The Internet & Real Relationships

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Today I was slicing some lemons for shish kabobs and so not surprisingly I began to think about social media, attachment and what constitutes an authentic relationship.

Authenticity was a key term when I was becoming a therapist in the mid nineties, and society in general.  Today, most people I have spoken to in the mental health profession would say our happiness in part depends on having authentic relationships with others.  Setting aside for a moment that we often talk about “authenticity” as if there is one monolithic thing that “everyone knows” it is, this belief in the connection between authentic relationships and happiness often gives psychotherapists, social workers and educators their moral imperative to discourage use of technology.  That’s where the lemons come in.

Ten years ago, I met my friend Jackie Dotson on the bulletin boards of Psychology Today.  These bulletin boards were designed for clinicians to have an online forum where they could discuss a range of issues, make referrals, and share ideas.  They were also a place where early-adopting clinicians stumbled and experimented, behaved badly, gossiped and misspoke, as we tried to make sense of emerging technologies.  I remember heated online conversations about whether the forums were private and “safe,” where people were startled to consider that anyone could cut and paste your confidential posts anywhere on the web.  People were emboldened or perhaps I should say “emoboldened” by the relative anonymity on the forum to say things that could be breathtaking in both their vulnerability and/or sadism.  It was the Wild West of mental health on the web.

My interactions with Jackie were few and far between when she and I were both active there.  It wasn’t until I moved on from the forums to spending more time on Facebook that I think we really began socializing more.  Perhaps it was because FB allowed for a flow of text and images, more seamless interaction, and chat.  Whatever the reason, over the past few years my life has intersected with Jackie more and more.  We have several mutual acquaintances from the PT forums, and a mutual friend with whom I went to college with.  I’m glad I friended her.

From 3,000 miles away, Jackie has crept into my online and emotional life with the secret code of affinity that could only be shared via social media.  We share a love of bone marrow as evidenced by our food pics, and she has forced me to rethink my stance in social media workshops I do where I used to announce to my audience, “Nobody wants to see your food.”  Our dark wit and banter is present more days than not in my FB feeds, I’ve even taken more of an interest in my local sports teams so I can insult hers.  In return she pretends to be a bigot on LGBT issues to bait me.  Although I’ve never told her explicitly, she has reassured me when I worried about how my picture looks online, and comforted me when my city suffered a terrorist attack.

And then last year she started sending me lemons.  Real lemons.

Jackie lives in CA, and has at least one prolific lemon tree.  Last year she offered to mail a box of them to anyone of her friends on Facebook for the price of shipping.  I jumped at the chance.  They arrived within days and were enjoyed by my family immensely.  So immensely, that when Jackie began posting pictures of budding trees this year, I grew quite impatient for them.  They arrived two weeks ago, and for the past two Sundays I have used them for cooking.  As I write this, there are chicken kabobs marinating in lemon and thyme for tonight.

Jackie and I have never sat down together for a heart to heart or face to face conversation, but we carry our connection to each other throughout our day with our smartphones.  In the decade that we have been in each others’ orbits, I suspect we have each known deep sadnesses that we haven’t spoken of to each other.  Yet I am convinced that if I ever chose to reach out to her that way it would be okay and vice verse.  Not all intimacy needs to be acted on.

That said, for two Sundays, as I have chopped and squeezed fresh lemons, I have thought of Jackie and smiled.  I have imagined her and our conversations as I move through my kitchen, while my brain alters levels of different neurochemicals and changes my affective state in ways that are real and comforting to me.

The stubborn adherence to imagining that technological use inherently diminishes our authenticity has been eroding the mental health field’s relationship with the people we work with for decades now.  Friends and colleagues of mine in the tech industry are consistently amazed that I still need to educate and advocate with my peers about this.  Our profession continues to act as if relationship mediated by emerging technologies is one step removed from other relationships, less authentic because we use our bodies in different ways to achieve connection with each other.  I wonder if our dogs feel that we are less authentic because we have replaced smelling butts with eye contact and uttering sounds all the time?

I jest, in part because I doubt our companion animals feels as fearful of becoming irrelevant as many of my colleagues do.  I think this fear is only justified to the extent that we are dogmatic about what constitute authenticity for everyone.  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said:

Love is the only force which can make things one without destroying them. … Some day, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness.. the energies of love, and then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.

I do not think it is the role of the therapist to be the arbiter of truth in what makes intimacy or authentic relationships.  Our role is to help our patients explore their capacity and harness their energies for love in ways that may go beyond the imagination our own experience affords us.  It is not for us to give them fire as gods would, but to help them make themselves whole without destroying them.

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No Matter How You Feel, You Still Failed

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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:

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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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Reality Testing & The 7 Billion Rule

In this video, I discuss the ego function of reality testing, how it affects us, and ways to cope with distortions in it.  This is also another example of how I use technology, in particular YouTube as a transitional object for patients, allowing them to continue to remember our work together without compromising any of their personal health information.

This will be the last post for 2013, have a good end of the year and I’ll see you sometime in late January!

 

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Evocation and Mindfulness: Or, How to Think Better

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Like other art forms, video games can be both a mirror and a candle held up to our culture, at times reflecting it and at times revealing things about it.  Normally I direct my posts primarily at people: therapists, gamers, educators, parents.  But today I want to include the company that produces World of Warcraft as well.  We have a crisis regarding thinking, and although I don’t think WoW created it at all, it has reflected it in a recent game mechanic change.

I am referring to a change mages that happened recently, where the spell Evocation was replaced by Rune of Power.  For people not familiar with the game, here’s a simple explanation.  Mages cast spells, but spells require an energy called mana, which gets used up gradually as you cast spells.  How much mana you start with depends on your character’s intellect, and once you have used up your mana, you can’t cast any more spells until it is replenished.  To replenish it you can either wait and it will gradually return (not the greatest idea in combat,) or eat and drink (not possible while you are in combat.)  Or you could in the older days cast Evocation, which meant you stood in place as the spell was going, gain 15% of your total mana instantly and another 45% of your total mana over 6 sec.  Move or get attacked, and the spell broke.

This recently was replaced with Rune of Power, which places a rune on the ground, which lasts for 1 min. While standing within 5 yds of it, your mana regeneration is increased by 75% and your spell damage is increased by 15%.  You have to keep remembering to replace it every minute, but that’s not the problem.  It may even be an easier game mechanic, but that’s not the problem either.  My problem with it is how it reflects our dysfunctional attitude about thinking, and specifically our tendency to think of thinking as separate from doing something.

We live in a culture where people frequently worry about things, and in fact have ruminations that are intrusive.  Many people report feeling hijacked by their minds with worrying or intrusive thoughts.  And yet at the same time, few of us seem to mark our time and set it aside specifically for thinking.  We schedule appointments to do things, but thinking isn’t one of them.  We treat thinking, which is intangible, as if it can occur in the same space as doing other activities that are more observable and tangible.  And then we are surprised when our minds rebel and hijack our thinking with thoughts and feelings that come unbidden, when all along we have been failing to cultivate the practice of intentional, mindful thinking about things.

This is where I think Blizzard and Wow initially had it right with Evocation.  It was acknowledging an important truth, that Thinking IS doing something, and when done intentionally it occupies time and has benefits.  Sure you weren’t able to do other things while casting Evocation, but isn’t that the point?  In the real world, when you want to think deeply and seriously about something, you really do need to be intentional about it, and make a space in your day to do it.  Rune of power definitely embraces the multitasking model, which encourages you to set up a rune and then go about your other business while keeping half an eye on it to know when to refresh.  Multitasking is not inherently a bad thing, but there are times and places that intentional thinking may be more appropriate and less anxiety-provoking.

Part of helping patients learn to manage worrying is often to help them set up a specific time for worrying about things.  This “worry time” can be a placeholder in the day or week which the patient uses when an intrusive worry enters into their thinking: They can dismiss it by deciding to put that on the agenda for the scheduled worry time.  This is a way of training your mind to be intentional about what you choose to think about and when.  But implicit in this is the idea that training your mind to think about things intentionally is a learned skill.

You can apply this to many different aspects of your life and work.  If you are growing your private practice, when was the last time you set aside an hour to think deeply about your business plan or clinical focus.  I’m not talking about daydreaming here, I’m talking about sustained intentional thought.  Clinically, do you set aside supervision time to think deeply about patients?  As students do you take 15 minutes after each article to think specifically about the reading?  As parents, when was the last time you said to your co-parent, let’s make a time to think together about how our child is doing in life at home and school.  Classroom teachers, when was the last time you asked students to take 5 minutes and think quietly about the classroom topic?

Another challenge here is the confusion of tongues around the concept of thinking.  Self-help gurus often exhort us to stop thinking about things and JUST DO IT.  But I don’t think they are talking about intentional thinking, I think they are talking about reactive or intrusive thinking.  Procrastination is reactive thinking, worrying can be intrusive thinking.  Those are often roadblocks to success, but the form of thinking I have been referring to is perhaps better described as a form of concentration meditation.  Concentration meditation has come to be seen by many of us as concentrating on an image, or a candle, or chanting, or a revered object, but that is not necessarily the case, and in fact it is limiting.

What if your idea is the revered object?  What if your thought process about your work, child, patient, class is worthy of your undivided attention?  What if you were to schedule a specific time to think about a certain project?

If you are one of those detractors who say, “I just don’t have time to think,” I don’t buy it.  Thinking time is not a luxury item, although it may be a learned discipline to set aside a few minutes at a time to do it.  So please take a second and schedule a time on your calendar to think about an idea that is important to you.  Schedule a time to hold your random worries and thoughts and show up at that appointed time to seriously consider them.  I suspect this will free up more mental space and time than you may imagine.

And please Blizzard, bring back Evocation.  I miss it, and the important life lesson in mindfulness it has to teach us.

 

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Bad Object Rising: How We Learn to Hate Our Educated Selves

Recently I had the opportunity to work with a great set of educators in a daylong seminar.  One of the things I do with teachers when I present is have them play Minecraft.  In this case I started off by giving a general presentation that ended with a story of auto-didactism in an Ethiopian village, where 20 children who had never seen the printed word were given tablets and taught themselves to read.  I did this in part to frame the pedagogy for what came next:  I had them turn on Minecraft and spend 30 minutes exploring the game without any instruction other than getting them networked.

The responses were as varied as the instructors, but one response fascinated me in particular.  Midway into the 30 minutes, one teacher stopped playing the game and started checking her email.  Later, when we returned to our group to have a discussion about the thoughts and feelings that came up around game play, this same teacher spoke up.  We were discussing the idea of playfulness in learning when she said , “you know, I hear a lot about games and learning, and making learning fun; but sometimes learning isn’t fun and you have to do it anyway.  Sometimes you just have to suck it up and do the work.”

“I’m not saying that I disagree with you entirely,”  I said.  “But then how do we account for your giving up on Minecraft and starting to check your email?”

She looked a little surprised, and after a moment’s reflection said, “fair enough.”

I use this example because these are educators who are extremely dedicated to teaching their students, and very academically educated themselves.  Academia has this way, though, of seeping into your mind and convincing you that academics and education are one and the same.  They’re not.

I worked in the field of Special Education for more than a decade from the inside of it, and one of the things I came to believe is that there are no unteachable students.  That is the good news and the bad news.  Bad news because if a student was truly unteachable, they wouldn’t learn from us that they are dumb or bad if they don’t demonstrate the academic achievement we expect.  I remember the youth I worked with calling each other “SPED monkeys” as an insult; clearly they learned that from somewhere and someone.  They had learned to hate themselves as a bad object, in object relations terms, or to project that badness onto other students.  They learned this from the adults around them, from the microaggressions of hatred they experienced every day:  By hate I’ll go with Merriam as close enough, “intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury.”

We tend to mistakenly equate hatred with rage and physical violence, but I suggest that this is because we want to set hatred itself up as hated by and other from ourselves; surely we never behave that way.  But hatred is not always garbed in extremis.  Hatred appears every day to students who don’t fit the academic mold.  Hatred yells “speak English!” to the 6 year olds getting off the bus chatting in Spanish.  Hatred shakes its head barely (but nevertheless) perceptibly before moving on to the next student when the first has fallen silent in their struggle.  Hatred identifies the problem student in the class and bears down on her, saying proudly, “I don’t coddle my students.”  And Hatred shrugs his shoulders when the student has been absent for 3 weeks, and waits for them to be dropped from the rolls.

I’m not sure how I came to see this, because I was one of the privileged academically.  I got straight A’s, achieved academic awards and scholarships that lifted me into an upperclass world and peer group.  I wrote papers seemingly without effort, read for pleasure, and was excited to get 3 more years of graduate school.  And I have had the opportunity to become an educator and an academic myself, having taught college and graduate students.  I could have stayed quiet and siloed in my area of expertise, but work with differently-abled learners taught me something different.  It taught me that people learn to dislike education, shortly after academia learns to dislike them.

Perhaps one of the best literary portrayals of  adult hatred of divergent thinkers comes from the movie Matilda:

“Listen, you little wise acre. I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Nowadays I teach in a much different way than I did early on, before I flipped my classrooms and facilitated guided learning experiences rather than encourage people to memorize me and ideas that I had memorized from others.  And I struggle with this new approach, because I enjoy it so much I feel guilty.  You see, I have internalized the bad object too.  Even with my good grades I internalized it.  And any time I start to depart from the traditional mold of the educated self, I experience a moment of blindness, then a stony silence that seems to say, “you’re being lazy, you should make them a powerpoint and prepare a lecture.”  Yet, if my evaluations on the whole and student and colleague testimonies have truth to them, I am a “good” educator.  So let’s say I am a “good” educator, and if I as a good educator struggle with this, we shouldn’t assume that people that struggle with these issues are “bad” educators.

In fact, when it comes to emerging technologies like social media and video games, educators often try to avoid them, if not because they are fun and suspect, then because educators risk experiencing themselves as the bad object: Who wants to experience themselves as hopelessly dumb, clumsy or lazy when they can experience themselves as the bountiful and perfectly cited fount of all wisdom?  Truth is, both are distorted images of the educated self.

Don’t forget that educators themselves experience tons of societal hatred.  For them it often comes in the guise of curriculum requirements or linking their performance to outcomes on standardized testing.  Hatred comes in the low salaries and the perception that people doing intellectual or emotional labor aren’t really working.  All of this helps educators to internalize a bad object which feels shaming and awful; is it any wonder that we sometimes unconsciously try to get that bad object away from ourselves and locate it in the student?

The good news as I said before is that we are all teachable.  We can learn to make conscious and make sense of the internalized bad object representations.  We can see that thinking of people in terms of smart or dumb is a form of splitting.

And yes, there’s a lot we can do about it.

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Nice Everything You Have There: Mindful Minecraft

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Did you know that Minecraft has a lot to teach us about how we pay attention to, get distracted from, and cope with things? Embedded in the design and the lore of the game are nuggets of philosophy, neuroscience, and psychology. From work/life balance to physical and mental health to the meaning of life Minecraft has something to teach us.

That’s why I decided to present on mindfulness and Minecraft this year at SXSW.  If you were there, thanks for coming, but if you weren’t fret not, for David Smith of Austin, TX was kind enough to videotape the event on his iPhone.  David, thanks for your stamina!  The video is broken into 5 parts, and I’ll include the prezi for you to play with as well:

 

 

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‘Tis The Season For Power Ups

This time of year is for many of us a time of stress and reflection.  The days get shorter and much of the time it seems as if we are wandering around in darkness waiting for things to change.  We may be pursued by haunting images of past relationships and mistakes we have made.  We may feel like we are doing things over and over the same way expecting different results.  We may become painfully aware of our repetition compulsion even as we charge around trying to get something to fill us up.  We may dread the end and fear death.

You all know I’m talking about Pac-Man, right?

No, seriously, by now everyone on the planet, gamer or not, must know that Pac-Man is not just a fun video game but a compelling spiritual meditation.  First off, Pac-Man is walking a labyrinth over and over, focusing on his path, how mindful is that?  And then there are the ghosts, don’t even get me started on them.  They pursue him constantly, like the specter of death or the ruminating thought that can’t be shaken.  They are constantly somewhere on the board with him, yet Pac-Man is essentially alone in the world.

This would all be pretty depressing if it weren’t for the power-ups.  Traditionally there are four of them, in the form of larger blinking white dots in the corners of the maze.  You probably recall the drill:  Pac-Man runs away from the ghosts until he finally eats one of those power-ups.  And then everything changes.  The ghosts turn blue and run away from him, and he can eat them for more points.  Yep, turns out Pac-Man applies good old Buddhist principles to the whole situation:  He faces his fears, and moves toward them.  As Pema Chodron would say, Pac-Man goes to the places that scare him and leans into the sharp points.

Ok, so back to you and your life, or your business or your family or your health, whatever situation or ghostly thoughts are running around the maze in your head.  Let’s do some Pac-meditation on them:

1. Who’s chasing you?  Take a moment to stop rushing around and ask yourself what are you worrying about?  Are you legitimately busy or being hectic?  Remind yourself that in this present moment, the people, places or things you may be avoiding are probably not really there in front of you. If you aren’t physically moving, then remind yourself of that with a breath or two. If you feel like you are moving and you really aren’t, gently remind your mind of that.  And if you are moving, try moving like you are walking a labyrinth not running around a maze: purposefully, single mindedly.  Mindfulness is the difference between a maze and a labyrinth.

2. Don’t let the bouncing fruit distract you.  This time of year especially it is easy to get thrown off course because you can become fixated on one goal: The perfect gift, the perfect holiday dinner, the New Year’s resolution to change X,Y, or Z.  Much of it is hype or a collective hysteria.  Look again, there isn’t one special dazzling fruit (or pretzel) that you have to have to win.  Nope, it’s just ordinary time, the present moment stretching out before you like a string of yummy pellets.  Enjoy those quiet unassuming moments where everything is calm and sufficient.

3. Know your ghosts.  Take a few minutes now to get to know your four ghosts.  This doesn’t need to be all psychoanalytic.  Just try to list off 1-4 things that are most pressing to worry about.  The ghosts often have less scary identities than you may suspect:

Those are the traditional names, but now let’s have you take your ghosts and put your names on them.  For example they could be:

Try to limit the ghosts to four–Remember, this isn’t Space Invaders.  What are the most pressing urgent concerns?  The goal is to get them down and begin to do what Michael White referred to as “externalizing the problem.”

Now you’re ready for…

4. Identify your power-ups.  What are those things that help you feel more powerful, more effective?  Some people identify a song that powers them up to go to the gym.  A favorite quote can be your power-up.  In my office I have one of those Staples Easy Buttons which some people find useful.  My own personal power-up is an Iced Venti Americano at Starbucks.  Sometimes power-ups are specific to the particular ghost you are dealing with, sometimes one power-up works for many different ones.  This is not a new concept, people have been using talismans for years.  Object relations folks would probably call power-ups “transitional objects.”

Last, but not least:

5. Use your power-ups.  This is not as easy as it sounds.  People often forget they have power-ups even after they have identified them.  You need to make sure your power-up is ready at hand.  If yours is an Easy button, you need to keep it at your workspace in plain view.  If it is fresh orange juice you need to make sure there is some in the fridge.  If it is a song it needs to be downloaded on all your gadgets.  If prayer or meditation is your power-up put the cushion on the floor in front of your bedroom doorway.  Enlist your partner or family members to remind you that you have these power-ups.  Then use them no matter how silly it feels, no matter how hopeless you feel.  Just. Use. Them.

This isn’t the only time of year you can use power-ups, but it is definitely a good time to start.  Not because it is the holiday season, but because it is the present.  Right now you are awake, so you can reflect and take action.  The only person stopping you from logging off and figuring out your ghosts and power-ups is you: Game on!

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Bio Breaks

 

If you’re a therapist looking to join a group of innovative colleagues for supervision, you may want to take advantage of this.  Like this post? There’s more where that came from, for only $2.99 you can buy my book. I can rant in person too, check out the Press Kit for Public Speaking info.  Subscribe to the Epic Newsletter!

21st Century (Psycho)education

Whether you’re a psychotherapist, an educator or a parent, sooner or later you will be involved in the facilitation of growth through learning.  The bad news is that most of us were educated in the 20th century, when education was largely modeled on the 19th century.  The view of literacy then was narrower, standardized and often monolithic.  The good news is that technology today can help us invigorate learning as never before, often by using the mechanics or design of video games and social media.

Before we press on, it is time to choose your own adventure!  I encourage you to ask yourself and answer this question: Is education inevitably like a daily spoonful of cod liver oil?  That is, do I believe that it is something that is routine, unavoidably unpleasant the people need to just suck it up and deal with?

If you answered yes, click here to stop reading this post and go to Mordor, where you can play a free MUD with other denizens of gloom and doom.

If you answered no, read on to find some examples of how simple game mechanics can revolutionize a curriculum.

1. Game Patches

Game patches are supplementary, downloadable game content that patches into existing games to either fix bugs or introduce new content into existing games.  One example was the famous Burning Crusade from World of Warcraft, which added another world of play, new races to create characters as, flying, and many new quests to challenge players.  More recently, Minecraft added patches to include jungles (1.2,) fixed multiple crashes (1.2.4,) and made cats more impatient and eager to sit on things (1.2.5.)  Much of the patch content comes from user experience comments, and players often know and eagerly await for patches for weeks in advance of their arrival.

Introducing content into classroom settings can benefit from this approach.  First off, polling students during subject matter about what aspects of what they are learning would they like to know more about?  What ways can learning or behavioral problems be debugged?  For example, elementary school teachers can hype up the class before rolling out Grade 3.5, at the halfway mark of the year, and include in this patch a total restructure of seating plans, allowing new class configurations and addressing problems in a way that starts to be both expected and exciting.

In terms of curriculum, from kindergarten to college, most educators have some lesson plan, and previewing content of upcoming lessons can generate interest and engagement.  This can range from creating a funny trailer on YouTube with teasers for the next lesson, to releasing hints about upcoming problems and subject matter.  This can include contests to name upcoming characters, for example the characters involved in mathematical word problems, or residents of new areas about to be unlocked and explored in geography.

In school-based and outpatient therapy groups, where is often a psychoeducation component, group leaders can initiate a countdown before patching new content or welcoming new group members into the group.  For process-oriented groups, members can be invited to debug and modify the design of the group to deal with challenges or conflicts in the group.  I remember a really interesting version of this that a colleague of mine went through in her internship.  We were at an outpatient mental health clinic, and although it was not languaged as a patch, her co-leader had her join the group for the first several weeks as a participant-observer.  She attended the first 4 groups without speaking, and as week five approached there was much discussion and projection from other members about what she would say when she finally spoke.  She was in essence the new content “patched” into the existing group, which introduced change, and new transference while maintaining some group stability and continuity.

2. Talent Trees

If we can just get beyond the tendency towards and linear thinking in curriculum, I am convinced that this intervention could be extremely effective.  First, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the idea of a talent tree, here’s an example:

 

In many games, players have some choices about how to specialize in the area of talents.  As they progress through levels, they acquire talent points to spend on unlocking different talents.  So if an educator can be flexible in the order of learning certain topics, students can choose to specialize in learning something first or second.  Let’s take Literature, would you like to be an Arcane Satirist, Epic Voyager, or specialize in Bloodmagic Murder.  If you want to progress through the first talent tree, you will need to read and complete assignments involving Gulliver’s Travels, the second, The Odyssey, and the third MacBeth.

If you are doing psychotherapy we already have a version of this, it’s called DBT.  In it people focus on unlocking talent points in the trees of mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation and distress tolerance.  Which does the patient feel that they would benefit from working on first?  Which do you recommend?  For adolescents especially, this can make the difference between engaging in treatment and just another boring worksheet.

Other ways to use talent trees effectively can include:  Helping gamer couples unlock skills to better communicate or improve their sex lives; helping parents focus on and prioritize specific behaviors to work on with their children; a template for an emergent adult’s first career search; and systematic desensitization of a phobia.

These are just two ways that we can use both the technology and concepts behind it effect change therapeutically and educationally.  Can you think of others?

 

Like this post? There’s more where that came from, for only $2.99 you can buy my book. I can rant in person too, check out the Press Kit for Public Speaking info.
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Optimism

This week I had the opportunity to meet with a group of college students who are on academic probation.  There were supposed to be over 20 in the class, and 10 showed up, 5 late.  One of the the things I was struck by initially was how subdued they were, and I suppose I can’t blame them.  The class they are in, on how to succeed in school, meets twice a week in different locations at the college, half the time in a basement computer lab even though they won’t be using the computers.  If they don’t pass this class they are out of the school altogether.  There was something discouraging about the whole setup.

When I asked them how many of them played video games, they all did.  Most of them had played their favorite game as recently as this past week.  And when I went through the room and asked each what they liked playing, I was taken by how for a moment their face would brighten and they’d smile, even make eye contact.  Probably the most memorable moment for me came after I shared with them the statistic that 80% of the time we play a video game we are failing at it, and asked them to think with me about why we can tolerate failure so much in video games yet have so little tolerance of failure in other parts of our lives such as school.  What was different with a video game?

One student, I’ll call him John, raised his hand and said, “I might win.”

What a sad commentary on what education can do to students who don’t fit a certain mold.  Somewhere along the line, John and thousands like him have lost a sense of optimism, a sense that they even have a chance to win at life.  And yet, throughout the one and a half hours I was with these students, every one of them participated, had really interesting comments, argued and engaged with me.  The last holdout was a guy in the back row.  I asked him what he had learned so far today about video games and our discussion.

He sunk a little into his seat, and said, “I’m drawing a blank.”

“Let’s take a minute,” I said, “and let’s assume optimism.  Because you can add something to this discussion.  I know you can.  What have you learned in here today?”

Long pause.

And then he said, “self confidence.”

I should add, and did say to the class then, that we hadn’t even brought up that key concept to academic success yet.  If he hadn’t have added it, we might not have ever gotten it into our discussion.  Each of them had unique ideas, worthwhile ideas, not all of which we agreed with, but ideas nonetheless.

It takes optimism to risk answering a question in class, start a business, go to therapy, or play a video game.  Without optimism we won’t risk trying and failing, and without trying and failing there can be no innovation.

Take a second and think about the world around us.  Is it perfect in every way, or would you like some things to change?  If you think it is perfect we’re done here.

But if you think that the world can be a better place, for people and all sentient beings, then you’re thinking something needs to change.  Maybe you think racism needs to change.  Maybe you think poverty and starvation needs to change.  Maybe you need to be a better parent or partner, or learn more about something in school.  Maybe you want a better job, or want to create a work of art.  Maybe you want to better understand what it all means and how to fit in?  Maybe you want your daughter to have a better life with more respect, maybe you want your son to have a better future.  Maybe you want a war, all war, to stop.

Nothing gets better without change, and risk of failure.  But to risk failure we need to think we can win.  To fail and try again we need to think we could win this time.  Optimism improves resilience and changes our body, according to dozens of studies done by Seligman and other positive psychologists.  And optimism can create a more conducive learning environment.

Optimism, in my opinion is not simple delusion, or a brain defect, as some would say.  Yes, we might fail, but let’s not let that get in the way of making an effort.  Yes there is a lot of suffering and injustice in the world.  We’d better get busy.

Like this post? There’s more where that came from, for only $2.99 you can buy my book. I can rant in person too, check out the Press Kit for Public Speaking info.