Archive for February, 2015

Full disclosure: I have run many an anger management group and it infuses a lot of the classes I teach.

The main concept we try to get to is control of behavior.  You might feel your feelings, but you have to be responsible for your actions and behavior.  Just because you’re pissed doesn’t give you the right to hit someone in the face.  Got the concept?

It’s a new expectation for behavior.  If you were in prison, where letting an insult go can lead to a label and a target on your back, it’s (almost always) seen as necessary to respond to insults with force.  If you’re living in the hood, part of not getting messed with is projecting an image of strength and fearsomeness.  Rightly or wrongly, these are the cultural expectations we see in folks with anger problems.  It’s not because everyone in prison is an asshole – it’s because the situation and culture creates an expectation for behavior that one must follow to remain safe.

Controlling an anger reaction is difficult not only because it runs opposite to lots of cultural and situational training, but also because it’s tough to let wrong people get away with being wrong.  It’s essentially a game of self-control, but most of the time it’s frustrating and unrewarding; it’s much more satisfying to actually act on your emotions (consequences be damned) than to control them.  Especially for men, who have so much identity tied up in being macho and tough and ready to fight, it’s really hard to expect them to walk away from someone who is in the wrong, or to not stand up for their reputation, or to let an insult go without reacting.

I was at an (amazing) hardcore show last night, hanging out on the outskirts of the mosh pit, enjoying the hell out of watching the folks dancing around doing spin kicks and floor punches.  It’s like a cultural experience sometimes – there’s expectations for behavior and for reactions in every show, and every scene is different.  There was a young man, probably early twenties, who got kicked in the leg by a dancer (I think); he got pissed and walked toward the person who had danced into him, arms out, like the “come at me bro” guy.

like this.

It was absurd, not least because it’s a cultural expectation at a show – you stand by the mosh pit, you might get hit.

He looked ridiculous, and luckily his friend stopped him, but he didn’t want to get stopped.  He wanted to give into that anger reaction, and he didn’t want to admit he was wrong for getting pissed (even though he was).

The toughest part about walking away is that the person who did you wrong might never know, and this is super annoying.  Lots of our cultural media is centered on justice, of wrongdoers paying the price, assholes getting their comeuppance.  Real life doesn’t work that way all the time – even if a wrongdoer pays, we might never know.  And it’s still essential to be the bigger person, to know that you’re okay, even if they never know.

Anger management sucks because it requires we let go of our ego and humble ourselves.  It requires not acting on our impulses and maybe never getting credit for doing a good thing.  In a world obsessed with individuals and ego, it’s more important than ever and more difficult than ever.

Anger management sucks, but it’s essential to function.  The difference between children and adults is impulse control – maybe this is the key task for us to master before we can work toward the world we want.  Society before self.

Anger management sucks, but chaos sucks more.

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We all think we’re really, really smart.

And we are.  Evolution has turned us into some of the smartest, highly adaptable creatures on the face of the planet so far.  Evolution has done this through creating systems of shortcuts in our brains and bodies to ensure most time can be spent on thriving rather than simple survival.

Evidence of these systems is all around us, and depending on the discipline, the words may vary but the concepts do not.  In psychology we talk about heuristics (categories so we know how to deal with things), in neuroscience it’s brain categorization and cortex organization, in social science and justice movements we talk about stereotypes and prejudice. 

In each idea we see remnants of our incredible adaptation; we have these categories in our brains because if we had to think about daily minutia, we wouldn’t have (any) time left over for the business of thinking and living.  Invisibila just did a podcast on categories, talking about a person without the ability to create simple heuristics who was often baffled by different shaped couches (what is this?  is it a bomb?  I better stay away).

Categories are a part of our brains and our world, but if we’re not aware of these unconscious processes bad things happen.  This is why you’re more likely to associate negative words with a black face, even if you don’t think you’re racist.  This is why you promote a man after he mentors someone, while looking at the same task as part of a woman’s role in the workplace.  It’s why you assume someone who reads her daily horoscopes and drinks herbal tea is a holistic healer rather than a school teacher, even though it’s much more likely she is a teacher.

It’s the same reason we look at fat people and assume we know all sorts of things.

The thing that sucks?  It’s not entirely our fault.

We are deluged on a daily basis with news stories and talk shows and commercials, all telling us about how important it is to be thin(ner), how it’s a health issue, how we should be totally focused on our bodies.  This triggers what’s called the availability heuristic; when something’s always around and it’s on the top of our brain, we’re much more likely to overestimate the occurrence of this thing.  It’s the same principle behind why people are afraid of plane crashes, when it’s WAY more likely they’ll be in a car crash.

Bodies do not always reflect our behavior.  We’re taught that fat people get fat because they’re lazy, because they eat junk food, because their eating is out of control.  We’re taught that you can be thin if only…

If only you try harder, eat less, exercise more, TRY HARDER, TRY HARDER, TRY HARDER.

No.  No, no, no.

It’s been pointed out that if diets were a drug, no self-respecting doctor in the world would prescribe them.  It’s been said that the billion dollar diet industry is built that way because no diet has been shown to work for long term, sustainable, healthy weight loss.  EVER.

Just as we don’t accept total character judgments based on skin color or hair color or gender, it’s time to acknowledge we have enormous prejudice against fat bodies.  And just as skin color is ultimately a ridiculous way to determine anything about a person’s character, so body size does not determine character.

I live in a city, and it’s a winter city.  The area I call home has traditionally seen streets lined with milk crates, plastic chairs and random pieces of furniture; it’s how people in my neighborhood save their parking spots.

Some of you have no doubt seen something similar.  And honestly, it makes a bit of sense (especially after I spent 2 hours shoveling out my car, then shoveling the space it was in).  Driving home last night, however, I decided I absolutely hate this habit.

Although it takes a lot of work (like, heart attack inducing amounts) to get your space cleared, it is awful to put stuff in the street to protect what you’ve done, rather than trusting others to also do their piece to clear the street.  When we were hit by over 13 inches of snow, the next morning everyone on my street was out, shoveling, snow blowing, talking and waving.  It was the first time I’ve felt like I live in a community, rather than in a block of houses.  I personally shoveled our house and my car, plus my neighbors’ sidewalk (they are old and decrepit).

When I drove home from work around 5:30, there was no space.

My entire street was filled with chairs and milk crates (not cars).

When you live in a city, like it or not, you’re part of a larger community.  Your actions impact others on your block, in your neighborhood.  Just as we are responsible for shoveling our sidewalks (so people don’t slip and die when trying to talk), cutting our grass (so the block doesn’t look bad) and boarding up windows that are broken (to prevent all sorts of nastiness), we should also accept shoveling spaces as a part of community responsibility.

nope.

I live on a public street with no driveways, where the alleys and garages are inaccessible after a huge snowfall.  It’s not fair to expect parts of a public street to be reserved only for you, no matter how much shoveling you’ve done.  That’s part of the street that’s not accessible all day – even if you’re at work 9-5.  That’s a part of the street unavailable to our postal workers, or an ambulance.  And it’s a dick move.  Really.  (even though people will argue forever that it’s not).

A few cities are passing ordinances and trying to take a stand against this kind of space saving, but we’ll see how well it works.  For the time being, maybe we need to try and remember that we don’t just shovel out our cars and spaces for us – we do it for everyone who uses the street.  Let’s honor this social contract and through our behavior, teach others to do the same.