Strangling Stereotypes

Photograph by Chloe Green 2012

Meeting someone at a party or social occasion and revealing to them that you’ve trained to be a psychotherapist, usually evokes a discernible reaction.

Not always a pleasant one.

Scenarios I’ve encountered:

The Escape Artist likely to be thinking, “Oh dear god, get me away from her quickly! She’s definitely  dull, eerily earnest, and will probably spend the whole evening analysing my every move.”

The Dissenter“Isn’t psychotherapy merely a self indulgent pursuit with the sole intent of avoiding accountability and blaming your parents for everything?”

The Macho Man, “I talk sports, stocks, sex and statistics in no apparent order. Feelings are for females.”

The Veteran, “Been there. Done that. Have had sixteen therapists since I was sixteen. I know so much I could be YOUR therapist.  I mean – seriously!”

And finally The Virgin, “Wow! That’s amazing! It must be fate that I ended up meeting you tonight, because I’ve always thought about seeing a therapist and I have like a million stories that I think you’re going to be really interested in…”
One of the first clients I ever treated was a woman about 20 years older than me.  When I entered the waiting room to greet her, she dropped her jaw in disbelief.

“The therapy is with YOU?” 

I’m not sure what she was expecting. Maybe a few more wrinkles. A flowing cardigan and jade beads. I obviously didn’t meet her expectation of what a ‘proper’ therapist was supposed to look like.  She held a stereotype in her head, as we all have the tendancy to do.  Sometimes it is much easier to summarise people in one dimension (like I  have playfully done with my party goers above) than to stay receptive to the complexity of  all human beings, regardless of race, gender, nationality, religion, and even profession.

Stereotypes strangle.

It turned out that despite being in my thirties, with a leaning towards Death Cab for Cutie and a cupboard full of skinny jeans, I was still a good listener. And the client eventually realized that.

Writing and Psychotherapy require similar skills. If you are writing fiction, you owe it to your characters not to sum them up in a sentence (as fun and easy as that can be) Your characters should become your clients.  They need to be the ones at the party, keeping you in the corner, spilling their histories. Stay curious. Keep your ears open. Observe their body language and their gestures. Find out about their parents.  It does matter Mr Dissenter – I promise.

And if you are writing about yourself, then you have the pleasure and the pain of internal investigation. The two endeavours are bursting with benefits. And while each come with a handful of hazards, ultimately they share the same joyful purpose: to artfully activate transformation, leaving the recipient altered and opened, in ways both subtle and sweeping.

Write about stereotypes. Are you stereotyped in your world? Have you encountered obstacles as a result? OR Write about writing. What are your tricks for ‘fleshing’ out your characters? How do you avoid the pitfalls of flat packing and build more dimensional creatures instead? SHARE YOUR FINDINGS HERE! I’m the Good Listener, remember?!

4 Responses to “Strangling Stereotypes”

  1. Jenn P
    March 3, 2012 at 6:33 pm #

    As a blonde, blue-eyed female from Los Angeles, I suppose to some extent I am a poster child for the pretty-but-dumb stereotype (blonde jokes have always offended me). Indeed, for example, I remember having a conversation with a male classmate in college who, at the end of our conversation, said, "Wow, I never expected you would be so smart." I can't imagine that I had given him reason by speech or behavior prior to that moment to suspect that I wasn't intelligent. I suspected then and now that this guy's lack of expectation for my intellectual capacity had to do with his assumptions about my appearance. I don't think I've encountered obstacles as a result of my appearance, probably because I've always been in the habit of using my voice. I don't do this expressly to counteract a stereotype, but instead to advocate for myself, for who I am in all of my variety as a person. Despite a certain shyness in childhood and adolescence, I found and began articulating my voice by the time I had hit my late teens-early 20s and I've not stopped. This concept of voice has become especially important to me as I work daily with a population that IS regularly stereotyped and often dismissed: teenagers. When strangers hear that I am a teacher, the first response is usually a delight-tinged "Oh! How wonderful!" And then comes the next question, expectant with further delight: "What grade do you teach?" When I say brightly "High school seniors," the response of the other person often falls on short spectrum of distaste: bewilderment-pity-disgust. "Really?!" or "Well, you have your work cut out for you, don't you?" or "I don't know how you do it." When I've queried the reply, I am usually told, "Teenagers are so [fill in the blank: rude, selfish, lazy] these days." And there it is: the stereotype of the teenager.In the face of that stereotype I don't hesitate to raise that voice on behalf of my adolescent students, who are some of the most interesting, compassionate, funny, and articulate human beings I know. I will tell whoever maligns them that my adolescent students constantly amaze me with their ability to create community, to think deeply about the world they live in, and to look for ways to make that world a better place. The teenagers I spend my days with are compassionate beings who believe all Americans deserve the right to marry. They are citizens who are deeply troubled by the venal tendencies of American politicians who put profit over people. They are future parents and leaders who recycle their plastic bottles, volunteer with Tree People, and march in breast cancer walks because they want the world to be a healthier, safer place. Sure, these teenagers are still hindered sometimes by the natural process of brain development, whereby their two frontal lobes still have not fully connected and thus the cause-effect mechanism is still not firmly engaged. Sure, my teenage students make dumb mistakes, slip up with etiquette, and can show astounding self-interest sometimes. But has the so-called adult world really cornered the market on NOT doing these things? After sharing with the disbelieving stereotyper my defense of teenagers, I always say, "How lucky am I to work with them?!" I turn that stupid stereotype on its head, and sometimes the person I'm talking to actually looks envious of how I spend my days.

  2. Rory Green
    March 3, 2012 at 11:58 pm #

    Jenn, thank you for this precious insight into how you wrangle with stereotypes in both your personal and professional worlds. I appreciate the points you make on both counts and I especially applaud this sentiment 'Sure, my teenage students make dumb mistakes, slip up with etiquette, and can show astounding self-interest sometimes. But has the so-called adult world really cornered the market on NOT doing these things?' !!! Excellent point!

  3. Kristin
    March 5, 2012 at 5:25 am #

    No matter how much lip service the world gives to the importance of raising children, as soon as someone knows I am a stay-at-home-mom, ther are the age old jokes about soap opera obsessing and bon-bon snacking start… not to mention the ever popular awkward silence filler, "And that's the hardest job of all!"I don't need people to make me feel "okay" with what I have chosen to do because I am so grateful for having had this time with my kids… sometimes I feel like lying and telling people I dive a taxi or work the night shift at 7-11…

  4. Rory Green
    March 5, 2012 at 3:58 pm #

    Thank you for sharing, Kristin! So important to know that it is not other people's responsibility to make us feel 'okay' – it needs to come from within us. Sometimes harder to do than to say, which is so often the case. Thank you for raising such a valuable point in regards to how we value ourselves…

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