Mo Beasley on “Sacred Masculinity”

If you haven’t yet read my introduction to this series, please do. It provides a foundation for these interviews, and defines “sacred masculinity” as we’re using it here.

Mo Beasley is an award-winning performance artist, author, educator, and community organizer. He’s the founder of Urban Erotika, a performance series celebrating erotic love through poetry, spoken word, music, dance, and theatre.

I had the very great honor of meeting him at the Catalyst Conference a few years ago, and he’s been an inspirational force in my life ever since. He’s sharp, passionate, and has a clarity about life that regularly amazes me.  Whenever we talk or I get to hear him speak, I’m left both calm and energized. I hope you’ll have a similar experience here in reading his reflections on sacred masculinity and his experience of being a man.

What would you say are the characteristics of sacred masculinity?

  • Respect, Reverence, and Love for the natural world, seen and unseen.
  • A secure and serene disposition; open and unafraid of the different, uncommon, unusual, normal, non-traditional, and traditional aspects of masculinity.
  • A melding of perennially positive and emerging aspects of ever-evolving masculinity.
  • The use of “Sankofa” as a guiding light.  “Sankofa” [of the Akan people of West Africa] teaches us that we must go back to our roots in order to move forward. That is, we should reach back and gather the best of what our past has to teach us, so that we can achieve our full potential as we move forward. Whatever we have lost, forgotten, forgone, or been stripped of can be reclaimed, revived, preserved, and perpetuated.

Who are your archetypes of masculinity?

  • My maternal uncles and older cousins [blues men who made something from nothing with their lives, careers, and families; on terms beyond mainstream standards].
  • Jesus Christ
  • Malcolm X
  • Prince
  • Buddha
  • Obatala
  • James Baldwin

What do you think is needed for more of us to understand and embody these traits?

Valuing “Emotional Intelligence” and a sincere pursuit of holistic growth that finds us consistently reaching to be physically, psychologically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually balanced. Doesn’t matter if we ever reach full balance. “The Joy is The Journey.” A spiritual foundation, of some form, that grounds you in a belief system that challenges you to grow.

What role(s) do you believe the masculine has in regards to the feminine?/ What do you see as a balanced dynamic there?

The masculine and feminine compliment each other within all of us. Those two energies are two halves of the whole that makes us who we are. Just as we’re all children of our mothers and fathers we are products of feminine and masculine forces. Each instant, moment, challenge, opportunity…in life requires us to access one or both of those energies. If one of those forces are given more attention in our lives we approach everything from one perspective, whether it is productive or not, thus living an imbalanced life. If a hammer is your only tool for every choice in life the path you leave behind will be dented even in places where a flowers were meant to grow. The masculine is the yin to the feminine’s yang; and vice versa.

What is the role of vulnerability in strength?

Vulnerability tempers steels and allows it to be pliable, firm, soft [which doesn't mean "weak"], stern, flexible, or solid when necessary.

How would you re-define the phrase, “be a man?”

  • “Act Like An Adult”
  • “Stand your ground/on your own convictions”
  • “Be Strong”
  • “Be Smart”
  • “Be Wise”

What do you think we’ve been getting wrong about masculinity?

Believing that it should dominant femininity; that it’s greater, better, more valuable than femininity

What’s your favorite thing about being a man?

  • Having a penis is fantastic. [It was my knee jerk response. I was about to edit it myself with something more..."elevated." But, the first thought is the honest answer.]
  • An objective perspective on women.
  • Physical prowess.
  • My male mind. I do like the default aggression and logical disposition of being male.  It may seem stereotypical to say that men are innately aggressive and logically orientated, but there is some truth in that perspective.  I do believe men are more sensitive creations, thus our often explosive reactions when our feelings are hurt or egos bruised. And, I also believe my male instinct to assess situations and collect data before reacting emotionally is pretty cool. It shows up especially in my role as father.  I have 3 daughters, and a grand-daughter. [My Baboloa aka, my spiritual coach, says I have some Karma to work out with women...FOR SURE!] My daughters are 33, 11, and 9, and my grand-daughter is 14. When my eldest calls in an uproar about personal and/or family issues she’s calling for her daddy to be the calm in her storm. To let her rage and then give her thought-filled food for thought, fueled by the emotion of love, and guided by reason. My “male mind” is always trying to find the solution or the fix.  I’ve learned the hard way that my ‘”male minded” approach isn’t always whats needed. Especially when it comes to the women in my life. Often, an ear or shoulder is what is needed. I get that and still dig my knee jerk analysis of situations and desire to “cut to the bone” of the matter and decide on a course of action.

What do you believe might be the future of masculinity?

A re-definition beyond what our fathers have passed on to us.

Follow Mo and Urban Erotika on Twitter. You can also hear us talk about the intersection of somatics, sex-positivity, and activism at the upcoming Catalyst Conference this May.

Dr. Joel Schwartz on “Sacred Masculinity”

If you haven’t yet read my introduction to this series, please do. It provides a foundation for these interviews, and defines “sacred masculinity” as we’re using it here.

Joel Schwartz is a clinical psychologist with a beautifully broad range of clinical experience. He works from a relational psychodynamic perspective, and his practice is largely focused on adults with childhood trauma and neurologically diverse children and adults. He also works with psychosis, where I find that his fiercely humanistic stance on psychotherapy really shines through. He is better than perhaps anyone else I know at meeting someone exactly where they are.

We met when we found ourselves to be the only sex-positive voices in an online conversation with several colleagues. I promptly reached out so that we could meet in person, and he’s been a good friend and favorite colleague ever since.

Joel was an easy choice for kicking off this series, because he majorly gets it and is a very active part of creating a world in which masculinity can be embodied in a safe and valuable way.

Foreword from Joel:

I know it is no fun to start out something like this with a bunch of disclaimers and pre-emptive explanations, but based on how things like this seem to be powder kegs these days, I feel I must. It is difficult to even talk about the term masculinity, since what is culturally deemed as masculine and feminine traits are inherently tied to somewhat sexist understanding of these. We know unequivocally that there is much more variance among the sexes than between them, so there is something inherently difficult in talking about masculine and feminine without falling prey to gender essentialism. The language we use, and the language I will use, are inherently tied to culturally defined gender expectations. What I am saying is that the terms themselves, masculine and feminine, are tied to cultural constructions based of perceived sex differences. Yet these embodied energies are not literal and exist in all of us.

And now the powder keg: although I am a feminist, I don’t fully subscribe to the post-modern feminist idea that all sex differences are culturally constructed. Although any person of any gender may embody various degrees of masculinity and femininity, and sex differences ought not determine status, behavior, etc., if we ignore the very real sexual dimorphism in our species, we miss something crucial about our species. (Sexual dimorphism is the term evolutionary biologists use to describe the differences in appearance between males and females of the same species, such as in colour, shape, size, and structure; in general, the greater the sexual dimorphism in a species, the more “specialized” the male/female behavior.)

So if we take as a given that what has been culturally defined by the word masculinity, or masculine traits come from what is prototypically male, and cultural ideas of femininity and feminine traits come from what is prototypically female, I have to ask, what are the true differences between males and females? What I have come to is this: obviously, females are uniquely able to carry and birth children, whereas males are uniquely able to build muscle and yield destructive power. I think that’s really the only differences. Now how these differences manifest as behavior is still a matter of culture. So from that, I have come to this conclusion: femininity is intimately tied to the power to create, and masculinity to the power to destroy.

I want to emphasize that there is, in my mind, no judgment or moral dimension to the inherent destructiveness of masculinity or the inherent creativity of femininity that I speak of. As any honest artist will tell you, there is something profoundly selfish about the creative process. One must be obsessive and myopic to birth something of worth. Conversely, there can be something wonderfully freeing and good about destruction. I imagine a toddler breaking a Duplo tower, looking menacingly at their parents, and all three sharing in a diabolical laugh. There is nothing inherently bad about destruction, or inherently good about creation. These are energies that can be put to nefarious or positive means.

But this idea of creativity and destruction is a yin/yang – it’s a dialectic – not so disparate. We must create in order to destroy, and we must destroy in order to create. The feminine power of creation can create terrible things and terrible people. And the power to destroy can be used in a beneficent manner. We create an atomic bomb to kill millions. We destroy a tree to create a canvas, then destroy the canvas to create a painting. We murder to keep our children safe from horrific people. We kill animals to feed ourselves and our children. We burn the fields to make them fertile for new life. We thrash the wilderness to discover new vistas. And this yin/yang exists in all of us. We are all capable of great feats of creativity, and great feats of destruction.

So what is sacred masculinity? I think it is owning the power to destroy, the urge to destroy, the primordial part of us that wants to hurt, kill, maim. It is acknowledging that shadow is there, and then using it in a way that serves the greater good. Another thought comes to mind – it is clear that so many horrors in the world are perpetuated by men who think they are acting for the greater good. So part of this entails taking time to truly understand all perspectives, to be wise, to incorporate the elements of the sacred feminine. Toxic masculinity is forcing one’s masculinity on others. Sacred masculinity is offering up masculinity as a tool to protect and aid in creation while listening to the feedback of others.

Who are your archetypes of masculinity?

I’ve always been attracted to the reluctant hero. I am a big sci/fi horror geek. I particularly love John Carpenter’s movies from the 80s and early 90s. In almost all his films, from the serious to the zany, there is a reluctant hero. Even the bumbling characters are reluctant heroes. People find themselves in circumstances well beyond their control and rise to the calling. They are not looking for trouble, they are not going out to conquer. But they are called to be heroes, to protect, to overcome any fear they may have in order to fight and protect. Men and women alike – Laurie Strode in “Halloween” and Stevie Wayne in “The Fog” are just as heroic and bad ass as Snake Plissken in “Escape from New York” and R.J. MacReady in “The Thing.” Sometimes their motives are selfish. Sometimes they are simply ignorant of what is going on around them. Sometimes they aren’t the smartest character. But as Egg Shen says in “Big Trouble in Little China,” “You leave Jack Burton alone! He showed great bravery.” (All of these male characters are played by Kurt Russel by the way, whom I have a bit of a man-crush on. He seems to me to embody these traits in real life as well in the way he has been a father to Kate Hudson, a partner to Goldie Hawn, and in some of his philanthropy efforts. Also despite his fame, he doesn’t flaunt it.)

Of course I also admire heroes who willingly put themselves in harm’s way – our service people, fire fighters, etc. These individuals embody many aspects of sacred masculinity. But there is something special in the story of the person who looks around, and says, “I may not be the best, the strongest, the smartest, but I can do this, so I will.”

What do you think is needed for more of us to understand and embody these traits?

We live in a culture right now that has pathologically dissociated the masculine. When children rough house or a boy kisses a girl on the playground, the adults are up in arms. These normal ways of playing, that yes, are sometimes violent and sometimes based in non-consensual behavior, are part of growing up. We need to play with our shadows to get to know them. We need to have that experience of hitting someone, seeing them recoil, hearing them say “ouch!” and stop being our friend to truly understand the power we yield and learn to master it. Kids aren’t allowed to play, to explore, to get hurt, to get in to get in trouble without the specter of shame constantly invalidating them.

This is not to say, “boys will be boys.” Somewhere between shaming and complete permissiveness is empathetic correction and social learning. Psychoanalyst Donald W. Winnicott wrote a really fascinating thought exercise. He sets up a situation where a baby hits their mother, and the mother says, “Ouch!” and gently holds the baby’s arm. But in the first scenario, the “ouch” is filled with fear, shame, and judgment. It communicates that the child’s power in unacceptable, their aggression necessarily an impediment to being loved. In the second scenario, the “ouch” communicates appreciation at power as if to say, “What strength you have!” In both cases, the mother’s reaction serves as a corrective. It teaches the child not to hit. But in the latter scenario, there is no shame. In the same way, we need to appreciate how that playground kiss or rough-housing is about connection, bonding, and needs being met. Adults can appreciate and validate this, while emphatically guiding children toward more acceptable behavior that is consensual.

All of these experiences are tantamount to get to know and master our darker selves. Our culture needs to better integrate our destructive qualities. Instead we dissociate them, and create dangerous pockets of destructiveness – from football games to war. Destructiveness is only allowed in an arena of violence and death, not in the everyday yin/yang of existence.

What is the role of vulnerability in strength?

Oooh great question! I think it harkens back to what I said above about forcing one’s masculinity versus offering it. When you offer something, you chance getting rejected. You chance being rendered useless (at least in that moment). So to cautiously offer one’s power takes vulnerability. I remember one formative experience I had with a former supervisor (a woman), with whom I also co-taught a class. We had had many important discussions about masculinity, feminism, power, etc. The class ended at night, and I had the thought that I ought to walk her to her car. I wanted to be the hero- “I’ll keep you safe, ma’am!” But I somehow I recognized that this was subtly forcing her. Maybe she didn’t want accompaniment. Maybe, despite our familiarity, it would be uncomfortable for her to be alone in the the dark with a 6’3” man. So instead, I asked. I said, “If you’d like, I am happy to wait and walk you to your car. Would you like that?” She hesitated for a second, then said yes. Our eyes met and there was this wonderful moment of love, affection, and appreciation for one another. I remember distinctly thinking, “So that’s how you do it.”

I think another part of it is willing to be wrong – to take in others’ opinions and feedback without becoming defensive or double-downing on your initial thought. Captain Picard (my favorite Star Trek captain and perhaps another great archetypal character) comes to mind. Unlike the impetuous and often violent Kirk, Picard always asked his crew their thoughts. Even if he disagreed, he gave them a voice and considered others’ wisdom. And then he’d make a decision and take full responsibility as Captain.

How would you re-define the phrase, “be a man?”

An ugly phrase, always meant to shame and hurt. I’d prefer it struck completely than redefined. When I work with young males in therapy, I have them identify their own favorite characters and real people they admire. In times of ambiguity I ask them how the character/person would act. So maybe instead of “Be a man!” we can say, “What would a hero do?”

What do you think we’ve been getting wrong about masculinity?

Along the lines of what I said earlier – we don’t understand that the it is the same force that creates toxic and sacred masculinity. We see the toxic and wish to completely do away with it, to hide it, to punish it, to shame it. And as a result, it just becomes more toxic.

What’s your favorite thing about being a man?

It’s hard to say. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to love being able to wield my power in a way that does good. I’m a tall, white male. I have a doctorate in psychology. It would not be difficult to wield that power in a selfish, fraudulent, and destructive way. Our airwaves are filled with exploitative, handsome, male doctors selling hope and bullshit to inflate their pocketbooks. I am aware of inherent power and influence I hold. I am getting more and more pleasure in using that in a way that betters everyone. For example, when I’m in a group and I notice all eyes on me, I will purposefully defer to the more quiet and timid members who I know are just as smart and capable (if not more so). I think this is an example of owning and using the shadow. I am aware that there is a part of me that loves and thrives on that kind of attention. I know I can get that kind of attention. When I was younger, I may not have given it up so easily. And so now I use it in service of others, and I get great pangs of pleasure having paved the way for someone else to have a voice when they otherwise would not have.

I also love my male relationships. There is a banter, a wit, a loving challenge in way we rib each other. It challenges us to be more creative in the moment. Another example of the yin/yang I just realized! We yield our destructive power in way that builds grit, confidence, quick thinking, and camaraderie.

Finally, I love being a father and husband. I love when I get to show up in these capacities and either do something that helps my wife relax or challenges my son to be better.

What do you believe might be the future of masculinity?

I struggle between optimism and despair in this. All indications point to terrible things happening in the name of masculinity. Politics, school shootings, rewarded narcissism in pop-culture. But this may too be part of the yin/yang. These destructive parts need to make themselves known before we can embrace and change them into better forms.

Isn’t he swell? Please feel free to chime in with your thoughts or questions below.
Learn more about or contact Joel via his blog, Twitter, or through PsychToday.

New Series: Sacred Masculinity Interviews

In the autumn of 2016, I had the very moving experience of looking around and becoming aware of how many men around me are safe, aware, and helping. I’m sure that a good portion of this has to do with my age and my growing ability to surround myself with healthy people, but it also seems quite clear that something about masculinity is happening at a rapid rate.

After the election results came in later that year, it was so painfully clear how much toxicity still exists in our culture. The article I wrote about it at the time focused on toxic masculinity, and this series is focused on addressing that. But allow me to make a couple of things very clear: the toxicity within male gender socialization is definitely not the only kind that exists, and when I speak about masculinity, I am not talking about men. I use the term “sacred masculinity” to refer to a concept of qualities. One of the greatest gifts of this generation is the burgeoning awareness of intersectionality, and the concept of masculinity is just one section. I’m choosing to focus on it because I see a shift happening in society at large, and it’s showing up in my practice. As a therapist, I have the honor and privilege of getting to understand why and how people come to be as they are. As an activist, I feel compelled to share my insights, especially now.

A few months ago, I met with Meredith Redding to talk about the parallels we were seeing between the therapeutic process and what’s happening in our country. She’s one of my favorite colleagues and she really knows her shit when it comes to Depth Psychology, so I was extra excited to talk to her. We began by talking about shadow selves, and very quickly got onto the topic of masculinity. She said something that really stayed with me, because it was a succinct articulation of what I’d been seeing in my practice, too. “Something different is happening with the men,” she said.

We have a president who is such a clear embodiment of toxic masculinity that it has thrown us into a full-blown crisis. Yet there are a whole bunch of people who feel resonance with this man. When you get to talk to them in an honest and nonjudgmental setting, it becomes quite clear how much that has to do with concepts of masculinity that attempt to address the experience of desperation. In particular, the desperate desire to feel ok with oneself and to have some sense of command over one’s life. That is not how it can appear from the outside, and I am not for one second excusing any of the horrendous behavior that has led to and resulted from this. But if we want it to stop, we have to get to the heart of it. This is the case for every therapeutic process.

Blessedly, you can see already that we’re doing a whole lot of processing, and that it has the power to bring tremendous healing. The #MeToo Movement, the #BlackMenSmiling Movement, the unrelenting push for trans rights, and the incredible activist demonstrations by the children of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are shining examples.

How does this address the heart of the problem? If we look at this through the illuminating power of myth, we can think of this time as the return of the goddess to her natural position of power. That calls upon the god not to step down or retract his positive influence, but to act as a supportive counterpart. Goddess and god balance each other, each with an equal and opposite attribute with which to meet the other’s. We have been clear for some time on what does not bring balance: violence, superiority, and indifference. We need more examples of healthy masculinity and healthy men to be right in our faces more often. So let’s discuss with some emotionally intelligent people the qualities that they believe masculinity, in its pure and sacred form, has to offer.

Self-Care for Sex Workers with Lola Davina

“There is no shame in being a sexual person. Sex is what got us here; sex is how we are made. Our species needs to dance and to shimmy and to hum and to flirt and to fuck. The sexy fuels health, beauty, music, joy, creativity, inspiration, and curiosity — who’d want to live without those things? Every single person alive on this earth today is a product of the erotic.”

-Lola Davina

Lola has spent more than twenty-five years in and around the sex industry, working as a stripper, dominatrix, porn actress, and escort over a fifteen-year period. She earned her M.A. in Human Sexuality, her M.S. in Nonprofit Fundraising, and she writes a self-care and wellness column for I am honored to have the opportunity to discuss with her some of the intricacies of staying emotionally and physically healthy while working so intimately with sexuality.

You’ve pointed out that sex work is a career centered around the experience of passion, something that many of us are told to seek. Yet, collectively we struggle with understanding and respecting sex work. What do you think contributes to this dissonance for so many people?

I love this question, because, in my opinion, it gets to the heart of the stigma in sex work. Collectively, we are taught from a very young age that sex is many things: monumental, dangerous, taboo. We learn that it should unfold in a certain way, and must only take place between certain people, and to be acceptable, love and commitment need to be part of the mix. If for some reason these rules are not followed, terrible and damaging things can happen.

Sex work queers every element of that worldview: sex becomes functional, rather than sacred. Not in service of relationship or family-building, but purely for gratification. Paid sexuality often involves non-procreative behaviors: masturbation, outercourse, talking dirty, exhibitionism, kink. Sex workers, like firewalkers, step into that forbidden space, and make it their playground. As if all of that weren’t bad enough, sex workers perform these services for money, making us the queerest of the queer. Because if there is one thing that sets sex work apart, that makes it uncanny, is that people are performing sexuality on demand.

I use the word “uncanny” specifically, because I do believe that much of the stigma that stems from sex work is the belief that paid sexuality is fake, hollow, unreal. So, there must be something wrong with you if you seek it out; there must be something even more wrong with you if you provide it. Sexuality can be so overpowering—intoxicating us, filling our minds with taboo images, causing us to do strange and unfamiliar things. Someone who can conjure those forces, and yet not get swept up by them must seem a little spooky, a little unsettling.

I don’t have research to back this up, but I do believe that unease, that dis-taste is spontaneous and genuine, a kneejerk reaction that many outside the sex industry experience looking in. The antidote, much like any other phobia, is gradual familiarization and normalization, easing into an understanding that sex workers need not be depraved or sex-crazed or altogether dead inside. They can experience a wide spectrum of physical and emotional pleasure from their work, along with negative experiences, within a manageable range. Simply contemplating the possibility that sex work might not be the right choice for oneself, but can be a viable profession for someone else is a step in the right direction.

I see great overlap between the self-care approaches you recommend for sex workers, and healthy self-care for anyone. Are there very many differences that you see?

I can’t speak to any kind of universal experience of performing sex work, but I can say that what I felt, and many other sex workers tell me about, is that sex work is a heightened experience. It’s taboo-smashing, it’s transgressive, often exciting, even exhilarating. But it can also be terrifying, demeaning, disorienting. We face rejection at every turn. Additionally, when you turn people on for a living, emotional shit is bound to come up, both for you and your clients. As I never get tired of saying, sex work is serious emotional labor, and self-care is essential.

Certainly, self-care is important for non-sex workers as well, and I would like to see more awareness about the emotions that sex can stir up. The Latin phrase “Omne animal post coitum triste” springs to mind: “All animals are sad after sex.” All kinds of reactions can surface during and after, including loneliness, an aching need for connection or affirmation or devotion or for never-ending communion, a desire to feel desirable, to feel safe or thrillingly endangered, to cross forbidden lines. We don’t do a very good job of conceptualizing sexual aftercare in our culture. Basically, our toolkit consists of: have sex with a romantically appropriate partner, make sure everyone is satisfied (somehow—this part might be a little fuzzy), and anything you feel after the fact is going to be awesome! Perhaps my sarcastic tone makes it clear that I don’t believe that is always the case

My advice throughout “Thriving” is simple: we have to feel what we feel. Listen to what those emotions are telling us, no matter how unpleasant or overpowering they may be in the moment. Honing those skills—to be present and honest, to know deep down in our guts that we can endure temporary emotional pain and let it pass through us—this is big magic, once we’ve been at it awhile. It gives us the resiliency and compassion needed to meet others where they are at, which is a powerful gift to the world, for sex workers and non-sex workers alike.

Are there any mistakes you believe you’ve made as a sex worker?

I had to laugh when I read this question, because if I have one regret in writing “Thriving in Sex Work,” it’s that I didn’t come clean that the entire book serves as a litany of my mistakes as a sex worker. Turn to any page, and whatever advice I offer, there’s a backstory of a time—or many, many times—when I screwed up. By this I mean letting myself down, beating myself up, allowing myself become subsumed by anger or self-loathing or dread.

To any of my readers reading this now, here’s my confession: I didn’t write “Thriving” to brag about what a boss lady I was. I wrote it because looking back, almost every day there were ways I could have been gentler, wiser, kinder with myself. No question, I could’ve been better with money, more assertive with clients, less insecure romantically. I could have sought out professional help, rather than believing I had to do everything alone

I write in “Thriving” about how punishing failure can feel in sex work, that “only by appearing to be perfect can we combat negative stereotypes. So it may feel unsafe to admit that we’re struggling with the job, for the fear it makes us look like losers. If we have a bad call, or fall in love with a client, or feel overwhelmed, didn’t we bring it on ourselves? Vulnerability can result in a reflexive need for privacy, not wanting to put up a hard, sassy shield many of us don’t authentically feel and that can be exhausting to perform.” I believe that fear of exposure—not as a slut, but as a screw-up—is one of the main reasons sex workers remain in the closet. It can also mean that even our closest working confidants don’t feel safe to fully confide in, for fear of being judged.

In talking about that vulnerability, my message is: Coming out as sex workers, just as we need to feel safe to be visible, we need to feel safe to be vulnerable. There has to be room to acknowledge our demons, our doubts, our damage. Most of us muddle through sex work making all kinds of mistakes along the way. It should be okay to say so.

She leaves you wanting to know more, doesn’t she? I actually bombarded her with seven more questions! I encourage you to follow that interest, and find out more about Lola and the incredible work she does here.

A Lesson from #MeToo: Intellectual vs. Somatic Knowing

We do ourselves a great disservice when we devalue the power of feelings. The somatic landscape holds much of the information that we seek, and yet so much of how we live prevents us from knowing that. A client once reflected in session, “I used to hate having emotions. Now I know how to use them.” I could have jumped with joy. Country, let’s make this the norm.

When I saw Caitlin Flanagan’s response to what “Grace” shared about her date with Aziz Ansari, I felt nauseous. She made a lot of damaging comments, but the one I’m taking on here is her belief that Grace could have simply left. It is a brutal misunderstanding of the power of feelings, and I cringe knowing that anyone read it and agreed. From Grace’s account, we can pretty safely hypothesize that she was stuck in a freeze response. When neither fighting nor running away are perceived as possible, our parasympathetic nervous system offers up this third option. In extreme cases, it can look like playing dead. It can also look like playing along. Now whether or not that’s actually what happened for Grace, no one can say except her. We can, however, use her story to look at what has become a common encounter.

The #MeToo Movement has been extraordinary for shedding light on the pervasive epidemic of unsafe sexual behavior. We’re finally voicing this deep collective trauma and with each new story, we’re made increasingly aware of the need to understand what brought us here and how to move forward in a way that is healthier for everyone. This is a psychotherapeutic process like any other; it’s just on a very grand scale. So we will be well on our way to healing if we can learn and enact the wisdom offered to us through the psychotherapeutic process. Most relevant here: the need for embodied wisdom.

Historically, we tend to get stuck on deciding who’s responsible for an unpleasant sexual encounter. What therapy teaches us is to be interested primarily in understanding and navigating the interpersonal dynamics involved. Even in the most objectively black and white circumstances, the ability to say whose fault something was is only helpful in bringing us to the next steps: what each person can do moving forward. So rather than looking at fault, we ought to be looking to answer more specific questions like, “Why couldn’t Grace leave?” and, “Why couldn’t Aziz notice her cues?”

It’s very fortunate that #MeToo is bringing us into exploration of these gray areas of human interactions. It’s where some of the most important work can happen, and that’s exactly why it’s so challenging. What’s happening in response to what Grace shared should make very clear how impossible it is for us to quickly lay blame somewhere and move on. The subsequent conversations it has provoked have been a loop of “he should have…” and “she should have…” Often both things are true. But the complexity does not end there, as there is a myriad of reasons that brought each of them- and any two people- to this interaction wherein one person left feeling violated. So it’s time we distinguish between intellectual and somatic understanding.

“Somatic” means whole body. The word is used as a way to point to the entirety of an experience rather than to artificially separate what’s happening in someone’s body from what’s happening in their brain. The two are inextricably linked, and that’s extremely important to understand particularly as it relates to sex. Our bodies will tell us right where we are with things, which is vital to pay attention to, because knowing something intellectually is not the end of the process. You can think of it like learning to play a musical instrument. Studying theory is helpful, but you won’t be able to really play until you’ve practiced.

We’ve been more acutely onto this knowledge over the last decade or so. We’re realizing that intellectual insight is limited. It does not automatically translate to being able to do anything with the information. We can understand something, but not believe it. We can know why something is happening, but feel unable to prevent or change it. We can even fully believe something in thought while our body strongly disagrees. Embodied knowing simply takes further work.

When so many people are upset by a topic this disturbing, one of the greatest challenges is finding our common goal in the work. Fortunately, this one is quite clear: we all want safe and enjoyable experiences with others, especially when it comes to sex. Knowing that is an important part of the process, because we now get to address what’s in the way of getting there. Our current roadblock: we’re lousy at attending to feelings.

The experience of feeling unable to do something is, in the moment, no different that being physically unable to do it. This awareness is built nicely into all fields of psychotherapy in the form of verbiage for states like post-traumatic stress, which is a response to a real or perceived threat of injury or death. Fortunately, this knowledge has been sneaking into popular culture in various ways. We’ve finally begun to consider the “placebo effect” a legitimate effect, for instance. And indeed it is. If it has an impact, it’s an effect.

But historically we have been very poor at acknowledging emotions as real, legitimate, and unpreventable. It’s that last one that seems to give us the most trouble, because we can learn to make choices that make particular emotions less likely to surface in certain situations. But this control is limited, and it’s limited even more so than our ability to control something like hunger. With hunger we can eat regularly, eat enough, eat well, carry snacks, and so on. But with emotions, we have far less control because emotions most often surface in response to other people, who are ultimately out of our control. You can be well rested, well fed, and in a great mood and fear will still surface when you nearly hit someone who walks in front of your car. So our greatest power comes in our ability to respond to our own emotions appropriately. And no matter the context, an appropriate response means one that comes from a place of compassion and openness. These are the qualities that allow us to listen to, learn from, and make use of our feelings. Once we can do this for ourselves, we can begin to extend the practice to others.

Now think about that myriad of reasons that, even without knowing their unique backgrounds, allow us to guess at why Grace and Aziz would find themselves in such a confusing and painful exchange. To name what I’m sure is far too few:

  • People, especially females, are routinely objectified. Objects are things that we can interact with as we please. The impact we have on them is irrelevant, and so we often don’t even consider it.
  • We fail to teach people, especially males, how to interact with their emotions. We will even use shame to suppress them. Since emotions do not long tolerate being ignored, they find ways to get their needs met surreptitiously or violently.
  • The above factors create a very dangerous combination. Objects are handy sources for getting our needs met, since they require nothing of us. We don’t have to admit our feelings to them in order for our needs to be fulfilled. So it confuses, scares, and sometimes angers us when an object suddenly speaks up about their subjective experience.
  • We teach women that sex won’t be all that enjoyable, and to be polite about that. This was actually written in pamphlets given to women at the turn of the 20th century. That’s only a few generations back for a lot of us, and so its remnants remain strong.
  • We are persistently reinforced with the notion that there is a way to successfully manipulate our interactions with others, and that most of it has to do with pursuing and distancing. If we pull back a little, the other person will come pursue us. If we lean in too much, they might distance. They’re distancing themselves because they want to be pursued. You can’t be explicit about pulling back or you’ll hurt their feelings. Most plot lines depend on our belief that we should be indirect. The next time you’re watching a television show, imagine what would happen to the trajectory of the story if just one person were able to share what they were feeling.

It is no surprise then that we have ended up here where one person wasn’t trusting their feelings and the other wasn’t even noticing them. So whose fault was it? Everyone’s. It is collectively our fault. We train our females to resist their urges to fight or flee, and we train our males to fight no matter the circumstances. Most of us contribute to this even though we consciously try not to. It’s my fault for not speaking up last week when someone used the term “man cold.” It’s the fault of every catcaller. It’s the fault of every person who agreed to distribute that pamphlet to our great-grandmothers. It’s the fault of the schools that fail to teach sex ed. It’s the fault of everyone who’s ever said, “You’re just emotional.” We must attend to all of this if we want healthier interactions. Fortunately, we’re already amidst a gender revolution, and I suspect that one of its many gifts will be to draw us away from rigid roles that train us out of our natural states of being.

I hope that any of us could find our way to relating to either person in an interaction like Grace and Aziz’. If any of it seems easy, I encourage you to recognize how you’re devaluing your abilities or taking them for granted. The ability to leave, speak up explicitly, or accurately read bodily cues are all strengths. If they’re strengths you have, figure out for yourself how that came to be, and then help others to develop these qualities. If these aren’t strengths of yours, learn to listen to the subtle cues of your body, and then learn to do so with others.

It is returning to embodiment that brings us health. We need our sensations and emotions in addition to our thoughts in order to understand what’s happening in the moment and to act accordingly.

Further Reading and Resources

Healing Sex by Staci Haines
Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine
Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
The Sex and Pleasure Book by Carol Queen with Shar Rednour


Modern Gender

“We all began female, and always had both sexual hormones in us. We always had masculine and feminine behavioral traits, which we had to train into gender-appropriate behaviors, even though they were traits that everyone has. We selectively encouraged or repressed traits, so for most of our history we have reinforced gender. But in our deepest selves we were always both.”

(Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312)

From time to time I’m asked why I specialize in gender and sexuality. My answer shifts and grows as I learn more about myself, but ultimately it revolves around being able to support people in knowing and expressing exactly who they are. Really that is the core of any therapy, whether or not its focus is on gender or sexuality. But such a focus, especially coupled with a somatic approach, makes this work especially valuable and sustaining.

I chose that quote from the science fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson for a couple of reasons. Mostly because the brilliant Robinson offers incredibly insightful bits of future history. But also because even inside this beautiful piece of writing, he does that thing that we all do so often: needlessly assign gender.

For the first five to six weeks of gestation, only the X chromosome expresses. This is where we developed the notion that we all begin female, which I appreciate and find very romantic. But beyond the intention to draw people together, it doesn’t make much sense to give an embryo a gender label. However, intention is exactly what words are all about.

So, I’d like to highlight what I believe are very important aspects of the landscape of non-binary and queer identities.

Understanding Intent

There is very likely no one who identifies as non-binary in order to screw with you. The intention is to express themselves. It is to communicate that they don’t relate to the words “male” or “female” as we’ve been using them. It is a rejection of the baggage that comes with labels that have been misused or overused. It is a request to focus on what is important to them, rather than on what you might assume based on your past experiences with a particular gender. When you really think about it, it’s quite clever. It makes me think of the many women who have hidden behind male names in order to have their work taken seriously. Historically, we have been quite destructive in our use of gender notions, so it should come as no surprise that so many people in younger generations are wriggling out from under gender labels altogether. We must constantly return to what honors our individual bodies and selves. Each of us defines our own gender.

The Positive Effects of Re-defining Gender

Words hold tremendous power. Didn’t we all secretly hate that schoolyard rhyme about sticks and stones? Who made that up? Words can hurt like hell! Removing toxicity from our language helps everyone. I suspect that in a generation or two, our associations with gendered terms will have very little negative charge. Perhaps they’ll even have grace restored to them. They’ve come a long and interesting way already. Just take a peek at the etymology of words like she, he, and they. We do seem to be amidst an acceleration of changes and a fight against bottlenecking, and I believe we’re well on our way to resetting inclusiveness.

This is about to make for two science fiction references in one article, so bear with me. One of my favorite aspects of the remake of “Battlestar Galactica” is how infrequently gender is bothered with. Bathrooms are gender-neutral (which is never remarked upon), there are almost no gendered slurs uttered, and the only gender tropes or gendered dynamics included in the writing are there to make a strong point about their insidiousness. It’s a fine example of what we might call ultra feminism, a term my mother recently offered, or post-feminism. By limiting when it’s focused upon, gender is no longer a distraction. This shows up in the characters’ word use, too. It took me a few episodes to get over the term “sir” being used for any gender, but really that isn’t very long at all. I quickly experienced the term losing its association with gender. And doesn’t that make the title even better? It was never intended to distinguish between genders; its function is to show respect.

There are, of course, many possible emotional and psychological effects of this shifting of word use. When someone I relate to or who seems uniquely themselves decides against using female pronouns, I sometimes react with disappointment at the thought that the term “woman” is losing some of its needed complexity. But that puts us right back in the subjective, because that response is entirely about me and my process. I have fought internally and externally for many years to have the words “girl,” “woman,” “female,” and “feminine” encompass an adequate amount of complexity. So when someone exits like that, it can feel as though the term is reduced. It can sort of start over my process of redefining or re-identifying with female terms. But I enjoy something about this, too, as it renews my sense of the limitations of words. Words are only as effective as what they are able to communicate, so it’s necessary to continually return to an openness to understand the intention behind them as it relates to a particular person.

Different Words for Different People

Different people need to use different words. This is something that any good education on psychotherapy will teach you: hear, understand, and use the client’s own words. The “negotiation of meaning” that occurs in therapy is a huge portion of the work, because we humans lean so heavily on verbal communication. If understanding and connection is to be created, we must know what the words being used are meant to convey. Nonverbal cues give us a lot of information, but there is still too much room for assumption if we don’t consistently reflect and clarify. We need to know what the particular speaker means on the visceral level. I know what “thrilled” feels like in my body, but it won’t feel exactly the same to yours. So we must stay open and curious, and clarify.

The term “queer” is usually a good example for demonstrating this point. For people of a certain age, “queer” was a slanderous strongly associated with trauma and other unpleasant experiences. Along came a younger generation who decided to reclaim the term, but it still held its dark magic for the older crowd. And while those associations have shifted for many because of this new use of the term, many still prefer not to identify with it. Why would we ask them to? We can only offer a new way of looking at it by owning our own use of it, which they may find helpful and which puts us on a path to where “queer” will rarely evoke negative associations anymore.

For the most part, as in the above example, people use words intentionally. Even when use isn’t conscious or deliberate, it has an intended purpose. The knowledge that words are a fluid process is an important part of understanding language and communication. Speaking or writing something creates a change either in us or others or both.

Words are a process.

Words change through a process, and the words themselves allow us to process. For example, frustration is very often a gateway emotion. People will often say they are frustrated when they are bashful about or not conscious of feeling anger, sadness, or fear. When this happens, correcting someone would be very unhelpful. Instead, I watch for signs of anger, sadness, or fear, and then I can reflect what I see. The use of the word “frustration” should communicate to me that the person using it needs a little help with safely feeling and expressing something deeper. If I fail to recognize that words are a process, I fail to receive the entire message. ”Inaccuracies” like these stem from somewhere, and that somewhere often needs our attention as much as any other part of what’s being conveyed.

What’s Next?

I’ve noticed that a lot of conversations about the shifting landscape of gender tend to include a nod to the notion that all people contain both feminine and masculine energies or traits. So I find it interesting to see something of a cycle reflected in this. Perhaps we are returning to more helpfully abstract definitions where traits are not considered to be limited to any particular group of people. In my recent Reddit AMA, someone asked how I expect relationships to gender will change as equality grows. It was a very rich question to think about and attempt to answer, and I’m reminded of it again now. I know I’m very curious about what will come next, particularly in regards to how the definitions of “masculine” and “feminine” will change and evolve over the next several decades. Kim Stanley Robinson offers a thought in Blue Mars about paradigms being residual and emergent, which I find provides a useful frame:

“Each great socioeconomic era was composed of roughly equal parts of the systems immediately adjacent to it in past and future. The periods immediately before and after were not the only ones, involved, however: they formed the bulk of a system, and comprised its most contradictory components, but additional important features came from particularly persistent aspects of more archaic systems, and also faint hesitant intuitions of development that would not flower until much later.”

I am very much looking forward to seeing what will unfold and flower over the next few generations. I suspect that a lot of good will come from our brave and increasing insistence on honoring individual bodies. We have gotten quite good at thinking, and we are moving towards getting quite good at feeling, too. The two bring a beautiful balance- one that’s necessary for us to function well. Take heart in what we’re seeing in our modern landscape of gender. It is an excellent and important step in our collective ability to get out of our own way.

Empowered Transwoman Summit A.M.A.

As part of my talk for the Empowered Transwoman Summit, I’m offering an AMA to answer questions about how somatic work is an important source of support for the trans community.

Please note that while I am a licensed psychotherapist, my “Ask Me Anything” forums are not therapy, but are intended for your education and enjoyment. You can view this AMA on Reddit.

Come on over and ask away!


I believe that this is a hugely important show. Whenever a population is under-represented in popular culture, the stakes are really high for how their characters are portrayed. So while Sam can only be one representation of someone on the spectrum, I think the show does a very good job at making one extremely important point: autism brings with it many gifts, and they should absolutely be understood and honored.

I think it was a great writing move to give us a bunch of information about Sam by allowing us to hear what he says both in therapy and to himself in thought. Therapy is intended for the express purpose of allowing someone to be exactly who they are. That makes it a great place for us to gain insight into a character, and I often wish writers would take advantage of this more often. But while we do get to learn a lot about Sam in this way, what actually happens in Sam’s therapy sessions is the stuff of my actual nightmares.

If the aim was to show what it’s like to have an empathic break between therapist and client, I understand. That most definitely happens sometimes in therapy, and it can have an enormous impact on our lives. However, I worry that much of the audience will walk away without knowing that what they just saw was a very unskilled therapist. It’s a bummer and a missed opportunity, because solid therapists are also a population that’s grossly under-represented in our entertainment. But beyond just my own disappointment as a professional, I worry that any lack of insight into Julia’s mistakes will work against the message of the show. So let’s unpack a whole bunch of moments.


We’re introduced to Sam while he’s in session with his therapist, Julia. After a rich and meaningful sharing on Sam’s part, the first thing we hear from Julia is a misattuned, “Great. Well time’s almost up. Good session today, Sam.” How confusing for us. What was good? Is she addressing one of the many things he just said? Which one? And by the way, a pretty safe test for realistic writing about a therapist is whether or not they have the therapist comment on how well the session went, state that the time is up, or disclose information about themselves with no awareness of the impact.

When Sam comments that he can see Julia’s bra and that it’s purple, she looks surprised and uncomfortable. She tucks in her bra strap, raises her eyebrows for a moment, and says nothing. I was ready to forgive this until we find out that she specializes in autism. She should be used to that sort of blunt honesty, and she should definitely be comfortable with it, or willing to process it. If she doesn’t want Sam to comment in such a way, she can tell him that and they can work it out together. That’s kick ass practice for communication in relationships, which is a huge part of anyone’s therapy. Personally, I really enjoy those moments. One of my favorite things about being a therapist is that it keeps me on my toes about what I’m bringing into the room. Sometimes it’s an emotion; sometimes it’s a wardrobe malfunction. Isn’t she kind of amused by that moment? Ok, but so now we know that Julia isn’t all that insightful into how she impacts her clients and maybe she’s not so comfortable with herself either. Was that on purpose?

Then she dives into asking if he’d be willing to donate his brain to research after he dies. While that is theoretically acceptable, she doesn’t process with him the impact of being asked such a huge question. We find out later that he doesn’t care, but it was her ethical responsibility to ask. Autistic folk get a wealth of disparaging comments about their brains and they also get a lot of odd fascination about them. Sam could easily have felt like Julia was more fascinated by than dedicated to him. After all, she seemingly ignored most of what he just said.

Clearly the interaction between them was intended primarily to plant the seed of awareness that it’s completely possible for Sam to date, which is the premise of the show. She did well to let him know that it’s not only doable, but is being done by others, and that it’s his choice. We could have gotten that without the mess if, at the end of his sentence, she’d immediately inquired about his statement that he can’t have a girlfriend, and then planted that seed. Perhaps she’d even get to learn where that a big part of that belief came from, and she’d have been more prepared for the protest of Sam’s mother (Elsa) later on. A therapist specializing in autism, with Sam as her client, should also know not to drop a colloquialism on him about a new topic. “You just have to get out there,” is pretty meaningless for anyone hearing it for the first time, let alone someone who just said that he can’t always infer meaning. I’m glad that Sam asked where, and I wish we knew how she answered, but she didn’t even seem ready to explain. Explaining slang and colloquialisms is a swell part of therapy with autistic folk. It makes you realize how often we make assumptions in our communications. It’s a barrier to understanding that is highlighted in communication with a lot of autistic people, but it affects absolutely everyone. One of my earliest supervisors would constantly remind us to ensure that we understood our clients’ definition of non-literal words and phrases. This negotiation of meaning is some of the richest work we do in therapy, as it’s an excellent vehicle for self-understanding and interpersonal connection.

Oof, we’re only at minute two of this episode and my word count is over 1,000! You might want to refresh your beverage.

So, when Elsa goes to speak with Julia regarding her concerns about Sam and dating, I went from worried to very worried. We overhear Julia teaching an introductory course on the autism spectrum, and she offers an example of “persistent preoccupations” from one of her clients. “I have a client who came up with 95 different ways to cook an egg,” she says. We can assume that she got permission to disclose this, but I’m still left very concerned about the way she said it. It seemed to have an undertone of, “Isn’t that crazy?” when I’d really like to hear an autism specialist have the sentiment, “Isn’t that wonderful?” behind their words. Is it not wonderful? The next time you wonder who came up with some incredibly unique and intricate way of doing something, allow yourself to consider that the answer might very well be an autistic person. The way that Julia spoke to her class so stood out to me that I assumed Elsa was about to lay into her for it and find a new therapist for Sam. But ok, the intention was not to make a comment on the availability of good therapists, but for us to see that Elsa’s struggling with protectiveness over Sam.

On to the conversation between Elsa and Julia, which may have been a problem in and of itself. We know at this point that Sam is 18, so Julia might not have needed signed consent from Sam’s parents and she therefore may not be permitted disclose anything about their work together. But we can assume that, as Sam’s in high school, his parents are probably paying for his sessions and thus would have signed the consent form. Were that the case, she still should have checked with Sam because he’s more than mature enough to make that decision on his own. This is extra important when a teenage client is about to embark on something as adult as dating. As Julia mentioned, it can be really hard on parents, so it’s typical to ready everyone before these unannounced visits occur. What Julia did handle ok here was to offer support to Elsa through a referral. I liked the way she said, too. It really is about having a space that’s just for you, and that’s why it can be so great. But her suggestion would have gone a lot better if she’d begun by meeting Elsa where she was instead of trying to fix it through a statement of what commonly happens. It’s pretty much Therapy 101 to begin an interaction with someone by ensuring that you understand where they’re coming from. It’s then that they can hear you in return. No one likes a, “Yeah, but…”

The second of Sam’s sessions that we see is one of the ones I find the most upsetting. Sam wants to go over his tactics for dating, and again Julia seems surprised and uncomfortable by the content. When he hands her his notebook and she spies the phrase “insults = chick on dick,” she’s certainly right to bookmark it to come back to later, but she seems so unsettled. Knowing Sam as we do, it makes sense that he might not have a red flag go up for him about this particular piece of dating advice. When most social tactics aren’t very relatable, it can be easy for them to be indistinguishable from each other. The only part of this I don’t quite buy is that Sam would trust a non-scientific source. But that’s mostly dealt with by his commentary on how unscientific dating seems to be in the first place.

The worst part of this session is the “smile training.” When Julia inquires about how Sam scared a girl away, he demonstrates for her the smile he used. Again, she looks surprised. I suppose it could be that she’s managed to never meet an autistic person who’s been told to mimic common facial expressions, but it would very likely have been included in her education and training. But even if we extend her all the possible flexibility here, her approach to supporting Sam with his smile is just plain offensive. She calls him creepy, for goodness’ sake. And then she goes on to walk him through what to do with his mouth, and offers her own very unnatural example of intermittent eye contact. No one effectively learns how to smile by being coached through how to hold their face. It’s that sort of “Show your teeth, honey” advice that results in a rash of second graders bearing their teeth like they’re at the dentist. A smile comes from the inside out. And it’s not as though Sam never smiles. We’ve seen him smile already at this point in the show. If he truly wishes to practice, Julia can support him by pointing out when he’s smiling about something so that he can really notice the sensation. But even this walks a fine line. There are a whole bunch of ways that people who struggle with social communication can find a way to express themselves and connect. Faking a smile can be disingenuous at best, but at worst, it sends a message to the client that they need to be something other than themselves in order to be attractive. Fuck that noise. If Sam genuinely wants to learn how to smile more spontaneously, he can practice by tapping into an emotion that makes him smile. That’s what’s actually happening when we smile at each other. Impulse, signals to the muscles, and bam: natural smile.

This same principal goes for all supportive approaches, especially when it comes to dating. There are no tactics; there are only ways to find authentic expression and connection. Any good dating advice isn’t advice at all, but rather information on interpersonal dynamics. From there, it’s up to each of us to find our place within a social setting. The factors that are at play in a dating scenario are often relatable to just about everyone. That initial smile, for instance, communicates something specific. It’s generally something like interest, pleasure, and safety. Everyone is out to feel comfortable being themselves, and to experience intimacy. Beginning with that awareness helpfully informs us as we figure out how to do that, because intention acts as a guide.


The first session we see in this episode will make an excellent tutorial called “What Not to Do With Self-Disclosure.” Sam realizes that he’s attracted to Julia, so he begins to ask her personal questions. If you’ve ever asked your therapist a personal question, you probably know what to expect next. (S)he should invite you to explore what exactly you’re asking to learn, why, and what it might be like to hear the different possible answers. That can be an annoyingly long process for the client, but it’s some of the most important work a therapist and client can do on their relationship. This is largely because it’s excellent practice for all the rest of our relationships. Other people affect us, and can really understand how and why when we get to have a process with it. If you’ve had your therapist actually answer a personal question, you might know what a big impact even a little bit of information can have. In Sam’s case, when he asks Julia what her favorite winter sports are, he learns in one fell and unprocessed swoop that she has a boyfriend. Mind you, this is after three other personal questions that she answered with a shortage of thought but a wealth of exasperation. If she’d gotten interested in his questions, she could have helped him to understand their professional boundaries, and to process his feelings about them. She wouldn’t even have had to answer his questions in order to do this, because nearly all the important pieces are in exploring the whys and what-ifs. That is exactly why it’s so important to not immediately answer a client’s questions. Once you do, you’re necessarily moved on to processing the impact. But Julia didn’t do that either.

Fortunately, Sam gets a lot of what Julia ought to have provided in that session from conversations with his dad. He knows how to navigate literalness in communication, which we see when he asks Sam, “Do want to talk about it? [Sam says yes] Now?” Doug’s approach to Sam is pretty darn lovely in general, and I love that we get to witness some really sweet and important moments between them.  Not only does he fully support Sam’s desire to date, he does a lot to encourage Sam to be himself and to focus not on Julia, but on “girls who are going to like you, too.” It’s important to note here that it isn’t actually a conflict of interest for Sam to have romantic feelings for Julia, even if he tells her about them. It’s very common and perfectly healthy to develop romantic feelings for your therapist. I mean, what could be more appealing than a person who allows you to be completely yourself when you’re around them? Good therapy means experiencing a lot of intimacy and connection. Even without unconditional positive regard coming from Julia, Sam gets to have a lot of sustained attention from a beautiful and intelligent woman. That alone could be pretty appealing. But what else might he like about her? Why? Where else might he able to have those feelings? When you explore these aspects of attraction, you can learn a whole lot about yourself, what you need, and how to get it.

We can give Julia a quick break while we look at Elsa’s group therapy experience. There aren’t a whole lot of red flags that go up for me with this until Doug joins in later. I want to include it, because whenever a client seems to get “dropped” in a therapy setting, I’m compelled to let people know that that shouldn’t happen. Being dropped is when you express something and you either can’t tell if it was heard or don’t know what impact it had on the listener. When Elsa finishes sharing something very vulnerable, she’s responded to with an automatic round of applause. I suppose this could be a rule in some groups, especially if they are support rather than process-focused. But know that a support group therapist would at least be giving Elsa a warm and supportive look, or she’d approach her after group to ensure that she’s getting enough one on one support (as Julia suggested).


It was useful that Julia immediately supported Sam in his desire to attend to his wardrobe. As before, it was what seemed to be behind her words that I found troublesome. It struck me as pretty infantilizing. When he asked why clothes seem to matter to girls, her feedback was fair, but she lost me with her manner of response when he made a comparison to iguanas flaring their dewlaps. She said, “Exactly like that,” and then frowned and murmured, “I think.” If she isn’t sure, she shouldn’t have said so, or she should have explained her backpedaling. Therapeutically, it’s not a huge deal, because the comparison he made was indeed a helpful one. Clothes can be a social cue that others are attracted to or not. Her advice to “pick something that feels like you” is so-so, but she said, “just pick something that feels like you,” as though that’s a straightforward task. Just like with colloquialisms, these things sometimes need to be explained. And while Sam’s mom has been picking his clothes, we learned that Sam has had a role in that, because she buys him shirts that he finds physically comfortable. This is very common for people on the spectrum, and it’s a very important desire to honor. Frankly, couldn’t a lot of people do with putting a heavier focus on comfort than style? An uncomfortable piece of clothing can affect your whole day. Without attending to all these important aspects of choosing one’s clothes, Julia’s attempt at cheerleading with her “stylish dude” comment is pretty unhelpful. Had this gone differently, maybe Sam could have avoided that future baloney with the leather jacket.


The main concept I’d like to focus on here is the phrase “higher functioning.” For many years now, our field has been trying to do away with that term and its counterpart, “lower functioning.”  Like any of the terms one can find in the DSM, the aim is to point to an experience. I get that. What gets sticky is the suggestion that something like being nonverbal is somehow a lower level of functioning. Who the hell decided that? Nonverbal communication almost always holds more information than words. If we’re really going to place one above the other, I vote for nonverbals. I know, I’m biased as a somaticist, but look at us with our emoji use these days. We very much crave all that information that is offered in between and outside of words. So why are we so focused on their importance? One of the superpowers of autism that some people possess is the shutdown of verbal communication in situations of extreme stress. Can you imagine how much better some situations would be if, when someone’s reasoning skills have gone kaput, they just stopped talking? It’s like a social seismic shutoff valve. So we need something that more effectively points to what ever it is that we really mean to express when we speak of functioning. That these terms continue to be used so frequently tells us that we have much work left to do on how much neuropsychological diversity we are able to hold in high esteem.

Next I’ll cover episdoes 5-8, which will be a bit less dense with commentary, as many of the problems I’ve covered are repeated (though holy cow, not all!). I’ll also say a few more things about what I really like about this show, because there are a lot of gems to highlight, too. I want to make it clear that alongside all of my disappointment, I am very grateful to everyone involved in the making of this show. I don’t expect just anyone to be able to write a skilled therapist into a show. Like any profession, it takes expertise to portray it accurately. Any attorney, for instance, will tell you that they really don’t have that much tufted leather in their office. I do expect a television series to consult with and listen to an expert when it comes to writing for a main character whose profession is a central focus of the show. There are actual autism specialists out there, and better yet, some of them are autistic themselves. If the intention was to show how some therapists can be really sloppy in their work, I’d like to have seen some acknowledgment that other sorts exist.

We badly more emotional intelligence in our world. Weaving role models of it into our entertainment is a great way to bring that about. And the necessity of understanding, insight, and empathy is such a big part of this show.

So it’s fortunate that running throughout the series is that message I mentioned before: autism is beautiful in a great many ways, we have autistic minds to thank for a wealth of our art and science, and we absolutely must honor people on the spectrum. And anyone who is learning this for the first time gets to apply that knowledge to future portrayals of autistic people. I think people will be talking about autism more often and more in depth because of “Atypical,” and that is long overdue.

A huge thank you to one of my clients who put this show on my radar right away. I sure am a lucky therapist to have such incredible people as clients.


Like many people, I used the use the word “catharsis” in such a way that implied that it’s the ultimate goal of emotional expression. It means to purge ourselves of an emotion. Often we do need to dispel something that’s been hanging around for too long, but that’s only part of the process.  I remember well the occasions when one of my professors or my mentor would speak with some disdain about how heavily we sometimes lean on catharting. I would sit there wondering why they seemed so worked up. Wasn’t getting rid of built-up stuff a huge part of our work?

The term’s history in formal therapeutic settings lies primarily in psychoanalysis. Traditional psychoanalysts believed that by outwardly expressing traumatic events, the patient would be relieved of their symptoms. Take a peek at the therapeutic uses on the Wikipedia entry on catharsis, if you’d like a little more history or references. It’s been a few decades since the broader field of therapy has understood that catharsis is only one part of what assists us in reaching actual renewal. Anyone who has had a long overdue conversation with someone knows the immediate relief that venting can have. The harder we push against something (by keeping it to ourselves, for instance), the more tension that is created. So when we stop pushing or restricting, a lot of energy is freed up. It is at this point that we have more potential to process the emotion.

But again, catharsis alone does not necessarily bring closure or sustainable satisfaction. It has a higher chance of doing so if and when we emote the very first time we have a particular experience. For example, let’s say that I stub my toe, and I let out a little yelp. There would likely be no reason for me to later revisit that experience with an attempt at experiencing catharsis, because I had it right there in the moment. If, however, I was made fun of when I stubbed my toe, or I was told not to let out any cry of pain, then the tension would stay and build inside of me. Later, when attempting to find catharsis, it would be necessary for me to also deal with the problematic relational dynamic that was at play before. Letting out a cry of pain for my younger self would definitely be useful, but I’d also need the reparative experience of another person showing me empathy. I may also need someone else to help me know when I’d cried enough. Expressing unfamiliar or long-bottled emotions often requires the modeling or support of another person. Fortunately, when that’s a hard-won experience with our family or friends, there’s a whole group of professionals who have the training, experience, and desire to be there for us.

Make no mistake, the goal is not to get rid of an emotional experience as quickly as we can. It’s actually quite necessary to sit with an emotion for as long as it is useful for you, and sometimes that’s on the scale of weeks, months, or years for the more intense experiences. This too is where the presence of another person can be very necessary, as “sitting with” an emotion takes active work. Someone else brings a wider perspective to what’s happening, and that can help to guide us. But always, what we are returning to is the ability to listen to our own prompts.

I like to think of it like drawing a bath for yourself. You get into the bathtub to relax and soak up what ever you’ve poured into it. You can’t really know what you’ll feel, but the intention is always to feel better afterwards, and that intention acts as a guide. So when the water begins to get cold, you get out and it is then that you allow the tub to drain.

Therapy in the Media: “Amélie”

Beginning my series with a movie in which there is no therapist? Yep. I’m starting with the French film, “Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain” by Jean Pierre Jeunet, because it is beautifully rich with psychotherapeutic concepts. It has long been a favorite film of mine, but the first time that I watched it sans sous-titres, my heavier focus on the nonverbals helped me to really see what it has to offer. I suspect that that was no coincidence. As with much of what I will cover in this series, this work is full of what-to-dos and what-not-to-dos.

Let’s start out with the lovely introductions to the characters. We are invited to know each one of them through these little distilled moments about how they experience themselves and the world. These are the little things that tell us far more about a person than most anything else. Jeunet uses these richly sensory-based moments to give us years of history in one fell swoop. These peeks into such private moments quickly build intimacy between us and the characters. For me, this is reminiscent of the rapport-building that occurs between therapist and client over the first few sessions, and the understanding that deepens between us over time. As with any relationship, it is witnessing each other which draws us closer. And one of the fastest ways to do that is through learning about how someone experiences their body. This is the essence of somatic work. Amélie’s mother experiences the creases in her cheek from her pillow as unpleasant. We relate or we do not, but we also begin to decide what this might mean about her. Amélie surreptitiously dips her fingers into a sack of beans. We relate or not (many of us super do), and again, we have ideas about what this means. It is also these yummy little sensory moments that are why I have called this film very autism-friendly. (If you didn’t know, autism often comes with the superpower of heightened senses. Just like Catwoman.)The film’s visual style is also very important. It seems to give reverence to everything, which affects us throughout the film by keeping us very present and thus tuned into every part of an experience. This mindfulness which Jeunet so easily induces is a large part of the therapeutic process. In order to move through anything, we must be present for it. That makes it very important to have plenty of lovely things to tune into. And for the love of the accordion, is that soundtrack magical. Someone once said to me that it’s as though it makes everything feel important. This too is a quality of the therapy space. Everything is (or is aimed to be) treated with importance, because it often is. During grad school, we learn to become therapists by practicing the therapeutic process on each other. Because the environment is intended primarily as educational, we are encouraged to pick real, but relatively surface-level vignettes to share from our lives. Regardless, things inevitably deepen. You realize that the way the bus driver spoke to you irked you because she sounded like a critical voice from your past. You find that the soft touch of the person who gave you your change at the coffee shop brought you into the present moment. And it is all these snapshots of the Self and of experience that I am after as a therapist.

One of the aspects I most appreciate about this film is the therapeutic relationship between Amélie and Dufayel. It is the nearest to an accurate portrayal of the therapist-client relationship that I have ever seen. It even demonstrates a specific modality in art therapy. Dufayel invites Amélie’s interpretation of the girl with the cup, asking gently investigative questions along the way. This pulls from her more deeply articulated thoughts, making her own process of relating to others a more conscious one. When he offers an accurate but risky interpretation, “You mean she’d rather imagine herself relating to someone who’s absent? ” she’s a bit miffed, as any client might be. But the seed is planted, she considers it moving forward, and it later blossoms into a deeper understanding of herself. This happens constantly in the therapy room. Dufayel is also a therapist to Lucian. He beautifully demonstrates somatic work by having Lucian express his anger at Colignon through a little rhyming. putting his body behind his thoughts. What’s more, he helps him to contain it. He cuts it off when Lucian begins to spiral, for catharsis without a holding space is nearly useless. We also get to see what happens when Dufayel pushes his agenda a little too hard- something we therapists work hard to avoid. When Lucian won’t stop talking about Lady Di, rather than following that thread, Dufayel explodes with frustration. Luckily their relationship is strong enough that Lucian returns to it, as does Amélie. Therein lies most of the healing in therapy- the experience of repair after a rupture in a relationship.

Amélie shows us how others are sometimes unable to join us on a new path. Inspired by the discovery of the cigar box, she tries to engage her father in a conversation about it, but she’s met with the same ol’ clueless reaction he always seems to have to her. Just as we all feel when a parent disappoints us in a familiar way, Amélie’s enthusiasm wanes a bit. Fortunately, she trusts her gut and moves forward with her idea regardless.

As we grow, we often become bolder and welcome new experiences. Amélie demonstrates how we sometimes we misuse our strengths as this is happening. This can occur pretty easily if we haven’t yet become aware of our go-to defense mechanisms. When she is pushed over the edge with anger, she uses her cleverness, creativity, and insight to cause Colignon distress. We even got to see her do this as a child. Powerless, and without her parents to step in, she found a way to defend herself. That was pretty ok for her as a kid, but as an adult, its passive aggressivity is not very appropriate. A child meddling with someone’s cable connection is one thing, but an adult meddling with all sorts of things in another person’s apartment is straight up illegal and unethical. Now, perhaps it was a catalyst for change for him, but I never advocate for abusing someone. And inadvertently causing pain is the sort of thing that happens when we try to use the defenses we learned as kids on an adult scale. Rather than scaring someone out of their comfort zone, in therapy we aim to invite them out. This can happen through various means, and I’ll share a tried and true experience articulated by psychoanalytic theory.

With Mr. Poulain, we see the concept of a “transitional object” in action through the well-crafted little lawn gnome strategy Amélie uses on him. In short, a transitional object is something that links us with the external world in a safe way. We can use it for both comfort and fantasy, and it helps us to move through a difficulty and develop some part of ourselves. We learn early on that Raphaël feels an affinity with the gnome, and we surmise that there may be something to the timing of his pulling it out of the garage. Knowing this and that he wishes but fears to travel, Amélie makes use of the connection and shows him what’s possible. Through this and at this own pace, he is able to come to traveling himself.

Onto a big one. Sometimes we can’t yet handle what we ask for, and this can leave us feeling like a shell of a person. We do a bunch of work to get something, and then find that we don’t know how to move forward from there. Amelie’s “strategies” work for Nino. He’s intrigued, and he comes to see her. But she finds she doesn’t know how to be seen, and she loses herself a bit. In psychotherapeutic terms, we call this fracturing. It’s the experience preceding what we call “pulling ourselves together.” One of the reasons that this fractured feeling occurs is that our strategies often do not extend from our true selves. We aren’t actually being authentic, and sometimes even we don’t realize this. So when our attempts to connect with others work to draw someone in, there can be a real sense of having tricked them. We worry about what will happen if we ditch those strategies. Do they love us for us? Or because of only what we show them? It cheats us out of getting to actually experience what we need even if it’s right in front of us. So we often choose to go on wearing a mask of sorts. And Amélie even wears actual masks! When Nino asks, “Is this you?” it doesn’t feel right to say yes, because it isn’t her. Not really. When he tries to call her on it, it’s worse. She can’t know yet that he doesn’t need her to wear the mask. Frankly, he might not know yet himself. But we suspect this to be the case, because like Amélie, Nino has a deep appreciation for uniqueness and authenticity. So we feel for her all the more when having rejected being seen by Nino, Amélie melts into a puddle. We’ve all been there.

Even with all the empathy we have for her, notice how even we begin to tire of her strategies. We want her to find love, so watching her use the same old technique becomes upsetting for us and everyone else who loves her, because we know it won’t work.

That brings us to a really big one about relationships. Having similar childhood wounds help us to bond to each other. I find it to be one of the most beautiful aspects of a healthy partnership, though sometimes it can cause a lot of strife. But we get to see a heartening example of it in Amélie and Nino, who are known to have similar childhoods. The line is, “When Amélie had no friends, Nino had too many.” Both of their experiences are versions of being unseen. Amelie is somewhat invisible while Nino is seen inauthentically. Both experiences can leave a person preferring solitude, or to be an outside observer of others. They can also cause a person to be tuned in to the unique expressions of others. Their coming together has so much to do with their respective recognition of the need to be seen and known by another person. And just as it is with real live people, one of them (Nino) is willing and able first, which can helpfully pull the other in as well.These last two pieces- the masks we wear and wounds we share with our loved ones- are two of the central points of focus in therapy. It is eloquently outlined by just what my favorite Rumi quote describes: “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

I could go on about this brilliant film. There’s the metaphor of Dufayel’s fragile bones, Nino’s externalized inner monologues, and the projection onto the photo booth repairman. There are examples of stimming, splitting, somaticizing, agency, and all sorts of other goodies. It truly is a rich layering of allegories within an allegory. But watching it is far more fun than my covering every aspect of what I believe it has to offer. If you have questions or further interest, I welcome your comments.