The ‘dark patterns’ that keep us hooked on gay geosocial apps

Essy Knopf dark patterns gay geosocial apps Grindr
Reading time: 8 minutes

To what does the gay geosocial app Grindr owe its success? Is it the fact that it was one of the first, or that its design employs highly manipulative “dark patterns”?

To understand Grindr’s extraordinary success—one that allowed it to achieve ubiquity in the gay community, and to become a fixture of popular culture—we have to go back to its launch.

On March 25, 2009, Grindr was officially founded by San Vicente Acquisition LLC. The app’s arrival came less than a year after Apple launched its App Store.

Certainly, the absence of direct competition boosted Grindr’s popularity. That said, the app didn’t represent a reinvention of the online dating wheel, so much as a refinement.

The app’s designers implemented existing features already present in existing web-based services, such as Gaydar and Manhunt, combining these with the ability to see other users based on proximity.

The geosocial aspect didn’t just endow all interactions with an exciting sense of immediacy—it accelerated them.

No longer tethered to web-based services only accessible via computer, gay men were suddenly able to respond and arrange meetups on the go.

The excitement, speed, and convenience enabled by Grindr were so attractive that a raft of other dating apps soon emerged to challenge its dominance.

The enduring popularity of dark patterns

Tinder, OkCupid, Scruff, Hornet, Hinge, Bumble—all of these apps represent iterations of a winning formula. New look, same great taste.

The more successful apps such as Scruff simply lifted features wholesale from Grindr, while others like Tinder introduced new mechanics, such as the ability to swipe to like or decline users’ profiles.

Not all geosocial dating apps flourished or even survived the mobile app development boom, one which, of course, was closely tied to the rise of smartphones.

Those that did however hadn’t so much caught the wave of a trend or were simply meeting an unmet need. They endured because they used manipulative tactics user experience specialist Harry Brignull calls “dark patterns”.

Dark patterns in action in gay geosocial apps

On Brignull’s “Dark Patterns” website (now referred to as “Deceptive Design”, he lists a number of strategies typically used by websites to control user behaviors.

Brignull offers creative analogies (e.g. “roach motel”) and compound words of his own invention (“confirmshaming”), detailing the extent to which website designers are willing to go in the name of profit.

In a 2020 interview with Wired, he summarized one of the major outcomes of dark pattern strategies: maximized retention of the user base.

“Lots of companies will make it hard for people to leave,” Brignull noted. “They are going to get around to it eventually, but if they might stay for an extra 10 percent of the time, or 20 percent, the accounts might live just a little bit longer.”

“And if you’re doing that en masse for hundreds of thousands of people, that translates to enormous amounts of money.”

Many of these dark patterns Brignull describes don’t pertain to geosocial dating apps, but those outlined on a sister website do.

Dark Pattern Games runs a registry that names and shames video games it says use dark pattern strategies. (Note: The site does not appear to be directly associated with Brignull, and its provenance is unclear.)

These strategies I would argue are present in many gay dating and hookup apps, given most of them incorporate gamification in their designs. 

While Grindr is hardly an exception to the norm, it receives credit for being the first gay geosocial app to succeed in mainstreaming dark patterns. 

For this reason, I will use this particular app as a case study, exploring the presence of temporal and psychological dark patterns and their impact on the user experience.

Temporal dark patterns in gay geosocial apps

Daily rewards: Logging into Grindr usually provides users an opportunity to collect messages sent from chat partners following their previous login.

User profiles appear in Grindr’s grid-based layout based on both proximity and how recently they have logged into the app.

Logging in therefore increases the chances of one’s profile being seen by those currently browsing the app.

This may thus trigger an influx of fresh messages, increasing the daily reward output and thus incentivizing users to return.

Grinding: Not to be confused with the popular verb for using Grindr, “grindring” (though the similarity here is ironic), this term refers to when apps force users to perform repetitive busywork to achieve a sense of advancement. 

In the case of Grindr, this involves screening countless profiles to see if they meet certain attractiveness and compatibility criteria.

This involves fielding cascades of unsolicited messages and photos, as well as chatting with an endless procession of old and new users.

Advertisements: Grindr forces users to watch ads before they can read or respond to messages from other users.

Besides buying a subscription membership, there is no way to bypass these ads. 

Infinite Treadmill: This term refers to when an app renders success or completion of a task impossible. 

Grindr’s old motto was “get on to get off”, with the app presenting itself as a kind of matchmaker between two people (or more) who were presumably seeking an in-person interaction. 

But meeting someone, whether it be for friendship or a sexual and/or romantic liaison, Grindr renders this almost impossible due to its gamified design.

To explain: in order to secure maximum responses, users have to continually engage with the app. For example, by logging in frequently, and tailoring profiles, messages, and photos to solicit responses from as many other users as possible.

When one receives such responses, which represent attention and validation, they positively reinforce our continued use. 

These responses also motivate us to continue tailoring our profiles, messages, and photos to maintain or increase these responses, rather than in service of a physical goal, like meeting another user.

The effect is an experience that can be likened to an endless cycle…or an Infinite Treadmill.

Can’t Pause or Save: Exchanging messages on Grindr is inherently fun and rewarding, and so we may find ourselves keeping at it well beyond what we might have initially planned.

Even after we close the app, we continue to receive push notifications from other users when they message us. These notifications serve to summon us back to the app to continue our conversations. 

But given other users also don’t linger on the app indefinitely, with many logging off—often without notice—this creates an impression that all exchanges are fleeting.

The possibility of missing out on said exchanges (and the possibility of a friendship, sexual, or romantic encounter) creates tension within the user. 

Fear of missing out (“FOMO”) thus drives many to routinely log back into the app and respond to any outstanding messages.

Due to the proximity/recency factor I mentioned above, logging back in pushes our profile back into prominence, drawing attention from still more users. 

This inability to “pause” means our Grindr interactions continue indefinitely, intruding into our daily life.

Psychological dark patterns in gay geosocial apps

Illusion of Control: When scanning the Grindr user profile grid, new or unfamiliar profiles are more likely to stick out and inspire curiosity. 

Human beings are inherent novelty-seekers, a fact Grindr’s creators capitalize upon by spotlighting new profiles/profile photos. 

The app does this by refreshing display grids periodically, revealing users who have recently arrived in one’s area, or who have updated their profile.

By doing so, the app directs the flow of attentional traffic towards these individuals, which can trigger a virtual “love bombing” by multiple users. 

To the recipient, being love-bombed may lead them to believe they are a highly desirable commodity.

To the sender, being able to love bomb comes with the expectation that one will receive a response. Both recipient and sender are led to entertain an illusion of control.

Variable Rewards: Messages (read: rewards) are received entirely at random on Grindr, and even when one is not on the platform through push notifications.

The lack of a predictable schedule by which rewards arrive is a form of intermittent reinforcement.

Intermittent reinforcement is commonly used by the gambling industry to manipulate clients into continually “playing the game”, even when doing so might spell financial ruin.

This has been demonstrated using Skinner boxes, an experimental device that uses intermittent reinforcement to create addiction even among pigeons and rats.

Intermittent reinforcement is successful because it does not encourage scrutiny or self-reflection. In the case of Grindr, it promotes a kind of minimalist, reflexive communication style that characterizes social media: swiping, liking, and commenting. 

Grindr users thus respond to the existence of others in the same casual, noncommittal fashion they would a social media post, knowing this is all that is required to obtain a response and therefore validation.

Aesthetic Manipulations: Grindr’s gamified design promotes interaction as a free-for-all, rather than a deliberate and purposeful pursuit of individuals for a concrete, in-person outcome.

The design doesn’t nudge users towards meeting in person, something that could easily be achieved by imposing limitations such as capping the total number of messages exchanged between two users.

To do so, of course, would result in a drop in the user base, and total time spent on the app, thereby reducing opportunities to monetize users’ continued use.

App makers, as discussed in a previous blog post, do this not only through advertisements and subscription services but the sale of user behavioral data.

One way in which Grindr is able to keep people on the platform is the spotlight effect that funnels collective attention towards specific users based on their salience and novelty. 

Being spotlit can leave one with a conviction in one’s own appeal, even if this effect ultimately is temporary and likely to be withdrawn after the app ceases to spotlight one’s profile.

The one-way flow of messages may be replaced by complete silence—often within hours of an initial login or photo update. The validation feast offered by Grindr thus leads to virtual famine.

The app promises the fulfillment of our subconscious desire to be seen as attractive, desirable, and worthy, before withdrawing it rather suddenly, and dangling it again when one receives attention again subsequently.

You see, famine on Grindr is rarely total. Because the app has a large user base, and because users frequently change their locations, one’s profile is routinely discovered by a new batch of users. 

This intermittent reinforcement leads us to interpret these crumbs as evidence of a forthcoming meal. So we optimistically make do with what we can get, holding out for the possibility of future successes.

We tell ourselves that just over the horizon, our next lover or partner is waiting and that the only way to secure their affection is by continuing to login into the app and play the “game”.

Optimism and Frequency Biases: Being love-bombed on Grindr is inherently memorable, given there are few instances outside of using the app where this will happen.

The experience may cause us to lean into blind optimism. After all, if one enjoys such success at first blush, surely one will never struggle to garner interest from others? 

And so we come to believe that our prospects on the app are not a product of its design, but rather us having a fixed amount of desirability.

Yet when one considers the hundreds of conversations they have had with other users, one realizes that only a tiny fraction of those conversations lead to in-person meetings. 

Such meetings are, at least in my estimation, a far more concrete reflection of one’s prospects. 

The app however coaches us to focus instead on what is referred to in social media as “vanity metrics”. 

This jargon refers to metrics that make us feel good but don’t translate to any meaningful results, such as the total amount of messages received, especially during the love-bombing phase.

Wrap up

Gay geosocial app makers have the advantage: they know our weaknesses and are willing to exploit them using all manner of clandestine dark patterns.

These apps may provide what we consider to be an essential service often for free, but they come with a hidden price tag.

Monitoring our behavior on their platforms from behind a one-way mirror, app makers continually tweak and finetune these patterns so as to further entrap us. 

All of this is done in service of profit, per a widespread form of profiteering I have referred to as “distraction capitalism”.

We users accept these manipulations because they wear the fun guise of gamification, and cultivate satisfaction through intermittent reinforcement.

But constant exposure to this kind of reinforcement can lead many of us to develop process addictions. 

Much in the same way we log in to social media to check for “likes”, we may find ourselves compulsively logging into gay geosocial apps like Grindr to collect messages and a quick hit of dopamine.

If you happen to recognize the role dark patterns take in your regular app interactions and are alarmed, know that there are far healthier alternative methods available for meeting other gay men

‘Breadcrumbing’: the gay dating app practice that destroys connection

Essy Knopf gay dating apps
Reading time: 6 minutes

If you’ve ever used a gay dating app before, you’ve likely experienced “flash in the pan” conversations that start and end abruptly, usually without explanation.

Turns out that the sudden appearance, followed by the sudden disappearance, of chat partners is often part of an intentional strategy known as “breadcrumbing”.

Prior to learning this term, I liked to refer to my experiences using a phrase of my own invention, the “sushi train effect”. 

If you’ve ever attended a sushi train restaurant, you can probably already see the comparison I’m making. For those of you who haven’t, allow me to explain.

The sushi train effect explained

At sushi train restaurants, fresh-made dishes are presented on small plates delivered using a circular conveyor belt, or the back of a toy train that follows a loop. 

Many usual favorites can be obtained via this method—everything from tempura to nigiri and uramaki rolls, dumplings, and more. 

Diners choose the dishes they want to eat then remove them from the belt/train. As they do, sushi chefs prepare new dishes to replenish the train’s stock with.

The effect is like sitting before a buffet—or rather, a never-ending supply of snack-sized meals.

When one logs onto a gay dating app, one’s profile is immediately presented for review by other users, much like a new dish appearing on a sushi train.

On apps like Grindr or Scruff, that image appears in a grid of other profile images, organized according to current proximity.

If it’s your first time using the app, or simply your first time using that particular image, your profile will exude an aura of novelty. A feeding frenzy will ensue, with other users flooding your account with messages.

These users may express keen interest in, and admiration for, your person, replying to you with an urgency that demands immediate engagement. 

‘Boom and bust’ on the gay dating app

If you reply, many of these interactions may end then and there, with the other user mysteriously withdrawing the instant they’ve obtained your attention. 

But if you delay your reply, you can often expect the other user—who has subsequently logged off—to reappear sometime later, offering what usually amounts to a lukewarm response.

Their interest, as it turns out, was only temporary, even opportunistic. A brief window opened, offering a tantalizing glimpse of a world of possibility, then swiftly closed.

One is thus given the impression that others’ availability is time-limited, and even then when you do manage to catch them on the app, there is often no tangible outcome.

Recipients of this sudden influx of attention may be left wondering if what they have experienced is not admiration, but a Pavlovian response—like the salivating of dogs at the sound of the bell. 

This is the first part of the “sushi train effect”: idolization by total strangers. The second part is devaluation.

As the aura of novelty fades, what begins as a flood will inevitably slow to a trickle. This can happen over the course of a day, or even a few hours.

Before one was treated as “hot property”, but now one is regarded as a bottom-of-the-barrel fixer-upper. One’s face or torso, once distinguishable from countless others, becomes just another brick in the wall. 

Like any dish glimpsed by diners circling the sushi train one too many times, one’s profile loses appeal through sheer familiarity. 

This meteoric rise, followed by a precipitous decline, creates an impression of “boom and bust” that can leave most app users feeling rather disoriented.

One moment, one feels seen and valued, and the next, it’s as if one has been discarded; reduced to yet another piece of flotsam floating in the modern dating and hookup sea.

‘The sushi train effect’ as a form of ‘breadcrumbing’

The third part of the sushi train effect is delayed revaluation. 

Take for example the user who declares their interest in you and agrees to meet in person, but who—when pressed for specifics—fails to follow through.

Sometimes, they turn on a dime, it feels like you’re chatting with a completely different person, one who now believes you are completely unworthy of the effort.

Other times, they may agree, only to cancel the meetup, citing some unforeseen event or complication. They may also indefinitely “bench” it, but without proposing a suitable date or time. Or they may block your account outright.

Then, days, weeks, months, or even years later, this individual will reach out again—prompted, it seems, by your convenient reappearance in their dating or hookup app grid.

They may offer an explanation for their disappearance, maybe even an apology for having flaked on you. Or they may simply pretend it never happened. 

What’s most confusing is when this person expresses the same level of interest they did on the first occasion. 

If you remember their sending mixed messages, you may feel tempted to address this directly. The alternative after all is silence, and merely contenting yourself with this sudden attention. 

Should you do this, you may become caught up in an amnesiac dance, make-believing it was circumstance and not a conscious choice that prevented your meeting the first time around.

The hardened skeptics among us however will throw the stranger’s sincerity into doubt, concluding that they’re messaging again out of pure boredom. 

And a lot of the time, we are justified in this belief. Many app users are merely hunting for attention, like an addict hunting for their next fix. Their interest has less to do with us as people and more with the renewed novelty we represent. 

To return to the sushi train analogy: dishes once declared ho-hum are often reappraised by diners after a long absence, and may thus regain some of their former appeal.

Turns out this behavior isn’t exclusive to gay dating and hookup apps but is rampant in the wider dating world.

‘Breadcrumbing’ explained

“Breadcrumbing” is when a dater uses small amounts of attention or validation to keep you interested in them. Basically, what it usually boils down to is fishing for attention.

Daters typically leave “breadcrumbs” when they aren’t seriously interested in meeting. What does “breadcrumbing” commonly look like on a gay dating app? 

Microcommunication is a common example: users who repeatedly check in (“Hey”/”How are you?”/”What you up to?”), exchange brief pleasantries, but make no serious effort to sustain a mutual conversation.

Sudden disappearances, followed by sudden reappearances—much in the same fashion I’ve described above.

Small talk that goes nowhere. Breadcrumbers use small talk to sustain the interaction, even when they have no intention to take that interaction offline. 

Refusing to schedule dates. Breadcrumbers are usually reluctant to make any kind of commitment, as their main purpose in messaging is to secure attention or validation. 

Trying to set up a date is the quickest way to suss out a breadcrumber’s intention, as they will usually evade, make an excuse, or bail beforehand.

Refusing to follow through with plans. As noted, breadcrumbers refuse to meet in person, preferring instead the minimal effort involved in a text exchange.

In short, breadcrumbers like to talk a big game but will always balk, for various reasons. 

Some may feel lonely, bored, and/or insecure and are seeking a quick boost to their self-esteem. In such instances, breadcrumbers receive your responses as proof of their attractiveness or worth.

Alternatively, the breadcrumber may want contact with other gay men, but see face-to-face meetings as carrying risks or responsibilities they aren’t prepared to deal with. 

There are also breadcrumbers who are driven by a narcissistic desire they know they can meet by sustaining text banter with multiple suitors, often at the same time.

Whatever their motives, know that unless you yourself are using dating and hookup apps to breadcrumb, you’re likely to find these kinds of interactions to be unsatisfying and, ultimately, a waste of time.

Breadcrumbers are enabled by gay dating app design

Breadcrumbing is enabled by app design that reinforces this behavior while failing to hold those accountable responsible.

App makers are profit-driven, and in order to increase their profit, they need users to remain on their platforms as long as possible. Previously, I’ve referred to this phenomenon as “distraction capitalism”.

It follows therefore that these makers are willing to use all manner of tactics to guarantee this outcome. This includes refusing to set specific parameters for accessing and using the app. 

The problem with parameters—in the eyes of app makers’, anyways—is that they automatically screen out a significant segment of the user base. Monitoring problematic user behavior also requires hiring dedicated staff and thus comes with undesirable overhead. 

So like many other apps or web-based services, the designers opt instead for a more hands-off, almost-anything-goes kind of approach.

Another tactic used by app makers is gamification. I’ve talked about it before, but I’ll provide a quick recap here.

Gamification involves using positive reinforcement to reinforce users’ continued use, for example, through instant notifications, chimes, and flashy animations.

All of these stimuli are carefully calibrated to trigger neurochemical activity associated with success.

Gay dating app gamification thus doesn’t just trivialize human interactions—it frames interactions as opportunities to maximize the number of responses they receive, and therefore validation gained from others.

Taken to the extreme, this results in some users treating their fellows like human PEZ dispensers, whose only purpose is to disgorge attention upon demand.

Thus, when app makers prioritize the bottom line, they are willfully facilitating this kind of attentional exploitation. They are enabling breadcrumbing.

Users may thus find themselves caught in a perpetual loop of short-lived banter that never deepens into a lasting connection. 

Interactions come to resemble busywork, leaving those seeking something more substantive out in the cold.

Until app makers start using design to create a culture that promotes healthy interactions, those of us pursuing meaningful interactions would be better off spending our time elsewhere.

If you’re seeking some tips on how you can step away from gay dating apps, I’ve got you covered.

Gay dating and hookup apps and the hidden cost of ‘distraction capitalism’

Essy Knopf distraction capitalism
Reading time: 7 minutes

Gay dating and hookup apps dangle the promise of in-person interactions, yet no one wants to meet—because of distraction capitalism.

What I’m referring to here is an entire industry dedicated to keeping consumers distracted in the name of profit.

Those responsible for pulling our strings are called “the attention merchants”. And the bad news is, every time you and I get taken in, we lose. Here’s how.

The allure of distraction capitalism

Countless battles are waged daily for our attention by the attention merchants, and one of the first staging grounds is the living room. 

As a child, Saturday morning cartoons were my ambrosia, the accompanying advertisements always managing to instill in me a hunger for the latest tawdry Happy Meal toy.

Eventually, I outgrew these shows, graduating to watching soap operas instead. Specifically, the NBC series Passions

Checking in with the slow-churning serial every day after school, I’d reassure myself that I wasn’t there for the melodrama. No—I was watching ironically.

“Hate-watching” wasn’t common parlance at the time, but in hindsight, it describes this ritual perfectly.

Trysts with current affairs programs followed. Many of these shows trafficked shameless in scandal and outrage. 

Part of me lived for the exposés of crooks and ne’er-do-wells, as much as another part lived to denounce them.

I would watch victims tearfully recount how they had been mistreated, exploited, or abused. The viewers’ sympathy having been solicited, the reporter would then embark on a crusade for justice.

Clad in business attire and sporting a wireless microphone, this feisty individual would pursue the accused across parking lots, reciting laundry lists of misdemeanors while demanding answers and apologies. 

The alleged perpetrator would dart into a doorway or duck into a car, trying to make a quick escape. If we were lucky, the encounter would lead to a scuffle with the camera crew and maybe even an accidental injury.

These confrontations of course designed to appeal to the viewer’s emotions, and it was the contrived drama of it all that made watching them such a guilty pleasure. 

Yet my high school English curriculum had brought with it a certain awareness of the media’s manipulations. 

And so my adolescent self usually came away from these shows feeling glutted, maybe even a touch queasy, like I’d just eaten a whole bag of caramel popcorn in one sitting.

The effect was similar to that evoked by the gossip magazines I’d glimpse in racks while waiting in supermarket lines with my mother.

What drew my attention weren’t just the unflattering, doctored shots of celebrities looking either livid, sick, or sleep-deprived. Nor was it the chance to get a glimpse behind the showbiz curtain.

In my hard-nosed way, I was hoping to interrogate these publications’ very slippery relationship with the truth. The fact I engaged with them at all meant the victory, by default, went to said publications.

In the early ‘00s, the object of my fascinated disgust became reality TV, a medium that shamelessly massaged both the truth and viewer’s emotions for maximum effect. 

No surprise that when I finally moved out of my family’s home, I refused to buy a TV set. Who were these broadcasters to think they could determine what I watched and when?

What right did they think they had to expose me to shouty calls to action and appeals to open my wallet?

Often, walking into a room in which a TV was blaring, I’d catch myself shouting right back, offering a snarky retort for the benefit of those present.

Yet just as often as not, I’d surrender, plonking down on a couch, only to stir minutes—sometimes hours—later from a fugue state, stricken by the realization that for all my cynicism, I had succumbed.

Distraction capitalism at work

TV shows and advertisements, gossip magazines, and reality TV are just some of the cultural phenomena designed to capture our attention through constant intrusion, often without our consent.

But according to The Attention Merchants author Tim Wu,

the competition is fierce that the race will naturally run to the bottom; attention will almost invariably gravitate to the more garish, lurid, outrageous alternative, whatever stimulus may more likely engage what cognitive scientists call our “automatic” attention as opposed to our “controlled” attention, the kind we direct with intent.

This is probably why, for all my skepticism about Passions and current affair programs, I still found myself watching them, primal emotions somehow managing to bypass my intellectual defenses.

The attention industry is an almost omnipresent fact of daily life. Yet its merchants are constantly trying to outpace what Wu calls the “disenchantment effect”—that is, our becoming desensitized to their methods.

Merchants respond to our adaptation with adaptations of their own. They either “up the dosage”, going to even greater extremes, or they introduce a novel stimulus, “a distortion for the sake of spectacle, calibrated to harvest the most attention”.

Hence the soap opera’s endless stream of dramatic turns, the trotting out of fresh scandals, or social media’s endless stream of dopamine-triggering notifications.

Essy Knopf distraction capitalism

How distraction capitalism adapts

The shift towards an online world has seen viewers faced with more choices than ever, resulting in a mad scramble by attention merchants not just to find new revenue streams, but to keep us transfixed.

Many news publications for example now require paid subscriptions. And, in a bid to draw viewers, some have shifted away from traditional broadsheet style towards the kind of “gossipy, superficial, and click-driven” tone one might expect from a tabloid.

Working in digital news, I have glimpsed firsthand a kind of desperation that can sometimes indeed result in Wu’s deplored “race to the bottom”. 

Sometimes this may take the obvious form of clickbait. Other times it’s gratuitous “breaking” coverage that spills over into multiple news cycles, producing more anxiety-provoking commentary and speculation than concrete information.

This desperation is by no means new; as the old journalism expression goes, “if it bleeds, it leads”. The media attention merchants have long known that reportage on scandal, catastrophe, death, and disaster is sure to secure an audience. 

But the shift away from traditional media has certainly led to an intensification in tactics, such as the adoption of more intrusive methods like news apps using push notifications.

Under such conditions, public interest—traditionally the driving factor behind reportage—can become eclipsed by a desire for private profit.

Netflix: a case study in distraction capitalism

Where commercial broadcast television previously employed advertising, “over-the-top” media providers like Netflix have, as in the case of some news outlets, relied upon subscription services.

But Netflix has also adjusted to changing viewing habits by employing “bingeable” programming. They do this by releasing new seasons of TV shows all at once or acquiring old series en masse.

Where traditional TV may shape stories around ad breaks, streaming programming may eschew this structure in favor of one geared towards binge viewing, with one episode often bleeding seamlessly into another.

All of this seems designed to produce an effect New York Times journalist James Poniewozik calls “The Suck”, “that narcotic, tidal feeling of getting drawn into a show and letting it wash over you for hours”.

This style of bingeable programming is an ongoing experiment, backed by Netflix’s comprehensive access to viewer behavioral data

Operating behind a one-way mirror, the company’s data scientists observe trends and gather insights. This knowledge is then used to inform their programming model, and to keep viewers hooked.

This is not a development exclusive to Netflix, but one broadly employed by modern attention merchants in what Shoshana Zuboff has called The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. (My take on the risk surveillance capitalism poses in the context of dating apps here).

When distraction becomes the ultimate goal

Author Tim Wu warns that for all the means now at the attention merchants’ disposal, it can still be an imprecise game. 

Technologies that enable more control over our choices than ever also “open us up to a stream of instinctive selections, and tiny rewards, the sum of which may be no reward at all”, resulting in a state of “distracted wandering”. 

Dating apps are just one example of this. As with social media, we may find ourselves regularly checking in with no express goal beyond securing the reward of a notification, a “like”, or a message. 

In some cases, this reward-seeking behavior can even spill over into addiction (I’m thinking here of operant conditioning). 

The allure is intensified in the case of platforms like Instagram, which democratize fame and promote self-aggrandizement. The result? “A chaotic mutual admiration society, full of enterprising Narcissi” who reward and reinforce each other’s behavior.

However purposeless our use of the attention merchant’s platforms might be, our very presence there is nevertheless regarded as a victory. Our continued reliance is, after all, “far better than being ignored”. 

Any usage after all results in surplus behavioral data that can be used by the service provider, or sold to third parties in what Zuboff calls the behavioral futures market.

None of this would be possible of course were it not for our always-connected culture, itself the product of technologies such as the smartphone, which renders social media check-ins, sharing, and selfies a mere reflex.

The attention economies as a result are now deeply embedded in daily life; normalized to the point that we often aren’t aware when merchants “nudge, coax, tune, and herd” us, to use Zuboff’s terms.

It is in the absence of such self-awareness, Wu says, that we inevitably find ourselves “in thrall to our various media and devices”.

Reclaiming peace of mind

Attention merchants profit from our involuntary behavior; from distraction and addiction, from funneling our desire for connection, validation, and information, into hypervigilant checking, comparing, competing, and performing for a horde of fellow digital voyeurs.

Involuntary behavior is the opposite of mindfulness, a quality widely accepted as being conducive to wellbeing. The degree to which the merchants exert influence over us can thus prove proportional to our health. 

Yet the media and technologies described here as noted are an inescapable part of modern life. 

Extricating ourselves from their hold requires fighting years worth of conditioning by the ever-hungry attention merchants, which more often than not feels like a fool’s errand.

We can begin by regularly “unplugging” and holding a “digital Sabbath”: a window of time such as a weekend in which to put down our devices and resist the urge to engage in checking emails, social media, Netflix, and the news.

It is only through such abstinence from the stimulation to which we have become so accustomed that we can achieve self-awareness about unhealthy attentional habits.  

We don’t need to suffer “fragmentary awareness” and the incessant interruptions of attention merchants. 

Rather, we should work to reclaim the concentration and focus that’s key not just to our productivity—but our happiness as well.

Takeaways

  • Recognize the attention industry at work.
  • Avoid involuntary distraction and addiction.
  • Reclaim mindfulness by “unplugging”.

7 creative and incredibly simple autism self-care techniques

Essy Knopf self-care techniques
Reading time: 6 minutes

Do you struggle with autism self-care? You may not be the only one.

Surviving in ableist societies can be taxing for many autistic folks at the best of times.

We may spend all our energy just trying to fit in—energy we may otherwise need for rest and recharging.

Added to this, many self-care techniques can feel like a chore, especially when we are pressed for time.

Trying to squeeze in one more thing into an already overburdened schedule when we’re already feeling overloaded can be particularly anxiety-provoking.

I remember once upon a time, the very idea of pausing to do meditation or a yoga class was enough to send me into a tailspin.

“That’s 20-30 minutes I’ll be losing from my schedule,” I would think. “20-30 minutes I don’t have!”

Given much of my workload was self-generated as a result of workaholism, my sense of urgency around time in retrospect didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

No one after all was demanding I submit a script in time for three different competitions. The deadline I had set for finishing my feature documentary was of my own devising.

The pressure of being a multi-passionate autistic

The issue in my case had to do with my fixating on the gap between where I was and where I wanted to be. I was a multi-passionate autistic with an array of interests I knew I could excel at…if only I knocked on the right doors and made the wrong connections.

This unsurprisingly is where I struggled most. Autistics face very real obstacles with social communication and interpersonal relationships. And yet I told myself that I could ignore these obstacles. Sooner or later, my labors would yield fruit.

And so I continued to work in isolation, in the service of various passions that I hope to turn into viable careers.

After years of this, I began to feel rather hopeless about it. What, after all, did I have to show for all my effort, save a few life experiences and college degrees?

My dissatisfaction drove me only further in my pursuit of achievement, which in turn made my self-worth dependent upon that pursuit.

The time pressure I thus experienced was not the result of external circumstances but toxic self-perceptions. I didn’t believe myself to be “good enough” or deserving of self-care until I had first “made it”. Yet failing to care for my own needs only increased my anxiety and this sense of time pressure.

For other autistics, external circumstances may indeed pose a very real obstacle to self-care. When we are strung out between the pressures of operating in a neurotypical world, alongside commitments such as work, school, family, and social lives, self-care activities certainly start to seem onerous, if not out of the question.

Yet no matter how strong the impulse might be to put downtime on the backburner, without adequate rest and rejuvenation, our ability to fulfill these commitments, and to pursue our passions, will suffer.

Should self-care techniques such as getting a massage or drinking water fail to appeal to you, consider exploring the following seven simple and unorthodox methods.

Essy Knopf autism self-care

1. Shower mindfully – an unexpected autism self-care activity

Don’t have time to recline in a bath? Not a fan of bubbles and scented soap? That’s okay.

If being pummeled by hot water is more your jam, follow this quick 5-minute guide to increasing your shower pressure.

Next, shake up your mindfulness routine by trying this exercise while standing under your showerhead. 

2. Shop guilt-free

Retail therapy can indeed have therapeutic benefits, but in excess, it can create debt that negatively impacts our mental health. Know however that self-indulgence doesn’t have to hurt your pocketbook. 

Visit a discount store with low-priced items. Hunt down little items you might not otherwise have budgeted for, but which you know will add some value or comfort to your life.

For example, a shower caddy, plastic storage tubs, or a new drink bottle. 

Whatever you end up buying, know that it is the act of spending money that generates the “feel good” feelings typically associated with retail therapy.

This way you’ll get all the benefits with none of the financial strain—or buyer’s remorse.

3. Have a lie-in

Pick a morning where there are no pressing matters to attend to and simply stay in bed.

Alternatively, use your morning to complete errands and spend the remainder of your day under the covers.

Make whatever adjustments are necessary to maximize comfort. Turn on your air conditioner, close the blinds, put your phone into airplane mode, make a cup of tea, light a scented candle, or switch on an essential oil diffuser.

If relaxing still proves difficult, and you find yourself battling anxiety, don a weighted blanket or a compression vest. 

These use deep pressure to help ease anxiety and are available to purchase online.

4. Ritualize a mini-hobby

Many hobbies require time and energy we aren’t always able to spare. If this is your experience, consider expanding your definition of the word “hobby”.

For instance, I was never much one for comedy, save for watching the odd opening monologue from a late-night talk show, schedule allowing.

When I discovered that these shows made a perfect accompaniment to my breakfast routine, I understood that maybe time wasn’t an issue after all.

Sure, enjoying Jimmy Kimmel, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Seth Meyer, and Stephen Colbert isn’t strictly a hobby. Yet it can impart many of the usual benefits, such as supporting mental health and relaxation—in this case, through laughter.

By incorporating a mini-hobby like this into your day, we will stand a better chance of making it a habit, ensuring it survives peak periods of busyness.

In order to create a habit, we not only have to do it regularly—we also have to follow the four laws of behavioral change, as described by Atomic Habits author James Clear:

#1 Make it obvious.
#2 Make it attractive.
#3 Make it easy.
#4 Make it satisfying.

In my case, the enjoyment provided by watching these videos fulfilled law #4 (“make it satisfying”).

In order to “make it obvious”, I subscribed to each comedian’s dedicated YouTube channels so that their most recent videos appeared on my homepage.

By keeping my YouTube homepage always open in a browser tab, I enhanced the attractiveness of these videos (“make it attractive”). 

And by waking up early, I was able to eat and perform my new ritual at my own pace (“make it easy”).

5. Take a power nap

Napping isn’t just the favored activity of layabouts—it’s also a supereffective way to give your flagging energy levels a boost!

If your workplace doesn’t look favorably about employees taking catnaps, a quick lie down after a taxing day can help restore you.

Naps of between 10-20 minutes are considered ideal, as anything longer than 30 minutes can leave us feeling groggy upon waking.

Napping not only decreases sleepiness but can improve learning and memory while supporting the regulation of our emotions

6. Get some green therapy

The emerging discipline of green therapy—also known as ecopsychology—is concerned with using nature to help us recharge our internal batteries.

Multiple studies have demonstrated that the presence of nature can have a plethora of health benefits.

Venturing into the wilds may not always be possible, but you can reap the same benefits from visiting your local park. Twenty minutes as it turns out can be enough to relieve stress.

You reap similar effects using simulated green spaces. For instance, by placing fake plants around your home or workspace.

Another method involves slipping on a pair of headphones and listening to natural sounds, such as wind through trees or running water.

7. Try audio bibliotherapy

The act of sitting down to read a book in today’s helter-skelter world is becoming increasingly uncommon. But if you lack the patience to read the conventional way, you can always try listening to an audiobook instead.

Having your books read aloud to you can be an effective way to consume content without having to add to your already overburdened schedule.

Furthermore, if you’re suffering work-related stress or battling anxiety and depression linked to your busy lifestyle, reading books about these challenges can go some way to lighten your load and help you apply self-care techniques.

Healing through reading is known as “bibliotherapy”, and it can serve as a wonderful resource for those among us struggling to access support networks or the sympathetic ear of a therapist.

Books that teach self-care techniques

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the challenges mentioned above. But if you aren’t able to invest the time to seek out personally appropriate guidance, consider exploring the following recommendations:

8. Start a self-compassion practice to round off your autism self-care

Build a deliberate self-compassion practice with the support of the many free, downloadable resources on the Self-Compassion website.

Author Kristin Neff has prepared brief guided practices, a list of exercises, and tips for those new to the concept.

Finally, if you have a habit of going too hard on yourself and zeroing in on your supposed deficits as an autistic person, try adopting a strengths-based perspective.

Instead of looking at yourself as somehow flawed, acknowledge the many strengths that come with being autistic, which I list in an earlier blog post.

Yes, male privilege exists. But it carries a terrible cost—especially if you’re gay.

Essy Knopf male privilege
Reading time: 6 minutes

The dominance of the male gender is visible not only in male privilege,1 but also their overrepresentation in high-income brackets and their managerial roles.

It would be easy to assume that the many advantages enjoyed by males serve as a buffer against poorer health outcomes, and yet this isn’t always the case.

Men are for example more likely than women to die early from a number of causes, including suicide.2 This trend is not exclusive to the US but it is present globally as well

And these early deaths aren’t so much the result of lifestyle choices, some argue, as they are the profound loneliness lingering just below the surface.

The connection between male privilege and loneliness

In I Don’t Want to Talk About It, Terrence Real makes a compelling case for socialization’s role in contributing to the all-too-common experience of loneliness among older men.

He notes that boys compared to girls are typically less spoken to, comforted, and nurtured by their caregivers, leaving them prone to passive trauma, for example in the form of neglect.

Real notes they are also socialized to cut themselves off from their own feelings, their mothers, and from social support. 

That is, socialization teaches boys and men that entry to the club of masculinity is dependent upon their continued spurning of “dependency, expressiveness, and affiliation”.

Males are asked to uphold an impossible gender norm closely tied to the notion of rugged individualism.

Real says the cost of passive trauma and disconnection from self and others is that males suffer an unstable sense of self-esteem—and even shame—over their own emotions.

Forbidden the right of vulnerability, males have no choice but to emotionally numb themselves, internalizing rather than externalizing their distress. The result is covert depression. 

Having been trained to avoid others’ support, men inevitably turn to “defensive compensations” for this depression, such as drinking, gambling, or sex. 

The difficulty, however, lies in the fact that the resulting “addictions do to shame what saltwater does to thirst”.

Similarly, men may also seek an escape through grandiosity, or what Real calls the “illusion of dominance”.

Essy Knopf male privilege

The terrible loneliness of being at the top

What Terrence Real calls grandiosity, Lonely at the Top author Thomas Joiner describes as a fixation on earning money and building status.

Men in their 20s and 30s, he argues, are usually more self-focused than women. They assume an “either/or attitude toward wealth and status on the one hand and social connection on the other hand”. 

But as men age, this attitude wreaks a terrible price in loneliness, resulting in significant health disparities and higher mortality rates.

Joiner however diverges from Real’s thesis here by describing factors other than socialization as contributing to the male inability to form and maintain interpersonal connections later in life.

For example, he cites the “people versus things” gender dichotomy. Namely that from a very young age, boys are more interested in things, while girls are more interested in people. 

Males are by nature more inclined towards an instrumentality mindset, grounded in “assertiveness, self-confidence, competitiveness, and aggression”. 

This is opposed to the typically female, people-oriented mindset, which celebrates expressive traits such as “affection, cooperation, and flexibility”.

Joiner notes other differences, such as the fact that boys get less social coaching from each other and from men when compared to their female counterparts. 

Girls also have more gender- and age-diverse friendship networks. This contributes to females as a group enjoying greater interpersonal hardiness.

Having been spoiled with the “institutionalized, ready-made friendships of childhood”, men may fail to develop an appreciation for the “worked-for friendships of adulthood”.

Joiner claims that an instrumentality mindset can also lead to males developing a “don’t tread on me” attitude, best described as a “dogged self-sufficiency in the absence of healthy interdependence”. The links again to rugged individualism are, again, clear.

Joiner adds that “don’t tread on me” carries the tacit message of “don’t connect with me”. As argued by Real, men believe this attitude is necessary to preserving their conferred status as males.

“Don’t tread on me” combined with the single-minded pursuit of money and status normalized by our materialist culture can result in a more passive approach towards relationships.

Men as a result may be less likely to undertake the work necessary to maintain them.

In failing to feed or renew relationships, or to seek out new ones as they age, men may be setting themselves up for significant loneliness down the road.

The fact that men’s internal’s sensors are not fully attuned to their own emotional or social loneliness, Joiner agrees, further compels them to pursue said compensations. And rather than resolving loneliness, they only have the effect of compounding.

The health impact of engaging in addictive behaviors aside, loneliness itself can contribute to poorer health outcomes in later life while corroding one’s resilience and ability to cope with failures, disappointments, and losses.

When compared to seeking professional mental health, compensations are a more likely outcome among males, given that doing the former can threaten the male image of self-sufficiency.

And let’s not forget the stigma associated with male loneliness and accessing such services, which serve as obstacles in their own right.

How intersectionality can deepen male loneliness

Intersectionality argues that it is possible to simultaneously enjoy power and/or privilege in one situation, arena, or aspect of life, and oppression and/or disadvantage in others.

So while being male broadly conveys power and privilege, being an older male in Western society can have serious implications for one’s health and wellbeing.

If one happens to be an older male and have a minority identity such as “homosexual”, the impact can be exacerbated, for example through minority stress caused by stigmatization, discrimination, and prejudice.

This impact grows when one is also a person of color, a trait which brings many disadvantages in a White-dominated culture such as North America.3 4

The minority status of being gay male alone contributes to arguably higher levels of loneliness. And there is also the fact that gay men as a population have to work harder to gain entry to the “male club”.

Hostile attitudes towards homosexuals are often grounded in perceptions of their abnormality, i.e. “Too feminine”.

According to author Simon LeVay, gay men as a population are indeed different, exhibiting a “patchwork of gendered traits—some indistinguishable from those of same-sex peers, some shifted part way [sic] toward the other sex, and others typical of the other sex”.

In Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why, he cites studies that indicate that where it comes to instrumentality and expressiveness—typically male-favoring and female-favoring traits, respectively—gay men tend to be shifted towards the opposite sex

Having gender-shifted traits in a culture that defines masculinity by limited expressiveness can thus double the pressure felt by gay men to conform to the stereotype.

It also means they are more likely to experience the disapproval of, and rejection by, others who subscribe to the standard (toxic) definitions of masculinity.

Social hostility can generate internalized homophobia, feeding into higher-than-standard rates of depression and anxiety.

It also provides a rationale for the all-too-common flight by gay men into compensations. (Consider here the higher rates of substance use and abuse, out-of-control sexual behaviors, and other process addictions.)

The link between gay loneliness and the potential for harm for example has been demonstrated in a study linking riskier sexual behavior as an avoidance strategy.

Those who engage in this strategy are for example exposed to higher rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

The solutions to male privilege disconnection

To summarize, masculinity is coded in Western society in ways that are emotionally oppressive to males, hence the term “toxic masculinity”.

This oppression is intensified especially the case if you also share minority identities, such as being gay and a person of color. 

When combined with a biological inclination towards instrumentality and a cultural bias towards rugged individualism, this can wreak great harm to our mental wellbeing and our relational world. 

From this comes disproportionately adverse health outcomes, which as mentioned run in the face of the perceived advantages of being a member of an empowered and privileged gender.

Unfortunately, gender coding and social conditioning have been in existence for thousands of years. The intricate tapestry of our gendered lives cannot be unpicked overnight.

All the same, there are actions we can take as males to address the hidden costs of our gendered identity. 

Namely, we can choose to embrace “dependency, expressiveness, and affiliation”. We can strive for a greater connection with our inner selves, and others.

Such connections can be forged, Joiner says, by engaging in shared rituals that create a sense of belonging, togetherness, or harmony, such as sharing a meal with loved ones.

Here are some other suggestions:

Connecting to nature: As men, we stand to benefit by interacting more regularly with nature. 

This experience can reduce loneliness, especially when it provides opportunities to interact with others. For example, through hiking or gardening groups.

Daily phone calls: However awkward as calling people up out of the blue may seem today, relying too heavily on text messages can have some serious downsides.

Instead, Joiner suggests calling one person daily, if only for a few minutes. 

Whether you have something pressing to talk about is not important. The goal here is to create connection.

Reunions: Organize a reunion with best friends from one’s younger days can be a great way to renews existing connections.

Given the male tendency to lose touch with friendships as we advance towards middle age, this is essential.

A reunion can also bring many of the benefits associated with indulging nostalgia

Sleep regularization: None of the above is possible if our sleep schedule is out of sync with those of others.

If this is the case, we should consider shifting our life patterns to promote social interactions. 

We can this by maintaining a regular sleep schedule and seeking out opportunities to interact with others, such as through a shared physical activity like a sport. 

Magic words that can free autistic folk from low self-esteem victimhood

essy knopf low self esteem
Reading time: 6 minutes

Disrespectful people, pushy people, abusive people—chances are all of us have at one point in our lives encountered such individuals.

Sometimes we skate by, unharmed. Other times, the encounter is unpleasant enough to leave us with a sour taste in our mouth, bruised feelings, and an acute sense of injustice.

Autistic individuals I believe are especially vulnerable when it comes to being bullied and manipulated.

It begins with the fact that many of us have low self-esteem, resulting from living in ableist societies in which neurodiverse folks are treated as inferior.

Autistics additionally have been found to have a more deliberative (and effortful) thinking style. This can impair our ability to rapidly and automatically intuit others’ intentions.1

Our willingness to trust others and give them the benefit of the doubt—to do unto others as we would like them to do unto us—puts us at even further risk.

Turns out it’s no accident that toxic individuals are drawn to us like metal filings to a magnet. Rather, it’s the result of our fundamental struggles with knowing when and how to say “no”.

Low self-esteem: a recipe for exploitation

Low self-esteem can render many autistic individuals unwilling—or unable—to set boundaries and to push back when the situation calls for it.

This largely has to do with the kinds of negative reactions we might expect, reactions we have often endured due to our “weird” autistic traits and behaviors.

Others’ reactions in turn lead us to adopt negative narratives about our own supposed unworthiness and unloveable nature as autistics.

This erodes our self-confidence and undercuts our ability to be self-reliant, while also signaling our vulnerability to potential bullies and manipulators.

Another component of this is our tendency to second guess our own feelings and thoughts when confronted with difficult situations.

Many of us are often told that we’re in the wrong. We act with good intentions, only for neurotypicals to tell us that our intentions don’t matter.

All of us have at one point either been told we are too honest, too blunt, too insensitive, too difficult to follow, or too weird. It’s dismissals and criticisms like this that leave us prone to self-doubt.

Thus when challenged, many of us may spiral into helplessness and fail to stand up for ourselves.

Why confronting difficult and toxic people is so hard

It takes courage to speak our feelings of pain, helplessness, and anger. Having low self-esteem, therefore, means we are forced to fight battles on not just one but two fronts.

Firstly, we must validate our perceptions of a situation. This requires an acknowledgment of our worthiness, which can conjure guilt, shame, discomfort, and anxiety.

Secondly, we are standing up and demanding respect. There is always a fear that we might not be heard—a fear that is often borne out in day-to-day life as a marginalized minority—thus reinforcing our negative core belief of unworthiness.

Then there is the concern that the person we are confronting may retaliate—a concern, however wellfounded, that enables abusive people to remain in positions of power.

Low self-esteem can make us a target

When we speak out, the person aggressing may listen and adjust their behavior.

Those who harbor ill intentions alternatively may also decide that we aren’t worth the effort after all, and move on.

But should we fail to speak out—or if our “no” is not forceful enough to effect a change—toxic individuals can linger on.

If you’re dealing with someone with a taste for manipulation, they won’t surrender control so easily. 

There’s always the possibility they may redouble their efforts, draining your emotional well and tainting the waters with negativity.

The seven ‘buttons’ used by manipulators

So, why you? What is it about your person that clues these people into your weaknesses?

In Who’s Pulling Your Strings, Harriet B. Braiker describes seven behavioral “buttons” that manipulators routinely use to pressure and coerce their victims.

It is only by becoming aware of those buttons, Braiker argues, that we stand a chance of resisting manipulators’ control tactics.

1. The disease-to-please: People with this challenge have made their self-worth conditional upon their willingness to do what others want or expect of them. 

Resisting the disease-to-please is likely to trigger guilt, a fact manipulative folk use to their advantage.

2. Approval and acceptance addiction: Are you overly nice? Chances are your efforts are motivated by a fear of rejection and abandonment. 

Manipulators lever this fear, withdrawing approval and acceptance to force you into complying with their demands.

3. Fear of negative emotions: Anger and sadness are a fundamental part of the human condition. 

Trying to avoid negative emotions is next to impossible. Moreover, expressing them can be key to maintaining healthy boundaries. 

Those with this button try to bury and avoid negative emotions thus leaving them wide open to attack by manipulators.

4. Lack of assertiveness: People-pleasers struggle to say “no”. As such, they may struggle to stand up for themselves when the situation calls for it.

5. The vanishing self: Manipulators have no qualms about twisting those with an unclear sense of identity and core values into fulfilling their own needs and desires. 

6. Low self-reliance: Distrusting one’s perceptions drives us to seek the input and advice of others, leaving us vulnerable to external influence.

7. External locus of control: Those with an external locus of control believe that forces outside of themselves are ultimately responsible for shaping their lives.

This ultimately results in learned helplessness and an inability to assert one’s self in the face of manipulation.

Essy Knopf low self-esteem victimhood

From low self-esteem to high self-esteem

Manipulators as indicated capitalize on low self-esteem, which has the effect of only reinforcing their victims’ negative self-perceptions.

One could observe that the degree to which we can suffer low self-esteem is relational. Others can damage, but also repair it.

While a trusting, supportive relationship with a therapist or loved one is one way we can heal our sense of self-worth, the task of pushing back against manipulators ultimately falls to us.

Confrontation, however frightening, is sometimes necessary. This may be as simple as making explicit requests and seeking commitment. 

“I” statements are helpful here. For example, “I feel disrespected when you name-call. I’m asking that this behavior stop.”

Remember, you have a right to make reasonable requests and for them to be acknowledged. You are under no terms required to explain or defend yourself.

What you want in confronting a manipulator is some sort of change. That said, your demand needs to be framed as a win-win proposition. 

If, however, the other person won’t refuse to accept anything short of win-lose, lose-win, or lose-lose, be prepared to pivot.

Try these magic phrases

Some aggressors respond to feeling threatened by double-downing or escalating. This may take the form of deflecting, projecting, shaming, verbal abuse, and overly dramatic reactions.

Know these individuals may try to confuse the issue, gaslight you by playing the victim, and/or evading any responsibility.

Many individuals feed off conflict, and anything you say or do that plays into this will count as a win in their books.

Be sure to name any attacks on your person the instant they happen. Send a clear message to the aggressor that you won’t stand for poor treatment. 

Hold fast to your conviction that no harm has been done by your speaking up. Your goal here is to protect yourself, not the manipulator’s feelings—which probably weren’t in jeopardy to begin with.

Do not be drawn into a point-for-point debate. Instead, assert yourself by saying: “That doesn’t work for me.” “That’s not fair.” 

Resist any attempts by the manipulator to wrangle for control by delaying your response: “I need to think about it.”

If they try to force an argument, disengage: “This conversation is not productive. I’m leaving now.” 

If you’re feeling thrown off balance by the manipulators’ tactics, it’s okay to break off the exchange by telling them: “Actually now is not a good time.” 

A straight “no” will even suffice, followed by your departure.

And it’s perfectly acceptable to shut down the lines of communication until the other person agrees to follow rules of common courtesy.

If you’d like to try out some of these lines but are worried you might fumble the delivery, practice them in advance until you feel 100% comfortable saying them on cue.

Reappraising low self-esteem

These kinds of situations and encounters can inflame existing feelings of low self-worth among autistic folk, especially when bullies respond with escalation and accusation. You can address this head-on by taking stock of your actions immediately afterward. 

Check in with yourself. How are you feeling about what just went down? 

Were you fair in your conduct? Did you really behave unjustly, as the manipulator would have you believe? 

Imagine for a moment it was your friend making the same request of you. Imagine they told you that your behavior had hurt them. 

Would you have listened to them? Would you have been open to change?

If your answer is “yes”, then it’s reasonable to assume that it was a fair request.

The bully may accuse you of being equally at fault, but what they probably are trying to do is avoid culpability by muddying the water. 

Refuse to take on any of their accusations and combat self-doubt. Conduct an inventory of your alleged character flaws and use humor to inflate them.

Have you, for example, failed to be perfect enough? Are you insufficiently conscientious? Are you an extremely poor people-pleaser? 

Now try to name some appropriate punishments for these crimes. If the ridiculousness of it all doesn’t stop you in your tracks, then take it as proof that it is you—above all—who deserves the break. 

If these encounters leave you feeling stressed, consider practicing some of these self-care techniques, specifically devised for autistic folks.

Build your self-esteem as an autistic with strengths awareness

self-esteem confidence strengths autism Essy Knopf
Reading time: 5 minutes

Many of the messages we get as autistics living in an ableist society remind us that we’re different. And this difference, more often than not, is treated as a negative—at the cost of our self-esteem.

When confronted with the unique traits and behavior of autistic folk, many neurotypicals (NTs) typically respond with discomfort, annoyance, hostility, and even vilification.

Sometimes they do it out of ignorance—a kneejerk reaction to something they don’t understand. They may also simply view autism as a “deficit” or “fault” that needs to be corrected.

Acknowledging areas for growth

There is a tendency within the autism community to react defensively to the “autism-as-deficit” paradigm by casting autism exclusively as a strength. 

Given many of us feel that our autism is an intrinsic part of our identity, it makes sense that we should feel compelled to defend it. 

Personally speaking, I would much sooner rather celebrate my strengths than look at myself through the lens of inferiority.

At the same time, I recognize that being autistic can come with some downsides. For example, I find my various sensory sensitivities to be a nuisance. And I wish I could form and sustain relationships with the ease enjoyed by many NTs.

Should I treat these downsides as a reflection of my worth? Definitely not.

That said, I do think there is value in recognizing our personal areas for growth. For me, this is developing stronger social skills.

Self-esteem starts with acknowledging strengths

Areas of growth aside, I think there is merit in focusing on strengths. Being autistic is can convey quite a few. For example:

  1. We enjoy peer relationships characterized by absolute loyalty and impeccable dependability
  2. We are free of sexist, “age-ist”, or culturalist biases; able to regard others at “face value”
  3. We are willing to share our mind, irrespective of social context or adherence to personal beliefs
  4. We have an ability to pursue personal theory or perspective despite conflicting evidence
  5. We seek an audience or friends capable of enthusiasm for unique interests and topics
  6. We take consideration of details and spend time discussing a topic that may not be of primary interest
  7. We listen without continual judgment or assumption
  8. We are interested primarily in significant contributions to conversation, preferring to avoid “ritualistic small talk”, or socially trivial statements and superficial conversation.
  9. We seek sincere, positive, genuine friends with an unassuming sense of humor

And as employees, we are also known to be: reliable, persistent, perfectionists, easily able to identify errors, technically able, and to have a sense of social justice and integrity.1

We are also willing to question protocols, can be highly accurate, attentive to detail, logical, conscientious, knowledgeable, original in problem-solving, honest, and likely to thrive on routine and clear expectations.

In a majority of situations, these qualities are quite beneficial. They also contradict the autism-as-deficit paradigm.

Are you ‘strengths blind’?

Strengths vary from individual to individual, and may manifest physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, or spiritually.2

We may not be aware of those strengths and how they may have helped us to cope with the challenges of day-to-day life. But they’re still there, regardless.

Failing to recognize our strengths is called being “strengths blind”. Four factors can prevent us from seeing them.

Firstly, a lack of awareness of said strengths, resulting from not practicing self-awareness or feeling disconnection from our identity.

Secondly, we may not see our strengths as meaningful. Thirdly, we may downplay them as ordinary, rather than extraordinary.

And fourthly, we may overuse our strengths to the point that they create problems.

One commonly overused autistic strength is passion. 

To elaborate: autistics can have something of a reputation for wanting to share knowledge about their areas of interest, even with the most casual of acquaintances.

If we’re not careful, we may end up talking at length and scarcely allowing the other person to get a word in edgewise.

In fact, we can become so caught up in the act of sharing that we fail to take notice of the subtle—and not-so-subtle clues—that the other person is getting annoyed, or feeling frustrated and overwhelmed.

Yet in moderation, this character strength can be hugely advantageous. Passion for instance can enable us to become leading specialists in our chosen fields.

Putting our strengths into practice

So, how do we overcome strength blindness? By growing our strengths awareness.

You can begin in your own life by reaching out to your closest friends and family members and asking them, “What do you think my strengths are?” 

Their responses should give you a clear idea of what you excel most at. Alternatively, you can take this character strengths and virtues questionnaire.

Some common strengths or qualities are creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, perspective, bravery, perseverance, honesty, zeal, love, kindness, social intelligence, teamwork, and fairness.

Other qualities are leadership, forgiveness, humility, prudence, self-regulation, appreciation of beauty, and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, and spirituality.

The great thing about character strengths is that most are not in any way shaped by our being autistic.3 (Small caveat: many autistics may struggle with social intelligence and teamwork, and yet we also love to learn and are very curious.)

Once you’ve identified our strengths, select your topmost three. Now ask yourself, what activities do you do in service of those strengths?

Chances are when you do those activities, you’ll feel great about yourself. Why? Because they are impactful, and because they provide satisfaction. 

self-esteem autism Essy Knopf

Strengths-based habits improve self-esteem

When we do these activities and receive a positive result, it affirms our strengths and builds self-esteem.

If you’re struggling with self-esteem issues, make a conscious plan to do at least one of the three activities when you feel down or like you’re struggling.

If love is one of your strengths, perform a kind act for someone, such as buying a friend a gift. If appreciation of beauty is a strength, visit an art gallery or public garden. 

If creativity is a strength, pick up a pen or paintbrush and start creating.

Of course, doing the occasional activity can only take you so far. If we really want to grow our self-esteem, we should make these activities into habits.

Set aside a regular time in which to do each of the activities you identified. Incorporate them into your daily or weekly schedule, until they become habitual.

Wrap up

Why is making activities into habits important? Because habits create a powerful snowball effect.

The more we exercise our strengths, the more they feel like a part of our character. The more we orient our character around our strengths, the more capable we feel.

The more capable we feel, the greater our sense of self-worth. The greater our sense of self-worth, the more likely we are to embrace our strengths. And so the cycle goes.

What are some of your strengths, and how do you express them? 

And what’s one new habit you could commit to over the coming week? Share your responses in the comments.

Surviving in the social work field boils down to this single habit

Essy Knopf social work habit self care
Reading time: 4 minutes

What is your number one priority as a social worker? If self-care is not the answer, we need to have a chat.

Most Master of Social Work (MSW) programs will emphasize the importance of self-care upfront. It doesn’t take long, however, for this call-to-arms to butt up against reality. 

We as social workers must navigate many competing and conflicting priorities daily. This begins as early as school.

With so much to do during our relatively brief degree, our days are often dominated by assignments and course readings. 

Setting aside an extra hour for “you” time can come to resemble an unnecessary luxury. You may find yourself asking, “How can I afford to stop and relax when I have so much work left to do?” 

It’s a question I promise will continue to challenge you over the course of your career. For this reason, self-care is a habit you would be best served by building right now.

Here are some ways you can get started.

1. Make a commitment to self-care

If you can exercise enough discipline to study for multiple hours every day, you can certainly commit a minimum of one hour to self-care.

In strict cost-benefit analysis terms, your brain may try to argue with you about the necessity of relaxing.

It may feel good to have dedicated downtime. But time away from your desk may also put you behind in your work and feed your anxiety.

This can become a vicious circle: time anxiety persuades there is never enough, and while this might certainly feel like it’s the case, it’s not true.

The issue is not whether you have enough time to take care of your personal wellbeing. Rather, it’s your willingness to re-prioritize it. 

Let’s suppose you do. If you have time anxiety, this may worsen. But rest assured that over time, its death-grip on your psyche will weaken.

2. Block out downtime

Personally, I’ve found there are usually three windows each day in which most people can block out self-care time: 

  1. First thing, straight after waking up
  2. Midway during the day, such as during a lunch break
  3. Before bed, when one typically unwinds

The morning window works best for me (that is, supposing I get to bed early).

This period seems to afford me enough time to do a self-care activity such as meditation before my brain jumps aboard the “work ‘til you drop” train.

Another option is to dedicate a single day of the week such as Sunday to “you” time.

3. Permit yourself a personal life

Work is a hungry beast, and if we continue to encourage it, it will inevitably consume our personal lives. 

We may suspend social outings and quality time activities with our loved ones. Or we may sacrifice a hobby that previously enriched our lives.

Diligence and dedication in professional settings are admirable traits. But when taken to excess, they can lead to workaholism.

Having healthy boundaries quite simply means saying “yes” to all that is conducive to our welfare, and “no” to things that aren’t. And workaholism is definitely something that qualifies as the latter.

Don’t neglect your personal relationships for the sake of your calling. Refuse to become a martyr for your chosen social work cause. 

Instead, strive for a work-life balance. Schedule at least one social meetup a week. Revive that cherished hobby. 

Rather than constantly drawing from your well, take time out to replenish it.

Essy Knopf self-care social worker

4. Don’t go at it alone

Further to the last point, healthy relationships are like armored vans that can carry us through a warzone of difficult times. 

These relationships are thus crucial to our mental health and serve as an invaluable buffer during difficult times.

But they are only as helpful as we allow them to be. In times of need, don’t hesitate to reach out to coworkers, supervisors, partners, friends, and family members.

5. Self-care through the support of a therapist

None of us come to the social work field a clean slate. Each of us has a history, and the work we do can cause parts of it to resurface, both good and bad.

A therapist can help us with processing our experiences, as well as professional challenges like countertransference.

The insights of another professional can go a long way to supporting us in becoming better practitioners. 

6. Start meditating

Mindfulness-based strategies are an effective way to support mental resilience and ward off overwhelm and anxiety.

The most commonly known strategy is meditation.

Guided meditations can be found in person or online. UCLA Health for example has many recordings on its website, and there are subscription-based meditation apps such as Calm and Headspace.

An example of a self-guided meditation I use daily is breath counting. This is very simple to practice.

First, get into a meditation posture. A common one is sitting upright, with your feet planted on the floor, your hands resting on your lap, and your eyes either open or closed.

Next, count one, inhale, two exhale, three inhale, four exhale… Go right up to 10, before resetting to one. 

Every time your mind wanders or you become distracted, bring your attention back to the sensation of your breath and resume counting.

The breath counting meditation has the most beneficial effect for me when performed one to two times a day for 20 minutes at a time. 

If you are new to this kind of meditation, I would recommend beginning with a three-minute meditation, slowly work your way up to a longer session.

Whatever method you choose, know that finding your meditation groove can, at least, initially, be a struggle—especially if you’ve had no prior experience with mindfulness. 

For that reason, I would recommend starting with guided meditations or exploring free resources such as these five mindfulness-oriented phone apps.

7. Explore yoga or prayer as self-care

Another mindfulness-based strategy is yoga. If you can’t make it to a studio, try a virtual class. Many are available free to watch on YouTube.

Another mindfulness practice worth mentioning mention is prayer, which has been found to offer similar benefits to other forms of mindfulness. 

For these reasons, if you are spiritual or practice a religion, it may be worth incorporating a prayer practice into your daily self-care regimen.

Wrap up

If you’ve ever caught yourself saying “There is no way I can humanly do all of this,” know that you by far are not the first social worker to feel this way.

Feeling overwhelmed as we so often do in these instances is an opportunity to pause and check in with ourselves.

Are you getting enough time to recharge your batteries each day? If not, maybe it is time you carved out a slot in your daily schedule for a self-care activity.

Sure, it may not always seem practical. But let me ask you this: how much more practical is the alternative…professional burnout?

You can read more social work-related posts here.

11 ways not to crash and burn in social work school

Essy Knopf social work school
Reading time: 7 minutes

If there’s one experience that unites social work school students, it’s a feeling of chronic overwhelm.

The Master of Social Work (MSW) program is a generalist degree, meaning it covers a lot of ground, spanning clinical practice, research, and macro advocacy.

Jampacked curriculums are how social work schools prepare students for the reality they will most likely have to wear many hats throughout their careers. 

To fulfill our (well-earned) reputation as masters of resourcefulness, our teachers pile reading after reading upon us, leaving students buried under an ever-growing pile of work.

To make matters more difficult, within weeks of starting their degree, students are thrown into the field placement deep end. 

The rationale here is that the best way to learn is by doing. Without practice, there’s a good chance that much of the coursework—often covered at a breakneck pace—won’t stick.

Struggling to keep up, we let our self-care activities fall by the wayside. Anxiety, study burnout, and imposter syndrome often result.

But this doesn’t have to be the case. Here are 11 tips I believe will go a long way to helping you not only survive, but flourish in social work school.

1. Prioritize with the 1-2-3-4 method

Your workload as a social work student is formidable. The only way you can ever hope to get (and stay) on top of it is by prioritizing.

To do this, organize all your tasks into the following categories:

  1. Do first 
  2. Schedule 
  3. Delegate 
  4. Don’t do

Next, complete each task in order of priority. When another task is added to your list, make sure to continue assigning it a number and an action (if applicable). 

More information on the 1-2-3-4 method can be found here.

2. Learn the value of strategic “nos”

If you’re a perfectionist, completionist, and/or a workaholic, you may struggle with assigning items to the final category, “Don’t do.” 

But refusing to say “no” in this profession can come at a considerable cost to your wellbeing.

In social work school alone, you may be bombarded with invitations to extracurricular events. But between attending class and field placement and writing essays, you’ll probably lack the mental bandwidth to fully participate.

My suggestion would be to say “yes” only a handful of events you are certain will advance your learning or professional goals. As for everything else, feel free to ignore it.

Remember, even if you can’t attend the desired event, you can always ask the organizer in advance for access to a recording or slides. 

If neither is available, ask if a peer may be willing to take notes on your behalf.

3. Calendarize

With so many responsibilities to juggle, the only way you can stay on top of it all is by making liberal use of your smartphone’s inbuilt calendar. 

When scheduling items in this calendar, only add those from categories 1 and 2. Consider using a free service like Google Calendar or Apple iCloud Calendar to help you keep all calendar items synced across all your devices.

Next, make sure to set reminders. My suggestions are to use both instant notifications and email reminders to ensure you never miss an assignment deadline or another commitment. Find a system that works best for you.

When calendarizing assessment due dates, you may find it helpful to break the task into baby steps and set mini-deadlines for each. 

Before you can write a paper, for example, you’ll need to complete some often lengthy “pre-work” tasks. For example, conducting literature searches, reviewing readings, and completing an outline.

Allocating time and due dates to each of these activities can help keep you on task. It can also convey a sense of progress and positively affirm your efforts. 

This brings us to point four…

4. Reward yourself

All human endeavors are ultimately driven by the promise of reward. It makes sense therefore that when setting out to accomplish a task, we need to have first identified the payoff.

Rewards can be intrinsic: completing the task may be in itself an affirming experience. They can also be extrinsic, such as buying yourself a small gift upon completing a school semester. 

This may sound like self-bribery, but everyone can benefit from a much-needed boost to our motivation levels from time to time. 

Rewards don’t have to be anything huge. They can be something as simple as treating yourself to a coffee. 

Just finished a grueling paper on social work policy? Go out for a walk. Spent the morning poring over a stack of readings? Take the rest of the afternoon off to relax in the park. You’ve earned it.

5. Maintain boundaries

Boundary setting is crucial to remaining sane in the social work field. This applies as much to interpersonal relationships as it does to managing your time, especially where schoolwork or your field placement is concerned.

As you plan out each day, don’t forget to set limits on the amount of time you dedicate each day to work. Make sure to pencil in time for unwinding.

Set a window each day to reply to all non-urgent emails, calls, or text messages that relate to school and your placement. Once that window closes, don’t reopen it.

Treat “you” time as sacrosanct. The only thing you should be prioritizing during downtime is rest and rejuvenation. 

Maintaining boundaries in this fashion can help protect you against burnout, both as a student and as a fledgling social work professional.

6. Self-advocate

Our lecturers drill into us the importance of self-advocating. Social work school and your field placement present numerous opportunities in which you can hone this invaluable skill. 

If there’s something you need to know or want to learn, ask a teacher or field supervisor.

Given you are paying for access to their expertise (through either school fees or your own labor), you have a right to advocate for as many learning opportunities as you feel you need.

If you require an extension on an assessment due date, ask for it. Your lecturer will likely be more than willing to accommodate your request.

Should your requests go ignored, persist, but be sensitive to the reality that what you’ve asked for may not always be possible.

Exercise the fine art of picking your battles, and be prepared to switch gears should the situation call for it.

Essy Knopf social work school

7. Manage up 

Fieldwork supervisors are usually torn between many competing responsibilities. What can this mean for you? Inconsistent supervision.

Meetings may be rescheduled at the last minute, or supervision sessions may be interrupted and even canceled. For social work students, these situations can be frustrating and demoralizing.

In such instances, I recommend managing up. Keep reaching out, asking questions, and making requests. Send emails to your supervisor daily, outlining your priorities and any tasks or activities you plan to undertake. 

Solicit your supervisor’s input, but should you not get it, be prepared to take initiative.

Keep your appointed field liaison apprised of the situation. Be accountable by keeping a log of all your activities, interactions, and communications as proof you held up your end of the field placement bargain.

8. Live and breathe win-win

Like any situation in life, we should approach the social work profession as an opportunity to champion both our interests as well as that of others. 

Invite the input of all with whom you work. Collaborate to find solutions. Embrace differing viewpoints, and always disagree without being disagreeable. 

Never leave anyone feeling like they’re “one-down”. This is a sure way to breed resentment and burn bridges.

We have all at some point encountered difficult people. We have all seen firsthand how their behavior hinders their success. We can learn from this by striving to model our personal best. 

See it as your job to leave a positive impression with all whom you cross during your educational journey. 

You never know if you will rub shoulders with these folk again later on—or if you might find yourself in the position of asking for their help. 

9. Elevate your classmates

All social work students are united by a common struggle…to survive school!

Try to grow your social work community by performing acts of service for classmates. 

Lend a hand when needed. Celebrate others’ wins, praise their achievements, and give without expecting to receive.

Again, there may come a time when you have to call in a favor. Now’s the time to start collecting brownie points.

10. Raise your voice

Whether it’s conducting a one-on-one therapy session, facilitating a group, or advocating for social justice, confidence is key to our success as social workers.

If you think confidence is something we are all born with, think again. Confidence is a trait that can be cultivated through practice. You can get the ball rolling while still in social work school by speaking up.

Sharing our thoughts and experiences in front of our peers is an act of courage. It requires that we be emotionally vulnerable and open ourselves to the possibility of being ignored, judged, or criticized.

Given many of our classmates are little more than acquaintances, we may have little cause to trust that what we say will be heard and respected. 

Still, there’s no better forum in which to make mistakes than in school. Mistakes are, after all, how we best learn.

Consider the fact that you have a unique perspective that others may from hearing. Silencing yourself thus deprives others of the chance to grow and learn. 

Speak your passion, and chances are you’ll energize others to do the same.

11. Be a proactive learner

We are all ultimately responsible for our own professional development. So any time you identify a gap in your knowledge or skill set, think of ways you can close that gap.

If you don’t understand course content, approach your lecturer after class and request clarification.

If you need to brush up on your clinical skills, ask your field supervisor for more in-depth training. Reach out to faculty members to see if they have additional resources that they can share. 

Should your budget allow, purchase additional trainings from a reputable nonprofit organization like PESI and split the cost with your classmates.

Failing that, a quick Google search can yield an array of free manuals, demonstrations, and tutorials.

If you think you’d benefit from constructive feedback, don’t be afraid to request it from someone you trust and know has your best interests at heart. 

Finally, consider finding a mentor to help guide you on your journey. You can start by identifying someone you admire within your social work school. 

Cultivate a relationship with this staff member, then seek out their insights and support.

Wrap up

Social work school is a challenging experience, but engaging fully with that experience is sure to pay dividends.

The degree to which you exercise curiosity, organization, dedication, and resourcefulness now can help determine your ability to overcome many of the obstacles you’ll encounter later in the field.

Treat your MSW as a trial run; a chance to internalize and embody principles so often preached by this profession. You can do this by advocating for yourself as you also strive to empower others.

By setting good habits and establishing best practices now, you’ll both ease your way and lay the groundwork for a happy—and healthy—career.

You can read more social work-related posts here.

Enough with the toxic culture of COVID-19 shaming

Essy Knopf coronavirus toxic covid-19 shaming
Reading time: 6 minutes

After 10 months of trying to evade COVID-19, the virus finally caught me. 

No—I had not been flagrantly breaking coronavirus restrictions. While others attended social gatherings, held parties, and failed to honor COVID-19 safety guidelines, I scrupulously stayed in my bedroom. 

When I did emerge, it was only to exercise, shop for food, and spend time with my partner. But wearing my face mask the minute I walked out the front door and keeping my distance was not, as it turns out, enough.

COVID-19 numbers in Los Angeles hit new highs in December 2020, and as an extra precaution, I took to avoiding my roommates and wearing a face mask whenever I stepped foot in communal areas.

My immediate social circle shrank from two to one. Seeing just my partner seemed like a fair compromise to make, even if it flew in the face of rules not to mix with members of other households.

Two weeks later, my partner came down with COVID-19. By the time we received the positive diagnosis, it was too late: I too had been infected.

Until this point, I had steadily nursed anger towards those whose reckless actions were fueling case spike after case spike—the same people, undoubtedly, I saw walking the streets without a mask.

But catching COVID-19, I found myself suddenly wondering if I was no different to those I had so harshly judged. 

Even as I succumbed to the tidal pull of illness, I was sliding down a spiral of another kind entirely: shame.

the thoughtful gay coronavirus toxic covid-19 shaming
Down-and-out with flu-like symptoms.

How ‘COVID fatigue’ is fueling a COVID boom

During the subsequent days spent in bed recovering, with only self-doubt for a companion, I began conducting a moral inventory of the (deeply questionable!) actions that had led me to this point (spending time with my partner).

But could I really be to blame for seeing a loved one, even when that decision was taken against the advice of health authorities?

As a Los Angeles resident, I had been living under a dark cloud of COVID-19 isolation, anxiety, and uncertainty for the better part of a year. 

Infection transmission and financial security remained a constant concern and watching the cyclical surges in case numbers was enough to leave most people stricken with helplessness.

For these surges were the product as much of a select few choosing to gather on holidays, as they were lax enforcement of rules.

If the public and the authorities weren’t willing to take the necessary measures to stem the tide of infection, then what hope did we ever have of getting the pandemic under control?

In my imagination, I saw these individuals poking holes in a liferaft the rest of us were frantically trying to bail out. 

Certainly, in refusing to get tested, communicate their status, social distance, and take all the other necessary precautions, these people were acting as saboteurs.

But after so long spent in lockdown amid a national and global climate of chronic risk and uncertainty, was it really fair to fault people for wanting to spend their holidays with family? 

Seeking soothing in a time of disaster stress

“COVID fatigue” (not to be confused with the actual COVID symptom) refers to a feeling of exhaustion with “being cooped up…being careful…being scared”. According to a UC Davis Health psychologist, it’s just another name for long-term disaster stress. 

As a passionate advocate for, and student of, the mental health field, I know that engaging with one’s social supports is a healthy means of coping and maintaining psychological wellbeing in times of crisis.

Polyvagal Theory argues that human beings’ autonomic nervous systems—the same system responsible for our fight-or-flight responses—are geared towards acting in service of their own survival through “co-regulation”.

Psychologist Deb Dana describes co-regulation as the “reciprocal regulation of our autonomic states” through social relationships.

It makes sense therefore that people burdened by disaster stress and long periods of isolation might want to seek the company of loved ones.

Video calls thus far have been the closest approximation for in-person companionship. Poor a substitute they may be, they are also a necessary evil when it comes to safeguarding loved ones against COVID-19 transmission. 

Even so, why are people still taking risks?

essy knopf gay toxic covid-19 shaming coronavirus

How ‘optimism’ grants immunity to COVID-19 shaming

For the better part of a year, Los Angeles residents have been in a holding pattern, care of the ever-shifting restrictions and lockdown conditions. 

Staying home and alone for such a long period is enough to exhaust anyone’s limited store of willpower. Given the high reward involved—reclaiming a former freedom—it’s no wonder some people might choose to stop adhering to COVID restrictions.

These people may be further motivated by optimism bias—that is, the belief that we individually are less likely than others to experience an adverse life event, like say, catching coronavirus.

There are also conflicting feelings around being told not to fulfill a personal right which, under any other circumstance, would be socially sanctioned. That is, spending time with family and friends.

As health authorities advised families against gathering on key holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, some may have chosen to deal with the resulting cognitive dissonance by seeking to justify or explain away their actions. 

The stress of dealing with two conflicting pieces of information doubtless led many to suspend critical thinking about the potential repercussion of their actions.

The rise of COVID-19 shaming

In May last year, a viral video emerged of shoppers at a Staten Island grocery store hurling abuse at a woman who refused to wear a face mask.

New York City was deep in the throes of the COVID pandemic, so residents were understandably angered by the selfish and potentially dangerous actions of this individual.

Shoppers at the time appeared to be trying to socially shame the woman into donning a face mask, but however justified they may have felt, their actions carried the whiff of mob behavior

Social shaming can be a powerful means of enforcing shared rules, especially those relating to the pandemic. In the words of shame researcher Dr. Daniel Sznycer, “The function of shame is to prevent us from damaging our social relationships, or to motivate us to repair them.”

The idea being that shaming—a response to other’s disregard for COVID-19 safety precautions—should compel offenders to abandon their antisocial ways in service of the collective good.

Yet so often social shaming turns into outright abuse. As the popularization of terms such as “covidiot” indicates, the discourse tends less towards leveraging guilt (“You did something bad”) to inflicting toxic shame (“You are bad”).

Author Brené Brown counsels against weaponizing shame, noting that “shame corrodes the part of us that believes we can change and do better”.

When COVID-19 shaming turns toxic, it creates defensiveness, disconnection, and sends the accused into fight-or-flight.

Looking at COVID-19 shaming through the lens of gay trauma

The gay community has also seen its share of toxic shaming in the wake of coronavirus.

The popular Instagram account, Gaysovercovid, for example, has worked to name-and-shame those responsible for flouting coronavirus regulations.

COVID-19 shaming accounts like this work to reinforce social norms, using the fear of being “outed” on social media to dissuade would-be attendees of international circuit parties.

What they fail to acknowledge though is the purpose such behaviors may be serving for those who engage in them. Namely, nervous system regulation.

Gay men have a unique legacy of trauma, and therefore a greater need for regulation. Some chose to meet this need through the party lifestyle—a lifestyle the current global situation has rendered difficult, if not impossible.

Those who self-medicate with substances, compulsive sex, and other forms of self-gratification, are being abruptly forced off their hedonic treadmill, and this can be enough to trigger a state of collapse.

Survival in this sense is tied to the endless pursuit of distraction. For without distraction, there is introspection, and realization of buried trauma and identity shame

When confronted by the condemnation of others from within our own community, we’ll feel only more compelled to seek distraction; to maintain our place atop the treadmill.

COVID-19 shaming in such instances is limited as a mechanism for change, and may in fact have the opposite effect.

the thoughtful gay coronavirus toxic covid-19 shaming

Seeking peace through compassion 

If this situation tells us anything, it’s that our anger over this kind of behavior is an attempt to regain some sense of control and fairness in a world that currently seems void of both.

Authorities have shown themselves to be incapable of adequately responding to the coronavirus pandemic and curbing its widespread impact.

The result has been an entrenched sense of uncertainty, helplessness, and pessimism. 

When we perceive our personal safety and financial security to be potentially threatened by others’ shortsightedness, we naturally turn to anger.

But that anger promises no peace of mind. Instead, we would be better served by engaging in self-reflection

If you find yourself hooked by the desire to shame, ask yourself: how are the actions of others triggering me? What emotions are they evoking, and why? What steps can I take to start feeling better?

Instead of giving in to COVID-19 shaming, consider building a self-compassion practice. Self-Compassion author Kristin Neff has provided the following exercises and guided meditations

Once self-compassion has been achieved, compassion towards others becomes truly possible.  The Buddhist meditation practice of tonglen (“taking and sending”) may prove a valuable aid here.

You can also consider following some of the steps I outlined in my previous article, “How to keep mentally well during the coronavirus pandemic“.

Our goal in striving for such mindfulness is not to accept others’ reckless actions, but rather to break the stranglehold of negative feelings.

What this global catastrophe calls for is not assigning blame, but a recognition of the universality of our suffering

It is only through such recognition that we can strive together towards a new social consciousness grounded not in self-interest, but concern for the collective.