Monday, May 26, 2014

The Vulnerability Inventory

For a long time, I was at a loss when people asked for my favorite book. I'm a big reader, I read a lot of books. Many of them are very good--how could I ever pick one?

Then, during my first round of summer classes in graduate school, I found my book. It's been my solid favorite for a good three years now. it's a fantastic book, it altered the trajectory of my life, and I am perfectly pleased to have it stand as representative of my beliefs and values.

The book is The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown. Her other books are also excellent, but this is the place to start.

To begin with, Dr. brown was the ideal person to grab my attention. She's a researcher in the field of social work, as fond of data and information as I am, and precise in her thinking. If you want to earn my trust in your claims, rigorous methodology goes a long way.

Second, she came by her path of vulnerability the hard way. Vulnerability is the centerpiece to her work, the antidote to shame and the key to meaningful living. She's not praising vulnerability because she's been rocking it her whole life--when you take that approach then I tend to suggest that we are just two very different people. She's praising vulnerability because she spent most of her life not being vulnerable, and saw where it got her (or failed to). She demonstrated that change was both possible and worthwhile.

For a more in-depth account of how she defines it and what it means, go watch her TED Talk.  Vulnerability is about, among other things: tolerating uncertainty, accepting imperfection, and being seen for how you really are. When I first encountered her that summer, I was the worst at all of these.

A partial 2011 list of things I avoided because they made me feel vulnerable:

  • Talking in groups where I didn't know everybody
  • Sharing personal information online
  • Showing emotion to clients or supervisors
  • Expressing affection for friends
  • Inviting people to do things
  • Hoping that something I wanted would happen
  • Feeling proud of my accomplishments
  • Improvised role-playing
  • Contacting strangers
  • Acknowledging that I have an anxiety disorder
The full list would be very long. Honestly, I would do just about anything to avoid feeling vulnerable. Unsurprisingly, this had a paradoxical effect--I constantly felt afraid that eventually my defenses would fail and I'd be hit with everything I feared at once.

With an extensively dog-eared copy of Dr. Brown's book and some very supportive friends, I slowly began to make progress on this front. It wasn't easy--the night I published one particularly personal piece, I woke up two or three times in the night with nightmares. I calmed myself with my copy of Gifts of Imperfection--this feeling I was experiencing was what she calls a "vulnerability hangover," and not a sure sign that I had just ruined my life.

And for taking these steps, I was rewarded very quickly. I developed a strong online social network. I was more at ease in practicum interviews, and got my dream site for a year. People wrote to me telling me how my sharing about my mental health issues had affected them positively. The things that had been so painful in the beginning became comfortable and even rewarding.

Which brings us to the paradox of vulnerability. Vulnerability is about uncertainty and imperfection. If sharing about my anxiety has almost universally been met with a positive response in the past, it might be helpful to other people and empowering to me, but it's no longer contributing to my personal growth. Once all the things that had scared me became comfortable, I hit a vulnerability plateau.

Sometimes it's nice to just be comfortable, to feel secure that most things are going to go the way I want them to. But it's also a bit flat. To that end, I am inventorying for new growth edges: the things that are well within my capability to attempt, but I avoid them because I can't be certain of the response.

A partial 2014 list of things I still tend to avoid because they make me feel vulnerable:
  • Sharing out-of-the-box ideas with my supervisors
  • Asking for favors when I don't feel confident the answer is "yes"
  • Writing without a clear idea of what I'm doing
  • Writing fiction
  • Showing affection for my mentors
  • Sharing opinions without solid data to defend against naysayers
  • Asking for constructive criticism
  • Doing things that might make people think I am emulating Mark, or otherwise acknowledging that I look up to him
    • Acknowledging that strangely specific fear
  • Discussing feelings of anger or hopelessness
  • Volunteering for responsibility in judging or at church
  • Writing judge reviews
This is a preliminary list, and I'm sure I'll be (mentally) adding to it as I go. In the past few weeks I've made a concerted effort to notice when I'm shying away and push through, to good effect. If you've made a similar list I'd be interested in keeping in touch about progress.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Elspeth and September Learn to Love

People love animals. And one of the reasons is because the animals love them back. One reason I think pets are interesting is because I believe that they, like games, wonderfully illustrate how so much of the time people are their own best therapists. People are drawn to things that make them feel whole. Sometimes this instinct can go awry, as in the case of drugs or too much of even good things, but I believe that people are usually pulled in the direction of healing and growth.

A professor told me once that everyone has a drug of choice, you just might not know what it is. It’s based on your own needs and tastes and neurobiological quirks. I suspect animals might be the same way—people certainly have their pets of choice. Each species is so different, and each species has the power to speak to a certain subset of people intensely.

I once asked a classmate why she studied horse therapy, when horses are so expensive to maintain compared to cats or dogs. She explained that horses are prey animals, and as such they are uniquely sensitive to danger. A person who comes in with angry energy will struggle to connect with the horse until they find a way to calm themselves—but if they do they will be richly rewarded.

Recently I adopted a pair of rats. I had two before, and I loved them. Intelligent, curious, resilient—there’s a lot for me to admire about rats. In college I had Hugh and Pierre, who were adopted as babies from a breeder. This meant that they had a warm, secure upbringing and positive expectations for how they’d be treated. They bonded with me right away, and loved being handled or cuddling up on my shoulder. My new pair of girls is rather different. They don’t have rat breeders in Wyoming, so rather than drive to Denver I conceded and went to Petco.

I didn’t actively go to the store with the plan to get rats. I just went to look at the rats. (I know, I know.) When I looked in the tank, instead of all the rats being huddled fearfully in their house, one black and white girl was perched on top of the water bottle watching people go by. She was even bruxing, which is something that rats do when they’re relaxed.

I was rather charmed by this rat who could just chill out in a less than desirable situation. My husband made the mistake of encouraging me to hold her—the minute she was in my hands, she was my rat. I named my new rat September, after the adventurous heroine from Cat Valente’s Fairyland series, and her shyer cagemate became Elspeth.

Elspeth and September have proven to be very different from Hugh and Pierre. The girls likely grew up on a farm for feeder rats, with minimal handling and insecure living conditions, and you can see it in their behavior. September is still adventurous—she was running around the bedroom on Day 1. Elspeth stayed in her cage, well away from the doors. Mostly she stayed in her wooden rat house.

The inquisitive September
When studying development, there is a concept called attachment theory. While my reading is generally human-centric, this is something that (to my understanding) applies across mammals—for example Harry Harlow’s famous experiments demonstrated that babymonkeys were more drawn to a cuddly cloth “mother” than to the metal one thatgave them milk, and thrived more if their milk machine was cuddly. The same attachment test used with babies can be used with dogs.

In brief, to be securely attached is to trust that someone will be available and give you nurturance and support as needed. Securely attached babies use their parents (or other attachment figures) as a “secure base” from which to explore the world, quickly scooting back if things get too threatening. While attachment develops in relation to one or a few people, it typically generalizes to give an overall sense of worthiness and trust.

In adulthood, your attachment figures might be the first people you call up when things start to get rough. This is an important concept in therapy, where clients often do not have a secure attachment figure. By being consistent and nurturing, therapists can provide the stable base for their client to start connecting with the world.

This topic has been of interest to me because I have historically not attached easily. I tended to be independent to the point of standoffishness and reluctant to give or receive affection unless a long history was established. Up through my college years I spent a lot of time alone in my room, relying only on myself for security when things went sour. I had people I cared about and who cared about me, but the instinct to reach out in times of trouble just wasn’t there.

In time I came around, especially after getting married—spouses are one of the more common later attachment figures, along with therapists, mentors, and friends. I am fortunate to have a number of mentors and friends who provide the nurturing and stability that we are all wired to respond to. And I have also been very fortunate to serve as an attachment figure, both professionally and personally, which I consider to be one of the most profound experiences life holds.

Pierre and Hugh were very attached to me. They trusted me to handle them any which way, they ran to me when I opened the cage, they used me as home base. They’d had a very good breeder (Hilloah at Ratz Realm, for those of you in Seattle), which paradoxically made it easy for them to separate and attach to someone new. They’d been loved before and they knew they’d be loved again. (This is probably for the best—at that age I don’t know that I would have had the empathy or patience to win them over had they been more skittish.)

Elspeth and September, on the other hand, see to have no such expectation. September is adventurous and treats humans like inanimate objects. Just this afternoon she ran up my back to sit on my shoulder while I was leaning against the bed, but this was more of a lookout than affection—I reached my hand up to pet her and she immediately ran back down. Elspeth is highly motivated by food and I have coaxed her onto my arm or lap with bits of trail mix.

Ellie, keeping three paws firmly rooted in the cage
But make a sudden move, try to initiate affection, or—God forbid—try to pick them up—and it’s obvious where their base is. They run to their cage and often hide in their house, where I have insisted that nobody ever bother them. Taming a rat, like taming a person, starts with boundaries and a sense of safety.
The girls are getting braver every day. Even September isn’t actually fearless—for the first several days, she slept only in the rat house. But now they’ve taken the nesting cotton and made themselves a new bed upstairs in the corner. Why? Is it more comfortable there? Do they want to be part of the family? I don’t know. But I’m glad they are out of their rat house. And I’m glad I am out of my bedroom. And I’m glad for all my friends and clients who have ventured out from wherever they were hiding to give human connection another try.

Still alert
 Many people mistakenly think that attachment is set in infancy, or at least childhood, but the research shows that this isn’t the case.  Insecurely attached children can grow up to be securely attached adults, if the conditions are right. Dogs in a shelter, after only brief interaction with a new handler,will often prefer to stick near him or her instead of trying to escape from theroom. Elspeth and September want to be loved, it’s clear from the way they approach before becoming overwhelmed and retreating again. Let's see if I can help them let themselves be

Saturday, September 28, 2013

On the Elusive "Good Female Character"

I think the women of M14 could have shown a little more skin.

Is that weird? The women look absolutely phenomenal. Banisher Priest is both eminently feminine and completely battle-ready. Chandra, Pyromaster has neither the backbreaking pose of Chandra, the Firebrand nor the basketball breasts that dominated the advertising. I hadn’t kept up with the M14 spoilers for school, so I was hit with the complete set at once via DailyMTG’s visual spoiler.

Archangel of ThuneAs I first started looking through the cards, I thought it was a fluke. Some artists (I’m looking at you, Michael C. Hayes) consistently draw women in character-appropriate attire and poses. I figured somehow all of these had gotten clumped at the top.

But as I scrolled through row after row, without a single battle bikini or cheesecake pose to be seen except on reprints, I seriously began to tear up a little. It was sinking in that they had actually listened to us—to me and my friends and all the countless others who speak up again and again, who ask for the characters representing us to be portrayed as meaningfully as the characters representing the male players. (I would also like to acknowledge the many non-women who make this same request.) They had made an entire set of women who actually looked like women going about their business, not like props.

The Sexy Spectrum

At the same time, something felt a little odd. While each individual card in M14 looked fantastic, there was something about the set as a whole. It was a world without sensuality, a very conservative world. Which can be interesting as a characteristic of a world. Innistrad, for example, is canonically very cold (although a couple of the characters’ inexplicable costume designs give new meaning to the phrase “freezing your tits off.” Just imagine the wind!) 

Woodland SleuthCurse of Stalked Prey

My worry on seeing M14 was that our request had been misunderstood. That people might think we hated sexiness or wanted to slut-shame women who showed skin. Thankfully, that fear has been allayed by the character design in Theros, where men and women alike wear minimal clothing. 

This tells a story—I assume that Theros is very hot (poor Elspeth!) and they use agility and magic instead of steel to protect their vital organs. My friends and I have debated my choice to buy this print—my argument is that since we know Michael C. Hayes can and regularly does paint women in battle gear and battle poses, his decision to sex this one up tells us more about the character than about the artist.

WakedancerWhich brings me to my original statement—women come in all varieties. Some have no desire to be sexually appealing, and make an effort not to be. Some are incidentally sexy whether they’re dressed conservatively or revealingly. And some make a concerted effort. It is really nice to see Magic art embracing a broader spectrum.

I always use Wakedancer as my go-to for provocative clothing done right—her magic is from dance, a potentially very sensual medium, and it would make complete sense for her to choose a suitably sensual outfit.

What I like to see on a female character isn’t the specifics of her clothing at all—it’s about agency. My friend calls this The Natasha Principle: Does this woman look like she picked out her own outfit, choosing something appropriate for what she planned to do that day?

Strong vs. Strongly Written

So why didn’t I say anything about my concerns when M14 came out? I pretty much just called it a home run and left it at that. The reason: I didn’t want people to feel like they can’t win, like we’ll never be satisfied. The set was a huge and beautifully executed step in the right direction, and I wanted to take some time just to appreciate that.

But I was recently inspired to think about the complexities of the issue by this blog post that I found on The author talks about the difference between strong female characters and good female characters. In her words, “A female character does not have to be 'strong' (whatever your definition of that is) to be a good character. Women can be strong, or wussy, or emotional, or stoic, or needy, or independent, and still be legitimate people and interesting characters.”

Elspeth, Knight-Errant
But certain tropes, such as the damsel in distress, have become contaminated by too many stories where that’s all there is to the woman. As a result, characters get derided for coming too close to the cliché. Elspeth, who is a survivor of severe and chronic developmental trauma and has moments of great fragility, seems to be a very polarizing character. (I don't read the books but from the little I've seen I am a big fan.) Easier just to say “No damsels in distress” than to make sure your character is more than that—and that people get it.

There are so many complaints and many of them seem contradictory. If a lawyer character wants a husband then she’s a cliché of women always needing a man. If she doesn’t, she’s a cliché of professional women being frigid. Even if the character is beautifully executed, the media’s portrayal of gender roles is so warped that every detail is fraught with deeper meaning that can then be picked apart.

Creators who I talk to about this usually want to do right, and I really feel for their frustration. I want to promise them “Follow this list of rules, and everything will be okay. You can feel confident about your characters and nobody will ever attack you.” I mean, I want to be able to tell them that. I want such a list to exist.

But in the end, I suppose, everybody has be able to trust their own judgment as creators. It comes down to being able to say, “I thought about this thoroughly, I listened to people’s concerns, I searched my own conscience, and this is what I came up with.” If you’ve given it your best, it’s not my place or anyone else’s to tell you otherwise. We can raise our objections, of course. And we will. We all have our concerns. But it’s up to you to decide whether you're going to change your path accordingly.

Keep listening. Keep learning. Keep trying. I couldn’t ask for more.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

More Randomness

Last weekend, Mark Rosewater did his podcast on randomness. (I transcribed it here, but I really recommend listening if possible.) His article on the topic covers roughly the same territory in fewer words but doesn’t mention anybody getting punched in the face, so... you know. Pros and cons.

Rosewater talks about some of the upsides of randomness: namely “It creates surprises,” “It makes the game play differently,” and “It allows players to react.” He mainly focuses on the ways randomness creates excitement and novelty. (If I recall correctly, his guess for why people are interested in the unknown is more or less dead right according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity.)

Listening to this, my neuropsych side got to thinking about other possible benefits of randomness. I am fascinated by the neuropsychology of games, and how our abilities in various areas affect what games we enjoy and/or are good at.

Recently I was playing Robo Rally, one of my all-time favorite games. For those who aren’t familiar with it, Robo Rally is a game by Richard Garfield (designer of Magic: The Gathering) in which the players race their robots through an obstacle course. The board is full of elements like conveyor belts, pushers, and rotating gears to knock your robots off track. Since you have to plan out your next five moves in your head, taking all of these into account, it is very easy to accidentally wind up somewhere you weren’t expecting. Complicating things further is the fact that other robots can bump into you, spoiling even the best-plotted courses.

Now, I normally go way out of my way to avoid visual-spatial games. Chess, Othello, Connect Four—my brain just doesn’t work that way. I think this may have something to do with the fact that I don’t use pictures to think at all. I think almost entirely in words, with a few vague and tenuous spatial concepts. If I ever drive you somewhere, you’d better be ready to navigate.

However, I love Robo Rally, and I think the reason has something to do with the other major mechanic: the move cards. You’re given nine cards (fewer if you’ve taken damage) that say things like “Move 2” or “Turn Around.” You play five of the cards, and then you’re dealt a new hand of nine. And somehow, this mechanic makes all the difference.

This brings us to one aspect of randomness that Rosewater doesn’t really touch on—the fact that randomness actually limits how much information you need to really need to consider at once. In chess, you’re generally supposed to think ahead by a certain number of moves. Kasparov reportedly said that he thinks three to five moves ahead, and that in certain situations it is possible to go up to twelve or fourteen.

To be able to consider that much information, particularly hypothetical branching paths, requires a strong capacity in what is called executive functioning. Executive functioning is actually many separate but related skills which combine to effectively be the manager of the brain. To give you a sense of what is included in this group, here is a list (bolding is mine) from LDonline, a learning disabilities website:

Normally, features of executive function are seen in our ability to:
·            make plans
·            keep track of time
·            keep track of more than one thing at once
·            meaningfully include past knowledge in discussions
·            engage in group dynamics
·            evaluate ideas
·            reflect on our work
·            change our minds and make mid-course and corrections while thinking, reading and writing
·            finish work on time
·            ask for help
·            wait to speak until we're called on
·            seek more information when we need it.”
When all information (besides your opponent’s choices) is available for the foreseeable future, as is the case with chess, the person who can think way ahead (i.e., the person with strong executive functioning) is going to have a major advantage. In addition, a chess board offers… well, I can’t calculate off the top of my head how many possible moves there are in a given turn, but it is a whole lot. Just comparing all of your options requires holding a huge amount of information in your head at once. Alternately, you may be able to recognize which moves are irrelevant to the task at hand and ignore them, but screening out irrelevant stimuli is also part of the executive functioning package.
As is typically the case for people with ADHD, most aspects of executive functioning are really not my strong suit. While it’s good enough to get me through the day-to-day, games are designed to push the limits of our abilities—and something like chess pushes mine to the breaking point. However, in Robo Rally, drawing a random hand every five moves means the value of planning beyond that is significantly curtailed. When a random component is introduced (as in the case of Robo Rally), weakness in that area is no longer the huge handicap that it was. In addition, mistakes have a random chance of actually being fortunate, reducing the sting of badly chosen moves. Magic is similar in that you can consider what’s in your deck and play to your outs, but mostly you are reacting to what is in front of you.
The limited hand size isn’t technically part of randomness, but the random draw helps the “ridiculous number of moves to consider” problem by limiting the number of options you have to consider. If you’ve ever played Mental Magic you know how overwhelming it gets when you can choose from any card ever. This can also be seen in the fact that things that reduce randomness, such as tutoring and library manipulation, can be satisfying but also multiply the number of options you have to consider in order to make the optimal play.
Rosewater says that people think randomness makes games less skill-testing, and argues that in reality it makes it more skill-testing. The truth is, neither position is right—random and nonrandom games both test skill, they just test different skills. While drafting is a skill, so is being able to read the metagame, learn your deck inside and out, and generally plan ahead for Constructed. They cater to different strengths—careful planning vs. thinking on the fly. The more randomness is introduced, the less planning matters and the more cognitive flexibility matters. (Unsurprisingly, one of my friends called me the most exclusively Limited player she has ever met.)
Randomness is exciting. It can make games more emotionally engaging and intellectually stimulating. And paradoxically it can stop them from being overstimulating, limiting the amount of information we are flooded with so that we can focus on what’s fun and interesting to think about. Like I talked about in my Understanding Complexity article, one of the cool things about Magic is the huge variety of cognitive processes it draws on. As a result, relative strength or weakness in one particular area does not result in the serious beating it would lead to in a game that fully emphasized that area. Randomness is one of many tools that keeps the game accessible to all.

Friday, December 7, 2012

In which the Missed Trigger policy touches a nerve

Today I came home to find that the topic of the evening was the current Missed Trigger rules. Melissa DeTora wrote an article on how the strategically correct, technically legal play regarding missed triggers often feels morally wrong now, as it typically takes advantage of the fact that a player forgot to—or didn’t bother to—verbalize a trigger that seemed obvious or irrelevant. I suspect this problem will eventually resolve itself, as players become accustomed to mentioning every single trigger, but the important thing for now is that players are feeling pressured to made decision that feel shady.

This wound up being quite timely, as I navigate the internship application process for my graduate school program. On the application, you have to fill out how many hours of experience you have in each category—individual therapy, family therapy, assessment, etc. Many activities don’t fit neatly into one category or another, so we’re given a fair amount of discretion in determining what category our hours fall under.

Some categories are far more prestigious than others, so there is a strong incentive to be a little creative—or a lot creative—about what qualifies for these top categories. Given the ambiguity, it isn’t too difficult to convince yourself that your classification is justifiable, and a lot of people do it. But it’s not comfortable, because you know when it’s not quite right. I see it on the faces of other applicants when they explain why they categorized something the way they did. I don’t do it. I can’t do it.

I felt pretty good turning in my application with its precise categorizations, even though I know this made me look less competitive than people who are more lax in their criteria. Hopefully I’d be able to make up the quality elsewhere. I was optimistic.

Then the rejection emails started coming, and suddenly I didn’t feel quite so great. It sounds good to say that losing with integrity is better than winning without it, but that’s a bit hard to keep in mind when you’re looking at the possibility of pushing your degree back a year.

On Twitter, Rules Manager Matt Tabak said, “I’m sympathetic to players not wanting to feel like jerks, but ‘the rules should force me to be sporting’ isn’t really a winning argument.” I see people’s complaints as not wanting to rules to make them be sporting, but wanting the rules to make everyone be sporting. It just feels awful when the situation is set up so that your values become a significant liability.

I don’t know what this means for the Missed Trigger rules. There is always going to be someone who is willing to push the boundaries further than you. Some people are desperate enough that they decide the guilt is worth it, and some just have a different definition of what is sporting. You will often lose to these people. If sticking to your guns was always rewarded, it would be the default choice.

That said, it would be nice to avoid putting people in unwinnable situations as much as possible. Tabak said, ‘Still, some small part of me is crying out ‘If it feels wrong, don’t do it.” But let's look at that situation: now you may have knocked yourself out of the Top 8 because you declined to play the game to the fullest. If there was something major on the line, I certainly wouldn't be feeling proud about how I sacrificed something I wanted in order to not look like a jerk. I'd be feeling cheated.

Going back to my internship applications: Will I be just as precise in categorizing my hours if I have to apply again next year? Through gritted teeth, I say yes. Accuracy and transparency are two of my core values. Am I upset that the system makes me choose between those values and being maximally competitive? Dear God, yes.

The MTG design people talk about the fact that you can get players to do anything if you set up proper incentives, but it feels bad when players are compelled to do something they don’t want to do. With the current rules, players seem to be set up to feel bad no matter what they do.  

I know creating a good Missed Trigger policy is hard. I certainly don't have any brilliant ideas about how to repair it. I know it’s going to be imperfect no matter what, because it's a really complicated situation. It just seems like there’s got to be something better than making people choose between feeling like a jerk and feeling like a sucker. We get enough of that in the rest of our lives.

Monday, November 5, 2012

In Which Wreck-It Ralph Breaks My Heart

This weekend, I went to go see Wreck-It Ralph with some friends and family. As anyone who follows me on Twitter or Facebook has probably heard by now, I loved that movie. I’m the right age to have a strong attachment to most of the cameos, I enjoyed the plot, and overall I just thought it was really a well-done film.

Even beyond that, though, I found that the movie resonated with me in a fairly uncommon way. I’m really fascinated by Brené Brown’s shame research, and I see shame as a major theme in Wreck-It Ralph. Brené Brown contrasts shame and guilt, saying something to the effect of “You can’t apologize for shame. Guilt means you made a mistake. Shame means you are a mistake.” This is relevant for Ralph, who is permanently locked into the villain role both by the people around him and by his own temper. And this is particularly poignant with regard to Vanellope—we learn early on that she is quite literally a mistake. She’s a glitch.

As you would expect, I loved Vanellope.  I loved Vanellope, and not just because Sarah Silverman is an awesome voice actor. Despite being shut out and relentlessly insulted by the other characters in her world, despite knowing that she’s not quite right, Vanellope makes the best of what she has. As much as she possibly can, she believes in herself.

A little bit of background information—when I was a kid, I was bullied. A lot. My ADHD meant that I never shut up, my Tourette Syndrome made me an easy target, and overall I was just socially clueless. I was aware enough to know I was different, but not enough to know what to do about it. I asked the other kids to teach me to be normal, but they were just little kids too. They didn’t know how to help.

I eventually got my act together in my teens, but I never forgot what it was like to sit down near a group of kids at lunch and watch them stand up in unison to move away. Like children of the depression hoarding pennies, or people looking in the mirror and seeing the overweight children they used to be, I am still vulnerable to people suggesting that I am somehow inherently unlikable. I’ve gotten pretty good at defending against that fear, but there’s always that gap in which I feel it acutely.

Because of this personal soft spot, I was really moved when Ralph tells Vanellope that the players are going to love her. He says, “You know why? Because you’re a winner. And you’re adorable. And everybody loves an adorable winner.” This is untrue, of course. Everybody doesn’t love anybody. But although Vanellope is an outcast among the racers, Ralph believes that she is inherently lovable and that the players will adore her.

I’ve been fortunate to have some awesome cheerleaders, especially in recent years. And I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to be a cheerleader. My favorite thing in psych is working with people with chronic or developmental disorders, because shame has become such an inherent part of many of those conditions. It was amazing how many people in the psych hospital where I did my training threw around the words “crazy” or “loonies”—and not in the wry, self-deprecating way that I’ve found can be pretty adaptive. This was vicious and hopeless, echoing back the way society and the media write them off as valueless. A significant part of my job as a therapist was just believing (and communicating) that my clients were lovable people. Not just that I cared about them, implying that I maybe had some sort of caring superpower, but that they were inherently worth caring about.

This is why I found it such a crushing scene when Ralph destroys Vanellope’s go-kart to stop her from racing. The villain had convinced Ralph that if Vanellope became a racer, the players of her game would see her glitching and think the game was broken. For complicated reasons (go see the movie if you haven’t yet) this would spell disaster for everyone involved.

Now, Ralph did what he did out of a desire to protect her. He was afraid that if she raced then she would literally be destroyed. But to believe that, he had to believe that the players would reject her because she was damaged. He had to believe that her glitchiness made her inherently unlovable, and that she needed to hide herself so that she would never risk getting rejected. And this was, of course, an extension of his own fears about himself.

The whole scene was terribly sad, of course. The smashed kart that they made together, Vanellope telling Ralph, “You are a bad guy!” But it was absolutely Ralph’s loss of faith that had me crying into my sleeve in the middle of a packed movie theatre. (As much as I tend to be stoic in my day-to-day life, I’m that much more emotional at movies and books.)

It’s so easy to want to protect someone from failure when they have a weakness. I’m still on the awkward side relative to the average psych student, and I’m sure many of my supporters will be holding their breaths when I interview for internships. But I thought my current training site was a long shot, and I almost didn’t apply. Without the people who had faith in me when I had none in myself, I probably wouldn’t have.

One thing I’ve learned is that there are so many moments each day, big and small, when a person’s hope flickers. Pile on enough of those moments and it can go out completely. I don’t like to see the people I care about struggle—especially in situations where I knew that failure was probable. But in the long run, it’s a whole lot better than knowing I helped them give up.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Story of What Wasn't

Earlier tonight, Brendan Weiskotten sent me a link on the neuroscience of storytelling. Or rather, the neuroscience of story-listening. In the video he sent me, some scientists talk about how people’s hormones and brains reacted to a story about a man whose son was dying of cancer. Unsurprisingly, they found that the story activated parts of the brain related to theory of mind and empathy. Not only that, but people who had a stronger reaction (measured by levels of cortisol and oxytocin in the blood) were more likely to give money to a stranger or charity afterwards.

I found this video both fascinating and a bit troubling. My hyperrational side is perturbed by the trend I see sometimes in charity solicitations and the media, where the person who can present the most sentimental story wins all. I really don’t like to be pulled by my heartstrings when I’m working, because I don’t want the person with no story (or rather, who chooses not to share their story—everyone has a story) to get overlooked.

Recently, though, I’d been trying to work on my application essays for internships. Again and again they were coming out totally flat. Anyone reading them would doubt whether I really wanted to be a child neuropsychologist. I was starting to doubt whether I really wanted to be a child neuropsychologist. Honestly, I was starting to doubt whether I really wanted anything.

For the last month, I’d been training to do neuropsychological assessment, which is loads of fun. It’s actually a lot like learning the rules for a complex game— If they’re under age 9, start with question 1. Otherwise, start with question 7. Stop when they get three wrong out of five in a single set. If they miss the first question, go back to the easier ones until they get two right. I’m generally considered to be pretty good at it (I credit gaming) and I really enjoy it. But we’d been testing each other for practice, not clients. It was fun and intellectually satisfying, but it didn’t feel real. It didn’t feel like it mattered.

And then, I was assigned to conduct my first classroom observation. It was at my old school, which added to the poignancy; during gym the kids still sit in “squad order” and hold up “code zero” (zero talking), just like I did more than fifteen years ago. I watched the kids for an hour and a half, and BAM. I remembered why the hell I’m in graduate school. I went home that evening and my internship essay wrote itself.

It wasn’t just seeing the kids that stirred me up, that reminded me how much I cared. Sure, they were cute and fun. Kids are pretty much always entertaining to work with. But what got me was that eventually they won’t be kids anymore. The day I was observing them, and all the days after that, will have become the kids’ stories.

I thought about my friends who had already been having trouble by elementary school. One had become quite successful through willpower, ingenuity, and luck. He talks about his difficult childhood as a party story, spinning it for maximum entertainment. But when he is alone with someone he trusted, the same story is one of loneliness and fear. He’s one of the lucky ones—others have given up hope that they’ll ever attain the good end. Looking at the kids, especially the troubled ones, I realized that they’re still at the very beginning of their stories. There’s still plenty of time to rewrite.

You wouldn’t think neuropsychological testing is a place you’d find much emotion. We don’t talk about feelings, we talk about “Spell ‘pencil” and “Push the button whenever you see a black square” and “Draw me a house.”

But, just like Brendan’s video demonstrates, the power is in the stories. The stories of what happens to so many kids who don’t get help. Of what could happen to this kid. As I prepare to do my first round of testing, I imagine a different story: in this one, we figure out what the problem is, and the interventions are put in place. My client grows up to be happy, successful, and completely unaware of what could have been.

Not terribly dramatic, but that suits me just fine. The world is already full of sad stories and I can imagine more any time I want. By becoming a child psychologist, I have the chance to keep a few of those stories safely in my imagination and out of the world.