Cultivating Joy

March 30th, 2023

Cultivating Joy

Do you ever get caught up in the negative news cycle? Feel overwhelmed by the many different crisis of modern life? Struggling to cope after finishing a really good show (this is not the same level as the other examples, but still)? We all get down. Sometimes we can be tempted to lean into that feeling, and really stay down. One of the things that I personally have had to work on is being intentional in making space for happiness, and actually going out of my way to force some happiness into my life. So, today we’re going to talk about how to do that, and what some of the benefits of cultivating joy can be.

One of my most common metaphors I use for mental health is comparing it to gardening, so when I talk about “cultivating” joy that’s a very specific word choice. Cultivating implies that there is a whole process to this. Cultivating means that we plant a seed in a healthy environment, we then give that seed the nutrients and whatnot that it needs to grow, we weed around the seed so it doesn’t get choked out by bad stuff, and we have ongoing maintenance in order to eventually reap a harvest. That’s a lot of steps I summarize with just one word, but that’s why cultivating joy seems like the right wording. In order to have consistent joy in our life, we need to find a healthy space to plant it, so it has the opportunity to grow. We need to nourish that space and that joy, so it can grow into something larger and more pervasive in our life. We need to do some weeding in other areas of our lives to keep negativity from choking out our joyful space, and we ultimately need to keep up the maintenance so that our joy grows and is fruitful enough that we get our fill and potentially even have enough to share with others. It’s work, and it’s a process rather than a singular event. I also like the word joy instead of happiness. I think our society promotes happiness as some sort of goal, but happiness is very specifically a fleeting emotion, it’s a feeling here one moment and gone the next. Joy is more than just happy, but isn’t maybe as long-lasting as contentment. Semantics, I know, but language matters, and I think this builds out a nice picture that creates a more realistic expectation of what “cultivating joy” can look like. 

So, I pontificated about words for long enough, how do we actually go about cultivating joy? First things first, create space. Literal physical space, and also space in your schedule. That often is the sticking point for people, needing to carve time out in their schedule. I find for many couples I work with, scheduling time consistently is the only way they can make it work. The odds of a schedule just matching up is slim to none, so signing up for something that happens weekly actually means more time and more consistency. The example I use is a sports league, but it can be bar trivia, really anything that happens at regular intervals. If you don’t get joy from something like that, it really just becomes a task for you to make sure you prioritize the joyful activities as they present themselves in your schedule. Maybe it’s going out for a nice dinner, seeing a movie, or taking in a live performance. Once the joyous space exists, we need to focus on nourishing the joy. Maybe that means reliving it or talking about it with members of the community who also enjoy the same things, maybe it’s a  simple gratitude practice about the joyful experience, but something to highlight, honor, and get more benefit from the joy. Our brains drop little boosts of feel-good drugs even with just remembering a positive experience, so it’s good to get in the habit of that, in addition to looking forward to the next time that joyous event or activity will come around. Now we’re cooking with gas, and we have joyful space and we’re nourishing it, we need to maintain that while fighting off the stress and negativity in other areas of our life, and we need to avoid the trap of cutting our joy back when our schedule gets tight or our stress goes way up. Paradoxically, I often see joyful or recreational activities get cut from our schedules first when life takes a turn, but joy is even more important in our lives when the times get tough. If you make it this far, in theory your brain will want to fight for keeping this joy, but a reminder that maintenance is part of nearly every healthy habit, so this step is just noting that there’s work to keep the good stuff going good, it doesn’t just happen by accident. 

I think this is really an important skill, especially as it’s easy in our fast-paced society to get overwhelmed or sucked into the negative news cycle. Nature is awesome, so are pets and kids, and there’s so much awesome stuff we miss when we’re just hyperfocused on the doom and gloom of society’s many problems. Find your joy. Nourish it. Protect it. And let it give you sustenance to get through all the not joyful parts of life.

The Importance of Comprehensive Sex Ed

March 23rd, 2023

The Importance of Comprehensive Sex Ed

I’m not sure what one political party’s fascination with underaged genitals is, but I can tell you one thing it isn’t based on, and that’s safety. Anti-trans healthcare laws, anti-abortion laws, book banning, and limiting diverse voices all are in opposition of what research shows to be best practices for making children safe in a developmentally appropriate way. One of the big issues in these made up culture wars is one side has no scientific backing to their claims. They are trying to police morality, not following science or data in any way, shape, or form. Information control is a big part of authoritarian leadership, whether it be in a cult or a fascist government. So, the way to combat this nonsense is with good education, based on peer-reviewed evidence from solid research. So, let’s look at one topic today, sex ed. The pitfalls of not having it, and the problems with it when it isn’t backed by science.

Sex ed is just what it sounds like, sexual education. It is about normal, natural human development. We often equate it with puberty, because that is when a lot of sex characteristics change for people, but healthy development is really looked at over the whole lifetime. Sure, a lot goes on during puberty, but puberty isn’t some lightswitch that turns on and suddenly we’re sexual creatures. Human genitals begin developing in utero, and again, development is really a lifelong process. So, comprehensive education can begin with that development in utero, everyone has the same parts, just arranged differently. The whole “only two genders” nonsense misses this point entirely, because as I’ve written about before, gender is a construct. So, in understanding sex as a biological issue, it’s disingenuous to skip that everyone starts from the same place. We all have the same parts, just arranged differently. What is the clitoris for some people starts out as the same bundle of nerves that becomes the penis glans for others. Ovaries and testicles develop from the same place, again, same parts, just arranged differently. And from this point, we can look at the human experience of sexual development. We can talk about biology, we can talk about sexual intercourse, safety and all that it entails, consent, hygiene, and the continuing development, because it’s not like bodies stop changing. A newborn body is changing differently than a body hitting puberty which is different significantly from a body in its 60s. So, again, to tie sex ed just to puberty is a huge disservice.  

Having comprehensive sex ed is tied to numerous positive outcomes. Fewer unwanted pregnancies, lowers risk of sexual violence, lower incidence of STIs, and increased body positivity. Like, just on the data behind those items listed, this should really be a non-issue. Who is arguing against this? And to drive the point home, the party of small government who wants to “protect children from groomers” is who is fighting against this. That means they are fighting for more unwanted pregnancies, more sexual violence, more STIs, and more people with low self-esteem and knowledge about their own bodies. And not to be overly political here, just highlighting that by going against the research, they are for all these terrible outcomes. There is no justification for it. If they want to bring up religion, that isn’t a way to govern, because not everyone is the same religion. Most of their religions will have rules that they don’t follow, such as women keeping their heads covered, or stoning people who get divorced. And most religions also have terrible science, like women being formed from a rib, or the earth being flat. So, not a good system to make laws, and not something that people clutching their pearls about can really say they even follow, either. Should be a moot point. So, why isn’t it? Where is the anti-science brigade coming from?

Well, that’s a complicated answer. One, for some religious zealots, they have to be anti-science, because if you use scientifically validated sources as a basis for decision making, then it points out that their ancient book of magical blood sacrifices and flying supermen is just mythology, which oddly enough is what they think of every other version of ancient books about other blood magic and flying supermen. Basically, it makes them face their own cognitive dissonance. And for the people who conveniently claim religious beliefs but absolutely aren’t zealots, they are doing it because it is easier to manipulate and abuse people who don’t have good critical thinking skills. For example, 14 religious leaders (pastors, priests, etc) were arrested or sentenced in the past week (for real, 14 in the past week!!! 2 per day!!!!!!). Are we fighting this well-documented scourge of men who wear dresses and abuse children? Nope, we’re totally ignoring that, and unironically attacking a different group of men who wear dresses but don’t abuse children. It’s wild. And with much of our current made-up culture wars, it’s hard to take seriously, except that it’s hurting people. Women in Texas are being forced to carry nonviable pregnancies to the point of getting sepsis, just to get treated by a doctor so the doctor doesn’t get sued. Trans kids who are getting denied care, or worse being outed against their will, will have significantly worse mental health, and will be more likely to think about and attempt suicide. One political party is pro-suicide. That’s the reality we’re living in. That’s where a lack of science, a lack of good research, and a lack of education gets us. 

So, support comprehensive sex ed. Call out bigotry dressed up as politics or religion. Speak up for people who are disadvantaged, and let’s make decisions about how to protect children based on science, research, and what the evidence tells us.

AI Took Our Jobs!

March 13th, 2023

AI Took Our Jobs!

So, I’ve been avoiding this topic, hoping it would blow over and we’d all move on. However, rather than moving on, I’ve seen the opposite. At first, I kept seeing news stories and think pieces on AI taking over, specifically how ChatGPT was some sign of the end times. That kind of quieted down as we all got to tinker with it, and the novelty wore off. However, I keep having clients or other people bring up changing jobs because they’re going to be replaced by ChatGPT. And like, that isn’t happening. Maybe those terrible listicle sites like BuzzFeed will be performed solely by AI in the future, but frankly, the internet will be a better place without them (a listicle is an article that is just a list, like top 10 Batman villains, or 10 ways to make your partner stay with you forever! They’re trash, and prey on the human brain’s proclivity to enjoy categorized information). So, in a short two page blog format, let’s do a brief overview into what is going on with the new AI craze.

For those of you not in the know, AI stands for artificial intelligence. And it’s been around for awhile, we have kind of gotten used to it and kind of just ignored it. It’s been a part of answering machines and those little “can I help you today” chat boxes on websites for what seems like quite some time now. That’s AI. It took some jobs in call center help desks? And a preliminary search shows that it didn’t really do that, those jobs weren’t being filled in the first place. Point is, this technology isn’t new, it’s been around for long enough where most of us have had some interaction with it. ChatGPT came out late last year, and it created a storm of reactions! SkyNet! Minority Report! Other science fiction references about robots taking over! There was a bit of calamity, and our very cookie cutter education system had to take a long look in the mirror regarding how easy it is to plagiarize, but also, how easy it always has been to write a high school paper that gets a passing grade. My freshman year I played dumb for an entire quarter and got my teacher to basically write my whole paper for me, no effort or AI needed. There was this panic that teaching was over and English departments everywhere should despair. And then, shockingly, nothing happened. Partly because AI isn’t taking our jobs anytime soon, and partly because the education system in America won’t change for any good reasons ever. 

I asked ChatGPT if it was replacing human jobs. It replied, “As an AI language model, I am not designed to replace human jobs, but rather to assist humans in various tasks such as language translation, text generation, and answering questions. AI has the potential to automate some tasks and improve efficiency in certain industries, but it also creates new job opportunities in fields such as AI development, data analysis, and machine learning. However, it is important to recognize that the impact of AI on the job market is complex and multifaceted, and it is crucial to address potential challenges and develop strategies to ensure that the benefits of AI are shared fairly and equitably among all members of society.” And that sounds pretty good, but also exactly what a robot would say if it was taking over our jobs, a problem I pointed out to ChatGPT. And it only takes a bit of a ridiculous rhetorical argument to see the limitations of AI, because within three questions the AI was repeating itself almost verbatim. No nuance, no way to actually engage with what I was saying. Because AI doesn’t “know” anything, nor does it gain “understanding,” it’s just a clever way to scrape the internet and string words together in a coherent manner. So, again, what listicles do, but not much else. It is an improved help desk chat bot, but the improvement isn’t so much about new material, just smarter sounding. And it does sound smart, definitely smart enough to write a high school English paper. I would posit, however, that says more about how we need to update our education system rather than worry that AI is taking away anyone’s jobs. 

So, more sensationalized panic, not a real concern here. It is very cool and somewhat astounding to see what AI is capable of now, but it is still not anywhere close to where we will be replaced by automatons. Just like editors weren’t replaced by spellcheck, this new wave of AI won’t be replacing major sectors of employment, either. I leave with a recommendation, well, two. Look at the hands that AI art produces, it’s creepy and hilarious! But for a perhaps more intellectually stimulating time, check out Rossum’s Universal Robots by Karel Capek, the first major piece of media (it was originally a play) to use the word robot. See, just like AI, we can all still learn new things.

Trans People Are Not a Problem

March 6th, 2023

Trans People Are Not a Problem

So, the other day a funny thing happened. I was in the bathroom washing my hands, and a guy walks in, and since he can only see me from behind, he sees my long, flowing hair. And he panics, quick flush of the face, and he backs out of the bathroom, checks to make sure he is indeed in the men’s bathroom, and comes back in. This happens every couple of weeks, maybe once a month? It cracks me up to no end, because I have long hair and somehow that signals to guys they are in the wrong restroom. It’s especially funny if I’m standing at a urinal, because there are no urinals in the women’s bathroom, and yet long hair overrides any other evidence the brain could notice. My point is, we gender silly things. I, a person who identifies as male and was assigned the male sex at birth, can grow long, luscious locks. Our current society has deemed that to be a female trait, so strongly that guys will see long hair and think they’re in the wrong bathroom, even when there are urinals and nary a feminine hygiene product in sight. But hair isn’t gendered. Mammals have hair, it’s just a thing, for all genders. And this long and meandering intro highlights one point I’ll make in explaining why trans people are not a problem.

Trans people exist. They have always existed. They are not new, they are not taking over, they are not trying to indoctrinate children. Let’s do a little crash course on biology and semantics. Gender is a social construct. Gender is a spectrum. Gender is what I was talking about with my long hair making people think of females. Hair exists on every gender, and yet our society associates long hair with females, despite ample evidence to dispute this association. Blue represents boys and pink represents girls is another social construct related to gender. It isn’t based on anything, and has no actual meaning. Sex is what we talk about when referring to the genitals someone is born with. And here’s a fun fact, sex isn’t just male or female. Some 200,000 people in the US alone are born intersex, which is a naturally occurring phenomenon in which people are born with any of several sex characteristics (including chromosomal patterns, sex glands, or sex organs) that do not fit the binary description of male or female. Some of this is present at birth (most documented cases), and some people may develop these characteristics later in life (cases that may not get documented). It’s just a scientific fact. And if this is beyond comprehension for you, bad news for you about flowers. 

And then sexuality is just a whole different topic altogether, that is honestly unrelated, so I’m just saying that’s a different thing and not going to try to cover it in a two page blog.

So, gender is a social construct. And sex isn’t binary. These two facts alone should be good enough to show that not only do trans people exist, but it’s harmless and even perfectly expected that they do. Trans people will often seek medical care due to various aspects of being trans. And that medical care is between them and their medical providers. Unfortunately, politicians with no medical background think they know better than this (they don’t). New laws are being passed not informed by medical personnel, but by attention-seeking politicians limiting the medical care trans people can get from their medical providers. Not based on data, but because the new Satanic Panic is apparently that trans people are trying to get your kids. Not sure exactly what trans people are trying to get your kids to, or from, or for what. It’s honestly all a bit murky about what trans people are trying to do that’s so harmful. Point is, there is no evidence of trans people harming children in a systematic way. Drag shows aren’t killing kids, school shooters are doing that. Trans medical providers aren’t indoctrinating and abusing kids, churches are doing that. The reason trans people and drag shows (even though drag and trans are very different things, they keep being lumped together by bigots) keep getting targeted is because they are a minority. Trans people are a minority even in the LGBTQ+ community, where they even get a whole letter to themselves! And when politicians need to create a new “those people” group to hate, using our in-group/out-group cognitive bias to promote tribalism, they focus on a minority group. Because statistically, fewer people will have familiarity with that group, and therefore it is easier to spread misinformation and hate. It’s why gay people used to be this big bad societal group, and now it’s trans people, because too many people know gay or lesbian peeps to see them as being a problem. And before the gay panic, it was different races and ethnicities, and we as a society diversified and learned there was no difference there, either. So, politicians who have no actual policy to run on need to find a new group to target and work to dehumanize so they can manufacture societal panic. It’s bigotry, plain and simple. 

Now, I work a weird job. I see people from all walks of life. I get to meet people who deal with things I never had to deal with firsthand, and I hear their stories and learn from their experiences. I know trans people. I get to work with all kinds of LGBTQ+ folks. They’re great sometimes, and other times they’re flawed, just like any other demographic. Because they’re human. And that’s the whole point, they’re human beings. Trans people are not a problem. They exist. And they deserve love and respect like everyone else. If you struggle at all with these concepts, try to learn more about it, and diversify your life experience. You’ll grow and be a better person for it.

He Gets Us, But You Don’t Get Him

February 27th, 2023

He Gets Us, But You Don’t Get Him

There’s a delightful denseness to the current rash of ads trying to rebrand Jesus. It’s another sign of what I refer to as Late Stage Christianity, which like Late Stage Capitalism, is clearly not working for anyone outside of a privileged few. So, for those of you who don’t know, He Gets Us is this billion dollar (not an exaggeration, a cool billion over three years) advertisement push to “rebrand Jesus.” You know, that famous corporate sponsor Jesus. Why does Jesus need a rebrand? Isn’t he still pretty popular among at least three or four of the big religions? Yep! So, what gives? Why is Jesus every other ad on Facebook and getting multiple, minute long ads during the Super Bowl? Let’s dive in!

What is going on that Jesus needs a 14 million dollar rebrand during the Super Bowl? Well, turns out that Christianity has taken a nose-dive in popularity. Church attendance went way down, even pre-pandemic, and is in dire straits now. Church buildings are up for sale, and Gen Z is looking to be the least religious generation ever in America. So, the He Gets Us people are thinking that like, the problem is clearly Jesus, right? Like, people don’t know his story, so we gotta hit some highlights for people to make him more relatable. The great irony here, of course, is that Jesus needs a rebrand in the first place because so many of his adherents are acting nothing like he told them to. Jesus said to give all your money away! Jesus said not to defend your property, and to turn the other cheek if someone attacks you! Jesus said to clothe the poor, feed the hungry, and support the immigrant! But then, his followers got swindled by giant corporations and the gun lobby, and they led a violent insurrection and have called for all sorts of violence and vitriol against minorities, and just generally not been real cool with the Jesus is love vibe. For a few decades now, honestly. So, christianity needs a rebrand, and instead they’re going to try to get young people (who naturally tend to be more progressive) to see Jesus as this counterculture rebel who is all about love. And it’s so transparently obvious that this messaging needs to be directed at christians, and how they are not giving their god the glory he wants by being pretty opposite what he teaches. So, for a religion that has shown a penchant for hiring and protecting abusers, for defending hypocrisy, and for just generally preaching hate, the idea is to rebrand their main character rather than change any of the institutional issues they are facing. Sounds like a winning strategy.

Now, not only could this money be used in nearly any other way for a better societal impact, and not only does this messaging need to be directed at christians rather than the nonreligious folks, but it is also incredibly disingenuous of the people dropping the big bucks on this push. The people who ran multiple Super Bowl ads highlighting Jesus’ role as a refuge and referencing the parable of the good samaritan are also supporting the politicians who are lying to immigrants to ship them across the country for political stunts, sometimes in unsafe conditions, and certainly not in honest and helpful ways. So, the predictable backlash against this campaign hit swiftly, and they have rolled out a new tone deaf response. They went with sarcasm, classic Jesus style, to be like “You got us! We do indeed have an agenda! It’s to love everyone!” Which, no its not, but also that wasn’t the criticism anyone was leveling against the ad. The criticism was, hmm, how to put it, oh, don’t talk about the speck in someone else’s eye while you have a plank in your own (get it, cuz that’s in the bible?)

Ultimately, this will backfire completely, and is likely covertly working to move money around since churches still some crazy how are untaxed in this country. But it is another way to throw money around in a virtue signaling way that helps no one, is imperialistic in a shoving-religion-into-people’s-face-without-their-consent sort of way, and it addresses none of the valid criticism people have raised with christianity itself. So, we will continue to see church attendance decline, we will continue to see the major churches have scandal after scandal, and we will continue to see that the people talking most about Jesus have the least interest in what he actually said. It’s crazy to see it play out on such a public stage, but is a nice little microcosm of why so many people have left and will continue to leave the church.

The Mental Health Crisis

February 20th, 2023

The Mental Health Crisis

Kids these days, amirite? Back in my day, no one had ADHD. Kids played outside so depression wasn’t an issue. When I grew up, no one cared what pronouns were. Y’all. Every generation goes through this. Society is not static. The times they are a’changing. What isn’t changing is mental health. And while there is a growing crisis, actually multiple crises, it isn’t a mystery where it’s coming from. The mystery is why we aren’t doing more to deal with it. J/k that’s not a mystery, the answer is of course money. And while that in and of itself is depressing, let’s look at some of the factors that are contributing to the mental health crisis.

Mental health for “kids these days” isn’t worse, we’re simply more aware of it, because we’re more aware of everything. A teen who is struggling with depression symptoms can go on Google and pull up more information in seconds than doctors have had for literally thousands of years. The internet has made information so readily available that our awareness of the symptoms people are dealing with grew, not even exponentially, it just straight up exploded. Simultaneously, we went from small, disconnected societies to a global community in a few short years. So, not only did the amount of information available rocket straight up, but the amount of people we could connect to increased at an insane rate. Now kids who are all dealing with similar symptoms can find other kids with the same symptom. So, let’s say a kid is struggling with an eating disorder. At least 9% of people deal with an eating disorder in their lifetime (that number is super low depending on population, for example 91% of college females report some level of unhealthy dieting symptoms). And to make the math easier, we’re gonna round up to 10%. So, Suzy grows up in a medium sized city and has a high school of about 1,200 students. Potentially, about 120 students in that school have an eating disorder. Not nothing, but a small chance Suzy runs into someone dealing with symptoms similar to hers that will be open about it. But now, Suzy can connect with anyone in her city of 500k, which means there are 50,000 potential people Suzy could talk with who can relate. And on top of that, 330 million peeps in the US, so now the chance that Suzy can talk with someone else who is dealing with what she is has sky-rocketed. Humans have a bias against large numbers (our brains literally can’t process them in any realistic way), so we forget just how big a deal the internet is. There are millions and millions of people online who struggle with disordered eating, and while unfortunately they all aren’t online putting out good/helpful information, the odds that a kid can find someone they relate to, and then open up to people in their real life has increased in an unfathomable way compared to before the internet existed. There is no comparison to “back in my day” if back in your day was pre-internet. The world changed. End of story, it isn’t a relevant comparison at all. Now, with all this information available, and with an expanded global community, society’s comfort with talking about these topics also went up. These were taboo topics in the past because 10% of people in your town are a small minority. But take that small minority and multiply by millions of people, and our societal awareness has to increase. So, information, comfort talking about it, and number of people talking about it all increased simultaneously (by which I mean, over a few years as the internet become more and more common), so yes, it seems like this huge growth seems crazy, and it is, but also totally expected given the circumstances that changed allowing this growth to happen. 

Second big factor is with all of this information at our fingertips, society has become more aware of what a clusterf*ck civilization has been for years now. I like to use climate change as an example. My brother grew up in the early 80s. He had Captain Planet, a superhero who drew power from natural elements and fought climate disasters and giant corporate polluters. I grew up in the 90s when the movie Fern Gully came out. That movie was about rainforest destruction and the evils of giant corporate polluters. I have two small lads at home who love the show Octonauts. It’s about a group of heroic animals who band together to rescue animals from natural disasters and the perils of the ongoing climate crisis. All these shows have the same message, because since before the 70s we had data on how humans were causing harm to the environment on a global scale. Pre-internet, we had shows and movies to tell us about these issues, but in an abstract and narrative sort of way. Now, with the internet, kids can go online and track the number of polar bears left in the wild, while also finding out that those giant corporate polluters are pulling in record profits. It’s maddening, and the amount of sheer greed and corruption that goes into this still being an issue is easily accessible. And this ease of access and excess of available information is there for pretty much every single major societal challenge going on right now in the world. We can pull up livestream video of the ongoing war in Ukraine. We can get our daily mass shooting updates. So, how does this affect mental health? Well, kids are growing up with a set of principles and morals taught to them, and then they have access to data that shows the adults in charge of things are not following those principles and morals. So, it creates a really distressing cognitive dissonance, and while some people handle that by burying their heads in the sand, others get frustrated and take a lot of that stress on, and continual stress is bad for our mental health! Especially if it is systemic stress and we feel limited in our ability to enact change. So, yeah, information is kinda great, but when that information points to problems that have been ignored for stupid reasons like corporate profits, it creates problems. 

And that is really only scratching the surface of the rise in teens mental health issues, not even getting into any other demographic. Spoiler, frequency and severity of symptoms are on the rise across all demographics. Mental health isn’t new, and it growing as a problem isn’t a surprise. The surprise is that it is taking so long for our collective society to do something about it. 

An Intro to Religious Trauma

January 18th, 2023

An Intro to Religious Trauma

So, I gave a tiny sneak peak of this a few weeks ago when I wrote about trauma, but a little professional update: I got certified to treat religious trauma! It’s pretty exciting. There is a small (but growing!) number of professionals who are getting trained to work with trauma specific to religion. It’s a field of study that is getting more attention both academically and in the real world, especially on social media (being generous including that in the real world). As with most fields that are new and don’t have much scientific research yet, there’s a ton of exciting growth and also a lack of verifiable information that is then filled with pseudo-science and just outright falsehoods. So, for now, let’s talk about religious trauma broadly, and I assume I will return to this topic with more specificity and depth in the future. 

We should start with a definition of religious trauma, but nothing is ever easy when it comes to semantics, is it? Trauma, in general, is the brain’s ongoing reaction to an unsafe event. Therefore, religious trauma is the response to unsafe interactions within a religious framework, which are collectively known as adverse religious experiences (AREs). An adverse religious experience can be defined as an event, series of events, relationships, or circumstances within or connected to religious beliefs, practices, or structures that are experienced by an individual as overwhelming or disruptive. It is then the brain’s response to these events that can lead to trauma. Trauma, for those who didn’t read/remember my old post, is not the “traumatic” event, but rather the brain’s ongoing response to that event. So in the case of religious trauma, AREs can potentially lead to trauma, because trauma is about the brain’s response to an event. That’s why not all soldiers who go to war come back with PTSD, because not every brain responds to negative events the same way. Same with religious trauma. Not everyone who experiences harmful/unsafe events within a religious context will develop religious trauma. 

Much like other forms of trauma, I like to talk about “big T” traumas and “little t” traumas. Adverse religious experiences everyone knows about and is familiar with as being a bad thing include being abused by a religious leader. Most people would think about the many (many, seriously way too many) sexual abuse scandals of various church bodies such as the Catholic, Southern Baptist, Islamic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Jehovah’s Witness, Methodist, Mennonite/Anabaptist, Church of Latter-day Saints, Orthodox Judaism, other branches of Judaism, and all the little cults that grew out of these larger recognized bodies. I’m not sure what other word to use other than horrific, but that’s like all the big ones right there, and those are just confirmed cases I could cite from one, singular Google search. So yeah, sexual abuse is widespread and has plagued all organized religions, but my point was that while this is a well-known big T trauma, abuse can also be physical (like generations that were raised with corporal punishment at religious schools), mental (like conversion therapy), or even spiritual (like teaching a toddler about eternal torture, not only as a concept, but as their future destination). Neglect can also lead to trauma, again in physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual capacities. Additionally, many organized religions have communal practices that would be considered AREs, and can include bullying, intimidation, financial manipulation, forced marriage, isolation/shunning, coerced confession, breach of confidential information, stigmatizing of marginalized identities, identity erasure, and gas-lighting. Organized religions will also have various degrees of behavioral control, information control, thought control, and emotion control, which are the four components of Steven Hassan’s BITE model of authoritarian control, commonly used in assessing cult practices. 

I guess I thought I would cover more, but listing all the major churches that have recent, citable sexual abuse scandals took up more space than I expected. I did say I would have much more to say on the topic, so stay tuned! But seriously, there are not a ton of providers who do this work, I could find 3 others in the state who have any mention at all of religious trauma, without checking their specific credentials to see if it was an actual area of expertise. There are states with no specialists in this field, and yet there is about 1 church for every 800 people here in America, so if you are struggling, reach out! If you know someone who may be struggling, send them this blog, or let them know there are a lot of great resources at Recovering From Religion, Dare to Doubt, and Journey Free.

What Makes a Good Apology

January 13th, 2023

What Makes a Good Apology

Oftentimes in my line of work, someone needs to make an apology. Someone said something they shouldn’t have, an argument was had with a boost from alcohol, or someone skipped their stress relief until it all boiled over into an angry outburst. Or maybe you just mindlessly put your foot in your mouth. Whatever the case may be, not all apologies are effective or helpful. So today let’s take a look at what makes a good apology.

First, a good apology is about your own behavior. You are sorry for a thing you did. You are sorry for the words you used, or an unhelpful behavior, or a bad habit. You are sorry for being late, or sorry for forgetting something. Own your behavior and apologize for it. What happens too often is people skip this step, and move straight to rationalizing their behavior. You can’t explain the behavior if you don’t admit that the behavior happened. You absolutely, under no circumstances, should ever apologize for someone else’s feelings. “I’m sorry you feel that way” is not an apology. If that is your best attempt at an apology, then go back to the drawing board to figure out what actions led to those feelings, and apologize for the action or behavior. Don’t apologize for someone else, “I’m sorry you did this, so then I did that” isn’t owning your own behavior, it’s blaming someone else and not taking responsibility for your own behavior. If anyone tries to pass off these phrases as apologies, kindly inform them that they need to apologize for their own behaviors, otherwise it’s not an apology, or at worst it’s gaslighting.

Second, a good apology is genuine. Apologies are not get out of trouble free cards, nor are they restitutions. An apology is just an acknowledgement of something that could have gone better. If you struggle to say the word “sorry,” then do your own mental work to analyze what could have gone better, and then apologize for whatever you did instead of that better option. Many people struggle with an apology, but most people are comfortable admitting an interaction could have gone better. Start there if you need to, and work backwards to find something you can genuinely say sorry about. I am a trained therapist with nearly 15 years of experience, I teach other people how to do all of this, and I still am able to find something to apologize for whenever my wife and I have an argument. If I can find a mistake each and every time I fight, then so can you. Find something you can be genuine about and own it. 

Third, talk about why it won’t happen again. This part is tricky, because we are habitual creatures, and just promising to not do something typically isn’t enough for behavior change. If you did the mental work prior to starting your apology, you should be able to identify what you could have done better. From there, you can build a blueprint for how things can go better in the future. Again, don’t apologize for someone else in this process, keep it about you, since you only have control over yourself. “I’m sorry I said that, it was incredibly rude. I was frustrated and it’s not right for me to take it out on you. I will be better in the future by taking a walk instead of lashing out. I’m sorry.” By putting into words what you will do differently in the future, your brain is already practicing its plan for the future. You have one mental repetition just by saying it out loud.  

Lastly, keep it simple. Don’t go into big flowery promises of everlasting love and huge guarantees of how it will all be different down the road. Just acknowledge your poor behavior, say how you can do better in the future, and apologize. If the person you are apologizing to has thoughts of things to say, then do your best to listen and not to argue. If you are apologizing you acknowledge that a mistake was made, and mistakes come along with the opportunity to learn something new, so listen and learn to create new understanding. This will also help you and this other person to create a new interactional pattern for next time.

And bonus pro tip, whoever apologizes first wins. If you’re waiting for an apology, apologize first. Couples often each have something to apologize for, and someone owning it and starting that process often (but not always) opens the door for the other person to apologize as well. So, don’t let that be your motivation to apologize, but the pattern that healthy couples exhibit is early apologies and getting back on track quickly, so try to emulate what healthy couples do on the regular, and then you can also be a healthy couple. Nifty, huh?

Dry January

January 3rd, 2023

Dry January

Happy New Year! Being born and raised in Wisconsin means I grew up around plenty of alcohol. Drinking is incredibly normalized here, to the point that we have a pro sports team named after fermented beverages, as well as alcohol being very cheap and accessible. So, for many people, Dry January has become a new yearly habit to take some time to cut back, check-in, and reset your relationship with alcohol. For those of you who are starting this month off sober-adjacent, let’s look at how to have a successful month and talk about some of the many benefits to having a sober month.

First off, let’s acknowledge that alcohol is bad for us. Like, it’s actually toxic. Homo sapiens have developed different enzymes and bodily functions to more efficiently process alcohol out of our systems. It messes with our cognitive patterns, our brain-gut connection, and negatively affects our circadian rhythms. It’s a garbage substance that we can’t get enough of (check out the book Drunk by Edward Slingerland for a deep dive on that topic, it’s a fascinating read!). For those of you being like, “Yeah, but it makes me better at throwing darts!” It absolutely does not. It really isn’t good for us, and if it weren’t for the social effects it has we would have quit it a long time ago. So, it’s a bit redundant to talk about what the benefits are of cutting out a toxic substance, but I wanted to talk about this just to highlight how ingrained (get it) alcohol has become in our society, the presupposition is that it’s a substance we will use as if it is normal.

Let’s start health benefits. Alcohol negatively impacts your sleep. Get proper sleep and hydrate are my two starting recommendations for nearly anyone I meet, so getting better sleep is already a huge win. Alcohol consumed later in the day and into the evening affects our hormone production that promotes sleep, which means we may fall asleep faster but not get into that deep, restful stage of sleep. For some people it might also make it harder to sleep, causing frequent wake-ups or even symptoms of sleep apnea or other breathing problems. My first foray into cutting my alcohol usage back intentionally was once I started tracking my sleep, and seeing how even just one drink before bed had a negative impact on my sleep cycles. 

Next: empty calories. If you drink regularly, you’ll lose weight by cutting alcohol out. Alcohol is loaded with calories, the process of fermentation actually does some crazy chemistry so booze is actually a super calorie dense substance. And a night mixing up cocktails rarely ends with hitting the gym, so those calories just sit there and get converted to stored energy aka fat cells. Many folks find that they actually will up their water intake by doing Dry January, and they realize how much more water their body needs to feel properly hydrated. 

Those are both great benefits you will see during the dry month, but longer term benefits of cutting back alcohol are pretty profound. Alcohol, again being literally toxic for us naturally, has been linked to causing several different cancers, and negatively affects our heart health, and obviously creates unnecessary strain on our kidneys and livers. Cutting back, even for a month, can improve your physical health across all these areas, and then tie in all the benefits from better sleep? Now we’re stacking up healthy wins!  

Last but not least, there has never been a better time to be sober-curious. Nearly every craft brewery has non-alcoholic options. I had a NA Guinness the other day! So, whether you rock some mocktails or try the haziest of NA IPAs, there are more options than ever to go out, be social, and drink NA without fear of missing out on the party. You can drive home safely, haven’t started any foolish fights, and will still be able to get great sleep! Now you get all that and can find something that tastes good. My personal rec is Lagunitas Brewing and is called “Hoppy Refresher,” zero calories, zero sugar, zero alcohol. It’s legit delicious, it’s like a hoppy carbonated water. 

Obviously, if you or someone you know needs to get a better handle on their alcohol usage, please reach out and get that help. But for all of the reasons listed (and more, check the YT page soon!), everyone can benefit from doing Dry January and being more intentional with their drinking habits. So, raise a glass of that NA and cheers to sober January!

How to Make Lasting Change

December 28th, 2022

How to Make Lasting Change

It’s the hap-happiest season of all! If you own a gym, because your membership dues are about to skyrocket! Best month on the planet for gym membership, and if they can get people to buy year long memberships they are making 11 months of straight profit. That’s right, many new year’s resolutions don’t make it out of the month of January. In fact, 43% of resolutions are abandoned in the first month of the year, and a whopping 90% are kaput by the end of March. Ever the optimists, we humans continue to make resolutions anyways. So, how can we make changes that actually stick? Here’s a few tips to make lasting changes, and not just at the start of a new year!

First one is easy: reward yourself. Eating healthy is lame! Salad without ranch or bacon bits? What’s the point? Working out is the worst, it makes my body hurt and highlights how out of shape I am. Making healthy choices creates delayed rewards. Most of us don’t experience instantaneous benefits from healthy lifestyle changes. Eating healthy will take months to have a major impact. Healthy weight loss typically averages out to losing 2 pounds per week, meaning a max of under 10 pounds a month, which may not be what people want or expect. Leading to people not sticking with it. Workout routines are likely going to be hard and fairly miserable for the first two weeks, and muscle growth/body changes on average take 8 weeks to be visible. So, when making lifestyle changes that don’t include instant rewards, you need to build in rewards. Met your goal for going to the gym, reward! Meal prepped your healthy meals for the week, reward! We need to hack our brain to be happy with the changes, because some healthy changes take time for the reward to show up.

Second: make changes about lifestyle. Starting a diet rarely works. Spoiler, they are all about caloric deficit. Burning more calories than you take in is the mechanism for weight loss in every single diet. Starting a workout routine is physically hard for at least a few weeks, and finding something fun and uplifting that you might even enjoy is even harder. Trying to be a kinder person or having more gratitude takes work each day for about 3 weeks to build those new habits. When we just focus on behavior change, it can be a slog to make progress, and pretty easy to give up. But when we make changes that are about our lifestyle, when a change isn’t just a temporary fad but rather a personality trait, we tend to stick to it more. It’s why crossfit became such a phenomenon, or being vegan is thought of as a personality trait, those people have adopted behavior changes into their core being. If we can identify the behavior change as part of who we are, we are far less likely to give it up. Being health conscious is different than doing a diet, one is permanent, one is temporary. If you were doing an ice breaker at a group meeting, can you introduce yourself with this change as a fun fact? Hey, I’m Craig and I do tough mudder races! Sup, I’m Shelley and I haven’t eaten sugar in two years! Lifestyle changes are longer lasting, and identifying with the change means we are less likely to give it up.

Third: make process oriented goals. Behavior change is a process, not an event. The hard work is the journey, but many of us make our goals about the end result. Making our goals about the process allows our brain to feel happy when we hit each mile marker, rather than only being happy when we get to the finish. So, “I’m going to exercise more!” becomes “I’m going to exercise 5 days out of the week!” And then, because that is a weekly goal, we even break that down further into the small steps of daily goals, and then break those daily goals into actionable items, whether those be equipment needed, travel plans, exercise plan, time management, all that good stuff that we can actually control right now in the moment. So a big goal, like working out more, turns into actionable items that we can do something about in this very moment. Those action items get crossed off our to-do list, and our brain gets a hit of dopamine to feel good and keep the motivation up. I’ve written more about this here for further reference. 

Quick hitters: body doubling, which means completing tasks at the same time as another person. Structure time for the new change, as in setting aside the same hour every other day for the new behavior. Both of these tips can be accomplished by joining a class or group, so if your goal is to be more active, join a workout class. If your goal is more couple time, join a bowling league. Something consistent in your schedule that also taps a bit into social pressure to stick to your commitment. 

Happy new year, y’all. Let’s have a good one!

P.S.: Just a programming note, I’ll talk more about how to make change on my YouTube channel. You can check that out, I usually riff in a more extended way on what I write about in the blogs. I also will have some guests coming up to talk about their areas of expertise, so sharing my goal for the year to make that channel a more fun experience!