Excessive Tribalism Enables Abuse

Whenever a new report emerges about an abuse scandal in some community or organization, a common reaction is a tribalistic “us vs. them.” For instance:

“How horrible! That sort of thing would never happen in my community.”

or

“That’s terrible. But of course it’s going to happen among [people of a certain religion, political leaning, race, sexuality, ethnic group, nationality, or profession].”

A distancing mechanism comes into play. People acknowledge that sexual abuse or other kinds of abuse have occurred. But the main reason they’re fine with talking about it is because the problem lies with some other group, or perhaps with an individual they never really liked.

What happens when it occurs among people they feel an affinity for? (Such as congregants or leaders at their religious institution, popular athletes they admire at their school or in major league sports, politicians or celebrities they love, a long-standing volunteer at a respected charity, a political activist who rails against injustice, or a local business leader who’s an upstanding citizen in their small town.) What happens when the abuse emerges close to home?

In that scenario, the reactions are much more likely to involve:

  • Looking the other way or actively covering up the abuse, including blocking or derailing an investigation into it.
  • Calling abuse something other than abuse, to make it seem weaker or more sanitized. Sometimes saying things like, “Nobody’s perfect, ok?”
  • Dismissing, vilifying, misrepresenting, harassing, and/or threatening victims. Coming up with justifications for why the victims “deserved it” some way. Doesn’t really matter how much strong, compelling evidence emerges to support the victims’ claims.
  • Making excuses for perpetrators (“so-and-so was under a lot of stress or struggling with some psychological issue, and they’ve done a lot of good, so maybe this one thing isn’t such a big deal…”). Generally showing much more mercy for the perpetrators than the victims.
  • A refusal to see any patterns of institutional coverup or abuse-enabling norms by claiming that the perpetrator is just “one bad apple.” And if more perpetrators crop up, they’re just more bad apples. Apparently these bad apples exist in a vacuum.

Virtually no community is free of abuse or the potential for it. It doesn’t matter how virtuous, just, kind, or moral you think your group is. What allows for abuse to go unchecked?

  • When you have power differentials and a lack of accountability and scrutiny.
  • When there are certain groups or individuals deemed above reproach, untouchable in some way (they can “do no wrong,” they should not be questioned, their behavior can be downplayed or excused entirely).
  • When the reputation of the group/community/organization and everything they stand for is deemed much more important than the trauma and profound betrayal of victims.
  • When people have invested so much of their identity in someone or something that they don’t allow themselves to confront the possibility of abuse. It would damage the affiliations they use to help define themselves.
  • When people are afraid to speak out in favor of an investigation or in defense of the victims because they’ll be socially ostracized, financially damaged, or threatened with violence by other members of the group.

Excessive loyalty to a group makes life much easier for perpetrators of abuse. They know which roles or positions will deflect scrutiny or vest them with authority and a sufficient degree of power. They can determine when people are likely to look away and deny what’s happening. They know what language to use (such as religious pieties or political jargon) to downplay the abuse or wave it away with a superficial resolution (such as a weak apology or call for immediate reconciliation) that silences the victims.

And if abuse is something that can only happen somewhere else, perpetrated by people who aren’t like you in some key way, it continues unchecked. Outsiders can help uncover the abuse, but an investigation becomes much harder without the cooperation of a group or organization.

It’s possible to feel loyal to a group while remaining aware of the following:
– The potential for abuse exists in pretty much any community or institution.
– Perpetrators of abuse often don’t appear to be outwardly monstrous, but may in fact be individuals who are largely admired, respected, or well-liked.
– The extent to which you like someone often has little to do with whether or not they’re capable of abuse. (Perpetrators of abuse may be quite nice to people generally – though obviously not to their victims.)
– It can hurt badly or be painfully disillusioning to face evidence of abuse. However, looking away from it or actively quashing an investigation into it is extremely harmful. In many cases, it’s possible to preserve a group while instituting better safeguarding measures. An abuse scandal can be an opportunity for meaningful reforms in policies and practices. Victims don’t need to be sacrificed for the sake of keeping certain people free of accountability or maintaining the illusion that everything is just fine as it is.

Does Hitting Something Else Stop You From Hitting Yourself?

Self-harm can take on many forms. Among them are self-inflicted slaps and punches.

Even with the pain, bruises, and possibility of internal injuries or permanent damage, stopping this behavior can be difficult:

  • The self-inflicted hitting may have already become habitual or compulsive.
  • The behavior has been serving as a reliable (though damaging) way of coping with overwhelming emotions, such as intense fear, anger, and self-loathing.
  • The idea of seeking help often fills people with shame or embarrassment.

One way to resist and weaken the impulse to self-harm is to come up with other techniques that replace the self-harm behavior (e.g. squeezing a stress ball, doing jumping jacks, taking deep breaths and counting them, repeating a mantra or talking to yourself until the urge to harm yourself fades). Sometimes, the suggestions include hitting something else – some soft object – to avoid hurting yourself.

Does Hitting Something Else Work?

Some people try to avoid hitting themselves by hitting a pillow, couch cushion, or mattress. This seems like a good idea, and of course it’s better to hit the cushion instead of your own leg, arm, or head. But reacting to intense emotions by hitting things, even objects, doesn’t necessarily help in the long run.

The underlying association between ‘overwhelming emotion’ and ‘hit something’ may become reinforced and strengthened, and you could wind up turning it on yourself again. In the absence of a soft object, you might punch a wall and injure yourself.

Also, people often assume that hitting objects will calm them, when instead it may inflame their underlying emotions even more, making them angrier or more upset. So be careful about using this as a long-term strategy – especially as a solo strategy, and especially if you don’t want to rely on any sort of hitting as a coping technique.

This advice isn’t absolute. For example, you may find that a workout with a punching bag helps you a lot. However, there’s a difference between 1) incorporating an exercise routine into your life that you commit to even in moments when you aren’t overwhelmed by emotions and 2) heavily relying on hitting during the intense, overwhelming, and painful moments that prompt self-harm behaviors (and you’re not always going to have a punching bag nearby, though maybe a bit of shadow boxing is one alternative in that scenario).

Another point to consider is whether the hitting is part of something constructive. For example, some people cope by making something out of clay. The sensations of punching, kneading, and squeezing clay gives them some relief. Maybe this is better than hitting a pillow, because you’re creating something with the clay. The hitting is part of a productive, creative act.

In any case, here are some additional points to think about:

– Be aware of the possibility that punching other things may have drawbacks (though again, it’s better to lay into a pillow than your own body).
– Try to stay attuned to what you’re feeling when you rely on the strategy of punching or hitting something else. It may be helpful to some degree, particularly as a form of immediate release. But maybe you don’t feel much calmer or in control for long, if at all, because there’s still a difference between reacting to emotions in a less controlled way vs. responding to them with more control. And the underlying problems remain.
– Develop additional strategies for managing self-harm behaviors. Confront the issues underlying your self-harm and how you understand and respond to emotions. Speaking to a reputable, compassionate therapist or counselor can definitely help, or you can start by texting a helpline or calling one (this is something that can be done fairly quickly, even in the middle of intense emotions).

Verbs That Inflame the Senses!

A while ago, I was reading Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, and came across a description I liked of a cat that “oiled against” the main character’s ankle.

“Oiled” captures a slick movement and a shivery, slick, clinging sensation. A moment where a cat brushes against someone’s ankle becomes even more unsettling.

Months later, when I was reading Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I found a noun-to-verb usage that I really liked: “The evening paper rattlesnaked its way through the letter box…”

“Rattlesnaked” conveys the movement of the slithering newspaper, and the sound it makes when traveling through the letter box. (Although I’m not 100 percent sure this was the author’s intention, the verb also makes the newspaper seem like a venomous creature – and given its contents, maybe it is.)

These kinds of verbs, which include nouns transformed into verbs, deliver a memorable sensory impact. In your own writing, you can use them to add more flavor to the text and to capture multiple sensations or feelings in one word.

But it’s important not to use them too much. If you insert them into every other sentence, they start distracting the reader. They each become less memorable and effective, and you give the impression that you’re trying too hard as a writer, that you’re straining too much to produce a certain effect. If you want to, try using these verbs here and there, in moments that stir the senses and keep the reader hooked to the world you’re building with your text.

When You Tell Yourself “I Shouldn’t Be Feeling This Way”

“I shouldn’t be feeling this way” is a common thought. The question is what to do with it.

Whether or not you “should” be feeling a certain way is less important than what you’re going to do with the feeling. You recognize that you’re feeling angry or sad or envious or gleefully vindictive. Or maybe you’re not feeling anything at all in a situation that seems to call for strong emotion. What follows?

If you start to dwell too much on whether you should or shouldn’t be experiencing a certain emotion, a few things usually happen:

  • Your stress levels go up more. An additional layer of stress settles over a stressful situation.
  • You feel guilty, inadequate, unworthy, or strange.
  • You get distracted from thinking of ways to best respond to your emotion and to the situation you’re in.

It doesn’t help that sometimes other people tell you what you should be feeling. Depending on what the situation is, they may want you to feel love or happiness or grief, and when you don’t meet their expectations, they don’t react well.

Focusing too much on the “shoulds” isn’t helpful. You feel a certain way. Rather than beat yourself up over the feeling itself, think about what you can do with it.

Maybe what you need is to just keep going about your daily routine. Other times, you may need to talk to someone you trust, and sometimes you may need to reach out for urgent help. In many cases, what helps is to write, draw, go for a walk, listen to music, garden, read, knit, hug someone who will welcome your hug, work on a project, or sign up to volunteer in your community. You may need to develop habits of thinking and behavior that help you with overwhelming emotions. (For example, some people find that unplugging from social media for a while helps them become more calm and level-headed when confronting various problems in their lives.)

Brooding on “should,” however, doesn’t help you change anything. Standards of “should” may be arbitrary or based on ideas you don’t have to subscribe to. An unusual reaction to something isn’t necessarily a sign of a mental health issue (and if it is, beating yourself up over it won’t help). Experiencing emotions that are ungenerous or crude doesn’t mean that you’re compelled to act on such feelings or that your feelings will never change. Also, you don’t have to feel a certain way simply because of your sex, race, or other demographic characteristics. Even if the people around you all express the same kinds of emotions or sentiments, the reality is messier. They aren’t all feeling the same way, definitely not all the time.

“But I shouldn’t feel this way…” Whether you “should” or “shouldn’t,” the fact is, you do. So what do you do next?

One of the Best Assignments I Ever Got in College

In a development psychology course, the professor told us to find two things:

1) A newspaper article about a research study in child development.
2) The actual study itself (written up in an academic research journal).

We then had to do the following:
– Read both the newspaper article and the research paper.
– Evaluate the strengths and flaws of the study. (Some examples: How did the researchers select the sample, and was the sample size too small? How did the researchers define the concepts, phenomena, or behavior they were studying? What were the weaknesses in the statistical analyses?)
– Note discrepancies between the claims made in the study and the way the newspaper article reported these claims.

This was an eye-opening assignment. It helped show me the profound effects of study design and statistics on research findings. And how newspaper articles can misrepresent these findings, usually in the headline and opening paragraph of the article – the parts needed for grabbing attention through bold claims. Also, the parts people usually don’t read past.

I recommend this as an exercise in critical thinking. Research papers are often behind paywalls, but not always (sometimes, a professor will have a copy on their site). And if you’re already a college or graduate student, you may be able to access journal papers for free using school library privileges.

Another Great Site for Learning Math at Home

For online math learning, I usually recommend Khan Academy. But it’s good to find other resources too. I recently came across Schoolyourself.org, a great site that could be helpful to you or your kids for math studies.

Using the site is free. You don’t even need to log in to access the lessons, though logging in allows you to record your progress. (I haven’t yet set up an account, but I think there are also more opportunities to review material if you’re logged in.)

From what I’ve seen so far, here’s what I like about this site:

– The videos are interactive. During each lesson, the video stops at various points, and you’re asked to solve problems. This means you can’t just listen passively. You need to be able to show that you’re paying attention and can figure out what’s going on.

– The lessons check that you have the relevant background knowledge. For example, at the start of the video on raising numbers to a negative power, you’re tested with a question on dividing exponents and given a chance to review if you’ve forgotten.

– Basic math doesn’t get overlooked. For instance, the algebra unit includes videos on arithmetic principles. This is helpful to students who are starting algebra but may have forgotten certain rules about multiplying negative numbers, for instance.

One drawback to the site is that it’s a little “calculator-heavy” in its approach. If you want to study how to multiply or divide decimals by hand, you may need to look somewhere else for a review.

But overall it’s a useful site that I recommend as a supplement to your math studies.

Your Bullet Journal Doesn’t Have to Be Instagrammable

Why did it take me so long to try bullet journaling?

For a while, I’d heard about using bullet journals for scheduling, project planning, journaling, making lists, and jotting down notes and ideas. But I was hesitant to try it for three main reasons:

1) It seemed to be just a fad, and I’m wary about fads (this tendency sometimes helps me avoid something harmful or useless, but other times may keep me from trying something that could be helpful).
2) The examples of bullet journals that I came across online seemed super fancy and elaborate, full of gorgeous graphics, reflecting a skill with drawing that I don’t have.
3) A quick glance at the bullet journal method gave me the impression that it was confusing and cluttered.

Why did I finally decided to try using a bullet journal? Last October, I had finished using a regular planner and was searching for a better way to keep track of different tasks. After hearing yet another recommendation for the bullet journal method, I decided to revisit it.

This time, I gave the method a closer reading, and I tried it out with an old spiral notebook I already had at home.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far, using a bullet journal:

– There’s no need for you to buy an official bullet journal. You can make use of an old notebook like this one:

bulletjournalnotfancy

– Your bullet journal requires no visual art, no artistic touches, unless you feel like adding some to it. (If you don’t want to draw something, you can paste in photos or cutouts from a magazine on certain pages.) Your approach to journaling can be minimalistic and entirely text-based if you want.

– You don’t need to make your journal worthy of an Instagram post, with fancy fonts and such, unless you really want to. Sometimes, people design their journal to make it look like a standard planner, which may interfere with its looser format and the more flexible way it’s meant to be used.

– Rather than being too cluttered, I’ve found the method of numbering pages and keeping a running table of contents (or index) helpful in finding what I need, including lists, notes, and fragments of fiction I’ve jotted down in between days.

– The instructions on the bullet journal website, linked to above, are a good starting point. As you use the journal, you can make modifications in how you organize or present the text in it (such as the way you highlight or prioritize certain tasks or set up weekly trackers). You can adapt its use to meet the specific demands of your life. It works well in tandem with other systems of organization, including project management software.

– I still find ways in which I can use the journal more effectively. This flexibility is one reason I like it.

Progress Washed Away During Lockdown

Along with the threat of the disease itself, one of the great challenges of the COVID-19 crisis is how it has washed away people’s progress in different areas.

– Savings eroded or gone.
– Businesses run to the ground.
– Carefully planned projects that need to be abandoned, maybe never to be picked up again.
– People who have just started to become healthier in some way, physically or mentally, only to find themselves slipping (or crashing).

One person I know who has social anxiety made some efforts in recent months to get out of the house more. She started attending meetings of some local groups that share her hobbies. Since the lockdown, she has been struggling in isolation, and the gains she made regarding her anxiety feel largely illusory, as if they happened to someone else.

(Although there are video tools for connecting with people, and these tools may be better than nothing, they aren’t a substitute for in-person interaction. I’ve found this to be the case myself. Also, video calls can be mentally draining – the Harvard Business Review offers some advice on how to deal with “Zoom fatigue.”)

To the heartbreak, frustration, or despair that may result from the COVID-19 crisis – including its social and financial effects – there are obviously no simple answers. It can be stressful enough if your daily schedule has changed or you had to cancel certain plans. But I’m thinking right now about people whose hold on the world may be made more fragile because of the crisis. People cut adrift, with relationships severed, major opportunities lost, and progress seemingly reversed.

One thing that may help (at least a little) is to provide yourself with written reminders – in a journal, for example – about who you are, what you have done, what you hope for, and how you promise to give yourself time to get through this day by day. When there’s a massive amount of stress in your life, it’s easy to lose sight of many things, to disregard yourself, and to forget your capabilities and potential. Your current emotions may be so terrible and overwhelming that you can’t think of how they’ll ever end, even though they won’t last forever. You may not be able to see how your current situation could ever improve, but you don’t have all the answers (even though discouragement or despair may offer you answers that seem definitive).

Reminding yourself of who you are can also help you remember the ways in which you’ve been healing and the ways you have met particular goals in the past. Even if you’re feeling lost now, you aren’t starting from absolutely nothing. You may be struggling with the types of problems that have dragged you down before, but you bring with you more wisdom from your previous experiences and some evidence of how things can improve – if not immediately, then one day. You’ve managed to do it before. Will it be harder the second (or third) time around? What will restarting look like? Are you trapped? Write down your thoughts, and keep your thoughts flexible. The answers may change over time. You don’t know for sure.

If you’re keeping a journal, and you don’t think you can write anything about yourself at the moment, then maybe just write today’s date. Then tomorrow’s date. Maybe a short line with each entry. I’ve done that on days when I didn’t think I could write more, and sometimes that’s how you mark the day and step forward into the next one.

Keeping a journal doesn’t put food on the table. It doesn’t magically restore a lost job or shattered career. But if it helps in any way – helps you fight off bouts of despair or cope with the feeling that your life is horribly unreal – it could be worth a try. In ways you aren’t able to picture clearly or even conceive of at the moment, you may be able to regain at least some of what you’ve lost or discover or create something new.

(It’s also worth mentioning that you can rant on paper if you need to. Some people sit for 10-15 minutes and write down their anxieties, their rage, their grief, and then tear the paper up into tiny bits and throw it away. This exercise could become an outlet for releasing some of what’s in you, removing and destroying it so it possibly has less of a hold on your mind.)

Coping With a Pandemic When You (Think You) Have No One

The COVID-19 crisis is marked by turmoil, grief, and anxiety for many people. Having others to rely on during this time can mean a world of difference in how you’re coping. But what if you’re alone? (Or truly feel yourself to be alone?)

There’s no one-size-fits-all advice for dealing with social isolation and related problems. Your age, health, job, and living arrangement are among the factors affecting what will work for you and what won’t. But I’m going to offer some potentially useful links here. If you have some suggestions of your own, please share.

The following links apply to people in the U.S., where I live. If you’re outside of the U.S., you can use these for ideas when looking for analogous services in your country.

What Does It Mean to Be a Warrior of the Increments?

In recent years, I’ve been encouraging myself to get into the mindset and habits of a Warrior of the Increments. (Putting it in caps makes it sound like an official title that’s going to stick, and I hope it does.) But what do I mean?

– A Warrior of the Increments places secondary importance on grand gestures and primary importance on the small tasks and day-to-day efforts that may not seem like much when looked at separately but that do amount to something much more over time.

– These smaller efforts help change bad habits and sustain better ones. They help you work towards goals and create conditions in which well-being, understanding, and success are more likely to be the outcomes.

– Generally, the most difficult battles you have in life are with spiritual inertia, self-destructive habits, the sluggishness of the mind, and the frailty of the body. Working on changes, bit by bit, is crucial.

– A Warrior of the Increments doesn’t think only in terms of all-or-nothing battles. Sometimes you are fighting alongside something, not merely against it. Other times, you’re settling down for diplomatic talks and negotiating a workable peace.

– A warrior of this kind is very much a “one foot in front of the other” type.