Unintended Consequences

When I was a growing up, I did some pretty stupid things. Childish things. Behaviours that came from a place of immaturity, emotional hijack, or just plain establish-my-independence rebellion. And, I survived them all. Most Marvelous Parents also survived this process, eventually sending me out into the world with the confidence that I would likely continue to morph into a mature, tax-paying adult (and who would eventually produce their just reward of grandchildren).

What my parents did not do was abuse their position of power and trust to shame me for childish behaviour. Discipline, yes. Shame, no. In our family, the consequences were generally relevant to the ‘behaviour,’ and on those rare occasions when outright rebellion was a factor, a trip behind the woodshed was sometimes undertaken. Not once, ever, did either of my parents treat me as if I were the sum of my childish, immature choices. Consequently, I am quite able, as an adult, to separate my behaviour from my sense of self. My perspective is that I, like others, have a mix of strengths and weaknesses, cognitive biases, and emotional imperfections which influence my choices and behaviours on any given day or circumstance. Sometimes I get it together, and peace and harmony is the result. Sometimes, I lose the plot, and conflict and chaos result. But in either situation, I have an inherent understanding that I – the person who is me – is not defined by either good or bad behaviour.

So…. enter the trending meme on social media these days. Child shaming.

Some father posted a picture of his 3 year old with a sign shaming her for a behaviour that is, well, pretty much normal for 3 year olds. Furthermore, whatever “lesson” that father was intending to convey to his daughter, missed the mark. Posting her photo on the Internet with a sign she can’t even read pretty much guarantees that someone will produce that same photo at her wedding. I’d call that the ultimate in humiliation – and she won’t even experience it until long after the incident that produced her father’s reaction.

A mother in Florida this past week forced her 12 year old son to walk up and down the street wearing a sign telling the world that he’d been disrespectful to his teacher. According to the report, the mom had made no effort to have her son speak to, and/or apologize to the teacher. Instead, she made him an object of ridicule to his peers (who, at 12 years old were quite ready to take advantage of the situation), and instead, chose to shame him. This hitherto ordinary 12 year old living his quiet life in his suburban neighbourhood is now humiliated globally. And he IS old enough to experience the full emotional impact of his mother’s abuse of power.

What message is conveyed to that 3 year old girl or that 12 year old boy? That they should never do/say that particular thing again? I don’t think so. The message that those children, (and any other children who experience such abuse at the hands of someone who is supposed to love them, protect them, cherish them, and caretake them into adulthood) are getting is one much more fundamental. It’s not about the behaviour, it’s a deeply wounding, traumatic perspective of self as flawed in ways they are helpless to change. This is who I am. Bad. Shameful. Flawed. Humiliated.

That this message is being perpetrated by the very person who is supposed to help filter those messages from the wider world is a betrayal of epic proportions. And for some children, an almost unrecoverable wounding. And now, thanks to the ability to post pictures on social media, the whole world unwittingly participates in the shaming and degradation of a child doing what children do.

Dr Steven Brownlow (@sgbrownlow – definitely worth following) tweeted recently, “Shame leads to secrecy, sneakiness, and manipulative behavior. Humiliation leads to violence.”  Marshal McLuhan, in his excellent essays predicting the cost that technology would have in our lives said,  “Violence as a form of quest for identity is one thing the people who have been ripped off feel the need of.” (Forward Through the Rearview Mirror – Reflections on and by Marshal McLuhan; Prentice-Hall; 1996)

Mr. McLuhan proposed in The Medium is the Message that refusing to acknowledge the paramount role any medium plays in shaping the end result, we are in danger of missing the real message. We are not really known through social media despite the vast number of friends/likes/followers we may have in cyberspace. This, paradoxically, creates a sense of anonymity, which when combined with shame and humiliation, often equals violence. McLuhan again;

This meaningless slaying around our streets is the work of people who have lost all identity and who have to kill in order to know if they’re real of if the other guy’s real. I suppose that one could even produce a theory of war to say that when a certain amount of technological change happens very quickly to a whole community, they are so lost about who they are that they want a basic war to find out.

The concept of relationship as created by social media has a dark side. In interacting with my Tweeps through the medium of cyberspace, the illusion is created emotionally and psychologically, that I have ‘relationships.’ And I do. Sort of. But this relationship is enacted through the medium of the laptop/computer/iPad/device that I control. The form of relationship facilitated by the box in front of me is but a shadow of the possibilities inherent in personal, face-to-face interaction. But of course, in that personal interaction, I lose control of the situation, having only the power to manage myself, not the other. In front of my computer, I manage not only myself but I control others. Don’t want to engage with so-and-so? Delete. Don’t like what @ABC123 said on his blog? Flame him under an “Anonymous” tag. Feeling mean and cranky?

Use my secret avatar and randomly troll members in my regular forum. Try those things in a  face-to-face relationship and there would be real-time, real world consequences.

Mr. McLuhan was speculating about the changes technology would bring …in the 1960s. He wasn’t necessarily right in all he thought or predicted, but there is much about his speculations and philosophy that is worth considering in the light of our reality in 2013.

If the medium truly IS the message (and I believe it is) these parents are perpetrating a form of emotional and psychological abuse on their children that will rival anything anyone could ever do to them physically. I cringe for those children and their families, and I wonder where this trend of shaming children will take us as a global village. Can’t be anywhere good.

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Internet Wilderness Guide

French AlpsThe geography of the internet is a lot like the wilderness – wild, mostly inhospitable for humans and subject to volatile weather. The wind can be gentle and then all at once bring a fierce storm which threatens your life. The sun can be warm and invigorating or suddenly a scorching torment. One can find a diverse sampling of everything and it is often hard to tell what is safe to consume or is dangerous to your health. We need a shelter from cyberspace sometimes. A safe place from the raw elements which can threaten our health and sanity. The world wide web is an interesting place to visit but not a great place to live without some all-weather gear for protection from the elements.

I have travelled through and worked in the Arctic, the Rocky Mountains, the Kenyan jungle, several Arabian deserts, the French Pyrenees, the Mexican Andes, and skirted the Himalayas in India. In the wilderness, you wear protective clothing to shield you from the harsh weather, use a compass or GPS to keep your bearings, and you try not to stay too long.

For me, in the virtual wilderness, my protective clothing is discretion about the level of personal exposure I allow; keeping my bearings by remembering who I am is not defined by what people think of me; nurturing my relationships with those I trust and …choosing not to stay too long.

Bill in FranceOn the internet we can get a lot of feedback but it is usually an opinion of what was said and not a reflection (and who hasn’t been flamed?). This can be painful and confusing. Sometimes, it’s just better to talk to a real person. One who is not volatile or unpredictable and who has the compassion to hear what I’m saying. When a good listener uses reflective listening I get to hear what I’m thinking, instead of what everyone else thinks and it is much easier and safer to make sense of what is going on inside me. Then I can figure out what needs to change.

You might also be interested in:

Parents’ guide to Internet Safety

Snopes – all about separating the truth from the rumors

The Bald Truth

Good advice beautifully presented

Nearly everyone has resolutions for the New Year (including me), and others have advice, some of it is even worth considering. The new year, marked by more-or-less wild celebrations of the ending of the old year, causes one to think naturally in terms of stopping and starting. Most New Year’s resolutions consist of “I will stop X-Y-Z” or “I will start A-B-C.” Sometimes, we’re ready for this mental, emotional, and physical shift, and the resolution “sticks.”

A group of my friends decided together that as they neared the big 5-0 they needed to be healthier and so all embarked on a spizz-me-up routine in January 2012. This year, they celebrated New Year’s as a group, still dedicated to their resolution, and having lost a whopping 800 pounds collectively, and run/walked/jogged the equivalent of driving from here to Bulgaria. They are justifiably proud of themselves, and even as the group undergoes changes with members leaving for other countries, an unexpected pregnancy, and other of life’s curve balls, all of them feel like the success they’ve enjoyed will give them the mindful incentive to continue to seek and maintain optimum health.

One of the group members sheepishly admitted during the review of the year to having no hope that she could stick to her resolution since she made it “because everyone else was.” Not that she didn’t want it herself. She did. She just didn’t have any hope, after years of unsuccessfully resolving to ‘do better, be better’ blah, blah, blah, that this year would be any more successful.

She had reckoned without the positive side of peer pressure. The support of her fellow groupies, their encouragement when she didn’t meet her goal for the week, and their enthusiasm when she did, made a difference for her that translated into the internal motivation to keep going.

Birds of a Feather
Birds of a Feather

So it will be this year for anyone who’s made resolutions which require motivation, character, strength of will, and denial of the indulgent side of self. We humans are not meant to live in bubbles, on islands, or on our own in caves. We’re groupies at heart. When my girls were teens, we had an ongoing joke in our house about adolescents being gregarious; “…living in herds and flocks.” But this is true of all humanity along a continuum, and sometimes, the only way to manage to do what needs to be done for ourselves is to ask others to help us.

Maybe your resolution for 2013 might be something like, “I resolve to get connected to others in ways that support my needs, and allow me to support the needs of others.”

Maybe. Because the truth is, there really isn’t very much that we individuals actually accomplish completely on our own. And it’s alright to be okay with that.

Infamy Forever

Newtown MapIn the aftermath of the Newtown CT tragedy, there were all sorts of posts, tweets, blogs, op-ed pieces, articles, and soundbytes about everything from the cause, to who/what was to blame for Adam Lanza’s meltdown, to the government’s responsibility “in all this.”

Probably the most disturbing response I read was “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” A blog post written by Liza Long that detailed her struggles with her mentally ill son, it went viral. The content is poignant, disturbing, and real.

Too real.

Ms. Long blogged under her own name and made only the feeblest attempt to disguise her son’s identity – she changed his name. She then used his real photo, and made no attempt to disguise any other details which would pinpoint her son as the subject of the blog.

What was she thinking?! If her son didn’t already feel ostracized, strange, and marginalized by his mental health issues, he will certainly feel all of those things… and more now.

Early in my blogging history, before I really understood the implications of writing for the Anonymous Whole (pun intended) and how whatever I wrote was “out there” forever, I posted an entry on my new blog that contained a case study. I believed I was careful with privacy and confidentiality, changing the client’s name, age, and gender. However, a much more experienced blogger (and fellow professional) contacted me right after the post went live.

“What are you doing?” she asked tartly. “What if your client reads your post? Do you think you’ve done enough to ensure that s/he isn’t going to recognize him/herself?”

“I think so,” I responded. “I was careful not to breach confidentiality.”

“You quote your client! If those are his/her actual words, you don’t think there’ll be some recognition there?” she asked.

Ah. Lightbulb moment. I hadn’t actually used the client’s exact words, but was close enough in relaying my point through dialogue that if my former client should happen on that particular post, s/he would have at least wondered if I were talking about his/her therapy process.

Oops. Post was removed, retooled, and reposted, with the approval beforehand of my much more experienced colleague. It was live for less than 12 hours. I sincerely hope that my former client didn’t see the original version.

Liza Long has done the same thing to her son. She is his mother and the ipso facto keeper of his shame, triumphs, joys, failures, successes, and to a great degree, the primary influence on his sense of self. No matter where he goes now and in the future, he is marked in ways he was not before the post went viral.

The struggles to parent her son are real, and Ms Long is as deserving of the support of the community, the resources available, and the validation so vital in situations like this. But she is NOT entitled to those things at the expense of the wellbeing of her son. Her breach of confidentiality is astonishing and the degree of betrayal her son may feel is unlikely to diminish with time – since his mother has connected the reality of his own mental illness with the perpetrator of one of the worst mass shootings in US history.

Another, excellent response can be found here, which inspired this blog post. I fear Liza Long’s ’15 minutes of fame’ may have long term negative consequences for her, her son, and their family – now forever connected with the Newtown CT tragedy.

Professional Resolutions – 2013

ImageEvery year people the world over make personal resolutions hoping for a better year than the one recently deceased. Sometimes they actually keep them. Generally though, research shows that New Year’s resolutions don’t even last to the end of January.

One year my brother sent out a list of resolutions which he felt he could reasonably be expected to keep – he planned to “…continue doing what I’ve been doing, good and bad, and add a dash of something new.” Compared to my list that year (lose weight, relax more, take up a hobby) I thought he had a pretty good chance of outlasting my good intentions.

This year, I have eschewed personal resolutions. I’ve already been working on wellness renovations over the past year and plan to continue with mindfully pursuing a sustainable, enjoyable lifestyle with optimum health, so I thought I’d consider some professional resolutions this year.

1. I resolve to extend to my fellow professionals and colleagues the same unconditional positive regard I choose to offer my clients. When one of them disagrees with me, I will choose to assume it’s because they have a perspective that is neither foolish, unethical, nor intemperate but as reasoned and well-considered as I believe my perspective to be.

2. I resolve to be mindful of the limitations of social media and communicating in print. Consequently, I will attribute the best possible/most benevolent meaning to comments or opinions in discussions, threads, and forums in which I participate and respond from that place.

3. I resolve to learn something new, outside my current body of knowledge, from a professional within my social media sphere. I mean really learn – by engaging with that expert in multiple ways in order to truly embrace something I don’t currently know or practice.

4. I resolve to stop thinking of selfcare as a “reward” for overwork. I choose this year to mindfully incorporate caring for my own body, soul, and spirit in ways which allow me to be wholly present for the broken, wounded, and searching people who may become my clients.

5. I resolve to speak up with dignity and resolve when things about my beloved profession are not good. It will no longer be enough to simply not do those things which are damaging or disrespectful to others and call the practice of people-helping into disrepute. I will speak up – respectfully and firmly.

That’s enough. Actually it’s a lot, and I hope when I look back a year from now I will be able to say with some truth that I managed to fulfill this year’s resolutions in a way which made my relationships with my fellow professionals and the practice of psychology,  just a little better.

May 2013 be all that you work for and more than you imagine. Peace and quietness to you and yours in this New Year.