Where Do You Go From Here?

Imagine looking back at your life as if it were a rocky mountain path and saying to yourself: This is where I walked.

Imagine looking at the miles of distance you have traveled with appreciation for the beautiful scenery and acknowledgement of the painful falls and difficult climbs you overcame. Imagine noticing how you have changed and grown along the way. How you may have collected heavy rocks in your backpack during your hike. Imagine taking that backpack off and placing it on the ground. You have carried it far enough. Those rocks were not even yours to begin with. Imagine then turning around and taking a breath of fresh air. You have traveled far and you have the freedom to choose where you go from here. There is no need to retrace the steps you have already taken. There is no need to pick up the backpack. You can leave it right where it is. And then, you can look up at the clouds and ahead at the unexplored landscape in front of you, and take a step in any direction you choose. Rest assured that wherever you go will bring you a beautiful view, new challenges, and unexpected detours.

There is no wrong way to go.

The path will unfold as you walk.

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How to Say What You Need to Say

If you learned right now you only had a few hours left to live, with no ability to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having expressed to the people in your life?

Assuming you do have the ability to communicate, what stops you from saying what you need to say?

Some of us have been socialized to not share how we feel. Many families avoid uncomfortable conversations and discourage open expression of feelings and concerns. Sometimes we get silenced or ridiculed when trying to say what’s on our mind. And some of us walk around with the idea that in order to be strong, we need to never be vulnerable.IMG_1122

But the things left unsaid can get heavy. The longer we carry them, the heavier they get. Personal truths, unspoken apologies, feelings towards those who mean more to us than they know…

The simplest way to let go of the weight is to say what we need to say – to a trusted friend, to a therapist, or directly to the person we need to address.

I personally have found this remarkably difficult, but the more I do it anyway the easier it gets. Now, this does not mean that I like being vulnerable. The last time I was about to tell someone exactly what was weighing on me, my heart was beating out of my chest and my hands were shaking. Not pleasant. But afterwards I felt like I had put down a giant backpack and the relief made it all worth it.

So how do we do this? There is no fixed recipe for authentic expression, but there are some things we can keep in mind that could make the process just a little smoother:

  1. Find the core

Ask yourself what is the most important part of all the things you would like to get out. What weighs on you the most? Finding the core of what you need to say helps focus your attention. You don’t need to say everything at once.

  1. Set your objective

Be honest with yourself about what you want to accomplish. Perhaps you would like other people to change, but this may not happen. Similarly, we cannot control the outcome of the conversation. What we can do, however, is to focus on the process. The act of expressing yourself needs to be practiced over and over again, regardless of the outcome. By making the objective be expression for the sake of personal growth and emotional relief, there is no way to fail.

  1. State your intention

Before you start, let the person know what your intention is. Oftentimes, people react to personal sharing by giving unsolicited advice and telling us how to stop feeling the way we do. This can be pretty unhelpful. To make this less likely, express that you simply want to share how you feel, talk about something that has been on your mind, clarify something that may have been obscure, or whatever else you are wanting to do. If needed, let the person know that you are not looking for an opinion or a solution, and that you would simply want them to hear you out.

  1. Focus on your own feelings

Here is something important: No one can tell you how to feel. Your feelings are all yours and you are the one who gets to define them. Therefore, when you focus on your own emotional experiences, disagreement becomes irrelevant. Your feelings are valid, even when others feel differently. Try not to downplay your feelings (e.g. “I am hurt, but it’s not a big deal”) or use hesitation words (e.g. “I guess I sort of feel a little frustrated”). Whatever you feel is okay.

  1. Show interest in mutual understanding

Once you have shared what you wanted to share, the listener might be feeling some kind of way. If you care about the relationship, it’s a good idea to express interest in hearing them out as well. If they do share, try to listen as non-defensively as you can to get a better idea of where they are coming from.

  1. Ask for what you want

Most people I know are poor mind readers. They do not automatically know what I want from them unless I tell them straight up. I can wait and hope and leave hints, but this can get very confusing. Asking for what you want is not a sign of weakness. It is the simplest way to let others know how they can be helpful.

  1. Observe

The process of being authentic is scary and liberating. As you step outside your silent comfort zone and start expressing yourself more openly, you may notice reactions within yourself you did not anticipate. Maybe you’ll find yourself avoiding eye contact. Maybe you’ll feel a knot in your stomach. Perhaps you will feel tempted to shift the focus away from yourself. It’s all part of your experience and nothing is wrong with that. Just notice.

  1. Repeat

The more you practice openness, the more it becomes a part of your way of being. Communicating authentically does not guarantee that others will respond with acceptance and understanding, but it can free up a lot of space in your mind and heart. And putting the weight down can feel pretty amazing.

Prisons, Profit, and Dehumanization

There are a lot of people in prison in the United States. Sons, daughters, brothers, cousins, mothers, nieces, friends, loved ones… In fact, there are more jails and prisons in the U.S., than there are colleges and universities. When friends or family members are locked up, the idea of prison becomes intensely personal. For others, prison is something you see on TV.

How do we, as a society, justify capital punishment, solitary confinement, physical and emotional abuse by prison guards, and sexual violence experienced by inmates in the United States?

20150104_131719Well, some deny it. It’s hard to face that something horrific is going on every day in our society, with permission from the authorities we’ve chosen to trust.

Others know, but look away.

We are able to do this by dehumanizing prisoners. After all, they wouldn’t be in prison if they weren’t deviant and evil… Right? By creating a separation between us and them we can comfortably ignore the harsh realities faced by millions of people on the other side of tall, concrete prison walls.

Recently, a women’s rights group called for an investigation into accounts of systemic sexual harassment and rape of multiple women held at a Texas immigration detention center for families (see here and here). To clarify, the women detained there are not Norwegian exchange students who have overstayed on their visa. They are poor women of color who have been imprisoned along with their families for having arrived without documentation to the Land of the Free, looking for opportunities to create a decent life. They are also women who for the most part go without the legal support, financial resources, and connections necessary to make their voices heard.

This parallels numerous other accounts of inhumane treatment, abuse, and harassment experienced by prisoners throughout the United States. Jessica S. Henry, Professor at the Department of Justice Studies at Montclair State University, cited disturbing examples from 2010 and 2012 of cruel abuse of two male prisoners in Florida who died at the hands of their prison guards. Both men had been imprisoned for non-violent crimes.

I want to clarify that I am not stating that prison guards are worse people than others. However, the authoritarian and militaristic culture of the prison system is extremely effective at dehumanizing prisoners and shaping the attitudes and behaviors of guards and other people in authority. When someone has been dehumanized, they are no longer seen as a person with rights and dignity. Not surprisingly, this can result in horrific abuses of power.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is a famous example of how the prison mentality works. In short, a group of healthy, middle class, male Stanford University students took part in a study in 1971 on the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or a prison guard. The students were randomly divided into a group of “prisoners” and “prison guards” and instructed to simulate prison life, where guards had the role of overseeing prisoners and carry out coercive practices commonly found in U.S. prisons (see this website for an excellent description of the study). Long story short, on the fifth day of the experiment about a third of the guards had become “hostile, arbitrary, and inventive in their forms of prisoner humiliation”, “appeared to thoroughly enjoy the power they wielded”, and were “behaving sadistically”. By that time, the prisoners were already “withdrawing and behaving in pathological ways” and the study was prematurely ended on the sixth day for “moral reasons”.

The prison industry in the U.S. exists in a political, economic, and cultural context. It is not a coincidence that new prisons are being built all over the country and that owners of private “correction facilities” make more money than ever. Angela Davis has written extensively about the context of mass incarceration in the U.S. and she has pointed out the clear link between poverty, racism, and the ever-growing power of the prison system:

“Our criminal justice system sends increasing numbers of people to prison by first robbing them of housing, health care, education, and welfare, and then punishing them when they participate in underground economies. What should we think about a system that will, on the one hand, sacrifice social services, human compassion, housing and decent schools, mental health care and jobs, while on the other hand developing an ever larger and ever more profitable prison system that subjects ever larger numbers of people to daily regimes of coercion and abuse?”

When crimes are committed, race and class play a big role in determining who gets punished and how (click here if you are not familiar with this).

20150131_145135Race and class also play a big role in determining who gets “groomed” for prison in childhood. Children going to schools in predominantly white, middle class neighborhoods are less likely to experience school as a punitive, prison-like place, than children who attend seriously underfunded schools in predominantly Black or Latino areas. Schools for kids living in poverty tend to lack proper funding. Schools for kids of color living in poverty tend to have even greater lack of funding. When this is the case, school is not a place where you come to learn and develop your potential. Instead, it is a place where you are not attended to or stimulated mentally; where your strengths are not highlighted; where you don’t get access to healthy extracurricular activities and expressive art programs; where there are guards who place you in handcuffs when you misbehave; where you are sent to “detention” – instead of counseling – when you act out emotional problems; where there are too few staff on the ground to intervene when someone is bullied. It becomes a place you dread going to and a place you can’t wait to get away from at the end of the day. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t thrive in a place like that.

So what do we do with all this? Can we work together to see the humanity in each other?

Can we create a society where people are held accountable for their actions, without being unfairly targeted, abused, or killed by authority?

Can we dismantle a prison industry that bases its profits on human breakdown and militarism?

I want to believe we can.

Freezing Over

It is time for winter to be over. By the end of February people at the northern end of the northern hemisphere have got all the freeze they need for one year and right now it is time to move on to other weathers. It’s that simple.

Sunshine at 1 pm in DecemberThis may be a surprise, but being from Iceland does not automatically mean that one is a fan of winter and loves being cold. For example, I don’t… At all. And I’m not alone in that. Darkness and cold weather have the side effect of changing many people’s habits and make them less likely to do some of the things that actually help lift mood and improve general quality of life. When it’s freezing outside, many of us are less likely to take walks, go to a gym class, leave the house to visit friends, bike to work, get sunlight on our face, and mow the lawn, and this can leave us inactive and moody. We may blame our low mood on the cold, but chances are it’s largely affecting us indirectly through our change in habits.

Personally, I don’t like too much winter. A three-week winter would be just fine and I don’t need it to get dark at 4 pm at any point during the year. I say this despite having some good winter clothes and a well-insulated place to call home. I’m not the construction worker staying outdoors all day and I’m not the homeless person who sits next to a hot-air vent on the sidewalk to keep herself warm while strangers pass her by and don’t even bother to check if she is dead or alive.

IMG_1397And yet, I complain. I complain to myself in private and once in a while I share my complaints with whomever seems equally tired of ice. In reality, my complaints are relatively senseless. I’ll be fine whether it’s freezing outside or not. Complaining about winter will not make spring arrive any sooner than it plans to and it keeps me in a mentality of unnecessary negativity. A wise woman has told me many times that a wind can be awfully cold or invigorating – depending on how you define it.

So if I were to take her advice, I would put on a scarf, embrace the storm, and get myself out for a walk. An invigorating walk… And then I’d welcome spring whenever it gets here.

But to be completely honest, that type of positivity requires advanced skills. Level 5 positivity skills…

I am at level 3.

Bonding vs. Bridging

I sat this weekend in Teachers College at Columbia University and listened to Dr. Isaac Prilleltensky talk about prerequisites for peace. And by peace he did not mean simply the absence of violence, but the presence of justice, wellbeing, and opportunities for all. Dr. Prilleltensky is a leading scholar, researcher, and writer in the area of individual and community wellbeing and his talk covered a lot of material, but the concepts of bonding and bridging got particularly stuck in my head.

IMG_2825In short, bonding refers to our tendency to relate to people who are like us in some way, whereas bridging refers to the times when we reach out to people whom we perceive as being different. This is of course nothing new and many writers and thinkers have examined the human (and the evolutionary) habit of favoring those who are in our in-group, while looking with suspicion at those who belong to the out-group – basically all those who are not in our own circle.

It is easy for people of privileged groups to get comfortable with bonding and put little, if any, effort into building bridges. After all, if you have privileged status in society, bonding with those who are also privileged or have a similar social status feels good! In circles where everyone is on the same social page, there can be this cozy sense of community and shared meaning, and little risk of anyone bringing up uncomfortable topics like oppression and inequality. As soon as the party gets more inclusive, perhaps to the point of people of less-privileged groups joining the space, things can get more complex. Suddenly the party people have to decide whether to keep the conversation at a superficial level so that everyone can appear to relate, or really make a conscious effort to listen to each other and broaden the conversation to cover both shared and unique experiences. This may not sound too difficult, but the thing is that unique experiences of less-privileged people often have to do with social location and that can bring up aspects of reality that may be hard to acknowledge for those who are not directly affected by oppression.

An Icelandic family friend once shared her frustration with immigrant employees at her workplace, whom she perceived as always hanging out with each other instead of socializing with the Icelandic staff. When she was asked if she ever approached them first, she got flustered and stumbled on her words. Perhaps she had never thought of that. And perhaps that would have required her to make an effort to understand experiences that are very different from hers and work to create a common ground on which to build a possible friendship.

Listening to Dr. Prilleltensky, I thought of my own experiences as a foreigner in the U.S. and how that opened the door for me to redefine my in-group. Without the friends and family that had surrounded me back home, I found myself connecting very strongly with other international students and now I wonder if that was perhaps an example of bonding and bridging happening at the same time. Our shared experiences of being foreigners and our exhaustion from juggling the demands of a U.S. higher education program created a sense of cohesion and safety. At the same time, we reached across racial, cultural, linguistic, religious, and class differences and built solid friendships for life.

Dr. Prilleltensky and I agree that both bonding and bridging are important. They represent some of the fundamental processes of human interaction and in order to create decent societies we have to do both. However, what I find very interesting is how people of privileged groups sometimes feel entitled to bonding, while expecting people of minority or underprivileged groups to do all the bridging. Immigrants are given the side eye for hanging out with each other in Icelandic lunch rooms; international students are criticized for not engaging more with domestic students; Latinos are supposed to assimilate and stop speaking Spanish to their kids; African Americans are expected to integrate. Meanwhile, dominant groups at times reserve the right to keep to themselves, stay in their suburbs on the weekends, send their kids to after-school activities with other kids who look like them, and invite some but not others to dinner on Sundays.

This isn’t helpful. Because for minority groups and underprivileged populations, bonding creates an essential opportunity for sharing resources, getting support, expressing feelings and ideas safely, and gathering strength before heading back out into a society that does not view them as equals.

At the end of the day, we all need to bond. And then, we need to reach out to each other to make sure that everyone gets a place at the table. Bridges are best built from a position of equality and shared power. And safe bridges make this world a lot more interesting to navigate!

When Plans Fall Apart

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I have this habit of wanting things to go according to my plan. The plan can include something as simple as what I want to do on a regular Sunday or something as broad as major life goals I want to accomplish, ideally in a particular order. When making decisions, this means I often spend a lot of time thinking about possible actions and consequences, as if there were one “correct” choice to be made. This also means I don’t like when things change unexpectedly and I definitely don’t like my plans falling through. When my plans don’t work out, I find myself caught off guard. As if things were supposed to happen the way I wanted them to.

This habit has been curiously persistent. I have had life-changing experiences where my well-thought-out plans have completely fallen apart and yet I have found myself getting right back up to design new plans and become mentally attached to particular outcomes that – again – may never materialize.

A friend of mine listened recently while I shared my frustration about not knowing how to reach one of my big goals in life. When I was done talking, she looked at me for a second and then moved her glass and plate apart on the kitchen table, put her phone squarely in the middle, and said: “Let’s say you want to travel from this glass to this plate. Turns out the phone is in your way. It seems you keep bumping into the phone, over and over again! It’s like you don’t realize you can turn to the right and go around it… or turn left… or jump over it… or go somewhere else!”

Of course she was right.

Most of the time, there is more than one way from A to B.

Also, B is just one of many possible destinations.

In other words, there is no one right way to live my life. I even dare say there is no one right way to live yours either.

Life keeps taking unexpected turns whether I want it or not. Time after time, I find myself in the middle of things that were not at all on my agenda and the more I try to stick with my plan, the more frustrated I get when life does its own thing.

At one point in my life, when I had experienced a series of difficult events and transitions, I decided to help myself recover mentally by setting only one big goal: To be. The result was a year where I ended up feeling more alive than I had felt in a long time. It was like an adventure – starting each day with a sense of appreciation for being present and curiosity about what I might encounter. I decided that all I really had to do was to be myself, breathe, and be ready to accept whatever the day were to bring.

The following year I made a different agenda. Instead of planning to be, I planned to accomplish. Needless to say, this plan didn’t work so well. The more I chased after my goals, the less often I remembered to look up and breathe. And the more frustrated I got with my lack of “progress”, the more stuck I became inside my own head, worrying and thinking things over… and over… and over. It is actually hard to be present in the world when you are stuck inside your head.

It seems simple, now that I think about it. But knowing myself, I think this may be one of those lessons I need to learn a few times before I finally get it.

Sexual Assault – Are You Sure?

Imagine a friend you really care about was robbed while walking home from the grocery store. And imagine your friend came to you and told you what happened right afterwards. Whether the attack had consisted of a wallet being snatched or a violent assault, I bet you would have a strong reaction of anger and empathy while listening to the story. You might even insist on going to the police and reporting the incident in the hope that justice might be served.

A different scenario often plays out in cases of sexual assault. Survivors are met with skepticism and their motives for telling their stories are questioned – not always, but all too often.

If you were to respond in that way to your friend who got robbed, you might say something like: “Are you sure about this? People don’t get robbed in broad daylight on Tuesdays. I’m sure the guy just thought you wanted to give him your wallet…”

And then, if you were to accept the robbery did indeed happen, you might try a little victim-blaming: “What made you think it would be a good idea to walk home from the store? And let your bag just hang on your shoulder like that? Seems like you were asking for it…”

I hope we can agree this would be ridiculous. Similar examples have been used before to highlight the outlandish reactions survivors of sexual assault often get when they have gathered enough courage to share their stories.

What were you wearing?

How much alcohol did you have?

Why did you go to his house?

Why didn’t you fight back?

And you didn’t even call the police when you got home?

On top of that, too few of us realize that a common reaction to overwhelming threat is to freeze. Not fight back or run away, but to freeze up. Going through an assault while feeling paralyzed with terror and then being disbelieved because of one’s automatic reactions is a deeply wounding experience. Survivors may even be regarded as untruthful due to being unemotional while telling their stories, which is ironic considering that emotional numbness is a common symptom of post-traumatic stress.

Rates of fabrication in sexual assault cases happen to be similar as for other felonies. Anecdotal stories and the common lack of “real” evidence are used to argue that reports of sexual assault are “often” false, while overwhelming numbers of survivors who seek help at clinics, emergency rooms, and mental health centers are ignored. The reality is that most survivors never even make a report to begin with. And many survivors never seek help.

IMG_2997Then, there is the devastating lack of justice worldwide when it comes to sexual assaults: Poor and/or lacking investigations, lack of evidence, no witnesses, rare arrests, and infrequent convictions. LGBT people often encounter additional prejudice and discrimination when reporting sexual violence, and non-affluent survivors may not even be able to afford getting a lawyer to start their case.

An uncomfortable truth is that a majority of sexual assaults are carried out by a person the survivor already knows – not a stranger in a dark alley. So I get upset more than surprised when hearing about survivors being re-traumatized by disbelief, invalidation, and victim-blaming. After all, facing the disturbing prevalence of sexual violence and demanding justice for survivors would mean looking closely at what is going on in our communities, our own social circles, and in our very own families. And that might lead us to face things we’d rather not see.

The aftermath of sexual assault can have no less impact than the traumatic event itself. Invalidation can lead survivors to feel extremely isolated and alone, doubt their own experiences, and even question their sanity.

So if you ever receive the honor of being trusted with information about sexual assault, please handle with care.

[Check out RAINN for more information]