Category Archives: Personal Reflections

The White Privilege Piece for the Montana Psychological Association

Michael Smerconish did a feature on White Privilege today on CNN. It was excellent and reminded me of this piece I’d written on White Privilege about 4 years ago. Check it out if you like this sort of thing.

A White, Male Psychologist Reflects on White Privilege

I’m a white male writing about white privilege. This irony makes the task all the more challenging.

Gyda Swaney asked if I would write this piece. This brings me mixed feelings. I am honored. I met Gyda in 1981 and I like and respect her as a person and as a Native American leader in Montana. But the fact that she thinks I might have something useful to say to psychologists about white privilege is humbling. Rarely have I been asked to write about something I know so well and understand so little.

On Invisibility

The challenge begins with the definition. White privilege is defined as an “invisible package of unearned assets” (see McIntosh, 1988 or 2001 for more on this).

As a white, male, psychologist, and university professor, I’m pretty much a white privilege poster boy. Consequently, white privilege, by definition, is generally invisible to me . . . although I do occasionally glimpse it from the corner of my eye or notice its shadow if I sneak up on it when it’s not looking. In fact I think I just saw it – as evidenced by my certainty that I can write a sentence as silly as this last one and get it published in the Montana Psych Association Newsletter.

Like most things invisible (think UFOs, Harry Potter with his invisibility cloak on, ghosts) white privilege is problematic and controversial. This is because white privilege is not always invisible; it’s selectively invisible. It’s obvious to many (e.g., oppressed minorities), but beyond the awareness of those who are busily experiencing the luxury of their unearned assets.

Common Responses to White Privilege

This brings up what may be the most fascinating and disturbing component of white privilege: When the idea of white privilege is brought to the attention of those to whom it’s invisible, it typically evokes a response of defensiveness combined with anger, hostility, outrage, and occasionally guilt. And as we know from our work in psychology, dealing with people who are feeling angry, hostile, outraged, and guilty is very difficult.

There’s something about white privilege that has the potential to make everyone angry.

Personal Reflections

Although White privilege precedes me and I hold no responsibility for its origins, I was born into it and have lived with it every day for nearly 55 years. Even my birth, characterized by greater-than-equal access to healthcare, is an example of my white privilege.

Maybe that’s a phrase that captures much of the white privilege experience—greater-than-equal. My whiteness and the whiteness of most Montana psychologists affords us greater-than-equal treatment, greater-than-equal power, greater-than-equal access, and greater-than-equal perceptions of ourselves. But privilege is complicated . . . and so it’s possible that we also have a greater-than-equal means of denying our privilege.

Privilege grows in complexity when we look at all the different factors that contribute to a more privileged status in one person and a less privileged status in others. My wife consistently reminds me of my male privileged status and although I’m inclined to deny this along with my white privilege, I know better. I was born male and being born male is like being dealt an ace as your first card in a round of Texas Hold-Em. In most cultures it’s clear that to be male is to be superior. That’s the case even though, as most males know, being handed an expectation of superiority isn’t always comfortable or easy. Paradoxically or dialectically, being a white male cuts both ways and isn’t only an unearned asset or gift, it’s also an unearned burden. It’s a burden like having to carry too many gold coins and diamonds to the bank. The weight of gold hurts your back and the diamonds cut your hands, but it’s ridiculous to complain about the fact that you have to carry a treasure to the bank.

Solutions

There are no easy ways to make white privilege quickly materialize and become visible. The resistance and pain associated with being told: “You’ve got unearned assets” is natural, partly because most people hold the perception that they’ve worked very hard to get what they deserve. Here’s a short list of ideas:

  • Teaching and learning about Peggy McIntosh’s Invisible Knapsack is a good place to start. One of the items from her knapsack is:

“I can swear, or dress in secondhand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, poverty, or illiteracy of my race.”

  • Damn. That’s a nice privilege.
  • Teaching and learning about white privilege can be dangerous and so courage is another important factor in dealing with white privilege. Boatright-Horowitz and Soeung (2009) titled their commentary in the American Psychologist, “Teaching White Privilege to White Students Can Mean Saying Good-bye to Positive Student Evaluations.” When I recently posted about white privilege on my blog, I received one response that was so rabidly irrational it was frightening. Speaking out against the status quo always risks blowback.
  • A big part of the solution is to stop clinging to ideas about white superiority and instead, openly embrace and value the lessons we learn from other cultures. We should actively seek out other cultural perspectives. That isn’t about making the other culture better than ours . . . it just places it on the same, equal cultural footing where it belongs.
  • It’s also important to work on calming our anxiety over displacement from the top of the economic and power pyramid. We all get displaced someday; denying reality is dysfunctional. Actively sharing power along with values of egalitarian personal and community relationships is functional. This is part of the very important personal and communal work we need to do.

In closing, I’m painfully aware that I write this short column from a position of unearned privilege in a cabin on former Crow country on the beautiful Stillwater River; thank you Gyda Swaney, for handing me this challenge and opportunity.

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

John Sommers-Flanagan (Ph.D., 1986, University of Montana) is a clinical psychologist and counselor educator at the University of Montana. His blogsite, featuring material on counseling, psychotherapy, and parenting is at: johnsommersflanagan.com.

Introductions and Full Disclosure (at least in part)

When people ask me what I do for work, I often tell them I have the best job in the world; then I describe it to them: “Every spring our faculty intensely screens a group of about 50 applicants to our graduate programs in counseling down to about 20 students who are admitted. And then I have the summer off. And then the new group of students show up in the fall and they’re all smart and kind and compassionate and because they’re graduate students, they’re motivated and focused and they want to attend class and become the best darn counselors they can become. And then, when I have them in class I’m with this group of incredibly socially skilled and sensitive, nice people and they make eye contact, nod their heads, act like they’re listening to me, and laugh at my jokes and stories.” Pretty much after I describe this scenario whoever asked me the question has either walked away or has crumpled into a heap on the floor racked with pain and jealousy.

This past Friday I got to teach my first full-day class with our new students. And just like Mary Poppins, they were practically perfect in every way.

Students in our graduate programs school and mental health counseling have a plethora of opportunities to engage in role-plays. As you may guess, these opportunities may or may not be met with great enthusiasm. More often than not we suggest to our students that they think of a minor problem in their lives, exercise censorship, and actually play themselves in these role-play encounters. This is totally fun . . . at least for the faculty.

Because we ask so much from our students—we expect them to “bring it” every hour of every class—at the beginning we offer our first year graduate students an activity where they can come to the front of the room as ask faculty members any question they’d like. This is totally fun . . . at least for the students.

On Friday, I had the added joy of listening as our two newest faculty members, Dr. Kirsten Murray and Dr. Lindsey Nichols, got quizzed by the new students. It was fabulous. I was filled with pride and happiness over having colleagues who are amazing and cool. Then it was my turn.

Somehow, the very first question turned into an awkward explanation of my professional status. I’m pretty old and I’ve answered a gazillion student questions about myself over the years, but I still felt the inner warmth, the sudden presence of sweat on my skin, and that funny feeling of hearing my own voice from a distance (totally fun!).

The problem is that I’m trained as a clinical psychologist and I teach in a counselor education program. To some people, this is like blasphemy. It’s like I was born in the country of clinical psychology and immigrated to the country of counselor education. At some tiny level, I sense how it might feel to be in the marginalized category of acculturation. Sometimes, under stress, I start speaking the language of clinical psychology (one time at an editorial board meeting of the Journal of Counseling and Development I accidentally said “A-P-A” instead of “A-C-A” and thought for sure I might be stoned; but everyone acted like they didn’t notice; of course, they also acted like they didn’t notice me after the meeting—or maybe I was just imagining that and isolating myself?).

I love my country of origin—the country of clinical psychology. I could talk about Rorschach cards and what it means for me to have a spike 5 and subclinical 6-9 profile on my MMPI for days. Studying psychopathology was like the coolest thing ever.

But I also love the country I’ve immigrated to. I have pleasant flashbacks of my first ACA conference back in 1992 when I volunteered to participate in a group counseling demonstration with Jerry and Marianne Corey. They were fabulous and I was hooked. I still like going to APA conferences, but for me, ACA conferences are a little less anal and a little more fun. I mean like one time I got my photo taken with William Glasser and last year I got it taken with Robert Wubbolding. They’re starting to think of me like a Reality Therapy groupie. What’s not cool about that?

The problem is that some members of ACA and APA don’t really like each other all that well. And neither of them really like the NASW or that evil “other” APA. The turf issues around professional discipline strike me as silly and overdone. I’m pretty sure that at this point I’m completely unemployable as an academic anywhere but the University of Montana. Psychology departments wouldn’t touch me because of my counseling cooties and Counseling departments now have to abide by a rule where they can’t hire anyone who doesn’t have a doctorate in counselor education. This would be pretty funny stuff if it weren’t so ridiculous. Psychologists want prescription privileges, Counselors want to do psychological evaluations, Social Workers want to do everything and anything, and yet, in many ways, we’re all more alike than we are different. I’ve got no solutions here . . . just observations.

And so in the beginning I experienced only a mild dissociative episode as I squeezed out my full disclosure—admitting before God and the class and my fellow professors that I am, in fact, BOTH a clinical psychologist AND a counselor educator. And in the end, it felt good. We had more discussions and questions later and no one (at least while I was looking) made the sign of the cross and shrunk away. I was just part of an amazing group of people who want to help other people live happier and more fulfilling lives. It could have been a group of students studying psychology or social work or counseling or maybe even all three at once . . . . It was really very nice.

John Dancing at a Wedding Reception

 

Teaching Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories: Reflections on Week 1

Teaching Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories – Week 1

This past Monday evening in Missoula, Montana I met with my 80+ counseling and psychotherapy theories students for our first 3-hour class of the semester. Some student might have thought they’d get out early on the first day of the semester . . . but such was not the case. We had a nice evening together (my opinion). Although it was smoky outside (too many forest fires nearby) in the classroom the air was clear and the thinking sharp. Every year it feels humbling when I meet a new group of students in the fall and recognize their dedication and intelligence, not to mention the compassion for and interest in helping others that’s an intrinsic requirement of taking a class that’s all about counseling and psychotherapy theories and practice.

This group was especially generous – laughing heartily at my stories and gently confronting me when I misspoke and suggested I might spontaneously lie to protect my client’s confidentiality. One of my favorite moments was when, as we were talking about strategies for protecting client confidentiality in a public situation where someone might ask, “How do you know ______?” Several students shared excellent strategies (far better than my ‘spontaneous lying’ idea). One in particular said, “I just don’t respond to the question and make some comment like ‘Oh yeah, you know she’s really good at soccer’ and then hardly anyone follows that up by asking me how I know that person a second time.” Somewhat surprisingly, I was able to use that particular line several times later in class whenever students asked me questions I couldn’t answer. You should try it. Here’s how it works: Somebody asks you something you can’t or don’t want to answer, just say, “Hey, you know she’s really good at soccer.” It’s pretty much guaranteed you won’t have to answer the question.

As a method of providing a little extra intellectual stimulation, below I’m including two activities that go along with the content of Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice. Have fun and good luck in your personal quest for better understanding of yourself and others . . . a particular quest that never really ends.

Activity 1: Creating and Testing Personal Hypotheses

One of our graduate students told us his “personal theory” of why some people become good cooks and other people develop poor cooking skills. He said:

I’m a bad cook because my mom was a good cook. I never had any reason to learn to cook because my mom did it all for us. But my girlfriend is a really good cook. I think that’s because her mom was a bad cook and so she had more reason to learn to cook for herself.

Although you can probably see a number of flaws with the reasoning underlying this “theory,” most of us carry these sorts of ideas around with us all the time. Let’s briefly analyze and test our student’s theory and then move on to identifying some of yours.

First, we should ask: Is this student’s statement really a theory? The answer is “No.” The reason this isn’t a theory is because it’s too narrow and not very elaborate. Theories don’t just predict behavior, they also provide detailed explanations for why particular behaviors occur.

As described in the text, a theory involves a gathering together and organizing of knowledge about a particular object or phenomenon. Also, theories are used to generate hypotheses about human thinking, emotions, and behavior.  Although our student has developed an interesting hypothesis about one factor that contributed to why he and his girlfriend have poor and good cooking skills, he really doesn’t have an overarching theory for generating the hypothesis . . . but he could develop one. Perhaps his bigger theory is about how individuals compensate for their caregivers strengths and weaknesses. He would need to work on describing, explaining, and predicting how this process works, but his idea has potential.

Theorists work both deductively (from the theory to the hypothesis) and inductively (from the specific hypothesis or observation to the bigger theory). Our student appears to be operating inductively. He observed himself and he observed his girlfriend and he developed an interesting hypothesis.

It’s possible and reasonable for people to systematically test their personal theories or hypotheses. Most likely, if we asked our student to test his hypothesis, he would do so in a biased way. He would likely notice when his hypothesis is true and ignore or completely overlook evidence opposing his hypothesis. Social psychology has shown that humans just seem to operate that way . . . we look for evidence to support our ideas and ignore evidence that contradicts our ideas (see Snyder & Swann, 1978).

With all this in mind, take a few minutes to write down some of your personal hypotheses about human behavior. Pick anything that you tend to think is true about humans (e.g., women have greater pain tolerance than men; individuals from larger families have better social skills; pet owners have trouble relating to people) and describe it below.

Hypothesis 1:

 

Hypothesis 2:

 

Hypothesis 3:

 

After you’ve established a few hypotheses, think about whether they might fit together into an overarching theory—or are they just a few random and unconnected ideas about human behavior? Then, either way, think about how you might test the validity of your hypotheses. Also, think about how you could or would avoid being systematically biased toward validating your own hypotheses?

Activity #2: A Psychological Assessment Critique

Years ago, Rita had a cartoon on her office door that had two guys in their scientific lab coats in conversation. One of the guys was asking the other one something like: “Would you like me to come up with evidence to destroy this scientific argument or evidence to support it?”

The big point of the cartoon is that even science is subjective. Because science is subjective, it’s important to be able to criticize research in general and or own research in particular. For this activity, we’d like you to list five shortcomings or problems with measuring counseling and psychotherapy outcomes. For example, let’s pretend you’ve just conducted 10 sessions of therapy with a client. You’re interested in measuring your effectiveness and so you had your client complete a self-report questionnaire on depression at the beginning and again at the end of the therapy. Using a seven-point Likert scale, the client rated him/herself on 20 depression symptoms. If you used this scale or questionnaire, what might be the shortcomings or problems associated with this measurement system?

1.

 

2.

 

3.

 

4.

 

5.

 

At the end of this blog I’ve listed what I think are five of the most common problems with self-report outcomes measures. When you’re finished listing your five ideas, check out and compare your five ideas with my five ideas.

What are the Most Common Measurement Problems when Using Self-Report Measures in Therapy Outcomes Studies?

John’s Answers

  1. How do we know participants are giving us honest feedback about their feelings, beliefs, and response to the intervention? (Sometimes people lie, other times they deceive themselves, other times they automatically or intentionally respond in a socially desirable manner).
  2. How do we know participants are motivated to answer surveys, questionnaires, or interview questions with due diligence? (This variability in participant motivation can translate into a hasty response set or compulsive over-reflection on each item). It also results in a less than 100% response rate when surveys are administered.
  3. How do we know if participants are capable of defining or understanding what’s helpful for them? (Respondents may not have clear ways to distinguish whether what they received was helpful or they may not understand the question or they may misinterpret the question; even if they can make internal, individual distinctions of what’s helpful, how can we know how that compares with another person’s internal and individual standard for helpfulness)?
  4. How can we ever know if one person’s rating of a “5” on a 1-7 Likert (pronounced lick-ert) is ever really equivalent to someone else’s rating of a “5”? (For example, one of us has an issue with ever giving anyone or anything a perfect “7” or worthless “1” when completing seven-point Likert-type questionnaires and so his (or her) responses may not be comparable to people who don’t have such issues).
  5. Given that mood is highly variable and yet powerfully influential, how can we be sure that we’re not measuring, at least in part, something related to the respondent’s current mood, instead of current attitude or anything close to a behavioral inclination?

 

Who’s Afraid of a Little Coxsackie Virus?

Like the Papa in the Berenstain Bear series, I like to think of myself as not getting sick. And so when Rylee became feverish and lethargic and didn’t finish her dinner last week, I performed my usual fatherly function of not letting food go to waste. I finished off her plate.

When Chelsea called the next morning and informed us that Davis (age 2) and Seth (age 32) had begun showing symptoms of hand, foot, and mouth disease, my confidence remained unshaken. After all, the little coxsackie virus at the root of the hand, foot, and mouth disease lives happily in our intestines and most adults are immune anyway, having gotten the condition sometime during childhood.

But the last several days have now decompensated into a hazy malaise combined with annoying pimple-like blisters erupting on my hands, feet, and other less mentionable locations. So who’s afraid of a little coxsackie virus now?

Having for years scoffed my way through recommendations for handwashing and concerns about germ theory I am now appropriately contrite. Contrition is another detestable condition, by the way.

[Insert profanity here.]

Here’s what WebMD has to say:

Hand-foot-and-mouth disease is an illness that causes sores in or on the mouth and on the hands, feet, and sometimes the buttocks and legs. The sores may be painful. The illness usually doesn’t last more than a week or so.

I’m on day 4 or 5 [Insert more profanity here.]

The other problem with this is that I now have the energy of a sloth and attention span of a toddler. In fact, the fact that I’ve written this little essay and stayed on point strikes me as rather a remarkable factoid in this particular lived moment.

There are benefits, however. Because my throat has broken out in hand-foot-and-mouth blisters I’m forced to keep making myself milkshakes. I also discovered that our blender is an excellent ice crusher. Did you know if you add a can of fruit juice to about a dozen ice cubes and blend or frappe, you create a drink that can cool the blisters in your throat. [Very nice.]

Other updates and thoughts for the day:

  1. I am very sad for the victims of the Colorado shooting.
  2. The right to bear arms is in no way abrogated by regulating and tracking internet (and other) sales of ammunition.
  3. There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.
  4. Being sick sucks, but the measure of my pain is so minor compared to the multidimensional and ubiquitous nature of human suffering that I cannot help but embrace my new friend, the coxsackie virus, who, as it turns out, is named after Coxsackie, NY.

This is not Coxsackie, NY

Image

Flaws in the Satanic Golden Rule

summer-13-long-shadow

Nearly always I learn tons of good stuff from my adolescent clients. A few years ago I learned what “Macking” meant. When I asked my 16-year-old Latino client if it meant having sex (I gently employed a slang word while posing my question), his head shot up and he made eye contact with me for the first time ever and quickly corrected me with a look of shock and disgust. “Macking means . . . like flirting,” he said. And as he continued shaking his head, he said, “Geeze. You’re crazy man.”

The next half hour of counseling was our best half hour ever.

I’m not advocating using the F-word or being an obtuse adult . . . just pointing out how much there is to learn from teenagers.

More recently I learned about the Satanic Golden Rule. A 17-year-old girl told me that it goes like this: “Do unto others as they did unto you.”

Now that’s pretty darn interesting.

Ever since learning about the Satanic Golden Rule I’ve been able to use it productively when counseling teenagers. The Satanic Golden Rule is all about the immensely tempting revenge impulse we all sometimes feel and experience. It’s easy (and often gratifying) to give in to the powerful temptation to strike back at others whom you think have offended you. Whether it’s a gloomy and nasty grocery cashier or someone who’s consistently arrogant and self-righteous, it’s harder to take the high road and to treat others in ways we would like to be treated than it is to stoop to their level to give them a taste of their own medicine.

There are many flaws with the Satanic Golden Rule . . . but my favorite and the most useful for making a good point in counseling is the fact that, by definition, if you practice the Satanic Golden Rule, you’re giving your personal control over to other people. It’s like letting someone else steer your emotional ship. And to most my teenage clients this is a very aversive idea.

After talking about the Satanic Golden Rule many teenage clients are more interested in talking about how they can become leaders. . . leaders who are in control of their own emotions and who proactively treat others with respect.

An excellent side effect of all this is that it also inspires me to try harder to be proactively respectful, which helps me be and become a better captain of my own emotional ship.

Four Good Ideas about Multicultural Counseling and Psychotherapy—In Honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.

1. Don’t think about multiculturalism as being about tolerance. Instead, approach other cultures with an attitude of “what can I learn?”

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1974) wrote about his deep regrets for the ways religious missionaries contributed to cultural genocide. He wondered:

“What would the world be like if different cultures had encountered each other with questions instead of answers? What if the questions went something like these?”

What can you tell me about yourselves?

  • What would you like to know about us?
  • What can you teach me about the Creator?

This same idea forms the foundation of affirmative therapy for GLBTQ clients. Because they’re so used to and sensitive to negative judgments, we should approach GLBTQ clients not only with openness, but with a positive and affirming attitude. When I really think about it, it doesn’t make much sense to approach clients who may be different from us with anything other than a positive and affirming attitude?

 2.  Try to Understand the Implications of White Privilege

As a White male I sometimes have difficulty stretching my neck far enough to be able to see all the White privilege I carry around in my invisible knapsack (see Peggy McIntosh’s 1998 article for more on the Invisible Knapsack). White privilege is defined as the unearned assets associated with being an upper or middle class member of a dominant culture. Although White privilege is often hard to see (because unearned assets are invisible), Prochaska and Norcross provide three darn good examples in the 2010 edition of their psychotherapy theories text. They wrote:

  • · “White privilege is when you can get pregnant at age 17 and everyone is quick to insist that your life and that of your family is a personal matter, and that no one has a right to judge you or your parents, even as Black and Latino families with similar challenges are regularly typified as irresponsible and pathological.”
  • · “White privilege is when you are a gun enthusiast and do not make people immediately scared of you.”
  • · “White privilege is when you can develop a painkiller addiction, having obtained your drug of choice illegally, go on to beat that addiction, and everyone praises you for being so strong, while being an ethnic minority who did the same thing is routinely labeled a drug addict who probably winds up in jail.” (p. 408)

3.  When Counseling, Make Cultural Adaptations

Not long ago it was reported that 50% of diverse clients dropped out of therapy after only one session (S. Sue, 1977). This suggests that it only took one therapy session to convince half of all diverse clients not to return for session number two. This is not very impressive.

To address this and other issues, counselors and psychologists now talk about making cultural adaptations so the therapy experience is more appealing to clients from diverse cultural backgrounds. Several cultural adaptations have proven at least somewhat helpful. Two of the most significant are: (a) Language Matching (Surprise! Clients tend to benefit more when they can do therapy in their native languageJ); and (b) explicit incorporation of cultural content/values into the intervention (Griner & Smith, 2006).

 4. Remember that multicultural counseling is like qualitative research; you may not generalize.

This is one of the puzzling paradoxes associated with multicultural counseling. Of course we should learn as much as we can about other cultures—but, because skin color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disabilities, and other client characteristics all exist within unique individuals, groups, and communities it’s inappropriate to make assumptions about clients based on knowledge about any of these factors. Just as you would never generalize your findings from eight clients in a phenomenological-qualitative study, you shouldn’t use your knowledge of any “categories” to make generalizations about the person or people in your office.

Related to this, S. Sue and Zane (2009) commented on how, when it comes to multicultural knowledge, a little bit does not go a long ways (and often a large amount of knowledge won’t take you very far either). They wrote:

“. . . cultural knowledge and techniques generated by this knowledge are frequently applied in inappropriate ways. The problem is especially apparent when therapists and others act on insufficient knowledge or overgeneralize what they have learned about culturally dissimilar groups.” (p. 5)

Working cross-culturally or interculturally is both a challenge and a privilege. This is part one of a three-part blog about how we can meet this challenge and honor clients who have diverse characteristics. Thanks for being interested enough in this topic to read this and stretch your multicultural competence.