Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

Prison Bars

Short one today, because Flint’s crisis has exhausted every last bit of my brainpower.

In general, prison should have five goals, as described by criminologist Bob Cameron: retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, restoration, and rehabilitation.

We look at prison as punishment here.  We treat this as revenge.

We just sentenced rapist Daniel Holtzclaw to 263 years in prison.  My first thought is “TAKE THAT, STUPID RAPIST.”

Who lives for 200 years?

Revenge is not an appropriate way to run a country.  Revenge is why we have more of our population incarcerated than any other nation.  Revenge is why we perpetuate racist, classist systems and wonder why we have a racist, classist society.  Revenge is why children become adults behind bars.  Revenge is why sexual assault is so prevalent in prison that it is treated as a joke and becomes part of the punishment.

Revenge is why people come out of prison traumatized; more trauma = less ability to cope with negative life events = recidivism.

And we wonder why our country is so messed up.  We’re destroying our mental health and our society in the process.

There’s got to be another way.


The issues closest to our hearts are often the most difficult to discuss with our loved ones.  We don’t want to get up on the soapbox, or make people feel attacked.

I was thinking about dieting as I re-read a favorite article of mine from Dances With Fat, a great body-positive/fat-activism blog, about how to deal with family and friends who decide to act as the food police.

After I read the piece, I immediately thought of my aunt, someone I love dearly and who has been present at all big turning points in my life.  I don’t know if she had ever been on a diet before the beginning of November.  I heard about her diet at a pre-Thanksgiving dinner, where she proudly discussed her 500 calorie a day diet “and if I get hungry, I just drink water!”

I was disturbed…worried, concerned.  500 calories is not enough for a grown woman (or man).  That’s less than many anorexic folks take in.

She was thrilled – she had lost 20 pounds in 28 days.

Again…I was legitimately concerned.  Most doctors agree a safe rate of weight loss is about 1-3 pounds a week (though most doctors don’t have enough training in nutrition or a good enough understanding of health at every size to talk diets with patients).

I was so proud, at the end of the night, when my mom talked about how she had ruined her metabolism by constant dieting since her teens, and how much space and energy dieting had taken up in her life.

But neither my mother or myself said anything to my aunt, and it wasn’t because we didn’t have the information; I’ve been looking at HAES literature for years and am in recovery from an eating disorder, so by default, my entire family is well versed in the harmful effects of dieting and image focus.


It seems every blog, newspaper, magazine and morning TV time waster is very concerned about the holiday blues, the magical time of year when people get depressed when surrounded by lights, bells, Christmas carols, family, friends, and food.


How Depressing!


Christmas is less a religious holiday than a cultural holiday in the states.  Although we’re a country founded on freedom of religion, our government offices close for this holiday.  We hear Christmas carols, but not Seder songs or the call to prayer during Ramadan.  I know many folks, like myself, who are not practicing (or believing) Christians who celebrate Christmas regardless.  And much of our celebration has a non-religious focus; Santa Claus, presents, reindeer?  Not mentioned in any Christian texts I’m familiar with.


Luke 50:10: And so he arm wrestled the Claus for gift wrap greatness.


Depression is a loaded word, one frequently misunderstood.  Feeling “depressed” and suffering from clinical depression are basically third cousins – they talk sometimes, but don’t remember each other’s middle names.  When folks talk about the holiday blues, they are likely NOT talking about clinical depression, but rather dysthymia, feeling slightly down, slightly less energy, but still able to function.



It wasn’t until the later part of my graduate school career that we started to talk seriously about altruism, it’s effects in society, and how little we actually understand the impulse to do good.

Most psychologists are of the mind that no act is purely altruistic.  When we act altruistically, there is generally a hidden benefit to the giver; altruism acts as a strengthener of the social network, the common thread between us in society, ensuring that we get what we give – what goes around comes around.  Some people act for religion; some, to offset (or continue to do) harm.  Our biology can encourage us to perpetuate our genes, even at our own expense.



It’s been fifty four years since Stanley Milgram made history with his experiment on obedience to authority.  His results are in every psychology course, political science theory, and argument about war.  I, myself, have taught the experiment’s hypothesis and results for years.

It turns out, there is an essential piece most of us are missing when we talk about this study.

In 1961, Stanley Milgram chose hundreds people to ostensibly be participants in an experiment on learning techniques.  In reality, he was searching for information on obedience.  After World War II, social psychologists were hellbent on figuring out how ordinary citizens participated in the mass killings of Jews; Milgram believed part of this phenomenon was as a result of being given orders by an authority figure, allowing people to rationalize their behavior and continue to kill their fellow citizens.  Milgram asked ‘teachers’ to administer shocks to ‘students’ (who were confederates not being shocked), with scientists in the room prodding them to continue if they wavered.

In Milgram’s most famous instance of this study, almost 65% of people continued shocking a subject past lethal levels, past screams of pain, past no response, as a scientist stood at their shoulder and reminded them the experiment required they continue.

Scary, right?

It totally is, but not for the reason you think.*

I’ve always understood this study to be an exercise in taking orders.  Milgram had four scripted responses for his ‘scientists’ to use to prod subjects into continuing to shock learners:

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential you continue.
  4. You have no choice but to continue; you must go on.

The first three are suggestions; strong prods, very persuasive, but not an order, not “you have to do this.”  When scientists used the fourth prod, people stopped administering shocks.

Turns out, we’re not really great at following orders.  People who heard the fourth prod started disobeying, stating they absolutely do have a choice, and it’s not to keep doing this, dammit!

Those of you knowledgeable with how psychology works, or close to a difficult teenager, will not be surprised by this finding.  We are not fond of feeling we’re not in charge of our own lives; the instinct can be to do the opposite of whatever you’re told.  Therefore, giving orders becomes more effective when they are strong suggestions; processes like denial of responsibility, confirmation bias, and rationalization can all start whirring away to make people believe following orders is their own choice.

If this sounds familiar, dear reader, it’s because it’s the same principle underlying one of the most effective psychological treatments ever practiced – motivational interviewing, which was codified in 1991, is based on the idea that confrontation is not helpful in changing behavior.  On the contrary – when people are confronted and they’re not ready to change, they tend to dig in their heels and negative behaviors become more entrenched.

The takeaway is not that we’re mindless automatons, waiting for our masters to tell us what to do; the truth is far more insidious.  We are suggestible.  If we can make ourselves believe we’re doing bad things for a good reason, or a reason that’s consistent with our own self-concept,  or if we can push the responsibility for our actions on someone or something outside of ourselves, we can be persuaded to continue.

And that should terrify every contrarian.

*(Radiolab just did a segment on this, which can be heard here)

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.

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 volunteered to work at the Motor City Pride festival this past weekend. I’ve always tried to go to LGBTQ events and I’ve been a frequent attendee of the Chicago pride parade; this was my first event in Detroit around these issues.  

I love pride events because they’re generally amazingly positive. People walk around with smiles on their face, dressed to the nines, dancing and talking and generally having good interactions with each other (that I have seen, anecdotally, in public, only in my experience). Instead of getting catcalled and feeling raked over by men, I get to just be friendly, with less overt sexual innuendo; when I’m approached by a woman, I rarely feel dirty, guilty or endangered if I (politely) turn her down.  

But this is an article about a t-shirt.

Before the event, there were some jarring happenings. My boyfriend told me I should reconsider volunteering “because someone might think you’re gay.” He also told me he was concerned that I might be targeted for violence because I was working at the Planned Parenthood table. After the event, I met friends for a drink; one of them kept expressing his amazement that there were many POC around “I thought these were just a white people thing, black people aren’t so gay.”  Whoa.

I’m a newbie to LGBTQ activism, and definitely coming from a place of privilege; I grew up in a middle class home, I’m white, cisgender and straight. It doesn’t get much more privileged than that. As such, I’ve been working on my understanding of how I can be an ally to the LGBTQ community without pushing an agenda I think people want, devaluating their experiences or making it all about me instead of about the community and people’s lived experiences. I work in mental health, and have members who identify all across the gender and sexuality spectrums. I’m lucky enough to call some LGBTQ folks good friends and colleagues.

Anyway, back to the point. I bought a shirt from Ally tees ( at the event. I wore this shirt to work today. And it provoked a huge amount of angst and anxiety in me.

In Michigan, you can still get fired for being gay. I work with people who may have bad reactions if they misinterpret the shirt, but more importantly, I was concerned about them misinterpreting the shirt and rehearsing speeches about what being an ally is, speeches that started with “oh no, I’m not gay.” I work in a dangerous area, and thought hard about if I wanted to walk down the street wearing a shirt whose message started with the word “lesbian.”

It shouldn’t matter if someone thinks I’m a lesbian. Really, it shouldn’t. It shouldn’t be an issue for my workplace to walk around in a shirt with words like “queer” and “intersex” on it. But really, the issue is all I was doing was wearing a fucking t-shirt.

If I’m freaking out about a word on a shirt, that’s a function of my privilege. People are in danger of physical harm while walking hand in hand with the person they love. People stress about who to bring to a Christmas party because their boss might find out and they’d lose their job. People are devalued, dehumanized, shamed, blamed and attacked for being the people they are (which my own profession did not stop until the 1970s).

Naming who we are, in gender, sexual preference, and every other way we identify, is not dirty or something to be ashamed of. The people who are open and upfront all the time are brave in a way I can barely conceive, and those that aren’t have my empathy. If it is not easy to just walk around with a t-shirt on, can you imagine if the person you are is not “acceptable”?

Fuck this (cis)tem, man. Fuck the patriarchy. Most of all, fuck thinking our experiences are the only right ones, and other people should bow down to what we think is right.

















So this morning I heard a song in my trampoline exercise class (which is fabulous, as you can imagine) with a chorus of “Only you can make me feel beautiful.”  Me being me, I started thinking about all the times that people tell others how beautiful they are.


First and foremost, one of the hallmarks of individuation is being able to know who you are and what you think about yourself, not being moved from who you are by feedback from others.  Gestalt therapy notes one of the issues leading to neurosis is a lack of clear boundaries between “me” and “not me.”  In our internet articles, magazines, books, and movies, it is emphasized  how “sexy” confidence is and how we have to be our own people.  However, this overt message contrasts with the covert messages in the products of popular culture; in this case, music and movies are the most obvious examples.

A lot of responsibility is placed on our partners for our feelings.  We assure people that we can see beyond the outside and we like what we see.  We place our very survival on another person simply being aroundThe number of these messages is tremendous and transcends genres and generations.

oy vey.

Aside from the obvious neediness and lack of our own lives here, there are a few intersections with mental health theory which may not be so stark.  Firstly, women (and men, to a lesser extent) are stuck waiting for their perfect partner.  I can’t be beautiful unless someone’s telling me I am.  I can’t feel beautiful if my partner doesn’t constantly assure me I am.  I can’t feel beautiful and be single.  I can’t feel beautiful when my partner isn’t making me feel I am.

The other aspect has to do with a defensive reaction, something we’ve talked extensively about and that motivational interviewing therapy ‎ is built to reduce.  When we’re told something, that we should do something or we are a certain way, a lot of us have a knee jerk reaction, a defense, that NO WAY reaction.  Even when it’s a “good” thing or “good” behavior we’re being pushed into.  The problem is the push.

so if i do, it’s your fault!

Does telling someone they’re beautiful defeat the purpose?  I know when someone tells me they’re having a bad hair day, and I tell them it looks fine, most of the time they dig in their heels to convince me I’m wrong and they’re right.  In psychology circles, it’s known as the confirmation bias and surprisingly (or not), it confirms we’d rather be right than happy.  We’d rather confirm I’m right about being ugly than be wrong and be beautiful.

The point isn’t to stop telling our partners they are beautiful or to stop accepting complements, but that we first need to change our self-concept and correct the stories we tell ourselves.  Only when we see ourselves as beautiful can we hear and appreciate others telling us the same.

First and foremost let me apologize for the lateness of this update; I’ve been increasing my involvement in therapy and working toward recovery from my own eating disorder, and I am still not sure if the simple act of writing about food and body image is a trigger for me.  But we shall soldier on (and I will update 1x/week, by Thursday of that week, from now on).

Is this the only way “fitness” looks?

We shall soldier on not least because our society remains incredibly delusional.  We continue connecting health and thinness no matter how many studies, medical doctors and anecdotal stories are released decrying the link between body fat and health.  Faithful readers of research (and more modestly, this blog) know how tenuous this connection is; one can more easily judge the health of a person by observing diet and exercise habits than by simple appearance.

Once again, I was in CVS and stumbled upon Health magazine.  A name which I immediately connected with a desire for more varied workouts, as I am bored constantly and need to switch up routines.  However, as I looked at the cover all I saw was Jessica Alba talking about staying slim.  Articles about how I could be slim for life, the habits of thin people, how I could “torch fat” with CrossFit workouts and how I could work out like a supermodel (and, it is implied, eventually look like a supermodel) assaulted me.  I felt almost to the point of tears – is it too much to ask to find a workout plan without the goal of losing fat?  To be able to exercise without wanting to do so to be thinner?

It is this flawed connection that limits our ability to exercise for the joy of movement.  It limits our ability to appreciate our bodies because they are strong or functional or capable or flexible.  When our only concern is appearance, these things cease to be important.  Because really, who cares if she’s strong when she’s so fat?  The fat is all that can be seen.

The 2000 novel Jemima J by Jane Green has a great line in it that has been burned into my memory.  It’s a story about an “obese” woman who loses over 100lbs and all of a sudden her life comes together (eventually her weight settles at 145 pounds when she is “completely happy with the way she looks”).  I used to read this book every other week when I was in high school, and the message I got out of it was that my life would finally come together once I lost weight.  She was “obsessed” with exercise but ended up getting exactly what she wanted (the love of a man, obviously) after months of drinking only water for breakfast, eating a plan salad for lunch, and plain chicken for dinner.  This is what it takes to have a good life.

I remember being so ashamed that I couldn’t do what she did; oh, don’t get the wrong idea, I tried.  Having hot water with lemon in the morning is unsatisfying but I figured I’d try it – it worked for her!  I, after all, was only 40 pounds away from 145, where I could be completely happy with how I looked.

I was unhealthy.  In many ways, I probably still am.  But we as a society cannot release this shame and work toward health until we let go of the idea that being thin is all that counts.