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I Just Don’t Get It

I just woke up (don’t judge me) and turned on the TV to find that Wilson will not be indicted for Brown’s shooting. I try not to use my blog for ranting, so instead I will write about my confusion, since I’m almost always confused about something when I write.

Sometimes, despite being a psychologist and despite my super-empath skills, I still can’t understand why some people do the things they do. I studied prejudice and discrimination when I was in grad school, so I can tell you the theories that attempt to explain why some people choose to hurt others to make themselves feel better. Ingroups and outgroups. Competition. Fear of the unknown. Just world theory. Projection of weaknesses. Id impulses.

But sometimes the hatred that fuels prejudice and discrimination is so intense that intellectual theories fail to capture the atrocity of these acts.

And this does not only apply to race relations. It also applies to the backlash that women get when they finally have the courage to come forward and say that they were sexually assaulted. It applies to people who try to share what the darkness is like during a depressive episode, only to have a loved one respond with a dismissive I don’t believe in depression. It applies to the demons that seize every opportunity to make us feel worthless, unlovable.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not immune to darkness. I judge. I criticize. I will attack someone’s vulnerabilities in an argument. I have sinned. I have given in to demons. But I cannot say that my instinctive response to anyone has ever been to hate them without cause. Fear them, perhaps. But not hate them. And I have never had the urge to hurt someone who didn’t hurt me first.

Hatred. Darkness. Evil. Perhaps these are subjects that go beyond what psychology can offer. Perhaps religion and philosophy can do a better job of explaining why. Although I haven’t heard an explanation from these disciplines that I find satisfying, either.

At least psychology has given me something to do during these moments that are beyond my comprehension. In these moments, when I feel helpless to provide any kind of meaningful contribution to make the world a more loving place, I can pray. I can practice compassion and lovingkindness.

And I can blog.

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Declaration of Independence

I am working with a client who was sexually assaulted and is thinking about taking her case to our judicial board. We talked about the levels of awareness that she went through before she could be ready to take this step. How at first she didn’t want to acknowledge what happened. Then she opened up to a few people who felt safe. Now she wants to make sure he understands that what he did was not OK. To force him to think about it the next time. She hopes to eventually share her story at Take Back the Night so that other people can benefit from it.

She knows that there will be people who won’t believe her. Who will blame her for what happened. She prepares herself by reminding herself that as long as she knows what happened, that’s all that counts. But that’s a hard thing to do–to face the judgment within us and around us. It takes a lot of courage to face that kind of scrutiny.

I like to think of this process as a kind of declaration of independence–from our demons, from judgment, from fear. It happens every time someone goes to AA and admits they’re an alcoholic. Every time someone finds the courage to say I have an eating disorder. I struggle with depression. I live in fear. In making this declaration, they take away the power that their condition has to make them feel weak. Defective. Crazy.

To a lesser extent, I think of my blog as a kind of declaration of independence. I’ve tried to hide these things about myself all my life. I don’t want to be held hostage by them anymore. I want to be able to embrace everything that makes me who I am–especially the things that I am ashamed of.

The president of the student organization I advise, Active Minds, told me that he reads my blog, which kind of freaked me out at first. But he thought it was the most powerful way to fight stigma and to let other students know that they are not alone in their struggles with mental illness, which is the primary goal of Active Minds. So he is finding ways to give students the opportunity to make their own public declarations. It is a wonderful feeling to know that this has come out of my willingness to share my vulnerabilities.

I’ve always liked the expression that freedom isn’t free. You have to fight for it. Although blogging has been a surprisingly supportive and positive experience, I am well aware that there will be times when someone will judge me for what I say. I try to prepare myself for it by doing what my client is doing–to remind myself that ultimately, the only person who counts is me. Then I take a deep breath and hit Publish.

Declaration of Independence

A Just World

I am having deja vous.  Before last term, we had not had a student death related to a car accident in over 10 years. Yet once again, another student died in a car accident earlier this week. Like the student last term, this student was very involved and visible in the community, was known for helping others, and was on the verge of graduating with a bright future ahead of her.

We tell students that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. But some coping mechanisms are more hurtful than others. She was probably driving too fast. People shouldn’t drink and drive.  Stupid people die. 

When I was a graduate student, one of my favorite theories was the Just World Hypothesis. Because we want to believe in a just world, when something bad happens we assume that the person must have done something to deserve it.

I often hear just world explanations after a sexual assault. She was making out with him on the dance floor. She went back to his room. She didn’t fight it so she must have wanted it.  

The Just World Hypothesis is closely related to the problems with free will and blame. In order to preserve the belief that we control our destiny, we are willing to take responsibility for things that we don’t actually have control over.  

I can understand the need to believe that if you make the right choices you will be safe from harm. I want to believe this, too. Usually my attempts at control manifest themselves in perfectionism and excessive guilt.

I don’t know how much blame a person should be held responsible for. I don’t know how to make sense of all of the suffering in the world. But I know that the more I blame someone, the less compassion I have for them.

So I try to approach suffering in the same way I try to accept my feelings: it doesn’t have to make sense. I don’t have to know the reason why for suffering to exist. And I try to have faith that when something bad happens, I will be strong enough to handle it.

Whose Fault is It?

I love playing games.  One of my favorites is the Blame Game.  Even though any couples therapist will tell you that you’re not supposed to do this, I’ll use every piece of evidence of every argument I can remember to prove that it’s not my fault.  I have no doubt this has contributed in part to the demise of some of my relationships.

However, even though I don’t like being at fault, I also blame myself for everything.  I’m one of those people who takes too much responsibility for problems.  Maybe that’s why I am also willing to do more than half of the work to try to “fix” the relationship.

The whole blame and responsibility thing is even harder to sort out when you throw in mental illness.  Lets say, for example, that you have an abusive alcoholic father.  Is it his fault if he hits you while he’s black out drunk?  Is it his fault that he has an addiction-prone brain and can’t just have one drink?  What if he had been sober for a year but relapsed because a buddy guilt-tripped him into going to a bar to celebrate his new job?  What parts of the alcoholism are his responsibility?

In my work, the Blame Game is the most problematic in a sexual assault.  It is often the case that both parties were drinking.  However, when friends are assigning blame, the perpetrator is seen as being less responsible because he was black out drunk.  The victim is seen as being more responsible for allowing herself to get that drunk.

And when the victim comes to therapy, she also believes it was her fault because she had been drinking.  The perpetrator usually doesn’t come to therapy.  In rare cases, the victim will bring the sexual assault to our judicial system to get the perpetrator to take responsibility for his behavior.  And the victim almost never wins.

The two most common disorders we see in the Counseling Center are depression and anxiety.  These are disorders where the person takes too much responsibility for their problems.  If they can’t will themselves to get out of bed and go to class, it’s their fault for being lazy.  When I suggest that a client try meds for her panic attacks, she often says no.  That’s a cop out. She should be able to do it on her own.

I don’t claim to know the answers for how much blame a person should assume.  I do know that the split in assigning blame is rarely 100% to 0%.  There is always some part of the problem that we can take responsibility for.  And when we take responsibility for our part, it usually makes things better.

Sometimes no one is to blame.  This one is really hard for people to accept.  How can you play the Blame Game if it’s no one’s fault?  But let’s say a typhoon hits the Philippines and causes mass destruction.  Whose fault is it?  There is power in blame because it gives us the illusion of control.

But there is also power in forgiveness.  We can forgive the other person for wrongdoing, even if they haven’t accepted any responsibility.  And we can forgive ourselves for our role in the problem.  And forgiveness is much more freeing than blame, regardless of whose fault it is.