Category Archives: Blog

Cleanliness Orientation

For Alice, a clean home means it’s been dusted, vacuumed, and window-wiped sometime in the past week, with all the dirty laundry in their hamper and all the clean clothes already folded and put away, no dishes in the sink, no visible garbage poking out the top of cans, and no visible stains anywhere.

For Bob, a “clean home” isn’t incompatible with having some clothes draped on furniture (but not the floor), some dishes in the sink and some garbage in bags by the door; he’ll take them out all together at some point soon. The bed doesn’t need to be made, the bookshelf doesn’t need to be dusted… that stuff’s just extra work.

For Carol, as long as nothing is rotting or liable to trip someone, it’s “good enough.” Sure, it may not be “clean,” but it’s livable and safe and with two kids and a dog running around that’s all she feels she’s got the energy for. She may do some extra cleaning if guests are coming over, but she doesn’t stress about it day to day.

David doesn’t have kids or a dog, he’s just not bothered by the state of his home. He works 10+ hours a day, and spends most of his time at home in bed, watching TV, or on the computer. The pile of dirty laundry by the door and the stain on the couch aren’t hurting anyone, nor is the perpetual pile of dirty dishes in the sink; he rinses them first, after all, and he can clean them as he needs them.

And still others live with the perpetual stink of pet urine that’s steeped into the carpet, boxes of junk crowding the halls and living spaces, and other stuff that makes a therapist called to the house for crisis intervention go “Oh…”

But let’s put that last category aside. Even within the range of what would generally be considered “normal,” whether you’re the kind of person who feels a need to scrub the toilet every week, the kind of person who is now wondering when the last time they scrubbed their toilet was, or somewhere between, the chances that you’ll end up sharing your living space or life with someone who has exactly the same ideas of clean as you are fairly small.

Of course “exactly the same” isn’t necessary. Most people can get along okay as long as they fall within the same general range of turnover for chores.

But deeply ingrained in all of us is a sense of what “clean,” “fine,” or “messy” looks like, feels like, smells like. And it’s not just a matter of taste or preference; something about our nature and nurture have instilled a sense of normalcy to certain environments. The affordance widths tend to be lopsided toward cleanliness, as most people are comfortable in environments cleaner than their baseline, but if it goes too far it can still be stressful (if that seems weird to you, imagine the feeling of being in a very rich stranger’s mansion and being told to make yourself at home while every move you make is under careful watch).

How does the orientation frame help?

I can’t count how many times I’ve observed or experienced the following type of interaction:

Bob: I thought you were going to clean the kitchen last night?

Alice: Uh… I did?

Bob: The top of the fridge wasn’t dusted.

Alice: Well I didn’t know you wanted me to do that.

Bob: Can you do it now?

Alice: It feels pointless. No one’s regularly going up there for anything.

Bob: It’s still bad for our health to have dust build up in the house.

Alice: Says who?

Bob: *googles it* See?

Alice: *googles it too* No, look, see?!

In reality, a google war isn’t a bad outcome; at least the question is being put to some objective measure, and evidence might even soften one or the other’s position. If Bob is Alice’s parent, the answer in most cases is “Because I said so.”

Assuming research is brought into it, however, what Bob might discover is that regardless of what the research says, he can’t actually feel comfortable unless the fridge is dusted, while Alice discovers that also regardless of the research, the risk is so small that the hassle of getting a footstool and wiping the top of the fridge still feels like an onerous and pointless chore. 

But “This is a pointles chore” is different from “This is making X happy,” and even that is different from “This is making X comfortable.” Recognizing that the issue is more important for one person than the other can short-cut the debate entirely.

Of course it might raise a more important point: whose responsibility is it to appease Bob’s orientation? Again, if Bob is the parent, the default is probably going to be “everyone’s.” If they’re roommates, Bob might feel bad asking others to accommodate him if the thing he needs feels too far outside the “expected norm.” That might also apply to a romantic relationship, though Alice might also accommodate Bob knowing he would do the same for her.

It can also be tempting to think “Well it’s not a lot of effort, really, especially compared to cleaning the whole kitchen. Why make a big deal about it?” But doing a chore that feels necessary vs one that doesn’t can have a huge impact on motivation, and when it comes to something that needs even more regular maintenance, like making the bed, or affects the way you live day to day, like eating somewhere besides the table, conforming entirely to another person’s preferences in every way can be a very onerous ask.

For some people the idea that how clean a house should be is as “important” as whether or not the relationship is monogamous or how involved extended family is silly, and I’m not necessarily saying they’re wrong. Most people find it much less important, both on an emotional and a consequential level. Not all orientations are created equal, and cleanliness is much closer to the “preference” side of the spectrum than extended family, let alone sexuality.

But if you consider how consistently your living environment will be around you day to day, it can be a bit easier to see why this is something that can be important to use the orientation lens on, and why the expectation that others “just relax” or “just do more” can miss the mark on what they’re actually asking of each other.

Extended Family Orientation

In an ideal world, everyone comes from lovely, supportive families that accept whoever they marry and get along with their new in-laws and respect the couple’s boundaries and wishes for how their children will be raised.

Unfortunately, in the real world, many people want little or nothing to do with their families once they’re adults, in-laws regularly make snide or condescending comments whenever they visit, and statistically speaking your own parents probably don’t respect your boundaries, let alone those of your partner.

Some people have great relationships with their family, and don’t understand how anyone could not want to visit on holidays or have grandparents involved in child rearing. Others get along okay with their parents while recognizing their flaws, but feel awkward about how adamantly their spouse dislikes them, or vice-versa. Bad enough if holidays are the only times tensions rise; what if you live near one or both sets of parents? Can they drop in any time? Who’s responsible for telling them they can’t, if someone’s not comfortable with that?

Unlike sexual or romantic orientation, I believe family orientation is mostly the result of nurture rather than nature. Some cultures, particularly Western ones, are very individualistic; “I married you, not your family” is a phrase you might hear fairly often in couples counseling. But other cultures have a very strong family orientation, such that it’s taken for granted that multiple generations will live together; when you marry someone, you are in a very real sense joining their family, not just creating a new independent unit.

In addition to the effects of culture are the effects of upbringing. A loving and nurturing family will make it easy for people to want to involve family in their lives even after they grow older and start their own. A mixed upbringing or family with some good and bad members or memories may make some extended enmeshment feel acceptable, but not too much. And a traumatic upbringing will make people want to never see their family again, or (sadly often) feel guilted into doing so by those family members or their culture while continuing to suffer… though it might make someone very happy to spend time with their partner’s family, if it’s less dysfunctional.

There are some real, hard questions that need to be answered in this space. Not just how involved in potential children’s lives will they be or how often you’ll visit whose family, but also how will you care for family members if they get old/sick? Will they live with you? How much will you be expected to bend to family’s preferences vs standing firm on your own? How much should you contribute to bailing family out of poor financial decisions? How much is “appropriate” to tell your family about your relationship?

When two people have very different orientations on this it can cause endless drama, and that gets worse if one side’s family is actually abusive or manipulative in ways that they’re used to and find hard to notice.

How does the orientation frame help?

Communication and clear expectations are key to navigating these issues in general, and just speaking your preference and inviting your partner’s perspective on how much or little you prefer extended family be involved in the new family you create together can be very valuable.

Some people are very open about this (“If my family doesn’t like you we have a problem,” or “I don’t want to see my family ever again”), and if that’s the case, respecting those orientations is important. It isn’t necessarily mutual; some people are okay with their partner’s family but not their own, might even prefer them. But respecting your partner’s boundaries when it comes to family involvement, particularly their own, can head off a lot of difficulties.

This is an orientation where change is possible to some degree, because it’s predicated in large part on extrinsic factors. Most people would want supportive, loving, interesting people in their life. Most people do not want selfish, hurtful, boring people in their life, but will make an exception for family because they’ve been conditioned to think it’s okay or normal. If you notice your partner’s orientation is very closed to extended family involvement, noticing why that might be the case can be very useful; if it’s something that can be changed, changing it might help their orientation soften. 

But don’t try to change their mind without at least recognizing the cause of it, and notice that the frame of “orientation” still points to something intrinsic; even with perfectly fine and positive family members on both sides, some people are more private than others, or more introverted, or more independent. 

Relationship Orientation

Most people think of sexual orientations as pretty straightforward: hetero/homo/bi/pan/asexuality may exist on more of a scale than as fixed points,  and many people, particularly older ones, are confused about some of them, but at least conceptually it’s understood what someone means when they say “sexual orientation.”

I think “relationship orientation” would be a beneifical frame to normalize as well. While non-monogamous people don’t face the same level of hardship as those of non-heterosexual orientation, there are many similarities. Like heterosexuality, monogamy is the “default” expectation of most people, and many friends or family, particularly religious ones, will judge someone who is open about having anything but an exclusive orientation. Many polyamorous people tend to hide their true selves to fit in with a society that would not legally recognize their relationships, and, particularly in more puritanical times, pretend to be monogomous, as would be expected of them. Aromantic people, like asexuals, struggle with flip sides of the same social expectation: that romance and sex should be intrinsically linked.

And good luck finding media portrayals of things like polyamory, let alone positive ones; at best you’ll see swingers, open relationships, or harems, all of which are different romantic orientations, and all of which lead to blurred lines and misunderstandings about what people who are not monogamously oriented want. Even bringing up that you feel romantic love for more than one person could cause massive stress, anxiety, and jealousy in monogamous partners, and scare off any who don’t have the same orientation.

To clarify here for those unaware, polyamory is specifically the feeling of romantic love for multiple people. There’s a wide range of how this manifests and how polyamorous relationships can work in practice, but it’s more than just having a consensual open relationship where either person can have sex with other people.

But the point is that “open relationship” is also an orientation, as much as monogamy is, or polyamory. This is distinctly different from simply a life of perpetually dating multiple people: many couples specifically want a partner who they can live with, raise a family with, and build their life around, but also enjoy flirting, dating, and sleeping with others.

I’ve spoken to many friends and clients who realized they were some form of non-monogamous fairly late in life, and always there’s a sort of shock in the self-awakening, followed (for those who were already in monogamous relationships) by fear and sadness about their partner or spouse’s reaction if they found out. Some of these relationships endured through omission, others adapted once the truth came out, and of course some broke apart as people realized their relationship orientation did not match.

Another parallel to sexual orientation is that romantic orientation exists on a spectrum. There are some people who are “bi-relational,” so to speak, who note different tradeoffs between a monogamous relationship and polyamorous one, but can be happy in either. These people might still not enjoy an open relationship, however… someone who would be happy in basically any romantic relationship type, though they may still prefer certain relationships based on the people involved, would be “panrelational.”

How does the orientation frame help?

Knowing your orientation can be useful when you’re trying to figure out what makes you happy. People often experiment before they figure it out, and some people feel pressured into trying relationship types they don’t actually fit in… most commonly monogamous ones, of course, but sometimes open or polyamorous ones. And some people compromise as best they can; I know a couple where one person is “monorelational” and the other is “openrelational.” It’s genuinely difficult for the openrelational person to reduce how much they have sex outside the relationship, but they make an effort to restrict it for their partner’s sake. The monorelational person tried dating others as well and ended up preferring exclusivity, but is okay with their partner having an occasional fling as long as they feel the commitment to their relationship is maintained.

Still, the monorelational person finds it hard to talk to friends or family about their relationship, since they know it would invite a lot of dislike toward their partner or even judgement toward themself for “allowing” it; to many people, particularly of older generations, the very idea of consensual-non-monogamy is a myth, and those who engage in it can be seen as immoral on one end or being taken advantage of on the other. And so having to be deceptive to people they care about is an additional strain, as is having to be careful what they say in the workplace or on social media.

Needless to say, both people are very emotionally mature, self-aware, and open to communicating honestly about how they feel and what they can do to help each other be more comfortable. If one of them took the approach of “why can’t you just stop going on dates with others” or “why don’t you just go on more dates yourself,” or even blamed themselves for not being able to change who they or their partner were, the relationship would never have survived as long as it has.

Another two people I know have struggled to maintain monogamous relationships throughout their lives. What finally clicked for them, one through self-discovery and the other through extensive conversation and self-reflection, was a harem-style relationship, where they felt comfortable being in the role of, in one’s case, the head of the household, and in the other’s, part of a romantic group without the more high-maintenance demands of being anyone’s “primary.”

A bisexual friend of mine realized they might not ever be happy in a monogamous relationship because it would mean cutting off a whole “part” of them and the sorts of experiences they  craved, but was afraid to talk to their partner about it because they know of that stereotype/worry that people have when dating someone bisexual. It wasn’t until they realized this went deeper than a simple desire to have sex with different people that they stopped trying to fit into a mold that didn’t fit them, and had a “second coming out,” but there are other bisexual people who stay happily married in monogamous relationships for life, because monogamy is their relationship orientation.

Words have power; they are the main form our thoughts take, the primary way we make sense of our intuitions and feelings and desires and fears, and share them with each other. Of all the things I think should be treated and spoken about as orientations instead of preferences, this feels like the most important one.

Orientations

(Note: these articles refer largely to normative modern western culture. When I say “most people” or “most relationships,” I’m speaking descriptively, not prescriptively. There are absolutely exceptions to all of it, and if you’re in one of those, or in a subculture in which that exception is the norm, I don’t want to give the impression that there’s anything wrong with that)

One of the things I’ve noticed after nearly a decade of therapy is that the word “preference” seems insufficiently strong for a lot of things people want that nevertheless don’t rise to the level of being called a need. For most people, not getting their preferred ice cream flavor won’t ruin an otherwise good day, but for some, coming home to find dishes in the sink and laundry on the floor can make the world feel like it’s falling apart.

This becomes most clear in relationship counseling, where two or more people are trying to live together and accommodate each other’s desires while having their own respected. On some level we know “I prefer a clean home” is not the same as “I prefer vanilla ice cream,” but people don’t often consider how this difference in intensity-of-preferences can impact relationships when they’re unaligned.

On the other hand, there are some “preferences” we generally understand to be inflexible and important. Asking a heterosexual person to enjoy intercourse with someone of the same sex, or asking a pansexual person to only enjoy porn involving heterosexual pairings, would be considered not just rude but basically impossible. In extreme situations someone might try to enjoy something they don’t, or have a physical reaction while being mentally uncomfortable, and this would generally be understood to be tragic.

That brings us to a commonly used word that is generally understood to mean more than simple preference: “orientation.”

I’ve found that a lot of difficulties people have in relationships come from treating things more like preferences than orientations. To be clear, even this is a spectrum. There are clusters on the far ends which can easily be labeled one or the other, but any sort of comprehensive universal list is impossible.

What we can do is notice the sorts of things that are more useful to treat as orientations. Here’s the list of things I believe most people in relationships explicitly and consciously treat this way:

  1. Attraction (sexual orientation included as implicit)
  2. Children (how many, and usually a rough idea of of when they’ll be had)
  3. Career (roughly how much money each person is expected to make/how many hours worked)
  4. Religion (decreasingly, but many would still end a marriage if their partner came out as atheist or converted to a different faith)
  5. Politics (increasingly, particularly among younger folk; “swipe left if you voted for X.”)

To some degree this feels like a good summary of the sorts of “impersonal” things it makes sense to be explicit and upfront about with your partners as deal-breakers.

But when we dig deeper into the day-to-day lives of those in relationships to observe the sorts of things that cause ongoing conflict, we see more. Here’s an incomplete list of what I believe people implicitly and often unconsciously treat this way:

  1. Pets (how many and what kind)
  2. Living location (assuming you will live together)
  3. Extended family (how involved will they be)
  4. Diet (Increasingly common for vegetarians and vegans)
  5. Cleanliness (both hygiene and home)
  6. Relationship type (Monogamy vs some form of open or poly. Some make this explicit, but for most people a monogamy is the unquestioned assumption)

Some of those may seem a bit absurd to put in the same bucket as questions like “should we have kids or not,” but consider how upset someone might be if their partner of many years suddenly decided that they didn’t want to have pets anymore. If that’s too easy (it likely feels synonymous for pet owners), what if over the course of a year your partner came to the inescapable conclusion that they want to live totally off the grid? Some people might be open to such changes or try to adapt. For most, this would end the relationship.

So, when I use the word “orientations,” what I’m referring to are preferences which have a high cost to ignore, and in most cases are unlikely to quickly change. Some people legitimately cannot relax, cannot find mental peace, if their environment doesn’t meet a certain level of cleanliness… and if two people have a substantial difference in what they consider “clean enough” looks like, they can end up in a state of endless conflict, even if it’s minor or suppressed on most days.

I think we also improve our empathy and understanding of each other when we view more things as orientations rather than preferences. In the below articles, I intend to describe how these preferences better fit the “orientation” model, and what sorts of problems can arise from mismatches in relationships without a natural alignment for them.

Relationship Orientation

Extended Family Orientation

Cleanliness Orientation

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 rather than 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. And 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 red 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 clichés such as “Family always forgives” or “Marriage is a sacred bond,” find a more open minded one.  

  1. A bad therapist shames their client, or makes them ashamed of themselves.

Guilt can be a powerful generator for change, but a therapist’s role is to gently guide the client to better understand themselves, and the sometimes complex relationship between what we value and what we do. If your therapist demonizes your thoughts or feelings or desires rather than helping you better understand them, you’re dealing with another therapist too trapped in their culture or biases to properly facilitate lasting healing and growth.

  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 (mostly) at the door.

  1. A bad therapist can’t remain objective. 

Early signs of this may be a therapist who talks too much about themselves or seems overwhelmed by their client’s problems. More subtly, therapists can struggle not to triangulate with a parent or child or spouse against child or parent or spouse. It may even seem like a positive, if for example the therapist starts to act like a friend, focusing on comfort to the detriment of growth. To be clear, objective doesn’t mean perfectly balanced; 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.

I may be being too normative here, but I think it’s suboptimal for a therapist to 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 in the client’s life that they can use as a metric of growth.  It’s also fine to go back to therapy every few years as needed; it’s just the unending years of therapy that, to me, indicates something suboptimal is going on.

  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.

This may just be me being too normative again, but while a large part of therapy is talking, it’s been a century since Freud borrowed the phrase “Talking Cure” and ran with a model of therapy aiming purely for catharsis. I think therapy should be doing more than just venting and processing; it should also involve learning new tools to be practiced between sessions, so that you can reach a point where the therapist is no longer needed. To be clear I’m thinking in terms of suggestions rather than strict “homework,” and some clients may prefer not having even those. But if you feel like therapy isn’t doing much for you and you your hasn’t suggested things for you to do between sessions, 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.

I should also clarify that while I hesitate to label anyone a “bad therapists” by some of these more than others, I think each of them does drastically limit the amount of people and situations a therapist can help. For example, therapists who are stuck in a certain cultural zeitgeist can still help clients who conform to that culture’s norms, and therapists who never plan to discharge clients can also still be beneficial to them; hopefully that’s why the client would keep going!

But in my experience at least, each of these represent real failure modes in the therapeutic process that can end up causing more harm than good.

As a final note, I deliberately avoided mentioning anything that would count as a violation of therapeutic ethics and professional norms. If your therapist breaks confidentiality, tries to date you, regularly misses sessions, etc, the label “bad therapist” is no longer sufficient; at that point they shouldn’t be a therapist at all, and should be reported to their licensing body.

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, particularly by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, who believed that all forms of communication are adaptive, and rejected the concepts of linear and dualistic thinking for studying systems. 

 The “systems” being referred to in these therapies can be any context you’re a part of, individually or simultaneously: family system, school system, work, friend-group, even cultural and religious. According to Bateson, being part of any system leads to  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. Additionally, there can be no divide between an interactive observer and participant of a system; by observing the system directly, the therapist becomes a part of it.

This understanding led to a philosophy that takes the humility of existential therapy even further,  and improved clinicians’ ability to map the impact of one part of a system on the others, 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 both criticism and appeals to his better nature, and kept doubling down, 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.” An example of this is that, according to Card, “Faggot” and “Homophobe” are “exactly analogous,” 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.