Give somebody a fish…

… and that person will eat for a day. Give people fishing equipment and they’ll eat a bit longer. But still only until their lake is overfished, the gear breaks, or some capitalists realize that they can make a profit out of exploiting those great fishermen you’ve trained.Give people an opportunity to find their own solutions based on the natural resources of their environment and they might- still just might- be able to live of those solutions even after you went back to your comfy home country.

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Participatory approaches have been implemented in the global West[1] and South[2][3]. One of the guiding principles of participatory community projects is, that action is only initiated after collaborative planning and then continues to alternate with feedback and evaluation. There are many examples for projects in industrialized countries where this principle was respected and lead to an empowering experience for both the community members and the initiators of the project, because the learning process in the project was truly reciprocal, with sometimes surprising outcomes for everybody involved.

In contrast, guarding this principle in marginalized communities with members who have to cope with the harsh restraints of living below the absolute level of poverty (less than 1,25 US $ per day) and where human rights violations are part of everyday life becomes a challenge to a foreign project manager.

I’d like to illustrate this with my personal experience in participatory community work: In 2011, I was involved in a participatory water resource management project in Southwest Madagascar. In this part of Madagascar, women are usually not allowed to take part in meetings; They can’t talk without the permission of a man; Even though they provide most of the family income, they are left with nothing when their husband dies and all his belongings are burned to assure his wealth in the afterlife; Women who gave birth to disabled children are exiled; Once someone claims that a woman is a witch, she can expect to be ostracised by her community and her own family; Girls are sometimes married at the age of 12, which makes them extremely vulnerable to suffer from a vaginal fistula after giving birth. This condition means that they are constantly in pain, incontinent, and smell badly. If that happens, they are usually chased away by their husband to live the poorest of lives in the vicinity of, but not in their village.

All these examples show that the position women hold in the traditional south-western Malagasy community can be hard to understand and accept by a Westerner. Working with Malagasy at eye level meant for me to break with some of my most fundamental beliefs in gender equality. Yet, in my opinion, participation doesn’t just mean compromise; it means full project ownership by the community. For my work, this meant having to accept degrees of gender discrimination that felt very wrong to me.

My example is not as extreme as it may seem: homosexuality, ethnicity, mental illness, age, religion- all these ways of identification have a place in traditional societies that one may or may not agree with. Violence, child abuse and homicide might also be treated in a way that would be unacceptable in Western societies. I’m in no way suggesting that Western societies are morally superior (to name just some of the large-scale moral failures of Western society: colonization, consumerism and environmental degradation). However, I believe that describing community participation without mentioning any of its moral dilemmas is not as “transparent” as we ought to be. Many articles on community participation in Third World countries make it sound as if their non-interference was unambiguous. However, in reality it is the moments where one has to hold back his or her own beliefs that make or break the trust and feeling of self-sufficiency of the community. While I agree with everything that is usually described as ‘community owned solutions’ and ‘participation’, I’m concerned about what is usually left out in those descriptions. Participation will not gain acceptance and become the new standard in development cooperation, if it’s not understood holistically with all its merits and drawbacks.


[1] For many examples of successful participatory projects in countries like the USA, Spain, Sweden, etc. see Stephens, C. (2008). Health Promotion: A Psychosocial Approach (1st ed.). Open University Press.

[2] An example for taking a participatory approach to an extremely marginalized and challenged Third World community can be found in Campbell, C. (2003). Letting them die : why HIV/AIDS intervention programmes fail. Oxford : International African Institute.

[3] Please excuse the use of these terribly euro-centric terms.

Sharing is caring

I share. I’m a sharer. It’s a conscious decision, you know? We humans tend to claim consciousness far too often, but in this particular case I’m 100% positive that I did indeed consciously decide to speak openly about myself- about all I know about myself if necessary.book

It happened when I was 17 and my mom offered to pay for my therapy sessions privately, so no employer, insurance company or future husband could ever find out about those nasty flaws I have. I refused furiously, because I knew I didn’t choose to be the way I was, and therefore, shouldn’t be discriminated for it. Ever.

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So, I made up my mind on that topic for good: if anybody in the whole wide world should be able to talk about stigmatized issues such as mental disorders then an otherwise healthy white girl from an educated, wealthy background. Life put one single burden on my shoulder: a lack of mental resilience. I should be able defend that burden against stigma in order to make things better for people who have a bit more to deal with.

So, that’s my thinking when it comes to transparency. I’m certainly not made out of glass. I think, feel and do a lot of stuff that no one knows about. However, one of the many things I learned in Madagascar was that privacy is a luxury of the Western world and not necessary for survival. It should be granted to anyone, but sometimes one can give it up in order to make the bigger picture a better one.

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whoops

And this is why I think the world would be a better place, if people were more willing to be honest about their weaknesses:

People posing as invincible winners at life – which is blatantly unrealistic – was a bit intimidating to me when I was younger. There were a couple of times in my life when the thought that I was the least qualified person in the room to speak up held me back from expressing doubts or critique. Some of those times, I later regretted deeply. In the bigger picture, the dangers of discouraging people from speaking their mind far outweigh the risk of hearing a lot of bullshit from idiots. Yet, free speech isn’t necessarily secured by laws, but by open minds.

How can you bring yourself to seek support if everybody else pretends they don’t need that shit? How can people learn from each other’s mistakes if no one ever admits to them? And also, it is my conviction that no reality, no matter how harsh, will ever be as hard to deal with as the diffuse consequences of repression. There’s so many standard examples for this: There’s the man who has trouble at work, comes home, doesn’t talk about it, but starts yelling at his wife and kids over absolutely nothing. Or the girl that needs her parents to take care of her in one way or another, but rather chooses to starve herself until people have to take care of her, than simply ask for what she needs. Or the bullied kid that falls into depression because of all the repressed feelings of shame, humiliation, aggression, and helplessness, if he or she is never granted a chance to get it all out…

It’s so obvious if you reflect upon the times were you did talk about something that had been torturing you for a while. Wasn’t that  s u c h  a relief? Still, it seems people have to experience this relief a lot of times before they start trusting in the healing effect of being open about their emotions. That is probably, because facing your demons is scary as hell and often remains scary for a long while. Some of those demons will always continue to occasionally make you angry, sad or disgusted with yourself and others. But going through a couple of emotions won’t permanently damage you, ever. The stuff you repress might, though.

Stigma encourages repression. So to my friends and family members who expressed concern for my privacy and discouraged me from sharing too much: it always hurts a little when you do that, you know? I know where you’re coming from, I really do. I’m grateful that you care enough about me. And yes, it happens that people use my openness against me. But in the bigger picture, there is no shame in being ‘crazy’. Communities, institutions and individuals who treat it that way should learn better. In fact, you guys could even try and air a little public pride of how hard I worked on getting better. You don’t have to, though. I can do that for myself. See?

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WTF, Psychology?!

Yo, you, psychologist! Yes, I’m talking to you! When did you start not giving a rat’s ass about people? Or rather: when did you start treating humanity like a petri dish?

I rahahaheally don’t like how my field presents itself in public at the moment. Every newspaper I open, every blog I read, every show I watch on TV has some sort of psychological pseudo-scientific stuff in it and the common thread of that stuff seems to be: being normal isn’t normal. And normal is good, so most people are not good. Don’t ask for tips how to be good, though. We won’t give them to you, because they’re not as sexy as pointing out humanity’s abnormalities.

Let me start a little earlier in my train of thought to make myself clear: My wonderful mom regularly sends me newspaper articles and chocolate to New Zealand. This is how I came to read a long reportage on psychological disorders and professional success in one of the biggest German newspapers, Die Zeit. The article opens with the questions

“Does one have to be exceptional to achieve exceptional things? And does exceptional simply mean peculiar, or does it mean disordered?”

The answer is given on several pages by many expert voices, who barf up sweet, sweet evidence from their MRTs, diagnostic catalogues and questionnaires: “Yup. Most people who are exceptionally successful, are also totally cray cray! Coocoo! Bonkers! Nuts! Some are psychopaths, some are narcissists, some have ADHD or autism, and even some of the depressive bring something special to the table. But they are all well-functioning psychopaths, narcissists, obsessives, depressives, maniacs, lunatics, frenetics, anals, benals, cenals and mammals! At least compared to those loser weirdos in the psychiatry wards and prisons.”

While all those expert opinions may be super-duper valid in the paradigm that dominates contemporary psychological research – which is a paradigm of bell curves, numbers, pixels, voxels and Null-Hypothesis-Testing – I still have to ask you, dear fellow psychologists:

HAVE YOU COMPLETELY LOST YOUR MIND?!

And by mind, I don’t mean the part that those incredibly clever researchers have been using when coming to their conclusions. Because, you know, mind doesn’t only mean the rational. There’s a lot more to being human than what we understand rationally and that part of my mind felt deep discomfort and angst when reading this article.

This is why: psychology wants to be a natural science. Since we figured out that dreaming of cigars doesn’t always mean that you want to smoke your daddy’s penis (that’s what Freud said, right?), psychology is trying desperately to be objective in order to be rigorous and logical. These two latter words are often used as synonymous with the word ‘objective’.

Yet, they are not! There are rigorous and logical approaches to knowledge that aren’t objective at all. In fact, there are quite a few respectable people who’d argue that there is no such thing as objectivity, most famously my favourite Frenchies Bourdieu and Foucault. Western science assumes that there is one single truth to reality and tries to capture it with measurement after measurement. Yet, we never quite get there, eh?  Never!

So what is the merit of stuffing people into drawers of anomaly using ill-defined categories which predict people’s behaviour just a tad more accurately than horoscopes?

In order to answer that question I have to go a bit over the top with the sharing. Have you ever been diagnosed with a mental disorder? Well, I have. Apparently, I’m an impulsive borderline-helper’s syndrome-depressive-maniac with several different eating disorders, a deficient attention span, daddy issues and no idea how to tell left from right.psycho

Giving me all those labels made sense at some point. They gave me comfort and stability, because they told me exactly in which way I didn’t fit in with what was normal and desirable in the system I grew up in. They seemed to make so much sense compared to what I had come up with on my own. I had been confused and frustrated about myself for long enough to embrace those labels gratefully. Plus, the labels on my patient folder obviously gave my therapists indications which coping strategies to teach me, so that I would get along with the world and myself better. So: all good. Only for a little while, though.

Now that I’ve been feeling healthy as a horse for quite some time, those labels piss me off. Fortunately, I studied that shit and know what ‘personality’, ‘intelligence’ and ‘identity’ mean: NOT THAT MUCH TO NOTHING AT ALL. But what about all the people who’ve been given similar labels and don’t have an insight behind the public façade of Freud’s angels aka psychotherapists?

The “knowledge” psychologists communicate to the world based on their findings is simplified beyond recognition. To give a few examples:

1)   Identity lies within the individual!

2)   We can measure your personality!

3)   Intelligence is a thing!

This is all bullshit. All of it, and not just a little bit:

1)   More than half of the world defines identity as something that lies between people, not within individuals.

2)   Psychometric tests simply ignore any aspect of personality that can’t be described with words.

3)   Ugh, don’t even get me started on the publicly proclaimed concept of intelligence! We psychologists have to deal with the ambivalence (multivalence!) of that term on a daily basis, yet when we talk to the public, we make it sound as if we could predict an entire life span by simple looking at your IQ. Argh! This is sooo wrong!

Though most lay people might not tackle psychology’s assumptions, I think they still feel that something’s wrong with them and that’s why they distrust us. Whenever I’m forced to identify as a psychologist, I get reactions like “Oooh, not gonna talk to you anymore now!” or “Phew, gotta watch what I’m saying around you…” My favourite one was the guy who pointed his finger at me and cried “Witch!” when he found out I studied psychology.

So, we have already hurt our discipline by communicating our findings in a matter-of-factly way. ‘Normal’ people don’t want to talk to us anymore, because they fear what we might tell them about themselves! That’s just nifty, isn’t it?

So, everybody admit it from now on and forever: Psychology is not physics and it never will be!

Understanding human nature is as reliant on statistics as it is on listening to music, holding each other by the hand from time to time, and taking a walk in the forest. 

Every individual fits only one drawer and that drawer says “Person”. God damnit, if anybody should know that, then we as psychologists. No wait, anybody knows that, because we are all human! So stop handing out self-tests that are called “Am I a psychopath?”, stop pointing out what’s wrong with people (because you’re probably not right), and start giving out advice from the amazingly broad spectrum of knowledge you have on how to make things easier, better, more peaceful and less biased  in the world! If you’re wrong on those grounds, you’re at least not hurting anybody…

Persuaded the Panda

The Panda has gone vegetarian for good!!! On his one month veggie anniversary he let me know in writing that he didn’t miss meat at all and will live meatless ever-after. In the same message he also denunciated a fellow vegetarian as a hypocrite, carnivorous biatch, because he caught her having a chicken burger for lunch. That’s rather quick in-group-out-group-identification, if you ask a social psychologist. But we all knew that the Panda is a quick one…

But seriously now: I’m impressed by the speed and consistency of the Panda’s behavioural change. No one can ever argue with me again that giving up meat is an adaptive process that needs time. Panda watched the documentary earthlings, thought about it for a couple of hours and then: Stopped. Eating. Meat.

In fact, I was so surprised by this clear cut, that I decided to ask Panda a few questions to get an authentic insight into his reasoning.

Me: “Would you say there was a specific reason for you to become vegetarian?”

Panda: “It was earthlings. Not you. You’re an idiot and way to emotional to explain anything right.”

Me: “Ah, ok.” *swears under her breath while taking notes* “Anyways. Could you be a little more specific on how the movie made you feel, then?”

Panda: “Well, I always loved animals and seeing what people do to them, I mean, how horrible the standards of mass meat production are… it just made me really sad and angry.”

Me: “Was there anything that might have changed your decision to become vegetarian?”

Panda: “Well, obviously I like the taste of meat. I actually love meat. Who doesn’t like pizza and burgers? But there’s so much delicious vegetarian food out there, you really don’t miss anything. For example, some vegetarian burgers are sooo good! [added by author for the sake of accuracy: And also all the amazing stuff that you are cooking, Sarah, you genius vegetarian chef, totally convinced me that tofu & co. are not the enemy!] So, if anything had held me back from becoming a vegetarian, it would have been the protein thing. I’m more an athlete than a gourmet. I eat for fuel. If abstaining from meat had negative consequences for my training then I probably wouldn’t have done it. So, I did my research on that and it turns out: there’s tons of really successful athletes out there who are vegetarian or even vegan! Some even do it because they’re athletes, because they feel plant protein increases their performance compared to animal protein.”

Me: “So are you also doing it for health reasons?”

Panda: “Naw, not really. I mean, I ate healthy before. You’re not necessarily healthier as a vegetarian if you only eat ice cream and chocolate, eh? My main motivator really is that I feel like I’m doing a good thing. Making the decision against meat made me feel better after seeing that movie. I don’t want to be part of this.”

Me: “Cool! So, how about your kids, will you still feed them meat?”

Panda: “I don’t know, haven’t thought about it, yet. But I guess so. I don’t want to impose my values upon them before they can think for themselves [The little Pandas are three and four years old]. If they see McDonalds as a treat, I will let them have it on some occasions. One day, they’ll be able to make up their own mind.”

Me: “So, how about the non-vegetarians around you? You hang out with a lot of bulky, weightlifting carnivores. How do they react to you becoming vegetarian?”

Panda: “I found a really good transitory solution for telling guys that I’ve become vegetarian. You couldn’t put up a moral argument that they’d accept, so I simply tell them that my roommate challenged me on it. They totally get that and then they’re like: ‘Yea, you go show that biatch! You can do it, man! You totally have our support!’ ”

Me: “That’s. Nice.”

Panda: “Yea, or I just tell people that my roommate is doing her Masters in psychology and somehow manipulated me into it. Which is obviously not true, because you’re way to emotional and weird about things to manipulate me into doing anything.”

Me: “Yup. I’m painfully aware of that. Glad you found some use for my degree, though.”

Panda: “Yea, so if I wanted to convince anybody to become vegetarian, I’d show them that documentary. I think that people don’t know what mass meat production actually does. When I saw it I was like ‘Holy fuck, how can this be happening?’ No wonder people think it’s not even possible- it’s just too horrible.”

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So that was that. Out of the four people in my flat, three are vegetarians now. So, one more carnivore to go. It’s the Dragon, though, so that one is going to be tough. Dragons are known for sticking to their ways. A conservative bunch, those Dragons…