauma may have impacted the lives of learners and use that understanding to accommodate learners’ needs, prevent further or retraumatization, and promote resilience and growth.” — ACRL

Critical Race Theory
“Critical race theory is an academic concept that is more than 40 years old. The core idea is that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.

The basic tenets of critical race theory, or CRT, emerged out of a framework for legal analysis in the late 1970s and early 1980s created by legal scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado, among others.” –Education Week

Critical Theory is a foundational piece of the discipline of sociology. Sociology studies how and why we organize and relate as humans and looks particularly hard at systems of hierarchy that claim to be “natural.” To be a trauma-informed educator, I must understand systems of power and oppression and how they create trauma in the populations I work with. There are a lot of types of trauma. Some are generational. Some are social. Some are related to natural disasters, war, and disease. As an educator, it is my ethical duty to recognize how trauma affects my students and take it into account when I design courses, classroom interactions, and policies. That includes systemic trauma.

If you have taken a course on Gender studies, African American Studies, Latinx Studies, Queer Studies, Disability Studies, or Feminist Studies among others, you have interacted with critical theories. If you have taken a course in critical thinking, you have interacted with critical theories. If you have studied history, psychology, sociology, anthropology, the arts, law, or science, you have interacted with critical theories.

At the intersection of critical theories and TIP, we must be educated, open, humble learners who are willing to unpack our assumptions and strive to not assume we understand other people’s lived experiences, especially if they are different from us. TIP demands that I am a learner first, and an educator second.

Simply put, if I think I know all the things, I’m not going to be very empathetic or flexible. If I assume that I don’t know all the things, I am open to recognizing, learning from, and repairing my mistakes. TIP is not about perfection, it’s about jettisoning ideas of hierarchy and power and really committing oneself to the heart of education.

Education changes the world. It is often the one thing that pulls historically oppressed populations out of poverty. Education improves human rights, economies, and public health. But if we pretend that historical oppression doesn’t exist and that it doesn’t affect the ability of students to access education, then it is not education. It is a system for maintaining parasitic class systems that ultimately harm everyone. It’s the Tragedy of the Commons, y’all. And we are on the brink

The amount of trauma I have witnessed in my student population over the last two years is staggering. It’s not getting better; it’s getting worse. If the Texas government, in its infinite wisdom, decides that I can’t talk about racism, or sexism, or transphobia, or the legacy of slavery, or medical bias, or homophobia, it will compound already dire situations for my minority students. It will also be totally impossible since I teach in a multidisciplinary department that studies the wellbeing of children and families, WHICH INCLUDES MINORITIES.

One thing I really want to point out to those still susceptible to the dog-whistle CRT pearl-clutching is that understanding how systems of power and oppression affect minorities does not negate the trauma of my white students. It is not a competition. Trauma is trauma. Recognizing that I come from a privileged background does not negate any of the shit I have been through or the challenges I have faced. It just means that none of them are related to or compounded by the color of my skin. Sexism is alive and well in America and I have faced more than a little of it, but it wasn’t affected by my skin color. That’s why Kimberlé Crenshaw developed CRT: the law, at the time, left no room for the experiences of discrimination faced by black women. Discrimination was determined based on race or gender, but not both. Which is nuts, because of course they intersect. Hence, intersectionality.

As a systems theory nerd, it is impossible not to see COVID as both a result of and a cause of systemic problems, which are inevitably be worsened by systemic inequalities. This plays out for my students every day. As a trauma-informed educator (or as Dan Patrick prefers, a Looney (sp) Marxist Professor), I must recognize that my own experiences are not enough to inform how I view my students’ traumas. I must actively seek out more information, read new research, and listen deeply to the words of my students. And no matter how many times CRT is dragged out as some kind of white middle-class bogeyman, I must not compromise on the foundations of my discipline and the health and wellbeing of my students.

Trauma Informed Pedagogy and Whiteness in the Classroom

Over the past few years, but particularly near the 2020 US Presidential election, I have gotten subtle, and not-so-subtle messages that being too political can be dangerous as a professor. Particularly because I am not protected by tenure, student feedback that labels me as biased can harm my job security.

This isn’t easy to navigate at the best of times. I teach ethics, leadership, developmental psychology, and sociology of the family. I can’t ignore the developmental harm caused by separating children from parents. To do so would be unethical. I can’t ignore the trauma and harm my students, and their families experience at the hands of ICE, racists, homophobes, Islamophobes, police violence, and a harmful justice system. Again, to do so would be unethical. The issues that have become front-page news directly affect many of my students. They tell me about them. I have heard many first person accounts of traumas that I will likely never face. While I have experienced this era’s stress, it hasn’t really affected me directly, mainly because of my whiteness. I did not earn whiteness, yet I get all the unearned privilege that comes with it. Most of my students do not and face dangers I cannot imagine.

I integrate current event discussions into all my classes because I believe it is irresponsible not to. In the process, I learn about the worlds in which my students live, about how campus policies and local politics and national policies affect them, about what they care about, what makes them happy, and what keeps them up at night.

I don’t consider a discussion of current events to be more political than any other aspect of public life. It’s just that, as has been said by women wiser than me, the personal is political. My students’ lives are deeply affected by the community, university, and country’s cultural and political climate. To ignore this fact erases them, causing further harm. It also disengages them from the learning process.

When the Black Lives Matter protests happened this summer, my institution listened to students and faculty and did some promising introspection. I hoped that this constant, low-level pressure would lessen. However, we were instructed to be as apolitical as possible in the wake of the presidential election.

This made me deeply uncomfortable, as I have witnessed the direct harm the current political and social climate has caused to my most vulnerable students.

Almost 95% of my students are women, and about 60% of them are non-white. They are the ones who have been most endangered by the policies and climate of the last four years (and the last 400).

Many of my students are or have been in crisis this year. I try to create a space in my classroom where they can relax a little. Where they can talk about their lived experiences if they want to. And where we all listen, and laugh a little, and think about the world from each other’s perspectives. Most are juniors and seniors worried about the future, worried about choosing a different path than their parents envisioned for them, and right now, worried about social violence and COVID. That is a lot to carry.

Yes, my few conservative white students are probably feeling pretty freaked out right now, much as I was four years ago. But I was never going to be the victim of increased social tolerance for white supremacy (because I’m white), Islamophobia (because I’m white), and the demonization of brown-skinned immigrants (because I’m white).

Part of engaging in Trauma-Informed Pedagogy entails knowing your own issues and dealing with them appropriately. The rules of processing trauma dictate that we take our trauma to someone who is 1) emotionally available, 2) has consented to hold our feelings with us (like a therapist or close friend), and 3) is not experiencing worse trauma than we are. Cognitive dissonance, like I experienced in 2016, and my conservative white students may be experiencing now, is very uncomfortable. It is not, however, life-threatening. I try to listen deeply to my students when they talk about trauma and not impose my own schemas on theirs in an attempt to relate.

I am not a therapist. But I am older, more financially and emotionally stable, and more experienced than my students, so I consent to hold space for them within the classroom boundaries and the teacher-student relationship while referring them to more qualified resources as needed. This is Trauma-Informed Pedagogy.

The mythology of false equivalency created over the last few years and further reinforced by social and mainstream media shows up like this:

Worrying about your Black child being killed by the police during protests is proportionate to feeling angry that a Black man was president.

Avoiding taking your kids to the doctor because ICE has been raiding your neighborhood and has put your uncle in detention is proportionate to being upset that gay people can get married.

Being verbally or physically attacked because you wear the hijab is proportionate to being upset that you are required to wear a face mask.

Physical danger and emotional discomfort are not proportionate.

False equivalency seems to be a pervasive byproduct of an era with continually mainstreamed racism, xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia, ableism, and misogyny. Feeling uncomfortable is not the same thing as being in physical danger. Moreover, being in constant danger due to increased tolerance for hate crimes and discrimination has far-reaching negative effects on mental and physical health.

Cognitive dissonance is the feeling that the world is not as it should be. We may experience it when someone says something in public we believe is false — when someone describes reality in a way we don’t experience. We feel it as tension in our bodies and perhaps as a flood of thoughts trying to defend or justify our position. It doesn’t indicate the rightness or wrongness of our position; it just is. We may also experience it as a symptom of intellectual and psychological growth. In Transformative Learning, a theory that underlies my pedagogy it is referred to as the disorienting dilemma. This happens when a learner is confronted with a viewpoint of the world, or perhaps themselves, which is new and uncomfortable. They must grapple with this discomfort as they test and then integrate the new knowledge into their world and self-view.

I experience cognitive dissonance when a Black activist criticizes white liberals on an issue I haven’t confronted yet. Over time, I have learned to lean into this discomfort, wait for it to pass, and then look at the issue without the need to rationalize my feelings immediately. Often, this causes me to grow just a little bit and to integrate some new knowledge into my world view. When I learned to do this, I stopped being as defensive when my demographic, white women, was criticized and learned to listen more deeply. This makes me a better person, a better ally, and a better citizen. Not perfect — not even close — but a little bit better.

I try to model this in the classroom by remaining receptive to criticism of what material I cover and how I teach it. If a student expresses concern that I am marginalizing a group or leaving out an important perspective, I will discuss it with the class, apologize if necessary, and adjust my approach. It’s not the responsibility of my students to fix my issues — I continue to engage in learning about systemic inequality and improving my practice — but when it happens, it allows me to model humility and flexibility to other privileged people and show that you can screw up and make amends and you will be okay. I try to show privileged students that discomfort is okay; marginalization is not.

Here is an example. I was teaching a class on families’ socioeconomics, and we were discussing current events, which included a wave of performative white supremacy online. A Black woman mentioned that some white people were posting videos of themselves drinking gallons of milk because they claimed that the ability to process lactose as an adult is a sign of racial superiority (rather than a random mutation). I laughed it off as too absurd to be real. Then I googled it when I got home. Yup. It was totally real. So in the next class, I publicly apologized for disbelieving my student and promised to do better. I ate some crow because 1) I totally deserved it, 2) I owed her an apology, and 3) other people need to know that admitting you are wrong won’t actually kill you.

The point of this story is not that I am a super woke white lady. Obviously, I’m not. It’s that I believe that teachers must model ethical, mature behavior, which includes owning our mistakes. (Note: ethics are messy) My Black and Brown students should not have such low expectations of white teachers that I am the best they can hope for. My conservative students should not be so brittle that they can’t handle some alternate perspectives. If I keep trying to be better, then maybe my minority students will expect more from me and my white students will expect more from themselves.

Cognitive dissonance is not life-threatening.

Racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, and ableism threaten students’ health and projected lifespan. They affect my students’ likelihood of experiencing violence, the quality of medical care they receive, their job and financial stability, and their access to housing, all during a pandemic that endangers our species. So I cannot in good faith pretend that white students’ discomfort is equivalent to marginalized students’ lack of safety. They are not. I try to center the experiences, critiques, and stories of my non-white students because I believe it is unethical not to. Marginalizing at-risk students isn’t just unethical; it’s dangerous.

Trauma-Informed Pedagogy is not trauma-informed if we do not consider the ways that our social, financial, and political system does disproportionate harm to non-white people. In the aftermath of a contentious election and in the middle of a global pandemic, I cannot ignore this fact at the expense of my ethics, teaching, and, most importantly, my students.

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


Surfing the Waves: You Are Beginning to Damage My Calm

My life has been hella stressful lately. School, money, health – you name it. It’s been a high stress year. One thing I haven’t been tracking until recently is the effect of my interenet use on my stress level. It sneaks up on me. I have this inner dialogue that goes something like this:

Me 1: Wow, I’m feeling a lot of anxiety after browsing Facebook on my phone for ten minutes. Trump. Reproductive rights. Natural disasters. Maybe I need a break.

Me 2: What do you mean? Do you want to be ill-informed? Do you want to willfully choose to ignore the pain of others? That makes you selfish.

Me 1: I guess you’re right. Maybe I’ll try to thin back some of the political stuff I follow in my feed to see if that helps.

Me 2: Wimp.

Me 1: Well, that’s a little better, I guess. Still pretty hard to avoid triggering stuff. Everyone propogages this stuff constantly. And I like to be informed. And who can resist a “Top 5” list or a “You won’t believe…” headline. Apparently not me. And then when I click on something mildly click-baity I end up on a page with horrible brain-burning click bait that hurts my brain.

Me 2: Yeah that’s really annoying.

Me 1: Totally

Me 1: Okay, now that my external stressors are REALLY HIGH,  browsing the internet, checking my email (which I do obsessively), Instagram, the “helpful” news feed on my Iphone can instantly trigger the shit out of me. I feel like I’m waiting for “the shoe to drop” – a typical anxiety thing – and the internet provides an endless supply of shoes. Interspersed with funny stuff, cute stuff, and friend stuff. So I gravitate towards it to 1) confirm my anxiety and keep it going, and 2) to connect with other people.

Me 2: Wimp? Maybe not. Maybe we need a fricking break. Does that makes us weak?

Me 1: Who freaking cares?

Me 2: Good point.

So I did that thing. I spent three ish days with minimal internet. It got progressively harder. I’m back to checking my email several times a day and cautiously checking FB to see if anyone has said anything to me or tagged me (they have). Balance is certainly going to be key. Discoveries:

  1. Accidentally swipe right on your iPhone and prepare to be bombarded with “Texas woman shoots two daughters”. Fuck. Me. No wonder I’m so triggered all the time. Because I’m reading this crap all. The. Time. I have to figure out how to turn off the news feed.
  2. The Weather.com app is also less fun than I realized. “Hundreds dead in horrible painful awful flood!” With video! Flashy ads for fictitious loans. Maybe I need to go back to the more benign apple weather app.
  3. My anxiety is WAY lower when I’m not constantly bombarding it with crap. And checking my email to see if there’s any bad news. And checking the weather, sadly.
  4. I’m making an effort to reconnect with paper books. I’ve gotten rid of a lot of the ones I can read digitally for free (library) but I have tons of non-fiction that I can peruse at my leisure. That’s been good.
  5. I’ve also started keeping a written journal, which is weird because my handwriting is TERRIBLE. Unless I write really slow. So I’m writing really slow. And drawing pictures.
  6. Analog is not so bad. I think I started to slip today because I felt lonely. Because I’m alone a lot of the time. I can just feel it when I’m not bombarded with low level social input.

I give you, the weather. Or something.

This comes at an odd time, since I’m doing a positive psychology for the internet kind of thing for my dissertation and major research area. Still, I think maybe I needed more of the big picture. I’ve started reading Turkel’s Alone Together. I assumed that she was an older person with that “get off my lawn” approach to the internet. Not so much. She is more of a baby boomer, but she’s been tracking online culture since the 70s and she’s a psychoanalyst, so kind of up my alley. She makes some good points. This disembodied, scattered feeling can subsume a sense of connection to the physical world. And we are physical beings. I think perhaps there is a time for diving into the dynamic, challenging, pluralistic online world, and a time to retreat, reflect, and exist as a physical being. I think we ignore the online world at our peril, but we also ignore the physical world, which is highly impacted by the online world, at our peril.

More to come.

 

Policing policers by policing

Editor’s note: This is very pre-vaguely wokeish for me. Proceed with caution. There’s a lot of white butthurt going on and it’s all. mine. 

As I’ve become more involved in activism, both as a participant and an observer, I’ve also become increasingly uncomfortable with the policing of each other that activists engage in. In my corner of the internet, body positive activism, I’m seeing more and more of the “10 Ways to Be an Ally” and “20 Ways We Do it Wrong” articles. I’m seeing a lot of women telling other women that they’re not allowed to talk about feeling fat if they’re not fat (by some nebulous standard that sounds a lot like the same one that goes with being skinny or healthy), or that they’re not being inclusive enough, or that they’re getting activism wrong. This worries me. In my current dissertationy frame of mind, it sounds like defensiveness, not inclusion.

I think it’s incredibly powerful to stand up and say, “No! I do not like how you talk to me. I do not like how you treat me. I do not accept this. I will not disappear.” I am so down with this. But constantly telling other people how they’re doing activism wrong, or doing advocacy wrong is so freaking counterproductive. It’s globalizing an individual experience, and turning it into a set of rules.

It’s like the difference between saying, “Do not ignore or marginalize me. I am here, and I want you to know how I feel.” and saying, “Do not ignore or marginalize me or anyone like me, ever, or you are a shit activist.” From a psychological point of view, the globalizing that goes with the “10 Things” lists seems like a defense. Don’t get near me. Don’t talk to me. Don’t engage with me. Don’t ever fuck up and say the wrong thing. Maybe if I write enough lists of things people shouldn’t do, I won’t ever get hurt.

Human relationships are a series of fuck ups. The taboos that allow us to marginalize and harm others are ways that we protect ourselves from our own capacity to do harm. So it seems like creating a whole new set of taboos, instead of just getting down and talking about the harm, is just more of the same shit.

The problem with this is we all fuck up. We all get hurt. We can’t renegotiate the social norms that hurt us without getting messy, fucking up, and letting other people get messy and fuck up. I like the articles that tell individual people’s stories and experiences, letting the reader relate to them as another human. I’m so sick of the ones that tell everyone how to act and how to not fuck up. This one got to me the other day so I ranted on Facebook:

http://www.bustle.com/articles/109422-17-shame-y-comments-plus-size-people-are-tired-of-hearing-from-other-plus-size-people

This article brings up ways that fat stigma is hard to shed, even for those of us who are part of the movement. However, I don’t love that it’s framed as a list of do-nots. We all struggle to accept ourselves as we are, and that means we are not perfect activists at all times. I don’t think I even want to be a perfect activist. I just want to grow in compassion and awareness of myself and others, as I continue to deconstruct the social norms that keep me from being fully at peace with myself. It’s up to each of us to speak our truths to each other and connect as humans. I don’t think the plethora of do-not lists bring us together. I think they freeze us up. I’d rather fall down and learn than stay frozen for fear of breaking a new rule.

Is the author trying to show ways in which we are all still struggling to undo the harm done to us by bullshit corporate/patriarchal norms? Or is she/he saying, “You’d better not do this…” If it had been written as interviews or a first person story, I would be so down with it. Yes! We all still judge ourselves and others in ways that are harsh and unfair. Let’s talk about it! But that’s not how it’s written. It’s written as a warning about how you, too, might be a secret douchebag. And that doesn’t make me want to talk, or share my experiences, or learn, or expand.

I think that’s what it comes down to. Do we want to expand or contract? Do we want to live fuller, more expansive lives (wherein we are likely to fuck up, fall down, get up, and make amends) or stick ourselves in a new little box with a new set of rules guaranteed to keep us from every connecting with another person? The box may seem like it will keep us safe, but we should know by now that it will not. This is often the major difference I see between second-wave feminists in the academy and third and fourth wave feminists online. We’re constantly negotiating boundaries and norms – second-wavers often (not always) see the rules as set. And you get called a gender traitor if you violate them (Hilary vs. Bernie, anyone?).’

This is not an argument that political correctness is evil and unfettered personal expression is good. What gets labeled political correctness is just new emerging norms that take marginalized people into consideration. Considering other people’s feelings and talking about them and taking personal responsibility when we hurt or get hurt is good.

When you were little, did your parents ever tell you that you should have known better? Well, it turns out, most of the time,  you couldn’t have. A lot of the stuff we learn to do as adults — empathize, abstract, predict — kids can’t do that stuff. Their brains grow those capacities in the teen years. So we learn to feel retroactive shame for being human kids, instead of being gradually introduced to concepts that will one day make sense to us. That’s what some of this stuff feels like to me. I hate seeing the BOPO movement eat itself, but I’m afraid of the direction it’s headed in. So many other beautiful movements have dissolved into infighting and chaos. Can we find another way? Can we inquire instead of judge?

As a culture, we are just starting to deconstruct a whole lot of harmful nonsense around gender, bodies, and race. THIS IS MESSY. If it’s not messy, we’re not actually doing it. Can I tell you how many times I’ve tripped over my own privilege as a teacher? So. Many. Times. Face-planting is part of the job. All I can do is try to make amends and do better next time. I can’t avoid the next landmine because I don’t know where it is. But it’s still my responsibility to clean up the mess when I do something unintentionally insensitive.

What if we lived in a culture where we took responsibility for speaking our own hurt and anger and drawing our own boundaries? What if we were allies to those who need help without becoming caricatures of the very ideas that we’re trying to change? What if we just rolled up our sleeves and talked and listened and yelled and cried and hugged? What if we got messy instead of militaristic? Messy is scary, but that’s where the growth is.

Instead of saying, “You’re not inclusive enough!” What about saying, “I feel invisible when you ignore my body type/color/gender expression, and it hurts.” And what if I said, “Holy crap, I’m so sorry! What can I do to help?”

From a whisper to a roar

As you know from my Feeding the Trolls posts, I’m doing research on how people express aggression in the body acceptance social media  community. A nice, relatively quiet corner of the online universe. Happy fat people collect trolls, so there’s lots to observe, but until a few weeks ago, the term “fat-shaming” wasn’t in the mainstream vocabulary because it was a totally acceptable activity.

Then Tess Munster got signed to a major modeling contract (and this blog post talking about why people troll her went viral), This American Life featured an interview with a blogger and her reformed troll, and now this. The original piece (about being happier fat than thin) is really well written and thought out. I think it represents a growing number of women and men who have decided that life is too short to buy into constructed ideals and constructed stereotypes and are centering their health in their own experience, rather than looking outward for confirmation. Yay!

But what was this little community of activists and their detractors has become a national conversation, rife with body policing, bullying, prejudice and stereotypes, and good old fashioned bile. My favorite refrain is, “Think of the children!” In this context I think the commenters mean that allowing fat people to be publicly content and happy and self-esteem-full will influence children to eat themselves to death. Hey Class, can you remember other times the “Think of the children!” argument was the death knell of some kind of structural inequality? Racial integration, racial intermarriage, gay marriage, women voting, women working….

So, I think this is a good thing.

Why do I think this is a good thing? Because every time we are forced, as individuals and as a society, to confront how complicit we are in maintaining stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination, we usually begin the arduous process of change.

Larry Wilmore on The Nightly Show did a little piece titled “Obesity in America“. It was full of the contradictions we’re facing. He totally defends his right to make fun of fat people (at least ironically), but is then appalled by systemic discrimination against fat people. He decries the levels of obesity in America. So, Larry, obesity is a big health problem that you are concerned about, but it’s not a civil rights issue, but discrimination is still bad. Uh huh. No, your argument is neither confusing nor contradictory.

Wilmore’s weird mixed message shows that we are grappling with hanging on to our harmful stereotypes while coming to terms with the systemic inequality which is (more clearly, I guess) not cool.

Here’s what I know. You can’t look at me and, based on my appearance, know anything about:

  • My health
  • My intelligence
  • My attractiveness
  • My self-esteem
  • My value to society
  • My relationships
  • My productivity
  • My life span

The stereotype of a middle aged fat woman would have me be single, diabetic, lazy, ugly, self-loathing, miserable, and short-lived. While I can’t predict my own lifespan, I know I am healthy, smart, attractive, confident, loved, productive, accomplished, and I live a meaningful life.

In the comment forums under all the things I’ve linked to in this piece (I dare you to read them), people conflate research with stereotypes and use them to “prove” that they can make prejudicial assumptions about others. That is not rationality, that’s just straight up prejudice. There has always been “science” to support social inequality. Science told us, up until recently, that women were dumber than men, black people were dumber than white, and homosexuals were dangerous deviants.This is because:

Scientific research is conducted in the context of the era it is produced.

Let’s say that again.

Scientific research is conducted in the context of the era it is produced.

In a society that assumed that black people, gay people, or women were inferior, the research was skewed to produce those results. It was skewed by the socio-economic context of the disadvantage populations, and by the socially informed assumptions of the researchers.

Scientific research that justifies structural inequality, stereotypes, and prejudice, needs to be reexamined very carefully. The word Science and the word Truth are not synonyms. Also, even good science that stands the test of time is about generalizable conclusions, not specific incidents. That means that even if it could be scientifically proven that on average, fat people were in fact lazy, diabetic, single, etc. etc, IT STILL WOULD HAVE NO RELEVANCE TO THE INDIVIDUAL. If I go to the doctor, he or she may test me for diabetes because I’m fat, but he or she does not automatically assume I have it and start treatment. The current batch of research tells the doctor about the probability of my having diabetes; it doesn’t make the diagnosis for the doctor. The research is also subject to change; that’s the good thing about science. It’s designed to evolve with society. Sometimes society pushes science, sometimes it’s the other way around.

The moral of my story? If you have ugly thoughts about someone based on how they look, or talk, or walk, or write, or what car they drive, don’t rationalize it and strike out at that person. Recognize your ugly thoughts (I have them too) and find a little compassion for yourself for being human and toward the target of your ire. You don’t know them or their story.

I Get it Now: Part 1

A lot has been going down in Texas this week. I stayed up past midnight watching the Republicans in the Texas legislature make a mockery of the legislative process, belittle the filibustering Democrat, Wendy Davis, and then take a vote illegally after midnight and change the time stamp. I also watched many friends  post on Facebook as they headed to the Capitol to witness and protest. And I felt shame. Shame that I wasn’t there. Shame that I’d buried my head in the sand for so long. Shame that I had taken all that my mother’s generation and her grandmother’s generation had fought for for granted.

Gen-X women tend to have a complicated relationship with feminism. Many of us grew up with feminist mothers, aunts, teachers, and therapists. You could probably hear me rolling my eyes every time one of them talked about “The Patriarchy.” My parents were a bit of an amalgam – unlike some of my peers, I was never told that having babies was selling out my gender; I was taught that I could be anything I wanted when I grew up, including a mother. Many of my friends received harsher and more confusing messages. They were told by their mothers that motherhood was a cop-out, or signified failure. A bit of a mind-fuck, don’t you think? I’m going to talk more about this in a future post, but in general, I think we’ve distanced ourselves from the 2nd wave feminists for a variety of rational and unconscious reasons, many of which I’m beginning to seriously question. Stay tuned for part 2.

It never occurred to me that I might lose the right to decide whether or not to have a baby. Even when some states, including mine, were passing more and more restrictive bills, I didn’t pay much attention. I got married in my mid 30s and got pregnant, for the first time in my life, at 37. I knew when I met my husband, long before we got married, that if we got pregnant I would want to have a baby with him.

I also came of age in San Francisco in the 90s at the height and epicenter of the AIDS epidemic. We were all so concerned with not dying from sex, that pregnancy was waaaay down the list. I never had unprotected (and by this I mean condom-less) sex other than a brief stint on the pill during a long-term relationship in my 20s, until my pre-husband and I became monogamous.

The women and men who grew up before or after or too far away from the AIDS epidemic to carry the epic paranoia I did about unprotected sex had a different experience. I remember briefly being courted by a man in Austin in my 30s, and when he said he didn’t wear condoms, I was like, “Uh, nice knowing you?” But my peers were having unprotected casual sex pretty regularly.

A young friend of mine, barely out of her teens, recently confided in me that she had gotten pregnant. She was not promiscuous, it was with her first (now ex) boyfriend. They had just neglected to use condoms one night, and it had happened. She felt ashamed and stigmatized; she felt horribly conflicted, and terribly scared. She was lucky to have a supportive and loving mom to help her through the emotional turmoil of making the decision to have an abortion. She’s a good kid, and she made one poor decision. The not so funny part is so did her boyfriend, but he didn’t have to go through any of the physical discomfort,  mental torture, and emotional turmoil that she did.

She lives in Texas, and we have all sorts of fucked-up laws that basically humiliate and dehumanize women who choose to have abortions. She had to have a transvaginal ultrasound. She had to listen as the doctor was forced to tell her lots fun facts about the fetus. She had to listen to the heartbeat (but was allowed to block the sound with headphones if she wished – gah!). And then she took a pill, went home, and cramped and bled by herself in her apartment for two days.

I have to say that her story simultaneously freaked me out and broke my heart. She did not deserve to be criminalized for not wanting to be a mother at 20. She did not deserve to be essentially raped and abused by a doctor on behalf of the state government. I thought about how happy, yet terrified I was when I got pregnant on purpose, and how hard it must have been for her to make the decision to end hers. And it was hard. She had to work through a lot of guilt and sadness about her decision, and it still haunts her. I realized for the first time that this was something lots of women went through, and like my friend, they did not deserve to be criminalized.

I think I stayed away from the abortion debate for a number of reasons. It’s not black and white. To me, there is an ethical issue, and a psychological cost to any abortion. But I get it now. It’s between me, and my God/ess, and my doctor (and most likely my shrink). AND NO ONE ELSE. Pro-Choice does not mean pro-abortion. It does not mean anti-baby.

This bill, SB5, will outlaw abortions after 20 weeks, including in cases of rape and incest, and effectively close all but 5 abortion clinics in Texas. The socio-economic ramifications are staggering. Rural women without transportation will not have access to abortions.

The mostly, but not entirely male group of people who are pushing this travesty through claim to care for women’s health and safety, and the sanctity of life. Maybe a few really believe that’s what this bill is doing. But it is fairly clear to me that they want to shore up their ultra-conservative base before the next round of elections, and the cost to women’s lives and health is a non-consideration.

So I bought me an orange shirt, and I’m heading to the Capitol to protest on Monday. For the first time in about 25 years.

To hear why this is so crucial, please read this testimony by Amy Hagstrom-Miller, CEO of Whole Women’s Health. I have the honor of knowing Amy, and am intensely grateful for the work she does for women in my community, and the fight she’s been leading against this bill.

If you live in Texas, or you care about the women who do, please consider doing something to help us in this effort.