No Matter How You Feel, You Still Failed

Game_Over

Psychotherapists are often people who prefer to deal with feelings in their workings with people.  Feelings are important, and being empathically attuned to how patients are feeling is equally important.  We are taught to explore the patient’s feelings, imagine ourselves into their lived experience, and validate that experience.

This is often where we become disconnected from other professionals we collaborate with, such as educators.  Be it Pre-K or graduate school, educators are charged with working with students to learn and grow as a whole person.  It’s not that they aren’t concerned with feelings, they just can’t get hung up on them to the exclusion of everything else.

To be fair, psychotherapy has a long history of taking a broader view on the individual as well.  A famous psychoanalyst, Winnicott, once responded to a patient of his who was expressing feelings of hopelessness by saying something to the effect of “sometimes when I am sitting with you I feel hopeless too, but I’m not going to let that get in the way of continuing to work with you.”

But often in the past decade or two, feelings have held sway over everything.  Students don’t complete their assignments because they felt overwhelmed and still expect to pass the course.  Adults feel emotionally exhausted and miss work or are late to it.  Children feel angry at the injustice of chores and don’t do them but still want their allowance.

A criticism I often hear toward video games is that they encourage people to believe that they can always just reset, do over and have another shot.  But implicit in this criticism is the fact of something I feel video games actually do better than many of us sometimes:  They acknowledge the reality of failure.

When we play video games, we are failing 80% of the time.  Failing in the sense of Merriam Webster’s definitions including:

  • to not succeed : to end without success
  • to not do (something that you should do or are expected to do)
  • to fall short <failed in his duty>
  • to be or become absent or inadequate
  • to be unsuccessful

In video games the reality of this is driven home to us by a screenshot:

minecraft71

 

 

warcraft

 

 

pac man

 

You can feel any way you’d like about it, angry, sad, annoyed, blase, frustrated with a touch of determination.  But no matter how you feel you still failed.

In life outside games, many of us have a hard time accepting the reality principle when it comes to failing at something.  We think we can talk, think, or feel our way out of failing to meet expectations.  My own predilection is that of a thinker, which is probably why I became a psychodynamic psychotherapist and educator.  I often waste a lot of time trying to think (or argue) myself into a new reality, which just boils down to not accepting the reality principle.  I notice the same with patients, colleagues and students, who miss deadlines, avoid work, come late to class and then try their best to think or feel their way out of it.

The first class each semester I tell my students, who are studying to be social workers and psychotherapists, that the most frequent complaint I get as an instructor is “I feel put on the spot by him.”  I assure them that this is a valid feeling and actually reflects the reality that I will put each and every one of them on the spot.  I will ask them tough questions, I will point out that they are coming late to class, I will disagree with ideas that seem erroneous to me.  Because if they think it is ok to be late or avoid thinking through a problem or confrontation in class, how in the world will they ever be a decent psychotherapist or social worker?  If the single mother you are working with wants to know how to apply for WIC, and you say you feel put on the spot by her question, that is a valid feeling AND you are useless to her.  If your therapist was 15 minutes late every week I hope you’d fire him.  And when you are conducting a family session and someone discloses abuse it is unprofessional to say “I’m feeling overwhelmed and sad right now, can you ask somebody else to go next?”

These sort of disconnects doesn’t happen overnight.  It comes from years of being enabled by well-intentioned parents and yes, mental health providers who focus on feelings to the exclusion of cognition and behavior, and worse, try to ensure that their children grow to adulthood feeling a constant sense of success.  When I hear self psychology-oriented folks talk it is almost always about mirroring and idealizing, and never about optimal frustration.  And I suspect that this is because we have become so focused on feelings and success that we are preventing people from experiencing optimal frustration at all.

The novelist John Hersey has said “Learning starts with failure; the first failure is the beginning of education.”  We commence to learn because reality has shown us that we lack knowledge or understanding.  That’s the good news.  We’ve woken up!  In this light I regard video games as one of the most consistent learning tools available to us.  When that fail happens and that screen goes up you can try to persuade it to cut you some slack, flatter or bully it, weep pleadingly for it to change to a win, but no matter how you feel, you still failed.  And because that reality is so starkly there, and because the XBox or PS3/4 doesn’t get engaged in your drama, that feeling will eventually dissipate and you will either try again, or give up.

Because that is in a lot of ways the conflict we’re trying to avoid isn’t it?  We want to avoid looking reality square in the face and taking responsibility for what comes next.  We want to keep the feelings flowing, the drama going, and we are willing to take entire groups of people and systems with us.  If we are lucky they put their feet down, but more often then not they want to avoid conflict too, and the problem just continues.

So here’s a confession:  I have failed at things.  I have ended a task without success.  I have not done things I was expected to do.  I have fallen short, been inadequate and been unsuccessful at stuff.  And nobody took away my birthday.  I’m still around doing other things, often iterations of the previous failures, quite successfully.

If you are a parent or educator please take a lesson from video games.  Start saying “Game Over” to those in your care sometimes.  If they can try again great.  If they want to read up on some strategy guides or videos to learn how to do it better, awesome.  But please stop capitulating to their desire to escape reality on the illusory lifeboats of emotional expression, rationalization or verbal arguments.  As Mrs. Smeal says in “Benny and Joon,” “when a boat runs ashore, the sea has spoken.”  Reality testing is probably the most important ego function you can help someone develop, please don’t avoid opportunities to do so.

Nobody likes to experience failure, I know it feels awful.  But to move through it to new realizations can be very liberating, and in time become more easily bearable.  And I truly believe that success without past failures feels pretty hollow.  When I play through a video game from start to finish without a fail I don’t feel like a winner.  I feel cheated.

 

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Should Therapists & Social Workers Post Videos of Themselves on YouTube?

 

 

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The New Achievement Gap

 

Last night while watching the political debate, I was struck by how Mitt Romney tried to reassure the nation that his Medicare plan would not affect current retirees.  This is not an anti-Romney, or even political post, because I have heard other politicians, both Democratic and Republican, often use this reassurance when pitching a policy.  This won’t effect you, they say, only future generations.

Only future generations?  Is it possible that people really care that little about people outside our own little 80-year life span bubble?

Actually this post is going to be about education, how proud I am of my students, and how worried I am about the social work and mental health professions.

This year, Boston College made a step into the future of social work when they allowed me to propose and teach the first graduate social work class on Social Work Practice and Technology.  It was a leap of faith for the faculty and administration, and one not lost on me.  A few weeks into the class I bumped into a colleague who sat on the committee to approve the course.  She asked how the class is going, and when I updated her she said, “honestly, when we were reading your syllabus we didn’t understand half of what you were talking about, but I said ‘let Langlois teach it, if anyone can do it he can.'”

Very flattering, but more importantly an example of a social work program taking a leap of faith into educating 21st century social workers.  Are you paying attention, Deans of other social work schools?

But although I am proud of BC and myself for this, I’m even more proud of the students and how they are doing in our class!  They’re starting blogs and commenting on each others, researching and test driving smartphone Apps for possible clinical benefit, and venturing into a class which will be conducted today in World of Warcraft.  In our discussions they are raising thoughtful comments and challenging my technophilia as much as their technophobia.

At the same time, I am being reminded of the mistake older clinicians often make when we assume that all “young people” know how to use technology.  This is an impossibly blanket and uniform statement to make about the diverse group of social work students today.  Many grad students have avoided smartphones, dislike Twitter, and think of blogging as solo and literary rather than multimedia and interactive.  But the speed at which they are learning and innovating is impressive!

So here is the new Achievement Gap, or Achievement Gaps as I see them:

1. The Gap between current students and continuing education.

This class was filled up on its first run, which contrasts sharply with workshops I often try to do with colleagues for professional development. Too many older clinicians are thinking they can still “opt out” of learning about things like social media, video games, and internet technologies.  They’re the Romneys of the social work world, reassuring themselves that technology changes will not effect their business or the quality of the work they do.  And perhaps just as bad, they are leaving it to the younger generation to learn on their own.

This achievement gap is troubling for many reasons, which brings me to:

2. The Gap between knowing how to use technology technically and how to use it clinically and ethically.

Even if we were to overlook the ageism in the assumption that “young folks know all about the new technologies,” it simply is not true.  Young people, and technology itself, are too diverse for that.  Not all grad students have had the same access to technology, the same aptitude or interest, or time to keep up with the proliferation of new technologies.  And even if they did, there is a vast difference between knowing how to use Twitter mechanically and how (or if) to use it as a clinician.

For learning how to be a clinician our students have always looked to our faculty and supervisors for direction.  From what I have heard over the past several years, the response students get to technology-related questions is usually dismissal or fear.  This is reflected in our profession’s consistent focus on technology as an ethical issue rather than as a modality for treatment.  Technology workshops pay lip service to how technology can provide us with new and exciting innovations, but then skip over how to actually do that and focus on the ethical concerns.  Our profession has bought into the moral panic around the internet by making it into solely an ethical topic almost all the time.

In the search of graduate school curricula, I found only one course on the graduate level that addressed technology, perhaps not surprisingly at UT Austin.  The focus however was much more on IT for informatics and case management than clincial social work.

According to the Council for Social Work Education‘s latest report, there are over 213 MSW programs in the US.  Of those reporting information, the indication is that 85,290 full-time and 26,129 part-time social work students are enrolled currently.  That’s 111,419 students.  Of these students, 20 will graduate this year with advanced clinical training on utilizing online technologies and social media.

That’s an Achievement Gap.  That’s scary.

Look, no one is saying that grad schools and agencies, faculty and supervisors, are in an easy position.  We are being called on to teach future professionals knowledge that we often don’t have a sufficient grasp on ourselves.  But that’s a call to action, not a call to resigning that knowledge to be the responsibility of some future generation, or worse the students who pay us thousands of dollars to prepare them for social work in the 21st Century.  This is an epic fail, and one I hope graduate schools remedy quickly.

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Social Justice & Technology

Every day technology makes life easier for millions of people, and in doing so makes life harder for others.

Adam Gopnik, in his New Yorker Article, “The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us,” breaks down the population into three groups:

call them the Never-Betters, the Better-Nevers, and the Ever-Wasers. The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others—that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment.

Anyone who has read this blog or heard me speak would have me pegged as a Never-Better, and that is pretty close to the truth. I do think that we live in an era that rivals that of the printing press, with its subsequent explosion of literacy and education. In my lifetime I have already seen a startling collapse of time and space due to how the internet and other technologies have allowed us to traverse great geographical distances in seconds. From my home I can bank, buy, and sell. I provide therapy and consultation to people as close as my city and as far as Singapore with little to no noticeable difference. And when I want to relax I join colleagues and friends in a virtual world that has denizens from Australia, the UK, and Asia.

And yet, as much a Never-Better as I am, I have noticed how social justice continues to lag behind. Not in the technology, but in both the access to it and fit between human beings and the systems they are in. Technology, as always, has advanced beyond our ability to master it, think critically about it, and perhaps most importantly achieve equity with it.

Let me give you an example I have experienced fairly recently in how the technology that benefits me has put others in my own social sphere at a disadvantage. I have an iPhone App, courtesy of a nameless coffee vendor, that has allowed me to use my iPhone to pay for my daily coffee with the flash of a barcode. My local barista rings me up, scans my iPhone, and the transaction is finished. At first, as an early adopter, I was one of the few folks using this in the Cambridge area, but more and more people are taking advantage of this App, and it is now commonplace in Austin, TX and Silicon Valley.

The problem with this App is that is financially disadvantages the baristas. There is no functionality as of yet in the App to allow for adding a gratuity, and since technology has worked all too well in eliminating the need for paper currency, I rarely carry any money with me to add a gratuity. When I initially became aware of this, the temptation was to slink away from the register as quickly as possible, and if I didn’t have ongoing relationships with the baristas I might easily have done so. But instead I asked them if they had noticed a drop in gratuities since the App became prevalent, and they remarked that they had. So what has been a convenience for me has significantly reduced the regular income of others.

This may seem a privileged example, and a minor one, but that is in fact one reason that I am mentioning it. Every day, through these minute transactions, we are influencing the lives of others, often without thought. The trope of the machine replacing the worker is in fact an industrial one: Each day, a section of our population does basically the same work they did a decade ago, but technology has made it easier to overlook and underpay them. And for that to change, we need to notice the behavior, and then, I suggest, address the technology.

There is a shortfall between lived experience, social justice and technology occurring on a microscopic level in the US, and part of why we all need to become more digitally literate is so that we can advocate on behalf of under-served and marginalized populations for technology to improve their lives. Avoiding technology is not the answer. Slinking away from the register is not the answer. The answer, in part, is to contact the company in question and suggest adding features to the technology to bridge the gap. In this case, I’m contacting the nameless coffee company suggesting they add a feature in either the App-user interface or the register-barista interface to allow for the inclusion of a gratuity. Seems like a simple fix, but as someone who owns and works in a company that creates customizable features I can tell you that they are expensive, and therefore often not made until somebody requests them.

In terms of world equity and technology we have an even greater challenge, namely, access. More than 81% of people in the US have some form of broadband internet access, as compared to approximately 5% of the African continent. 1 out of 3 people in the US have internet speeds 10 Mbs, as opposed to 0 in Ghana, Venezuela, and Mongolia.

Recently I had the opportunity to participate in a game developed by Jane MacGonigal at SXSW, which she claims will have have boosted my resiliency and hence extended my life by 7-8 minutes after playing it just once. I believe her. Which makes me think it is all the more important that we find ways not only to create games where people in the developed world learn about developing countries; but help people in developing countries access and develop their own video games. With all of the great work being done in the US and Europe on socially serious games, and games for health, we are seeing how video games can increase resilience and learning skills. How can we use these technologies to bring about similar changes in less affluent countries and populations? Because if playing a video game could help us crack the eznymatic code of HIV, which 1.2 million people in the US live with, what about playing a video game to increase resilience in Subsaharan Africa, where 22.9 million people live with it?

I think it is also imperative that people in developing countries have access not only to playing video games, but creating them. If they don’t, then the same cultural colonialization that has happened in the past will repeat itself. We need to support social justice in such geeky and subtle ways as making sure that indigenous cultures all over the planet have the opportunity to design games that reflect their own cultures, not a globalized McVersion of it.

Between the whittling away of a worker’s salary in the US and Subsaharan HIV are a myriad other social justice concerns, but digital literacy and emerging technologies are the threads that bind them all together. The same internet that allowed LGBT people to find each other in a hostile 20th century can be used to out them against their will today. The same social media that allows a more participatory experience can give people new avenues and amplifications when they want to harass people. The problem is not technology, but our lack of digital literacy. And by “our” I mean the individual you and me. Because corporations and governments are making it their business to learn how to master technology and its power even while we debate whether it was Better-Never or Never-Better.

I’ve often said on this blog that if you want to run a private psychotherapy practice in the 21st century you cannot ignore technology. Now I’m upping the ante, and saying that if you want to be a socially just human being you cannot ignore it. We need to learn how emerging technologies work and how they don’t. We need to identify the slippages between human systems and the technologies that convenience some at the expense of others. We need to see the internet as an infrastructure necessary to make the developing world as viable as the developed. And we need to understand how digital literacy can empower us before someone takes that power away.

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