co-counseling


The co-counseling leadership has decided that co-counselors should start saying “male domination” instead of “sexism.” I think it’s a great idea. Calling the oppression of women by men “sexism” has always confused me. I actually made it into my early twenties before I realized that “sexism” referred only to the mistreatment of women by men, and not to the mistreatment anyone by anyone on the basis of gender. “Male domination” calls it what it is. “Sexism” is a euphemism by contrast.

Perhaps it is also time to call racism what it is. We don’t use “racism” to mean race-based discrimination. Racism is when a White person oppresses a person of color. The other way around is “reverse racism.” It’s confusing and verges on another euphemism. Why don’t we call race-based oppression by Whites what Victor in The Color of Fear calls it: White supremacy. That’s what it is.

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My favorite new term from my family therapy program is parataxic distortion, coined by the “American Freud” and one of the grandfathers of family therapy, Harry Stack Sullivan.

A parataxic distortion is when a current situation or person reminds you of something from your past, often without you knowing it, such that you behave to some degree as if you are in your past, dealing with that situation or person. Parataxic distortion is an umbrella term for confusions like Freud’s transference (client gets inappropriately emotional about therapist) and countertransference (therapist gets inappropriately emotional about client). It is also very much like to co-counseling’s “restimulation of distress.” Most likely every psychotherapeutic school has its own name for this phenomenon.

The idea is that there is a way in which your memories are categorical, not specific. That is, if your dad hit you when you were a kid, you not only attach fear and anger to your dad in your memory, you also attach it to a range of things, maybe bald men, short men, men in general, authority figures in general, certain kinds of places or rooms, etc.

Mostly, our memories are useful. This ability to generalize, for example, helps us avoid burning ourselves on hot stoves in general instead of having to painfully learn not to touch each hot stove. Neat trick!

But with a parataxic distortion, our unconscious memory keeps us from being able to understand and deal with situations as they are, in the present. It patterns your behavior. It limits your options. Usually without your knowing it, it makes your life more scary, sad, irritating, and ultimately isolated than it needs to be. Most therapeutic modalities have some version of this three-stage recipe for resolving parataxic distortions: 1) Form a trusting relationship with someone who has less distortion in the area you have trouble with. 2) Have a “corrective emotional experience,” where you basically re-experience your distortion-driven emotional pattern while demonstrably safe in this trusting relationship. 3) Have a “cognitive reappraisal,” meaning come to a new understanding of your behavior in light of current reality as it is. Go meta.

Easier said than done, of course, but well worth it!

Compared to me at my peak, in junior high school, I am not homophobic. I wasn’t even that homophobic then, on the full scale of the trait, but “gay” was definitely a put-down and though I didn’t know that I knew any LGBTQ folks at the time, I had the sense that they were lower on the hierarchy of normalcy than I was.

I’ve come a long way. Last fall, for example, a young woman leaned her upper body out of the passenger window of a passing car to shout “fag!” at me, and I was merely amused. (Tilke told me later it was probably because I was wearing red pants. Heterosexuals are allowed to wear blue, black, khaki, and camouflage pants.) It’s impossible to measure, of course, but if you forced me to say, I’d guess I have about 1% of the homophobia I had then. I don’t mean to make that sound like that’s a big deal—it’s just growing up. One of the main things I think “growing up” means is coming to not feel threatened by things that aren’t threatening.

But getting rid of what co-counselors call ‘oppressor patterns’ like homophobia is kind of like learning to tune a guitar; the further you get, the harder it is to do. Tiny increments that used to be inaudible to me, now sound teeth-grindlingly out of tune. It’s like my mom always says, “Whatever you focus on expands.”

I’m thinking about this because I’ve started taking a ballet class—two, actually, four hours a week—and we started right out with a move that poked me right in the homophobia, a ballet leap called grande jete. It’s a beautiful motion, but I get a little uncomfortable watching men do it. And there’s something about doing it myself that makes me squirm. And being seen doing it e,specially by strangers, set my emotional alarms off. I haven’t been able to deconstruct it much, yet. My body just shouted “wrong!”

I’m looking forward to whatever insights come from this. My first guess is that it’s fear of ridicule. Whatever it is, facing it could really help my dancing. I’m from the punk rock generation. We’re not allowed to be passionately graceful. It has to look accidentally or clumsily graceful. That is holding me back.

Here’s some amazing leaping (though I don’t think any of these are grande jetes):

This has been my busiest term of school ever. I’ve got two very challenging classes, Social Psychology and Applied Data Analysis, my honors thesis, and a ten hour a week internship at Stepping Stone, a residential treatment center for adjudicated teenage boys. On top of that, I’m taking the GRE (Graduate Record Exam–a really hard test, like the SAT for getting into graduate schools) during finals week. That’s on the same day as my last final. That’s the point in my story where my classmates’ eyes bug a little. “OK, that’s crazy.”

This is too busy. I don’t like it. I like being in heavy intellectual training. I like being in this kind of shape; I can read and understand a journal article in a couple hours, for example. I enjoy being this productive, too, but I’ve gotten stressed out. About halfway through the term I started skimping on my non-intellectual stuff, to keep on top. My meditation practice is getting the squeeze–I’m rarely sitting for more than 15 minutes a day and often it’s just a token few minutes. That’s when I feel how strong my mind is going the most–when I’m sitting to meditate or lying down to sleep, this clear, powerful thinking, like a force, pushing up to the front of my head, driving my awareness and dominating my experience. I am getting enough sleep, at least. I’ve been strict with myself on that and it makes a big difference. My exercise has been getting the squeeze, though. All I do is bike, and I like biking but I also like to run, lift weights, and swim. I just can’t do them as part of my commute. I ride for transportation 30-90 minutes a day. I bike between classes. Sometimes it feels like all I do with my body is bike, sit, and sleep. Not very much walking, even.  I dance, too, probably four hours a week on average. That’s gotten some squeeze, but not too much. My songwriting and music playing has gotten the squeeze. My emotional support has gotten the squeeze. I’m down to maybe one co-counseling session a week and no phone time with friends. I’m lucky to live with good friends, so I still get supportive conversations. I get almost no physical affection, though. I can’t blame that on my term–I’m just far away from my most affectionate friends and family. Danielle, Maya, Jeannie, Mom, I miss you! I miss the rest of you too. I want to be in your lives more. I want to know how you are and what you’re doing.

But not for a couple more weeks. After this post, I’m putting my head down, business only, until the term is over. I’ll start posting again in mid-December. Have a great Thanksgiving and end of fall!

Here are some photographs of my calendar I took when I first conceived of this post, a few weeks ago. They are the first six weeks of my term. I’m a little nostalgic about how much more balanced I felt in those days. (Look at all that blue, red and pink!) Here’s what you’re looking at: I kept track of what I did, as I did it. Anything that I did for at least 15 minutes at a time made it on here. (My week calendars do not look like this ahead of time–they have only firm commitments and deadlines in them, GTD-style.) The columns are days, Sunday to Saturday, from about 8 am to about 11 pm. The purple is school stuff, like classes and studying. The blue is personal stuff, like cooking, eating, cleaning, and talking with friends. Green is office work, blogging, working in the elections office, teaching dance classes or lessons. Orange is dancing. Red is meditation and co-counseling. Pink is exercise. Yellow is Suntop stuff–chores, meetings, and outings.

Week 1

Week 1

Week 2

Week 2

Week 3

Week 3

Week 4

Week 4

Week 5

Week 5

Week 6

Week 6