Consent is Not Black and White… and other helpful mental health tips!

Consent is Not Black and White… and other helpful mental health tips!

March 20, 2019 Off By Thumper

Now how many of you noticed your blood boil, or your fingers go tingly, or your mind begin to race when you read the title? Good, let’s talk about that.

In the brain, there’s a response to stress. It’s called fight or flight (or freeze as some have added). Our brains cannot tell the difference between a stressor like a Jaguar showing up in a tree, or someone who cut us off in traffic. Now, what’s super fun about the brain is that when it’s confronted by a stressor, which activates that natural instinct, our pre-frontal cortex (the part of our brain responsible for rational decision making) turns off. Isn’t that a neat trick?! It’s neat when faced with a Jaguar, cause you need to live. Not so neat when faced with a statement that challenges your deeply held beliefs. It messes up your ability to engage. It’s also not helpful in traffic. Trust me, I become a raging monster.

I’m gonna be doing some more psychology groundwork here to get us all on the same page. Please stick with me.

The next thing I wanna tell you about is confirmation bias: the tendency for ALL brains to find, get attached to, and integrate things we ALREADY KNOW or things that CONFIRM what we think is true. Everyone does it. It’s why we have double blind studies. It’s why conspiracy theories can be so loosely woven together that they “make sense” to people. We like to be right. And that’s ok.

So every time we are confronted with an experience, event, or nugget of knowledge, and our brain connects it to something we think is true, we get a little happy dose of chemicals. Mmmm that feels lovely right? Not only does it feel good, it strengthens that connection. So next time someone is rude to you, and you think it’s because “you’re not (blank) enough” because that’s an experience you had in the past? Mmmm happy chemicals. Congratulations! You made that thought and pathway stronger and more likely to show up again and again!

The brain is kind of a dick huh!

Here’s another nugget of truth: your brain is meant to keep you alive, not to make you thrive. What does that mean: your brain is evolutionarily programmed to keep doing stuff that’s worked! So chances are you reacting passively, angrily, ignoring things, being a perpetrator, being a victim, or any other emotions or feelings have kept you going for ten or more years. And ya that can be incredibly frustrating.

It’s one of the reasons I push for something I call “thickening the story” when I work with clients.

A lotta times, a client will speak with me about how “bad” or “awful” they are, and tell me about a situation that “proves” to me that they are. And what I do as a therapist is ask questions, teach them what I mentioned above (this can take quite a few sessions), and invite them to look at themselves as not being at fault. Chances are, there were specific circumstances, nuances, and random chance that may have affected their behavior.

This is thickening the story. It’s removing the label of black or white, which generally means all or nothing, and even good vs evil. It allows for more depth, understanding, sympathy and most important of all: empathy. That person sitting in front of me is no longer a thing to be judged. It’s a person like me, full of thousands of pages of knowledge that influence who and what they are. So how disrespectful of them would it be for me to judge that behavior?

“Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”

It’s a huge battle and a constant struggle. And some of it has truly only happened because I decided to make mental health my life’s work. Which also means I have to be willing to do my own work to confront biased and such. So for any of you looking to go into mental health? We all know you’re doing it to figure yourself out (I did and so did all my classmates) so I hope you’re ready to uncover some weird stuff and sit with it!

Now back to the point: consent is not black and white.

One more thing I want to introduce before we continue: mindfulness. Being mindful is not thinking about nothing. The very base of mindfulness is just watching without getting caught up in a thought. Some have explained it to me as laying in the grass looking at the clouds. You see one, you know it’s there, you allow it to come into your visual framework and you study it. Pretty soon another cloud comes into view, and naturally you allow the other to leave your view until another comes.

The easiest way for me to understand it is curiosity. A thought or emotion pops into my brain, and rather than getting attached to what it says, or believing everything it says is true, I turn my head to the side a little and say, “now that’s an interesting thought!” No judgment, no value statements. I am curious about myself and what my brain does on its own: think. Your brain will always be thinking. Until you’re dead. Until then, I promise, your brain will be in a constant state of throwing out some wild stuff. You just get to witness it!

So if at any time during the dialogue below, you find yourself struggling, go back and read the above. The above is meant to give a framework into my thinking and my beliefs. It’s also based on a lot of psychology, neuroscience, sociology, meditation, and other random tidbits I’ve picked up along the way.

The point of saying consent is not black and white is to thicken the story, allow for nuance, and make for a deeper understanding.

Chances are you make hundreds of decisions that involve consent every day. Should I smile at that person? What about grabbing something that’s falling? Does this person need a hand across the street? Someone is crying on the bus, what do I do? My friend is coming over and feels sad, should I put my arm around them? Do I lift up that person who fell? Someone is touching me and I’m uncomfortable. Someone is touching me and I’m very comfortable.

I’m sure in each of those scenarios, some thoughts when through your head on how you’d react. And possibly some judgment about others depending on how THEY would react. If we cut off the dialogue of asking what made that person consciously or unconsciously make their choice, we throw out a two page story of theirs. We don’t bother reading their story or getting to know it. We sum up their choice and their life into something brief, detestable, and throw it away. We show great disrespect to them and us by not allowing their story to live.

I do not type up a list of things every day that are or are not ok. Because let’s face it, our moods change faster than we realize and one moment we may wanna cry into the shoulder of a friend, and the next recoil at the slightest human touch. That’s ok!

I like when strangers touch me basically anywhere except my butt and my penis, and as long as it’s not a painful touch. But that’s just me! Other people can’t stand any sort of touch at all! And that’s ok! So if someone touches me and I do like it, I’ll try and make a conversation about it:

“oooh hey thanks, btw, do I know you? Cause this feels great but it might be better in my room or after I at least know your name.”

Or: “oh hey I’m having a really bad day and I’d prefer a hug rather than something sensual. It’s making me feel uncomfortable.”

Did you see that? Dialogue! Also, I owned my feelings. No blame assigned to the other, just me owning what I’m feeling and expressing it.

Now this is where I’ll own some of my own assumptions. And I’m sure I’m missing a few but these are my basic rules around consent. These are all based on my own experiences, and everyone will be different. This is just leading to more thoughts and discussion:

  • If non-verbal communication is the only thing to do, touch a place that’s not gonna be taboo like an ear, nose, shoulder, back, or snout.
  • Before beginning a scene, teach safety words for “go”, “slow down”, “stop”, and “I need everything to stop immediately so I can feel safe.”
  • If I have been told twice or more that a certain behavior makes people uncomfortable, check in with myself, my therapist and friends. I can absolutely be wrong.
  • If multiple people in any minority group says “(blank) is not okay no matter in the past, present or future” I will respect that limit. Unless asked to push against that limit by that person whether in or out of a scene.
  • If I like something and I dunno how the other person feels, ALWAYS start at the least discomfort level. If they respond positively or give the safe word for “go” or “more” I will very slowly continue, always giving time and space for them to say “slow down” or “enough”, at ANY point.
  • If substances are involved, I will be even more slow and cautious in my coming into their space, asking for consent and exploring.
  • I will take responsibility for unintentionally hurting someone on purpose or accident, by apologizing if necessary.
  • I will remind myself that it is not my fault when someone chooses not to respect their own limits by using pre-established safety rules and words. My safety matters. And mine comes first.

These are my basic rules. And I think they’re decent.

Notice that it’s not a “yes” or “no” list. Imagine all the stuff you could potentially miss out on if neither person got to explain their story, or show you the intricacies involved in something. Does saying consent is black and white work? To some extent. It shows the seriousness of the issue.

But it leaves no room for discussion. It’s totalitarian in its simplicity and marketing. It makes a villain of one person and a victim of the other. And I don’t like being in either of those spaces for too long.

So please, in all your doings, make room for a story. Look for the in-the-middle spaces that allow for a deeper understanding of people and their lives. You don’t have to adopt their views. And their views deserve to be taken seriously.

With all my love,