What’s in a #stickerselfie?

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Photo: Jaqueline Moreno. Mowgli reminding me what I truly need after voting.

What our country has been witnessing over the past several weeks, leading up to the November 6th midterm election, is a massive behavioral intervention program.

I had a conversation with my dad exactly ten years ago, ~extremely~ proud of having received my first-ever “I Voted!” sticker. It was November 2008. I had turned 18 that spring, and had just voted for the first black president of this country in my first-ever election. “Although,” I said in my ‘I’m-18-and-legally-an-adult-thus-I-know-everything”‘voice, “you know that the ads aren’t ~exactly~ telling the truth. They say that each vote matters—well technically, that’s not true. If everyone who was going to vote today still voted, and you just take out my one vote, technically it makes no difference.” (I can be kind of unbearable sometimes.)

His patriotic pupils dilated and he immediately schooled me. “No,” he said, “you’re right in that each vote individually does not matter, IF you control for the rest of the ballots that would have happened. But we don’t live in a science experiment. You need to believe that every vote matters. That’s the whole point, that’s the beauty of the right to vote. You learned about the three-fifths compromise, right? People used to be counted as less-than-people. Thanks to those who paved the way in previous generations, your vote is not more or less important than mine, or more or less important than any other landowning male’s” (cue my ‘barf’ gesture). “And with everyone believing in the inherent value of their voice, the individual votes become the thousands of votes that DO decide elections.”

I was floored, impressed, and speechless. My parents had taught me from a young age that behavior has consequences. Behavior analysis taught me that adjustments and changes to environments we made affected behavior we wanted to see happen. Plus, anger and rage can be great motivators for change. Imagine if people hadn’t bothered to challenge the notion that they were less-people-than-people. Imagine if women hadn’t bothered to challenge the notion that what lay between their legs was more important than what lay between their ears. Imagine if I hadn’t had parents who understood that raising a responsible citizen involved demonstrating that my place in “the bigger picture” was a symbolic dot in this country’s grandest Monet.

What we have seen with ads and massive campaigns (hehe) to get people out and voting is a collective effort of enriching the environment to get people believing in their own voices. That’s such an abstract concept, and when dissected to a microscopic level, okay fine, one individual vote doesn’t decide elections in those dramatic, last-second-touchdown-in-overtime kinds of ways.

So what’s really in a phrase? What’s really in a sticker? What does that requisite selfie actually reflect? It reflects a belief in social change. It reflects a behavior intervention strategy that WORKS—hope. Every vote matters, every voice is important. It reflects a belief that small, individual steps contribute to our journey toward a kinder, more compassionate world. I smile at those selfies. Keep ’em coming! Where there is an ‘I Voted’ #stickerselfie, there is hope.

Models Have Problems Too

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Okay, full disclosure, I’m not necessarily a model. But I could be! (Hit me up, Dove.) And YOU could be a model! And you! [Insert Oprah impression here.]

In an environment ~renowned~ for its empathetic approach to certain people’s struggles (I won’t say where or who or when), a discussion arose surrounding stigma toward people’s bodies. “Overweight, obese, large, lard, wide load, heavy, curvy, plump, jiggly, lumpy, bubblebutt,” and just plain “fat” were all given as examples of terms used for bodies of a certain stature. “Oh the struggles overweight people face in such a CRUEL and ASSUMING society!” was the cry of the downtrodden.

“But wait,” offered a dissenter, “there’s definitely a trend of ‘skinny shaming’ going around as well. Just look at Robbie Tripp’s ridiculous post that included a claim that models and actresses weren’t ‘real.’ Pretty sure they’d beg to differ. It’s caught on, somehow, assuming superficially thin people can’t have their own problems, or they’re not as bad.”

“Oh yeah, models have problems. Like whether to eat a cherry- or mint-flavored Lifesaver that day.”

“I mean, sure, they have their own problems, right??” *index finger mimed down her throat* “Bleeechh. Ahahaha!”

Cue some more laughter.

Ooooohhhh was I irate.

Far be it for this behavior analyst to say the fashion and entertainment environments haven’t shaped some behavior and unspoken ‘rules’ about how people SHOULD look, men and women alike. Enter the growing number of campaigns (love you, Dove) aiming to shed a light that anyone medically ALIVE is a real person, whether she be a size 0 or 10 or 26. (No, they’re not paying me, but oh boy, wouldn’t I love them to)!

Real women ALSO have brains, would you believe it?? Shoutout, Tory Burch. Some campaigns have also pointed out that size isn’t the be-all, end-all determinant of perfection. A size 6, able-bodied woman would traditionally be picked over a size 0 woman confined to a wheelchair, or a size 2 transgender model. (Ahh! #AllMeansAll and I love all of you, SmartGlamour!) Especially in my field, I’m always advocating that “real people” exist by virtue of, ya know, being people.

And HERE were others, on the flip side of what entertainment and fashion industries have traditionally sold, reducing the problems of others who didn’t look like them to inconsequential quips. Or worse, reducing life-threatening issues to laughable pantomimes. Granted, this group has their own histories of being bullied and marginalized. But does that give them license to marginalize and bully back?

Spoiler alert: No.

Models and actors are people paid for jobs, like bankers or teachers. Last I checked, it’s our indulgence in their industries that’s kept them afloat. Some #woke organizations are also taking on a greater definition of the role itself — ‘plus-size’ models, special-needs models, LGBTQ+ models. Guess what, models literally come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and textures. Attacking (because that’s what they were doing) thin people as a whole, as a culture or type, does what Robbie Tripp so infamously did last week — objectifies and judges people based on their bodies.

In that room, I would venture to guess 0% of those people were ever personally victimized by an individual model on a set. (Except by Regina George, we’ve all been personally victimized by her.) But in all seriousness, ridiculing or invalidating “models” as a collective group of people whose issues range from “zero” to “meh” creates much of the backlash seen with the popular, but still problematic, “white people problems.”

What’s the behavioral contingency behind all this shaming? Attention from others? Self-soothing of our own problems by making others’ so much less problem-y? Escape from anxiety? Because yes, life is behavioral af.

Of course, the behaviorist in me acknowledges that empathy has so much of a greater response effort than ridiculing. If we feel we have little connection to people, we’re so much more likely to invalidate their feelings, as it raises OUR problems to a priority, both to ourselves and in our social circles. Here’s the thing, though — invalidating ANY problems of ANY group reduces empathy. Period. That’s it. Full stop.

Denial River

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I have VERY strong feelings about denial—and no, I don’t mean the river in Egypt (lol, puns).

In as ~gentle~ of a way that I can, I try explaining to my clients’ families that denial only serves as a temporary band-aid, a fake escape from whatever might be unveiling before them. Parents and families with kids who have special needs may be in denial about their kids’ capabilities at present, their kids’ capabilities in the future, MY capabilities about what I can do about their kids’ capabilities in the future, and other such concerns.

I love Olivia Pope’s wardrobe, but no, I’m not that kind of “fixer.” Oh, but can I get her white coat though??

At my core, however, I’m afraid of denial.  It’s a tempting lull into a false reality where we can convince ourselves of anything! We can convince ourselves that what matters to us or our children no longer does. We can convince ourselves that the world has stopped to allow us to wallow in some discomfort.

Every day, I walk into situations full of denial. Families resist and refuse to make changes in their home environment because their kids should just know what the rules are. They convince themselves it’s their kid who’s the problem, denying their own roles in shaping future behavior. It’s denial that continues spurring this whole anti-vaccination nonsense!

“Jackie, do you believe this whole vaccination conspiracy theory thing?”

“Omg that’s just ridiculous. I can’t believe there are people out there who believe it.”

“THANK YOU! It’s so refreshing to hear a behaviorist say that vaccines cause autism.”

“Wait, wait oh no, wait WHAT??”

“This anti-vaccine conspiracy theory is crazy.”

“Wait, oh no, vaccines DON’T cause autism. Ohemgee, um, your kid’s not vaccinated? HE COULD DIE OF MEASLES!”

“But you work with autistic kids, you know. Kids could get autism.”

“THEY COULD DIE OF MEASLES AND BE DEAD, THOUGH.”

I’m constantly asked by new clients’ parents if I have any kids myself. UGH I hate that question! If I DID have my own kids, they’d be completely different! They wouldn’t mirror what’s going on with their kids, so as a comparison sample, they’d be shaky at best. But because I DON’T have my own kids (they laugh and say, no, my cats don’t count, whatever), I’m seen as some twentysomething Millennial who thinks she can just come in to their house and tell them what to do.

But I am, though.

I AM a twentysomething, a Millennial who came of age in the 2000s, who studied herself into the wee hours of many mornings, who earned the degrees and completed the trainings that mean, yes, I can tell them what to do. Because I study behavior. Because I’m not in denial about what behavior patterns look like, what they can predict and tell us about future behavior patterns.

Does this make it hard to do my job sometimes? Duh. Parents don’t like being told how to parent—go figure. But I’ve had to check myself on the resistance these parents initially show me.

I’ve been asked by many professors and other clients, how do I address parents’ denial? There’s no set way, but the first thing any behaviorist must understand is that the denial is a symptom of underlying emotional conflicts. The parents didn’t just wake up one morning and decide, “I’m going to make myself think that my 13-year-old child, who can’t use more than 10 words to communicate, will graduate from medical school!”

Behaviorists can get sticks up our butts when it comes to the emotional conflicts underlying many families’ issues. We ourselves can get into our own denial, thinking that the world turns in the same logical, behavioral equations as the ones we use in intervention plans. That’s something I’ve tried imparting to the therapists on my teams—the training and mindset that enable us to see patterns in people’s behavior is trained. It’s not innate, and it CERTAINLY isn’t as simple when one’s own child is thrown in the mix.

Professionals in our field need to remember that denial is simply a coping mechanism against the harsh realities of what their lives and their loved ones’ lives suddenly become. Denial is absolutely dangerous to a child and family’s progress, but the onus also lies with us professionals. When we create such binary worlds for these families, with stark and sharp realities harsh and cold, families’ defaults will be a retreat into something that doesn’t hurt to the touch. And then professionals complain that families won’t meet them halfway—but have WE met the family halfway? Or did we draw a black-and-white picture, a stoic portrait of a devoid future because, well, it’s easier for us that way?