The Danger of a Single Story

In such times as today, people are often reduced to a single story. Perhaps you've heard a few of these:

"Mexicans are rapists"
"Muslims are terrorists"
"She deserved it, look what she was wearing"

I think you get the point.

We are living in a day of snap judgment - we hear one story about someone and suddenly we have a singular understanding of that person, or culture, or country. [Insert name here], the girl who got pregnant in high school. [Insert name here], the man who was caught with drugs. [Insert name here], the alcoholic. Or as Chimamanda Adichie explains - Africa, the poor, war-torn country(!). Many of us can list off several people or people groups in our lives like this. 

And think of yourself and what you've been through. I bet you can imagine what people might reduce you to. It may be based on your cultural background, your appearance, your education, your socioeconomic status, your race, your gender, your sexuality, your physical capabilities. I'd imagine you would agree that it is very painful to be reduced to a singular story based on these things. 

Watch the video below to hear Chimamanda Adichie explain the danger of a single story.

...when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.

As Chimamanda Adichie says, singular stories are painful. To see another person as a multi-storied individual is to bring forth paradise. I can think of many times where I was quickly judgmental about somebody based on what I have heard about them. Upon meeting them, my ideas radically shifted as I realized there was so much more to that person.

So ask yourself this:

Who are you reducing to a single story?
Who is reducing you to a single story?
How will you do your part to bring forth paradise today?

Be A Man

Dear Man,
What makes you a man?

Take a moment to think about this.

I am curious to know what you answered. Strength? Toughness? Provider? Protector? What are some other words you thought of? Did you think of any of these words: Kindness? Sensitivity? Listener? Intelligence?... Well if you did think of some of those words, I am surprised. 

We live in a society that praises hyper-masculinity.

hyper
prefix
1. above, over, or in excess

masculine
adjective
1. pertaining to or characteristic of a man or men
2. having qualities traditionally ascribed to men, as strength and boldness.

Early in life we are taught what is masculine and what is feminine. And we are taught that these are two distinctly different realms. Boys don't cry, they grow up to be big and strong, they will find a wife to provide for, and they will be the father that protects and defends their families. Is this a story you've heard before? Me too.

This story line is not a bad thing. In fact, some of those qualities and identities are wonderful! And perhaps if you are religious you get to add other things to that list. Depending on your cultural background, you will probably also be able to add more qualities as well. The story can be good, the identity can be good, and the qualities can be good. Unfortunately though, this story leaves a lot of people out. Men who don't identify as heterosexual, men who are small in stature, men who naturally possess nurturing qualities, men with limited abilities to provide for their family, men who have been systematically oppressed, etc. My question is this:

Did you choose this story for yourself?

If you're being honest with yourself, do you really feel like you get to choose what it means to be a man? If you think really hard, I bet you can remember an instance when you were called a "sissy" for being nice to someone else. Maybe you remember a similar instance in which you were shamed for helping someone, for loving your mother, for wanting to stay at home with the children, for being attracted to another man, for being an artist... Any of these strike a chord for you?

The reality is that the age old stories we hear about what it means to be a man limit men to a very small and singular identity. In my time as a counselor (and really just as a human) I have noticed hyper-masculinity limit men emotionally, physically, and spiritually.

Emotional Limitations

man-person-school-head.jpg

In my counseling experience, I have seen many men from many different cultural backgrounds who have endured wild trauma. I mean fleeing war-torn areas, watching their parents die in the street, being shot at, enduring violent torture from police in their home country, and the list goes on. I think most people would agree that these events are horrific and warrant a serious emotional reaction. I watch as these men who have suffered immensely fight tears and explain that displaying emotion is a sign of weakness. I often wonder how isolating this must be.

Chris Hoff, Ph.D, LMFT shared that in his work he attempts to "flip the script that showing no emotion is strength, and...by helping men to measure themselves against the idea that emotional risk taking is courageous" (Source). This is a radical idea that goes against that typical storyline men are taught to follow. 

Is the story that society writes for us enough for you? Is it enough for you to fit into a rather small box of expectations about who you are to be as a man? Are you suppressing qualities that you have because it doesn't fit the script?

Physical Limitations

While it might be easier to change the storyline for men emotionally, physical change can but much more challenging. "Big and strong" is the goal for many men. Toy stores are lined with super-hero gear, wrestling figurines, and other toys that represent masculinity as uber-macho-muscle-mongers. We praise young boys' strength as top priority.

This facet of masculinity excludes many people. Men born with various disabilities that limit their ability to become "big and strong" are automatically excluded from this physical storyline of masculinity. Men who are small in stature are excluded. Men who have no interest in pursuing physical strength are excluded. Feeling excluded out of an entire identity group that you are supposed to fit into is painful. For many of my male clients, this pain leads to social anxiety. Imagine walking into a room (let's say a gym, for now), and it seems that every single person looks different than you. And it's truly not the different-ness that makes you insecure, because being different in and of itself isn't good or bad. But the pain comes from the idea that all of the people in that room live up to manliness, and because you appear different, society does not value you as manly. Example: A man considered "scrawny" enters into a gym full of men who are larger, taller, and more muscular. The slender man surveys the room and decides this is not a box that I fit in and he leavesThe anxiety rushes in from this brief interaction. The decision is made: I don't belong at the gym, so I will not be going. I am not manly, I can never live up to that standard. Of course this is an example playing on a very stereotypical definition of physical masculinity, but the point is that feeling like you cannot fit into a set of rules for masculinity can breed anxiety, depression, and pain.

*I would like to note as well that this is not a problem for just men and masculinity. This is an experience that spans across race, gender, sexuality, ability, age, ethnicity, etc. Not feeling like you fit in a box that society deems valuable is a painful experience, and for some this happens much more often than for others due to systematic oppression. 

Spiritual Limitations

It is no secret that many religions have historically placed men and women in specific roles, and completely excluded those who identify as anything other than cis or heterosexual.

These roles, particularly in Western culture, have dictated women to raise children and men to provide financially. But what happens when a man is incredibly gifted with the ability and desire to nurture children, or the woman has developed a sharp business acumen? Many times, men and women have to ignore their talents and desires in order to fit in these boxes created by religions and culture. For those who are generally spiritual, this occurs with basic scripts for masculinity that typically align with religion anyway (i.e. man as financial provider). When somebody feels compelled to ignore their natural and cultivated gifting, they can begin to feel incredibly depressed. Feeling forced to ignore something that is deeply important to you in order to be valued by society or culture is a painful experience. And that is why hyper-masculine ideas can certainly cause men to feel depressed, unfulfilled, and misunderstood.

Ultimately, the purpose of this post comes down to this question:

Are you writing your own story?

Or are you letting somebody else write your story? Does hyper-masculinity work for you? Or is it leading to anxiety, depression, fear, pain? Do you feel free to write your own story, or do you feel that you've been trying to live up to impossible standards of masculinity that society defines? If you're tired and lost on this topic, it might be time to start exploring what this means to you.

If you need support, please feel free to contact me.

3 Questions For A Better Tomorrow

We all feel down from time to time.
Maybe it's anxiety, depression, stress, a memory you can't shake.
Maybe you're in a bad relationship, or in a good relationship and waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Maybe current events have you disappointed and feeling absolutely confused. 
Maybe you're overwhelmed and paralyzed by fear.

Maybe it's all of the above.

Well, I want to share a tool with you that can help you start thinking about how to feel better now. It's called "The Miracle Question" (source).

The Miracle Question

After you read this blog. You are going to resume your day as usual. Eventually you'll find your way to bed and fall asleep.  As you're sleeping tonight, imagine a total miracle happened. What if your problem completely disappeared. The stress of it, gone. The anxiety, vanished. And all other pieces of this problem were nowhere to be found. Imagine this for a moment.

Now imagine that you woke up the tomorrow morning (your problem still gone). 

How would you know that the problem has disappeared? What would be the first thing you notice about how you feel? 

Give yourself a moment to think about this.

Okay, now that you have your answer. Here is your second question:

What is the very first thing you would you do differently than today?

Would you talk to somebody differently? Would you stop for coffee on your way to work? Would you make an appointment you've been putting off? What would you do differently if the problem was completely gone? Now take a second to think about this as well. Imagine yourself doing it if you would like.

One more question:

Are you capable of doing this tomorrow?

Now that you've imagined yourself waking up and realizing the problem was gone, and imagined the very first thing you would do differently; is there anything that is stopping you from trying it tomorrow?

Before you write this off as psychobabble (hey, most of the time I don't blame you!), take a second and consider that changing just one thing about your day tomorrow may have the power to adjust the entire day. This is a technique many therapists and counselors use, and a great group of questions to keep on hand when you feel like you just can't go on.

I understand that some of our problems may seem completely out of our control, but if you allow yourself to have power over just one small piece of your day you might notice a difference.

And hey, you never know until you try... right?

Recognizing Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse can be understood as abuse done to another person's spirit. This can take many forms - It can mimic emotional abuse if you feel another is intentionally attempting to "break your spirit". It can be found in large religious organizations or in small cult gatherings. It can be seen in parent-child relationships, romantic relationships, siblings relationships, and friendships.

Spiritual abuse is fairly insidious and hard to recognize, so let me share some examples. I once sat in a religious service where I experienced doubt about what was being preached. I began to critically think about what was being taught: "Hmm, well I disagree with that. I think it's more like this. Actually, maybe I don't believe in that at all..." A few seconds into my thoughts, the speaker said, "And to those who have doubts about this truth, that is due to evilness in this world". Oh my word, he was speaking directly to me. Did he hear my thoughts?! Immediately I drowned out my own voice that was helping me think critically and thought, "Oh, no wonder I am doubting... it's because I am being manipulated by something evil". Now, in this situation I was not intentionally being abused by another person - but I did feel oppressed by this. Let me breakdown why this was problematic for me:

  1. I lost my own voice in exchange for listening to something that I didn't agree with in the first place. 
  2. I unintentionally labeled my own thoughts as "evil".
  3. I gave up my ability to critically think, something I am generally proud of.
  4. I relinquished power and my own understanding of "the truth" and lent power to somebody I have never personally met.

Looking back into my younger years, I see many ways in which I followed blindly. In fact, those four problems I listed were more like a way of life. I lost all of my personal agency, and my ability to critically and creatively think. I was shamed for my emotions and how I expressed them. I was inappropriately confronted about my clothing choices. I was once publicly shamed for being in a relationship (and by publicly I mean in front of 200+ people). In all, I was made to feel that if I did not fit into a certain role then I was not good enough.

But don't get me wrong - I made many friends, studied intensely, and tried my hardest to live a moral life. These are not bad things in and of themselves. I am proud of many of the choices that I had the power to make and I believe that I carried many wonderful bits of wisdom into my adult life. In fact, I think this is a good point to draw a line between what is spiritual abuse and what is spiritual health. (Spiritual health refers to your own choice to join a religious or spiritual affiliation, or engage in a relationship where both adhere to a certain spirituality, and when that is a positive and honoring experience).

Spiritual Abuse: Shames or shuns you for thinking differently.
Spiritual Health: Meets you with patience and acceptance for thinking differently.

Spiritual Abuse: Tells you that a part of your identity is less or more valuable than someone else (i.e. gender, ethnicity), and forces you into a certain role.
Spiritual Health: Accepts you for all parts of your identity and encourages your freedom to choose your role.

Spiritual Abuse: Uses exclusive language (we are good, they are bad)
Spiritual Health: Uses inclusive language (we all make mistakes, we accept everyone)

Spiritual Abuse: Denies failure or error that may have affected you and is unwilling to change (especially in leadership).
Spiritual Health: Admits failure or error that may have affected you and commits to change (especially in leadership).

Spiritual Abuse: Makes you feel voiceless to the extent that you are embarrassed or fearful to share your needs or opinions.
Spiritual Health: Empowers your voice even though you are embarrassed or fearful to share your needs or opinions.

Spiritual Abuse: Is okay with humiliating you to prove a point, to teach others, or to teach you a lesson.
Spiritual Health: Teaches lessons without humiliating others and seeks to protect others in the process of teaching.

Spiritual Abuse: Informs you that there are a few chosen people to interpret religious texts or messages (this looks more like vertical leadership and power at the top for the chosen few).
Spiritual Health: Informs you that all people play a role in interpreting religious texts or messages (this looks more like horizontal leadership and power dispersed among all).

I wanted to lay out some differences here to demonstrate that this is not a cynical review of religion and spirituality; that there are ways to be a part of a religious/spiritual experience without having to be forced to conform. With these examples, it is easy to see this play out in religious organizations and cults, right? But these differences are also true for interpersonal relationships as well.

Let me share another example. Years ago I was in a relationship in which my partner told me that I had to "submit" because that is what our religious text said. When I attempted to disagree, he would respond with, "Submit, submit, submit..." until I stopped speaking. Again, I had lost my voice in this situation. I was taught that I did not have equal power, that my voice was less valuable, and I was not encouraged to have differing opinions than "the truth". 

For some, spiritual abuse can be much more severe - being forced to look or dress a certain way, being told what to say (or not say), be coerced into relationships with certain people, etc. Maybe it is being forced to attend a religious gathering that you prefer not to be a part of.

A good question to ask yourself is this: Am I powerless, and can I make my own decisions? If the answer is no, then it might be a good time to start digging deep for the ways in which you feel powerless. And let me tell you - this is a difficult journey. There are many ways to gain support, and here are some steps you can take if you recognize that spiritual abuse is a reality for you:

  1. Do you have a close friend or family member you can confide in? Somebody who accepts you, is patient with you, and loves you? Perhaps somebody removed from the situation.
  2. Contact a counselor or therapist who has experience in this area.
  3. Keep record of your own voice. By this I mean you can journal your thoughts, explore your identity, look deep into your own beliefs, and find a way to keep your voice alive. What might work for you to find value and importance in your own voice and thoughts?
  4. If you are in a violent relationship where this is happening, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit their website at http://www.thehotline.org/ .

Religious groups and relationships are not inherently bad if you have the freedom to make decisions for yourself. It becomes more abusive and oppressive when you are stripped of your rights to be exactly who you want to be. Considering yourself religious or spiritual has several benefits according to emerging psychology studies. In fact, "many groups dealing with major life stressors such as natural disasters, illness, loss of loved ones, divorce and serious mental illness show that religion and spirituality are generally helpful to people in coping, especially people with the fewest resources facing the most uncontrollable of problems" (Source). The purpose of this post is not to bash on religious organizations or relationships that follow a set of religious instructions. The purpose of this post is to help you recognize spiritual abuse, and offer practical next steps to seek support.

If you are in the Seattle area and would like to discuss this with a counselor, please feel free to contact me by phone at 206.929.2738 or email at mackenzi@restorationcounselingseattle.com. To learn more information, please fill out the form here.

...And a Happ[ier] New Year!

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It's right around the corner, 2017 is coming up fast and I think many of us are ready for it! I've seen many posts on social media about how challenging 2016 was for some, and I think on several levels we can all relate. For some 2016 was full of heartbreak, travel, losses, new family members, new friends, anxiety, depression, parenthood, fears, solutions, problems, etc. Let's just say it was a wild year. On a collective level, I think we all hope for a better 2017.

 

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New Years Resolutions are often the way in which many seek to start something over that they feel they failed on in the previous year - exercise, drinking more water, making more friends, waking up early... The intentions are great, the execution of the resolution... not so much. Perhaps it is time we start reframing what a "resolution" is.

As I reflected on the word "resolution", I naturally came to the word "resolve" and then I though what a funny idea... "What problem will I resolve in the New Year?" And then I felt a huge burden - Wow. Where do I start?! We enter into a new year with the intention to fix something that is broken, and the reality is that we may have many broken things in our lives. In another blog I wrote, I discussed the idea of reframing how we view the problems we face. So what if we try to reframe this idea of a New Years Resolution? What if we focus on New Years Gratitude? New Years Attitude? New Years Addition? New Years Freedom? Might this help us actually keep our "resolutions" if we could just reframe them? I don't know about you, but the pressure to fix my problems from 2016 seems exhausting! I would much rather attempt something new, free myself of something old, or simply practice thankfulness for what I already have in life. Restoration Counseling's newsletter will focus on 12 tips for a happier new year over the next few months. It will offer fresh ideas backed with scientific information about why these ideas may actually enhance your New Year. Some of the ideas may naturally "fix" your 2016 problems, and some may not - but if it's something new, it's worth a shot right? If you're interested, sign up for the mailing list to receive your first free tip on a Happ[ier] New Year and we'll embark on this journey together!