While my husband and I were enjoying our vacation in Southern CA about three weeks ago, an image came into my mind that has continued to stick with me: a brain enclosed in a cage of thin intersecting wires. Each small section of wire represents a “do,” “don’t,” “should,” or “shouldn’t.” Like all of us, I grew up with people constantly instilling rules and guidelines for appropriate behaviors to exhibit, ones not to exhibit, and thinking patterns and values to internalize. My parents did this all the time as did schoolteachers and other adults around me. I needed to be formed “correctly” to then become a good, contributing member of society.
One side of my family of origin was Catholic. While that worldview was rigorously challenged and explicitly rejected by my smart, creative, feminist adoptive mother in her early 20’s, the rigid style of thinking and disseminating about “right” vs. “wrong” thought and action often was not. To be clear, my mother did and has always meant well. I think all parents do. The “do’s” and “don’t’s”, “should’s” and “shouldn’t’s” needed to be imparted to me, but how they were was often problematic. I’m guessing almost everyone reading that last sentence can agree to at least some extent.
It is not my intention here to bash Catholicism or single it out as being the only cause of a “braced” brain. There are many institutions and streams of thought that do this as well and that has been widely written about elsewhere. Ultimately, it is well-intentioned people who pass on rigidity to a new crop of subsequently constrained, shame-based thinkers, from any number of sources, their parents being a primary one.
Then there’s graduate school.
As a Masters level mental health professional, I experienced a second, specialized round of initiation and indoctrination into adulthood via grad. school. Smith College School for Social Work and the accompanying internships out in two different communities immersed me in an ethos of standards and ethics to work and live by. The experience was challenging and ultimately rewarding. I would not be where I am if it weren’t for the theory-heavy, dynamic higher education I had the privilege to obtain. However, I repeatedly experienced these two conflicting messages throughout school: “Making mistakes is part of learning” and “You should know better.” The second one was much more implied, but steadily there nonetheless. A particularly difficult supervisor during my first internship suggested this repeatedly in her harsh words and tone in response to my insecurity as a novice social work intern struggling with extreme anxiety, which I made it a point to get treated as best I could. I also witnessed and heard about this message being relayed to some of my fellow students, whether it be by challenging supervisors they also had and/or Smith’s administration. People dropped out around me, often because of personal reasons resulting in them not being ready for grad. school at that time in their lives, but others because they were not adequately supported in the assorted institutional-political binds and/or personality conflicts they found themselves thrown in at problematic internships. The political implications for the school retaining field placements had to take precedence, so often it was easy to pathologize the student. Hence, somehow, it was useful to imply they “should have known better,” and/or other related shaming messages.
A culmination of this “You should know better” occurred for all of us students one evening towards graduation. It was over twenty-two years ago now, but I remember it clearly. The then brand-new dean of the social work school stood up between the rows of seats in the auditorium, her hard-set pale face framed against shellacked-looking black hair, and angrily chastised us for being overly-critical. Honoring one of Smith’s many traditions, we graduating students had gathered in a forum to witness a selected handful of us give formal feedback to the faculty and administration about the strengths and shortcomings of the graduate program. There was general agreement among the students that the presentation was fair and balanced, having included much positive input about the school. Many of us extended the forum in the parking lot with the dean before she drove away for the night, where we tried to explain ourselves in more detail, with an even more measured, compassionate tone. Apparently, though, the dean arrived in her office the next morning complaining loudly about “those students!” For me, it was more “You should know better,” as I think it was for many others. And while the dean herself should have “known better,” a view shared by many of us students, I remember even then the overarching importance of holding compassion and concern for her. She was new and seemingly unused to a tradition of students giving feedback so directly. She was on her own learning curve. The fall back defense, however, was the recurring message, “You should know better,” all-too-familiar at that point in time for me and others.
We social workers can often be hard on each other (and, hence, most likely, on ourselves), even a bit more so than other healthcare professionals. The edgier side of the ethos from my grad. school days continues to haunt me now and then. Working for over twenty years in the social work profession, most of those as a clinician, I find a lot of my colleagues often harshly implying how another of their own among them “should know better.” It is an interesting, albeit sad and frustrating, phenomenon. I have not been the only one to remark on it. A psychiatrist friend of mine who works on an inpatient psychiatric unit remarked about this to me sometime ago. He explained how he has often witnessed nurses and physicians being more supportive of their colleagues than the social workers are with each other.
I think a lot of us social workers get caught in a brain brace, bound up in our heads around the vitalness of adhering to our profession’s ethical rules and standards, which, of course, are good and necessary. I’ve seen this brain-braced shaming happen a lot on online professional list serves/forums. What often gets forgotten and/or lost in translation person-to-person is the inherent trust that one’s colleagues mean well for their clients– just as oneself does– and most certainly so if they are reaching out for help or are sharing their own views on an online forum. We as psychotherapists always keep this in mind with our actual clients no matter how problematic their thoughts and behaviors are. At least, that has been the thrust of my own professional training and practice. Keeping this in mind and holding heart space with colleagues, including over faceless online communications, needs to be practiced more consistently. Unfortunately, I don’t think it often is. The tone and wording of the message is so important. Otherwise, people get polarized and either shut-down/withdraw or act judgmental (the most extreme of this being combative), neither of which fosters learning and growth. People need to feel welcome to share on a list serve or other professional forum, no matter what, even if they need direction/redirection to share further elsewhere and get the specific help they need to keep doing a good job for those they serve. It’s always positive when someone dares to reach out to fellow professionals, especially strangers. Judgment of another colleague online is two-layered, the 1:1 shaming and then exposure to a crowd which can bring on feeling humiliated. It is interesting yet frustrating for me to hear rationalized excuses colleagues make for their harsh tones they speak from, such as “tough love” or, “Tolerating strong affect is part of professional maturity,” etc. But, it’s often stated to support the message of “You should know better.” The underlying shaming is then allowed to continue. We therapists do not intentionally shame our well-meaning clients– and I do believe all clients’ (all people) at their core Selves are ultimately well-meaning. I certainly don’t shame in my practice, though I repair as best I can on the very rare occasion that I mistakenly, unintentionally do. I think a sensitivity to being shamed is somehow the case for a good many of us who enter the clinical social work profession, perhaps the vast majority. It would be interesting to see any studies on this, if they exist.
I’ve felt some seasoned therapists seem hard around the edges, conveying, “We know and practice our ethics and skills readily and smoothly, so all others, no matter how new in the field, should too (!).” Translation: “You should know better.” Well, yes, but only after one has clearly reached their latest learning curve, whatever that happens to be. A message to each other in the profession could come back more to this: “Mistakes are part of learning” along with something like, “I trust you are well-meaning and are continuing to learn how to know better.” We clinicians reach out and share because we are constantly trying to “know better.” That’s a given. “Should” need not apply, if we can only trust the good intentions of our own Self and our peers. To be clear, many of us already do this well, but others don’t.
The braced brain image has been a revelation. No longer do I have to cleave to distrusting my own heart-Self, from which a worldview is based, a perspective of wonder, compassion, and curiosity over people, places, and things around and beyond me. It involves letting go of old conditioning.
I grew up in a family with a lot of distrust in it, as trust had been broken in all sorts of ways on both sides, three sides actually, since I was adopted by my father’s second wife before I turned six. A legacy of poverty and hardship was passed down to my father, who grew up in working class Northern England during and immediately after World War II. He remembers feeling hungry all the time and being beaten by his father. So many ruptures in trust right there. Yet, my father went on to live the American dream as an immigrant, bumpy as his life was until it peacefully mellowed and truly blossomed during his third and final marriage. He now continues to be open-hearted in ways I never thought he could.
My birth mother Gaye was kept close to her mother’s apron strings, not trusted to fully grow up and take care of herself in the world. Her mother, my grandmother Julia of hard-working Irish and Scots-German descended ranchers in Texas, believed she needed someone in her very own corner, all to herself. She was one of eleven children who then married a career Marine. He spent years at a time away from home, including fighting in two wars. “This one is mine,” Gaye told me on more than one occasion when describing the look in her mother’s eyes in a photograph of her holding Gaye as a newborn. The trust there was clearly very limited, such as the trust that Julia would somehow be okay in life without her daughter close by her side.
As for my adoptive mother, I have said enough earlier, re: her strict Catholic upbringing, which I think she managed to at least partially transcend, just not (yet) completely in terms of style or structure of thinking and communicating. I will add that there is no true trust in a person’s own well-meaning Self in the doctrine of that old religion, which teaches that we are sinners by nature and God above must redeem us through the teachings of Jesus Christ His son. Maybe that is changing because of how so many who actually practice Catholicism are finally gleaning the inherent existence, goodness and trust-worthiness of the Self (e.g., through Jesus’s nature being born within us already, perhaps?). That is from the flock, though, and not really from the hierarchy of the Church itself, from what I can tell, even as comparatively progressive the current Pope seems to be next to his predecessors.
So much distrust, so much believed need for a brace around one’s brain.
I am taking much relief and joy at feeling this brace around my own brain floating away and being based outside of me. It appears externalized more than ever now, still enclosing many other people’s brains, many institutions’ collective brain, our current U.S. president’s brain (though more braces than brains within that head it often seems).
This over-arching distrust of our own Self’s well-meaning, heart-centered qualities and intentions, what Richard Schwartz labels the Eight C’s of the Self, is naturally part of a growing process, not something to always retain as a worldview. We don’t keep the braces on our teeth indefinitely. So, no need to keep our brains braced with distrust-laden rules and standards to try and live by perfectly out of a sense of shame (or sin). The false assumption to keep doing so is, “You don’t know better and won’t ever if left to your own self understanding,” or more simply put, “You’re bad, like a beast.” If we trust our children to learn, be curious, and do well, then we look for those qualities and intentions that affirm that reality. If we inherently trust students and professionals in the field of social work– one of the most explicitly well-intentioned professions that exists– to hold compassion and learn from that caring place, including trusting that they are always wanting to find out how to “know better”– and will indeed find out– then we can steadily all relax. We can let go of the admonishing, over-arching braces, the cage of “do’s,” “don’t’s,” “should’s,” and “shouldn’t’s.”
How do we let go of this thinking cage and the shame it ultimately holds in place? Well, it’s a practice, like meditating or brushing your teeth. Listen to what makes your heart sing, where your curiosity naturally goes. Allow yourself to notice and enjoy the small things and beings around you, be it a child or that beautiful tree you walk by often. Do something new and different because you feel like it. Take risks reaching out. Listen a lot and share from that listening. Sing out loud. Grieve what needs to be grieved. See a psychotherapist to help heal from constrained thinking. Love your partner, children, parents, siblings, friends, and neighbors truly and openly, as scary as that may feel. (This has all been written about by others elsewhere.) Do this personal practice being in and with your Self a little bit, every day, one minute at a time, one day at a time. Then, the heart opens, the brain brace loosens and falls away.