Friday, February 25, 2022

Who Raises Children?

Today's article is a response to a Twitter post shared this morning in the BPD and Chill Facebook community. Here's the post...

As part of my effort examining why words matter, I'm seeing a particular narrative within this post. Whether intended or not, the Twitter comment is framed on the idea that "Mom raised me". And, like many statements framed that way, it's ambiguous. It could either mean that....

1) Mom was one factor is how I was raised.
2) Mom was the primary, or even sole, factor in how I was raised.

We'd all agree that mothers (for those who had them) are one factor in how a child develops. But when we focus on mothers, it can easily start to imply or sound like mothers are solely responsible for how children develop. And that's a problem because it's objectively not true. 

As I've shown using the Accountability Triangle model, humans are impacted by a complex array of factors. A child's development includes impact from the caregivers. From the culture they're raised in. From the school they attend. And from their own natural proclivities. 

When we turn focus toward mothers, it also turns focus away from these other factors. And I see that as problematic. Because eventually we start having conversations about who to blame and who to hold responsible. I am, to be extremely clear, not trying to disavow mothers or parents of all blame. It is to say that we must keep in mind the larger context.

Now, I will wholly admit that I'm being very nitpicky on a post that was likely meant to just be a bit of dark humor about self-exploration. You might also say that "of course" no-one is thinking that mothers are solely responsible. That the author of the post, and many readers of the post, would all agree about mothers not being solely responsible. My response is that, while that's likely true, when we talk about one factor it means we're also talking about the other factors. How we frame and conceptualize situations matters.

As a thought experiment to show this, let's try re-doing the same post in a different context...

Society didn't raise a quitter but it also didn't raise a winner to be honest idk who they raised I do not recognize myself most days

I know for me that new phrasing makes me immediately think very differently about why a person would wind up in the author's situation and who I could or should consider holding responsible. And that's the point I'm trying to make here.

Okay, that's today's thought ramble. Hope this has, once again, helped convince you why words matter.


Thursday, February 24, 2022

Why "Trust But Verify" Is Backwards

There's an common expression about trust that shows up every now and again. Maybe you've heard it before? The saying goes...

 "Trust, But Verify"

And, to me, it's completely backwards. If you look closely, the phrase is setting up some very troubling expectations. And it says a lot about how the subtle background power dynamics of modern society. To me, the way the phrase should instead be constructed is...

"Verify, Then Trust"

Let's dig into why. Looking at the original version of the phrase, there's a hidden demand in it. The demand says "you are to trust". That trust is expected and compulsory. That begs the question: why is it that I am, in situations with new strangers or new situations, immediately being expected to trust them? 

Trust, I hope we can all agree, needs to be earned. To be clear, I'm not advocating more mistrust either. Mistrust also needs to be earned. To me, the most sensible position is curious neutrality. I don't know you. You are a mystery. Once I verify your intents and actions, that's when trust starts to form. 

But this pithy little phrasing isn't operating in that world. It's trying to say that I owe you trust. That you have a right to my trust. It's shifting accountability onto me to figure if others are untrustworthy, and takes accountability off of them to do the work of earning my trust. 

Treating trust as a pre-existing expectation is a perfect way for entrenched, untrustworthy power of any kind to not reveal itself. They are allowed to hide and are trying to make it our job to catch them. Rather that setting the expectation for them to earn the trust. Or to reveal that, in fact, they aren't actually trustworthy. 

If this is getting too abstract, let's zoom in on a specific example of this dynamic...

A perfect place to examine this issue surrounding expectation of trust in the counseling room. One-on-one talk therapy with a licensed counselor. When a client walks into a therapist's office, they are often expected to immediately engage with the process. During an intake session, a counselor will ask a vast array of intensely personal questions. At best, you might have a counselor spend 5-10 minutes explaining their background. In this situation, the typical advice to a client is...

"It's your job to trust, but verify" 

The entire set-up is predicated on a notion that the counselor is inherently trustworthy. The counselor has made no direct effort to establish trust, except for being licensed. But even then, the client is expected,  or put another way, demanded of, to trust the licensing system. 

In this scenario, all risk and all responsibility is falling on the client. They ask/demand that the client risk vulnerability in engaging with these assessment questions. They ask/demand that the client speak up if uncomfortable. They make it the client's job to verify. And hence, if the client doesn't verify, it's the client's fault if the situation was untrustworthy since the client didn't verify.

That's the accountability dynamic under the expectation of "trust, but verify".

Let's now shift this scenario into a different framework. Into the world of "verify, then trust". Under this conceptualization, it is understood that trust always needs to be earned. Never given freely. Only given after being earned. In this framing, the therapy client would never be expected to be vulnerable first. An initial intake's primary and main focus would be to place the vast bulk of the burden onto the therapist to build trust actively. This could take many different forms. A lot of therapists think they're doing this, and their theory tells them to build trust. But in practice what are they actually doing to build trust. Is there a single actual protocol for trust building during intake? I've never seen one.

Earned trust might look like laying down mutual expectations and doing so as asks, not lectures. A genuine asks seeks out and respects an answer that might be "no". Allows for co-creation of ideas. Earned trust can be as simple as asking "do you have any ideas on what building trust might look like for you?". And also saying "It's okay if you're not sure how to answer a question like that".

In the approximately thirty or so intake sessions I've personally experiences, I have never once experience an approach remotely close to what I described in that last paragraph. Instead, I've faced an immense wall of either explicit or implied framing of the situation that believes "we've earned your trust already just by virtue of being here". That's "trust but verify" logic and it's oppressive and unjustified. 

To be clear - a given therapist may well be trustworthy. They might believe it. And it might even be true for me. But why is it my job to determine that instead of being their job to show me? If they think they're showing me, my feedback is no. All those providers, very objectively, have done far less than you'd think earning trust.

Before concluding this article, I want to again emphasis that I'm not advocating for outright mistrust. Instead, what I think is most fair is a position of what I suppose you could call "trust neutrality". Some might mistake that for "the benefit of the doubt", but that phrase itself is another example of the same problem. Instead, I give the offer of non-assumption. In new situations - maybe they're trustworthy and maybe they aren't. I'm not a mind reader. The honest reality is that I don't know. 

And the point to take away here is to stop making it my sole job to verify trust. I don't owe you trust automatically. Instead, the fair expectation is that if you want me to trust you, you should be putting in the work to earn it. And I will hold myself to that same standard for you. 

Additional Note

This topic came up on a discussion forum recently. I wanted to share the commenter's reply to my thoughts on this issue, and my subsequent reply to their comment. I think it's informative and illustrative additional reading.  

Commenter: "I can definitely see it your way. I guess it's about maintaining the appearance of trust, but still verifying things behind the scenes. This way you won't offend anyone for not trusting them, but you won't be a sucker to some liar either."

My Response: "The fact that someone is offended by another person not trusting them is itself a weird power dynamic in my estimation. To me, the sensible baseline is "neutral". I don't ever demand or expect trust from others at first. I also don't demand or expect outright mistrust. I start from whatever is in the middle. I don't know if there's even a word for that. Call it "neutral" or "to be determined". Hence the idea of verify, then trust instead of trust but verify. I refuse to be expected or have trust demanded of me without being earned, and I try to give that same courtesy to others"