Category Archives: Personal Reflections

When Giving Gives Back

For several years Rita has been having first year counseling students do at least five hours of “volunteer” work with our local day treatment center for clients (or consumers) who struggle with chronic mental disorders. This year Rita is on sabbatical and so the task fell to me. To be honest, I was ambivalent about the assignment, mostly because the logistics seemed challenging. I had to arrange two separate organizational visits to the mental health center for about 15 students with different schedules before the volunteering could start and I struggled to make these happen in a timely manner. I secretly wondered if arranging this experience would be worth the hassle.

On Monday, October 29, I finally met the first group at the Day Treatment program and was emotionally transported back to the early 1980s when I was worked in a Day Treatment program and then as a recreation therapist at a 23-bed private psychiatric hospital. I listened as a staff member gave us the most unstructured orientation ever. He eventually told us that he was a “client” at the center before becoming staff. He told the students they were free to just drop in and hang out whenever. I could feel the students’ anxiety rising at the thought of just hanging out and so I asked a few questions and told a couple stories to take up time and they asked questions of their own. In an odd mix of awkwardness and genuineness and anxiety, I felt the wish to just hang out with the day treatment clients myself.   

But instead of hanging out, the reality of other responsibilities started pressing forward and I left with unresolved emotions. I decided to deal with those emotions by writing a small check to support the River House Day Treatment Member Fund. I wrote the check and sent it off.

After completing their five volunteer hours, our students are required to write a short essay about their experience. Today, I’ve spent much of my day reading these essays. They are amazingly open and appreciative of the experience. Some samples:

“I am always humbled by the willingness of others to not only be open with me and to share with me their experiences but also by the ‘sameness’ of a lot of human experiences and suffering.”

“It felt good to share in the humanness of it all- bad days, favorite things, boyfriends, girlfriends, family, and trying to find meaning even when our stories are so different.”

“The clients were not only positive and loving toward the staff members, but also towards me as a volunteer. Every client I was able to talk to complimented something about me and they were constantly complimenting each other.”

“The clients I talked with accepted me in to their community and openly shared their experiences with me. This allowed me to see the world, in a small way, through their eyes.”

Every essay has emphasized the positive environment, the loving-kindness of staff and patients, and the surprise and joy of making deeply human connections. I also received an excellent formal thank-you note from the program director (for the small donation). In it she enclosed a short note from the clients or members of the Day Treatment Center. They wrote:

Thank you so much for the monetary gift. We appreciate it so much. Your students have blessed us with their presence and we have enjoyed them. I hope that we can give the students a fresh perspective on how a special place such as River House can do good and help its members. I hope you will always feel welcome here and thank you for all you do, mentoring the students and giving gifts to us.

This letter and the feelings I get when I read “Your students have blessed us with their presence . . .” was much bigger than what I gave. That’s the same message I keep getting from my students. They went with minimal expectations, a little angst, and to clock their required hours. But instead of just completing a simple assignment, they received an experience so meaningful that many of them have are extending their volunteer work far beyond the required five hours.

This is a fabulous example of how giving can give back much more than what was originally given. This is probably what Adler meant by Gemeinschaftsguful.

Thank-you to the River House staff and members for . . . BLESSING US with YOUR presence.

Song Lyrics for the Election

In my own wacky mind I’m thinking it might be a good idea to listen to some social justice lyrics on election day. Here are a few that came to me. Feel free to offer your own.

Ten Top Song Lyrics for Election Day . . .

  1. It’s a beautiful day; don’t let it get away . . . without voting (Bono)
  2. What kind of father would take his own daughter’s rights away? And what kind of father might hate his own daughter if she were gay? (Pink)
  3. Why am I soft in the middle when the rest of my life is so hard? (Paul Simon)
  4. So often have I wondered where these homeless brothers go, down in some hidden valley where their sorrows cannot show. (Don McLean)
  5. . . . our children are watching us, they put their trust in us, they’re gonna be like us; so let’s learn from our history, and do it differently (Dixie Chicks)
  6. Cause I’m bluffin’ with my muffin; I’m not lying; I’m just stunnin’ with my love-glue-gunning (Lady Gaga)
  7. I’ve been trying to get down to the heart of the matter, but my will gets weak and my thoughts seem to scatter. But I think it’s about forgiveness. (Don Henley)
  8. It’s just a theory. A particular set of assumptions. It’s just a theory; an educated guess, a conclusion not forgone (Tracy Chapman)
  9. After changes upon changes we are more or less the same. After changes we are more or less the same (Paul Simon)
  10. In times like these and in times like those, what will be will be and so it goes . . . and it always goes on and on and on and on and on. On and on and on and on and on it goes, hmm (Jack Johnson)

Hey — We just got a grant to help prevent student assault at the University of Montana — Very cool.

I’m just writing a note here with a link to a news story with video about a new grant we just got in the Department of Counselor Education. Although it means more work, it also means more work for the good of the campus and for the good of women and men who suffer from assault. Yeah. I guess I’m saying this is a difficult topic, but it’s a place where there’s room to do lots of good stuff.

Here’s the link:

http://www.abcmontana.com/news/local/UM-Receives-300K-Grant-to-Prevent-Assaults-on-Campus-171259111.html

 

Sexual Assault Prevention at the University of Montana

Hey. I’ve got a letter to the editor in the Montana Kaimin out today. I even managed to work in some profanity appropriately geared to college students:). Check it out at: http://www.montanakaimin.com/opinion/letters-petsa-and-personal-responsibility-1.2906452#.UFtDo665W1w

The past two days (9/19 & 9/20) the Missoulian has run articles about an organization named Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE) and their criticism of the University of Montana required Personal Empowerment Through Self-Awareness (PETSA) video series designed to reduce and prevent the incidence of sexual assault. In particular, SAVE has complained that the U of M PETSA video series is not evidence-based. Being a scientist, this was of concern and so I immediately checked the SAVE website and discovered that SAVE is an organization that is not even REMOTELY related to evidence-based programming for sexual assault prevention or anything else. Their entire raison d’etre is to protect men from being falsely accused of intimate partner violence and sexual assault. Their website includes internal inconsistencies and videos that (unlike the PETSA series) have not been vetted by anyone other than the organization itself or other “believers” that men are somehow unfairly targeted.

SAVE claims to only be interested in the truth and scientific evidence. And they say U.S. law have evolved to the point that ANYONE can be convicted of sexual assault or intimate partner violence? Now, being male myself, I’m all about fair treatment for men and so this places me in a precarious position. If I oppose SAVE, am I opposing my own best interests?

Well . . . I’m going out on a limb here to say the SAVE folks are just plain wacky. They say they are only after the truth and that they support evidence-based approaches, but there is ABSOLUTELY NO EVIDENCE that changing laws to make it harder to prove sexual assault would result in a safer and less abusive environment in the U.S.

Although I think it’s important to acknowledge that false allegations happen and it’s important to address these false allegations through legal means, instead of sticking to the facts, SAVE relies on rhetoric and sensationalist debunking of a few incorrect statistics to lead people to believe that false reporting is the rule and not the exception. This phenomenon—when someone accuses someone else of perpetrating something they’re doing themselves—is referred to as projection.

My first big concern is that the Missoulian, in reporting this as news, has given SAVE a semblance of validity that it doesn’t deserve.

My second big concern is that the hard working creators of the PETSA videos will be criticized based on hysterical accusations from an organization using political rhetoric framed as science. Based on viewing 2 SAVE videos online and comparing them to the PETSA production it’s obvious that PETSA is vastly more evidence-based than SAVE – Talk about blatantly false allegations

http://www.montanakaimin.com/opinion/letters-petsa-and-personal-responsibility-1.2906452#.UFtDo665W1w

 

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.

This essay was published in the Montana Psychologist Newsletter in September, 2012.

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