A post-election guide to changing hearts and minds

I just published a guide to changing the hearts and minds of lukewarm Trump supporters over at the amazing Captain Awkward advice blog. I took what I learned from teaching the Ally Skills Workshop and turned it into a step-by-step process for changing people’s minds effectively: identifying where you have the most influence, choosing who to spend time, finding shared values, and using compassion and vulnerability on your part to help the listener develop their compassion towards those who need it most. Here’s the introduction:

Many of us are grappling with how to use our skills and influence to resist the upcoming Trump administration and the hatred and violence that it inspires. As Captain Awkward readers, we’ve been practicing setting boundaries, standing up for our values, and making it awkward for the right person. We are uniquely prepared for a crucial part of the next few months or years: changing the minds of people who support the Trump administration, and standing up to the abusers they are empowering. This post teaches scripts and techniques to do these two tasks, along with the theory behind them. It’s for people living in the U.S., but it may be useful to people living elsewhere as well.

And now I will give you some strange advice: Read the comments on that post! Captain Awkward is a case study (along with Metafilter) in how positive and useful a comments section can be if you have a strong code of conduct and enforce it. Enjoy the unfamiliar sensation of reading the comments and enjoying them!

If you have read my last two blog posts, you know I’m not hopeful for the future of human rights in the United States (and around the world). I don’t believe that changing the minds of wavering Trump supporters will be anything like enough to prevent fascism and kleptocracy. However, I think any other effort will fail unless we drastically lower the percentage of U.S. voters who support Trump. That’s why I licensed that guide CC BY-SA – please feel free to copy, modify, and redistribute it without charge as long as you credit the authors.

If you like what you see on Captain Awkward, please consider joining me and becoming a monthly donor (or chipping in a few bucks now). Their work is crucial to the task we have before us.

Spreadsheet of signs of fascism

Several people have asked me to share the spreadsheet I mentioned in my previous post, the one I am using to track signs that the U.S. is governed by a fascist regime. Feel free to copy it and make your own modifications – it is licensed CC BY-SA 4.0 Valerie Aurora. Here is the current snapshot:

Obviously this is an incomplete list. I’ll be adding new things to it as new and more creative ways of being a fascist are thought up in Trump Tower.

I made this spreadsheet because I’m afraid I will normalize brutal and inhuman behavior, and wake up one day to find I am trapped in a cruel fascist regime – or worse, actively collaborating in it.

It is true that before November 8, brutality and violence were already a central part of the U.S. government and culture, and many people were already living daily in fear for their freedom and lives. What we lost on November 8 is the reasonable expectation that we could fix this kind of injustice through peaceful political change, in the style of the civil rights movement or the fight for marriage equality. Maybe our democratic institutions will survive the next four years, but I don’t feel hopeful.

2017-01-21: Update here.

Actions I have taken to prepare for the Trump administration

It’s been about 116 hours since I realized that Trump won the United States presidential election. I’ve spent that time having sober discussions with friends and loved ones, reading the news, reading opinion pieces, reading history, making spreadsheets, and double-checking my thought process.

This morning the news broke that Trump made the first post-election announcement confirming he will make mass deportations, outlining exactly which people he will deport and saying that he will make a “determination” about which other people he will deport after that. No one can dismiss this as “election talk” or campaign promises he will renege on when he gets into often.

Just in case you aren’t already deeply frightened by this news: Historically mass deportations are a very strong predictor of mass deaths: mass deportations are difficult to execute because other countries don’t want your refugees, so you put them in camps, which get full, and then you start killing the people in the camps. Mass deportations also require a volunteer paramilitary force that very quickly erodes the rule of law and human rights.

At this point I feel an obligation to let people I care about know what actions I am taking to prepare for the Trump administration. I’m not here to convince anyone, I’m just giving you this information and you can make your own decisions based on how much you trust my judgement. But first here is some relevant information about me that many of my friends don’t know.

I spent about seven years feeling suicidally depressed and anxious, due to side effects of undiagnosed Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. During that time, I developed a set of checks and tests for my decision-making process to avoid making bad decisions out of anxiety or fear. I was pretty successful in this process: I did not commit suicide, I successfully co-founded and grew a non-profit, I worked full-time, I kept strong relationships with friends and family, and I made good financial decisions – all while a voice was telling me that death was the sensible, reasonable, obvious solution. (I haven’t been suicidal or depressed for about three years now.)

I am using these same checks and tests right now, so I don’t think I’m being alarmist or acting unreasonably. I also don’t have a history of overreacting to elections: e.g., I have never in my life joked even once about moving to Canada if $POLITICIAN won. That is, I don’t have a history of “crying wolf” about election results.

Without further ado, here are the things I have already done:

  • Asked my loved ones to install Signal (and all of them did)
  • Started collecting information on my emigration options from friends
  • Made a spreadsheet listing signs helping me decide whether the fascist regime is coming or not, with weights (UPDATED TO ADD: I’ve now published the spreadsheet)
  • Made an agreement with a loved one about exactly what signs will mean it’s time to leave the U.S.
  • Made an appointment to talk to my immigration (emigration?) lawyer this week
  • Called my loved ones and made sure they either had passports or promised to get them this week (and offered them money to expedite)
  • Checked to see how long it will take to cash out my 401(k) (it’s already in money market funds or I would have moved it to that too)
  • Advised a loved one to go ahead with that house sale they were planning for later in 2017
  • Made lists of the most influential progressive people I know and thought about ways to connect them with each other to take action
  • Started designing an Ally Skills Workshop targeted at privileged folks (mostly white people) talking to “reachable” Trump supporters

While putting together this list, I was also struck by how many things I did months or years ago that people are recommending today. I’ve been acting as though my phone conversations were recorded by the NSA for a couple of years now. I’ve been using Signal for several months. I think twice about what I write in email. I set up a recurring donation to the ACLU in July 2016, and one for Planned Parenthood in July 2014. I donated to political campaigns 4 times as much during this election cycle as any previous one, and volunteered as well for the first time.

My basic feeling at this point is that, yes, what I’m doing is going to be costly if my beliefs about the future are too pessimistic. But I’ll be thrilled if, e.g., I spend $20,000 getting ready for a fascist government and it turns out I was wrong. Hurray! I will be thrilled to come back to this post and edit it and say, “Hahaha! Remember when we were all worried about mass deportations in the U.S.? Boy I feel stupid for falling for that!” I want that to happen. I just don’t see any clear path to that future at this point.

What I do during the next week depends on the political news. I have given up trying to predict what happens. As many people have pointed out, one of the techniques used by fascist regimes is to overwhelm people’s mental processing capacity with contradictory, confusing, and frightening information to stop people from effectively resisting or escaping. So many of my friends have stopped watching the news since the election because it makes them feel too horrible. THIS IS INTENTIONAL. Please stay aware and safe. I love you.

I’ll end this post with a plea to read the sections on mass deportations in Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” Especially compare the actions of Denmark versus Romania and the enormous difference even a small amount of principled resistance made in saving lives. This is the most memorable passage from the book for me (emphasis mine):

Politically and psychologically, the most interesting aspect of this incident is perhaps the role played by the German authorities in Denmark, their obvious sabotage of orders from Berlin. It is the only case we know of in which the Nazis met with open native resistance, and the result seems to have been that those exposed to it changed their minds. They themselves apparently no longer looked upon the extermination of a whole people as a matter of course. They had met resistances based on principle, and their “toughness” had melted like butter in the sun, they had even been able to show a few timid beginnings of genuine courage. That the ideal of “toughness,” except, perhaps, for a few half-demented brutes, was nothing but a myth of self-deception, concealing a ruthless desire for conformity at any price, was clearly revealed at the Nuremberg Trials, where the defendants accused and betrayed each other and assured the world that they “had always been against it” or claimed, as Eichmann was to do, that their best qualities had been “abused” by their superiors.

I challenge you: be the principled resistor that makes the “ruthless toughness” of the Trump regime melt like butter in the sun.

When is naming abuse itself abusive?

Thanks to everyone who read my previous post about why I’m not attending Systems We Love, and especially to all those who shared their own experiences that led them to the same decision. I’m going to follow Charles’ Rules of Argument and reply one time, and then I’m going back to doing things I enjoy.

People asked me a lot of specific questions about this post: Why did you name Bryan Cantrill when many people in the systems community are abusive? Why didn’t you talk to Bryan privately first? Aren’t you insulting Bryan when you criticize him for being insulting? In my opinion, all of these questions all boil down to the same basic question: Even if it everything you said in your post was true, was your post also a form of abuse?

My answer is simple: No. The rest of this post is a general discussion about when you should name specific people and describe their abusive behavior in public, with this specific case as the example.

Maybe in some cases a post saying “some people are behaving badly in our community, please stop” works. It captures an important point, which is that bad behavior doesn’t happen in isolation – it takes a community of people to enable it. I’ve never personally seen the “some people” kind of post work, and I have several times seen it backfire: the very people who were being called out sometimes latch on to the post and say, “Yeah! This sucks! All you other people doing this need to stop!” Then they use this call to action as a weapon against people they disagree with for other reasons.

In this specific case, Bryan has done exactly this in the past, once vowing to fire any employee rejecting a patch on the principle that pronouns should be gendered. I agree with the argument that this vow was more about establishing Bryan’s dominance over others than demonstrating his devotion to supporting women in the workplace. In this case, the potential downside of vagueposting was much greater than any potential upside.

In some cases, talking to someone privately about their abusive behavior will work. It depends on what their values are, how close your relationship is, and how willing they are to engage in self-reflection. In this specific case, I did approach Bryan privately about his behavior as a co-worker about a month ago, and he completely dismissed my experience. Based on that and my prior years of experience as his co-worker, I did not think that approaching him privately would have any positive effect.

Sometimes talking privately to someone’s peers or colleagues or management will work. In this specific case, Bryan’s behavior is so public and striking that his colleagues and management at Joyent are already fully aware of his behavior; anything I had to say would have no effect. Since this is a conference, I considered talking to the program committee. Unfortunately, I don’t know anyone on the Systems We Love program committee well enough to expect them to work with me against the wishes of the person who created the conference, is a VP at the company hosting the event, and has significant influence over their future career. I warned one committee member and they told me I was the second person to warn them about working with Bryan. Their plan was to just avoid working closely with Bryan. In this case, there was no one with influence over Bryan that I could talk to privately.

Sometimes calling someone out for abusive behavior can be done in a way that is itself abusive. For example, if the response is out of proportion to the original offense, that can be abusive (see again Bryan’s vow to fire a person over one relatively minor act and the discussion on proportionality in “Is Shame Necessary?“). Sometimes we shame an abusive person not for their actual behavior, but for unrelated things that reinforce inequality. For example, body-shaming Donald Trump reinforces the idea that it’s okay to body-shame a wide variety of people (trans men, people who aren’t the “right” size or shape, older folks, all women, etc.). It’s really important to think carefully about exactly how you are calling someone out and whether it will reinforce existing structures of oppression.

In this specific case, my goal with the original post was to clearly and honestly describe Bryan’s actual behavior (insults, humiliation, dominance, all wrapped in beautiful language) and the effect it had on me and others. I did so without calling him names, speculating on his motivations, or diagnosing him with any disorders. I was equally straightforward about Bryan’s positive qualities and the admiration many people have for him, including myself. If describing someone’s behavior clearly, accurately, and in good faith comes across as an insult, it’s because that behavior is not admirable. In general, I agree with Jennifer Jacquet’s argument in the book “Is Shame Necessary?” that, used properly, public shaming can be an act of nonviolent resistance in pursuit of justice.

Naming and accurately describing abusive behavior is necessary and powerful at the same time that it makes many people feel uncomfortable. Here’s a quote (by permission) from a message sent to me about a different but similar situation:

[…] Your post was like a shining light, suddenly offering a gasp of hope. It clearly articulated exactly the trouble with these elite programmers that seem to thrive off of burying and insulting the people around them either directly or by proxy through peoples’ [sic] work. I’ve long wanted to paint and share a portrait of this problematic behavior, but could never figure out how to articulate this. Your post puts into words what I have been struggling with for some time now.”

Being uncomfortable is not in and of itself a sign that you are doing something wrong. I encourage people to think about what makes you uncomfortable about naming and describing abusive behavior, or seeing other people do it. Is it compassion for the person engaging in abusive behavior? Then I ask you to apply that compassion to the targets of abuse. Is it fear of further abuse by the person being called out? Then I urge you to support people taking action to end that abuse. Is it desire for a lack of overt conflict – a “negative peace“? Then I suggest you raise your sights and aim for a positive peace that includes justice and consideration for all. Is it fear that the wrong person will be accidentally targeted? Then I invite you to reflect on the enormous risk and backlash faced by people do this kind of naming and describing. And then I invite you to worry more about the people who are remaining silent when speaking up would benefit us all.

I appreciate everyone who spoke up about their own similar experiences with Bryan Cantrill and the wider culture of systems programming, whether they did it publicly under their own name, publicly but anonymously, or privately. Whichever way you chose to share your experiences, it was brave. I hope it makes it easier for you to speak up the next time you see injustice.

I am personally ending my commentary on this issue (unless some major change is announced, but I don’t expect that). I will keep comments open on this post and approve anything that isn’t outright abusive, but I won’t be replying to them. Thank you for reading and commenting!

Why I won’t be attending Systems We Love

Systems We Love is a one day event in San Francisco to talk excitedly about systems computing. When I first heard about it, I was thrilled! I love systems so much that I moved from New Mexico to the Bay Area when I was 23 years old purely so that I could talk to more people about them. I’m the author of the Kernel Hacker’s Bookshelf series, in which I enthusiastically described operating systems research papers I loved in the hopes that systems programmers would implement them. The program committee of Systems We Love includes many people I respect and enjoy being around. And the event is so close to me that I could walk to it.

So why I am not going to Systems We Love? Why am I warning my friends to think twice before attending? And why am I writing a blog post warning other people about attending Systems We Love?

The answer is that I am afraid that Bryan Cantrill, the lead organizer of Systems We Love, will say cruel and humiliating things to people who attend. Here’s why I’m worried about that.

I worked with Bryan in the Solaris operating systems group at Sun from 2002 to 2004. We didn’t work on the same projects, but I often talked to him at the weekly Monday night Solaris kernel dinner at Osteria in Palo Alto, participated in the same mailing lists as him, and stopped by his office to ask him questions every week or two. Even 14 years ago, Bryan was one of the best systems programmers, writers, and speakers I have ever met. I admired him and learned a lot from him. At the same time, I was relieved when I left Sun because I knew I’d never have to work with Bryan again.

Here’s one way to put it: to me, Bryan Cantrill is the opposite of another person I admire in operating systems (whom I will leave unnamed). This person makes me feel excited and welcome and safe to talk about and explore operating systems. I’ve never seen them shame or insult or put down anyone. They enthusiastically and openly talk about learning new systems concepts, even when other people think they should already know them. By doing this, they show others that it’s safe to admit that they don’t know something, which is the first step to learning new things. They are helping create the kind of culture I want in systems programming – the kind of culture promoted by Papers We Love, which Bryan cites as the inspiration for Systems We Love.

By contrast, when I’m talking to Bryan I feel afraid, cautious, and fearful. Over the years I worked with Bryan, I watched him shame and insult hundreds of people, in public and in private, over email and in person, in papers and talks. Bryan is no Linus Torvalds – Bryan’s insults are usually subtle, insinuating, and beautifully phrased, whereas Linus’ insults tend towards the crude and direct. Even as you are blushing in shame from what Bryan just said about you, you are also admiring his vocabulary, cadence, and command of classical allusion. When I talked to Bryan about any topic, I felt like I was engaging in combat with a much stronger foe who only wanted to win, not help me learn. I always had the nagging fear that I probably wouldn’t even know how cleverly he had insulted me until hours later. I’m sure other people had more positive experiences with Bryan, but my experience matches that of many others. In summary, Bryan is supporting the status quo of the existing culture of systems programming, which is a culture of combat, humiliation, and domination.

People admire and sometimes hero-worship Bryan because he’s a brilliant technologist, an excellent communicator, and a consummate entertainer. But all that brilliance, sparkle, and wit are often used in the service of mocking and humiliating other people. We often laugh and are entertained by what Bryan says, but most of the time we are laughing at another person, or at a person by proxy through their work. I think we rationalize taking part in this kind of cruelty by saying that the target “deserves” it because they made a short-sighted design decision, or wrote buggy code, or accidentally made themselves appear ridiculous. I argue that no one deserves to be humiliated or laughed at for making an honest mistake, or learning in public, or doing the best they could with the resources they had. And if that means that people like Bryan have to learn how to be entertaining without humiliating people, I’m totally fine with that.

I stopped working with Bryan in 2004, which was 12 years ago. It’s fair to wonder if Bryan has had a change of heart since then. As far as I can tell, the answer is no. I remember speaking to Bryan in 2010 and 2011 and it was déjà vu all over again. The first time, I had just co-founded a non-profit for women in open technology and culture, and I was astonished when Bryan delivered a monologue to me on the “right” way to get more women involved in computing. The second time I was trying to catch up with a colleague I hadn’t seen in a while and Bryan was invited along. Bryan dominated the conversation and the two of us the entire evening, despite my best efforts. I tried one more time about a month ago: I sent Bryan a private message on Twitter telling him honestly and truthfully what my experience of working with him was like, and asking if he’d had a change of heart since then. His reply: “I don’t know what you’re referring to, and I don’t feel my position on this has meaningfully changed — though I am certainly older and wiser.” Then he told me to google something he’d written about women in computing.

But you don’t have to trust my word on what Bryan is like today. The blog post Bryan wrote announcing Systems We Love sounds exactly like the Bryan I knew: erudite, witty, self-praising, and full of elegant insults directed at a broad swathe of people. He gaily recounts the time he gave a highly critical keynote speech at USENIX, bashfully links to a video praising him at a Papers We Love event, elegantly puts down most of the existing operating systems research community, and does it all while using the words “ancillary,” “verve,” and “quadrennial.” Once you know the underlying structure – a layer cake of vituperation and braggadocio, frosted with eloquence – you can see the same pattern in most of his writing and talks.

So when I heard about Systems We Love, my first thought was, “Maybe I can go but just avoid talking to Bryan and leave the room when he is speaking.” Then I thought, “I should warn my friends who are going.” Then I realized that my friends are relatively confident and successful in this field, but the people I should be worried about are the ones just getting started. Based on the reputation of Papers We Love and the members of the Systems We Love program committee, they probably fully expect to be treated respectfully and kindly. I’m old and scarred and know what to expect when Bryan talks, and my stomach roils at the thought of attending this event. How much worse would it be for someone new and open and totally unprepared?

Bryan is a better programmer than I am. Bryan is a better systems architect than I am. Bryan is a better writer and speaker than I am. The one area I feel confident that I know more about than Bryan is increasing diversity in computing. And I am certain that the environment that Bryan creates and fosters is more likely to discourage and drive off women of all races, people of color, queer and trans folks, and other people from underrepresented groups. We’re already standing closer to the exit; for many of us, it doesn’t take much to make us slip quietly out the door and never return.

I’m guessing that Bryan will respond to me saying that he humiliates, dominates, and insults people by trying to humiliate, dominate, and insult me. I’m not sure if he’ll criticize my programming ability, my taste in operating systems, or my work on increasing diversity in tech. Maybe he’ll criticize me for humiliating, dominating, and insulting people myself – and I’ll admit, I did my fair share of that when I was trying to emulate leaders in my field such as Bryan Cantrill and Linus Torvalds. It’s gone now, but for years there was a quote from me on a friend’s web site, something like: “I’m an elitist jerk, I fit right in at Sun.” It took me years to detox and unlearn those habits and I hope I’m a kinder, more considerate person now.

Even if Bryan doesn’t attack me, people who like the current unpleasant culture of systems programming will. I thought long and hard about the friendships, business opportunities, and social capital I would lose over this blog post. I thought about getting harassed and threatened on social media. I thought about a week of cringing whenever I check my email. Then I thought about the people who might attend Systems We Love: young folks, new developers, a trans woman at her first computing event since coming out – people who are looking for a friendly and supportive place to talk about systems at the beginning of their careers. I thought about them being deeply hurt and possibly discouraged for life from a field that gave me so much joy.

Come at me, Bryan.

Note: comments are now closed on this post. You can read and possibly comment on the follow-up post, When is naming abuse itself abusive?

Crosspost: No more rock stars: how to stop abuse in tech communities

This post originally appeared on Leigh Honeywell’s blog on June 21, 2016. I’m cross-posting here it because I am a co-author and I think my readers will enjoy it.

Content note for discussion of abuse and sexual violence.

In the last couple of weeks, three respected members of the computer security and privacy tech communities have come forward under their own names to tell their harrowing stories of sexual misconduct, harassment, and abuse committed by Jacob Appelbaum. They acted in solidarity with the first anonymous reporters of Jacob’s abuse. Several organizations have taken steps to protect their members from Appelbaum, including the Tor Project, Debian, and the Noisebridge hackerspace, with other responses in progress.

But Appelbaum isn’t the last – or the only – abuser in any of these communities. Many people are calling for long-term solutions to stop and prevent similar abuse. The authors of this post have recommendations, based on our combined 40+ years of community management experience in the fields of computer security, hackerspaces, free and open source software, and non-profits. In four words, our recommendation is:

No more rock stars.

What do we mean when we say “rock stars?” We like this tweet by Molly Sauter:

Seriously, “rock stars” are arrogant narcissists. Plumbers keep us all from getting cholera. Build functional infrastructure. Be a plumber.

You can take concrete actions to stop rock stars from abusing and destroying your community. But first, here are a few signs that help you identify when you have a rock star instead of a plumber:

A rock star likes to be the center of attention. A rock star spends more time speaking at conferences than on their nominal work. A rock star appears in dozens of magazine profiles – and never, ever tells the journalist to talk to the people actually doing the practical everyday work. A rock star provokes a powerful organization over minor issues until they crack down on the rock star, giving them underdog status. A rock star never says, “I don’t deserve the credit for that, it was all the work of…” A rock star humble-brags about the starry-eyed groupies who want to fuck them. A rock star actually fucks their groupies, and brags about that too. A rock star throws temper tantrums until they get what they want. A rock star demands perfect loyalty from everyone around them, but will throw any “friend” under the bus for the slightest personal advantage. A rock star knows when to turn on the charm and vulnerability and share their deeply personal stories of trauma… and when it’s safe to threaten and intimidate. A rock star wrecks hotel rooms, social movements, and lives.

Why are rock stars so common and successful? There’s something deep inside the human psyche that loves rock stars and narcissists. We easily fall under their spell unless we carefully train ourselves to detect them. Narcissists are skilled at making good first impressions, at masking abusive behavior as merely eccentric or entertaining, at taking credit for others’ work, at fitting our (often inaccurate) stereotypes of leaders as self-centered, self-aggrandizing, and overly confident. We tend to confuse confidence with competence, and narcissists are skilled at acting confident.

Sometimes rock stars get confused with leaders, who are necessary and good. What’s the difference between a rock star and a leader? We like the term “servant-leader” as a reminder that the ultimate purpose of a good leader is to serve the mission of their organization (though this feminist critique of the language around servant-leadership is worth reading). Having personal name recognition and the trust and support of many people is part of being an effective leader. This is different from the kind of uncritical worship that a rock star seeks out and encourages. Leaders push back when the adoration gets too strong and disconnected from achieving the mission (here is a great example from Anil Dash, pushing back after being held up as an example of positive ally for women in tech). Rock stars aren’t happy unless they are surrounded by unthinking adoration.

How do we as a community prevent rock stars?

If rock stars are the problem, and humans are susceptible to rock stars, how do we prevent rock stars from taking over and hijacking our organizations and movements? It turns out that some fairly simple and basic community hygiene is poisonous to rock stars – and makes a more enjoyable, inclusive, and welcoming environment for plumbers.

Our recommendations can be summarized as: decentralizing points of failure, increasing transparency, improving accountability, supporting private and anonymous communication, reducing power differentials, and avoiding situations that make violating boundaries more likely. This is a long blog post, so here is a table of contents for the rest of this post:

Have explicit rules for conduct and enforce them for everyone

Create a strong, specific, enforceable code of conduct for your organization – and enforce it, swiftly and without regard for the status of the accused violator. Rock stars get a kick out of breaking the rules, but leaders know they are also role models, and scrupulously adhere to rules except when there’s no alternative way to achieve the right thing. Rock stars also know that when they publicly break the little rules and no one calls them out on it, they are sending a message that they can also break the big rules and get away with it.

One of the authors of this post believed every first-person allegation of abuse and assault by Jacob Appelbaum – including the anonymous ones – immediately. Why? Among many other signs, she saw him break different, smaller rules in a way that showed his complete and total disregard for other people’s time, work, and feelings – and everyone supported him doing so. For example, she once attended a series of five minute lightning talks at the Noisebridge hackerspace, where speakers sign up in advance. Jacob arrived unannounced and jumped in after the first couple of talks with a forty-five minute long boring rambling slideshow about a recent trip he took. The person running the talks – someone with considerable power and influence in the same community – rolled his eyes but let Jacob talk for nine times the length of other speakers. The message was clear: rules don’t apply to Jacob, and even powerful people were afraid to cross him.

This kind of blatant disregard for the rules and the value of people’s time was so common that people had a name for it: “story time with Jake,” as described in Phoenix’s pseudonymous allegation of sexual harassment. Besides the direct harm, dysfunction, and disrespect this kind of rule-breaking and rudeness causes, when you allow people to get away with it, you’re sending a message that they can get away with outright harassment and assault too.

To solve this, create and adopt a specific, enforceable code of conduct for your community. Select a small expert group of people to enforce it, with provisions for what to do if one of this group is accused of harassment. Set deadlines for responding to complaints. Conduct the majority of discussion about the report in private to avoid re-traumatizing victims. Don’t make exceptions for people who are “too valuable.” If people make the argument that some people are too valuable to censure for violating the code of conduct, remove them from decision-making positions. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you are asking yourself if someone’s benefits outweigh their liabilities, recognize that they’ve already cost the community more than they can ever give to it and get to work on ejecting them quickly.

Start with the assumption that harassment reports are true and investigate them thoroughly

Over more than a decade of studying reports of harassment and assault in tech communities, we’ve noticed a trend: if things have gotten to the point where you’ve heard about an incident, it’s almost always just the tip of the iceberg. People argue a lot about whether to take one person’s word (the alleged victim) over another’s (the alleged harasser), but surprisingly often, this was not the first time the harasser did something harmful and it’s more likely a “one person said, a dozen other people said” situation. Think about it: what are the chances that someone had a perfect record of behavior, right up till the instant they stuck their hand in someone else’s underwear without consent – and that person actually complained about it – AND you heard about it? It’s far more likely that this person has been gradually ramping up their bad behavior for years and you just haven’t heard about it till now.

The vast majority of cases we know about fit one of these two patterns:

  1. A clueless person makes a few innocent, low-level mistakes and actually gets called on one of them fairly quickly. Signs that this is the likely case: the actual incident is extremely easy to explain as a mistake, the accused quickly understands what they did wrong, they appear genuinely, intensely embarrassed, they apologize profusely, and they offer a bunch of ways to make up for their mistake: asking the video of their talk to be taken down, writing a public apology explaining why what they did was harmful, or proposing that they stop attending the event for some period of time.
  2. A person who enjoys trampling on the boundaries of others has been behaving badly for a long time in a variety of ways, but everyone has been too afraid to say anything about it or do anything about other reports. Signs that this is the likely case: the reporter is afraid of retaliation and may try to stay anonymous, other people are afraid to talk about the incident for the same reason, the reported incident may be fairly extreme (e.g., physical assault with no question that consent was violated), many people are not surprised when they hear about it, you quickly gather other reports of harassment or assault of varying levels, the accused has plagiarized or stolen credit or falsified expense reports or done other ethically questionable things, the accused has consolidated a lot of power and attacks anyone who seems to be a challenge to their power, the accused tries to change the subject to their own grievances or suffering, the accused admits they did it but minimizes the incident, or the accused personally attacks the reporter using respectability politics or tone-policing.

In either case, your job is to investigate the long-term behavior of the accused, looking for signs of narcissism and cruelty, big and small. Rock stars leave behind a long trail of nasty emails, stolen credit, rude behavior, and unethical acts big and small. Go look for them.

Make it easy for victims to find and coordinate with each other

Rock stars will often make it difficult for people to talk or communicate without being surveilled or tracked by the rock star or their assistants, because private or anonymous communication allows people to compare their experiences and build effective resistance movements. To fight this, encourage and support private affinity groups for marginalized groups (especially people who identify as women in a way that is significant to them), create formal systems that allow for anonymous or pseudonymous reporting such as an ombudsperson or third-party ethics hotline, support and promote people who are trusted contact points and/or advocates for marginalized groups, and reward people for raising difficult but necessary problems.

Watch for smaller signs of boundary pushing and react strongly

Sometimes rock stars don’t outright break the rules, they just push on boundaries repeatedly, trying to figure out exactly how far they can go and get away with it, or make it so exhausting to have boundaries that people stop defending them. For example, they might take a little too much credit for shared work or other people’s work, constantly bring up the most disturbing but socially acceptable topic of conversation, resist de-escalation of verbal conflict, subtly criticize people, make passive-aggressive comments on the mailing list, leave comments that are almost but not quite against the rules, stand just a little too close to people on purpose, lightly touch people and ignore non-verbal cues to stop (but obey explicit verbal requests… usually), make comments which subtly establish themselves as superior or judges of others, interrupt in meetings, make small verbal put-downs, or physically turn away from people while they are speaking. Rock stars feel entitled to other people’s time, work, and bodies – signs of entitlement to one of these are often signs of entitlement to the others.

Call people out for monopolizing attention and credit

Is there someone in your organization who jumps on every chance to talk to a reporter? Do they attend every conference they can and speak at many of them? Do they brag about their frequent flyer miles or other forms of status? Do they jump on every project that seems likely to be high visibility? Do they “cookie-lick” – claim ownership of projects but fail to do them and prevent others from doing them either? If you see this happening, speak up: say, “Hey, we need to spread out the public recognition for this work among more people. Let’s send Leslie to that conference instead.” Insist that this person credit other folks (by name or anonymously, as possible) prominently and up front in every blog post or magazine article or talk. Establish a rotation for speaking to reporters as a named source. Take away projects from people if they aren’t doing them, no matter how sad or upset it makes them. Insist on distributing high status projects more evenly.

A negative organizational pattern that superficially resembles this kind of call-out can sometimes happen, where people who are jealous of others’ accomplishments and successes may attack effective, non-rock star leaders. Signs of this situation: people who do good, concrete, specific work are being called out for accepting appropriate levels of public recognition and credit by people who themselves don’t follow through on promises, fail at tasks through haplessness or inattention, or communicate ineffectively. Complaints about effective leaders may take the form of “I deserve this award for reasons even though I’ve done relatively little work” instead of “For the good of the organization, we should encourage spreading out the credit among the people who are doing the work – let’s talk about who they are.” People complaining may occasionally make minor verbal slips that reveal their own sense of entitlement to rewards and praise based on potential rather than accomplishments – e.g., referring to “my project” instead of “our project.”

Insist on building a “deep bench” of talent at every level of your organization

Your organization should never have a single irreplaceable person – it should have a deep bench. Sometimes this happens through a misplaced sense of excessive responsibility on the part of a non-abusive leader, but often it happens through deliberate effort from a “rock star.” To prevent this, constantly develop and build up a significant number of leaders at every level of your organization, especially near the top. You can do this by looking for new, less established speakers (keynote speakers in particular) at your events, paying for leadership training, creating official deputies for key positions, encouraging leaders to take ample vacation and not check email (or chat) while they are gone, having at least two people talk to each journalist, conducting yearly succession planning meetings, choosing board members who have strong opinions about this topic and a track record of acting on them, having some level of change or turnover every few years in key leadership positions, documenting and automating key tasks as much as possible, sharing knowledge as much as possible, and creating support structures that allow people from marginalized groups to take on public roles knowing they will have support if they are harassed. And if you need one more reason to encourage vacation, it is often an effective way to uncover financial fraud (one reason why abusive leaders often resist taking vacation – they can’t keep an eye on potential exposure of their misdeeds).

Flatten the organizational hierarchy as much as possible

Total absence of hierarchy is neither possible nor desirable, since “abolishing” a hierarchy simply drives the hierarchy underground and makes it impossible to critique (but see also the anarchist critique of this concept). Keeping the hierarchy explicit and making it as flat and transparent as possible while still reflecting true power relationships is both achievable and desirable. Ways to implement this: have as small a difference as possible in “perks” between levels (e.g., base decisions on flying business class vs. economy on amount of travel and employee needs, rather than position in the organization), give people ways to blow the whistle on people who have power over them (including channels to do this anonymously if necessary), and have transparent criteria for responsibilities and compensation (if applicable) that go with particular positions.

Build in checks for “failing up”

Sometimes, someone gets into a position of power not because they are actually good at their job, but because they turned in a mediocre performance in a field where people tend to choose people with proven mediocre talent over people who haven’t had a chance to demonstrate their talent (or lack thereof). This is called “failing up” and can turn otherwise reasonable people into rock stars as they desperately try to conceal their lack of expertise by attacking any competition and hogging attention. Or sometimes no one wants to take the hit for firing someone who isn’t capable of doing a good job, and they end up getting promoted through sheer tenacity and persistence. The solution is to have concrete criteria for performance, and a process for fairly evaluating a person’s performance and getting them to leave that position if they aren’t doing a good job.

Enforce strict policies around sexual or romantic relationships within power structures

Rock stars love “dating” people they have power over because it makes it easier to abuse or assault them and get away with it. Whenever we hear about an organization that has lots of people dating people in their reporting chain, it raises an automatic red flag for increased likelihood of abuse in that organization. Overall, the approach that has the fewest downsides is to establish a policy that no one can date within their reporting chain or across major differences in power, that romantic relationships need to be disclosed, and that if anyone forms a relationship with someone in the same reporting chain, the participants need to move around the organization until they no longer share a reporting chain. Yes, this means that if the CEO or Executive Director of an organization starts a relationship with anyone else in the organization, at least one of them needs to leave the organization, or take on some form of detached duty for the duration of the CEO/ED’s tenure. When it comes to informal power relationships, such as students dating prominent professors in their fields, they also need to be forbidden or strongly discouraged. These kinds of policies are extremely unattractive to a rock star, because part of the attraction of power for them is wielding it over romantic or sexual prospects.

Avoid organizations becoming too central to people’s lives

Having a reasonable work-life balance isn’t just an ethical imperative for any organization that values social justice, it’s also a safety mechanism so that if someone is forced to leave, needs to leave, or needs to take a step back, they can do so without destroying their entire support system. Rock stars will often insist on subordinates giving 100% of their available energy and time to the “cause” because it isolates them from other support networks and makes them more dependent on the rock star.

Don’t set up your community so that if someone has a breach with your community (e.g., is targeted for sustained harassment that drives them out), they are likely to also lose more than one of: their job, their career, their romantic relationships, their circle of friends, or their political allies. Encouraging and enabling people to have social interaction and support outside your organization or cause will also make it easier to, when necessary, exclude people behaving abusively or not contributing because you won’t need to worry that you’re cutting them off from all meaningful work or human contact.

You should discourage things like: semi-compulsory after hours socialising with colleagues, long work hours, lots of travel, people spending almost all their “intimacy points” or emotional labour on fellow community members, lots of in-group romantic relationships, everyone employs each other, or everyone is on everyone else’s boards. Duplication of effort (e.g., multiple activist orgs in the same area, multiple mailing lists, or whatever) is often seen as a waste, but it can be a powerfully positive force for allowing people some choice of colleagues.

Distribute the “keys to the kingdom”

Signs of a rock star (or occasionally a covert narcissist) may include insisting on being the single point of failure for one or more of: your technical infrastructure (e.g., domain name registration or website), your communication channels, your relationship with your meeting host or landlord, your primary source of funding, your relationship with the cops, etc. This increases the rock star’s power and control over the organization.

To prevent this, identify core resources, make sure two or more people can access/administer all of them, and make sure you have a plan for friendly but sudden, unexplained, or hostile departures of those people. Where possible, spend money (or another resource that your group can collectively offer) rather than relying on a single person’s largesse, specialized skills, or complex network of favours owed. Do things legally where reasonably possible. Try to be independent of any one critical external source of funding or resources. If there’s a particularly strong relationship between one group member and an external funder, advisor, or key organization, institutionalize it: document it, and introduce others into the relationship.

One exception is that it’s normal for contact with the press to be filtered or approved by a single point of contact within the organization (who should have a deputy). However, it should be possible to talk to the press as an individual (i.e., not representing your organization) and anonymously in cases of internal organizational abuse. At the same time, your organization should have a strong whistleblower protection policy – and board members with a strong public commitment and/or a track record of supporting whistleblowers in their own organizations.

Don’t create environments that make boundary violations more likely

Some situations are attractive to rock stars looking to abuse people: sexualized situations, normalization of drinking or taking drugs to the point of being unable to consent or enforce boundaries, or other methods of breaking down or violating physical or emotional boundaries. This can look like: acceptance of sexual jokes at work, frequent sexual liaisons between organization members, mocking people for not being “cool” for objecting to talking about sex at work, framing objection to sexualized situations as being homophobic/anti-polyamorous/anti-kink, open bars with hard alcohol or no limit on drinks, making it acceptable to pressure people to drink more alcohol than they want or violate other personal boundaries (food restrictions, etc.), normalizing taking drugs in ways that make it difficult to stay conscious or defend boundaries, requiring attendance at physically isolated or remote events, having events where it is difficult to communicate with the outside world (no phone service or Internet access), having events where people wear significantly less or no clothing (e.g. pool parties, saunas, hot tubs), or activities that require physical touching (massage, trust falls, ropes courses). It’s a bad sign if anyone objecting to these kinds of activities is criticized for being too uptight, puritanical, from a particular cultural background, etc.

Your organization should completely steer away from group activities which pressure people, implicitly or explicitly, to drink alcohol, take drugs, take off more clothing than is usual for professional settings in the relevant cultures, or touch or be touched. Drunkenness to the point of marked clumsiness, slurred speech, or blacking out should be absolutely unacceptable at the level of organizational culture. Anyone who seems to be unable to care for themselves as the result of alcohol or drug use should be immediately cared for by pre-selected people whose are explicitly charged with preventing this person from being assaulted (especially since they may have been deliberately drugged by someone planning to assault them). For tips on serving alcohol in a way that greatly reduces the chance of assault or abuse, see Kara Sowles’ excellent article on inclusive events. You can also check out the article on inclusive offsites on the Geek Feminism Wiki.

Putting this to work in your community

We waited too long to do something about it.

Odds are, your community already has a “missing stair” or three – even if you’ve just kicked one out. They are harming and damaging your community right now. If you have power or influence or privilege, it’s your ethical responsibility to take personal action to limit the harm that they are causing. This may mean firing or demoting them; it may mean sanctioning or “managing them out.” But if you care about making the world a better place, you must act.

If you don’t have power or influence or privilege, think carefully before taking any action that could harm you more and seriously consider asking other folks with more protection to take action instead. Their response is a powerful litmus test of their values. If no one is willing to take this on for you, your only option may be leaving and finding a different organization or community to join. We have been in this position – of being powerless against rock stars – and it is heartbreaking and devastating to give up on a cause, community, or organization that you care about. We have all mourned the spaces that we have left when they have become unlivable because of abuse. But leaving is still often the right choice when those with power choose not to use it to keep others safe from abuse.

Responses

While we are not asking people to “cosign” this post, we want this to be part of a larger conversation on building abuse-resistant organizations and communities. We invite others to reflect on what we have written here, and to write their own reflections. If you would like us to list your reflection in this post, please leave a comment or email us a link, your name or pseudonym, and any affiliation you wish for us to include, and we will consider listing it. We particularly invite survivors of intimate partner violence in activist communities, survivors of workplace harassment and violence, and people facing intersectional oppressions to participate in the conversation.

2016-06-21: The “new girl” effect by Lex Gill, technology law researcher & activist

2016-06-21: Patching exploitable communities by Tom Lowenthal, security technologist and privacy activist

2016-06-22: Tyranny of Structurelessness? by Gabriella Coleman, anthropologist who has studied hacker communities

We would prefer that people not contact us to disclose their own stories of mistreatment. But know this: we believe you. If you need emotional support, please reach out to people close to you, a counselor in your area, or to the trained folks at RAINN or Crisis Text Line.

Credits

This post was written by Valerie Aurora (@vaurorapub), Mary Gardiner (@me_gardiner), and Leigh Honeywell (@hypatiadotca), with grateful thanks for comments and suggestions from many anonymous reviewers.

HOWTO therapy: what psychotherapy is, how to find a therapist, and when to fire your therapist

I read this hilarious post by Amanda Rosenberg called “I Asked My Therapist How to Find a Therapist” and cry-laughed the whole way through it. (TL;DR: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯) Because it’s so true: when you need a therapist the most is when you have the least energy, organization, and resilience, all qualities that are helpful in finding a therapist in the U.S. (Most people muddle through with desperation, panic, and flailing instead.)

Finding a therapist doesn’t have to be this hard. As an American, I was amazed to learn that many countries offer free government-provided mental health care. It’s not a panacea – you still have to jump through hoops and fill out paperwork and get referrals – but it does show that there’s no inherent reason why finding a therapist has to be so. Damned. Hard.

Personally, I love therapy – or rather, I love what therapy has done for me and how much happier I am after doing therapy for many years. I have had to find a number of therapists in my life, and recently I used what I’ve learned to help several people I know find good therapists. I figured I’d share what I learned in this blog post, starting with how to find a therapist since that’s the question I get asked most, and then going on to things like how therapy works and how to pay for therapy. It got kind of long, so here’s a table of contents so that you can skip to the part you’re most interested in.

How do I find a therapist?
What is therapy anyway?
Can I go to therapy if I don’t know what’s wrong?
Can therapy help me?
What if I can’t afford to pay for therapy?
What if I don’t have the free time to go to therapy?
How do I know when I should switch therapists?
How do I know when to stop or reduce frequency of therapy?


How do I find a therapist?

In the case that you are paying privately for a therapist at market rates, here is my recommended algorithm:

  1. Search on Psychology Today for therapists near you.
  2. Optionally, filter your results by therapists who use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). (CBT is the most evidence-based method of talk therapy. You don’t have to use it as part of your therapy program, but listing CBT as a method of treatment is a positive sign in a therapist in my experience.)
  3. Add any other constraints that are important to you: gender of the therapist, whether they specialized in LGBT issues, if they are a person of color, etc.
  4. Read the self-descriptions of the therapists until you find three that click with you. Be critical and picky and pay attention to how they present themselves.
  5. Once you have three, schedule a free get-to-know-each-other appointment with each of them, preferably in the same week. Go to all three appointments and tell them what you are worried about happening in therapy as well as the problems that brought you there. Optionally, you can send them the Geek Feminism wiki page for therapists.
  6. After you’ve been to each, talk through your experiences with each therapist with someone you trust and pick one. If none of them seem right, go find three more therapists and repeat.

If you have therapy through government healthcare or healthcare insurance or an Employee Assistance Plan or something similar (see the section on affording therapy), use whatever directory or right to choose providers that you have to get an opportunity to work with three different therapists if at all possible. Therapy is in part about the fit or the match between your style and your therapist’s style; there’s no one size fits all. If you can only work with one therapist at a time, see the section on when to switch therapists to decide when to move on to another therapist.

If you are looking to pay privately for therapy but can’t afford market rates, here are some suggestions for finding therapists to interview:

  • Google search for “cheap therapy [YOUR LOCATION]” or similar phrases
  • Search on Foursquare or Yelp or other review sites for the same
  • Search online for counseling training schools near you (they usually have cheap rates for working with students)
  • Ask anyone you know who often works with disadvantaged folks: social workers, court-appointed advocates, activists, etc.
  • If you have any advocates or healthcare workers caring for you – social workers, legal assistance, nurses, doctors, legal advocates, case workers – ask them for suggestions

A great collection of resources for therapy for people with specific needs (such as a polyamory-friendly therapist) is the MetaFilter wiki page on therapy.


What is therapy anyway?

Therapy/talk therapy/psychotherapy is when a patient talks regularly with a counselor or psychotherapist to figure out new ways to think and act so that they are happier. In particular, many of us have developed beliefs and habits about how to be happy and safe that seem to work in the short run, but that end up making us feel unhappy and unsafe in the long run. The therapist helps you recognize these unhelpful beliefs and habits and change them (or at least stop acting in ways that reinforce them). As my favorite advice blogger, Captain Awkward, puts it: “I think every adult could benefit from a look under the emotional hood at some point in their lives.

Many forms of therapy use your relationship with the therapist as a testing ground for trying out new beliefs and actions. In the U.S., a fairly common frequency for therapy is one hour a week or every two weeks. Therapists who use classical Freudian psychoanalysis (what you see on TV shows or movies most often) like to meet for an hour 3-5 days a week.

The forms of therapy differ, but generally they all work better when you are truthful with your therapist, attend appointments regularly, and do any assigned homework. (Conditions that make any of these tasks hard are harder to treat.) The most important thing is to tell your therapist what you are thinking or feeling about therapy or about them, even if it is things like, “I am afraid of you,” or “I feel sexually attracted to you,” or “I want to say what makes you happy,” or “I hate coming to this appointment” or “I’m embarrassed to be in therapy.” It’s the therapist’s job to not take comments like these personally and to use it to help figure out your beliefs. (If they respond to you saying these things with, e.g., anger, or by seducing you, or making you feel guilty, fire them and find a new therapist immediately.)


Can I go to therapy if I don’t know what’s wrong?

Several people have asked me if it is it helpful to go to therapy if you don’t know what’s wrong, or can’t put your feelings into words. The answer is most decidedly, yes. People often go to therapy because they feel vaguely dissatisfied, or incomplete, anxious, depressed, unhappy, empty, tired, hopeless, unimportant, isolated, angry, sad, ashamed, or any number of feelings. People often feel this way even when their life seems objectively great – great job, great family, great friends, etc. If you have figured out why you have those feelings and can put that into words, that’s wonderful – you have a head-start on working with the therapist to figure out what to do about them. But if you don’t know why you feel the way you do, therapists are good at helping you figuring out why.


Can therapy help me?

Oversimplifying wildly, here are the requirements for therapy to work as I understand them:

  1. Self-motivation: Do you want to change badly enough to do scary hard things?
  2. Self-criticism: Can you accept and internalize criticism?
  3. Self-discipline: Are you willing to put in the effort to change, even if it is hard or scary?

It’s okay if you’re not that good at accepting criticism or at consistently applying yourself, as long as you’re motivated to get better at those two skills for reasons you find compelling. But if you’re going to therapy in order to appease or manipulate someone else, but don’t actually think you need to change, it’s less likely to work. Most of the work of therapy happens outside the time that you meet with your therapist, and you are unlikely to do that work if you don’t see how it benefits yourself. This kind of motivation normally fluctuates – I’ve several times taken a break from therapy because I didn’t care to work on my problems at that particular time. I came back when I was motivated to do the work again, sometimes years later.

Several psychological symptoms or disorders interfere with one or more of self-motivation, self-criticism, or self-discipline. These include (but aren’t limited to) depression, anxiety, difficulty staying focused, narcissistic personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder (ASPD, better known as psychopathy or sociopathy).

If you have depression, anxiety, or difficulty staying focused, therapy will be harder but still doable with effort and advice from your therapist – after all, these are some of the most common reasons people go to therapy.

Narcissistic personality disorder presents as extreme outward confidence, disregard for the feelings of others, and obsession with personal image. One of the less well-known aspects of narcissism is the inability of the narcissist to accept and internalize criticism. It is difficult to improve at any skill if you can’t directly face and accept feedback on how you are doing it wrong. As a result, someone with narcissism has great difficulty changing anything about themselves for the better. Narcissism is notoriously difficult to treat. (If you’re seriously wondering if you are a narcissist, that is an excellent reason to go to therapy. The answer is probably no, but either way, talking to a therapist is a very good idea at this point.)

People with Antisocial personality disorder (better known as sociopathy or psychopathy) have difficulty caring about or understanding the needs or feelings of others, are impulsive, and have difficulty imagining or caring about negative consequences for their behavior. Many people with ASPD are quite content with their personality and actions and see no reason to change them – although some proportion of people with ASPD decide to be a positive part of society anyway and it’s not clear why they are different. Some proportion of ASPD cases are due to permanent impairment of specific brain structures; they can use therapy to learn different behaviors but won’t ever recover that specific brain function. Other folks have neurotypical brain physiology and acquire ASPD after experiencing intense abuse and trauma. Therapy can sometimes help them recover full function.

Other things that can make it harder to get benefit out of therapy: a mental illness, an addiction, an allergy, not getting enough sleep, and being in an abusive relationship. Often, therapy will have the side effect of helping you to solve or reduce these problems, but fixing them may also take medication, diet changes, social support, and time.


What if I can’t afford to pay for therapy?

I’ll assume if you’re asking this question you don’t have access to state-provided healthcare, such as citizens or residents of Australia, Canada, or many European countries. To start finding therapy in this case, my understanding is that you usually ask your general practitioner or primary care doctor for a referral. The rest of this answer will focus on countries that don’t have this.

The easiest way to get therapy (even in countries that provide it for free through the government) is to have enough disposable income to pay the market price for therapy. If you have the money, go this route. If you don’t have the money, you’ll be amazed at the number of ways to get therapy at below market rate. Here are some of the ways to get therapy at a lower price.

You may have private health insurance that covers therapy. However, relatively few therapists accept the extremely low rates paid by insurance, and those that do often have long waiting lists. If you have more money than emotional energy or time, I recommend not even trying to get therapy paid for by health insurance. Otherwise, go to your health insurance web site and look for information on using your mental health benefits. They will probably have an online directory of providers who take your insurance.

Your employer may have an Employee Assistance Plan that covers therapy, usually a specific number of sessions, like six (which is laughably low but better than nothing). The nice thing about EAPs is that usually there is a hotline that you can call and say, “Help me get a therapist,” and they will do the work. This is extremely helpful!

For the case where you can’t afford full price for therapy, but you could afford, say, 25% – 75% of normal costs, many areas have a school for training counselors with students who need patients to practice on. They usually charge need-based sliding scale fees. Many individual therapists will also charge on a sliding scale basis – just ask when you first speak to them. Many therapists also list their price ranges on their Psychology Today profile. Another option in this price range may be online counseling services like In Your Corner.

If you can’t afford that, many community service organizations provide free counseling as part of their services or can help you find free counseling. Homeless shelters, halfway houses, LGBT youth centers, and addiction centers are some places that will be willing and able to help you find free or very low cost therapy.


What if I don’t have the free time to go to therapy?

If freeing up the time to go to therapy seems impossible, here’s my suggestion: move heaven and earth to go to one appointment and tell the therapist why you don’t have time for regular therapy. Then they will be able to suggest ideas for how to make therapy possible for you, based on their far more extensive experience working with many different patients. Remember, it’s not a matter of having time for therapy, it’s a matter of prioritizing therapy just slightly higher than other things in your life that you spend a couple of hours a week on. If therapy is key to you staying alive and functioning, then it’s worth exploring the options.

Some useful options for some people with little money and an uncertain schedule and certain types of problems are the various twelve step programs that branched off from Alcoholics Anonymous, especially the program for the friends and families of addicts. Twelve step programs are free (funded by small voluntary donations from those who can afford it) and usually have meetings at a variety of times in major metro areas. They also have meetings within prisons and hospitals and even phone-based or online meetings. These programs can also be helpful for people who can afford therapy, and many therapists recommend joining the appropriate twelve step program in addition to therapy. Check out the list of twelve step programs on Wikipedia to get an idea if one of those is a good match for you. Note: there is significant research questioning the effectiveness of twelve step programs compared to naltrexone for ending alcohol and narcotic addictions. I agree that twelve step programs don’t work for everyone and attendance shouldn’t be court-mandated; at the same time, some twelve step programs are helpful for some people and are definitely cheaper than most therapy.

One last plug for trying to make therapy work in the face of obstacles from my favorite advice blogger, Captain Awkward: “I recommend therapy here a lot. And I will keep doing it. Even though it is often prohibitively expensive. And/or difficult to locate. And/or difficult to acquire once you do locate it and can maybe afford it. I have a very strong bias in favor of therapy/counseling/mental health services because I have found them to be personally extremely helpful to me and to people I love – some of whom are alive and breathing because they sought out mental health services in time to save their own lives.”


How do I know when I should switch therapists?

Sometimes you aren’t done with therapy but you need to work with a different therapist. This can happen for a lot of reasons. The easy reasons are things like: you develop a symptom or a condition that the therapist doesn’t feel qualified to treat, you move away and they aren’t willing to do therapy over the phone or Internet, or you can no longer afford to pay this therapist’s rate. The less obvious reasons are when therapy isn’t working for some subtler reason: you’re still showing up to therapy and doing homework, but things aren’t progressing. Are they not working because you aren’t ready or doing the work, or is it because you and the therapist are a bad match for each other, or is it because the therapist is bad at their job?

Here are some red flags for therapist relationships that aren’t working out and should probably be ended:

  • The therapist creeps you out (no need to put it into words or get more specific)
  • The therapist attempts to make you feel guilty
  • The therapist makes any kind of sexual advance (or accepts your sexual advances – they are in the position of power and should never accept your advances if you make them)
  • You find yourself unable to stop lying to the therapist
  • The therapist talks about themselves for more than a few minutes per session
  • The therapist does things that make you feel you need to care for the therapist (e.g., becomes visibly upset and requires soothing from you)
  • The therapist “one-ups” you by sharing information about themselves that inhibits you from speaking about your own comparatively minor problems
  • The therapist is unable to hide their anger in session with you
  • You feel belittled or smaller or beaten down after sessions
  • The therapist relies on information provided by your abusers or an unqualified third party (e.g., a parent defining what is wrong with their child)
  • The therapist dismisses your feelings (this is different from searching for underlying feelings or first feelings that turn into your current feelings, a normal activity)
  • You find yourself “accidentally” missing appointments (though this could be a sign that you need to end therapy entirely too)
  • The therapist says things or takes actions that make you feel like you are broken or weird
  • The therapist tells you that something is concerning or bad, but does not help you address it
  • The therapist doesn’t make an effort to understand things that are important to you, like your job or online community
  • The therapist has difficulty remembering important facts about you between sessions
  • The therapist can’t hide that they don’t share basic values with you, such as feminism
  • You find it very hard to tell them that therapy isn’t working for you in some way
  • The therapist offers advice outside the boundaries of the therapy relationship (e.g., about sports or nutrition)
  • You are comfortable and unchallenged in most of your sessions
  • Your take away from most sessions is that you are a really great person who is doing nothing wrong and doesn’t need to change anything but for some reason you need to keep coming to therapy
  • You feel like you are able to fool or charm or manipulate the therapist into doing what you want

Overall, you should feel like your therapist is supporting you in doing difficult, painful, but necessary work. If seeing your therapist makes you feel worthless or helpless or more self-critical, or if they simply affirm you without helping you grow in ways that are difficult for you, you’re not getting the help you need.

Here are some normal (but not necessary) experiences in a relationship with a therapist that is working:

  • You cry. A lot. In session, out of session, on the way to sessions, at work, at home, everywhere
  • You feel sadness and grief more intensely than you have in years
  • You feel strong guilt and anxiety (but not as a direct result of the therapist’s actions or words)
  • You are simultaneously dreading and looking forward to your next appointment
  • You get angry with your therapist in the session (but they do not express anger towards you)
  • You avoid appointments because you don’t want to talk about a specific subject
  • You have to drag yourself into the appointment
  • You sit silently for most or all of the appointment
  • You want to say something to your therapist but you are afraid to and spend the whole appointment avoiding saying it
  • You want to please the therapist and be the perfect patient
  • You don’t want to make your therapist feel sad by telling them unpleasant things you have experienced
  • You deliberately insult or shock or act rudely towards your therapist
  • You show up late to appointments
  • Your therapist reminds you of someone important in your life (mother, ex-husband, etc.)
  • You feel guilty for taking up the therapist’s time
  • You feel like you should be making faster progress
  • You are really tired after an appointment

You can also be having any of these normal experiences with a therapist who is still a bad match for you, just don’t think that these experiences alone are a bad sign.


How do I know when to stop or reduce frequency of therapy?

Spending time and money on therapy has diminishing returns at some point for many people, and at some point you can have a perfectly fine working relationship with a therapist but not have any motivation to continue therapy. Some signs that it might be time for you to reduce frequency or end therapy are:

  • You start forgetting your appointments because you aren’t thinking about what you’re going to discuss at the next one
  • You made a lot of progress in one area of your life but you aren’t much interested in working on any other area right now
  • You feel like you aren’t connecting with your therapist after several weeks
  • Your appointments are uniformly boring
  • You have difficulty thinking of things to say (as distinct from having things to say but not wanting to say them)
  • You keep cancelling your appointments because other things are more important

It can be uncomfortable bringing up the topic of ending therapy with your therapist. Keep in mind that they have been through this many times and that for them, it’s like having a student graduate (in the best case). Just say, “Hey, I’m starting to wonder how much longer I should be in therapy. What do you think?” If you are worried that you want to end therapy for the wrong reasons, or shouldn’t end therapy, your therapist is a good person to discuss that with.

I hope some of this advice is useful to you! I love therapy and it has made me a much happier and healthier person – after years and years of difficult hard work and buckets of tears, so don’t give up too quickly. I wish you all the best for your journey towards greater happiness!