boundaries

What disability professionals say 'tell us your story' and mean 'tell us we're wonderful'.

If a disability professional asks you to come and address their professional group, be very careful — especially if they ask you to "tell your story". Sometimes disability professionals are prepared to learn from disabled people, but more often than not, it’s a setup for humiliating emotional exploitation.

Most disability professionals form their professional consensus on The Enlightened Approach to Disabled People without many or any disabled leaders in the room. Having already decided what they will do to us, disability professionals then bring in disabled people as validation fairies to help them feel the way they want to feel about it.

Even if the person approaching you seems nice, it’s worth being cautious — don’t trust a smile; look for evidence about whether or not they are prepared to take you seriously as an expert. Most disability professionals don’t want to learn from our expertise; they want us to help them feel good about themselves. What they usually want from us is an emotional performance that validates their self image and the approach they’ve decided to take to disabled people.

They want to feel inspired, without facing difficult truths. They want to feel moved, without changing. They want to say “I learn so much from you!” without reconsidering their worldview or professional practice,  and they want to say “You have such a unique perspective!” to every disabled speaker, while treating us as largely interchangeable. (Disability professionals who are actually prepared to learn from us acknowledge gaps in their expertise, and seek out disabled experts to teach them what they need to know.)

When disability professionals *mean* “come make us feel good about ourselves”, what they usually *say* is some version of “we have so much to learn from your unique perspective” or “my colleagues need to hear your story”. When disability professionals ask a disabled person to “tell your story”, they generally expect us to follow these unwritten rules:

  • Tell the audience horror stories about your childhood that allow the listeners to feel righteous because We Would Never Do Such Things.
  • Make sure that the stories are graphic, but not too graphic. Horrify the audience enough so that their pulses raise a bit and they feel brave for listening to you, but be careful not to horrify them so much that they have nightmares.
  • Make sure that you tell the story in a way that doesn’t make them feel ashamed or responsible for any of it.
  • Give them someone to identify with so they can feel like excellent people. Usually it's either "my mom never gave up on me!" or "there was this one awesome teacher who showed me how to believe in myself!"
  • Don’t talk about the lingering harm done to you, or how it’s affecting you in the present. Don’t make them think about harm done to disabled kids who are facing lifelong consequences of that harm. Don’t talk about present-day injustice, discrimination, or violence.
  • Tell your story as a tragic misunderstanding. Don’t talk about discrimination or systematic injustice. 
  • Allow your audience to laugh at you. Tell self-deprecating jokes. Don’t insist on respect.
  • Don’t describe solidarity with other disabled people, and don’t attribute any of your success to other disabled people who you regard as equals. 
  • Don’t describe fighting with a professional and winning, unless you can attribute your victory to someone they can identify with. 
  •  Don’t be angry, and don’t describe other disabled people’s anger as legitimate. (Under some circumstances, it may be permissible to describe it as understandable, but only if you’re appropriately condescending and give the impression that the therapy provided by the professionals in the room would fix it.)
  • Don’t talk about disability in political terms. Say that “times have changed”, without giving any credit to disabled people who fought for those changes. 
  • Do not mention organized groups of disability activists, especially organized groups of disability activists who exist in the present and clash with disability professionals. 
  • At the end of the presentation, open the floor for Q&A. When audience members presume that it’s ok to ask you intrusive personal questions, smile and give them an answer that makes them feel good about themselves. 
  • When you’re in the audience of their presentations, do not expect this intimacy to be reciprocated, and do not expect them to show similar concern for your feelings. 
  • Understand that you’re here to validate them, and they’re not there to validate you. Pretend that what they’re doing is listening and learning.
  • Don't break character, and don't drop the mask. Don't acknowledge the unwritten rules or the unwarranted emotional validation they want from you. Accept compliments about your "honesty" and "authentic first hand perspective" with a straight face.
  • Above all, do not talk about being harmed by disability professionals who there’s any chance your audience would identify with.

When disability professionals expect you to be their validation fairy, this is a form of ableism and emotional exploitation. They should not be treating your life as a story about their benevolence as disability professionals. They should not be treating you as existing for the purpose of making them feel good about themselves. They should be treating you with respect as a real human being — and if you are an expert, they should be treating you with the professional respect due to a colleague.

I am not the validation fairy, and neither are you.

Image description: Text "I am not the validation fairy" next to a line art drawing of a fairy casting a spell with a magic wand.

Image description: Text "I am not the validation fairy" next to a line art drawing of a fairy casting a spell with a magic wand.

A red flag: "I don't want you to see me as an authority figure"

If your boss or academic advisor says something like “I don’t want you to see me as an authority figure,” that’s a major red flag. It almost always means that they want to get away with breaking the rules about what powerful people are allowed to do. They’re probably not treating you as an equal. They’re probably trying to exercise more power over you than they should.

Sometimes authority figures say “I don’t want you to see me as an authority figure” because they want you to do free work for them. The logic here works like this:

  • They want you to do something.
  • It’s something that it would be wrong for an authority figure to order you to do.
  • If they were a peer asking for a favor, it would be ok to ask, and also ok for you to say no.
  • The authority figure wants you to obey them, but they don’t want to accept limits on what it’s acceptable to ask you to do.
  • For purposes of “what requests are ok to make”, they don’t want to be seen as an authority figure.
  • They also want you to do what they say. It’s not really a request, because you’re not really free to say no.

For example:

  • It’s usually ok to ask your friends if they would be willing to help you move in exchange for pizza. It’s never ok to ask your employees to do that.
  •  It’s sometimes ok to ask a friend to lend you money for medical bills (depending on the relationship). It’s never ok to ask your student to lend you money for a personal emergency. 

Sometimes authority figures pretend not to have power because they want to coerce someone into forms of intimacy that require consent. They know that consent isn’t really possible given the power imbalance, so they say “I don’t want you to see me as an authority figure” in hopes that you won’t notice the lines they’re crossing. Sometimes this takes the form of sexual harassment. Sometimes it’s other forms of intimacy. For instance:

  • Abusive emotional intimacy: Excepting you to share your feelings with them, or receive their feelings in a way that’s really only appropriate between friends or in consented-to therapy. 
  • Coming to you for ongoing emotional support in dealing with their marital problems.
  • Trying to direct your trauma recovery or “help you overcome disability”.
  • Asking questions about your body beyond things they need to know for work/school related reasons. 
  • Expecting you to share all your thoughts and feelings about your personal life.
  • Analyzing you and your life and expecting you to welcome their opinions and find them insightful. 
  • Abusive spiritual intimacy: Presuming the right to an opinion on your spiritual life. (Eg: Trying to get you to convert to their religion, telling you that you need to pray, trying to make you into their disciple, telling you that you need to forgive in order to move on with your life.) 

If someone says “I don’t want you to see me as an authority figure”, it probably means that they can’t be trusted to maintain good boundaries. (Unless they’re also saying something like “I’m not actually your boss, and you don’t have to do what I say”.) Sometimes they are intentionally trying to get away with breaking the rules. Sometimes it’s less intentional. Some people feel awkward about being powerful and don’t want to think about it. In either case, unacknowledged power is dangerous. In order to do right by people you have power over, you have to be willing to think about the power you’re have and how you’re using it. 

Tl;dr If someone has power they don’t want to acknowledge, they probably can’t be trusted to use their power ethically. 

 

 

 

Image description: Quote "If someone has power they don't want to acknowledge, they probably can't be trusted to use their power ethically" next to a picture of some power lines.

Manipulative fake apologies

Some apologies amount to someone asking for permission to keep doing something bad.

  • These apologies generally shouldn’t be accepted.
  • (But it can be really hard not to, because who want permission to do bad things tend to lash out when they don’t get it.)
  • (If you have to accept a bad apology to protect yourself, it’s not your fault.)

Eg:

  • Moe: “I’m sorry, I know this is my privileged male opinion talking but…”
  • Or, Moe: “I’m sorry, I know I’m kind of a creeper…” or “I’m sorry, I know I’m standing too close but…”
  • At this point, Sarah may feel pressured to say “It’s ok.”
  • If Sarah says, “Actually, it’s not ok. Please back off” or “Yes, you’re mansplaining, please knock it off”, Moe is likely to get angry.
  • The thing is, it’s not ok, and Moe has no intention of stopping. 
  • Moe is just apologizing in order to feel ok about doing something he knows is wrong.

Another example:

  • Sam is a wheelchair user. He’s trying to get through a door.
  • Mary sees him and decides that he needs help.
  • Mary rushes to open the door. As she does so, she says “Oh, sorry, I know I’m supposed to ask first”, with an expectant pause. 
  • At this point, Sam may feel pressured to say “It’s ok”, even if the ‘help’ is unwanted and unhelpful. 
  • If Sam says, “Yes, you should have asked first. You’re in my way. Please move”, Mary is likely to get angry and say “I was just trying to help!”.
  • In this situation, Mary wasn’t really apologizing. She was asking Sam to give her permission to do something she knows is wrong.

More generally:

  • Fake Apologizer: *does something they know the other person will object to*.
  • Fake Apologizer: “Oh, I’m sorry. I know I’m doing The Bad Thing…” or “I guess you’re going to be mad if I…”
  • Fake Apologizer: *expectant pause*
  • The Target is then supposed to feel pressured to say something like “That’s ok”, or “I know you mean well”, or “You’re a good person, so it’s ok for you to do The Bad Thing.”

If the Target doesn’t respond by giving the Fake Apologizer permission/validation, the Fake Apologizer will often lash out. This sometimes escalates in stages, along the lines of:

  • Fake Apologizer: I *said* I was sorry!
  • Fake Apologizer: *expectant pause*
  • The Target is then supposed to feel pressure to be grateful to the Fake Apologizer for apologizing, and then as a reward, give them permission to do The Bad Thing. (Or apologize for not letting them do The Bad Thing.)
  • If the Target doesn’t respond in the way the Fake Apologizer wants, they will often escalate to intense personal insults, or even overt threats, eg:
  • Fake Apologizer: I guess you’re just too bitter and broken inside to accept my good intentions. I hope you get the help you need. And/or:
  • Fake Apologizer: Ok, fine. I’ll never try to do anything for you ever again. And/or
  • Fake Apologizer: *storms off, and slams the door in a way that causes the person who refused their intrusive help to fall over*.

Tl;dr Sometimes what looks like an apology is really a manipulative demand for validation and permission to do something bad.

Image description: Text "Manipulative fake apologies" next to a picture of a man with flowers an an affected apology facial expression.

Anonymous advice on getting fundraising callers to stop

Anonymous said to realsocialskills: I have done fundraising calling (different, but similar), and in the UK, it is illegal for us to keep contacting people who tell us to stop calling. But you have to be very unambiguous. “Please do not call me again for any reason, and take my number off your list” will work.

realsocialskills said:

Thanks for the tip!

Cancelling cable service

Anonymous said:

I wanted to pass on a tip. My cable company, Comcast, is very aggressive with trying to keep people on their service. I received many calls pressuring me to stay. Finally, I told them I’m moving to Europe. They stopped harassing me because they don’t have service there. I hope this helps others.

realsocialskills said:

I’ve never tried this, but it makes sense to me that it could work. Have others tried this? Has it worked for you?

Blocking is not evidence

People get to decide who they do and don’t want to talk to.

Online, part of what that means is that people can block each other. People who don’t want to talk to each other can make the conversation stop.

If someone blocks someone else, all it means is that they’ve decided to stop talking to them. In almost all cases, you have every right to do that.

Blocking someone doesn’t mean you’ve lost an argument. (Similarly, if someone else blocks you, that doesn’t mean you’ve won or that you’re better than them.) It just means that you’ve chosen to stop talking to someone.

There’s nothing wrong with ending a conversation. You don’t have to interact with everyone who wants your attention. You have the right to have boundaries and you have the right to use technology to enforce them.

The only time it’s wrong to block people is if they are entitled to your attention for some reason. That’s rare, and mostly applies to corporations and elected officials. 

Blocking is not a punishment or a confession of weakness. It’s a boundary.

Ending things with a therapist?

Anonymous said to realsocialskills:
Could you please do a post about how to politely/effectively/appropriately end a therapist-client (or doctor-patient) relationship? Like, you’re not moving on because you’re feeling better, but because of some other reason? I am looking to find a new therapist because my current one keeps forgetting which client I am/sharing personal information about other clients, and I am not sure how to tell her without being hurtful. Thanks :)

realsocialskills said:

I don’t know a good script for this — I bet some of my readers do, and I’m hoping y’all will weigh in.

What I do know is that it’s completely normal to end things with a therapist. People do it all the time, for all kinds of different reasons. You have the right to end therapy, or choose a different therapist, for any reason you want. You don’t owe your current therapist an explanation. 

If you’re working with a good therapist who just happens not to be a good fit for you, it can be helpful to tell them what’s going wrong. Good therapists understand that no therapist is a good fit for every client. Good therapists can often help you find someone else who will be a better fit. (Eg: if the problem is that you need someone with more trauma expertise, someone who has a different gender than your current therapist, someone with more experience working with LGBTQ clients, someone who takes your insurance, or something like that.). So while you’re never *obligated* to give an explanation, if you have a good therapist, it may be advisable. 

But not all therapists are good therapists. Some therapists aren’t very competent, and some therapists behave unethically. If the problem is that you have a bad therapist, giving them an explanation is less likely to help you. Bad therapists aren’t generally very good at helping you to find better therapists. If you’re ending things with a bad therapist, it’s probably better not to get into the reasons too much. You’re not obligated to explain to them what they’re doing wrong as a therapist — they’re responsible for being ethical and professionally competent. It is not your job to teach them how to be a good therapist. 

It’s also not your responsibility to take care of their feelings. If they feel hurt by your decision to end therapy, that’s their problem and not yours. Clients end therapy all the time, for all kinds of reasons. Therapists often have feelings about this — and part of what therapists are trained to do is deal with their own feelings. Feeling hurt about a client’s decision to end therapy is never the client’s problem. If therapists can’t handle that on their own, they’re expected to seek out help — from colleagues or supervisors, not from clients. (Again, not all therapists are good therapists, and some bad therapists do not handle endings appropriately.)

Anyone want to weigh in? If you’ve chosen to end therapy with a particular therapist, how have you had that conversation? What’s worked for you?

Why I'm suspicious of optimistic doctors

The Uninspirational wrote a reply to my post on how disabled kids learn to be suspicious of optimistic teachers. They point out that the same dynamic happens with doctors:

This pattern, where somebody in a position of power expects their actions to somehow rescue a person they’re supposed to help in some way, is something I’ve experienced a lot as a patient within the healthcare system. Mostly with doctors but also with psychologists, physiotherapists and occupational therapists. It goes something like this…

I’d recommend clicking through and reading the whole thing. It’s a good post.

Ableist hostility disguised as friendliness

Some people relate to people with disabilities in a dangerous and confusing way. They see themselves as helpers, and at first they seem to really like the person. Then the helper suddenly become aggressively hostile, and angry about the disabled person’s limitations or personality (even though they have not changed in any significant way since they started spending time together). Often, this is because the helper expected their wonderful attention to erase all of the person’s limitations, and they get angry when it doesn’t.

The logic works something like this:

  • The helper thinks that they’re looking past the disability and seeing the “real person” underneath.
  • They expect that their kindness  will allow the “real person” to emerge from the shell of disability.
  • They really like “real person” they think they are seeing, and they’re excited about their future plans for when that person emerges.
  • But the “real person” is actually figment of their imagination.

The disabled person is already real:

  • The helper doesn’t like this already-real disabled person very much
  • The helper ignores most of what the already-real person actually says, does, thinks, and feels.
  • They’re looking past the already-real person, and seeing the ghost of someone they’d like better.

This ends poorly:

  • The already-real person never turns into the ghost the helper is imagining
  • Disability stays important; it doesn’t go away when a helper tries to imagine it out of existence
  • Neither do all of the things the already-real disabled person thinks, feels, believes, and decides
  • They are who they are; the helper’s wishful thinking doesn’t turn them into someone else
  • The helper eventually notices that the already-real person isn’t becoming the ghost that they’ve been imagining
  • When the helper stop imagining the ghost, they notice that the already-real person is constantly doing, saying, feeling, believing, and deciding things that the helper hates
  • Then the helper gets furious and becomes openly hostile

The helper has actually been hostile to the disabled person the whole time

  • They never wanted to spend time around the already-real disabled person; they wanted someone else
  • (They probably didn’t realize this)
  • At first, they tried to make the already-real disabled person go away by imagining that they were someone else
  • (And by being kind to that imaginary person)
  • When they stop believing in the imaginary person, they become openly hostile to the real person

Tl;dr Sometimes ableist hostility doesn’t look like hostility at first. Sometimes people who are unable or unwilling to respect disabled people seem friendly at first. They try to look past disability, and they interact with an imaginary nondisabled person instead of the real disabled person. They’re kind to the person they’re imagining, even though they find the real person completely unacceptable. Eventually they notice the real person and become openly hostile. The disabled person’s behavior has not changed; the ableist’s perception of it has. When someone does this to you, it can be very confusing — you were open about your disability from the beginning, and it seemed like they were ok with that, until they suddenly weren’t. If this has happened to you, you are not alone.

Ideological predators

Content note: This post is about adults exploiting teenagers on the internet for validation. It’s about the ideological form; not the sexual form, but a lot of the underlying logic is similar. This is likely to be a difficult post for anyone who has an emotional connection to this issue.

Some some predators use vulnerable people as validation objects to make their  flawed ideologies feel true. This can happen between people of any age, but it’s particularly common for adult predators to do this to teenage victims they meet online. Adults with bad ideas manipulate teenagers into praising them. They offer false respect to teenagers who are starved for respectful adult attention. They make teenagers depend on them emotionally in completely inappropriate ways. Then they lash out when the teenagers start to notice flaws in their ideas. Teenagers can get hurt very, very badly by this.

From a teenage perspective, relationships with ideological predators can feel really good at first before the predator starts lashing out. As a teenager, you’re often at the beginning of noticing that there’s a lot wrong with the world, and that you and others have the power to make it much better. But seeing yourself as powerful enough to change the world isn’t the same as knowing how to do it. Changing the world is hard work that requires skills that are difficult to acquire. It also requires connections with others doing the same work, which can be really hard to build for teenagers without much control over their lives. And teenagers who want to make the world better are often surrounded by adults who think their desire to do so is cute, and certainly not something to take seriously. (And who may not be taking the teenager seriously on any level). That’s degrading, and very, very hard to cope with.

And then a predator shows up online. At first, they’re this really interesting adult who at first seems to take you much more seriously than anyone else does. Their ideas seem amazing, and they seem to be opening all kinds of possibilities for making the world better. They’re willing to spend endless hours talking to you. They listen to you when you are sad and lonely, and they tell you that you’re amazing and brilliant and that you deserve so much more respect than anyone is giving you. It feels really good to be exposed to an exciting new idea, and it feels even better when it’s coming in the form of conversations with an apparently experienced person you respect. And, support from an experienced person who really does respect you is an amazing thing. Sometimes teenagers get the real form of this online. And sometimes, a predator fakes respect in ways that end very, very poorly.

An emotional relationship with a predator falls apart at some point, because their ideas aren’t actually very good, and their respect for you wasn’t real. It turns out, they weren’t listening to you, they were using you as a mirror. They didn’t want respect and conversation, they wanted you to admire them. When you start noticing flaws in their bad ideas, you stop being useful as a mirror, and they stop wanting to support you. All the vulnerabilities you shared with them turn into weapons they wield against you. It’s excruciating, and it can be very, very hard to recover from.

Teenagers deserve to have adults in their lives who respect them and spend time talking to them about the world. Ideally, this should happen both on and offline. Ideological predators who want validation seek out teenagers who aren’t getting real respect from adults, and seduce them with fake respect. This shouldn’t happen to anyone, ever, but it’s unfortunately really common. (It’s not just teenagers this happens to, but teenagers are often particularly vulnerable because teenagers are often both very isolated and inexperienced with evaluating the merits of ideologies, political views, and effective approaches to activism.)

One of the most important red flags for ideological exploitation is: Do they respect your right to consider other perspectives, or do they want you to believe everything they say without question? 

Nobody is right about everything; it is never reasonable for someone to want you to believe their ideas without question. You have the right to think for yourself. It is never ok for someone to be mean to you for asking questions or for reading about other perspectives. (Even if they’re right and the other perspective you’re reading is a dangerously bad idea that has hurt them personally.) No one has to be willing to talk to you about everything; they do need to respect your right to think for yourself. If someone is trying to persuade you to agree with them, they should expect that you will want to think about it and ask questions. That’s how conversations work when you are explaining something.

No one is the boss of your reading or your other media consumption. You get to decide what you want to read (and what you don’t want to read, and you don’t have to justify your reading choices to anyone. It’s a red flag if an adult tries to monitor your reading or aggressively tells you not to read people they disagree with. Or if they try to dictate who you are and aren’t allowed to talk to.
It’s also a bad sign if they refuse to explain to you why they disagree with a particular position, especially if they’re encouraging you to see them as a mentor. “Why do you think that?” and “What’s wrong with that?” or “Why is that idea harmful?” or “Why is this important?” are reasonable questions, and it’s not ok if they lash out at you for sincerely wanting to know.

(Even if they regularly get asked that question insincerely as a form of harassment, they still shouldn’t lash out at you. You aren’t doing that. You’re asking a question because you want to understand. It’s not your fault that mean people do something superficially similar. If they’ve spent hours and hours talking to you and saying how insightful you are, then they know you well enough to trust your sincerity. It’s not ok if everything they know about you suddenly flies out the window when you ask an uncomfortable question. Also, if they’re presenting themselves as a mentor figure and want you to trust them in that role, then it *is* their job to educate you, and part of educating people is answering their sincere questions respectfully.)

Which is related to another sign to watch out for — trustworthy people with good ideas are able to disagree with others respectfully. If someone is only willing to talk about ideas they agree with and ideas they have withering contempt for, that’s a really bad sign. Reasonable people have some positions they disagree with respectfully, and they also know that people can mistakenly be attracted to bad ideas for good reasons. No one has to be willing to respect all ideas or treat all positions as honorable; everyone has to be able to tolerate *some* disagreement respectfully. Reasonable people know that they’re not right about everything, and that sometimes they will find that people they initially disagreed with had a point.

If they can’t tolerate disagreement with anyone else, what they’re feeling for you is probably not real respect. They’re probably using you as a mirror; expecting you to reflect everything they say back to them, using your sincerity and enthusiasm to make it sound true and important. But you’re not a mirror; you’re a person. Even if everything they’re saying to you right now sounds amazingly true; eventually you will disagree with them about something you both care about. (No one is right 100% of the time, and it is normal for people who care about things to have some degree of disagreement.) Their talk about how insightful and wonderful you are will very, very likely melt away when you stop agreeing with them about everything. If they could tolerate disagreement, they’d be tolerating it from other people too.

Tl;dr Some adult predators use teenagers as ideological validation objects. They offer false respect to teenagers who are hungry for genuine respect from adults. The teenage victims are expected to become mirrors, enthusiastically reflecting back whatever the adult says, making it sound true and wise. Inevitably, eventually teenagers figure out that the adult isn’t 100% right about everything, and they start questioning their ideology. The adult predator then lashes out, and withdraws all of their false respect, leaving the teenager they have isolated to pick up the pieces. This is a horrible an inexcusable thing to do to someone. People have the right to think for themselves, and to ask questions. Adults who take it upon themselves to teach teenagers about the world have a particularly strong obligation to support them in thinking for themselves. If someone effusively praises you at first and then lashes out at you for questioning them or disagreeing, something is really wrong. It’s not your fault, and you’re not alone. People should not treat you that way.

The dangers of “adults are terrible”

Content note: This post is about abuse in a way that may not be obvious from the first paragraph.

I’ve seen adults and teenagers on Tumblr and other places saying things like “adults are terrible” or “never trust adults”. Sometimes it’s a joke, but often people mean it.

I think this is creating a dangerous situation for teenagers. Predators can use that sentiment to isolate teenagers, and to groom them for emotional, physical, or sexual abuse.

If a predator convinces a teenage victim that adults are inherently untrustworthy, they have made it much easier to get away with abuse by making it harder to get outside perspective:

  • If an abuser convinces a teenager not to trust any other adults, they’ve effectively prevented them from asking any other adults for perspective if something feels wrong
  • Which makes it a lot easier for them to convince the teenager that abuse is normal, and that they have to accept abuse in order to get close to anyone
  • It’s much harder to get away with abusing a teenager who can ask other experienced adults “I’m feeling uncomfortable with this. Is this normal? What do you think?”
  • Teenagers who believe that they have nowhere to turn can be very, very vulnerable.

For teenagers, I think this is worth keeping in mind:

  • The adult saying “adults are horrible” is an adult. Saying that doesn’t make them any less of an adult.
  • They want you to think that adults are bad, and they also want you to think that *they* are good
  • So what they’re really saying, usually, is “trust me, but don’t listen to any other adults”.
  • That would only be warranted if they were somehow the only good adult in the world. And they’re *not*.
  • There are a lot of good adults in the world. Adults who can be good friends to teenagers will not want to be the only adult in your life.
  • People who try to isolate you are not good friends.

There are a lot of horrible adults in the world, but adulthood is not horrible in and of itself. Being an adult just means that you made it to a particular age, and that you’ve hopefully learned certain things about the world. When an adult who spends a lot of time with teenagers also goes on and on about how bad adults are, it’s usually a bad sign.

Tl;dr There are a lot of bad adults in the world, and also a lot of good adults. Some adults try to convince teenagers that good adults are very rare. Those adults are dangerous, and it’s important not to tolerate that kind of attitude towards teenagers.

"There's nothing worse than seeing your child suffer"

I’ve heard a lot of nondisabled parents of disabled kids say things along the lines of “there is no worse feeling than seeing your kid suffer.”

This has always bothered me, and recently I figured out why.

That sentiment implies that disability and pain are harder on parents than they are on disabled kids. I don’t think that’s true. I think this wrongheaded sentiment has done a lot of damage. (I don’t think that all parents who say this mean it literally. Many people say this just kind of because it’s what it’s customary to say. But a lot of them do, and it’s a sentiment that’s encouraged.)

A child’s disability is about them. They’re the one experiencing it directly. They’re the one experiencing any associated physical pain. They’re the one experiencing struggles to do or understand things. They’re the ones facing intense discrimination, hate, and exclusion. They’re also the ones facing a scary future in which services they need once they outlive their parents may not be there.

Parents experience a much more mild version of that. What nondisabled parents of disabled experience is big, and it’s difficult. What people who actually have disabilities experience is much bigger, and much more difficult.

Parents need respect and support, and they don’t get nearly enough of either. People with disabilities get much less respect, and much less support — even though the problems we deal with are bigger; even though we need more support than nondisabled parents do. (And people who are both disabled and parents of disabled children get almost no support or respect at all.)

tl;dr “There is no greater pain than watching your child suffer” isn’t true — and it leads to ignoring the fact that disability is the hardest on people who are actually disabled. Nondisabled parents don’t get enough respect or support; they do get the lion’s share of it. People with disabilities need more and get less. This needs to change. (For everyone’s sake.)

Your role is not permision

Being a disability expert of some kind doesn’t give you the right to violate boundaries. People with disabilities are people. Being an expert of some kind doesn’t mean you have a relationship to them. It doesn’t mean you have any authority over them, either.

Being a parent of a disabled kid isn’t permission to take on a parental role with every disabled person you encounter.

Being a nurse doesn’t make it ok to ask people with disabilities invasive medical questions.

Being disabled doesn’t make it ok to tell other disabled people how to live their lives.

Being a special educator doesn’t give you the right to tell disabled people how their minds work. Or what they can and can’t do. Or to force them to make eye contact.

Being a therapist doesn’t make it ok to take on a therapeutic role with every disabled person you encounter. Treatment requires consent; being a therapist doesn’t make you an authority on anyone else’s life.

Being a researcher doesn’t give you the right to tell people with disabilities what they can or can’t do, or how they should live their lives.

Being disability staff doesn’t mean that random disabled people you encounter in public places need your help, or that you know how to help them, or that you have the right to tell them what to do (actually, that applies even when you *are* someone’s staff).

People with disabilities have the same rights to privacy and autonomy as anyone else. No matter what kind of expertise you have or think you have.

Facing other people's pain

Sometimes, it’s very hard for people to acknowledge other people’s suffering.

It sometimes follows this kind of pattern (I picked arbitrary names to make it easier to read):

  • Sam is suffering in some major way
  • Otto finds this incredibly painful to witness
  • Otto can’t fix the problem that is causing Sam pain
  • Otto pressures Sam into reassuring him by pretending that he’s feeling ok and it’s not so bad
  • This allows Otto to ignore what’s going on, and to not have to be upset about Sam’s pain anymore
  • Sam’s situation gets worse, but Otto gets to feel better

It’s easy to fall into treating someone this way without realizing it, especially if you’re in a helping profession. If your identity is centered around being helpful to others, it can be very painful to acknowledge important things you can’t fix. It’s still really important to acknowledge them, because otherwise you end up hurting people. It’s really important to develop emotional coping skills to be able to acknowledge pain that you can’t fix.

If other people are doing this to you, it can sometimes be disorienting, especially when the people who do it are otherwise genuinely helpful. It’s really degrading when others pressure you to pretend to be ok so that they can feel better. Sometimes, this is hard to detect clearly. Sometimes, people are making it much better than it’s ever been — and you’re genuinely grateful for that — but at the same time, it’s still pretty awful, and they want you to convince them that everything is wonderful.

Most people experience both sides of this dynamic at some point in their life. Whichever side of it you’re on, it helps to remember that it’s a thing, and that it’s not ok. People shouldn’t pressure others to pretend they’re ok when they’re not.

Thoughts on CBT

Anonymous said to realsocialskills:
TBH, I’ve found that for me, cognitive behavioral therapy has been the most helpful. the whole concept of radical acceptance–the “yes this is really hard, I acknowledge this, and I can still do it” mantra–has really, really helped me.

realsocialskills said:

Was that in response to this post about therapy? If so, I didn’t intend that to be an anti-CBT post.

I definitely know people who CBT has helped a lot, and I can see a lot of merit in that approach.

What I meant was that it’s important to be aware that there are different methods. If people think that all therapy is the same, it’s much harder to find a therapist to support them in the kind of work they want to do.

For people who primarily want to do emotional processing work, CBT is not usually a good fit. Something like psychodynamic therapy or art therapy is usually better.

If someone is expecting a feelings—and-history-oriented psychodynamic approach and their therapist is focused on CBT methods, it’s not likely to be a particularly successful therapy relationship (unless they change their mind about what they want.)

Similarly, if what you want to focus on is problem-solving and you *don’t* want to do a lot of problem-solving or delving into your past, CBT may be a much better approach than psychodynamic.

One caveat about CBT: it can sometimes create problems for people with disabilities. For people with disabilities, one of the most important life skills is self-assessment and learning to say “I can’t” sometimes.

If a CBT therapist doesn’t understand disability well, the commitment to teaching “it’s ok that it’s hard, but you can do it,” can be a problem. Because sometimes we can’t — even if every other client the therapist worked with overcame doubts and found a way to do it. Because that’s what disability *is*; sometimes we can’t do things that other people can do.

This can particularly be a problem for people who don’t have good self-assessment skills and have a history of being pushed into thinking it’s wrong to say “can’t”. Or a history of being taught that they can do anything if they try hard enough. CBT can sometimes play into that dynamic and make matters worse.

That doesn’t mean that disabled people can’t ever do CBT safely. (I know people with disabilities who have benefitted from it). It just means that there’s an additional risk involved, and that it’s important to monitor that and pay attention to whether it’s becoming a problem.

tl;dr CBT is sometimes useful, including in situations in which other therapy approaches do not work. It’s not always the best therapy approach for everyone in every situation. There are ways in which CBT poses particular dangers to people with disabilities who have trouble accepting that they can’t do some things. It is also an approach that helps a lot of people in a lot of situations, including some disabled people.

Physical boundaries and social distance

Boundaries kind of gets used as a buzzword. So I’m writing some posts about how I understand boundaries. This post is most about physical boundaries.

What I mean by boundaries is that people have things that are completely theirs, physically and emotionally. It’s important to respect what belongs to someone else, and not treat it like it’s yours. This is especially true of someone else’s body, their personal space, their thoughts, and their feelings. Respecting physical and emotional boundaries is part of respecting other people’s humanity.

People have the right to control what happens to their body. If someone doesn’t want you to touch them, it’s important not to, even if you really want to. And it’s important not to put pressure on them to change their mind. And that’s true whether or not your intentions are sexual. Platonic boundary violations are still boundary violations.

(This is slightly more complicated than it sounds. For instance, it’s usually considered insulting to refuse to shake hands with someone unless you have a really compelling reason not to (eg: if it’s physically dangerous). I will write more about nuances in the future. But on a basic level, this is how bodies and boundaries work. And, even if someone is being unreasonable, it’s still important to not touch them against their will.)

Some things that are not technically someone’s body follow similar principles. Clothing and jewelry that someone is wearing are like their body in this way. So are purses and wallets. Mobility and adaptive equipment (eg: a wheelchair or communication device) is *especially* like someone’s body. This is true even if someone isn’t touching their equipment (eg: if someone’s not sitting in their wheelchair right now, it’s still like part of their body and you still shouldn’t touch it unless they want you to).

Personal space is also like someone’s body. Getting too close to someone is like touching them without permission. Personal space is a bit hard to define, because it depends a lot on context and culture. For instance, it’s ok to stand closer to people in an elevator than in an empty hallway. It’s a kind of thing where you have to develop your judgement. (To an extent by trial and error; watching what other people are doing can also be helpful.)

When people are uncomfortable with how close you are to them, they are usually more likely to communicate this with body language than with words. If you’re interacting with someone and they look uncomfortable, it’s worth considering whether you might be standing or sitting too close. If you think you might be, it’s worth trying giving them a bit more space and seeing what happens.

Sometimes when people are uncomfortable with how close you’re standing or sitting, they try to fix this by moving away to a distance they feel comfortable with. If someone does this, it’s good to err on the side of assuming it’s intentional. (Particularly if they move further away more than once.) If you repeatedly get closer to someone when they’re trying to create more distance, they’re likely to regard it as a threat. From their perspective, they’re saying no and you’re doing it anyway.

It can be hard to learn to understand social distance, especially if you have trouble understanding body language. It’s also both possible and important.

tl;dr It’s important to respect boundaries. One important boundary is a person’s right to control what happens to their body. An important part of this is to not touch people who don’t want to be touched. Some things a person might have are similar to their body. Standing too close to people is similar to touching them. Scroll up for more about how to tell where the lines are.

Being wary of women isn't always misogyny

It’s completely normal for people who have had traumatic experiences with women to be wary of women. Or to have triggers related to women.

For instance, some people can’t tolerate being touched by women. Or don’t feel safe with female therapists. Or feel safer around men than women in general. Or need activities they participate in to be co-ed rather than single-gender. Or any number of other things.

Sometimes people with those kinds of trauma responses are told that they’re being misogynistic, or that they have internalized misogyny. And that’s wrong. Having a completely normal trauma response is *not* sexism, and it’s not a moral failing of any kind.

(It would be sexist to think that women are inferior, or inherently incapable of treating people well, or something like that. Being wary of women as a trauma response is *not* the same as thinking that kind of thing.)

tl;dr Trauma is not a moral failing, even when your trauma responses are politically inconvenient. If you have been hurt by women and have trauma responses to women, it’s not your fault and it’s ok to take care of yourself.

When people lack a basic understanding of boundaries

Every time I write about boundaries or creepy people or stalking or harassment people respond saying that I shouldn’t call it creepy because he or she might not know better.

And sometimes that’s true. People often violate boundaries and hurt people without understanding what they’re doing. And when people really don’t understand, it’s good for someone to help them. (And in some situations there’s an obligation to do so, up to a point. Eg, if you’re their teacher and they’re inadvertently hurting other students.)

But, even if there is no malice, they’re still hurting people and it’s still wrong. If you want to teach someone to stop doing something wrong, you have to understand that it’s wrong and that it matters. You’re not doing them any favors by letting them continue to do it on the grounds that they may not understand. If people act like it’s ok, it’s really hard for them to learn that it isn’t.

Further, it’s ok to say no if someone is hurting you. It’s ok even if they have no idea what they’re doing wrong. It’s ok even if they’re upset by it. Asserting boundaries doesn’t come with an obligation to convince them that what they’re doing is wrong. Them hurting you doesn’t make you owe them anything. It means that they owe it to you to stop. Even if they don’t understand why.

Teasing friends

Submitting anonymously: 

I’m autistic, and I’ve learned to tease my friends as a social skill. I think it’s ok to tease your friends a little bit, but sometimes I think I go just a little bit too far.

My friends don’t say anything, though. The teasing has become sort of mechanical and ingrained at this point, but I want to learn how to not tease my friends so much. 

Do you know how I can cut back on teasing my friends?

realsocialskills said:

I think the most important thing is to make sure that your friends know you care how they feel. And to make sure that you’re paying attention to how they feel.

It’s ok to tease your friends so long as you’re both enjoying it. Making fun of one another in good-natured ways is part of a lot of friendships. What’s bad is to make fun of someone in a way that actually hurts them. If it hurts them, then it’s not friendly anymore, even if you didn’t mean to hurt them.

One rule of thumb is: don’t tease your friends about things they’re actually for-real painfully insecure about. That just ends up hurting. 

It’s also important to pay attention to their reaction. If your friends are enjoying the teasing, they’ll likely respond back. If they’re not, they’ll likely not respond, or look upset. If they’re not actively looking like they’re into it, it’s a sign that you’ve probably crossed a line and hurt them. If that happens, back off and maybe apologize.

That goes double if your friends tell you it hurts them. A lot of people who either like hurting others or don’t care how people feel use fake-friendly teasing as a cover for being mean. When someone expresses hurt, they say things like “I was just kidding, don’t be so sensitive.” Don’t do that. If your friends are hurt by something you said about them, take that seriously and apologize. Everyone makes mistakes that hurt other people sometimes. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a big deal.

It also might help to ask your friends what they think. Eg, by asking one of your friends something like “I think I’ve been going too far when I joke around. Do you think I’m upsetting people?”

Anyone else want to weigh in? How have you found ways to be kinder in your interactions with friends?