Zach Rawlings, MA, LPC

Licensed Professional Counselor

Alphabet Soup

As a therapist who frequently works with members of the LGBTQ+ population, I sometimes get asked about the purpose of all the letters in the LGBTQ+ acronym: 

“What’s with the alphabet soup in the acronym?” 

“What ever happened to just being gay or straight?  Why do new letters continually get added?” 

“It’s just too complicated to keep up with.  It seems a bit over-the-top.  Is the gay community just trying to be difficult?”

These are reasonable questions.  On the surface, it may appear like the LGBTQ+ community is attempting to be cryptic and elusive to remain mysterious with all the letters in their acronym that express different nuances of various sexual and gender identities.  However, this is not the reason.  To better understand the purpose for the continual addition of letters to the LGBTQ+ acronym, we must first understand how language plays a role in everyone’s understanding of who they are.

In America, we have traditionally held to a binary view of gender.  That is, anything that cannot be categorized in simple male-female terms typically causes confusion, or even discomfort for some.  For example, confusion can transpire when someone has a biological sex that does not match their psychological gender (that is, one may be anatomically male, but feel like they are a female or like they do not belong to either gender).  What can increase that confusion is not being able to find a specific word with which one can identify themselves when one doesn’t fit the binary mold.  Language helps us make sense of ourselves and the world around us.  When language fails to provide the correct description for who we are or how we feel, one can feel isolated, weird, and lonely. 

To help us understand how greatly language influences and shapes us, consider the following findings from a recent study on how language shapes culture:

  • Russian speakers, who have more words for light and dark blues, are better able to visually differentiate between different shades of blue.
  • The Australian Aboriginal people of Pormpuraaw don't use words like “left” or “right.”  Instead, they use directional words like north, west, east, and south when describing an object’s coordinates or giving directions.  As a result, they are exceptionally good at spatial orientation.  This is also true for speakers of other languages who utilize directional words in everyday speech.
  • The Piraha people avoid using number words.  Rather, they use terms like “few” and “many.”  As a result, they are unable to keep track of exact quantities.
  • Another study found that Spanish and Japanese speakers were not as proficient at remembering the people who caused accidents.  In Spanish and Japanese, the person who causes an accident or causality is dropped: “The vase broke,” rather than “John broke the vase” (Beroditsky, 2010).

These findings provide us some insight into the simple fact that words matter.  Having the right word to describe something has an influence on how we think about it and how we behave towards it.

Imagine feeling a certain way or experiencing a specific kind of attraction but not having the word to describe that experience to others?  Many members of the LGBTQ+ community have had such an experience.  Some have experienced firsthand the reality that our language can be limiting and can foster misunderstanding.  So, some have created new categories in an attempt to foster more understanding for their identity.

Only relatively recently have we begun to truly understand what it means to be heterosexual or homosexual.  Today, those words and concepts are relatively commonplace.  However, they haven’t been used for all that long, and their definitions have taken on varying nuances over time.  Prior to the 19th century, those words would not have been understood.  The terms first emerged in the 19th century to describe deviants (people who had sex for reasons other than procreation).  During this time, the words were only used by the medical community and were not widely understood by society at large (Paris, 2011).

In the 20th century, those outside of the medical community had no word for what most considered “normal” sexuality (sex between a man and a woman that did not involve contraception). Having a gender identity (identifying as male or female) also assumed you had a traditional sexuality, meaning you were attracted to the opposite sex.  The words “heterosexual” and “homosexual” did not make their way into mainstream print and were not commonly understood until the 1930’s.  As contraception became more widely used and accessible, sexual identity became more thoroughly linked to sexual feelings.  Prior to this, sexuality was viewed almost exclusively to serve the function of procreation (Paris, 2011). 

 It was then that people began to understand what the terms homosexual and heterosexual meant to a larger degree.  For the first time, sex was not being linked exclusively to serving the purpose of procreating.  It was now being understood in a way that was separate from family, reproduction, and religion.  Prior to this shift, people in America did not have the language to describe sexual feelings toward someone of the same sex.  They really didn’t even have the proper language to describe heterosexual sexual feelings (Paris, 2011)!

Imagine the frustration and isolation folks who were attracted to members of their same sex during this time experienced.  Being a part of a sexual minority can already feel isolating, but not having a word to describe your internal feelings only adds to that loneliness.

In an attempt to help people avoid experiencing these negative emotions, members of the LGBTQ+ community have taken strides to improve language by creating words and labels to help others better understand who they are in terms of their sexuality and gender.  Everyone wants to be understood, and language is the primary vehicle by which that understanding can be achieved.

Many heterosexuals throughout history have not felt the need to be understood by the language because they belong to the majority. Everyone knows what it means to be straight.  Our language has helped us understand that.  Most understand what it means to fit neatly into a male or female category as well.  Our language has also helped us understand that.  Folks from the LGBTQ+ community have not had such a luxury.  Most of them have had to navigate their identities secretly, trenched in a lot of shame because the language and culture at large did not foster understanding for their experience.

 The LGBTQ+ community is not trying to be difficult.  They aren’t trying to breed more confusion.  And they certainly aren’t trying to remain mysterious and misunderstood.  The attempt to create an all-encompassing acronym is actually striving to do the opposite—to create understanding by increasing our language’s capacity so that everyone can experience the beautiful feeling of being known and understood.

*For a more comprehensive list of the various sexual and gender identities that exist, visit here.

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Beroditsky, L. (2010, July 23). Lost in translation: New cognitive research suggests that language profoundly influences the way people see the world; a different sense of blame in Japanese and Spanish. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052748703467304575383131592767868.

Paris, J. W. (2011). The end of sexual identity. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

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Five Signs You May Need to See a Therapist

I remember when I told my baby boomer parents about my chosen profession when I got accepted into graduate school.  My dad’s response: “You want to work with crazy people, huh?” 

Well… not quite.  

The idea that therapy is only for those who are mentally ill or “crazy” is pervasive, and sadly, that stigma still prevents many people from seeking out a therapist when they really need one.  A 2004 poll by the American Psychological Association reported that 30% of Americans worried about others finding out if they saw a therapist, and 20% wouldn’t seek out a therapist due to the stigma associated with therapy (Russell, 2011).  That’s an alarmingly sad statistic despite all of the work we have done to de-stigmatize mental health in the past decades.  Although therapy is becoming more culturally acceptable (and even hip in some circles), many people are still uncomfortable with the idea of receiving mental health services. 

Most people would go to the doctor for a physical problem that wouldn’t go away—so what’s so different about seeking professional help for a persistent mental or emotional situation?  Perhaps you have found yourself stuck in some patterns and feel the need to get some outside help.  Maybe the stigma is preventing you from reaching out to a professional.  Or, maybe you’re just not sure that you are a good candidate for therapy. No matter the reason, I have compiled a list of the top five reasons I have found to use as indicators to inform someone if therapy might be a good option for them: 

  • You have experienced something you can’t stop thinking aboutWe all have experiences that can occupy our thoughts from time to time.  But sometimes a certain experience can consume our thoughts, emotions, and even our behaviors.  When something of this magnitude occurs, our brain does not know how to process it.  Instead of processing the information normally, it will often replay the episode over and over.  When the episode is replayed so often, the original negative emotions usually accompany it.  This type of occurrence often needs professional assistance to help the memory or experience get processed as it should.  Such unprocessed memories can result in dysfunctional relationship dynamics and increased stress, fear, and anxiety.  Most people experience an event like this in their lifetime, and therapy can allow you to effectively process such events.
  • You struggle to connect meaningfully with others. Relationships give our lives meaning.  Some of our happiest and most unpleasant memories alike usually include a relationship of some type.  When we are unable to connect with others in a meaningful way, it causes loneliness, fear, anger, and many other negative emotions.  Perhaps you can’t quite figure out how other people seem to make friends so effortlessly, or you don’t have a complete understanding as to what caused so many of your former friendships or romantic relationships to fail. Overall, if you’re struggling to connect with others, it’s a good indicator that therapy might be helpful for you to explore your relational dynamics in greater detail.
  • Your doctor can’t explain your physical symptoms or attribute them to a specific medical condition.  Solid research has indicated that our minds and bodies are more interconnected than we once knew.  In other words, when we are in psychological pain, it can take a toll on our body, and vice versa (Levine, 2010).  Many people are mystified by their physical symptoms and cannot seem to get answers from their medical professionals.  Often, a simple mental health assessment by a mental health professional can inform and give insight to a variety of issues, conditions, and physical ailments.
  • You have tried many ways to get better by yourself but do not seem to be improving.  Let’s face it, therapy costs money and can be uncomfortable; it’s sometimes unpleasant to admit we need the help of others.  But here’s the reality: we all need help from others in our lives. One of my favorite authors and writers, Margaret Wheatley, emphasizes the need for humanity to turn toward one another instead of operating in competition with each other (Wheatley, 2009).  We are relational beings by nature, and when we attempt to tackle problems in isolation, we often get stuck, frustrated and disillusioned.  When we turn inwards, we are missing the beauty that relationships can bring to our lives by showing another perspective, another way of relating, or another way of being.
  • Your friends are concerned about you.  Often times the people we are closest to can be the best indicators of how we are really doing.  I encourage many of my clients to occasionally survey their closest relationships in order to practice and grow their self-awareness skills.  We can learn a lot by asking others the simple question: “How do you experience me?”  It’s a bold question and likely surfaces a great deal of discomfort when we think about asking it.  However, it’s an important question and can offer a vast amount of insight into our relationship dynamics.  If your friends have voiced problems or struggles with you, then listen.  If you’re unsure if you should see a therapist, then ask your friends and family members for their opinion.  Get multiple perspectives so you can make the best decision for yourself.

Overall, therapy is usually never a bad idea.  When you make the decision to see a therapist, you are taking a step toward better understanding yourself and improving the relationships with those around you.  This list is by no means exhaustive, but it can serve as a good start as you navigate the discomfort that may surface when contemplating whether therapy will be a good choice for you.  If you have further questions about how and why therapy works, please see my thoughts here or shoot me an email.  I wish you lots of courage as you continue on your journey!

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Levine, P. (2010). In an unspoken voice: How the body releases trauma and restores goodness. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Russell, M. (2011). Don’t ask, don’t tell: The stigma of going to therapy. The Albert Ellis Institute. Retrieved from http://rebtinstitute.org/blog/2011/08/17/dont-ask-dont-tell-the-stigma-of-going-to-therapy.

Wheatley, M. (2009). Turning to one another: Simple conversations to restore hope to the future. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

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A Silent Epidemic Among Men

According to the National Eating Disorder Association (2012), 10 million males in the United States will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some point in their lives.

10,000,000 men.

That number is staggering, and even more startling is the fact that men who battle eating disorders are significantly less likely than women to reach out for help.

These disturbing trends elicit a couple of obvious questions:

What causes such a large number of men to battle eating disorders?

And why do they not seek out resources?

First, the media portrayal of the idealized male body has increased significantly in muscle size from the 1970’s to present day.  Take a look at the guy that made every girl woozy back in the 1970’s: David Cassidy.

He had it all (or almost all)—luscious locks, killer style, and a wholesome image from his prominent role on the television smash The Partridge Family.  Now, take a look at what he didn’t have—washboard abs or B-cup pecs.  By today’s standards his body is…well, average.

Now let’s feast our eyes on one of today’s biggest sex symbols: Channing Tatum.

Channing_Tatum.jpg

His body has quite the stark difference from the very relatable and wholesome-looking David Cassidy.  Never mind the fact that his washboard abs are the product of high intakes of supplements and proteins and massive amounts of training.  Today’s ideal body image has increased in muscle size so significantly since the 1970’s that it’s largely unattainable to the average male.

With such a high standard for most guys today, it’s no wonder eating disorders among males are on the rise—especially in the gay community.  Gay men only contribute to roughly 5% of the general population.  Yet, of the men who admit to having an eating disorder, 42% of them are gay (National Eating Disorder Association, 2012).

However, unattainable body image is not the only culprit causing a rise in eating disorders among men. 

Our tendency to pressure men into hiding their vulnerability is another contributor.  Although our society has made great strides to adopt more options of what it means to be “male” by loosening up gender roles, many men still feel confined to the rigid expectations that they shouldn’t disclose negative or vulnerable emotions.  Many men feel they must maintain a tough appearance to avoid being viewed as weak or powerless. 

In one study, it was discovered that men who share openly about their weaknesses were actually viewed less favorably (by both men and women) than women who chose to share openly about their vulnerabilities (Collins & Miller, 1994).  Although many people might believe they want the men in their lives to disclose more, research indicates that isn’t necessarily always true.

Most men don’t need the research to prove to them that they will often be viewed as weak when they choose to express vulnerability.  It’s something most men have battled their entire lives.  As a therapist, I have listened to numerous men break down in tears as they have confided to me the pain it has caused them to suppress so much.  One client said it best when he told me in one of our sessions:

“I learned early on to not put my heart into the sports I played.  If I did, it would break my heart when my team lost.  And, sometimes, I would even cry.  I hated crying.  I felt like a pussy.  So I chose to not care as much about what I was doing to protect me from feeling the negative emotion.”

His experience encapsulates what so many men are feeling.

Don’t show your weakness, and if needed, numb yourself from caring or investing in important people or things to prevent your weakness from showing.

It’s a tough place to operate from if you’re a guy.  You’re left with two options: choose to share weakness and feel emotions fully and risk being viewed unfavorably or cut your negative emotions off and numb yourself to the world around you.

It’s probably no surprise that I’m an advocate for the first option.  Here’s why:

Often times the pressure to not disclose negative feelings or vulnerabilities results in internalized and suppressed feelings of inadequacy and shame.  The bad news is that these negative feelings usually manifest themselves in some way—pornography addictions, sex addictions, an inability to have a successful relationship, and most currently, eating disorders. Combine all of this judgment of emotion with rigid gender role dogma, traditional male ideals, and some good old-fashioned body-image shame and you have yourself a recipe for a silent epidemic among men. 

 Unpleasant emotions rarely go away without some intentional action.

As many men know, sometimes the pressure feels unconquerable, but there are solutions other than participating in the problem.  Many resources in our Denver community are beginning to understand the specific dynamics men who battle eating disorders are up against.  Call me for a free consultation if you or a male you know might be struggling with an eating disorder.  End the silence of this growing epidemic and choose to embrace and experience your masculinity differently.

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Collins, N.L., & Miller, L. C. (1994). Self-disclosure and liking: A meta-analytic review.  Psychological Bulletin, 116, 457-475.

National Eating Disorders Association (2012). Statistics on males and eating disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/statistics-males-and-eating-disorders.

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When Is My Child's Sexual Play Unhealthy?

One of the biggest misconceptions among parents is that children blossom instantaneously into their sexuality once they enter adolescence.  It comes as a surprise to many parents that children are born as sexual creatures.  Sure, that sexuality remains latent for most of their childhood, but it will usually manifest itself throughout your child’s early life.  All children go through sexual stages, though often times they do not have the adequate vocabulary to communicate what they are experiencing or thinking as they navigate those stages.

Children are wired to be sexual, but the “sexual switch” can get flipped earlier for some.  A child’s sexual knowledge and behavior is strongly influenced by many factors, including the child’s age, what the child observes, and what the child is taught.

Younger children (less than 4 years), typically display more immodest behavior and will often begin displaying natural curiosity—wanting to watch adults go to the bathroom, touching their genitals in public, etc.  This type of behavior is usually perfectly normal.

As children get older, they begin to intuitively understand the differences and similarities between their bodies and their peers’ bodies.  This can sometimes lead them to become more social in their interactions and explorations by partaking in activities like “playing doctor” and copying adult behaviors like kissing or holding hands.  Sometimes this exploration can result in children mutually touching one another, which can be disconcerting for many parents.  However, it’s important to remember that this type of behavior is usually typical in childhood sexual exploration.  According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, typical childhood sexual play usually:

  • Occurs between children who play together regularly and know each other well.
  •  Occurs between children of the same general age and physical size.
  • Is spontaneous and unplanned.
  • Is infrequent.
  • Is voluntary (both children agreed to the behavior).
  • Is easily diverted when parents tell children to stop and explain privacy rules.

While most often it is a normal part of development for children to seek sexual exploration, it is also important to be aware of the signs that could indicate an addressable issue, such as abuse.  Some common red flags to look out for as indicators that the sexual play may be unhealthy include any behavior that:

  •  Is clearly beyond a child’s developmental stage (i.e. a child wanting to kiss an adult’s genitals).
  • Involves threats, aggression, and force.
  • Involves children of widely different ages (i.e. a twelve-year-old “playing doctor” with a five-year-old).
  • Provokes a strong emotional reaction in the child.

No matter the types of play your child may take part in, remember to stay calm and try to understand if the situation is concerning.  The National Child Traumatic Stress Network recommends asking the following questions:

  • What were you doing?
  • How did you get the idea?
  • How did you learn about this?
  • How did you feel about doing it?

Many parents struggle to know how to ask these questions to their children because they can surface a great deal of discomfort within the parent.  However, talking to your children about sexuality is an important skill to learn in order to help your child navigate their exploration in a healthy way. Look for a way to connect with your child when asking these types of questions through lots of empathy and commonality.  Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable with your children (in an age-appropriate way) when talking to them about these uncomfortable topics.  For example, “I understand why you would be curious to know more about your brother’s private parts.  I know that I have been curious about other people’s bodies before too.  Can you tell me how you got the idea to spy on him while he was undressing?”

Above all, remember that you as a parent play a pivotal role in helping your child develop healthy attitudes and behaviors about sex.  Don’t rule out the importance of parental intuition.  If you still feel your child’s sexual behavior may be unhealthy or could be symptomatic of something concerning, seek professional help.