Child Abuse & Neglect

Note: This piece was very hard for me to write so it might be hard for someone to read. If you start feeling upset, anxious, etc. while reading this, please take a break to love on yourself before coming back to this. If you aren’t sure how to tell when you need to take a break, the right mindfulness technique could help with that. You might see yourself in this piece. Life is complicated so you might see yourself as someone who has received abuse/neglect and/or as a parent who has done some of these things. Life is complicated like that. And all that can be hard to see. Here are some related pieces that might be helpful to read before or afterwards:
 
 
Like I’ve mentioned before in the Intro to Boundaries piece, many people have long histories in dealing with toxic people and situations that never respected them and/or their boundaries. And because of this, they could have a harder time empathizing and caring about other people’s pain. They might be thinking, “Well, I had to deal with it.” Or “I’ve dealt with worse so why should I care?” There might not have been anyone around modeling better interpersonal skills and teaching them how to have empathy for others. And that’s not even counting the role socialization plays in stunting people’s connection to their own emotions in order to benefit the status quo (white supremacy, systemic oppression, capitalism, etc.). People, who struggle to empathize with others, especially others who are different from them, tend to silence people (telling people to “suck it up”, or bragging that they’ve been through worse, etc.). Instead of giving everyone their space to tell their story, be heard, and have the opportunity to work towards healing. When child abuse and neglect is made normal, trauma is passed generation to generation and hurt children grow into hurt adults who fail to protect and nurture the next generation.

The goal of this piece to explain as clearly as possible what child abuse and neglect is and what it can look like while also helping y’all start to recognize it in the real world. I want us to start seeing this as part of community accountability: How can we support parents and our youth while beginning to limit our involvement in systems that harm our communities?


 

What Exactly Are We Talking About Here?

I want to take this time to define child physical abuse, child psychological/emotional abuse, child sexual abuse, and child neglect. Just to make sure we’re on the same page. Legal definitions vary by state in the US (legal doesn’t always mean ethical or moral) so I’m gonna to define it so we’re all on the same page. I’ll be using some information from the US Department of Health and Human Services:
 

What is Child Physical Abuse?

Definition: When adults act in ways (intentionally and/or on purpose) that end up with the physical pain, injury, and/or sickness of a child/teen.
Some Examples: 
  • Hitting the child/teen with hands or objects
  • Slapping and punching the child/teen
  • Kicking the child/teen
  • Shaking the child/teen
  • Throwing things at and/or near/around the child/teen
  • Poisoning the child/teen
  • Burning and/or scalding the child/teen
  • Bruising the child/teen
  • Biting and/or scratching the child/teen
  • Spraining and/or breaking the child/teen’s bones
  • Drowning the child/teen
 

What is Child Emotional/Psychological Abuse?

 
Definition: Behaviors and speech that have a negative impact on the child’s development, mental health, and/or emotional wellness.
 
Some Examples:
  • Name calling
  • Insults/teasing
  • Public shaming
  • Threatening
  • Pressuring
  • Terrorizing, frightening, and/or bullying
  • Allowing kids to witness the physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse of others
  • Holding back love, guidance, attention, and/or support
  • Isolating the child/teen from social experiences
  • Encouraging the child/teen to engage in age-inappropriate and/or destructive behavior
  • Forcing a trans child/teen to de-transition or blocking them from transitioning at all
  • Forcing a lesbian, gay, bi, queer, etc. child/teen into “conversion therapy” or other efforts to make them straight
 

What is Child Sexual Abuse?

 
Definition: Adults engaging in sexual activity with minors. Minors cannot consent to sexual activity with adults. Due to the severe power dynamics and differences in both cognitive abilities and capacities for judgment at play here, any sexual activity between adults and minors is nonconsensual. It is rape. 
 
Some Examples: 
  • Exhibitionism, or exposing oneself to a child/teen
  • Fondling a child/teen
  • Intercourse with a child/teen of any kind, including vaginal, oral, and/or anal, etc
  • Masturbation in the presence of a child/teen or forcing and/or encouraging the child/teen to masturbate
  • Sexual phone calls, text messages, and/or other kinds of digital interaction with child/teen
  • Creating, owning, and/or sharing pornographic images and/or movies of children/teens
  • Sex trafficking minors
  • Any other sexual conduct that is harmful to a child/teen’s mental, emotional, and/or physical welfare
 

What is Neglect?

 
Definition: When a parent/guardian/adult-in-charge fails to provide for the child’s basic needs (food, clothing, shelter, medical care, supervision) to the point that the child’s health, safety, etc. are threatened and/or harmed.
 
Some Examples: 

Physical neglect: Abandoning the child/teen, refusing to accept custody of the child/teen, not providing for basic needs like nutrition, hygiene, and/or appropriate clothing

Medical neglect: Delaying or denying recommended quality comprehensive health care (by licensed providers) for the child/teen

Inadequate supervision: Leaving the child unsupervised (this depends on length of time and child’s age/maturity at the time), not protecting the child from safety hazards, not providing adequate caregivers, and/or engaging in harmful/dangerous behavior around the child/teen

Emotional neglect: Isolating the child/teen, not providing affection or emotional support to the child/teen, and/or exposing the child/teen to domestic violence or chaotic substance use

Educational neglect: Failing to enroll the child/teen in school and/or homeschool, ignoring the child/teen’s special education needs, and/or allowing for continued interruptions in the child/teen’s education

 

How Can You Tell?

 

Physical Signs of Physical Abuse

  • Bruises
  • Welts
  • Burns/scalds
  • Fractures
  • Cuts
  • Scarring
  • Bite marks
  • Effects of poisoning, like vomiting, seizures, etc.
  • Breathing issues from drowning, choking, etc.
 

Changes in Behavior as *Possible* Signs of Physical Abuse

  • Child/teen is wary of adults or a certain adult
  • Child/teen is violent to other children/teens and/or animals
  • Child/teen is aggressive and/or emotionally distant
  • Child/teen can’t remember or can’t explain how they got injured
 

Physical Signs of Emotional/Psychological Abuse

  • Bed wetting
  • Physical complaints, like headaches, nausea, etc. without physical causes
  • Delays in the child/teen’s physical and/or mental growth and development 

 

Changes in Behavior as *Possible* Signs of Emotional/Psychological Abuse

  • Increased risk for self-harm, eating disorders, anxiety, and/or depression
  • Unusual attachments: overly friendly to adults they don’t know, detached from parents, etc.
  • Child/teen is overly compliant with no boundaries
  • Child/teen is aggressive to other children and/or animals
  • Child/teen has unusual emotional outbursts
  • Child/teen has issues with social skills
  • Child/teen is scared/afraid of their parent(s)/guardian(s)
  • Child/teen has negative internal monologue (talks down to themselves, is mean in their own heads, overly high self-expectations, etc)
  • Sudden changes in speech and speech pattern, like stuttering or not talking at all


Physical Signs of Sexual Abuse

  • Torn bloody clothes
  • Bruises
  • Redness, swelling, and/or bleeding in genital/anal area
  • Blood in urine and/or feces
  • STDs/STIs
  • Excessive itching and/or pain in genital and/or anal area
 

Changes in Behavior as *Possible* Signs of Sexual Abuse

  • Child/teen engages in age-inappropriate sexual play with toys and/or other children/teens
  • Child/teen has unusual/age-inappropriate sexual knowledge and/or behavior
  • Child/teen makes comments about secrets: having them, keeping them, etc.
  • Child/teen develops an eating disorder
 

Physical Signs of Neglect

  • Child/teen is not appropriately dressed for the weather outside (no winter clothes, etc.)
  • Child/teen does not seem to have socially-appropriate grooming/hygiene habits
  • Child/teen is left alone to the point that their physical, emotional, educational, social, etc child development needs are not met
  • Child/teen appears to be malnourished
  • Child/teen has current or chronic skin issues and/or rashes
  • Child/teen’s medical needs are not being handled
 

Changes in Behavior as *Possible* Signs of Neglect

  • Child/teen steals food and/or other necessities due to need
  • Child/teen appears overly hungry for attention based on what’s usual behavior for their age group and/or cultural background
  • Child/teen forms unusual attachments: overly friendly to adults they don’t know, detached from parents, etc.
  • Child/teen has poorly developed social skills
  • Child/teen has issues with personal hygiene/grooming


The Role of Community Accountability Here

 
A solid community has a shared set of values, boundaries, etc that are mutually created in order to serve everyone in that community especially the most marginalized. Strength comes from a shared vision that includes everyone equally. Like I’ve said before in my last piece on community accountability, a community that does not encourage each other to grow and push each other towards positive change is a community that will rot from the inside out. This individualistic mess isn’t healthy. Obviously.
A lot of what many of us think about doing in response to child abuse and neglect is after the fact and doesn’t actually deal with the systemic roots of the issue.
 

What Am I Supposed to Do?

(Reminder that my main focus is Black people.)
 
Some suggestions:

Having an awareness of socialization and the various systemic oppressions (not just race). Read Black political theories from all backgrounds, genders, sexualities, etc. Learn about child development, mental health wellness, sociology, public health, etc. from Black writers/thinkers with an awareness of various systemic oppressions

Using that awareness to inform your politics, how you move in the world, the kinds of support you give, etc. That awareness not only helps us address current abuse and neglect, but also guides us in figuring out how to provide support to families who are strained and are at risk of repeating intergenerational traumas

Changing the narrative about what is “normal” in our communities, giving parents other alternatives for discipline (for example) and connecting with their children from within our cultures, encouraging healthier dynamics in interpersonal relationships, and encouraging activities that push personal growth like psychotherapy, etc.

Donating money, giving out resources, sharing paid opportunities if possible, etc. directly to individuals in your communities who need it

Listening to what the people in those situations say they need and providing just that kinds of support

Consider how you can support the youth in your communities. Find a way to ask them what they need and how you and other adults can help.

Consider how you can support the families and parents in your communities even with basic things like clothing swaps (when it’s safe), giving money for food or laundry, rent parties (again, when it’s safe)



……………………………………………………………………..

 
When we live in a society that so used to being reactionary and responding after something negative has already happened, it may seem very anti-climatic to talk about interpersonal and community-level support as solutions for child abuse and neglect. But it’s actually much more effective to lead more with prevention and then some reactionary actions as needed. Starting with support addresses roots of the issue and is something everyone in the community can participate in. Making the lives of stressed and struggling Black parents, families, and/or youth in the face of systemic oppression easier will only make our lives and futures easier. Like I’ve said before, there are so many adults walking around with unhealed pain and traumas, affecting their adult lives, because they were once Black children who were forced to deal with it alone. Returning to a community-minded/village-minded way of viewing our relationships with each other is key. And everyone has their specific role to play. Some of us are good with kids and know people with children who could use some babysitting help. But that’s not everyone’s bag and that’s ok. You could give money directly to families in need via crowdfunding. You could buy school supplies for people. You could post healthcare resources. Or help someone get a better job so the money situation isn’t as strained. You could link people to free (ideally) or affordable legal services. When all the children/teens are everyone’s kids, it’s possible that people would start to pay closer attention to the laws being passed that affect them, even the LGBTQAI kids. The path to freedom includes working through our own pain/traumas, unpacking socializations, and making sure that we support future generations, not passing our pain for them to carry on.


It’s easier said than done. And it’s years and years and year of work and personal growth. But it’s worth it.

Pandemic Mental Health Safety Plan

A pandemic is a whole other ball game. We are dealing with social isolation, government incompetence and cruelty (at least in the US), institutional/medical racism, etc. This pandemic is adding so much extra stress into our lives. Stress isn’t a light-weight thing. Long term stress weakens our immune system, makes us physically sick, messes with our ability to sleep, gets in the way of thinking clearly, triggers traumatic reactions, creates negative psychological effects, worsens mental health symptoms (anxiety, depressive symptoms, panic attacks, manic symptoms, increase substance use disorder symptoms, nightmares/sleep disorders, suicidal thoughts), etc. And at the same time, we are also dealing with loss. The loss of certain freedoms, disruptions of routines, loss of lives, loss of jobs, etc. The loss of physical contact and literally being close and social with people. We now in less than a month have had to self-quarantine and keep 6 feet way from people for social distancing. Many people have been avoiding loved ones who are older and/or immunocompromised for their safety, just in case they are carriers of the virus. This is the kind of sudden loss that turns someone’s entire social support system upside down before they can even process what they actually lost. Some people have had to return to toxic/abusive households and are struggling to survive everyday.

This pandemic has had huge, lasting effects on our physical health and mental health and the physical health and mental health of others in our lives. I am updating my previous safety plan given the current circumstances. The text is black is my original plan, which still has great information. And the red text is some COVID-19 pandemic additions I’m adding. A good safety plan is always up-to-date and reflects what’s going on in your life. It has to be useful or it’s a refrigerator decoration. So, time for an update.

Step 1: Identifying the situation. What are some signs that let you know you’re starting to feel hopeless, sad, frustrated, etc? Do you feel it in your body? Do you feel tired all the time? Do you lose your appetite or eat more than usual? Or is it more in your head/thoughts? Do you get racing thoughts, for example? Mindfulness techniques [Here’s a piece I wrote about how to find the find one for you] are great ways to get a clearer idea of how you’re feeling if you aren’t sure.

Some COVID-19 pandemic specific signs: extreme fear of illness, difficulty coping with illness in yourself or their loved ones, isolation felt from social distancing, loneliness, family conflict, etc. and that on top of the normal warning signs. Use mindfulness techniques and self-reflection to check in with yourself.

Step 2: Self-soothing. What can you do for yourself to return to back to how you were feeling before? What are some things you can do to cope with these feelings/this situation? How did you get through difficult times in the past? What stops, if anything, you from you using these coping skills now and how can you get around whatever is in your way?

Like many people, some of your coping skills might involve being out in public with other people. So what are you supposed to do now? It’s probably time to think about ways that you can cope while staying indoors.
Some great suggestions I’ve tried and/or heard include:

  • Make a weekly or daily schedule for yourself if you need structure
  • Set alarms to remind yourself to eat (similar suggestions here)
  • Take a time out by going to a different room, putting headphones on, meditating, etc.
  • Mindfulness exercises like I mentioned earlier
  • Do an activity to change your physical state like showers, exercise, holding ice, weighted blankets, getting a hug, getting dressed up, etc.
  • Distract yourself with reading, video games, TV/movies, cooking, knitting, writing, dancing, etc (things that don’t stress you out)
  • Donating money, food, skills, resources, etc directly to individuals and families in need to help you feel like you are making a difference

Step 3: Who your people? (I said what I said). Being able to self-soothe is important, but also don’t be afraid to reach out to trusted people in this difficult time. Who can you ask for help? And what kind of help do you want from each person? Do you wanna vent? Do you need to leave home for a couple days? Do you need someone to make sure you eat? Do you need help going to the Dr? Do you need help with classes? Do you need money or transportation? Do you need help filling out paperwork? Do you need someone to babysit your kids for a couple days? If your social circle is fairly small, what social agencies are in your area that provide free or low cost services? A lot of community organizations can provide resources or referrals to free or low cost assistance that many people are not aware of.

Ask yourself what you need every so often throughout this time (other than being touch starved which is definitely going to become more of a thing as this pandemic goes on) and how you can creatively meet those needs.

Example of ways to be socially connected during this time:

  • Call and video chat with friends and other loved ones
  • Video parties and happy hours
  • Leave food and stuff at each other’s doors
  • Virtual activities like museums, church services, games, dance classes, etc
  • Virtual support groups and peer support groups

Step 4: Emergency services: Do you feel comfortable calling emergency services? What hospital would you want to go to in a worst case scenario? It’s better that you choose than to have a stranger choose for you. How would you get to the hospital if needed? Do you have any suicide hotlines handy (See the post on depression here for a brief list of hotlines at the end)?

Adding telehealth sessions with therapists, psychiatrists, etc. here as remote support options during this pandemic.

These are not normal times and it’s ok to not be ok. There is a LOT going on right now and that’s not even counting whatever is going on personally for you. It’s ok to acknowledge of realness of the whole situation. Not only is that good for your mental health, it’s good for figuring out what you need and want during all this. Keep your loved ones and your people close to you even if you have to be physically distant from each other. Who is your community? How can people come together to fill the gaps that the government is purposefully neglecting? How can we support each other through this, especially those who are disabled, who have lost jobs, and/or those who are homeless, etc.? Friends checking in and supporting friends, families of all kinds coming together, and communities coalition-building. People can also take this time to build virtual social circles that hopefully can include people who live in your local areas to provide support in an emergency scenario. Maybe donating to individuals’ crowdfunding or to grassroots organizations if you have the means. It’s time to be kind to yourself and to think creatively of the ways that we can stay safe and well, individually and communally in a time when capitalism and white supremacy obviously wants us to be sick and alone.

The Process of Change 201: The Basics of Community Accountability

This piece is another layer to my series about change: what change is, what the work of change looks like, and recognizing change in yourself and others. In Part 1, I specifically covered what the process of change generally looks like and how to give a meaningful apology. And in Part 2, I explained how how to set realistic goals/plans for change and started covering accountability as part of the how to create long-lasting change. Now, I’m moving from individual people taking account for their actions to community accountability. Community accountability is an important part of healing and re-joining the community when there’s been harm done. This piece will cover the basics of community accountability because I am seeing a lot of confusion of what that can actually look like. Community accountability creates situations where change is even possible. It sets the scene for change. Creates an environment that’s ripe for change and that helps change continue to evolve and grow stronger. Using INCITE’s talking points as a guide, I want to talk about what community accountability looks like on a basic level and how holding ourselves and each other accountable provides fertile ground for a better future.

Here are some pieces of mine that set the foundation for this so feel free to read them here in advance:

What Does The Word “Community” Mean To You?

What is community? The dictionary defines it as “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common” and “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals”. How are WE defining community? Ultimately, this questions boils down to: Who are we responsible for and who is responsible for us? White supremacy and capitalism encourages individual people to only think about themselves. It’s part of American/western values. That’s why you see an emphasis on nuclear families in this society. These values are part of the reason why elderly parents get dropped off at nursing homes while people move on with their new families. White supremacy/capitalism encourages people to only think about one’s own personal happiness above all else to focus less on systemic oppression. Reminds me of that video of Black cisgender heterosexual male celebrities not wanting to give money to the people in their personal lives (usually relatives) who supported them before they got put on. That individualistic mindset doesn’t see the difference between setting boundaries vs. looking down on the people who helped them get where they are now. It’s a rejection of community-based thinking (that got them where they are) for a individualistic “I got mine, get yours” mindset. Due to systemic oppression, Black people and other POCs do not have the generational wealth that makes living that individual life possible. Many of us are living paycheck to paycheck, trying to live up to unrealistic western/American bootstrap ideals. It’s a scam. We are stronger together and all that good stuff.

And I’m not just talking about pooling resources. I’m also talking about helping each other grow. A community that doesn’t hold each other accountable and find healthy ways to deal with issues will rot from the inside out. There is no community without trust and there’s no trust without boundaries: both setting them with people and respecting the boundaries of others as equal to yours. Like I said in “The Process of Change” Part 1 piece, “When you trust other people to respect your boundaries, there’s a freedom there. You feel more comfortable being relaxed and being yourself because you don’t need to worry about any threats”. Boundaries and accountability create safety and freedom for EVERYONE in the community, not just a select few allowed to feel comfortable at all times. A healthy community is one that has set agreed-on boundaries, values, and goals that support everyone and that everyone in the community wants to protect and live by. Like I’ve said before, community members have to ethically work together equally, using everyone’s special skills. We all have equal work to do to save our communities and ourselves. We are all important with things to say and skills to share. And we all have toxic shit to work through. Working together intentionally and honestly is key. Too often we get caught up in the white-centric belief that we need a usually male leader to save us. We have all the power we need in ourselves. We gotta start healing from this white supremacist socialization/brainwashing. No leaders. No liaisons to white people. No Black messiahs. We need to truly tap into the power in ALL of us together.

What Are The Values That We Uphold?

A community’s values are its compass. Ideally, our values guide how we act and move in the world.  And vice versa. Your actions should match the values you say you live by. If you say you uphold safety, anti-violence against all women, etc., your actions should match those values. Now is the time to do some inner work and see what your values are AND to what extent do they uphold systemic oppression, for yourself and for others. Many people state values with their mouth that never match how they act in the world and don’t match what they model to younger generations. If these are our values, this is how we should be acting in front of the youth (and this is how the youth are acting because they are an honest reflection of who we are as a society). If these are our values, we should be creating a society where doing certain things is unthinkable and undesirable for ANYONE to do. No exceptions. That’s the power behind the community: intentionally creating the environment and the mini-world for themselves. Setting standards for living and behaving. Which is something that a single person, most of the time, does not have the weight to do. A group of people held together with a set of values is powerful.

What Are Some Ways We Can Make The Community Safe For Everyone?

This is another time when the power of many rises above the power of one. By setting standards of what’s okay and what isn’t: “Nah, we don’t do that mess here.” By supporting the boundaries of others. And even by providing other kinds of support so people’s basic needs are met and they can focus some energy on setting/maintaining their own boundaries. There’s many other different ways to support each other. Financial support: donating money directly to people’s GoFundMe’s or twitter hashtags like #TransCrowdFund. Volunteering time and providing physical support, like helping marginalized people move, helping people get gender-affirming clothes, etc. Passing along information and community resources right to the people who need and could use it. 

Teaching adults and kids about enthusiastic consent in all situations, not just sex, is another incredibly important way community members can keep the community safe. Of course, free comprehensive sex education for adults and kids is very, very necessary to counteract the toxic socialization around sex and sexuality. A lot of the time, I see the conversation around creating safety ending at self-defense classes. More people need training in crisis intervention, de-escalation, and how to make a safe space. There needs to be more opportunities to learn alternatives to violence with the understanding that self-defense may have to include violence sometimes.

What Are Some Ways We Can Deal With Interpersonal Violence And Other Kinds Of Abuse Within Our Communities?

Let’s talk about the role accountability plays in dealing with violence within a community. Again, individual people come together to set standards of what is acceptable in the community both directly and indirectly. Directly meaning a community can set up actual rules for how people can conduct themselves. Individual people can also indirectly choose how they want to set up their personal boundaries around the person who has hurt others. People can choose not to provide services or otherwise engage with someone who they feel has crossed a line with their behavior. There’s a fundamental difference between refusing to deal with someone because of a unchangeable part of their identity like being Black and/or transgender vs refusing to deal with someone whose behavior has caused a level of harm that you are not comfortable having in your life. Harm can also mean acting in ways that play into someone’s systemic oppression. And, remember, boundaries are not about controlling other people’s behavior. They are about setting standards and limits in our lives for what we will and won’t tolerate. They involve clearly spelling out what we need and don’t need in our lives and walking in the spirit of that. That’s all boundaries are and that’s all “cancelling” is: People deciding what they want and don’t want in their lives. Deciding what they will and won’t put their energy and/or money towards. People don’t have to deal with everything and everybody. Like I’ve said before, people who try to keep others from setting boundaries are exactly why boundaries are needed in the first place. Not everybody needs the same access to you and to your energy. And it’s fair for people to decide that someone, as a result of harmful behavior, can’t be trusted with their energy or a certain level of access to them anymore. Somebody will always have their close people, but there could be people that just “don’t fuck with” them because of something they did. Because actions do have consequences. 

The first priority of a community is safety for the most marginalized. When the most marginalized in a community feel safe, we are all safe. Any areas where they don’t feel safe are flaws in our armor, exploitable by oppressors. And the next priority for a community is creating/maintaining an environment where safety and true, healing change can grow. A community that upholds shared values and holds every single person in the community to those values is a safer one for all. A community that prioritizes the security of the oppressed over the comfort of more privileged is a safer one for all. And yes, yes, restorative justice. Restorative justice and change for those who have caused harm is not possible if the community/environment is not set up for change. How can restorative justice happen if the community is fully of enablers? How can restorative justice happen if many people want to rush to the forgiveness and moving on part without the constant inner work and long term public accountability that comes with change?

Instead of shaming individuals for setting boundaries around behavior they will or will not tolerate, it should be seen as part of the natural consequences of someone’s actions and part of being held accountable for the effect their actions had on other people. A chunk of the reason I think communities of color should divest from police departments and the criminal justice system in general (beyond its well-documented role in the systemic oppression, torture, and deaths of many of us) is how ineffective it all is at the lie it sells the general public: punishing people stops them from doing things we don’t like/want. Tons of peer-reviewed research over the decades shows that punishment does not work for lasting meaningful change. Like I talk about in the Part 2 to corporal punishment piece, people learn best from positive and negative reinforcement (encouraging a behavior), from watching how other people act, and from dealing with the natural, real life consequences of their actions. That’s why enabling someone and shielding them from the natural consequences of their behaviors actually hurts them in the long run because they never get to learn from life and never get to grow. Communities holding their members accountable is part of restorative justice. Healing and change does not happen without acknowledging exactly what happened and without acknowledging the lives that were affected. Healing and treatment cannot happen without acknowledgment and accountability either. That’s also why I wrote the 2-part series on the process of change, not only to assist people in being able to recognize what change actually looks like, but also how to recognize someone who is avoiding change and accountability.

To What Degree Are We Working Against The Systemic Oppression That Creates The Conditions For Violence In Our Communities And/or Makes Things Worse?

It is absolutely important that there is community awareness of systemic oppression. How can a community know how to keep its members safe without awareness of everything they are up against? Knowledge of effects of socialization, historical events, and systemic oppression help guide community members on ways to work together and to come up with lots of different solutions. This knowledge must come from many different, well-rounded, trusted sources: academic sources, lived experiences, books, etc. ideally from people of color. Everyone has something of value to share. And using this shared knowledge creates the environment where it is safe to do inner work. Developing self-awareness, awareness of the impact your actions have on the community, and awareness of the community’s effects on you is key. People’s feelings and the way they see the world is affected by so much socialization that critical thinking, self-reflection, and other kinds of inner work are part of the work that comes with real long term healing and true change. 

Awareness (self-awareness and awareness of socialization) is the just the first step. And it’s an important one, setting the foundation for the kinds of revolutionary change we hope for. A lack of awareness leads to falling for white supremacy’s fronts and blaming ourselves and our own people for our own oppression. What are ways community members can deal with problems in our communities without calling the police who are a danger to us? What are ways we can support people in our communities who are especially vulnerable without getting tangled in a part of the system? I’m thinking community-based prevention and support. We’ve been socialized to say “not my problem” and expect the government, police, and/or court system to come in and deal with issues like homelessness, people struggling with chaotic use of drugs, parents who won’t pay child support, intimate partner violence/domestic violence, etc. instead of coming together and dealing with it ourselves as a community. In a perfect world, we could rely on a government to provide us with resources and services (I mean, that’s what we pay taxes for and that’s where our tax money should be going…ideally), but the reality of the situation is the criminal justice system and the government in general was not created with our growth and betterment in mind. Too many of us have been traumatized and have had our entire lives changed by police, courts, etc. for us to really think we are the ones they are protecting and serving. At some point you start to realize on many levels that we aren’t being protected. Whiteness and the power/privileges of white supremacy are what’s being served here…and being “protected” from us. Many of us already know this low key and high key, but it’s one thing to know it and it’s another thing to make the moves to solve our own problems. 

It’s time to start thinking about the ways that you can help to create an environment that’s ready and encouraging for change. How can you and others encourage accountability in your communities? It’s scary to really realize we are alone and that institutions/systems in society are not there to help us. Terrifying. But we have each other. The work needs to be done (both our personal inner work and our community-level work) and it’s all very possible if we ALL willingly work to undo socialization and move forward together. We are our own power and our power is limitless. No leaders. No messiahs. We got us.

Thanks for reading. The next piece in July will cover child abuse and neglect, breaking down what it is, how to recognize some signs in children, and what we can do as a community.

How to Tell if This the Right Therapist for You in 3-ish Sessions

Let’s say it how it is: it is ridiculously hard to find a decent therapist. As someone who has been a psychotherapy client before and as a therapist myself, trust and believe I fully know and understand that it’s needle and haystack-levels out there. And don’t let you have 1 or more marginalized identities and kinds of oppressions you are dealing with. In their article, ““Sorry, I’m Not Accepting New Patients”: An Audit Study of Access to Mental Health Care,” (Email queeringpsychology.com for access to the full article) Heather Kugelmass discusses how hard it is for Black people to find a therapist. According to the study, a working class Black man would have to call 80 different therapists before 1 therapist calls them back. Who has the time for that seriously? Queer and transgender people of color, especially, also have seriously difficult time finding a competent therapist because many graduate programs do not teach how to provide care to LGBTQAI clients. The better programs will have 2 courses at the very most AND transgender and intersex people are barely an uncomfortable whisper throughout the entire course(s). Not only are people of color, especially LGBQTAI people of color, systemically kept out of counseling and psychology fields, but many actual, real life therapists are scarily unprepared to deal with clients who aren’t White, well-off cisgender heterosexual able-bodied men who are just need temporary assistance going through a difficult life transition like a divorce. So needless to say, Kegelmass’s study did not surprise me. In fact, the study continues to say that “despite health care providers’s explicit endorsement of racial equity, they have a strong pro white implicit (i.e. non conscious) bias […] These stereotypes and other sources of bias, in turn, influence their decision about whether to extend offers of care” (Kegelmass, Heather. (2016). “Sorry I’m Not Accepting New Patients”: An Audit Study of Access to Mental Health Care. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 57(2), 2. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022146516647098).

Now, let’s take this to the next logical conclusion. We’re grown. If the pro-white biases are keeping many therapists from calling people of color back, what other actions are being influenced by their biases? With all that as background and context, how does somebody even find a therapist worth a damn in the usually little bit of time they have? Especially if you are using insurance, you may have a limited amount of sessions you can have in a certain timeframe so being able to quickly and efficiently shop for therapists is an important skill to have. It is so important to remember that a therapist is providing a service to you and if things don’t feel right, it’s not worth staying. Life is far too short and you have healing work to get done. You and the therapist have to be compatible enough so the both of you can work effectively towards your goals. If there isn’t a good fit between y’all, you will probably become distracted from the work and/or otherwise won’t be able to focus on yourself and your goals. So this isn’t the time to “be nice”. If you don’t feel good chemistry and the fit between you, the client, and a therapist isn’t working for you, it’s time to move on. The purpose of this piece is to help people figure out if a therapist has the right fit/chemistry for them in 1-3 counseling sessions. After you went and called 50-11 therapists, who has the extra energy/spoons to waste dealing with a therapist who can’t really do much for you?

Self-Reflection

A colleague, Kiya Black, artfully describes the work to find the right therapist as searching for the right pair of jeans: “Finding the right therapist is like finding the perfect pair of jeans. Sometimes you get lucky, and the first pair fits JUST right. Most of the time though, you don’t. The waist don’t fit. The leg too long. The fabric is just – crunchy. And on a bad day? You might think that means something is wrong/flawed with you. Nawh. Nawh. That ain’t it. It’s just NOT the right pair of jeans. You might have to try a different brand. A different size. A different model. But – eventually – you’ll find the PERFECT pair of jeans. Cloth like yes. Ass like WHAT. Cozy like perfect. And that’s how the right therapist will fit too – they’ll make you realize just how wonderful YOU are.” I love this metaphor because it perfectly describes the work it can take for many people, especially marginalized people, to find the right therapist for them. As Ms. Black describes, if you and the therapist don’t have the right fit, it’s probably time to try another therapist. It’s not you. It’s not all jeans (therapists). It’s the fit. And even though it may take a lot of work to find the right therapist for you, it’s so worth it.

Before you even make the phone call and/or walk into an office, the work starts at home and in your head. What do you want? Walk in knowing that. Using Ms Black’s metaphor, when people go shopping, they usually have a general idea of what you are looking for and work from there. Shopping for a therapist works in a similar way. It will save you so much time and effort to be intentional with your hunt. You are a client looking for quality service. You should take some time to think about you are looking for before walking in. 

Some questions to think about before starting to schedule appointments: 

  • What kind of therapeutic relationship/dynamic are you looking for? Do you want them to be your equal who provides a service to you? Do you want them to be a teacher and you the student (peep the change in power dynamics here)? Do you want a therapist whose style is more about collaboration or do you want a therapist whose style is more them feeding you information?

  • What part(s) of your life do you want to focus on and/or what are you willing to talk about in therapy? 

  • What is making you want to start/restart therapy? What are some of your goals for therapy? What do you want to get out of this? How will you know when you have achieved these goals?

  • What values do you want to grow and foster in yourself? Look for those values in the therapist

Intake

First of all, congratulations for coming to the intake. That’s huge. The work continues at your intake appointment. Even if you end up doing the intake with someone who is not going to be your therapist, there are still things you can learn about the agency, hospital, private practice, etc. from the intake session. And that information is important. You need to figure out if this is a space where you want to receive therapy (and if the workers can create a safe space here for you).  How does the person doing your intake treat you? Do they make you feel welcome and/or comfortable potentially receiving mental health services here? What kind of questions are you asked during the intake? Do the questions make you feel included? If the questions and the whole process makes you feel like they’ve barely worked with people of color, disabled people, LGBQTAI people, etc., that’s worth noticing and keeping in mind. All of this is information that will help you make your final decision later.

Counseling Session #1

Introductions:

Every therapist is different, but there are certain things that you should be able to expect from a first therapy session. Like the start of any relationship, there is a get to know you phase between therapist and client. Both you and the therapist are trying to see if this will be a good fit for the work you need to do. The therapist should take this time during the 1st session to explain who they are and what they are bringing to the table, i.e. their name, credentials, experience, and theoretical orientation.

It always bothered me how many people see a therapist, but don’t know their credentials or what qualifies them to be working with you. Are they a mental health counselor, social worker, psychologist, etc.? What kinds of experience and training do they have that qualifies them to be working with you? Just like you wouldn’t go to an eye & ear Dr to remove your wisdom teeth, it’s important to pay attention to a therapist’s specialties and their experience with working with people like you and/or your specific issues. 

Also what is their theoretical orientation? And does that match what you want in a therapist? A therapist’s theoretical orientation determines how a therapist sees themselves, how they see you the client, how they see your psychotherapeutic relationship, the tools and strategies they will use, and the parts of your life they want to focus on. Usually on therapists’ websites, they list their theoretical orientations in their descriptions or by their contact information. Take a little time and google their theoretical orientation. Google the tools/strategies they use in their work and see if any of that appeals to you and what you wanna do. If you still aren’t sure by the first session, ask the therapist to describe their theoretical orientation in more detail so that it makes sense to you. They should be able to break this down no problem. If they struggle to explain this to you or don’t want to explain it, that’s something else to keep in mind. You really should be able to walk out of the office able to describe, in your own words, who the therapist is, how they are qualified to help you, and the perspective they work from.

Confidentiality

Another IMPORTANT thing that a therapist should have a conversation with you about in the 1st session is confidentiality. You might have filled out and signed a confidentiality agreement during the intake, but just reading and signing a document isn’t enough. When you, the client, leave the 1st or 2nd session, you should be able to answer the question: What is the therapist’s POV on the limits of confidentiality in therapy? Usually, with a few exceptions, whatever clients talk about in session is confidential and most of the time is legally protected client private health information (aka between you and the therapist). The exceptions are usually for 1)sharing info coordinate the best care with other providers in the client’s healthcare team (which the client gives permission for), 2)speaking with parents and other people cleared by clients, 3)reporting child abuse/neglect, 4)calling emergency services in case a client is a danger to themselves/others, and 5)reporting when a client is at risk of harming someone else (duty to warn others at risk). The therapist should explain their usual limits of confidentiality, what makes the limits important, and why it’s important for therapists to discuss with clients ASAP (in the 1st 2 sessions aka informed consent). Confidentiality and the limits of confidentiality are part of the therapist’s role of protecting the client and the wider community. Did the therapist fully explain confidentiality to you and invite you to ask any questions? If not, see if they bring it up during the 2nd session (and if they don’t, bring it up yourself).

“So What Brings You to Therapy Today?” 

After you and the therapist introduce yourselves and discuss confidentiality, the final part of a 1st session usually involves talking about why you’re here. Before this point, your therapist has probably been doing most of the talking. It’s important for the therapist to set the tone, set some boundaries, and start to show you the kind of therapeutic space they can create for you. But now, it’s the client’s time, your time, to talk briefly about what made you decide to come to therapy. All the self-reflection you did up to this moment will come in handy because you will be able to explain the reason(s) you want therapy and the kind of relationship/energy you want with your therapist. This will also be a great time for you and the therapist to start thinking about what your goals for therapy might be. Usually this is the last part of a first session so congratulations, you made it.

Some questions to think about before before the 2nd session:

  • How was this therapist with setting boundaries?

  • How confident do you feel in their ability to create a safe space for you to do the work of therapy?

  • How comfortable do you feel coming out to this therapist (as LGBTQAI, as polyamorous, as into BDSM/kink, etc. if that’s related to your reason(s) for therapy)?

Counseling Session #2

Walking Into This Session

Bring questions or anything you need more understanding on. This isn’t the time to be shy. Reminder: you are shopping for a therapist and your insurance company may have placed limits on the number of sessions you get so we gotta take a step back, really look at the board, and strategize here. Ask any questions. Anything that will help you get a better and deeper understanding of this therapist, how they work, and the kinds of things they’d want to do with you to address the reason(s) you want therapy. Speaking of which, has the therapist mentioned your treatment plan yet? Now that the introductions are over, it’s about that time to start talking seriously about your therapy goals and what needs to be done to get you there.

And that’s where a treatment plan of goals (what you want our of therapy in the short term and long term), objectives (the smaller things you need to do to get to your goals), and interventions (what you and the therapist will do to get you closer to your objectives) comes in to help you map out how to make the best use of therapy. A well-written treatment plan (aka service plan, care plan, etc) is the compass to your work in therapy and it is something that you and therapy should brainstorm together. The treatment plan isn’t going to be a good, realistic fit for you if you don’t have a serious hand in it. It is a collaboration between you and your therapist to work out how to get the most of what you need out of therapy. Pay attention to how open this therapist is to collaborate with you and how they react to areas of your life that they have less experience working with.  

Some questions to think about before before the 3rd session:

  • How did the therapist respond to your questions/concerns?

  • How open do they seem to learning new things? A therapist should be able to admit when they are not knowledgeable about something and should be willing to put in some work for the sake of the therapeutic relationship.

Counseling Session #3

During The Session

The 3rd session should be about continued discussions about goals, treatment planning, and the next steps to starting this work with your therapist. If you have questions or if there’s anything from last session you want to talk more about, this is a great time to bring it up. Especially at the beginning so the therapist can fit it into the agenda for the session. Take note of how they responded to your questions and/or feedback for your self-reflection time later. What do you think about the treatment plan so far? How would you describe the treatment plan in your own words? The treatment plan should address the reason(s) you decided to come to therapy and give you a sense of what you will be doing in therapy for usually the next 6 months. If you are having a hard time describing the treatment plan, it means that the plan probably isn’t clear enough and needs more work. 

3rd Session Reflections

  • How does the therapist match up with what you are looking for?

  • How do you feel about the way the therapist makes you feel or the energy in the space while you are in session with them?

  • How productive do you feel like you are going to be with them? What kind of team do you think the two of you will be?

  • Where do you think you will be with this therapist in 6 months?

It is so hard to find a good therapist. I see the struggle. I really do. That’s why I wanted to write this to help y’all on this difficult search. Like my colleague Ms. Kiya Black described in her jeans analogy, it’s not your fault for having such a hard time finding the right therapist and you don’t have to keep working with someone who isn’t right for you. Unless you are mandated, you are not locked into this therapist. You are shopping around. You are interviewing. The therapeutic relationship is a professional working relationship that needs chemistry. Y’all need to be able to work well together. Switch therapists if you don’t feel that there’s chemistry and/or if you’re not looking forward to working with this person. This is about your growth and healing. And you need everyone on your team to be A1.

Thanks for reading. The next piece on Sunday 6/9/19 will be a continuation of “The Process of Change” series, covering community accountability: how community accountability is an important part of healing and growth for and by the community when there’s been harm done.

Reader Request: Boundaries 202: Estrangement

This is another Reader’s Request (Thank you). Feel free to tweet or DM @Queeringpsych on Twitter or email queeringpsychology@gmail.com with any psychotherapy-related topics you would like to see me write about. I’m always open to suggestions. If you aren’t sure if something is relevant to my site, I don’t have a problem looking at the suggestion and letting you know. This requested piece is covering estrangement. Specifically, how setting and maintaining firm, clear boundaries can help you deal with whatever comes with and comes after cutting off contact with biological family, chosen family, close friends, and other people who used to be close to you. I’m going to talk about mourning the loss of relationships when those people are still alive (different from mourning someone who has died), using boundaries to manage the people in your life who may still have connections with the estranged person(s), and potentially rebuilding your team after this loss. Firm boundaries, again, are the tools here to take care of your own mental and physical needs while also keeping trusted people around you.

The Aftermath

Cutting someone off is no small thing. Even if they were incredibly toxic and it made all the logical sense in the world to cut them off, it is STILL no small thing. Especially if the person had clocked in a lot of time in your life. There’s going to be a place of some size in your life that’s gonna feel empty on some level. And that’s legit. I might be preaching to the choir here, but consider this your pep talk. This is a Boundaries 202 post for a reason. If you aren’t sure what I mean by boundaries or aren’t sure where to begin on how to set/maintain boundaries, please check out my Intro to Boundaries piece. Again, setting and maintaining firm boundaries is about having compassion with yourself and setting lines in the sand for what you need, want, tolerate, and don’t tolerate in your life. Boundaries are not about controlling how other people act. Boundaries aren’t punishments for people’s behavior. Boundaries are instead guidelines for yourself and how you act. Boundaries are also a layer of protective armor for your mental and physical health. Like I mention in the Boundaries 201 Part 1 piece here on setting boundaries with toxic, etc. people in your life, many people have gotten used to going through life with little to no protection because there was no real guarantee that those boundaries would even be respected. By cutting someone off who is having a negative effect on your life, you are setting some important boundaries.

Estrangement is another kind of loss, even if you were the one who decided to cut off contact. Grief is a normal response to experiencing a loss, any kind of loss. Like I explain in my grief piece here, grief isn’t just 5 stages with 5 emotions. Grief looks different for every person and for every situation. Life is complicated and so are the ways people deal with loss. Please take a chance to read the grief piece. It will give you another point of understanding about the mix of feelings you can feel for possibly a long time. And give you some ideas of rituals/strategies you can use to start healing from this loss.

Because Life Isn’t Clean-Cut

There was a reason (or reasons) why you decided that this person shouldn’t be in your life anymore. If it helps, write those reasons down somewhere you can always pull it back up. This isn’t to be petty. This isn’t to hold onto emotions in a way that starts to negatively affect you. This is intended to be a helpful reminder for possible future situations where holding up this boundary may feel hard. And you may need a reminder of what makes this boundary so important to keep up. Part of what makes estrangement complicated is you are mourning the lost/ended relationships of still living people. You could still run into these people. They could try to come back into your life on their own. And/or you could have mutuals in common. Managing the people in your life who still have connections with those estranged people takes SERIOUS boundaries and boundary-respecting. Like I mentioned before, setting boundaries is not about controlling other people’s behavior. You can’t control other people, but you can set boundaries around what you will and won’t tolerate in your life. That could mean not wanting to engage in conversation about the estranged person and removing yourself when conversations about them start. Or telling people that you won’t go to events where the other person will be. If the other people respect you, they will respect your boundaries. Again, this could end up being very hard. People are not used to boundary-setting and you might get some push-back. But they can miss you with all that. This is about your health and happiness. They shouldn’t be pressuring you to give the person another chance or to do anything that you aren’t 100% comfortable with. If you want space, you should get space. And everyone should be going at your speed and in the direction you choose. Your emotions may feel complicated and all over the place during this time. That’s where self-reflection, mindfulness techniques, and self-care are key to help you make some sense of it.

If you are having a hard time finding an objective person to vent to and figure out your emotions with, one option can be to speak to a therapist about it. It’s a common myth that you have to have to be dealing with serious mental health symptoms right now in order to get therapy. Therapists are also trained to help people get through what is called “life transitions”. Things like losing a job, a new relationship, moving to college, having a child, marriage, death of a loved one, etc. are all life transitions that people might need help with. So if the process of estranging yourself from a loved one and maintaining those boundaries becomes really difficult, speaking with a professional might help you look at your situation from different angles and work through all the related emotions, etc.

Side note about Guilt:

Like I mentioned in my intro to boundaries piece: Because we live in a society that not only doesn’t teach people what boundaries are and how to set them, but also doesn’t teach people how to respect the boundaries of others, many people feel guilty or rude for saying no or setting other kinds of boundaries. If society and people in your life have basically taught you that no one’s boundaries get respected and “It is what it is,” it can be hard to not see other people’s boundaries as anything but rude or extra. Again, boundaries are about being compassionate with yourself and your physical and mental health. For whatever reason, you felt this person being in your life was causing more stress than the relationship was worth. That’s real and valid. People might be in your ear, saying some other stuff. They might say you reconciling is “good for the family” or that you broke everyone up. Really what they are asking you is for you to sacrifice your mental/physical health and happiness so that everyone else can be comfortable. But at the end of the day, you are the one who has to live this life and deal with the consequences. This would be a great time to pull out that reminder list you made earlier. Stick to your gut.

(Re)Building Your Social Support System

Like I’ve said before in my Boundaries 201 Part 2 piece, boundaries aren’t just great armor. Clear, firm boundaries can also be used to nurture and make the rest of the relationships in your life even stronger. You did all this work setting and maintaining boundaries to cut this person out of your life. It would frankly suck to do all of that and not have the rest of the relationships in your life be as strong as they could be. Use boundaries and clear communication to build connections with people who help you grow and make you feel good while limiting time/energy around people who feel draining to be around. Even if that means cutting off more people. Check out my life reassessment piece here. Maybe it’s time for a little life spring cleaning. Like I say in the Boundaries 201 Part 2 piece, being around the people close to you “should be a peaceful break from all the nonsense, not a part of the stress”. Having your boundaries constantly ignored may seem little at first, but each “little” disrespect piles up and starts to weaken/damage those relationships after awhile. It also hurts your physical and mental health to deal with disrespect everyday. And there’s so many things in life we cannot control. Especially the more marginalized you are and the different kinds of systemic oppression you deal with everyday. There’s so much disrespect you probably have to swallow every single day just to survive. So why not make sure that you don’t also have to deal with disrespect in the parts of life you can control?

If you need to start rebuilding your social support system and aren’t sure where to start meeting people, try free/low cost classes, workshops, interest groups, meet ups, etc. (These are just opportunities to meet new, like-minded people. Don’t necessarily come in there hard looking for bffs for life. Just the exercise of meeting new people and seeing things of different points of view can be amazing for your personal growth all by itself. If you find people that you want to develop a mutually close relationship with while exploring your interests, awesome I wanna avoid high expectations and high let-downs here. Things take their time.). Again, the close relationships in your life should be mobile safe spaces. The time you spend around the people closest to you should be the times in your life where you feel free to drop all the fronts and find some peace. That’s what setting and maintaining clear, strong boundaries can do in your close relationships and in your life in general.

It’s a beautiful thing to feel safe and secure in the people close to you. Setting and maintaining clear, firm boundaries is a huge key to having a strong support system. Life is too short and way too real to have a squad that will disappear when things start to get rough or to have people in your life who tear you down instead of having your back. We spend so much energy constantly having our defenses up that being able to at least have some moments where you can chill and be you is healing in and of itself. Cutting people out of your life is just as much self-care as building and growing the other relationships you have going on in your life. You are making an important (and difficult) step towards your future. Congratulations.


Thanks for reading. The next piece, on Sunday 5/12/19 will cover how to tell if a therapist is right for you and your needs right now in 3-ish sessions.

 

 

The Process of Change Part 2: Taking Action and Looking to the Future

This is a Part 2 of a 2-part series about change, written using knowledge about the psychology of change so that we can all be on the same page about the actual steps of making a change in your life, what it means to do the work of change, and how to see if someone is fronting to avoid actually changing and being responsible for their actions. Part 1 explained what motivation is, what the process of change generally looks like, and how to give a meaningful apology. This Part 2 covers important parts of the planning, action, and maintenance stages in the process of change, explained in Part one: 1)what accountability is and what makes it a key to true change, self-reflection, and 2)learning how to set realistic goals/plans for change. My goal with this Part 2 is to: Help people be able to see if someone is actually doing the promised work of change and Put a spotlight on accountability. I want us to give just as much shine to accountability as we do to forgiveness. Because from a psychotherapy and mental health point of view, forgiveness is NOT needed for healing. At all. Someone can definitely heal and live a full life without ever forgiving the person(s) who have hurt them. But the flip side isn’t true. Accountability is SO IMPORTANT for healing. Without accountability, true healing and change will never quite be possible. So many people see change as something that happens to someone so they can be passive and watch change happen. But that’s not true. Change is active, both for individual people trying to make changes in their lives and also for the community as a whole.

“It’s Done. Let’s Just Move on.”

So they’ve apologized to others and have forgiven themselves, now it’s time to move on, right? Actually, no. Change is not about “moving on”. Moving on implies putting things behind you. And when someone puts something behind them, with time, they start to forget about it. Out of sight, out of mind is real. So instead of “moving on” or “moving past” something, change is actually moving towards. The person wanting change now needs to start walking the walk: making the sometimes uncomfortable moves towards change and community-healing. Because yes, their actions do have an effect on the people around them and, on some level, their communities.  Change is not about looking good in public, getting people to forgive them so they can feel better/comfortable, or getting back to the way things were before as quickly as possible, etc. That’s not the kind of motivation that leads to lasting change. That could be what first pushed them to think about changing, sure, but after awhile, that’s not going to be enough to keep them going when no one is clapping or even looking at them anymore. Again, unless they are changing because they want to deep down and they see the change as worth it to them personally, the change is not going to last. Walking the walk isn’t always going to feel easy or good. It’s gonna feel like hard work sometimes because that’s what it is. 

Action and Accountability

Forgiveness

Forgiveness is nice. Someone forgiving themselves when they are ready to change is very important. I will say, though, that I see a lot more energy given to rushing towards automatic forgiveness. ESPECIALLY if this is someone with social power, someone most people like, and/or someone who makes popular music/art. Rushing to forgiveness messes with the process of change for 2 reasons. First, it assumes that forgiveness is a mandatory part of the process of change. And it is not. Forgiveness is each person’s choice. It’s not even a required part of healing. Someone could have pushed themselves, worked hard, and transformed themselves into a totally different person and it is still someone else’s prerogative to not forgive them and/or to never want to deal with them again. And someone can heal and live a full life without ever forgiving the person(s) who have harmed them and/or harmed others and that’s fine. Not everyone will forgive. Some people won’t be allowed in certain spaces as a direct result of something they have done to someone else. That’s called respecting other people’s boundaries.That’s also the consequences of their actions and they gotta deal with it. Could someone feel upset, frustrated, tired, etc. because of these consequences? Sure. And if they need to express those feelings to people, they should process those feelings with a consenting friend and/or therapist. That is exactly where those feelings belong. 

What is Accountability?

Less talked about than forgiveness, but more important to me, is accountability. Forgiveness is nice, but accountability is a key to long-lasting change. People feeling as if they are not accountable to anyone is one of the reasons for the abuse, neglect, etc. we see in the government, at our jobs, in our schools, in our communities, in our churches/places of worship, in our families, in our romantic relationships, in our friendships, etc. There is so little accountability going on throughout people’s lives that many people don’t seem to be clear on what accountability is or what it looks like in the real world. To be accountable means that someone is holding themselves responsible and/or is being held responsible for what they have done and/or for what they were supposed to do. Being accountable is also about accepting the consequences of your behavior and choices.

Accountable to Who, Exactly? 

We are all accountable to someone or something in our lives. From the time we are born, there is usually SOMEONE who can check us. Whether it’s parents, teachers, older peers, bosses, landlords, the IRS, etc., at some point, everyone has to answer to someone else. A person, who is serious about changing, holds themselves accountable to the people harmed. Accountability includes reparations. Specifically listening to the person(s) who have been harmed and basing your plans for change on what they need and don’t need from you. Being accountable means being committed to not repeating that behavior without demanding forgiveness and/or expecting rewards for changing. And to do that, you have respect the boundaries of other people and accept the potential social consequences of your actions. Another part of reparations is working on learning new ways of acting/thinking/speaking to take the place of the old ways. So when someone is facing (constructive) criticism about their lack of change and/or not being willing to learn why what they did was messed up, they are refusing to be held accountable and are refusing to really change.

Another level of accountability is being accountable to the community (I plan on writing a separate piece about community accountability later this year). In a better world, it is the community’s job to provide safety to its members. Close friends, relatives, people that the person trying to change respects, etc. should acknowledge the harm done and tell the person they are responsible for resolving it. Instead of what usually happens: Enabling their loved ones, trying to make the work of change as easy as possible, and/or making them feel comfortable with not changing at all. When people are not also held to higher standards by their loved ones, peers, and community, they feel like they can avoid the work of change. Where is the push to even start contemplating change when everyone is acting as if the person hasn’t done anything wrong? Part of community accountability is checking in people’s growth and being willing to receive that check-in. Holding yourself accountable to the community means being willing to be accountable for your actions and your words from the past and in the future. Strength isn’t just somebody saying something with their chest. It’s also to being answerable for what they do and the effect it has on other people. No gaslighting or lying. Just standing up and being willing, not to move on, but to continuing to move toward change by accepting feedback and constructive criticism. Similar to how I described the healing power of boundaries in the Boundaries 201 Part 2 piece, personal and community accountability go a very long way in making positive long=lasting change possible. Accountability creates the right environment for change and encourages more growth in the future. Without personal and community accountability, people eventually won’t trust each other and strong community ties are not possible in that situation. Accountability is part of the work that keeps people and communities feeling safe. And safety and trust in each other is at the core of powerful movements and revolutions.

Working on Yourself

Self-Reflection:

So what does the work of change actually look like? Where does someone even start? I think one of the first things to do is to make time for self-reflection. And I’m not talking about taking 10 minutes to think about why this person was right and that person was wrong. Assuming by this point, you are at the place where you want to make changes for yourself, it’s not about what other people did anymore. Your main focus should be on yourself. I’m talking about setting time aside time for days, weeks, possibly months, to really dig into everything that happened, the role(s) you played, how your actions affected others, etc. You can use my life reassessment piece here as a starting point (it includes links to my piece on mindfulness so check that out) to help figure out how to start the process of taking stock of your life. Taking the time to look at your life bit by bit in an honest and deep way will give you a clearer idea of how to move forward without repeating the same life lessons over and over again. 

The process of self-reflection will take as long as it takes. Don’t rush it. This is a difficult process and many people prefer to rush through it to get to more feel-good parts, like a glamorous redemption/prodigal son story. But it’s the journey that’s important here, not to be cheesy. But it’s literal facts. If someone rushes through their process just so they can get back to the part where everyone likes them again, it’s a fake peace. They didn’t acknowledge that something in their life isn’t right. They didn’t come face to face with the need for change. Without acknowledging and understanding the entire realness of what happened, they can never truly apologize and feel sorry for their part in what happened. And if they don’t feel sorry, they will not change. That’s why I believe that no one should accept any kind of apology (or even worse, accept a non-apology) just to “keep the peace”. Again, that’s a fake peace and it won’t last. 

“I Mean, At Least I’m Honest”

Someone acknowledging what they did and/or “being honest/blunt” about the things they do that hurt people (low-key or high-key) is not enough. The work doesn’t stop there. No applause. No pat on the back just for honesty. That’s less than half the work. It’s good that someone knows themselves. Y’all know I love a mindful person. But my next question every time is, “Ok so now that you know you’re like this, what are you planning to do about it?” Because if the person doesn’t plan on doing anything serious to change in the long term, they can hurt someone just as badly as someone who isn’t aware of themselves at all. If someone feels like they aren’t able to get as deep as they need to on their own, that is probably a sign to start looking for a therapist for a professional outside point-of-view. Vet the therapist to make sure they already have the values you are trying to build in yourself. Just…just saying.

Setting Goals and Making Plans

Someone has been reflecting, is becoming more and more mindful, possibly working with a therapist, and feels ready for the next step, so what’s next? It’s time to take what you have learned about yourself (and are continuing to learn about yourself because self-reflection shouldn’t stop) and decide what needs to be done to change. This is where SMART goals come in. I learned about this from working at community health organizations for years and this is a great way for people to organize themselves and make sense of where they want to go. SMART goals (and objectives) are like the compass for change, making sure someone doesn’t lose track of where they are and where they are going. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.  

Specific

Meaning each goal focuses on 1 thing the person wants to improve. Saying “I wanna be a less angry person” doesn’t do anything here. It’s too general. A more specific goal would be “I want to stop getting into arguments with my coworkers”. Being clear and specific with goals is very important to keeping a person’s motivation going. If a goal feels too big, impossible, etc., people are more likely to burn out or give up on changing. Keeping the goals specific and easy to keep track of makes them easier to accomplish. 

Measurable

Meaning can someone measure their progress with this goal and how will they know when they have accomplished this goal? That 1st goal (“I wanna be a less angry person”) is too general to measure progress. How would someone define “less angry”? What would that even look like? The 2nd goal (“I want to stop getting into arguments with my coworkers”) is easier to measure someone’s progress with. Someone can literally track how many arguments someone is getting into and watch as the number goes up or down. 

Achievable

Meaning how realistic the goal is, depending on the person’s situation. How do they plan on getting this done and what do they need realistically to do this? Do they need to start taking classes, buy some books, consult with some people, etc.? 

Relevant

Meaning is this goal even related to the thing they want to change? Is this goal actually helpful to the person’s growth and/or to the person(s) affected by their actions? Is this the right time for this goal? 

Time-bound

Meaning there’s a realistic deadline by when either the goal will be achieved or someone will check in by that time to see what to do next. What can the person do today to make working towards this goal easier tomorrow? Every SMART goal has at least 2 objectives (mini goals) to break down the goal into smaller, easier steps. 

The great thing about someone organizing their goals for change into something like SMART goals is it helps them organize and make sense of a process that can feel very huge and overwhelming. Taking the time to plan the next steps sets a solid foundation for change and helps a person remain accountable to themselves and to the people around them. And someone organizing their life into SMART goals, in general, is a great way to approach other things they want to accomplish in their life.

There is always going to be someone promising change or promising to change. And it’s important for us to be able to know how to recognize this process/work in others when it’s time to hold people accountable for their actions. Awareness is always key. And taking the time to stop and critically think about a situation is 1 of the tools that will set us free. Change is a process that lasts someone’s whole life and knowing more about the process of change and what change looks like will help you figure out if someone is really walking the walk. Remember that motivation for true, long-lasting change comes from within and with the understanding that 1)forgiveness is not mandatory and 2)that there are justifiable social consequences (For example: other people setting their own personal boundaries aka “cancelling”) that happen as a result of their actions. We as individuals must hold ourselves accountable and push ourselves to grow everyday towards the better future we want. And we as a community must hold each other accountable so we can create the environment for the growth and trust in each other that makes the true change we fight for possible.

Thanks for reading. The next post will be a Reader’s Request on Sunday 4/14/19, covering 1)estrangement after you’ve cut off contact with family, and other people who were once close to you, 2)mourning the lost relationships of still living people, and 3)how to manage the people in your life who still have connections with those estranged people.

The Process of Change Part 1: What is Change?

It seems like every day someone is promising to change or promising to lead people towards a larger change. Unfortunately, not every promise turns into real action. Many promises end up falling short of what was promised or end up being outright lies. And there’s a lot of misinformation on what true long-lasting change is, what the process of change looks like, and how to recognize this process/work in others when it’s time to hold people accountable for their actions. Like the other things I’ve written for this site, the information in this piece will be based in psychotherapy and research-supported techniques/strategies. This piece draws from techniques called Motivational Interviewing, created by William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick and described in their manual “Motivational Interviewing” 3rd edition. Motivational interviewing was created for people who have chaotic substance use (Drugs use 101 piece here for more information on the different types of drug use, etc.) and who want to change how they use drugs, but are having issues making/maintaining that change in their lives. These techniques are not just for substance use issues. Motivational Interviewing (aka MI) can help people, in general, understand what change looks like and the work realistically necessary for long term change. This piece is not a replacement for therapy and/or working with a mental health professional trained to use MI techniques. The purpose of this 2-part series is to use the values of MI and the knowledge about the psychology of change so that we can all be on the same page about 1)the actual steps of making a change in your life, 2)what it means to have done the work of change, and 3)how to see if someone is pulling the wool over your eyes to avoid actually changing and being held accountable. This part one explains what motivation is, what the process of change generally looks like, and how to give a meaningful apology. 

Motivation

Motivation is basically a person’s desire to do something. Motivation can come from outside a person: rewards/prizes, paychecks, laws/rules, punishments, grades, bribes, etc. are all examples of things that can motivate a person to do something. And those definitely work to some degree and to some level. But at a certain point, after some time, according to research and many people’s personal experiences, outside motivation starts to lose its power after awhile. Especially if that’s the only thing getting them out of bed. As we all could guess, if their heart isn’t really in it and they don’t actually want to do something deep down, eventually they are going to feel less and less like bothering to do it. Whether someone is doing it to please other people, to get some heat off their neck, because they think it’s something they should want to do, etc., outside motivation is a car that will eventually run out of gas. It’s just not a renewable resource. When they eventually run out of that first bit of fuel, they’re gonna need to tap into the rainy-day reserve and that is internal motivation: the desire and drive that comes from inside someone. The person has to want it. That push has to come from inside them for any kind of change to be possible. True, lasting, long-term change can’t be forced into someone or shamed into someone. Again, point blank: a person has to want to change for themselves, for their own personal reasons (whatever those reasons are), and then the change will be real and long-lasting.

The Stages of Change

Change is complicated. The Stages of Change help to make sense of what this complicated process can look like in a way that does not take the humanity and/or power away from people. The process of change doesn’t go in a straight line from stage to stage and it can be very complicated because life and people are complicated. Before I begin explaining the stages of change, I want to talk a little bit about the importance of honest self-reflection and mindfulness. When was the last time you listened to the way you talk to and/or about yourself? 1 exercise you could try to really get a sense of how you talk to and/or about yourself: Pay attention and write down the things you say (and think) to and/or about yourself for a week. And then at the end of the week reflect on what you see. What tone do you have with yourself? How would you feel if somebody else talked to and/or about you like that? How do you usually motivate yourself when you want to change or gain a new habit? MI refers to all that as your “self-talk”. Self-talk is very important in the process of change. If your self-talk is mainly focused on how you aren’t going to be able to change or on all the reasons you should stay the same, it is going to be much harder to keep that motivation to change in the long run. That’s why it is very important to be mindful of your self-talk throughout this process. You are the narrator and the change-maker in your life story.

Stage 1: Pre-contemplation

Meaning not even considering change. The person isn’t even seeing a legit reason to start thinking about changing at this point. When someone is in the pre-contemplation stage, no amount of pushing, nagging, shaming, reasoning, etc. is going to actually get them to change. All the interventions and even all the tears in the world won’t actually do much because there is not even a drop of motivation to change coming from inside them. As a therapist, I wouldn’t even bother wasting my time on something a client doesn’t see as a problem and I wouldn’t expect them to change that part of their life at all. As a non-therapist, trying to figure out if someone intends on changing or if they are still in pre-contemplation: this is where you’d watch someone’s actions instead of getting distracted with what they’re saying. Someone in the pre-contemplation stage could lie and tell you that they are ready for change, but their actions tell on themselves. What is their track record? And how does that compare with what they are doing right now? Are they making active moves towards learning more, self-reflecting, respecting boundaries, seeking community accountability, etc? What are they doing right now?

Stage 2: Contemplation

This is when a person is starting to think about changing. They start to weigh the pros and cons of changing vs staying the same. In the contemplation stage, people even start to imagine what their future lives would look like if they changed. But someone in the this stage is not feeling fully committed to changing. They’re still thinking it over. MI calls this feeling ambivalence. Ambivalence is something we are all familiar with on some level. Ambivalence is the discomfort, the emotional battle that happens when someone wants multiple conflicting things at the same time.  Both wanting to change and to stay the same. In the seesaw-like battle of ambivalence, once someone leans too close to 1 side, the other side always looks better. As I’ve said before, ambivalence is an important part of the process of change. It’s part of living life. A good example of ambivalence would be when a person (Friend A) is talking to their friend (Friend B) about someone Friend B is thinking about breaking up with. Every time Friend A brings up a reason to stay, Friend B argues passionately to leave. And when Friend A brings up a reason to leave, Friend B argues passionately to stay. It seems really confusing from the outside and it is really confusing for the person dealing with the ambivalence too. Because Friend B BOTH really wants to stay for seemingly strong reasons and really wants to leave for other seemingly strong reasons all at the same time. Ambivalence has to be worked through in order for lasting change to be possible. 

Stage 3: Preparation: 

The person has contemplated change, weighed the pros and cons, started imagining what their future could look like, and now has started planning the steps they would have to take in order to make the changes. Ambivalence can still pop up during this stage, especially as the person really starts to realize how much work it is to make these changes in their lives. Although it is important for the person to have a solid system of people to encourage and support them in changing, the planning has to be led by the person trying to change. No one can do this work for them. That would undermine the whole process and the person would never actually learn and change. Planning should be realistic and should pay attention to the person’s limitations, their personal boundaries, their need for self-care, and their accountability to those who have been harmed and to the wider community. After the planning is over, it is important to look over the plan to make sure that it still works and that the person still wants to do this. There’s always time to see if the plan for change can be updated to be longer-lasting, more realistic, and/or more compassionate to those who have been harmed, for example.

Stage 4: Action

This is where a person turns their plans into action. It may start with small steps, but it is clear that is these are first steps towards a larger goal. Especially in the case of someone having done harm, this is the time for taking active, clear, pretty easy to see steps towards change. Even something as small as saying, “I don’t know enough about that topic to have a knowledgeable opinion on that. So I’d rather not speak on it”. That is a solid starting point by the way. In the action stage, the person’s self-talk focuses much, much more on changing than staying the same. As a person’s ambivalence starts to go away, they feel more and more motivated to do more of the work of change. That all said, ambivalence doesn’t quite go away completely. Motivation to change could go up and down throughout this stage too. Change is work. And it’s not always going to feel glamorous or noble. There are times when doing the work of change feels uncomfortable and someone might wonder if it would just be easier to go back to the way they used to be. That’s why making sure someone’s motivation comes from within and having a solid support system is important. 

Stage 5: Maintenance:

At this point, the person has made the changes in their life. But that’s not the end. Change is not a 1-time deal. No setting it and forgetting it here. Change is, again, a process. A life long process. And you’ll make mistakes because you are human, but a mistake is not the end. Just because you messed up in your journey doesn’t mean you have license to go back to the way you were before. That mistake was a life lesson and can be a stepping stone if you put in the motivation and work afterwards. Life is about change, growth, and taking what you learned from the past and using that constantly evolving wisdom to make better decisions in the future.

Saying “I’m Sorry”

A lot of y’all don’t know what an apology looks like and what an apology means. And this matters because I see these non-apologies written on the Notes app and people defending what’s ready an attempt to shut everyone up and move on. When everyone is on the same page about what an apology is and looks like, it’s easier to spot a front. An apology is an acknowledgment of wrong-doing and a plan for future action. You need both. There’s no change without recognizing the effects your actions have had on your life and the lives of others and THEN taking active steps towards future change.

An apology has 3 parts:

  1. What are they apologizing for? – They should be able to describe what they are apologizing for clearly in their own words. This shows that they are aware of what they did.

  2. How are they acknowledging the effect of what they did on other people? They should be able to describe the impact their actions had on other people clearly (with enough detail so they’re not speaking in general) in their own words. It’s important that they are specific.

  3. How are they acknowledging the effect of what they did on other people? They should be able to describe the impact their actions had on other people clearly (with enough detail so they’re not speaking in general) in their own words. It’s important that they are specific. 

  4. How are they going to change in the future? They should be able to break down specifics of how they are planning to change. They need to show some evidence that they are invested in the long-term work of change. Part of this work is continuing to be open to critique as they continue to learn, unlearn, and change. This isn’t a one and done situation. Especially if we are talking about unlearning bigotry and hatred. 


Change is a process. Change is work. And change is ultimately very obvious. People shouldn’t have to be close the person or “know their heart” to see that they have changed or are working towards change. And I’m not talking about large showy gestures here. I’m stating the obvious: when someone is working to change, they start to walk in the spirit of that change and people can see it on them/in them. Y’all know what I mean. Real growth and learning changes the course of someone’s life. They give up old ways because they know better now. They leave certain things behind them, make other decisions, and act in ways that make it clear that something is different in their lives. 


Thanks for reading. The next post will be the 2nd part of this Process of Change 2-part series, covering looking to the future, the kinds of work needed to change, what accountability is, and how it is important for true change to be possible.