Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Random Thoughts: The Shape of You

Recently, I've been taking a graduate school class about substance abuse. This is my second and last free class courtesy of my husband's institution of higher learning. They have a policy of allowing the significant others of their students to audit one class per year, and I have availed myself of it to the maximum extent.

The education that I receive from it has been beyond the course content and has extended to affording me the chance to make new social contacts as well as proceed with my "re-acculturation" to the United States. It's only by being in such situations that I see just how uncomfortable I am with the culture I was born into after 23 years abroad. It also allows me to gain understanding into how I became so desynchronized with that which I was once effortlessly in sync.

The teacher of this particular class is someone with copious amounts of experience in counseling people with substance abuse issues and alcoholism in particular. She used to run a residential facility, is active in 12-step programs, and continues to counsel people with such problems. In this area, I'd say she's about as knowledgeable as a person needs to be to position themselves as an authority, if not an "expert".

The class that I took previously was on psychopharmacology and that teacher was a former nurse who knows a lot not only about psychology, but also about the body in general and how it interacts with drugs or manifests illnesses. Her expertise was in both physical and mental illness. Though it's hard for someone who is not a researcher to be an "expert" in such an area, she had a well-rounded knowledge and the wisdom that comes from diverse experience as both a therapist and a medical care professional.

Taking classes from these two women has taught me less about the body, drugs, and psychology than it has about how the type of life we live and the people surround us shape who we become. The woman who taught psychopharmacology does some of her private practice with a lot of Silicon Valley workers as well as a broad range of people with other issues. Her approach to teaching was interactive, supportive, and validating. She deals with people with problems, but most of them are not seeking help because they were mandated to do so by the criminal justice system. They are looking to improve their quality of life.

The substance abuse teacher, on the other hand, is dealing with far harder cases in her life. She's handling people who aren't seeking help because they want it, but because, in many cases, they have to get it or go to jail. Her approach in class is more didactic, directive, and invalidating. She can come across as dismissive and controlling. Her faith in her viewpoints and approaches is much more certain and she does not easily or quietly entertain the idea that her way of offering treatment may not be the very best. In her view, it's about work, and a particular kind of work, to deal with addiction. When asked for alternatives to her preferred way of dealing with those with substance abuse issues, she came up blank. The whole notion that another way should be planned for in case someone didn't find that AA didn't do it for them just wasn't on the radar because she is sure that the 12-step way is the best for everyone, if only they'll commit themselves and do the work.

It occurred to me after my third five-hour class with this woman that she has been shaped by her experiences. She has to deal with people in a fashion which is more judgmental, pushy, and direct because she deals with liars, criminals, and intractable addicts. The teacher who is a former nurse is softer, more supportive, and open because she deals with people who want to end their psychological pain, not pry a monkey off their back because they've got too many DUIs on their record.

I think that both of the women who I've received instruction from are smart, compassionate, and kind, but they have been unconsciously shaped by their respective experiences. To some extent, of course, we are drawn to what suits our characters, but our characters are also shaped by our experiences. We are, to some extent, poured into a particular mental shape, a mentality, by the world around us. This is where I come to talking about Japan again.

I realized very clearly how living in Japan has changed me. It made me more patient, more open-minded, polite, rule-oriented, and, oddly, racist while being all too aware of that growing racism. It was the old "familiarity breeds contempt" thing, and, no, I didn't like it and am ever vigilant about such feelings creeping up and trying to process them so that they don't grow into something ugly. Anyone who claims they are not racist on some level is lying to themselves and you by default. Racism is a weed that you have to keep pruning back, not a plant that you can exterminate from your inner garden, but that is actually a digression from my main point.

What I have realized since coming home is that America and the people around me are pressuring a "reshaping" of me. I feel myself growing harder, more aggressive, more defensive, and prone to fight back against the rampant uninformed and aggressively opinionated views that are peppering my experiences. I don't want to be that person, but I'm constantly buffeted by the things that happen around and to me. I want to be the person I was when I left Japan, but that person may be too "soft" for life in America. If you deal with a society which respects social order and rules, you can let your guard down and expect that it's less likely that people will take advantage of you for it. Here, I have learned that you have to constantly be on the defense or others will simply roll over and crush you. They don't see this as a "bad" thing because they expect you will do the same to them.

This occurred to me because I think that, had my teacher not gone into substance abuse counseling, she may have approached life very differently. I think that her relative absolutism, lack of validation of her students' ideas and opinions, and defensive reactions to counterpoints when they create cognitive dissonance for her are the product of the atmosphere she spends her working life in. Seeing how my two teachers are shaped differently reinforced my feeling that living in America is changing me and how it makes me unhappy, uncomfortable, and sad. Japan is a place where you can evolve into a kinder, gentler person, not because it is an inherently kind or gentle place, but because the social order allows for a certain protection that the chaos of public life in America does not easily permit. 


  1. Funny you should post this at this point in my life. I know what you mean about working on yourself to keep from becoming a terrible person. That type of work comes from within. I know full well that always being on the defensive has caused me to miss out on lasting friendships in my past. Now as a somewhat wiser adult, I try to be a little more open but not so much that I will be taken to the cleaners for being a "nice guy".

    Last night I abruptly got off the couch and announced I would be going to bed early. My step-son who is a very new addition to my home immediately went on the defensive. Explaining that he had his head in the freezer because his ears were hot after his bath. The look of fear that he upset me was so sad but he comes from always being the reason 'mommy is mad'. I politely told him (I hadn't even realized he was in the freezer) that I had not had enough water through the day and I had a headache. It was not him. Poor kid.... your experiences sure to start shaping you at a very young age.

    1. It's interesting timing also that you mention that this poor kid's mother was mad at him and he felt he was responsible since I've been studying this very thing. Kids who grow up feeling responsible for managing their parents' emotional well-being do not develop a strong sense of self and are more likely to get into co-dependent relationships in the future. They are more likely to see their value in what they can do for others than in any sort of intrinsic value. I think you're doing the best you can to manage a kid who has likely already internalized some pretty unhealthy messages. It must be very tough.

      I have pretty good boundaries, so I'm not necessarily worried about being taken advantage of for being nice. What I'm more concerned about is being defensively offensive because I expect to be taken advantage of if I am not. This is something I have had a few lessons in already in failing to do so and paying a certain price for it (marginally so economically, more so emotionally). It's a character which is on guard, aggressive and expecting the worst as a defense that I'm most concerned about. I don't see how it is to be avoided, but I'll have to try and ameliorate it with self-awareness.

      As you've experienced, it's a very tricky balance!

      Thanks for your comment, as always. :-)

    2. I have not dealt with that kind of trauma so closely, but I have seen some odd reactions from kids as an elementary teacher. Not a few flinch when a male teacher gestures broadly too near to them... The kids get over it with me, after they see I never once strike anyone, and even my voice I raise only as a last resort (like a kid is running onto the street, or hitting another kid), but that I expect to be taken seriously. However, though I do have to be clear who is in charge in a class of up to thirty, I do explain why each rule exists, and why I have to apply them; children deserve coherence in their environment, even if they cannot control it. I think you did the best thing: you explained how you were feeling and the external cause of it.

    3. Ah the good 'ole flinch. I got many a swat to the back of my head for being a knucklehead from my grandmother. I had 'the flinch' reaction for sometime. My brain finally learned that the flinch was only warranted around grandma.

      It's tough to stay collected and rational especially with a headache but I think it's working for him. As my husband put it, "I think I am becoming the mean one, he likes you better."

  2. You may call this a digression, but it is a powerful metaphor.

    "Racism is a weed that you have to keep pruning back, not a plant that you can exterminate from your inner garden, but that is actually a digression from my main point."

    I may run with it for a blog post in the near future, giving credit and link-back to you.

    1. Run like the wind, and I'll be interested to see where you go!

  3. And yet there are a multitude of kind, gentle people in the USA... . Personally, I would find life crushing and soul-sucking in Japan, primarily because the work I do would likely require me to work in front of a computer, endlessly deferring to my elders on technical and pragmatic matters, and probably waste a bunch of time doing nothing while waiting for the boss to go home and look busy until he does. On top of that, I don't like being in concrete jungles surrounded by a swarm of humanity that are going through the motions of similar rhythms of life.

    This is not an indictment against Japan, merely a statement that different societies and systems fit people differently. On the flip side I was very depressed growing up, but eventually turned out to be in the words of a friend of mine "a very positive, warm, and encouraging person." My basic philosophy: be cool to others and don't be a sh*t magnet. That's it.

    I think the USA just forces you to have a thicker / different skin and makes you form an ego that can allow these bombardments as you put it instead turn into beads of water on glass which roll off. I'm sure I could say the same thing about Japan, where I'd have to just "bear with it" ... gaman ... with the work / life imbalance. Different/thicker skin.

    Take care :)

    1. I would agree that there are a multitude of kind people (and bad people, too)... gentle, yes, there are some, but not nearly so many as Japan. In the U.S., gentleness, manners, and withholding your opinions or tongue in order to spare others are viewed in general as weakness. They are seen as neurotic needs to be liked and suppression of self. Gentleness in Japan is held universally as a virtue. It's much more something that is viewed differently by different people here.

      My students used to ask me which I liked better, America or Japan. I told them "neither" because there are good points and bad points in each. Part of the reason for the structure of this blog is to emphasize that aspect - the "will miss" are things I liked and the "won't" are things I didn't. What tends to be the case is, not only are we seeing each culture subjectively, but we like what we are used to. Most Americans like America because it's what they grew up in and are comfortable with it. Most Japanese like Japan for the same reason. The way servers in restaurants are robots doesn't bother Japanese people and the overly familiar manner of America waitstaff troubles them. I prefer to deal with someone who is a bit more "present" and not operating with me by rote, but that's because I grew up in the U.S.

      "I think the USA just forces you to have a thicker / different skin..."

      This is, essentially what I was saying. Those callouses that I grew up with fell away over years in Japan. I didn't need them there, and, in fact, they served me poorly. I don't like them though and I'm not happy about having to grow them back.

  4. Ooohh I love this, especially your points on racism. People always sort of reel back in horror when I tell them I am racist. Even after I explain *how* I mean this, they're obviously still very uncomfortable(they being the white, middle or upper class, liberal types I tend to deal with on this level most often). I feel like ignoring that it is a part of us all is part of the problem. It's like abstinence only sex-ed.

    1. I agree completely with you. I think pretending the problem doesn't exist is a huge part of the issue.

      There have been multiple studies which support the idea that babies develop a preference for faces that resemble there's within the first year. They are attuned to race and appearance long before they possess any sort of verbal skill. It is clear that we are born with a tendency to develop racist thoughts, but when I posted one of the many examples of this research on Facebook, I got several people who *insisted* it was "wrong" and that we were taught racism, not that we may be genetically inclined toward it.

      The people who could not accept this are both nice, smart, liberal people who I respect, but I believe denial creates a bigger problem than necessary. If we assume we teach racism to children, then to stop racism, all we have to do is fail to teach it. If we assume they have it, then we have to be proactive in stopping them from acting on those natural feelings. Ignoring that possibility only increases the chance that kids will grow up racist in accord with their natural tendencies. I think we need to do that intervention rather than blindly believe this bad thing won't happen if we don't teach it.

      Thanks very much for your comment!

  5. You should try living in Europe, maybe Germany, The Netherlands, or Sweden . You don't have to have your guard up because these are not (yet?) dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest kind of societies like the US, and it's not a quasi-totalitarian, revisionist organised-crime-riddled backwards place where you will never be able to trust people like Japan.
    Sure, Germany, the NL, and Sweden have plenty of bad aspects themselves, but for people who are disenfranchised with both the US and Japan, it might just be the right mixture.

    1. I'm pretty sure none of those countries would take me, wouldn't they? I've heard that the Netherlands are close to ideal, which means they probably are going to keep the riff-raff (i.e., Americans) out. ;-)


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