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The Bad Therapist

I often think about what makes a good therapist, and find it a hard question to answer in an organized and concise way. What’s far easier, and maybe as helpful to anyone looking for therapy, is the reverse question. So, in the style of CGP Grey’s 7 Ways to Maximize Misery, I hope this list of what makes for a bad therapist can help you find a good one.

  1. A bad therapist lacks all curiosity.

They assume that their education or experience or inherent wisdom means they just know what the client means and wants and needs, even if (sometimes especially if) the client disagrees. They rarely use reflective listening or Socratic questioning, and instead of reserving assertions for psychoeducation and normalizing, instead tell the client precisely what they think is wrong, what mistakes the client is making, and/or what the client needs to do to improve, all stated with confidence rather than as hypotheses. If your therapist does all this within the first session, run away.

  1. A bad therapist will not respond well to negative feedback.

They expect their therapy style and modality to be perfectly suited to any client, and are not willing to adapt or learn how to best help their client. This isn’t to say all therapists and clients are suited to each other, but if reports of dissatisfaction are  turned back on you with accusations of projection or “resistance to treatment,” that’s a great flag to find another therapist.

  1. A bad therapist pathologizes constantly.

Anything unusual about the client, from their hobbies to their fetishes to their philosophy, is suspected of causing dysfunction regardless of whether it actually does. These therapists conform to the broader culture they’re embedded in, and act as agents of social control on all manner of moral issues, from sexuality to family dynamics to choice of profession. If your therapist speaks in cliches such as “Family always forgives” or “Marriage is a sacred bond,” find a more open minded one.  

  1. A bad therapist pushes their worldview onto the client. 

A religious therapist who insists that “God works in mysterious ways,” or an atheist who dismisses spiritual comforts are not only unlikely to help their grieving client of the opposite beliefs, but can cause extra harm by making them feel alienated and unheard. Finding a therapist who matches your worldview can be valuable, but any competent therapist should be able to leave theirs at the door.

  1. A bad therapist can’t remain objective. 

They triangulate with parent or child or spouse against child or parent or spouse, or they identify too strongly with the client and start to act more as a friend, focusing on comfort to the detriment of growth. Sometimes objectivity requires pointing out that some mistakes are one-sided, but if you don’t feel like your therapist is making an effort to include everyone’s perspectives, find another one.

  1. A bad therapist will insist that their model is the only one with value.

These therapists view all of mental health through a single lens, the causes and solutions to illness forced into the mold they developed during their education or personal experiences. While an expert in a specific modality can be invaluable, a professional should always be ready to refer a client elsewhere if they encounter a problem in treatment, rather than blame the client and insist they’re not understanding or not trying hard enough. 

  1. A bad therapist is okay with therapy lasting forever.

They make no effort to set concrete goals or give the client the tools they need to move on without them. If within a month you don’t have a good sense of what it would take for you to feel satisfied ending therapy, or at least reduce the frequency of sessions, then it’s worth bringing it up yourself to see if the therapist has a sense of direction or goals in mind. Vague and subjective goals are better than nothing, but ideally there would still be some observable change that can act as a metric of growth.

  1. A bad therapist can’t properly balance uncertainty and responsibility. 

This is the kind of therapist who attempts to hospitalize their client due to non-critical self-harm, or for simply talking about their suicidality, rather than because there is imminent and specific threat to life. Unfortunately there is little you can do to predict that your therapist is like this ahead of time, but you can at least get a sense for how well they understand the limits of confidentiality when they explain it to you; a good therapist should clarify this distinction so their client feels safe being open about how they feel.

  1. They think therapy is about talking, not doing.

A large part of therapy is talking, of course, but it’s been a century since Freud borrowed the phrase “Talking Cure” and ran with a model of therapy aiming purely for catharsis. Therapy should be doing more than just venting and processing; it should also involve learning new tools to be practiced between sessions. If you’ve gone to a handful already and your therapist still hasn’t assigned you any homework, start asking for some.

I hope people find this helpful; as I said, it’s not a great guide to help finding a good therapist, but I’ve heard enough horror stories in my professional life by this point to at least try to minimize the amount of bad ones people waste their time, money, and emotional energy with.

Philosophy of Therapy

For a lot of people, therapy can be a confusing, mysterious thing of questionable value. Many have tried it when they were younger, and felt that at best it was only of minimal help, while for others it actually made things worse. In many cultures, therapy looks very different from how it’s practiced in the “western world,” and the concept of mental health itself is often treated with suspicion or dismissal. I’ve known many people who, even while not being skeptical, were still confused about what the purpose of therapy actually is, or what situations warrant seeking a therapist out.

In my practice as a therapist, I often reorient myself to the basic core of therapy, which to me is about helping people get unstuck. Sometimes the thing you’re stuck on is a recurring and disruptive emotional state, other times it’s some harmful interpersonal dynamic, and other times it’s a pattern of behavior. Whatever the specifics, there is some aspect of the client’s life that is not going the way they would prefer, and the therapist’s job is to help them find a way to change that.

What the therapy provides also varies; good therapy can create space for honest expressions of emotion, provide new perspectives or insight, and offer new “tools” for the client to use in their lives, specific behaviors or mental motions that help move past the stuckness.

Those skeptical of therapy often wonder: can’t people just talk to their friends or family if they need emotional support? Aren’t there self-help books they can try? And of course they can, and should try those things! For many people, the majority of their difficulties do not require a therapist.

Which means therapy is for what’s left. Those things that seem truly intractable, the things that you feel stuck on, which other resources have failed to help resolve.

But I’d like to demystify therapy further, and better yet, I think by better understanding what therapy is meant to do and how, people can get some of the value that therapy can provide even without going to see a therapist.

Because while much of the change in therapy comes from the therapeutic relationship itself (which is why first finding a therapist that you feel comfortable with is half the battle), for a large portion of clients I’ve seen, even just changing the frame of the problems they experience, or changing the way they view themselves in relation to their problems, actually makes the problem less sticky. A new frame can reveal more levers to pull and knobs to turn, or new vistas of the mind to explore and inhabit, that can help make the problem more manageable.

So that’s the goal of this essay. By teaching the history of the different philosophies of therapy, I want to teach you how, if you change the frame, you can change the problem.

I. History

Ask people to describe what therapy involves or “looks like,” and most who haven’t been in therapy will say something like “one person lies down on a couch and talks to the therapist, who takes notes and asks questions like ‘How does that make you feel’ and ‘Tell me about your childhood’ and ‘How do you feel about your mother?’

This is largely the result of Hollywood Therapy, but it’s rooted in the origins of therapy, which is Freudian—what’s now called Psychoanalytic Therapy.

Sigmund Freud was the progenitor of applied psychology; the idea that we could study the way people think and feel and act, and use it to directly help them “improve” in some way. He was inspired by his mentor, a physician who helped alleviate a patient’s untreatable illness by just asking questions about her symptoms. That patient coined the term “talking cure,” and Freud took this concept and ran with it, dedicating his life to the idea that many ills people suffer are psychological in nature rather than physiological, and that just talking about them can help reduce or remove them.

Freud had a lot of ideas of his own, however, and while many them turned out to be nonsense, he also had some that turned out to be true, or at the very least, useful, such as the concept of a “subconscious,” or the idea of dividing a person’s mind into subagents (in his case, Id, Ego, and Superego). As the arrow above indicates, Freud cared almost exclusively about the past; he believed that by studying one’s childhood, the way they were raised, their early environment, or the origin of a certain dysfunctional behavior, you could identify all sorts of traumas or stresses that cause dysfunction later in life. Once identified, he believed the client would gain a feeling of “catharsis” that would start the path to healing.

Here’s where I admit that I have something of a bias against psychoanalysis.

In my view, Freud was a philosopher first and foremost, rather than a scientist. He had interesting ideas that seemed logical to him, and a scientific frame of mind, but while he pursued the application of these ideas with an admirable gusto, his documentation did not seem to aim its rigor at testing which of his ideas were true. I’m unaware of any hypotheses Freud generated that he then went on to falsify. (If you know of any, please do share them!)

Far from an attempt to bash the man, I do admire him a great deal. It’s hard to be the first person to basically invent an entire field of science and do it all perfectly such that you are simultaneously the person observing reality, coming up with ideas, and dispassionately testing those ideas, all while trying to do work as a clinician. But I believe most modern schools of therapy have picked out the gems of his work and left the rest to history lessons.

That isn’t to say this branch of therapy is all worthless. While catharsis alone generally doesn’t solve most people’s symptoms (psychosomatic illnesses like his mentor’s patient’s are in fact very rare), delving into one’s past can lead to insights into their current problems, and many do report feeling better about their problems when they have a chance to talk about them (again, credit to Freud, this would likely have been very encouraging to him when he began his work).

Additionally, as a colleague pointed out to me after reading an earlier version of this article, many modern psychoanalysts do seek to empirically test the field’s ideas in order to continue to develop evidence-based treatments, and modalities such as Transference-Focused Psychotherapy have evidence suggesting it to be at least as effective as other standards of treatment.

(A modality is a method of therapy that has a specific structure to help a client reach wellness. More than a specific intervention, modalities often include multiple interventions, as well as a particular type of relationship between client and therapist that dictates whether the therapist acts as more of a guide, partner, or authority. Each modality operates on a particular hypothesis of how therapy can help clients with certain problems.)

In any case, while psychoanalysis as practiced by Freud and his ideological descendants (Carl Jung, Anna Freud, Erik Erikson) focused so much on the client’s past, new discoveries in psychology led to therapeutic modalities that focused instead on influencing the client’s future.

Enter, the Behaviorists.

As Freud is to Psychoanalysis, so Ivan Pavlov, of dog fame, is to Behaviorism. Pavlov discovered and experimented with classical conditioning, the idea that you can pair different stimuli to influence responses. This discovery was a great boon to pet owners, but also has direct applications to therapy. One example is addiction treatment, where for example the sight or smell of cigarettes or beer is paired with something that will evoke disgust. It also led to desensitization therapy for phobias, where pairing progressively more frightening stimuli with techniques and context that help relax the client can alleviate the fear response.

These ideas were expanded by Edward Thorndike and B.F. Skinner, whose work is called operant (or instrumental) conditioning. Rather than just pairing stimuli together to affect responses, their experiments showed demonstrable effects on learning and behavior through reinforcement and punishment; in therapy the idea of using positive reinforcement to incentivize desired behavior is often helpful for children, particularly those with developmental issues.

I don’t have much to say about Behaviorism. For some things that people come to therapy for help with, it just works. For others… not so much. I think understanding the mechanisms of Behavioral Therapy is valuable for any clinician, but there’s some obvious flaws with taking it as the only avenue toward better mental health.

Unlike psychoanalysts, a straw-Behaviorist doesn’t care about your past, and talking about your traumas or “deeper issues” would often be considered a waste of time. Instead the focus is on your symptoms. No symptom, no problem, right? Just apply the right type of reinforcement to increase positive behaviors and the right type of punishment to decrease negative behaviors, and all’s well…

…for some people, at least. Behaviorists had a lot of success in some domains, particularly when the “why” of the problem didn’t actually matter to the client or issue, but obviously struggled with others. After the first World War, clinicians formally recognized PTSD, or “shell shock,” for the first time. Unfortunately, attempts to treat soldiers through psychoanalytic and behavioral therapy often failed, and so many psychologists turned clinician to help figure out how better understanding the present feelings we have, and how they impact our behavior, can lead to mental health.

Which brings us to Existential Therapy.

Rather than having a single founder, the Existential philosophy of therapy was converged upon by a wide range of psychologists and clinicians, many inspired by the writings of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Husserl, Scheler, Heidegger, and Sartre. These writers’ attempts to redefine our understanding of not just what it means to be human, but an “actualized” human, a healthy, thriving, happy human, were believed to have great value in clinical efforts to help those in need.

But among that foundational pantheon, the first of the Existential therapists was Otto Rank, a student of Freud who later split with him over Freud’s beliefs that a person’s “formative years” are what determine who they become. Instead, Rank believed that human development continues throughout our lives, requiring continual negotiation and renegotiation between dual yearnings for individuation and connection.

For such heresy he was excommunicated by the psychoanalytic world, but he nevertheless influenced his own “family” of psychologists, including Rollo May, Viktor Frankl, who’s more well known as the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, and Abraham Maslow, of hierarchy fame. These psychologists focused not so much on what happened in someone’s past or how to influence their future, but on their now. What do people feel like they need, that they lack? How does the client experience “need” at all? What relationship do they have with their hurts and wants, and what would be necessary for them to feel fulfilled? How do those different needs and wants conflict with each other, and how can they be better brought into harmony?

Existential therapy also marked a new dynamic between client and therapist; rather than a top-down hierarchy, where the clinician is the “expert” and the client the “patient,” what became known as client-centered therapeutic practice began to form. It placed both therapist and client as equals; the clinician has the education and skills, but the client is the expert on their own lives, of what they think and feel, and so the Existential therapist’s role is more that of a facilitator to the client’s growth.

This may seem like polite semantics, but most people who’ve been to both kinds of therapists can tell how big a difference it makes if, upon disagreeing with their therapist on something, they’re treated not like a stubborn mule who is “resistant” to change, but rather a person with agency, whose motivation to improve is taken for granted by their therapist. The philosophy also emphasizes the importance of a therapist who is willing to listen, encourage, and support the client’s personal journey to better mental and emotional health, as the client defines those things.

Under the light of Existential Therapy (and its more upbeat twin, Humanistic Therapy) there grew many techniques to help clients better understand themselves, including Carl Rogers’s “reflective listening,” which has become a staple of good therapy from every philosophy, as well as techniques to better interface with our emotions, such as “focusing” by Eugene Gendlin, which I personally have found to be one of the most generically effective tools to teach practically every client I’ve had.

Time to admit to another bias, in case it’s not clear; I’m a huge fan of existential/humanistic therapy. In my experience it has a wide “range” in what it can successfully treat, and its frame makes up an integral part of what makes modalities effective in general.

But it’s not the form of therapy I was formally educated in, and it’s not the latest form of therapy that was developed. There’s one last dimension that even existential therapists failed to engage in, and if you’re following the theme of the arrows you might have guessed it: the opposite of focusing on ourselves is focusing on everything else.

Enter Systemic Therapy (also known as Family Systems Therapy, or just Family Therapy), born in the 1950s from a very powerful need; the need for better marriage counseling.

In the post WWII era, if a husband and wife wanted to save their marriage, they would go about it thusly: the man would have his counselor, and the woman would have her counselor, and both would see their counselors separately. If they went to a fancy clinic dedicated to marriage counseling, the two clinicians would be coworkers, seeing their clients individually, then consulting on the case between sessions, or even mid-session before returning to their clients.

If that sounds crazy, just remember that this was the 50’s, when people still thought smoking was good for you. The idea was that a client’s relationship with their therapist was sacrosanct, and must always be preserved as a space of utter one-on-one privacy that would allow them to be completely frank, without worrying about their spouse’s presence, or their therapist telling their spouse anything spoken of in confidence.

Eventually some therapists in California realized how absurd this was, not to mention ineffective. They suggested a new way to practice marriage counseling, where a single counselor (or even two) spoke with both clients together, in the same room and at the same time. That way a therapist could observe their interactions and mediate their discussions directly.

Their clinic said no.

So Don Jackson and his colleagues left to form the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, where they developed their own modality of therapy, one that involved not just the individual patient, but sometimes romantic partners, family members, even friends if the problem called for it.

They weren’t the only ones; Salvador Minuchin, Murray Bowen, Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, Virginia Satir, and Jay Haley all developed modalities based on the idea that, to help a client overcome dysfunction, the therapist should focus not just on the client, but the system they’re a part of, whether that be their family, their work environment, their culture, or even their country, all at various levels of abstraction.

(There isn’t going to be a test on all the names I’m throwing at you, but if I went into every single modality we’d be here all day, and this way you have an easy way to look into them on your own if you want.)

The study of cybernetics and communication theory were also prominent influences, as human systems of all kinds were being better understood and studied, which improved the clinician’s ability to map the impact of one part of a system on the others. The “systems” being referred to in these therapies can be any context you’re a part, individually or simultaneously: family system, school system, work, friend-group, even cultural and religious. By being part of any system, there is inherent and unavoidable communication between you and the other parts, implicit or explicit, which affects the other parts of the system and how they behave, which further affects how you behave, and so on.

This understanding led to a philosophy that takes the humility of existential therapy even further, such that many modalities do not even identify anyone in particular as “sick” or “healthy,” but rather views behavior patterns themselves as dynamic or stagnant, and focuses on how change can propagate through the system by nudging elements of it. By understanding how everyone’s actions and reactions affect each other’s behavior, the client and clinician have more surface area on the problem to try and find solutions, more levers to pull and handles to grip from.

A big reason why this lens can be so valuable is that when you start working with groups rather than individuals, you have to address the fact that often times, not everyone involved in therapy has the same desire to be there, let alone incentive or drive to change. Of course, that was true before couples or entire families were being invited into a therapy room at once, but now the therapists were actively working to address it rather than just assuring whoever cared enough to be in the room that the problem was other people, and not them.

Oh, also worth noting that therapy up to this point was still a LONG process, often expected to last years. Systemic Therapy made a push toward briefer, more effective interventions, creating modalities like Solution Focused Therapy, which combined Systemic and Behavioral principles to bring about real, lasting change within 4-6 months.

So, that’s the four cardinal philosophies I’ve sort-of-made-up as a labeling scheme to map all therapy onto. Now we get to the meat of the matter; how can just knowing about them actually help?

II. Case Study

“You have to help me,” Marge, 55, says during her first session. “It’s my husband. He’s become obsessed with model trains!”

Sidebar 1: An important thing to note is that the client said she needs help, but highlighted her husband as the focus of therapy. Some equivalent of “fix my spouse” (or “fix my kid”) is nearly as common, in my experience as “fix me,” and often times the spouses in question aren’t always in the room. So we work with what we have.

“I can see you’re worried about him,” I say. “What does ‘obsessed’ look like? Are you running out of money?”

“Well, no,” she admits. “We can afford it, but… every month he’ll order hundreds of dollars worth of new models and tracks, and after work he goes down to the basement. He spends hours down there, every day!”

I nod. “Yeah, it makes sense why that might be concerning. Is he skipping meals? Staying up all night?”

“No, no. He’s sleeping fine, he’s still eating… but it’s quick, you know, he’ll pop out of the basement for ten minutes, wolf down his food without looking at it, then go back to his trains for another six hours. That’s not normal, right?”

Sidebar 2: “ Normal,” along with “healthy,” is perhaps the most loaded word in therapy. Unless the client is insistent, or we’ve formed a strong therapeutic relationship, I try to avoid giving any kind of verdict on either, and instead use the therapist standby of answering a question with a question; in this case not ‘what is normal,’ but rather:

“What would you consider to be the ‘normal’ things he does do?”

“You mean like work?”

“Yeah, and beyond that. Is he still seeing his friends?”

“Yes, once in a while he’ll go out for some drinks with them.”

This is evidence that he’s not a shut-in. “Feel free to say it’s too personal for now, but just to check, does he still want sex?”

She blushes. “Not often, but, yes. Sometimes.”

“Okay. Does he talk about other things, or is it all trains all the time, now?”

“We barely talk at all, now, not like we used to.”

“What was the last conversation you had with him?”

“Oh, about the kids.”

“You have children?”

She smiles for the first time. “Yes, two. Both married, one with our first grandchild on the way.”

“Congratulations! And he’s still interested in them, and the grandchild?”

“Oh, yes. He put off our vacation so we’d be around the first few months.” Her smile is gone now. “Which normally I’d be in favor of too, but… there’s some sort of convention nearby around then that he’s still planning to go to.”

“A model train convention?” I guess.

“Yes, I’m telling you, he’s just…” She shakes her head, seemingly at a loss for words.

Sidebar 3: “Pathologizing” is the perception that any action or view that is unusual is automatically a sign of illness, despite no evident dysfunction or suffering. In decades past, previous versions of the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual labeled things like homosexuality a mental health illness due to a mentality that didn’t distinguish between “normal” and “healthy.” Newer versions of the DSM have eliminated most of those, and there’s a concerted effort among (good) psychologists and therapists to distinguish real pathology as something that causes direct suffering for the patient.

At this point, I might feel an urge to say “Okay, so… what exactly is the problem here? Just because your husband is spending hundreds of dollars and hours a month on model trains doesn’t mean he needs therapy. If it’s not affecting his sleep, or his appetite, or his work, or his social life… maybe he just likes trains, and that’s okay? It’s far from the worst hobby, and if it makes him happy, just let him like trains!”

I wouldn’t say this out loud, however, at least not in the first session, because even if I’ve become at least reasonably sure that the husband is okay, to say something like that would be dismissive of her experiences .

Regardless of what her husband is doing, she is clearly unhappy. And while she might think she can be the client but not the patient, the truth is, from a systemic lens, there is no distinction. The system she lives in, her marriage, is clearly dysfunctional for her in some way, as evidenced by how she’s suffering enough to come to a therapist. Perhaps her husband is too, in a non-obvious way that will be revealed through further questioning, but for now the focus would best be shifted to her.

There are a number of lenses through which to focus, however, and each might approach the problem in such different ways that they essentially become different problems .

  • A psychoanalytic therapist could delve into Marge’s past. Was her father distant with her, perhaps obsessed with his work or a hobby of his own? Did she have older siblings that left her out of their play? Was a childhood friend killed by a train? (Probably not that last one.)
  • A behaviorist could focus on the husband’s actions and develop strategies to reinforce or punish the ones she likes/dislikes. This would be pretty manipulative if the husband isn’t on-board, however, so instead the therapist might focus on ways to associate her husband’s hobby with positive emotions and experiences of her own.
  • An existentialist could help Marge delve into the emotional experiences she’s having, what she feels when she thinks of her husband in the basement or buying new models, and what needs she has that aren’t being met. The goal would be either to dissolve the problem entirely by reframing her expectations, or teaching her new tools to manage her mood and satisfy her emotional needs.
  • A systemic therapist could help by examining the overlapping systems she’s a part of; her marriage, her family, her social circles. Did she and her husband used to do more things together? What was their marriage like when the kids were still part of the household? How often does she spend time with her own friends or hobbies? Perhaps there are ways she could better communicate to her husband what her needs are so he can understand how she’s hurting, or examine what behaviors of hers might be reinforcing her husband’s without even realizing it.

While individual modalities might lack scientific backing, I believe the broader philosophies can each be suited to different types of problems. That still means that if a therapist only sees the world through one or two lenses, they might not be able to help their client as well as someone whose approach is the better fit.

Perhaps more importantly, each client can respond better to a different philosophy, even if they present with nearly identical problems. For some, just getting down to brass tacks and tackling the symptoms is their ideal, while for others, digging deep into their psyche is what they want and respond well to.

This is part of the reason why one of the major tenets of good therapy is “stay curious.” The more the therapist starts assuming they know what to expect from a client based on their presenting problem, no matter how often they’ve seen it before, the more likely they are to jump to conclusions about treatment that end up being a poor fit.

III. Modalities

A therapy modality is more specific than a philosophy; it’s not just a framework for what leads to dysfunction and how to correct it, but also a bundle of specific interventions and pathways, some more rigid than others, to lead the therapist and client from first session to last. Here’s just a few examples that I use regularly:

Cognitive Behavior Therapy is a mix of Existential and Behavioral. It focuses on the looping interactions between our thoughts, feelings, and behavior, and how they reinforce each other such that altering one can alter others. (Dialectic Behavioral Therapy leans even more into the Existential side, with extra attention on mindfulness and mood regulation.)

Solution-Focused Therapy is a mix of Systemic and Behavioral. It helps the client identify their strengths and resources in their social systems, as well as how those systems reinforce their behaviors or symptoms, or can be altered to better reinforce more desired ones.

Narrative Therapy is a mix of Systemic and Existential therapy. It asks the client to present the narrative of their life, identify the ways the story they tell themselves and its framing is influenced by the broader systems they’re a part of, then explores the way their narrative makes them feel while teaching techniques to better interface with those feelings.

And here’s a handy-dandy diagram that lists just a few of the different modalities, techniques, and interventions used in therapy. There are many more that exist, and there may be different ways of practicing each of these that bump them from one section of the diagram to an adjacent one, but I believe every modality and strategy of therapy can ultimately be placed somewhere on this image, depending on how much they focus on understanding the client’s past, interfacing with their thoughts and emotions, altering their behaviors, or adjustments to their environment/relationships.

(This is in no way a “complete” image, as there are dozens of different modalities and it would need to be massive to fit them all, but I figured it’s better to just publish with some listed and update it over time.)

IV. Change the Frame, Change the Problem

I like collecting lenses through which to view the world. Each is like a different kind of mental map that I can use to navigate the territory of reality, and just like different types of maps (some simplistic and cartoonish, others realistic and highly detailed) can be more or less useful for different purposes, even maps that I know are not literally correct can still have value.

Overall this post is an ur-map, my ur-map, of different maps I’ve learned about in the field of therapy. I don’t mean to present it as “the one true way to view therapy,” but I’ve found it very helpful, and I hope others can too. It’s also worth keeping in mind that it has many of the biases you’d expect from someone educated in an American college program that focused primarily on one particular philosophy.

Still, I think if more people were aware of the different lenses through which therapy can operate, they would better be able to navigate the sorts of problems that might lead them to a therapy office, maybe even help them find their way without going to one.

Next time you feel stuck in a particular way of thinking about your problems, a particular frame through which your problem seems insurmountable, try changing it. You might find it a lot more tractable than it seemed before.

Creating Boundaries

A large part of therapy for many people is learning how to create “healthy boundaries.” Whether adults or children, with friends or family, we often find ourselves having our desires ignored, our time undervalued, and sometimes even our bodies mistreated again and again, despite our attempts to express our preference against such things happening.

People who admit to having poor boundaries often look upon those that do not and wonder what the secret is. How do those people get treated with more respect? Why aren’t they mistreated as often?

There are plenty of potential answers in this space, from demeanor to status to power dynamics, but the most important thing to recognize is that when we talk about social boundaries, they do not exist as barriers that physically stop people from ever violating them.

All “having strong boundaries” means is that when someone pushes past a line you draw in the sand, or even just stumbles past it accidentally, you’re willing to push them back, gently or not. That’s it. Do that enough times, and voilà, you have boundaries.

Ideally, those pushes take the form of calmly stating your desires, and following through on consequences if they’re not respected. Unfortunately, if certain lines are crossed often enough, sometimes enforcing a boundary involves getting really, really mad, shouting and storming out and slamming the door, because anything less than that is just ignored. If the boundary crossed is a physical one, sometimes “pushing back” includes literal pushes.

And part of why some people have a harder time building and maintaining boundaries is that they have been conditioned to not ever do things like that, or the people violating their boundaries have power over them. Enforcing your boundaries is always an unpleasant thing to do, and sometimes it can be a dangerous thing to do.

But if you’re never willing to do any of those things, and you feel frustrated that people don’t seem to respect your desires or needs… this may be a large part of why.

Try not to push too hard at first, and don’t push thoughtlessly, but I’m here to tell you it’s okay to push back. The how and when might be complicated, but the will to protect yourself even if it upsets others others is the necessary first step.

Trauma

There’s a danger mode that society has been engaging in for years (decades/centuries/millenia?) that simply denied trauma. It was ignorant of trauma, or acted as if it didn’t exist, or verbally repudiated it. People were expected to tough out bad things that happened to them. Men especially were not allowed to express it, except (eventually) if it occurred as the result of war.

The pendulum has swung somewhat, and I hear rumblings of worry about whether we’re treating trauma too seriously. If we’re over-correcting and making things out to be more traumatic than they “really are,” and to what degree trauma is the result of people being told that something that happens to them is “traumatic” or is made a big deal of. This second failure mode concerning trauma is the worry that someone will fall off their bike, scrape their knee, and be taken to the hospital amidst parental tears and shock, thus cementing a lifelong fear of bikes or intolerance of pain.

While I think this second failure mode is probably true for things like how offended or outraged people get by things, I don’t think it’s in our sight-lines just yet for “actual trauma.” Over protective parents are a thing, always have been. If a kid falls off their bike, they are much more likely to cry if their parent freaks out. And yes, to some degree how society treats a thing will inform how people react to it. There are some people who are sexually molested or emotionally abused and essentially move on from it without ever telling anyone, or seeking professional help. This is particularly something you’ll hear from people who are older, and grew up before modern perspectives on trauma or awareness of abuse or rape was as prevalent as it is. There’s a fairly famous older man who got in some hot water for saying something like “Well, I was raped a number of times at the male boarding school I went to, and it sucked, but that was just a thing that happened. The older boys would do that often to the younger ones. It wasn’t the end of the world.”

People will look at accounts like this and be somewhat reinforced in believing that the response to traumatic events is moderately, or even largely, to blame for how traumatic it is.

But the thing to remember about trauma is that by its nature it is anti-correlated to reports and disclosures. You will hear more from the people who recovered from traumatic events or were not traumatized by bad events more often than you will those who were. This is axiomatic to what it even means to be traumatized by something vs not.

On top of the other points, like how no two situations are alike, and no two people are alike, and so making a general rule out of anecdotes is dangerous, it’s also hard to think of people who are actually traumatized by the response to a thing versus the thing itself. My experience is that Eddie Kaspbraks are really, really rare in real life, even in less stereotypical, absolute incarnations.

What I do run across instead, and quite often, are stereotypical incarnations of people who have spent years, if not decades, bottling up their trauma and appearing to all observers, even close observers, as if they’re okay, or as if the behaviors that they have that are harmful to themselves or others are just the result of who they are, and not what they’ve gone through, until something comes out and sheds light on dark machinery. Part of that just comes with the territory of my field of work, but even outside of it, that seems to be far more common than the inverse situation.

And when people who go through events others might call traumatizing, but who were not traumatized by it by some combination of factors that are so far unknown, see such people, I worry that their conclusion will be that this is proof that trauma is the result of low willpower or resilience or “grit” or whatever.

The pendulum may well be swinging toward society being too sensitive to traumatic fears and causing more harm than it’s preventing in highlighting bad experiences as “traumatic.” But so far I don’t know that I’ve seen enough evidence to conclude that for sure, and I hope we get better metrics and tools to determine if that’s in fact what’s happening before we start encouraging a narrative that might make those who suffer from trauma feel in some way as if it’s “all in their head,” like society used to.

On the Same Side

Sometimes I think about people, particularly those I disagree with strongly, in a sense of “but would they be on my side, ultimately?” The group of people likely to fight with me on something gets smaller as it goes higher on the list, but usually includes everything below it.

(I’m trying to keep these strictly life or death, or else there’s a ton that can go between them, every cause or injustice in the world that people are mostly like “yeah this sucks we should donate to it” but not “this is so bad would spend my life to end it or die trying”)

Quest to End Death

[Some more stuff probably goes here]

US Civil War II (Electric Boogaloo)

Widescale Terrorist Attack

Zombie/Post-Apocalypse Survival

Time Traveling Nazis (who are bad at using time travel)

Super Happy Alien Invasion

Mindless Evil Alien Invasion

Orson Scott Card

Here are three sentences:

Orson Scott Card is a hateful bigot.

Orson Scott Card has bigoted religious beliefs.

Orson Scott Card has aligned himself with bigots.

To some people, they are all different ways of saying the same thing, or just plain indistinguishable, particularly with an eye to consequences. To others, there is an important distinction about each; not just what they say about the shape of the beliefs themselves, their bedrock, but about the man himself, his epistemology and his values.

OSC is easily in the top 3 most influential writers in my life. Not just in regards to my love of reading or writing, in my life. I first read Ender’s Game when I was 12 and cried at the end of the very first chapter. I cried again at the end of the second. This probably says more about me and my life than the book, but the series as a whole has been powerfully moving and inspiring and motivating for me. I identified with Ender, but after I read Speaker for the Dead, I wanted to be one, an essentially made up profession, embodied by his older self. I would often ask myself “What Would Andrew Do?” and would get back answers that made me a kinder and braver and better person.

I first started looking into his beliefs about a decade ago, confused by the stilted and poorly written political commentary underlying Empire. I was shocked and heartbroken, and only read about a dozen articles and blog posts he’d written on various topics before I turned away from what seemed to be either the onset of dementia or a sad example of how people can calcify with old age. That may seem like a lot, but it’s not my usual deep dive into someone I really want to understand the perspective of with the goal of feeling I can reliably predict their stance on common topics. I gave up before then because, frankly, seeing a hero spout such toxic shit (not just about homosexuality) was painful.

I did the deep dive much more recently after being told that he was a respectable conservative thinker, and sadly, I can’t even give him that. But are any of those statements at the top true?

First, let’s define bigotry. For the purposes of this post, I’ll say “false beliefs about a specific demographic that knowingly disadvantage or cause harm to that demographic.”

To be clear, Card has said many times that he believes homosexuals deserve compassion and respect and safety. I have yet to hear him say anything clearly hateful toward gay individuals or people.

But Card has also said that gay sex is sinful and that not just gay marriage but sex should remain illegal, if for nothing else than to strike fear into the hearts of those who might practice it openly and thus “shake the confidence” of the community in its ability to police harmful behaviors. He has pushed the frame that homosexuality is more environmental than genetic, and linked its origins for many to “seduction,” molestation, and rape. He asserted that children need a mother and father rather than two of one, and has even said, as recently as 2008 after judges began ruling gay marriage bans unconstitutional, “How long before married people answer the dictators thus: Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down, so it can be replaced with a government that will respect and support marriage, and help me raise my children in a society where they will expect to marry in their turn.”

(No, none of that is made better by context or his justifications. It’s fairly easy to read his own words if you want to find them, and to me the words are clear. If we start to argue that he was being hyperbolic or hypothetical, we’ve stopped arguing about what he actually said and started arguing about what we want him to have meant by his words, and I don’t think that’s a productive line of discussion for someone who is clearly intelligent and articulate, and an accomplished writer who should know better than to be careless with language so repeatedly and in such a consistent pattern.)

((See also, Jordan Peterson))

This presents a seemingly intractable contradiction; how can someone who writes such intelligent and compassionate characters feel so fanatically about something so harmless?

I do not use that word lightly: it is one thing to say that you disagree with gay marriage, it is another to publicly state your position, and then it is yet another entirely to go to the lengths Card has gone to crusade against it. Card is, from a policy perspective, an anti-gay fanatic, shy of actually enacting the violence he insinuated multiple times was justified to “protect families.”

I put that in quotes, by the way, not because I don’t believe that OSC honestly believes that. I know it’s a justification that makes sense in his head. But I don’t think it changes much; if you’ve spoken with bigots at all, they always have justifications for bigotry. It does not transmute “false beliefs about a specific demographic that knowingly disadvantage or cause harm to that demographic” into something else.

Regardless of what he purports to believe about the sinner, he has spent more time and energy fighting this sin specifically than any other I could find save perhaps for Islamic terrorism after 9/11.

That, to me, is indicative of something more than someone holding an honest religious belief and advocating for it. There are, after all, others sins: Card planted his flag on this one, drew a slew of criticism and appeals to his better nature, and kept planting more flags, insisting all the while that he was being maligned and misunderstood.

(Which to some degree he was, but I don’t respect people who only engage with the worst of their critics, and his attitude has repeatedly been one I would characterize as self-righteous bitterness, in much the same way a lot of modern “Intellectual Dark Web” members talk about the “Intolerant Left.” Example: “Faggot” and “Homophobe” are “exactly analogous,” according to Card, and thus anyone who decries one and uses the other is apparently a hypocrite. This by the way is from an article that’s probably Card’s most liberal explanation of his views. Again, context does not help)

So: Why do that? Why accept the role of “villain” to so many without batting an eye? More to the point, why do it specifically to fight homosexuality?

The easy answer is religion, of course. Card would be far from the first bright mind whose rationality seems bizarrely warped by his sincere and unshakable faith, and further, bent to its service. CS Lewis wasn’t just a fiction writer but a prolific Evangelical apologetic who was capable of accepting evolution as a scientific theory, and truly understood what that meant, decades before the Catholic Church could manage to, but still drew a similar line at its implications for human origins. Card has expressed other bizarre beliefs that show a similar warping root, such as his insistence that the Book of Mormon is vanishingly unlikely to be a work of fiction, not by historic or archaeological evidence (fun fact: Card studied archaeology before he gave it up for being “hard work”), but by simple analysis of the text from the lens of one who also writes science fiction.

It’s important to highlight at this point that Card is not what I would consider a particularly rational person. Intelligent, certainly. And he does an amazing job of writing intelligent and rational character in stories.

But the magnitude of the mistake that Card makes in deciding that Mormonism is likely true because he can’t imagine that someone could write the Book of Mormon, structurally and stylistically and in richness of content, as a hoax… is so irrational I would call it hostile to rationality. It’s turning 180 degrees away from not just evidence, but reason as basic as Occam’s Razor and as complex as Bayesian Probability, to bend reality around what he wants to be true.

He shows similar irrationality with things like Anthropogenic Climate Change as recently as 2007, demonstrating not just stark ignorance of the scientific mechanisms and decades of research, but that he takes his news about those he disagrees with by their political enemies: his points were not original, but canned and labeled by conservative pundits and anti-global warming “news” sites. He showed a way of thinking that makes it clear that his epistemology is not grounded in truth seeking, but political considerations. He does not see those sounding the alarm over ACC as honestly mistaken: he sees them as conniving and dishonestly motivated, and writes a narrative that appeases that outcome rather than one that fits the facts or context or history.

So while religion is a tempting answer to Card’s efforts to bend reason over backwards to justify beliefs that primarily disadvantage homosexuals, there are plenty of Mormons and ex-Mormons who rejected such things, and it just doesn’t seem sufficient to answer the question of whether Card is a bigot, or just holds bigoted religious beliefs, or is just pinching his nose while standing aligned with bigots for the sake of strong personal conviction of what’s True and Right.

Still, if you truly believe that your faith is right and you want to act out its tenets, and that those others of your faith who disagree are just misled or hypocritical, then the Good and Brave thing to do is plant your feet and tell the world “No, you move.

Right?

Weeell…

There’s another problem with blaming his religion. I’ve been saying bigotry all this time, both because “homophobic” has other connotations, and I don’t think this question can only be applied to homosexuality, sadly.

Mormonism is historically an explicitly racist religion which barred African Americans from full participation until 1978 (when Card was 27), which is about when God apparently realized that being tax-exempt might be more important than preventing interracial marriage or black priests.

And I can’t for the life of me find where Card came out against that, or talked about the church’s racist views. If someone can find an article on it, please send it to me: it could be a crux for this next part.

Because remember, that’s his justification for being against homosexuality: you “can’t serve two masters.” If God says X, you don’t try to insist that it’s genetic or that the law of the land says it’s okay, you either accept God’s word or you don’t.

So what were Card’s views on black Mormons? What are they now? Because gay marriage is legal now, but in a world where tax-exempt status for religions relied on willingness to perform gay marriages, I wonder if he would accept God’s about-face.

The world may never know. But I surely wonder, because Card’s views on Obama’s presidency reek of a similar and startling fervency to his crusade against gay marriage that makes me uneasy.

I should note first that I find accusations that any criticism of Obama are racist to be tiring and dangerous. There’s a lot you could criticize Obama for: expansion of the spy state, excessive use of drone strikes, not protecting whistleblowers, failing in his promise of transparency, too many executive orders, unwillingness to compromise with Republicans (if you’re conservative), attempting to compromise too much (if you’re liberal), and so on.

But I know racists who criticize Obama, and I know people-I-have-no-reason-to-believe-are-racist who criticize Obama, and there’s a pattern I’ve noticed in the former. While Card doesn’t quite fit that pattern, and breaks from it entirely in some places, he made one that seems to run parallel to it in other places.

In 2012, Card made the rare step of admitting that a politician he disagreed with as fervently as possible, Obama, is a better person than the one whose policies he supported, Gingrich. That’s ridiculously uncommon. He also claimed in 2008 that he voted for Obama in the Primary, though ultimately he ended up supporting McCain because Obama was seen as soft on Islamic Extremism (a view Card continued to hold even after Bin Laden was killed) and his fear of “dictator-judges.”

And then he wrote Unlikely Events, where, in regards to foreign policy, Obama is called “the dumbest president in history” not 5 years after Bush left office. You know, the guy who started the worst military blunder since the Vietnam war with no exit plan and caused massive instability in the region. No, it’s not better that Card named white guys who have never held office as runnerups; somehow it’s still America’s first black president who has that honor.

Do I think he would have said that if Obama wasn’t black?

Do I think he would say that “Obama is, by character and preference, a dictator” if Obama wasn’t black?

Do I think he would “imagine” (all in good fun, of course, haha, it’s just me Card the kooky science fiction writer imagining things that definitely won’t happen the way we science fiction writers do) Obama turning “young out-of-work urban men” into a national police force to maintain his dictatorship if Obama wasn’t black?

Or that he would say “Having been anointed from the start of his career because he was that magical combination — a black man who talks like a white man (that’s what they mean by calling him “articulate” and a “great speaker”) — he has never had to work for a living, and he has never had to struggle to accomplish goals. He despises ordinary people, is hostile to any religion that doesn’t have Obama as its deity, and his contempt for the military is complete.” if not?

…I really don’t think he would. That level of unhinged-from-reality means those false beliefs have to come from somewhere, and maybe he’s just really, really bad at filtering truth from lies and misinformation, like with ACC, and so if Obama were white the general criticism of Obama would be less unhinged and the pundits Card follows and their views of his policies would be less divorced from reality. But also maybe it’s easier for him not to filter unflattering lies about Obama than Bush for some reason.

(Counter-evidence: Card has, thankfully, criticized Trump fairly often, calling him dictatorial as well. But he also voted for him, and as far as I know, he has not apologized for or amended his views of Obama in light of what the real deal looks like.)

Part of me is asking myself right now, “Hey now, despite insisting he’s a Democrat, he very clearly holds a lot of conservative views. Isn’t extreme and undeserved hatred of Obama just part of standard conservative dogma?”

And another part of me responds, “Yes. And your point is?”

My mom is a racist. I love her, but she is. She’s not often a hateful racist. She has minority friends. I’m pretty sure she voted for Obama.

But she’s still a racist who believes certain ethnicities are intrinsically better or worse at certain things, who is quicker to attribute negative features to someone’s race if they’re not white, and who holds all sorts of prejudices both big and small. It’s a sad cultural feature of many in her generation, and seems even more prevalent for those who are even older… like Card is.
So, just on priors, what are the odds that Card avoided that cultural and generational feature? Would 50% be fair? Just from my observations of my parents’ generation, way too generous. 20% feels closer to right, and still may be generous.

All I know is that his attitude toward Obama, which is wildly out of scope in its criticism compared to the reality of what Obama’s presidency entailed (like most conservatives), strikes me as suspicious in the same way as when my mom told me I couldn’t sleep over my black neighbor’s house when I was 8 because he “lives too far” struck me as suspicious, given that “too far” in this case was a walk of less than a minute within the same gated community.

She was always friendly to him when he was around. I genuinely think she held no hate in her heart toward him. That didn’t change the fact that her perspective is racist, the same way her blatant preference for white residents years later while on the HOA for the community was racist.

So. Do I really think the man who wrote Alvin Maker is a racist? The man who wrote Magic Street?

I’m not sure. I don’t think so, by most definitions of that word. Again, he has not said anything explicitly racist, and has written against the evils of racism.

But there are suspicious underlying failures in thinking, which can collectively be called prejudices, that I can’t ignore. He doesn’t do well based on priors, and together with the way he pattern matches onto people I know who have stronger-than-average prejudice, the underlying irrationality that Card has shown himself more than capable of can include racism.

Alright, let’s look at these again.

Is Card a hateful bigot?

Insofar as that word denotes hatred or disgust, I don’t think so. Being so vociferously anti-gay marriage, like being disproportionately inclined to think the worst of Obama, is mild evidence for hatred or disgust, but not strong evidence.

Does Card hold bigoted religious beliefs?

Undoubtedly. Justifications do not excuse bigotry; the fact that his honest faith tells him that homosexuality is a sin does not absolve him of responsibility for the actions of that belief. Someone who shoots an abortion doctor is still a murderer, no matter how good their intentions or true their belief. Just so, someone who argues for inequality on religious grounds is still espousing bigotry.

Does Card align himself with bigots?

In many ways, yes. He fought the same fight with the same goals. He argued against hatred or violence, but he still worked to deprive gay men and women of equal rights, and stayed in and supported the Mormon church for years despite its racism.

To someone who faces oppression, these questions are academic at best and disingenuous at worst. I understand that from the person getting hit, the intentions don’t matter. I don’t say “most Trump supporters are racist” because I don’t think it’s true, but I don’t nitpick friends who say it because “most Trump supporters don’t care sufficiently about racism to let it influence their vote” looks and feels close enough.

But I think it’s important to note that, while hatred is about values, prejudice is ultimately built on poor thinking. One can be solved by education, another can’t.

Unless, of course, the value of Truth is too low on the hierarchy. There’s a chance that Truth just doesn’t matter overly much to Card. He has too many beliefs that come not just from the land of ignorance but of falsehood. When that includes religion and poorly fact-checked conservative websites, neither of which are particularly known for their tolerance or promotion of real equality, again, it seems hard to care about the difference.

Card is not, ultimately, a simple person who can easily be put into a box. I don’t think he’s an evil person. I think he’s genuinely disgusted by overt or even covert bigotry, and insofar as he was cheering on homophobes fighting gay marriage, he did it with a fervent wish that they would be more compassionate and kind. In my list of grand alliances, I think he ends up pretty high.

But at the end of the day, when I think of what’s more appropriate for a situation, conflict theory vs mistake theory, what I tend to think of is how tractable the disagreement is, and what the consequences of someone’s beliefs and actions are.

For conflict vs mistake theory, Card does not seem simply mistaken. He doesn’t act like he seeks Truth. He acts as though he is fighting a war, to preserve Mormonism, Americanism, Life, Liberty, etc… but sort of in that order? Where each value is colored by the one preceding it, and I can see him holding evidence in his hand that Mormonism was made up or that ACC is true or that Bush lied about WMDs and just tossing it in the trash.

And for consequences, at the end of the day, giving him as much agency as I want others to give me, Card has now spent decades seeing his words hurt people he insisted he held no animosity toward, for no reason and to no gain other than the strength of his conviction and faith… and he stayed the course until the bitter end, moderating his language only when his side lost. He could have put in the hard effort of looking his belief in the eyes and judging, as a being of reason, whether it was justified or just caused pain. He could have “evolved” on homosexuality as many do, like Obama ostensibly did. He chose not to.

I don’t respect that. More importantly, I don’t think it’s what Andrew would have done.

My feelings for Card used to be complicated. Now they’re just a little sad and a lot disappointed. Maybe someday before he dies he’ll recognize his mistakes and not go down in history with such a tarnished legacy. I hope so.

But thankfully, art and man are separate. Thankfully, truth doesn’t belong in a person, and someone can stumble onto it even when a little lost. I can look at the wisdom of many of his books and characters and draw from them, without being bothered by the contradictions and irrationality, if maybe not quite bigotry, in the man himself.

Arguing with Adults

This is a quick summary and mash-up of the sorts of things I often tell kids about arguing with adults, particularly their parents and sometimes their teachers.
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Quick disclaimer, a lot of what I’m talking about here is using generalized assumptions, like that your parents are mostly responsible adults, and love you, and have some sense of fairness, and are not suffering from mental illness, and are not in some altered state of mind due to drugs or alcohol. This may not be the case for all of you all the time, and I’m sorry about that. For those of you it does apply to, try not to lose sight of how lucky that makes you. It doesn’t always seem like much, but it at least might allow some of this advice to come in handy.
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Before talking about how to win arguments, it’s vital to understand power imbalances and learning to lose. When you learn self-defense, one of the first things they teach is learning when not to fight at all. If you take a martial arts course so you can go around beating people up, you’re going to get in trouble one way or another. Similarly, you have to be capable of recognizing arguments that are winnable and those that are not, so you can pick your battles.
Your parents have power in your house, and you don’t. Your teachers have power at school, and you don’t. That means sometimes you have to be ready to lose an argument, even if it means admitting to and apologizing for something that wasn’t entirely your fault, or being the bigger person and apologizing first even when it’s not fair. When you’re older and driving, and a cop pulls you over and tells you you were speeding when you know you didn’t speed, would you argue with them? What do you think would happen next? Arguing with adults as a child can be similar. This does not mean you should not have any pride, or just always admit to things you didn’t do to avoid arguments. It just means that sometimes the real time to fight is later.
If you forget that you’re arguing with someone who has more power than you, you’re more likely to say or do things that will get you in trouble. On the other hand, if you learn to pick your battles, you can earn trust by admitting defeat on things, which will be important in arguments that you can potentially win. Kids who always drag every argument out no matter how many times their parent says “no” quickly lose the impact of fighting hard for something when it really matters and might make a difference.
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An extension of that is situational awareness, particularly of status imbalances. Parents and teachers don’t just have more power than you, they also demonstrate status differences that are socially reinforced between adults and children in general. If you’re not polite or don’t show respect, even if you have a good reason not to, adults will often get more upset with you than they would if another adult did the same thing.
This is especially true if other adults or children are present: if you are rude to your parents around their friends or while out in public, their embarrassment will often make them more angry with you, and they may feel like they have to be more strict or else be seen as “bad parents.” If you contradict or are rude to your teacher around other students, they may feel as though they have to respond with stronger punishment to show that they are in charge and that the other students have to respect them. Do not forget the social context you’re in when arguing with adults. Try and be polite and respectful, even if you are angry, or you will make arguments even harder to win.
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With those two things in mind, the most important thing to remember when arguing with anyone is different priorities and values. It is almost impossible to win an argument with anyone if you do not understand their perspective, including what they want or care about, and why. When arguing with your parents, you have to recognize that they have different concerns and goals than you do. To use some simple examples and generalize a bit, they want you to be safe, your grades to be high, and your chores to be done, likely in that order. Most parents don’t care how well you do in your video games, or how much you want to spend the weekend with your friends. This is not the same thing as not wanting you to be happy: I didn’t list that above because happiness is hard to measure, while those other things are not.
The point is that their priorities are often skewed toward what they believe is best for you and the family in general, right or wrong, and yours are more often skewed toward what will make you happy. A more severe example is that, compared to how much your parents want to be able to afford the bills, they may care very little how much happier you will be if you get to eat out, or can have those shoes or clothes you want. To reduce conflict and improve your ability to reach compromises or win an argument, it helps a lot when you can demonstrate that you understand what they want and don’t shy away from it just because it is not what you want. Show that you actually can take their priorities seriously, and it can be a lot easier to build up the trust needed to convince them to give you leeway sometimes.
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You will almost always be entering an argument with reputation. You are going to be judged by what you’ve done or failed to do in the past. More, you will often be judged by what they believe you’ve done or failed to do in the past, regardless of whether you argue that they’re wrong. And even more than that, you may be judged by what your siblings or classmates have done, mistrusted by association. It’s not unheard of to be judged by what complete strangers do that your parents heard about and are now worried you will do.
All of which sucks. But the one thing you have control over is your behavior, and how well you have earned trust on your own. I can’t promise that everyone will always care about this, but I have often seen how much arguing with bad reputation is like fighting on quicksand. Your behavior sets an expectation of you, and that expectation will either be in your favor or against you. Trust is important in arguments. If you make a habit of saying you’ll do something and then forget to do it, you lose the trust needed to negotiate in future arguments.
So when you’re trying to decide whether to do something or ignore something that will upset someone, particularly your parents, you have to weigh not just the short-term gain you get by doing it, but also the long-term difficulty it will cause you in future conversations and arguments when your parents or teachers are unable to trust you as much as you or they might want.
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Building up all that trust is important, because it’s the cornerstone of any negotiation. This is the actual work of winning an argument with adults. It may not seem like negotiation is the right word for all kinds of arguments, and it may not be for every single one, but you might be surprised by how many arguments ultimately can be described as negotiations, or can be reframed as one to help reach a positive conclusion. Kids often argue with their parents about what they’re allowed to do, or what they want, and if the parent is resistant, it’s usually because they are being asked to give something up or compromise something they want, even if it’s invisible or not a big deal to the kid.
When you ask to stay up late, from their perspective you’re actually asking them to risk your health or ability to get up on time tomorrow morning, to risk an argument and being late to school or them late to work. Even if it’s on a weekend, you’re asking them to let you change your sleep schedule, which may carry over to Monday morning. These are the things you are negotiating for. These considerations are what parents often think about all the time.
You have to have something else to offer in return, and I’m not talking about something like money. It might be extra chores that you offer to do, but you can instead also offer your well-being in other ways. If you’re doing well in school, you have more leeway to say something like “I really need some extra time to relax after this week.” What I’ve observed is that parents are easier to talk into the things their kids want when the kid has good grades, does their chores, and is well behaved in general. This probably seems obvious, but it’s worth reiterating that these are things your parents want for and from you, and so they are what you have to negotiate with.
This also extends to more important arguments about, say, your future career, or your romantic lives, or your religious choices. These are areas where what you want to be happy and what your parents want for you are at odds because of different expectations about the world and different information. Arguments like these, including those about some scientific fact or political belief, can also be framed as a negotiation of sorts: the thing you’re negotiating for is often respect.
Parents want to make sure that you understand and respect their knowledge and experiences and perspective (whether it’s wrong or not), and offering them that respect as best you can, doing your best to make sure you show that you understand where they’re coming from, can often help a lot in such arguments, even if you still end up disagreeing forever. Which is okay too: it’s normal for parents and kids not to agree about everything. There are some arguments that you will never win with your parents, but should never feel the need to lose, either.

(Edit: for those who want more on this, r!Animorphs writer Duncan Sabien, aka TK17, has a video out where he goes even more in depth on the topic. Definitely worth checking out!)

Naiveté

I’ve heard the word “naive” bandied about fairly often in lofty (or not so lofty) philosophical debates, and thrown it around a time or two myself, though I’ve been trying to stop recently.  I started thinking about the word and how it really applies after witnessing an exchange where both parties on opposite sides of an issue called one-another naive.  They clearly weren’t using it in the most common form of “inexperienced” or “gullible.”

Probably the best functional definition of “naive” I can think of is one who believes overmuch in the simplicity of cause and effect. In my experience most of the important and contentious topics are incredibly complex and multilayered, and naivete isn’t simply believing something others tell you without question so much as believing the easiest/most appealing explanation available, despite lack of empirical support or extensive experience in the matter.

(To stave off an invocation of Occam’s Razor: the law of parsimony is about accepting the explanation that fits all the facts while making the least new and unproven assumptions.  When both arguments are based on unproven philosophical tenets or claims that are not easy to verify, neither can be employing Occam’s Razor.)

As an example, here’s a simplified conversation I’ve heard from many different people and been a part of multiple times:

Person A: “All rich people are selfish.  They can never fix problems, because ultimately they’re looking out for themselves.  All the major problems in the world come from the rich hoarding wealth from everyone else.”

Person B: “I don’t think that’s true. It might be harder for an unselfish person to become rich, but there are plenty of selfish people who aren’t wealthy too, who do exactly the same things as the rich, on smaller scales.  It stands to reason they’d do the same thing if they were rich, so the problems aren’t due to rich people’s character: we just notice it more from them because they have so much more influence, so it’s easier to see.  It would take a lot of poor people doing something selfish to match one selfish act of a rich person, but each act might be just as selfish.”

Person A: “You can’t blame the poor for trying to survive in a world that’s hostile to them.”

Person B: “But that’s a matter of circumstance then, not character. By your argument if the rich person was poor, they would be doing the exact same thing due to their circumstance, so there’s no moral classification or blame you can apply to people based on wealth.”

Person A: “That’s because the system itself forces people to be haves or have-nots.  You can’t gain without someone else losing, so the most selfish and ruthless people are the ones who get to the top.”

Person B: “That’s only true in zero-sum economics, not all commerce.  Maybe people who engage in that kind of business are greedier than people who don’t, but there are plenty of corporations who became rich by positive-sum means.”

Person A: “You’re so naive.  Open your eyes and look around you at all the terrible things the wealthy do!”

Person B: “I am, and I see good and bad people in all walks of life, doing good and bad things to everyone. You’re the one who’s naive by thinking in such absolutes!”

So.  Here we have two people who are using “naive” in very clearly distinct ways.  Person A is calling B naive in the sense of “Thinks the world is a better place than it is.”  While this certainly is related to lack of experience or insight in our culture, where the dominant discourse for children is that the world is a good, fair, just place, it’s not laterally translatable: he’s effectively calling Person B an optimist, which Person B may not actually be.  His stance in this situation is considered optimistic only from Person A’s perspective, who is far in the negative side of the Pessimist/Optimist scale.  From the hypothetical Person C’s far positive side of it, Person B’s contentions that not only rich, but also poor people act selfishly, is what marks him as a pessimist, as Person C would say that ascribing negative emotions to people’s actions is assuming the worst.  If B and C were in a debate, B might eventually call C naive in the same way that A called B.

However, when Person B called Person A naive, he was using it in a different way: he was accusing Person A of taking the “easy” route of dividing the world between “Have” and “Have-not,” which can be just another way of saying “Evil” and “Good.”  This is also related to lack of experience or insight, as this kind of moral or sociological dichotomy are prevalent in everything from childhood stories, whose audience is by definition uneducated in complex systems,  to major blockbusters, which still simplify those systems immensely to create easy-to-digest narratives (think of House of Cards, which is cynical and thus believable, but still presents a very simplistic view of government). Person B is criticizing Person A on the simplicity of his beliefs based on lack of information. And this is also much more objective label he’s placing on Person A: that his views are uninformed. That can be verified.  It’s a falsifiable criticism.

Furthermore, it’s hard to do the same to Person A as we did with Person B and imagine someone else on the other side of Person A, making an even simpler proposition that make sense in any way: they could only make a similarly simple but wildly different view, such as that “All poor people are lazy and all rich people are hard workers.” or “God/karma rewards good deeds and punishes bad.”

Simple doesn’t mean wrong, but it does mean easy to believe, and the less someone knows on a topic, the easier it is to convince them of anything about it.  That’s the source of my distrust in simplicity, and why “naive” will always primarily connote a lack of understanding.   Just as one encounter with someone from another culture can give rise to a simplistic stereotype, immersion in that person’s culture, and meeting multiple people from it, gives an understanding of complexity.  The same goes for any job, or hobby, or genre of art.  It’s easy to accept simple beliefs that we have no information or experience on.

The older we get, the more experience and information we have, and the more complex our worldviews become in some respects, while others generally don’t. If my model of how beliefs are formed is correct, the areas of our lives we have experience in give rise to more complex views.  Those that we remain ignorant on, stay simple. People usually don’t realize this, because wildly complex things are often summed up by simple explanations, to make it easier to understand. “Gravity makes things fall down.”  Sounds simple, but the words themselves mean nothing more than “Thor makes lightning in clouds” unless you actually know what “gravity” is, and why “down” is subjectively defined the way it is.  As a child, the words are enough: to someone educated in the fields, astrophysics can be an elaborate and complex lens to view something as simple as a falling apple through.

Just so for debates about social matters, or economics.

Most people will freely admit their naivete in a scientific field unless we’ve studied it extensively, and sometimes even then.  Even deniers of global warming or evolution will not pretend to be experts in physics or astronomy or chemistry. Where there are no implications beyond the field’s purview, people don’t care enough to fool themselves into pretend expertise. As soon as some mathematical theory is shown to have implications that people disagree with, I predict a higher number of people who will pretend expertise in mathematics, or willfully ignore the importance of their lacking such.

Meanwhile, social matters are all about the implications.  It’s hard to find a topic related to people’s behavior or society’s norms that doesn’t bump up against people’s Values in some way. And so people who have never seriously studied anthropology, world history, economics, psychology, government, etc, nevertheless feel confident that their understanding of such topics, simple as they may be, are sufficient to reach correct beliefs.

Acknowledging complexity would directly challenge our surety in the rightness of our Values, and so we do not confront our naivety in these fields because it is far easier to take an assertive stance that makes sense to our Values than to face the uncertainty of a complex world. But that’s exactly what we have to be willing to do if we want to ensure our beliefs are aligned with reality.

Simplicity should be embraced in predictive models that are demonstrated to work, but we should be skeptical of it when debating hypotheses about how the world works.  Being “naive” is considered a bad thing because it makes one easy to fool… including by one’s own preferences and biases.

Disgust and Politics

So, I don’t particularly believe or disbelieve the latest scandalous Trump story about his ties to Russia. I’m waiting on more evidence.

But I find it morbidly amusing that people seem to think some of the weirder details of the report are so important, like him supposedly paying prostitutes to pee on the mattress that Obama would sleep on.

Even for Trump that seems ridiculously pointless and petty, but the thing is, I don’t think any appreciable amount of his supporters would care even if it were true. This is a potential “scandal” in the sense that it would “scandalize” those who already dislike him, while those who voted for him would, at worst, cheer on such behavior, and at best, wrinkle their nose and say “How distasteful, but really, we need to better control our border.”

If the actual ties to Russia are substantiated maybe it would provide Republicans in congress enough cover to start an impeachment process so they could get the ultra-conservative Mike Pence that they really want. But other than that, in terms of how his supporters feel about him, I don’t see it really mattering even if true, given all the other things that have already come out about him.

I recently saw a post on facebook about a line from the great book Thinking, Fast and Slow:

“The psychologist, Paul Rozin, an expert on disgust, observed that a single cockroach will completely wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a cherry will do nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches.”

A lot’s happened since I first read that paragraph in the book itself, and upon rereading it, my mind reached for an analogy to politics. What it grasped was mostly shapeless, just vague ideas. After thinking about it more since, I don’t think that initial reaching was justified. Politics is nothing like a bowl of cherries with a cockroach in it. Or maybe it is, but the above quote doesn’t apply as cleanly.

To millions of American, the analogy might fit in that there are certain beliefs that are “cockroaches” which poison any given person’s bowl of cherries. Liberals might think a conservative politician is wrong, greedy, ignorant, whatever, but still not consider them “unfit for office” even if they want to dismantle social security. However, if the politician has said anything remotely racist or sexist, to liberals this seems to be a cockroach that should bar them from office, and liberals will often be the loudest to express shock and disgust at conservatives for not feeling similarly. Of course, many conservatives do, but the tolerance point is clearly set at a different place. Many conservatives agree that such views are “clearly wrong,” but they like the politician’s views on on taxes or abortion, so what’s a few cockroaches here and there?

On the other side, (traditionally, recent times seem to have changed things) conservatives might think a liberal politician is stupid, naive, soft, whatever, but really only raise a howl if there’s some type of sex scandal or infidelity, and express shock and disgust that liberals don’t seem to care as much as they do. Again, some liberals do, but again, the tolerance point appears to be set differently, in general. I’ve seen many liberals bemoan the “sex obsessed” culture of politics in the US, and wish for less Puritan views, like those of much of Europe, where presidents can be bachelors, or have mistresses without being demonized. Sure, Bill Clinton may have cheated on his wife with an intern (after all, maybe the two have “an arrangement”), but the economy was great, and we didn’t invade any countries! Aren’t those cherries juicy?

But beyond vague ideas like that, the analogy falls apart. There are too many examples of people who are happy to vote for a bowl of cockroaches, even if only for a single, juicy enough cherry. And since politics in the US often comes down to a choice between two imperfect options, I can understand that. If I had to eat either a bowl of 6 cockroaches and 4 cherries or a bowl of 8 cockroaches and 2 cherries, well, that’s life sometimes.

The only really concerning part is when tribalism rears its ugly head, and cockroaches are called cherries to avoid admitting flaws, or quietly ignored so as to avoid that feeling of dissonance. “What is true is already so. Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.”

I feel like if we were all more honest and upfront about where our lines in the dirt are and aren’t, it would help clear up a lot of the conversations and arguments about who we vote for and why. It also might reduce the toxicity and antagonism around political discussions, if people are willing to admit (to themselves as well as others) how imperfect their politicians are, and hold them to a higher standard on both sides.

Then again, that requires us to actually spend time thinking about what we’re really willing to tolerate and why, and that’s a hard thing to do until reality forces particularly strange or distasteful truths and choices upon us.

I Notice That I Am Upset/Angry

In Chapter 20 of The Origin of Species, Red uses a mental flowchart to identify why he’s so upset at something Psychic Narud said to him.  People have asked what it’s from, so here is a rough draft of that flowchart in its entirety.  I came up with it as a way to help clients improve awareness of what upsets them and work through why, and you’re welcome to use it as you will. (You may need to view image in a new tab to read it.)

I Notice That I Am Upset