Autumn Reflections 

The air is saturated with early morning birdcalls. Thin mist hovers above the river, creeping in and out of shadows, the eeriness of the night dissipating with the fog. 


The steaming water churns downstream, its thinning cover fading as the sun climbs higher into the sky. 


A lady cardinal watches me pass, cheekily following me for a dozen yards. A red winged blackbird chases her mate across the sky above our heads. A bluejay swoops across the path, while a nearby woodpecker raps patiently on the husk of a waterlogged stump, then flits away when he catches me staring. 


A heron stands further back, observing both myself and a chattering flock of geese, giggling at a gaggle of gossip. Smaller birds interject cheep talk, and the seagulls swoop out over the glassy, Monet-stained currents, ignoring the lot of us. 


As the world awakens around me, I find I vastly prefer this neighborhood to the more prominently concrete one several blocks over. Anxious impatience thrives where stimulus compete, and even seems to flourish among my species, while patient harmony seems to be almost solely for the birds. 


A narrow concrete foot bridge spans across a pond, the path littered with dead-eyed minnows, evidence of someone else’s meditative morning ritual. The silvery fish stare up at the clear sky with clouded black eyes. The air is crisp here, but ominously vacant of birdcall, their sweet tones gradually replaced by gaseous, motorized rumblings. 

Across the pond, a row of men in hard hats stand in the shade of a crumbling brick building, enjoying either their first or last cigarette of the morning. They’re loitering across from a pack of listless cats (the digging equipment, not the feline), the whole lot of them surrounded by the King of the Concrete Jungle, the semi. Rigs drift in and out of their loading positions, a large, slow, clumsy, mechanical ballet performed in three gears. 


The crisp frost that dulled the grass earlier has now been melted into glittering beads of dew by the sun climbing higher into the mid morning sky. As I make my way home, I find peace in knowing that I have found another public spot so close that seems to be all my own. 

Advertisements

On Loss, and Bowling

The summer weather has been incessantly muggy, the air clinging uncomfortably close as it blankets my small corner of the world in its drawn out, tropical exhale.

This past Tuesday gave a brief reprieve from the incessant heat in the form of a torrential downpour, one that lingered throughout the day, providing frequent, eccentric lighting that Dr. Frankenstein would have been itchy to utilize. It was a day to sleep in, to listen to the percussive precipitation on the windows and the roof, to cuddle up with a book and a endless cup of coffee.

My sister called me in the midst of this heavy mist; my phone reports that it was about 8:30am, but the day stretched on under a soggy grey canopy that gave no indication that time was passing.  Lightning flashed, and the gods rolled another strike as thunder crashed just a few miles off to the south west of my quaint Victorian homestead.

My grandfather passed away. 

This had not been entirely unexpected.

The day before this I had gone to visit my grandfather for what I had surmised to be the last time. The longer we linger in this world, the less certainty we have regarding our duration, and I approached the journey back “home” with this in mind. My partner’s kids have been with us for the summer, and nearly every day I spent with them we did something meaningful and memorable. I had already explained to them that this day was a little different, and they understood that the trip was important to me despite my inability to provide much more than a skeleton of reasons as to why. We all loaded up into the truck and drove the 90 miles back in time to a small, slowly dying town which I am traditionally loath to visit.  
The kids headed off to the school park with my sister, and I reset my course for the small town care center.
Over the last few years it has become increasingly difficult for me to visit care centers, hospitals, or zoos, without thinking of them as prisons for their respective inmates.
Presently, the thunder roars again, low and throaty enough to set off someone’s car alarm a block from me. Nature is the real queen of the jungle, the rest of us are just listless quarry.

At the care center, attendants pushed and prodded at my grandfather, taking his vitals and trying to get him to stay awake. I stood in the hall, listening, the door dividing us for 15 minutes before I could go in and say hello, and goodbye.
My grandfather had been old for my entire life, but he always was smiling, happy, a great friendly oak tree, my hand tiny in his massive palm even now. Here, at 89, he looked sick, grey, tired. Bloodshot eyes, and frail despite his 6′(+) frame.
He was always a great, gentle lion, and now with the thorn of life wedged firmly in his paw I felt like a tiny, helpless mouse. I couldn’t save him from the steady step we all march toward the infinite, but I could hold his hand for a little while and let him know he wasn’t alone while he walked.
I thought back to my grandmother, who had passed away 12 years prior. I thought about the last time I saw her, bathed in florescent light, surrounded by medical accouterments. I thought about how out of place she looked, a warm friendly beacon set among the harsh medical sterility. I thought about how hard it had been for me to really comprehend what she was going through at the time, with my shortsighted 17 year old periphery of experience, eyes mostly downcast, the thick lenses I always wore providing only the most basic situational clarity. Because of her, I had always excelled academically. Because of my pride, or perhaps the comfort of the shelter she lovingly provided, I was still largely emotionally absent from the end of life realities, myself never really having to deal with true hardship before that. Without life experience, without adversity to test our limitations, we do not flex or evolve the parts of ourselves we so lovingly protect. My great grandmother (her mother) had died the year before, so I had been to a funeral, but my grandmother was a cornerstone in my life, and I lacked the experience to properly navigate loss with grace.
Something about the last decade of my own life had given me more to utilize in this attempt to connect now with my grandfather, even though I still felt like I arrived at the care facility empty handed.
Sitting with him, I wanted to say something meaningful. I wanted to I tell him that it’s alright to go. I wanted to ask what he was holding on to. I wanted to tell him I didn’t want him to hurt. I sat with him without saying anything and concentrated on just being present. With my grandmother, I had stumbled through motions of an end-of-life-goodbye without having the tools, without knowing what tools to ask for or look for. This time I sat and was present, and understood that was all it took to offer comfort.
My father arrived to my grandfathers room, then my mother. I hadn’t seen them in the same room since they had gotten divorced, back when I was in college. For a decade, I think the lack of closure had been sitting with all of us, and I could feel some of it slipping away as we banded together for this common cause.
I thanked my dad, for giving my grandpa the tools he needed to have an independent life as long as he had. I thanked my mom, for being an absolute artist as a nurse and care coordinator.
I finally rose to leave; I had to budget my spoons enough to get back to home with the kids. I told my grandfather I would see him on Thursday, and he smiled at me; I think we both knew I wouldn’t. I hugged my mother and father, and left.
My grandfather passed away early the next morning, per Kelly’s call notifying me of this. When I had visited the day before, they had been waiting for a doctor’s order to be able to discharge my grandfather to his home. My father had even spent the last several days building a ramp so they could get him up the steps and into the house.
My grandfather had waited to leave our earthly realm until he could do so from his own bed: comfortable, away from the foreign sterility of the medical facility. He held on long enough to say goodbye to everyone, and then he was gone.
Back at my own home, reflecting on the last 24 hours, I sat on the porch and watched the plump grey clouds bumbling through the atmosphere. I felt the static dissipate through the air. I always feel more connected to the world when it rains. 
My partner’s two girls, 11 and 8, came out to sit with me. They’re both capable farm kids, but that primordial sliver at the base of our brains still makes them jump when the thunder cracks right above our heads.
“Have you ever heard that thunder is just the sound of the gods bowling?” I ask. They nod, and we discuss this, briefly. The 8 year old dances in the rain for a moment, then jogs back to us. I tell them how much I appreciate the car trip they took with me the day prior, and let them know that  my grandfather has passed. Their great-grandmother had also just passed away a couple of weeks prior, so while I don’t want to burden them with unnecessary layers of grief, I do want them to know how much it meant to me to get to see him.
The 11 year old hugs me. “Great-grandma will show him around,” she says, eyes motioning skyward. “I bet they’ll be friends.”
The 8 year old nods. “Maybe they’re the ones bowling.”
farmers hands

Parental Spheres of Influence: A Venn Diagram

 

I have written on finding your Tribe before, and one of the reasons they are so important in our current day and age is that your Tribe is seldom composed solely of your biological family members. Ten thousand years ago is a different story, (as we then lived in groups of about 200 and most people have more Facebook Friends than that) but today we look for tribe for the same reasons people banded together then: for survival, to better understand the world around us, and to define our place within it. Family does that today, but they usually tell you who you Ought to Be, according to Tradition, Expectations, and Social Obligations that you as an individual aren’t usually consulted in determining.

Family can be constricting if views don’t align, as they frequently don’t, leading to generations of rebellious acts by children, teenagers, young adults. It is practically a rite of passage to disagree with your parents, and by extension, the socio-political forces that shaped them into who they are.

Ecological systems theory is fascinating, btw. Urie Bronfenbrenner  is one smart cookie. John Bowlby’s summary is worth noting in that link, as well.

Anyway…

I was a really good kid, to the point of being boringly so. I welcome any disagreement on that fact from my own parents; they’re still supportive enough of me to read my blog, despite my utter insistence on candor. 🙂 But I remember, on at least one occasion, where my behavior was met with a phrase: “I hope you have a dozen kids just like you,” a sentiment I was sure was more of a curse than a blessing in the context in which it was given.

Life has given me a series of obstacles lately, and I have been able to face them. Some scared me, some I felt unprepared for or was completely surprised by, some tested me in ways that hurt, but I have found that  (eventually) being honest with myself as well as with those around has been the best course of action every time. Even when friendships crumbled and disintegrated, even in the face of unstable employment, or walking into social circles with established norms that made me uncomfortable, being honest with myself led to making decisions–important decisions– which do effect a larger sphere beyond my personal bubble.

Over the holidays this past winter, I met my current partner’s children. I had put a hard line on the appropriate time frame for that when we met: I didn’t want to meet them for at least 6 months, because I don’t believe it’s ethical to have people just passing through children’s lives. Temporarily being a transient is fun as a young adult, but it is detrimental for children not to have a level of stability in their lives in terms of who is in it. This is one of the reasons we push so hard for equal parental rights in this country. Stability is key for kids, and if one parent is working/traveling all the time, then child rearing falls disproportionally on the responsibility of the other parent.

Now that they’re with us for the summer I get to know them as people on a daily basis and build on the limited time we had over holidays and their “Spring Break.” They get to know that I have their backs, and I get to learn about what makes them tick. Adjusting to a routine where I am responsible for cooking for kids, helping them play catch up with their studies, and serving as emotional mediator and validator have not been as difficult as I had thought they would be. Establishing boundaries and treating one another with respect work worlds better with children than the same approaches do with some adults. Occasionally temper tantrums happen, but after taking a break and stepping away from a problem for a few minutes it’s a lot easier to reassess in a helpful way. Mostly, we’re all just cool.

As someone who has never been interested in having kids of my own, I can fully say that that outlook is actually serving me really well now. Because I scrutinized reproducing for so long, I got to cover lots of hypothetical situations. Some benefit me now, and some of those thought experiments are so far off base that the reality of having the kids here has taught me to relax and go with the flow, as we cannot be prepared for simply everything. If I were “baby crazy” or had my own kids, I wouldn’t be able to give my efforts and attention to my partner’s kids in the same way that I can now. I’m able to be a protective grizzly mama but I’m also able to step back, assess resources and try to fill in gaps as an additional adult concerned for their well-being.  It surprises me how easily adults are expected to be pitted against one another: teachers vs parents, some family members vs others, former partners vs present partners. Just like every other endeavor, groups should be pooling their resources and advocating for those who are affected, not fighting over how their own best interest comes into play while utilizing the marginalized group as pawns.

This article/study gives an overview of just how extensively “outside adult relationships” (meaning both children’s parents as well as other adult figures) can benefit children.

Research finds that the presence of one or more caring, committed adults in a child’s life increases the likelihood that children and youth flourish, and become productive adults themselves. These individuals have been called “natural mentors.”

Additionally, according to science (and the Art of Manliness), fathers are a necessary component in their children’s lives, although too often they are portrayed as “optional.” The linked article covers many reasons  the father’s presence is important, but my favorite is their impact on verbal ability and fluency of the children.

As Paul Raeburn highlights in his book Do Fathers Matter?, recent research suggests that dads actually play just as an important, if not more important, role in the verbal fluency of their children. Professor Lynne Vernon-Feagans and her team conducted a study to measure parental influence on early childhood verbal development. The surprising result from this study was that fathers, not mothers, had much more of an influence on a child’s verbal adeptness.

Vernon-Feagans hypothesizes the reason dads have more of an influence on a child’s verbal development is that because fathers frequently don’t spend as much time with children, they’re not as attuned to their current verbal development as mothers. Consequently, while mothers will use words that the child is familiar with, fathers will use unfamiliar words, thus helping the child broaden their vocabulary and learn new concepts.

This video is very touching in how all the adults are able to support one another after both parents have remarried. It shows parents getting along with step-parents, as opposed to vilifying them to the children, or being jealous of them, although the parents speak very honestly in addressing their awareness of the potential/societal expectation of these kinds of things.

Relationships are multifaceted: the road goes both ways.

You are always responsible for You, whether you agree with the circumstances you find yourself in, or not.

In conclusion, I’ll borrow the words of wisdom from the same Art of Manliness Article:

I know that sometimes parenting can be discouraging. You might think that you really don’t have much of an influence on your kids. I hope these studies and reports have shown you otherwise. Your role as a dad is immensely important. So focus on being the best dad you can be. It’s not enough to just be there. Read to your kids. Get involved at their school. Roughhouse. Encourage them to take risks. Stay fit. These small things have a huge return on investment for the well-being of your children.

And if you’re a mom going through a divorce, know that while it’s natural to want your kids as much as possible, if your husband is a good guy (through an objective lens, not through the lens of the acrimony created by your split), it’s ultimately in your children’s best interest to share custody equally.

 

Tantrums: How our Tempers Tattle on Us

Temper tantrums aren’t just for two year olds, they’re a common practice among children and adults of all ages. In one significantly cartoonish example, in the year 2016 we have a United States Presidential Candidate that limits his tactical approach to an pretty fair split campaigning between throwing tantrums and telling outright lies. But, have no fear: there are ways of addressing this significant shortcoming, broken down into tidbits of advice here. But one of the most basic aspects you need to be aware of when dealing with someone throwing a tantrum is this:

Most people who throw tantrums love attention; they are loud because they want to be heard. The more attention they seek, the louder they will be. This is why a small sentence, like “I understand”, can easily calm the other person down. Keep in mind that understanding does not mean agreeing with the situation. You also should let them know that you are also hurt with their tantrums and that you could help them deal with the situation better.

Tantrums, otherwise known as temper tantrum, meltdowns, and hissy fits, are emotional outbursts, and can occur at any age. Especially in young children, they are a product of not having the tools or neural connections to deal with complex scenarios. In adults, they can be indicative of something more serious like malignant narcissism, defined by  Edith Weigert (1967) as a “regressive escape from frustration by distortion and denial of reality”, while Herbert Rosenfeld (1971) described it as “a disturbing form of narcissistic personality where grandiosity is built around aggression and the destructive aspects of the self become idealized”.

In the rich and prominent these experiences are referred to as Acquired Situational Narcissism, something which “develops after childhood and is triggered and supported by the celebrity-obsessed society. Fans, assistants and tabloid media all play into the idea that the person really is vastly more important than other people, triggering a narcissistic problem that might have been only a tendency, or latent, and helping it to become a full-blown personality disorder.”

Children idolize their parents similarly, and little pitchers have big ears; kids learn most from what we don’t intend to teach them. And we have plenty of tools that we never seem to think they see. It would be ludicrous to suggest that the adoration of children for the adults in their lives would justify those adults to curate an inability to treat the children respectfully, but socially we participate in this strata/hierarchy of importance all the time; an affliction that continues because we allow it to.

We expect these in children, to some degree, but it has become normalized it in adults as well. 

“I’m not so sure adults are that far away from kids,” Deffenbacher adds, noting that tantrum-throwing adults often “go pounding through the house, hitting and throwing things.”

Not surprisingly, people with a low tolerance for frustration are more likely to throw a tantrum, experts say. Childhood experiences may play a role as well.

“Often adults who throw tantrums are those who were told growing up, ‘You shouldn’t feel this way,’ ” Sandler says. “They were never heard.”

And there’s some evidence that ill-tempered children become ill-tempered adults.

The journal Developmental Psychology reported in 1987 on a 30-year study of 200 people who threw temper tantrums as children. Those with severe childhood tantrums tended to have temper and mood problems later in life too. Men with tantrum histories were found to be more likely to have erratic work lives and to divorce their partners. Women tended to marry men with lower job status, to divorce and to be ill-tempered mothers.

Social media are an especially potent group of enabling mechanisms for adult temper tantrums; Facebook is a favorite utilized by those who are least socially adept at monitoring their own behavior. Those who are most prone to lash out and quick to be unnecessarily critical are the most likely to respond to “internet trolls” that we are, by now, so familiar with.

In everyone, tantrum-throwing can be a product of an environment that houses a pattern of bad behavior that has been learned. Rudeness that has gone unchecked. Plenty of adults make excuses for their own bad behavior, passing the buck for checking their own social responsibility. This establishes a normalcy for both the bad behavior of initially throwing a tantrum to get their own way, as well as the resulting negotiation and excuse-making to legitimize the continued behavior.

Why are we so ruthlessly critical of one another? Insecurity is at the root of most attacks, according to Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., health psychologist and author of The Hidden Feelings of Motherhood. “There are intense debates around so many aspects of parenting that mothers are constantly having to choose which side of an issue to come down on,” she explains. “Once we do, we take it personally when someone disagrees with us because it feels like a rejection of not just our choice but who we are and how we parent. As a result, we get defensive and want to lash out.”

There’s also the false perception that what happens online stays online. “The Internet gives us distance; people act as if it’s just a virtual space where everyone has multiple lives and there are no real consequences,” says Kalafatis. Of course, that distance is an illusion. The mom you make a snarky comment to on Facebook today may very well be standing next to you on the soccer sidelines tomorrow.

In fact, what we do online affects our offline behavior in ways we might never imagine. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that having a close network of friends on Facebook with whom you regularly share positive information about yourself (“I’m loving this new nail color!” or “I married the world’s best cook”) can prompt you to be less considerate when communicating with others in person.

“We call it the ‘licensing’ effect,” says Andrew T. Stephen, Ph.D., study author and assistant professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh. “The positive feedback you get from a tight-knit group on Facebook boosts your ego and leaves you feeling good about yourself and your life. And the better you feel about yourself, the more likely you are to ‘cut yourself some slack’ and devote fewer resources to self-monitoring and self-regulation.” Cue the mom who doesn’t bother to hold back her righteous opinions.

To find out what kind of coping skills you have to counteract your own stress, there is a questionnaire with an excellent list of comparative actions here.

Staying calm, reducing stress, and learning to communicate effectively seem to be our best weapons against this onslaught of rude reactions. We can only hope and express vigilance against the green-eyed monster of Tantrums.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Art of Mental Illness

Frida Kahlo was an immensely interesting individual, and is famously recorded as saying that she did not paint her dreams or nightmares(as many might suspect, given the vivid, sometimes difficult to digest imagery), but that she painted her own reality.

Frida

Self Portrait with Monkeys, 1940, Frida Kahlo

As a result of a horrible bus accident she spent much time alone, recuperating, her body slowly knitting itself back together. She painted over 50 self portraits, many of them featuring components that spoke to her feelings of alienation. Many of her pieces are dark, and feature medical tubes and fetuses, acknowledgements of the multiple miscarriages she suffered as a result of the bus accident’s long term effects on her body.

frida 2

Without Hope, Frida Kahlo

Surrealism is built on creating the world in a tremendously unconventional way.

Trauma gives us a lot of creative fodder to sift through as we face the demons that guard those treasure troves.

frida by selma

The Broken Column, 1944; Selma Hayek playing Frida Kahlo in the film Frida, 2002

Though Ms. Kahlo’s introduction to painting was the result of trauma, its implementation would easily be classified under “art therapy,” as her circumstances would have led to depression, anxiety, hopelessness, etc. whether or not a genetic predisposition for mental illness was present. Although it is not the only controlling factor, mental illness is something that is frequently linked with art and creativity. (This article is fascinating).

Some of the first research in this area focused on simple correlation studies, looking for quantifiable evidence that mental illness is more common among creative people. In a 1987 study, Dr. Nancy Andreason of the University of Iowa found that a sample of creative writers had significantly higher levels of bipolar disorder than a control group of similar intelligence levels. Andreason discovered that the writers’ first-degree relatives were also more likely both to be creative and to be predisposed to mental illness, implying that the two traits are genetically linked. 

The unfortunate component comes in when one reality isn’t simply a creative expression of the same, larger, cohesive reality that others face, but a wholly different reality where only one participant is able to fully experience the details.

subjective reality

From a slide show on Gestalt methodologies in organization research

In the same way that schizophrenics suffer from hallucinations, seeing and hearing things which are not there, experiencing stimuli instructing them in a particular way, sufferers of mental illness can become so paranoid or fearful that they manipulate themselves into creating truths that justify or explain such significant reactions. Whether or not hallucinations are present, an individual can become steeped in such a thick fog of their own particular reality that they genuinely believe their versions to be true at the expense of anything else.

perception reality

There is a substantial difference between how we respond to symptoms of physical sickness and how we respond to symptoms of mental illness. Unless the responding person also has experience dealing with the complicated components of mental health issues, it seems much easier to extend sympathy with physical illness rather than mental illness. We respond to mental illness in a way that would seem really heartless if we applied that same “helpful advice” to physical medical issues:

mental physical illness.jpg

From the Huffington Post, What if people treated physical illness like mental illness? 

It’s interesting, with such a prevalent stigma against recognizing the extent to which any population is affected by mental illness, that there is kind of a “sexy, free pass” association for artists, like it’s an inherent, “occupational hazard” for those folks. As a result, mental illness tends to be more widely acceptable to acknowledge and recognize in the creative community. However, being mentally ill or eccentric can be seen as kind of an expectation.

 

perception of reality

Graphic from Understanding Conflict and War Vol 1: The Dynamic Psychological Field, Chapter 7: Perception and Reality by R.J. Rummel (original text 1975)

 More from the preceding article:

It is impossible for any scientist to quantify if and how a mental illness supplies an artist with innovative ideas, but some of the effects of mental illness on the artistic process are more tangible. For example, in manic-depressive artists, periods of mania are often associated with increased excitability, inspiration, and massive output. These emotions may come across in more daring, large-scale, or uninhibited pieces.

The manic artist may feel unfettered from societal expectations and norms, more confident in his most far-fetched ideas; at the same time, the energy of mania can help the artist focus and complete an enormous amount in a short period of time. Moreover, some manic-depressive artists also credit their depressed periods with giving them important insights that manifest in their work; as Jamison puts it, “many artists and writers believe that turmoil, suffering, and extremes in emotional experience are integral not only to the human condition but to their abilities as artists.”

Schizophrenia can also have dramatic effects on an artist’s work. As described, schizophrenia is characterized by disturbances in thought, language, emotions, and activity, often culminating in full blown delusions or hallucinations. In this way, the illness actually alters perception and cognition to such an extent that the individual experiences life in a unique way. Some schizophrenics are able to communicate the fantastical thoughts brought on by their disease into images, music, or prose. The result is often strikingly alien and thought provoking. The value of the innovation born of mental illness is illustrated in the rising popularity of “naïve” or “outsider” art. Pieces by painters like Henry Darger or Adolf Wolfli, two mentally ill artists dismissed as “crazy” during their own lifetimes, are now being bought at auction and displayed in museums.

anais nin

One of the most damning Catch-22’s is the treatment of mental illness: safety and responsibility is pitted against experiencing depth of both highs and lows, and the way that establishing a more “level” tone greatly mottles emotional affect.Seeking treatment becomes a double-edged sword for those who experience this duel reality:

Thus far, we have seen that manic depressive disorder and schizophrenia are both significantly more prevalent in artists than in the rest of the population, that neurologically they share similarities with the biology of creative thinking – in short, that these altered mental states could indeed contribute to creativity and artistic production. Knowing that this connection is scientifically supported, how are we to ethically treat these illnesses? The mere fact that devastating mental disorders might be able to positively affect an artistic career and to create treasured works of art makes the status of the disorders more uncertain.

Some scientists, like Prentky, dismiss such worries, claiming that the two conditions are only indirectly related, and that treating the disease does not affect the artistic side. However, many patients think otherwise. The painter Edvard Munch voiced the concerns of many mentally ill artists facing trea ment: “[My troubles] are part of me and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and it [treatment] would destroy my art. I want to keep those sufferings.”

Munch’s fears are not unfounded. While the debate rages as to whether illness can actually be helpful for creating art, as Munch suggests, medication does have measurably detrimental effects on artistic output. Jamison reports that manic-depressives treated with lithium often complain that life feels “flatter”, “slower”, and “more colorless”; the main reason for stopping medication is missing the hypomanic periods of intense productivity. Similarly, the antipsychotic medications used to treat schizophrenia primarily target the positive symptoms – delusions and hallucinations – but may not relieve the negative symptoms of reduced motivation and lack of emotion. Such treatment can leave the patient feeling sedated and uninspired – and, as a result, less able to create visionary artwork. For both of these illnesses, treatment is a risk with the potential to kill creativity and stifle a career. While in the most severe cases, medication is unquestionably helpful, for many mentally ill artists, the question of whether or not to medicate is problematic.

So even the mere process of seeking treatment is something of a difficult position to be in: on one hand, there is the well-being of the individual to be considered: are they experiencing realities that are harmful to them, or to their families, their relationships? Do mood swings (etc) cause significant damage to their well-being? Are they harming those around them by refusing to acknowledge the ways in which their illness affects themselves and others? These symptoms need to be understood in the context of their causes, but they also need to be addressed in a way that is actually beneficial to the mentally ill individual. This can be complicated, as there are many misconceptions about mental illness that we need to unlearn. 

social contructrion of reality

Medication is frequently the first go-to suggestion. Simply being medicated is not enough; it can work (sometimes, after a period of time, and with quite a few unpleasant side effects) but the best help someone can receive is room for proper self care, and responsibility to one’s self. Support from others should include space for someone living with mental illness to make their own decisions, but “support” should not enable a mentally ill person to make choices which are destructive or damning to themselves or others.

Being “mentally ill” isn’t a free pass for absolutely any behavior at all, it is a lens through which everyone must mindfully view the symptoms of that behavior.

I don’t think mental illness makes better art, and I don’t think everyone who makes art is mentally ill, but I do feel that creativity can be bolstered by exploring all the space within you, poking around the darker corners can lead to new inspiration, and can create a level of resolve you did not know you possessed.

 

 

 

 

 

Crisis vs Opportunity

Alt Title: Who We Are vs Who We might Become

“When written in Chinese, the word crisis is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.”

–JFK, 12 April 1959, seven months before the Cuban Missile Crisis

 

Stirring. Unifying. Inspirational.

And unfortunately, built on a fundamental misunderstanding of how characters translate into language, and is totally bullshit.

This quote is frequently taken out of context and used in motivational posters, to help us to see that our attitude profoundly affects our expectations and outcome in any given scenario. Basic psychology at work there, and using it to muster a populace looking to you for guidance is an ethically tenuous shelf to stand on.

There is a substantial difference in levels of ethics in play for a scope of using it to motivate the Free World vs using it to motivate Joe Corporation’s workforce.

“Because I said so” tactics are unnerving when used excessively, and to the extent that people are not allowed to claim the mental space traditionally reserved for free will.

Many workplaces are so heavily tiered that they must profoundly devalue descending strata of their workers in order to both justify the model’s complexity as well as to differentiate among establish Groups. It does, however, offer a very neat model for established divide of responsibilities, albeit one with tremendously significant side effects.

(Musical options now available in North Carolina, but for for a limited time only. )

Being given the task of setting our own moral compass without deviating magnets confounding the interactions required to do so, both well and effectively, is not so easily granted. However, we benefit from being bestowed the burden of this opportunity.

Being told in every way and with intense persistence that you are Some Such Way That Cannot Be Changed is a powerful incentive to fulfill it. Whether out of obligation, expectation, or misled revolt, we respond to the label and, more often than not, adopt it and adjust our expectations accordingly.

Being given options and opportunities produces an entirely different kind of person, regardless of the choices made, because the mere act of being able to make choices leads to facing consequences, which then leads to an understanding of where our reach of control ends and someones else’s (or no ones) begins. Assuming responsibility for what is actually yours to control and relinquishing responsibility of what is not yours to do or control is a big step.

Helping one another is everyone’s responsibility, to the extent that the actions taken in the name of Helping are, in fact, actually helpful to the intended recipient of the aforementioned Helping. Becoming familiar with this is also everyone’s responsibility. Living someone else’s life for them, is not.

The remainder of this post is passages from this article about Carol Dweck and her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

Mostly I wanted to piggyback on something that is profoundly well written, but also to use this excellent topic of conversation to be more easily and readily acknowledged. Taking on too much, feeling too small, and feeling misled or lost all lead to misdirection and inaccurate allocation of responsibility and a skewed perspective.

 

And now, Ladies and Gents, more pearls of wisdom worth ruminating over, from Carol Dweck:

“For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value. How does this happen? How can a simple belief have the power to transform your psychology and, as a result, your life?

Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.”

Another portion;

“Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.”

And another:

“When you enter a mindset, you enter a new world. In one world — the world of fixed traits — success is about proving you’re smart or talented. Validating yourself. In the other — the world of changing qualities — it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new. Developing yourself.

In one world, failure is about having a setback. Getting a bad grade. Losing a tournament. Getting fired. Getting rejected. It means you’re not smart or talented. In the other world, failure is about not growing. Not reaching for the things you value. It means you’re not fulfilling your potential.

In one world, effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort. In the other world, effort is what makes you smart or talented.”

Another section from the same article that inspired this train of thought to fill to capacity before leaving the station:

The most unsettling finding came after the IQ questions were completed, when the researchers asked the kids to write private letters to their peers relaying the experience, including a space for reporting their scores on the problems. To Dweck’s devastation, the most toxic byproduct of the fixed mindset turned out to be dishonesty: Forty percent of the ability-praised kids lied about their scores, inflating them to look more successful. She laments:

“In a fixed mindset, inperfections are shameful
— especially if you’re talented — so they lied them away.
What’s so alarming is that we took ordinary children
and made them into liars, simply by telling them they were smart. 

This illustrates the key difference between the two mindsets — for those with a growth one, “personal success is when you work your hardest to become your best,” whereas for those with a fixed one, “success is about establishing their superiority, pure and simple. Being that somebody who is worthier than the nobodies.” For the latter, setbacks are a sentence and a label. For the former, they’re motivating, informative input — a wakeup call.”

 

It seems we are faced with a Crisis of Opportunities.

 

Truth and Consequences: Burning Bridges to Light Your Way

Spring is a time for cleaning out homes, for sweeping out cobwebs, for removing useless junk from our lives. We applaud each other for taking the initiative to get rid of that which does not allow us to be our best selves when those things are things. We have more difficulty when what we remove from our lives are relationships.

I spent a year in Burma trying to give myself enough space to examine who I was, to hopefully stumble upon my True Self somewhere on the other side of the world. I met people who couldn’t have been more perfect guides in that moment than if a guardian angel had set them there for me.

Extraordinary circumstances bring people together. Dire circumstances, more often then not, drive them apart. Because when things get tough, you start to evaluate where your resources are allocated, and whether that allocation benefits you or belittles you. Dire circumstances test us to the point that we have no choice but to be our most genuine versions of ourselves; in stories, this is usually the climax where the formerly introverted, quiet, shy hero or heroine realizes they have the power to make whatever impact is necessary to resolve the plot. Those cast as villains , then, usually find they have underestimated their opponents, overestimated themselves, or simply act foolishly enough to leave an exposed window of opportunity for themselves to be thwarted in some fashion. People are driven apart, because our base components necessitate that we take on an active role in our own stories, and those generally fragment into a Heroine/Villain, less you fade into the background like some sort of expendable, red-shirted bystander. Heroes need Villains to pave the road with opportunities to be heroic, and Villains need Heroes so they don’t just become dictators. We need to cultivate relationships with one another, not simply have exposure to one another, to truly blossom and succeed.

A relationship is like a rope: it’s strength is dependent on how many layers are entwined together. A rope made from two threads, two relationship components, will be expected to break quickly when tested. A rope given time and effort will last longer, and withstand larger amounts of stress, whether applied suddenly or gradually. It can hold up the weight borne by its creators much more soundly than one simply thrown together for a moments use.

Don’t go climbing if you haven’t checked your supplies. If all the preparation is left to you, you can only blame yourself if your rope snaps and you fall. If one or both parties become lax, their work will reflect that. You won’t be as well prepared when you need that line to hold your weight.

I’m a worrier. I check things several times over when I pack, when I make plans.

I can’t stand shoddy workmanship in planning, nor gaping holes in character motivation and plot development. Nor do I believe that  well developed characters are perfect, but all characters, on this stage and on any page, require some level of ability to recognize that their words and behavior effect others. Even deep-delving biographies have other characters who make appearances, and even protagonists who lock themselves away in a cabin in the woods for years have ongoing relationships: people seek solitude to escape and to meditate, but the process of clearing your mind of all the junk we tote around is a life-long one.

As much as I advocate for finding the relaying the truth, I’ve lost more relationships than I’ve built by being truthful–only selectively, overly, in incorrect amounts, or at the wrong time–than I would like to admit. I am not usually the “Hero” in my story, but when relationships break I do often feel like I would be required to self-identify as a Villain should the relationship have any chance of continuing.

The thought that “truth is subjective” is only partially true: truth is absolute in it’s measure, but can be captured from deceptive angles. Charlatans can tell the truth as well as any saint, and if you closely examine what they’ve said, may find the components of their stories are entirely, “technically” true, but presented from an angle that benefits them more that being straight forward would be.

Truth requires perspective to understand.

Take this man, for example.

Sometimes, no matter how hard we we try for accuracy, we misremember details, both big and small.

Lying is a fascinating addition to the mix. Lying is either knowingly telling falsehoods, or believing your own falsified information to actually be true, thereby creating an alternate reality for yourself. Compulsive liars become so much more comfortable telling lies of all sizes that the truth becomes an uncomfortable burden for them to bear. It changes the story arc for them and for everyone else, but not in the same way. To be successful in their endeavors, compulsive liars, like any other Totalitarian system, require and subservience to the authoritarian power. Behavior that deviates from that (free thought, applications of logic, and/or assessment of information provided, for example) start to significantly ruin the ability for that narrative to continue. By isolating themselves, or surrounding themselves with willing and qualified background characters who have no vested interest in where the story arc leads, Compulsive liars turn themselves into the Editors of their own lives instead of relying on their abilities as protagonists; it doesn’t matter what you actually do, because your own revision allows you the power to say you’ve done whatever you like.

The best thing to do, in my opinion, is to distance yourself from people who are wrongly cast to continue your story’s narrative. True, this works in favor of anyone attempting to be or build their own Fantastically Created island, but inevitably someone will falter, or dismiss themselves, and eventually a faceless extra will gain enough ground in someone elses story that they become a Hero to everyone left. Treating your subjects like puppets isn’t an angle that maintains popularity among the masses, and eventually those people will be ousted from their own story books. It’s ok to burn bridges to keep monsters at bay: this includes both inner and outer antagonists.

We already have many excellent works of both fiction and non-fiction to serve as field guides for when we inevitably encounter this sort of self-righteous flip-flopping behavior. The only way to save yourself is to have the right weapons at hand to fend off this behavior.

As the good Doctor observes…

 

 

 

 

Cultivating an Image

“Conversation between a princess and an outlaw:
“If I stand for fairy-tale balls and dragon bait–dragon bait–what do you stand for?”
“Me? I stand for uncertainty, insecurity, bad taste, fun, and things that go boom in the night.”
“Franky, it seems to me that you’ve turned yourself into a stereotype.”
“You may be right. I don’t care. As any car freak will tell you, the old models are the most beautiful, even if they aren’t the most efficient. People who sacrifice beauty for efficiency get what they deserve.”
“Well, you may get off on being a beautiful stereotype, regardless of the social consequences, but my conscience won’t allow it.”
“And I goddamn refuse to be dragon bait. I’m as capable of rescuing you as you are of rescuing me.”
“I’m an outlaw, not a hero. I never intended to rescue you. We’re our own dragons as well as our own heroes, and we have to rescue ourselves from ourselves.”
Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker

***   **   ***   **   ***   **   ***

 

Growing up in the 1990s when the internet was just becoming a luxury for the Western middle class, I spent significantly more time engaging in the real world than any virtual one. Websites like MySpace  reigned supreme, and hacktivists were limited to those individuals who had access to public libraries.  For those of us who were not adept at speaking Java/Html/binary, or navigating the internets, and who had not found online role playing/gaming communities, associations were minute and potential threats from Online Personalities were all but imperceptible.

I remember receiving chain emails (!!) about internet predators, and seeing stories on the news occasionally, but it didn’t seem like a concept that was actually real, credible threat to a small town, Midwestern preteen with dial up. Or anyone with enough common sense to know how much they don’t know, anyway. I used to play a lot of online games via the Yahoo! webpage’s options; pool was my preferred poison. I would play against random opponents, mostly without any particular interaction, but occasionally someone would private message me in the game, with the very specific question, “a/s/l?” which stands for Age, Sex, and Location (Not American Sign Language). To naive former me, and I’m sure to many people participating in the inane, acronymical question asking, it was really the equivalent of sending out a note in a bottle, or a message on a balloon, or a Facebook Post requesting people share and add their location to see how far the internet really reaches. It was a question asked for science and exploration: “where is the world randomly connecting me to today?”

Occasionally, it was just a pervert on the internet. I never gave out personal information, but I did usually pretend to be someone (or at the very least, someWHERE) else. I may have been 12, but I wasn’t stupid.

Usually if my opponent steered the conversation in a crass direction, I would go ahead and say that I’m a minor and have alerted the authorities to their behavior, which would cause them to disappear immediately. To someone so sheltered from predatory behavior by socioeconomic status and circumstances, I felt like my small contributions in internet trolling were making the world a safer place for kids who didn’t have the common sense not to give a stranger on the internet their name, age, and address.

I may have (possibly) incited enough paranoia to deter someone from continuing their unsavory online behavior. More than likely, I probably just caused them to be more careful as they continued.

You can pretend to be anyone on the internet, and while anonymity may be beneficial for many reasons,  there are problems associated with implementing a falsified identity.

First of all, intent: why do you feel the need to lie, and what are your intentions? And have you considered the consequences, intentional or accidental, of creating, maintaining, and enabling this false narrative and persona?

In my case, my intent had to do with location and circumstances. I grew up in a small town, and felt isolated. Even though I mostly preferred my own company, I felt like an outcast from my peers and wanted to interact with people who understood me in some capacity, even if that was relegated to a mutual hiding place on the internet. The idea of talking to someone “out there in the great unknown” gave me hope that something better (or at least, something else) lay outside my limited existential space.
The consequences of my actions were minuscule, as far as I’m aware. I’m safe, and was never a victim, and I certainly never victimized anyone. As I understand it, however, I was luck.

People are targeted all the time, groomed to accept increasing levels of inappropriate, invasive, demeaning behavior, as the Perpetrator  crafts ever more elaborate lies to justify their actions and to continue to call the shots in establishing Normalcy.

It’s so beautiful when people who participate in deception for their own benefit get their their karmic come-uppance: their facade falls apart, and they’re left standing in the shambles of their own wretched creation.

liar liar

Who are you?

Have you taken the time and space required to figure out this puzzle? Have you done it recently, regularly…at all? Does your understanding of who you are depend on who can see you?

We don’t tend to openly engage in the struggle of determining who we are, however we do optimize the tools at our disposal for declaring who we are. We declare who we are both actively and passively, through our actions, aversions, brand loyalty, and by the level of discrepancy between our claims and our actions.

We polarize ourselves with labels, touting our In Groups like Merit Badges to prove we have accomplished something in particular to no one in particular: labels like white, black, gay, straight, woman, man cis, queer, atheist, christian, democrat, republican, feminist, humanist, realist, nihilist. These associates are the groups by which we categorize ourselves and the rest of the world. We consider the groups that we belong to (our In Groups) as more favorable and are more likely to receive preferential treatment.

This works because we build our self-esteem through belonging, and the presence of [or association with] someone from an in-group reminds us of that belonging.

None of these words mean anything, but they are monikers that we utilize to delineate how we expect the world to receive us. They are shortcuts for understanding ourselves in the context of our world. By giving the world the manual for Proper Care and Feeding of Your Name Here based on the descriptors we provide, we are determining how we are perceived. The internet allows us an especially effective ability to cultivate a particular image, known as catfishing, by interacting with people and establishing relationships online via the channels in which that particular person allows you to travel.

With the help of internet anonymity, the average Joe can tweak a few details and simply be a different person on the internet: a girl can pose as a boy, or a boy can be a girl.

Average people can grow to be Larger Than Life Caricatures  that receive the kind of reverence once reserved for Hollywood Starlets and athletic Hall of Famers. We can be Saviors and Boogeymen, we can compose a full narrative that goes well beyond mere exaggeration.

An adult can pose as a child, and the necessity for educating children and adults about the dangers of online predators can not be over stated: it’s significant enough for it’s own blog entry.

online predator2

Cartoon by Jonathan Schmock

 

The incentives for these lies are complicated: in the case of Male to Female ratio in the early days of the internet, a man might pretend to be a woman to receive attention, real life gifts, or in-game items:

Of course, proving you are female online is something of a conundrum, since any pictures or voice you present as proof can just as easily have come from a sister, girlfriend, or random site — which thanks to webcams was later solved by asking for a “timestamp”, a picture with the current date, time, and a certain message (which could still be pictured with a woman who just happened to be near the actual poster, but it helps). Not proving it or refusing to share pictures means that you would be assumed to be male and only pretending to be female for the attention or (if in a game) free items.

 

We lie to the world long enough, and through such a protective filter, that we end up believing our own bullshit. We believe we are untouchable, godlike, invincible.

I hate to give him note here, but most recent examples of internet-proliferated Self-Making include pro-rapist Roosh V, whose plans to hold pro-rape rallys around the world were squashed with the aide of social media activism.

I live in a city where one of the pro-rape meet-ups was scheduled to be held February 6, 2016, and even the mere thought of leaving my house that day scared me. The idea that someone in the city in which I live would be willing to host something so vile made me extremely anxious for my safety. As time went on throughout the day, I gradually started to voluntarily give up freedoms because the ripple of panic he exuded from the safe anonymity of the internet caused me such intense anxiety and fear that I was willing to hide to make sure I stayed safe.

Thankfully, people are willing to stand up to dragons. Counter protests were organized in every city on his list. He allegedly received threats saying “if you come to our city we will kill you.” Police were alerted to many of the events, and at least one of the countries Australia) started petitions to keep him from entering customs.  I refuse to link to his website because visits give him income, and thankfully Anonymous took his website down earlier this week out of their own sense of vigilante justice.

Here is a timely example of how vastly a cultivated image differs from reality. Roosh touts himself as a Neo-Masculinist on the internet, but lives in his mother’s basement and feared for his safety after receiving extensive backlash against his platform of harmful views. His depiction of himself is the culmination of his own delusions and a direct byproduct of his own insecurity. Being viewed as hyper masculine and powerful (even under incredibly fucked up parameters of how those qualifiers are determined) is essential to upholding his carefully constructed internet image. And when he doesn’t live up to the hype he has created, the fear of his Bogeyman status just melts away.

Anyone who has seen the Wizard of Oz knows how this works.

***

This is an election year, and the American populace is being bombarded with ads for and smear campaigns against every candidate who is running.  This is another example of cultivating an internet image in an attempt to trump the actual limitations of your character or to erase your record of previous behaviors. Running fact checks during the debates gives context for the image the candidate is attempting to create/uphold, and discrepancy between what they promise during an election year and what their tract records espouses (brought to light by this very fact checking) slows their momentum to a short stop, and brings their aspirations crashing down around them. Even high profile characters like political candidates lie, and are more likely to do so. Research shows that powerful people are better liars. And when you’re relying on visual cues to determine the extent to which someone is lying, the internet is a perfect platform for eliminating those signs and giving the perpetrator a stone cold poker face to the world.

Why do we do this? Well, as this article explains (points from which I will highlight below), it’s because we can.

loki i do what i want.png

 

 

 

 

 
Some people create alter identities to bolster their actual persona’s credibility, by agreeing with themselves or posting glowing ratings on their own behalf. You can’t gain much from tooting your own horn, but having someone else vouch for you is huge, psychologically, to the people around you.

natalie lies

Which are you? 

 

 

 

 

On Self-Esteem, Self-Worth, and Self-Concept

“But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” — EB White

esteem

Edit/Disclaimer, 1/27/16: I do not profess to be an expert in any field. The writing below is a product of my observations and opinion. Any sourced material is italicized, the sources linked immediately preceding the quoted text. Everything else is a combination of my collective inferences. Generalized psychology at the end are paraphrased parenthetically, and do not constitute enough depth to warrant citation, as the gist is provided, and can be double checked with a quick Google search. I do not profess to have invented or coined any of the terms or concepts used. 

****      ***     ****     ***     ****     ***      ****    ***     ****    ***

Being an adult sucks. I think we get wrapped up in the extent to which our ongoing responsibilities as an adult can negatively color our overall experience in the present.  The negative aspects of now generally overshadow things which happened in the past. We tend to romanticize the nostalgia of the past, and to pine for the carefree aspects of childhood. These blinders can cause us to dismiss the relativity of our situation, and to overlook the relevance of the cause and effect resulting from childhood experiences (ours and others). We go on as people carrying the cumulative extent of our experiences, and childhood is a much scarier, much more acutely fraught time than we tend to remember once we start to stoop under mortgages and tuition payments. The collective burden of childhood experiences is not something to be overlooked or thrown aside by caregivers. The effects of our experiences do not drop off suddenly (or gradually) as we enter the next developmental phases of life. We should not underestimate the severity and longevity with which our experiences shape us throughout our lives.

Dr. Dipesh Navsaria is an amazing human being, who I had the privileged of hearing speak at a Developmental Brain, Developing Accountability conference in Des Moines a few years ago. That same conference is where I learned about ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences), and the ways in which we can combat them.

The ACE Study findings suggest that certain experiences are major risk factors for the leading causes of illness and death as well as poor quality of life in the United States. It is critical to understand how some of the worst health and social problems in our nation can arise as a consequence of adverse childhood experiences. Realizing these connections is likely to improve efforts towards prevention and recovery.

I knew from a very early age that I had no desire to have my own children. However, I also knew that I was really good with kids: I talk to them directly, show interest in what was important to them, and reinforce their worth by validating them as people. These are interactions that adults know they need but for some reason are not as easily able to see that children need similar support, but with more intent and structure. Am understanding social nuances hasn’t been established yet, so the amount of important details adults overlook, how (and if) they respond to both positive and negative attention-seeking behavior, and what adults make time for in the course of their days really do matter to children, and to the children’s sense of self-worth. It’s important to help children learn to validate themselves, but one of the ways to do that is by example.

One of the reasons I feel I am able to cultivate meaningful relationships with kids is that I listen to them. I give them an audience for validation without giving them a crutch of needing meI’m the oldest child in my family, so I try to be the kind of big sister/auntie/teacher figure that I needed growing up. It’s hard for anyone put in a position of dependence on other peoples validation–not just as a means to provide stability, but validation necessary for existence. I also try to tell them the truth to the extent that it does not diminish them, and within a framework meant not to scare them into Chicken Little anxiety spirals.

high-esteem.jpg

The presentation of reality can be strange from a child-to-parent perspective, but it’s even stranger to me from a parent-to-child perspective. What is real to one group colors the reality of the other, but children are necessarily more dependent on parents than parents are on children, and therefore more specifically shaped by the set of realities and limitations set in place for them. It is a common phenomenon to stifle children unintentionally by helicopter parenting, as well as intentionally in a variety of ways so that they remain dependent on their caregivers (See Munchausens by Proxy from my previous entry).

There are also many adults who feel that a significant portion of their own self worth is wrapped up in the obligation/necessity/genetic manifest destiny of having children. It’s common to hear young girls pine for a baby so they would have someone to love them unconditionally. And that freaks me the fuck out, because that is not NOT NOT NOT what children are for. They are not replacements for cultivating your own self-worth. They are people, not status symbols. They are not a pair of shoes, they are not a good grade on an exam. There is a little more at stake when treat them as a sign of personal validation. This piece is based on my opinion, but I will vehemently state that people are not property, and children should not be treated as such.

Self-Worth, defined at “the sense of one’s own value or worth as a person,” is an interesting topic. It can be measured in terms of Self-Concept and Self-Esteem:

Self-concept refers to a [person’s] perceptions of competence or adequacy in academic and nonacademic (e.g., social, behavioral, and athletic) domains and is best represented by a profile of self-perceptions across domains. Self-esteem is a [person’s] overall evaluation of him- or herself, including feelings of general happiness and satisfaction (Harter, 1999).

From these definitions, I would argue that much of the time we misuse self-esteem. Here it seems that self-concept is our evaluation of strengths and weaknesses, and self-esteem is how we feel about that evaluation. I would argue that embracing our weaknesses is at least as important as being validated for our strengths in terms of obtaining an accurate self-representation, and that it really is fine to like who you are, warts and all.  I would also argue that perspective weighs heavily on our classifications.

AverageEverygirl002

Twenty years ago, it was common to see studies which correlated self-esteem with direct behavioral results: Too little means we don’t try new things, don’t feel compelled to stray from what is familiar, suffer from depression, and are more likely to form dependency issues, drop out of school, have unintended pregnancies, and basically cause the end of the world as we know it. We turn those with “low self esteem” into victims who are purely a product of their circumstances.

calvin esteem.jpg

There really wasn’t much of a focus on what happens when you have too MUCH self-esteem. More recent studies have observed that too much can lead to narcissism, selfishness, and a sense of entitlement. Turns out, having too little self-esteem didn’t correlate with drug use/self-destructive behavior as well as having too much does.
It could be argued that an inflated sense of exceptional-ism can result in a lack of accountability, and a habitual pattern of “these rules apply to other people but not to me.” However, while arrogance and self esteem aren’t the same thing, they are frequently and casually used interchangeably, and should not be.

The primary error with narcissists or arrogant people is they feel they must be right all the time or there’s something wrong with them. This is a huge error, as no matter how smart we are, we can make mistakes in our thinking or actions. The healthy person knows this and doesn’t let a lapse in knowledge or a mistake threaten his self-esteem. In fact, he embraces facts, whether those facts come from himself or someone else, because he knows that knowledge will help him in his life.

bateman

 

Narcissists are different than people with narcissistic personality disorder. 

 

Having self-worth, being able to interact with others, while not depending on them too heavily nor dismissing them too readily is a balance that we find difficult to strike as adults; being careful to guide children towards a healthy understanding of these dynamics is important. Being careful not to encourage an air of arrogance in place of a healthy ability for developing self-esteem is vital, but it is not always an option. Teaching children that adults don’t know absolutely everything might be a good starting place; then they have wiggle room not to take word as gospel, and not to feel the anxiety associated with receiving conflicting messages from several “all knowing” beings.

Establishing a realistic understanding of Cause and Effect is vital for children. Adolescents can’t distinguish between their perspective and others; they can’t gauge what is objective and what is subjective, an affliction aptly dubbed Adolescent Egocentrism for the resulting “the world revolves around me, for better or for worse” outlook. They take their opinions and beliefs and generalize them as Facts That Everyone Shares, dismissing different perspectives as false or non-existent. They also experience interactions with Imaginary Audiences (Everyone is looking at me and judging me all the time!), made more difficult by the existence of their Personal Fable (I am a unique snowflake; no one could possibly understand my life/experiences/etc).

Some adults also struggle with overcoming these concepts; they don’t have the means or the ability or the experience to establish perspective within a situation, and then suffer with the consequences of concepts that are actually quite scary for adolescents and adults alike. Being able to have perspective, and then being able to shift it accordingly, are useful tools in overcoming presented obstacles.

beautiful monkey
As someone who has always sought out a system of rules for accountability, I acknowledge that I may be somewhat biased in my perceived value and pursuit of order. BUT I also think that rules should be established from logical systems: having rules for the sake of simply having rules is as absurd as declaring that Anarchy is best. You need some sort of guidelines for getting through your day, and the more layers of diversity you interact with (the general populous, school, work, basic public services, the internet, fancy dinner party etiquette, etc) the more subsets of rules that come into play.

I’ve also been vehemently against any system that relied on “Because I Said So” tactics. From my friends and peers with children, I understand that this is sometime a necessary option, but I would argue that it should only be implemented if the following options have been attempted:

  1. If you don’t know something, admit it. Embrace the freedom providing in proclaim I Don’t Know. Teaching children that there is a limited scope to individual knowledge is valuable–it allows an opportunity to go seek out answers (individually, or together), as well as teaching humility. Experiencing humility garners the same long-term rewards as experiencing failure does by illustrating that “what if” situations aren’t as bad as we build them up to be, and that the world doesn’t end over precarious, minute missteps. We’re stronger people for it.
  2. Ask why they want to know something they are asking about. Children (and adults) aren’t always as straightforward as they might be, and addressing the reasoning behind a question or action gives a more appropriate lens through which to provide an answer.
  3. Provide an example that everything we might rush to identify as a shortcoming or difference of opinion is an opportunity for growth. Knowing everything with certainty means you’ve confined yourself in a very particular space. Break out of it, and see what else is out there.
  4. Know that when you have an off day, you can try again tomorrow.

esteem is weird

 

unBecoming a Savior

I find power dynamics fascinating; the ones we create within ourselves, and the ones that worm their ways into all variations of our interpersonal relationships: close ties or spheres of influence, all the way up to our governments, our sense of identities (the many ways we slice ourselves into Us vs Them), and the ways that media introduces and reinforces those labels are all simultaneously vying for our attention. Somehow, we manage to tune them out, to stop actively participating in their roles in our lives. But that doesn’t mean these things aren’t constantly affecting us.

I wrote recently about unBecoming a Victim,  and I would like to address the other end of the spectrum in this posting: Savior Complexes. In the previous post, I addressed the Victim as someone that was not the Reader, and listed what, in my opinion, was decent enough advice for the Reader to implement should they encounter and identify someone who was struggling or causes strife for others because that Other Person had embraced their own victim status to the degree that they were experiencing a negative effect or affecting others similarly.

I did not address what to do if you, the Reader, were identifying as a Victim. It was not intentionally avoided, but after some careful thought I have decided to leave that angle on the topic unaddressed in the original blog posting. After all, this is a blog fueled solely by coffee and overthinking, the result of what my mind connects and what my fingers regurgitate into the inter-webs and onto the computer screen. If you are a Victim, but don’t know it, I hypothesize that the post addressing that would not be well received. We all have a tendency to be a little of everything now and then, but if you are so fully a Victim that there is little room for anything else, my thoughts are most likely dismissed as criticism instead of observation. But it’s ok; it’s not your fault. You legitimately have no control over what I think or say, so don’t take it personally. Of course, there are always legitimate reasons to identify with the Victim, the largest being the capacity to experience compassion. As Martha Nussbaum writes:

Compassion requires the judgment that there are serious bad things that happen to others through no fault of their own. In its classic tragic form, it imagines that a person possessed of basic human dignity has been injured by life on a grand scale. So it adopts a thoroughly anti-Stoic picture of the world, according to which human beings are both dignified and needy, and in which dignity and neediness interact in complex ways… The basic worth of a human being remains, even when the world has done its worst. But this does not mean that the human being has not been profoundly damaged, both outwardly and inwardly.

The society that incorporates the perspective of tragic compassion into its basic design thus begins with a general insight: people are dignified agents, but they are also, frequently, victims. Agency and victimhood are not incompatible: indeed, only the capacity for agency makes victimhood tragic. In American society today, by contrast, we often hear that we have a stark and binary choice, between regarding people as agents and regarding them as victims. We encounter this contrast when social welfare programs are debated: it is said that to give people various forms of social support is to treat them as victims of life’s ills, rather than to respect them as agents, capable of working to better their own lot.

Now, swinging the pendulum to another word for the other extreme she warns of in that stark binary choice: agents who exhibit The Savior Complex.

buddy christ

If being categorized as a Victim is marked by a total lack of personal responsibility for their involvement in a situation (i.e Being taken advantage of in some way), then being a Savior is defined as taking on substantially more responsibility than is appropriate. It has its own set of substantial issues.

On a personal note, for the year I taught abroad in Burma, living among people whose lives are so drastically more financially impoverished than what I had come to understand as Normal (as defined by being Midwestern, small town, American, middle class, white, privileged, etc) really cranked up my capacity to experience a Savior complex, because I lost perspective for what I was doing. What was meant to be an opportunity to see the world, experience different cultures, and to just help in some ambiguous, ethereal, substantial Margaret Mead-ish way, turned into a really negative experience by  feeling responsible for fixing everything and thus being overwhelmed at the multitude of things that needed to be addressed. Without a realistic scope and direction, it isn’t difficult to start feeling responsible for trying to fix everything, and if all your sensors get overwhelmed, you shut down.

teach for america

There’s a fine line, and a balance must be struck.

As a Victim, some things are within your control. It is your responsibility to note and address them appropriately. As a Savior, there are many things that are not within your control; it is not up to you to micromanage reality and flip all the switches. In each case, we must find a middle ground where we are not overwhelmed by how vast the world is and how insignificant it can make us feel.

It’s a tough balance to strike, and it has tricky interpersonal details, even a Catch-22: You can’t be a Victim without depending on other people, and you can’t be a Savior without people who depend on you. We’re all in this together, so there is responsibility and dependency on all sides; these two archetypes exist when our balance goes out of whack and we spiral toward one pole or another.

Victims are necessary in systems that are designed to be unfair, corrupt, and highly imbalanced. Yes Men, Sheep, Lemmings, Robots, whatever you want to call them, they are Victims who have embraced a false Safe Status of invisibility, with the assurance that as long as they do what they’re told, and as long as they let their Saviors take care of them, then everything will be alright. A reassuring lie is preferred over an inconvenient truth. It is a comforting lie, but a lie, regardless. It is a formula for people to engage in behavior, largely unchecked.

Saviors exist to fix problems, to save people from danger, harm, failure… but what they profess to do really depends on the judgement available to the people around them. Without significant dependency, good or bad, there is no room for Saviors to exist.

White-Savior-Complex

As much as we all love our Khaleesi, in becoming Daenerys bit off more than she could chew…but not more than her dragons could. There is much praise to be had for being Breaker of Chains and Mhysa, but she overlooked her people’s needs and abilities to take care of themselves. 

In addition to the pitfalls outlined in the linked blog above which lists all the ways that taking care of others before oneself can be harmful to the Savior, there can be, serious dangerous consequences to others.

In the same way that Victimization is utilized to obtain empathy, the status of being a Savior elicits praise for being selfless, despite the carefully crafted narrative existing solely to fuel that kind of praise.

Munchausens by Proxy is one severe example, where a caregiver “fabricates, exaggerates, or induces mental or physical health problems in those who are in their care, usually to gain attention or sympathy from others,” as illustrated in this clip from the 1999 film “The Sixth Sense.” The clip is of a child’s wake, where a father is given a video of the mother secretly poisoning her child to keep the child sick, feeble, and dependent, in order for the mother to maintain a constant stream of praise from those around her for being such a good, vigilant, attentive caretaker through it all.

Creating a dependency is key.

The common American belief that a college degree is necessary to succeed is one example.
You have to take out loans to pay for college.
You are then saddled with an immense amount of debt in pursuit of what was meant to be safe existence/normal social expectation.
Some jobs are more highly rewarded than others (tech jobs vs teachers, etc), and base take home pay reflects this.
If you didn’t study something that is monetarily valued at this level, you will struggle to pay for what is now retrospectively a 4 year vacation from a very specific reality.

Food is another dependency. During the Great Depression, the American government called on the people to step up and take care of themselves, more or less. Today, food is a trademarked commodity, and those who attempt to be self-sufficient are frequently fined, jailed, or robbed of their land and possessions because in many ways self-sufficiency has become illegal. Simple things, like keeping chickensutilizing rainwater, or having a garden  in place of a lawn, are verboten, because taking care of yourself doesn’t create a monetary benefit for your Corporate Saviors.

Grandma

On a more extreme note, Hitler was also seen as a Savior by (some of) the German peoples, for identifying the cause of all their problems, and by creating a means to lead them out of it.

Perspective is everything.

So, who are you saving? And from what, exactly?